Many people are sceptical about the existence of ghosts, but one of the unusual features of ghost stories through the ages is the range of people who report seeing spectres, including those we might normally expect not to believe in them. This was the case with the family of a Wesleyan minister in 1893, which inhabited a house roamed by an apparition wearing black, clerical clothes. As Richard Sugg notes in this third extract from his book collecting such stories, the case has a resemblance to one reported a century later by the BBC’s James Alexander Gordon, unflappable reader of the football scores, who once had an unsettling experience at London’s Langham Hotel.
From the Royal Cornwall Gazette, 23 March 1893
A ghost has had the temerity to invade the house of the Rev. G.S. Tyler, a Wesleyan minister at 27, St George’s Road, Kilburn … The house has, for many years now, been the dwelling place of the various ministers who have succeeded each other every three years at the Quex Road chapel. Mr Tyler and his family have lived there now for 18 months. “I have never seen the apparition myself,” said Mr Tyler, “and have always been a confirmed unbeliever in spirit manifestations, and so on. But the fact remains, explain it how you will, that my wife and my daughters Ada and Julie, aged respectively 20 and 19 years, have distinctly seen a mysterious something, which, in the absence of any better way of describing it, we have called an apparition. They agree closely in their several descriptions of the figure. It is that of a person attired as a Wesleyan minister might be, in black clothes of a clerical cut. It is a figure of average stature, with a long grey beard, and keen peculiar eyes. It was my younger daughter who first met with the apparition. She will tell you in her own way.”
Miss Julie Tyler then took up the story. “I was standing at the corner of the stairs”, she said, “and I saw what I took to be pa. I had gone to call him to tea, and when I called him he neither answered nor moved. I thought that he was playing with me, and giving me the trouble to go up to him, and I ran up to push him. I pushed right through the figure and fell against the wall. I was dreadfully frightened, but when I told the others they laughed at me. But then Ada, later on, saw the same figure, and then mother herself. It was before Christmas that I saw it. No, I had not been reading any ghost stories at all then. But I have since. So have we all.”
I pushed right through the figure and fell against the wall. When I told the others they laughed at me. But then Ada saw the same figure, and then mother herself.
Miss Ada then related her experience of the uncanny visitor. She was alone in the house with a child one Sunday evening, and saw the figure in the doorway. She thought a man had broken into the house at first, until she observed the clerical cut of the figure’s garb, and then recalled her sister’s experience. Mrs Tyler’s statement was that, while passing by the small room at the end of the passage one evening, she saw Mr Tyler standing in there, as she thought. She ran upstairs to the study, and there found the actual Mr Tyler in the flesh. It is in this room at the end of the passage, indeed, where this apparition has been most frequently seen, and the ladies of the household do not care to venture near it alone. It is a small room looking out onto the back garden, but with wooden shutters, which are fastened over the glass in the evening. “It was in that room” said Miss Julie, “that I met the figure face to face. I shall never forget his eyes – greyish blue in colour, and they seemed to look through me quite hungrily”.
It was a strange experience, a Pall Mall reporter says, to sit listening to these ghost stories, in broad daylight, for the minister and his wife were responsible, unemotional, clear-headed folk, and the two girls are bright, intelligent, English girls, with an absence of any indications of hysterical dispositions. They were as firmly convinced that they had seen some unaccountable figure as that they had seen the streets of Kilburn when they looked out of the window. The minister, while expressing utter inability to account for the declarations of his family, would not commit himself to any belief in the supernatural, but betrayed an interest in the whole subject which did not dovetail into his strained attempts to laugh the matter over. In reply to further questions he said that one of the Wesleyan ministers who had preceded him had died in this house; and that when he told his friends of his family’s experiences, he discovered for the first time that Mrs Gibson, the wife of his immediate predecessor in the house, had also met with some uncanny experiences. Asked whether he had taken certain floors up in his hunt for some explanation of the mystery – for so ran the gossip of the neighbourhood – the reverend gentleman said that in the top bedroom there had long been a recurrent and intermittent smell of an utterly indescribable kind. The room was quite away from drains or anything which he could imagine as the cause for the effluvium, and the floor had been taken up in the search for the origin of the nuisance. Perhaps in the same manner that Mr Stead’s “Julia” writes his copy, this mysterious clerical spirit comes to assist Mr Tyler in the preparation of his sermons.
From Spectral Ghouls to Football Pools
These closing lines refer to William Thomas Stead, who claimed to communicate with a dead American journalist, Julia Ames, during the 1890s. Despite that rather weak joke, the reporter here looks fairly open-minded on the whole. They had some reason to be. Notice that none of the three women seem to have been inclined to see ghosts. Both daughters at first thought they were looking at an ordinary person – a very common perception amongst people who have seen ghosts. (In fact, it is so common that there probably are a few people who have seen a ghost without ever realising it.) Moreover, after Julia’s first sighting, her mother and her sister briskly laugh the matter off until they see the spectre. Notice, too, that Mrs Gibson, the last tenant, had kept quiet about her startling experiences in the house until she was prompted. This is utterly typical of the way people handle their own personal ghost or poltergeist stories. If you nudge them, you may find out; but if you do not, you can know the person intimately for years and never hear a thing.
Apart from the rather ironic claim of the minister that he ‘would not commit himself to any belief in the supernatural’ (God? angels? devils? heaven? hell?), another interesting detail here is the smell. This is mentioned in the Cambridge apparition case, and is a pretty common feature of poltergeist incidents – sometimes being pleasant, sometimes foul. In two cases personally related to me, there was a smell of pipe smoke and of burned toast.
The way that Julia falls right through the ghost on first sighting is also memorable. It might seem pretty obvious that ghosts should not be solid; but it is perhaps worth citing a fairly recent instance of this, given our tendency to take recent evidence more seriously than the tales of a century past. The Langham Hilton Hotel in London has had an impressive number of ghost sightings or experiences (including ones from England cricketers in June 2014), but it is hard to beat that reported by the veteran BBC broadcaster James Alexander Gordon.
In 1973 the hotel building was owned by the BBC, which used it for staff on very late or early shifts. After his first ever midnight news broadcast Gordon went to bed relieved after a successful debut, only to wake and find himself looking at a fluorescent ball of light across the room. This presently transformed into a man dressed in Victorian evening wear. When Gordon demanded what the man wanted, the ghost began to float towards him. It had piercing eyes, and was about two feet off the ground. Gordon seized one of his boots, and hurled it at the apparition – only to have it pass straight through. Interestingly, Gordon notes at one point in his story that, though he could see through the spectre, he had to try hard to do so: at a glance it looked pretty much solid. Typically enough, it was only when Gordon told his story to other BBC staff that they readily confessed to having seen the ghost as well.