Permanent Londoners

London: The Most haunted city on the planet

The Bank of England is well-known for the vast hoard of gold bullion buried in its vaults. But in 1798 something very different was deposited there for safekeeping. The Directors gave permission to bury, in an inner courtyard of the bank, the 7’6″ corpse of William Jenkins, a former bank clerk.

Jenkins feared that his extraordinarily large body would be stolen by grave robbers for use in experiments, or worse, fall into the hands of revivalists hoping to bring him back to life. His giant ghost is still reported to be seen walking the corridors of the bank.

Outside the bank, near to the Threadneedle Street entrance, a woman dressed in heavy mourning – though her face is brightly painted – is sometimes glimpsed. Sarah Whitehead, the “Bank Nun”, who died in 1838 is still waiting for her brother Philip who worked there.  He had been convicted of fraud and hanged.  The shock unbalanced Sarah’s mind and she refused to accept his death.

For twenty-five years she loitered outside the bank asking employees for news of Philip as they left for the evening. Eventually the bank paid her to stay away but this was an obligation she seems to have upheld only until her death.

“There are no recent reports of sightings of Sarah or William,” said Cathy McCarthy, at the Bank of England.  The bank’s museum does provide information on its ghosts.  This openness to the possibility of paranormal activity is however not shared by all City institutions.

For many of us the workings of the City of London are just as mysterious and inexplicable as these ghost stories.  Behind the glossy facades of modern office towers, enough of old London manages to survive and provide familiar ground for the spirits of these earlier residents to make occasional appearances.  Their enduring presence has earned London its reputation as being the most haunted city on the planet.

One of the most ancient ghosts is that of a Roman soldier who haunts the crypt of the London Guildhall, which stands at the heart of the Roman city of Londinium directly above the amphitheatre.  The soldier is said to have appeared one morning in more recent times to an elderly cleaner who was allegedly so disturbed by the experience that she left her job of some thirty years and never returned. “I don’t think I would have taken the job,” commented a Guildhall press officer, “if I knew there were ghosts here. But so far, so good.”

Stories of ghosts on London’s underground stations circulate, and include one of an elderly grey haired woman at Aldgate station who was seen by electric maintenance workers. Farringdon station has also seen its share of commuters tales. “I don’t know much about that,” says a cautious Heather Preston in London Transport’s publicity office.  “But I have heard that the tunnel that links Whitechapel Underground station with an adjacent building has attracted this kind of attention”

Since the living have no great interest in spending any more time than that which is essential in the underground, it should be easier to identify those souls who find their own paradise down there.

There are few areas in London that have not been linked at one time or another to ghostly activity, and indeed the phenomena seems to start at the heart of the City and ripple outwards. Heathrow Airport’s primary runway features as a haunted place.

Following the 1947 crash of a Sabena Belgian Airlines DC3, the neatly dressed ghost of one of its victims appeared to fire fighters inquiring after his brief case. His presence has not been confined to just that unfortunate night.

The ghosts of the City have unwittingly sparked an alternative economy. Every night, rain or shine, tourist guides lead groups through the streets of the City on ‘ghost walks.’ Up to forty people, paying on average £5 per person set out hoping to see a ghost or at least to come away with some good stories.

Whilst passing 33 Cock Lane, EC1, ghost hunters will learn of ‘Scratching Fanny’, who was said to have died of smallpox. Frances Parsons, or Fanny as she was known, reportedly communicated her true cause of death to a housemaid by coded scratching, knocking and tapping noises. When her body was exhumed it was found that Fanny had in fact been murdered, by arsenic poisoning, just as the maid had relayed.

Ghost walks invariably terminate in a pub, such as the Sutton Arms on Carthusian Street, EC1. This particular pub is haunted by ‘Charlie’, a large red-head who appears intermittently but without malice. “We get numerous people coming in to ask about Charlie” was the jovial response by one of the pub’s barmaids. “Mostly, they are tourists who have read about him in a guide-book. He’s good for business!” she concluded.

Some books map out prospective walks, by borough, leading from one haunted venue to the next. Ghostly trailblazers are left, more often than not, to make up their own minds while nursing a pint. Undoubtedly some of these books have been peppered with imagination to enhance interest.

John Fraser, Chairman of The Ghost Club Society, says, “We are often invited to investigate houses and buildings for paranormal activity.  Some of our research is ongoing in the same venue.”  Founded in 1863, The Ghost Club Society reputedly included Charles Dickens in its early membership.

Their members, whose number has grown to 200, have interests and specialties, which cover a large area of psychic fields. The club is one of a number of such societies who research, investigate and try to understand various paranormal activities. “What we don’t do though, is to simply approach the authorities of a building, such as the Bank of England, requesting an investigation.”

The Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1884 and based in Kensington has a strong scientific interest in the subject and is supported by a number of professional people. Their work is “not to try and convince people that ghosts exist,” explained administrator Peter Johnson, “but to investigate the possibility and document the proof whenever possible.” They do not operate as ‘ghost busters’ and a large number of ‘phenomena’ are scientifically explained and rationalised.

The Society hosts a regular lecture series at which inquirers have the chance, for a modest fee, to witness medium channelling and séances.  A medium has the ability to channel the intentions or messages of the departed, an activity that reached its heyday in Victorian society, and paved the way for what is now known as ‘spiritualism’.

Whilst its works will naturally be regarded as bogus by a great number, it is worth noting that a 1999 survey conducted by Fortean, an international organisation for paranormal education, revealed that 42 percent of people living in Britain believed in ghosts and supernatural apparitions: more people than believe in God.

©  Morgan Webb 2003

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