Considering the dark dark corners, strange noises and abandoned tunnels that litter the soil under London, it is possibly no surprise that stories of hauntings have emerged over the years.
On Wednesday, a couple of authors who have recently written a book on the subject gave a talk on the subject and I wandered along to the Shoe Lane Library to have a listen.
Ghosts are, despite their ethereal nature, quite a contentious topic and not unlike Marmite, they evoke very strong emotions in many people. Indeed, the authors had sometimes faced problems researching the book as people were worried about describing their experiences lest they be mocked in the staff-room.
My personal take on them is that unless you presume lots of people are lying, then something odd is going on – and I would love to understand the science behind the phenomena.
Interestingly, a survey from a couple of years ago by fairly well respected pollsters, Gallup found that belief in ghosts is higher now than at any time in the past 50 or so years.
Anyhow, the talk itself was a quick run though various hauntings and I’ll briefly summarise a few of them below:
They started off with a fairly notorious sermon by the Rev. John Cumming, who was not at all keen on the subterranean railways.
“…the forthcoming end of the world will be hastened by the construction of underground railways burrowing into infernal regions and thereby disturbing the Devil.’”
Certainly there were the odd complaints of this nature about the deep tunnels, but the Victorians were digging deeper coal mines at the time without bumping into Hades or its ilk, so their pronouncements of doom were generally ignored.
One more famous incidents occurs at Aldgate Station, where allegedly there is a log book for ghost sightings. Sadly, getting a glimpse of this log-book proves as elusive as the spectres they detail.
At the station, it was reported that a worker was knocked unconscious after accidentally touching a live power rail and as another worker went to assist him, the ghost of a lady was seen stroking the unconscious man’s hair. Some stories claim the lady saved the man’s life, but it seems more that she simply comforted him while help arrived.
Another station, with a similar name is the now disused Aldwych Station, which was built on the site of a theatre, and the ghost of an actress has occasionally been seen in the station.
Amusingly, a TV show did a series of investigations into hauntings, and the physic reported seeing in Aldwych the event that had (allegedly) occurred in Aldgate. I suspect someone was doing a bit of reading beforehand and mixed up their stations!
Bank Station is also noted as a site of hauntings, and as the ticket hall is actually the former burial grounds of St Mary Woolnoth Church, many researchers cite that as the possible cause.
The most noted of the Bank hauntings though is nothing to do with the old burial ground – being the ghost of Sarah Whitehead. Her brother, who worked at the nearby Bank of England was hung for fraud and she spent the next decade or so visiting the Bank each day to ask for her brother until she in turn eventually died.
Neither were buried in the former graveyard.
Over at Bethnal Green is one of the more sombre hauntings. The station entrance was the location for one of the most serious civilian losses of life during WW2 when a panicked crowd tried to seek shelter during an air raid, and 173 people died in a crush by the stairway entrance. What made it more tragic was that the air-raid sirens were a false alarm, and the panic caused by a loud booming sound, thought to be a bomb, was actually a new anti-aircraft gun that had just been set up in nearby Victoria Park.
Since then, there have been repeated reports of unsettling sounds and people feeling uncomfortable in the station.
For reasons that are not fully understood, there is a known tendency for low-frequency sounds to make people feel uncomfortable, and the tube tunnels are certainly replete with plenty of machines that cause similar effects.
However, when a worker reports the clear sounds of women and children screaming in the booking hall, and that it went on for a period of at least 10 minutes, you have to wonder what could possibly cause that effect.
To lighten the mood, back down the Central Line to the old British Museum station – which is a disused station between Holborn and TCR – where the ghost of a mummy was reported to have been seen. The reports of this haunting are, to put it mildly, dubious and can be discarded as urban myth.
Incidentally, you can still see what is left of the station as you pass though it on the Central Line. Regardless of which direction you approach it, peer out of the right-side windows and although the platforms have been removed, you can make out the empty remains of the station structure.
One of the more unsettling ghostly experiences is had by staff at Elephant & Castle station where the Bakerloo Trains end their travels and prepare to return northbound. Late at night, a lady is sometimes seen getting onto an empty train which is to be returned to the depot, and when staff go to remove her, the carriage is empty again.
Incidentally, and a sign possibly of how our imaginations are important in ghost sightings – when it comes to ghostly trains, people rarely report the sound or sight of diesel engines. It’s always a steam train that is heard. You’d have thought some diesels would have got in on the act by now, but it seems not. Or maybe we humans cannot imagine a “modern ghost” and expect ghostly trains to be only from the steam era?
Back up to the Central Line – which seems to be overly generous with its hauntings – and we get to the up escalator at Marble Arch station. Here, several people have reported leaving a late train to ascend the escalator and feeling that someone is standing on the step right behind them, and leaning uncomfortably close towards them. Anyone turning around will find the escalator is empty. One lady reported that out of the corner of her eye she noticed him wearing a hat and smart black overcoat – and annoyed by his closeness when she also turned to confront him, the escalator was empty. She now wont use that station unless with friends.
The Screaming Spectre of Farringdon is quite famous and thought to be Anne Naylor, a girl adopted by hat maker, Sarah Metyard and cruelly treated until eventually she was murdered. Metyard’s attempted to disposed of the body into the sewer at Chick Lane, but parts of the body were discovered.
Eventually identified as the murderer, after her daughter turned her in, she was convicted at the Old Bailey in 1768 and sentenced to death. Her body, as was the norm at the time for murderers was handed to the Surgeons’ Hall to be dissected for students to study then put on public display.
The ghost was thought to haunt the region of the sewer for some years, but is now heard quite distinctively at Farringdon Station. That she moved to the station is a bit odd, as the sewer in Chick Lane lead down to the River Fleet, and while the road no longer exists, it was on the site of the now derelict Smithfield meat market buildings – a good hundred yards away from the station.
Finally – one I was quite interested in.
The Kennington Loop is a bit of track that enables trains on the Northern Line to turn around at Kennington. Passengers are never allowed on trains going round the loop, and drivers are said to quite dislike the tunnel.
Not only is it very noisy as the tight curve makes the wheels squeal on the tracks, but sometimes trains are held at the end of the loop waiting for space at the platform. Here, in the silence, drivers have reported hearing people talking in the carriage behind them and the sounds of doors slamming as if someone is walking through the train, even though they had checked to make sure it was empty before starting round the loop.
I’ve have the pleasure of taking the Kennington Loop, and in a 1938 tube train, but sadly we didn’t stop at the spot to listen for the sounds of passengers long lost to history seeking to commune with us.
That’s a quick run though of some of the ghosts mentioned at the talk, and I have dug a bit deeper into the Farringdon Ghost story to find the location of the streets involved. The book they have written is Haunted London Underground.