A Ghost in the Water Closet?

Knocking on Heaven's Door (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Vincent_CF
Knocking on Heaven’s Door, via Vincent_CF (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In this extract from his new book, Richard Sugg investigates the strange noises that haunted an entire neighbourhood in Windsor in 1841, as reported by a newspaper of the time. This is a classic Victorian poltergeist case, and given the technology available it seems hard to determine how it could have been perpetrated as a hoax. So what was it? Have your say below.

The Standard, 16 June 1841.

‘Windsor, Tuesday. A Haunted House. For some few days past Windsor and its immediate neighbourhood have been in a state of considerable excitement, in consequence of a house known as “Want’s Cottage”, standing alone, surrounded by its grounds, at Clewer, about a mile from the town, having been reported, from the extraordinary noises which have been heard there, to be “haunted”. The house is occupied by Mr and Mrs Wright (who have for some years past retired from business), their two daughters, and a female domestic. The noises which have been heard, and which are continued at intervals throughout the day and night, resemble those which would be caused by a person rapidly striking his knuckles against the panel of a door for two or three seconds … several magistrates of the county, clergymen, and the most influential residents of the neighbourhood, have visited the house, the whole of whom have been present during the time the extraordinary noises have been repeated; and, although they have evidently proceeded from a door leading from the kitchen into the water-closet in the house, close to which the parties have stationed themselves, they have been unable to throw the least light upon the affair.

The knocking is so loud that it is heard by the inmates of houses 400 or 500 yards off

The following magistrates of the county and other gentlemen … were present during yesterday and a part of Saturday: Mr W.F. Riley, Forest Hill; Mr W.B. Harcourt, St Leonard’s Hill; Major General Clement Hill; Mr Edmund Foster, Clewer House; the Rev Mr Gould, of Clewer, etc. The sound clearly proceeds from the door I have described, and can only be in any way imitated, and upon that door only, by striking the knuckles hard and rapidly upon the centre of the panel. Mr Riley and Lord Clement Hill stationed themselves in the hall within three yards of this door, and, as soon as the knocking commenced, rushed to the spot within a second afterwards, but not a soul was near it, and the whole of the family were in a different part of the house. The knocking is so loud that it is heard by the inmates of houses 400 or 500 yards off. Such is the alarm these strange, and, at present unaccountable, noises, have caused throughout the neighbourhood, that a lady named Roberts, who resides some distance from Mr Wright, and whose house is divided from his by two public roads, has given notice to her landlord that she will quit today, and Mr Wright’s family [are said to be] …making preparations to leave the house immediately.

The whole of the machinery of the water closet has been removed, the flooring taken up, and the ground excavated, under the impression that the noise might have proceeded from foul air in the pipes or drains … but the noise still continues as before, at intervals, and today and yesterday it was even more violent and loud than ever. In order to ascertain if the door of the closet was [actually] struck, a small piece of chip was laid upon the projecting portion of the panel, and after the knocking had ceased, this had fallen on the floor. And on Sunday last … Mr Wright’s son, who had arrived that morning from Newbury, fastened up the door by means of a piece of wire; and, after the noise had ceased, the wire upon examination was found broken, and the door forced inwards. At one time the door was broken off its hinges, and placed at the back of the closet, but the knocking was precisely the same as before.

A ghost in the water closet?
A ghost in the water closet?

The landlady of the house (Mrs Stokes) has arrived from town, and has since caused every inquiry to be instituted, but without the least hopes at present of unravelling the extraordinary mystery. It should be observed that at three or four times when the knocking took place there were five persons, and sometimes more, present from Windsor and elsewhere, who were determined, if possible, to detect the cause; and who were totally unconnected with the family residing in the house; but they were still left in ignorance of its origin … On Saturday last a gentleman volunteered to sit up with Mr Wright during the whole of that night … The rest of the family retired to rest at the usual hour, and up to six o’clock the next morning no noises were heard, but in the course of Sunday they were more violent than ever. Many ignorant persons, of course, ascribe the noises to some supernatural agency, and a tale is now current that some person left that neighbourhood some time back “in a very mysterious manner” and that “no doubt a murder was committed near the spot”. However this may be, gentlemen of high standing in the county … have visited the house during the past week, and certainly to say the least, they are all exceedingly puzzled at the extraordinary noises they have heard within three or four yards of the spot where they had stationed themselves. This singular affair continues to excite the most intense interest, and to be wrapped in the greatest mystery.’

Hoax, waterworks, or something else?

These opening paragraphs are one of several reports on this classic early Victorian poltergeist case. Just what was going on here? Whilst much of A Century of Supernatural Stories is a record of the often astonishing superstitions found throughout the nineteenth century, the remarkable thing about poltergeists is that they appear to be real. It took me a lot of hard reading to get my head around this, so I don’t blame you for a moment if you don’t believe me just yet. But I do recommend reading the rest of this case, and the Poltergeists chapter, with an open mind. Among other things, there’s a strong chance that some of your friends will have had poltergeist experiences. A number of mine certainly have; but I only found out when I specifically asked them…

Despite the name (German for ‘racketing or noisy ghost’) poltergeists may or may not involve otherworldly agency. At the simplest level, almost all cases (I have collected around 500) centre very clearly on one person – this ‘poltergeist agent’ is usually someone between the ages of 10-20, and usually someone who is emotionally troubled in some way. Unable to release or express these traumas in an adequate conscious manner, they unconsciously vent their frustrations through poltergeist events. The most obvious feature of these cases is therefore ‘Haunted People’, rather than ‘Haunted Houses’. Hence the way that, when a family tries to escape by fleeing their home, the events will simply follow them, when the agent moves too.

I would like to be able to give a clear general opinion on the big central question: ghost or no ghost? I in fact started off fairly confident that poltergeist cases were all purely human affairs. But the more evidence you see, the harder it becomes to deny the very strong possibility that a sizeable number of poltergeist incidents do involve a ghost. Indeed: for me perhaps the biggest personal experience of this research has been realising that ghosts do exist. What they are and what they mean are more difficult questions to answer.

What I especially like about the Clewer case is that it looks almost impossible to hoax. Even without all those genteel witnesses right on top of the scene, very few servants would have dared try anything so suicidal. And if they wanted to, very little sophisticated technology was available – either to them or to the wealthy. Along with that, we have the telling six o’clock restart for the noises on the Sunday morning. This sounds like just the time when the servant (the very probable agent of the noises) would be obliged to rise for her chores. As will be evident in several of these cases, poltergeist agents very rarely cause trouble when sleeping. Did a servant really fake these noises (so loud that they were heard 500 yards away), whilst remaining undetected and also fulfilling all their routine duties? Were our Major General, Reverend and Lord all inventing their reports? Anyone who insists that this was a hoax should try replicating it themselves, using the social conditions and technology of 1841.

After reading the newspaper report, what do you think was going on? Was this a hoax, a poltergeist, or some unknown natural phenomenon. Vote above, or let us know your theories by commenting below.


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