Gazetteer of British Ghosts – Peter Underwood (Extract)

Editor’s Introduction to the Revised Edition by Adam Underwood

What does the word ‘gazetteer’ mean?

This is the question I asked my grandfather in 2010, as we walked along Northumberland Avenue – along with my brother, father and mother. The sky was grey. The streets were quiet. It had become something of a custom of ours to meet Peter in London each year around Christmas time.

And before I asked him that question, we had just met him at The Savage Club in Whitehall Place. It was still a regular haunt of his. Peter had been a member for decades. It had served as an official address via which readers could correspond with him. We would stand in the main entrance hall of a large building, waiting to see him descend the grand staircase at the end. Waiting and absorbing the atmosphere of a past time that still permeated the stately space we were temporarily immersed in.

From there, we would proceed around the corner into Northumberland Avenue and continue on before arriving at The Sherlock Holmes pub for an early lunch. It was at the site of this establishment that there once existed the hotel where Sherlock Holmes tracks down Francis Hay Moulton in The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.

Arthur Conan Doyle had once been a member of the Ghost Club (Peter was President for decades), before falling out with the then Chairman Harry Price. Doyle’s daughter Dame Jean Conan Doyle would subsequently become a member – and Peter’s friend. And she would invariably introduce him to others as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research’.

What is clear now is how my question to Peter betrayed a deeper lack of awareness of his life’s work as a whole (the word ‘gazetteer’ had piqued my interest upon my seeing it on the cover of the Japanese translation that year of the Gazetteer. The word adorned a flag that a skeleton carried).

I don’t recall him giving me answer.

But things change. Not long after Peter’s passing in 2014, my interest in ensuring that his work somehow live on conjured some interesting developments. If ‘gazetteer’ means ‘geographical dictionary’, then what better way might there be to further complete Peter’s original project than via the construction of a unique Google Map to cover all 236 haunted sites from the original book, together with a WordPress Blog dedicated to hunting down images to illustrate them?

Such is the lively afterlife that cultural objects can continue to enjoy. I am reminded of a line from the excellent book by Roger Clarke on ghosts, which evokes the significance of them as a cultural phenomenon beyond proving or disproving their existence: “ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them”; A Natural History of Ghosts (2012); p.17.

After creating the map, the next logical step was to create a new fully revised edition to accompany it. And in the process of typing it up, I found myself slipping into an editorial mode. For no expense has been spared in the task of carrying on Peter’s original labours. As a result, there is hardly a single entry that has not been updated or revised or reformatted in some way. Which is simply a result of the editorial pursuit (or compulsion or burden) to render his work as lively and legible as possible for today’s readers.

The Folklore Society (FLS) exhibited a somewhat snobby attitude toward the broad appeal of the Gazetteer, characterising it as having been ‘written in frank journalese [a hackneyed style of writing supposedly characteristic of that in newspapers and magazines – AU]’ (Folklore, Volume 82, Autumn 1971; ‘Reviews’, pp.249-260; p.256).

But perhaps this is to misunderstand the practical nature of Peter’s project, which he offers to the reader in his original introduction as ‘a reference book and as a guide to ghost-hunting’. And it would thereby be all too easy not to be able to see the wood for the trees should one only understand all things ‘paranormal’ from the standpoint of an individual, self-contained academic discipline.

Against the grain of such a narrow disciplinary standpoint, Peter’s work might be said to be modestly emblematic of a whole host of interconnections – between experience, belief, testimony, memory, imagination, narrative, tradition, the past, violence, religion, death, the psyche, and mourning.

So ultimately this ‘revised’ edition could be said to exist in the service of the accounts themselves, which Peter was himself doing service to, whether reflecting upon the existing literature, acting as an unofficial ‘folklore historian’, reporting upon his own inquiries and investigation, upon the testimony of others, or functioning to continue a tradition of folklore itself – by regaling the reader with a tantalising legend or tale associated with a place or site.

Although the ‘illustrations’ (the photographs that my father took the majority of) that originally accompanied the Gazetteer are not contained within this ‘pure digital’ edition, they do form part of a forthcoming, fully-illustrated paperback version of this revised edition.

As a coda to this new edition you are reading there is an ‘Afterword’ by writer Alan Williams, followed by the text of an article based on an interview he conducted with Peter in 1997, which appeared in a publication he was editor of at the time – Writers’ Monthly.

Williams is the author of The Blackheath Seance Parlour (2013), a highly enjoyable mixture of gothic horror and historical fiction – with an additional injection of humour. In his ‘Afterword’, he reflects back upon the first time he encountered Peter’s work, and forward to the opportunity he later had to interview Peter about his paranormal life.

Adam Underwood

May 2017, London

Original 1971 Introduction by Peter Underwood

There are more ghosts seen, reported and accepted in the British Isles than anywhere else on earth. I am often asked why this is so and can only suggest that a unique ancestry with Mediterranean, Scandinavian, Celtic and other strains, an intrinsic island detachment, an enquiring nature, and perhaps our readiness to accept a supernormal explanation for curious happenings may all have played their part in bringing about this state of affairs.

Another question I am repeatedly asked is whether I believe in ghosts and my answer is that belief does not come into it as far as my work in this field is concerned. I try to investigate and study reportes of these phenomena dispassionately but I am impressed by the wealth of evidence for ghosts and hauntings: strikingly similar reports from all over the world since the beginning of recorded history. I am quite certain that I have spoken to many people who are genuinely convinced that they have seen apparitions, phantoms, spectres, ghosts – call them what you will.

My interest in ghosts and haunted houses probably stems from the fact that my maternal grandparents lived in a reputedly haunted house and as a child I heard all about ghosts and soon found that other people believed that they too, lived with them. As a boy I was intrigued that adults should take the subject seriously and I began to collect notes of hauntings and then press-cuttings and reports.

A collection that has today grown into an enormous collection of data on the subject, and from this material, the result of over thirty years study of the subject, I have selected most of the famous cases of haunting and many hitherto unpublished accounts of ghostly phenomena to offer a representative account of apparently paranormal activity throughout the British Isles.

The entries marked with an asterisk [ * ] are those about which I have personal knowledge, either having interviewed the witnesses, carried out an investigation of the case, or visited the place in question myself.

And I hope that in reading between the lines, it would be possible to glimpse my opinion on some of these fascinating mysteries. It is interesting to note, for example, that there are often children up to and around the age of adolescence in the affected houses who may be conscious or unconscious participants in the disturbances and I have also often noticed in such houses a dominating mother or a woman who is unhappy or frustrated.

The entries are arranged in alphabetical order of the place where the ghost has been sighted or where the curious happenings have occurred, something that has never been attempted before on this scale.

I hope the work will be of value as a reference book and as a guide to ghost-hunting, although I must emphasize that the inclusion of a haunted house in this volume does not necessarily mean that the house is open to the public. At the end of each entry I have indicated a nearby hotel which may be of assistance to those who plan a visit or itinerary to some of these haunted places.

I did consider referring readers to various volumes containing fuller details of some of the cases included, but decided against this, because many well-known hauntings are dealt with – with varying reliability – in many books. The select bibliography at the end of this work includes most of the best books of true ghostly experiences published to date.

I would like to acknowledge the help I have received from many correspondents and people I have talked to, for their cooperation extending over many years. To my wife for inexhaustible patience and understanding. To my daughter for reading the first draft and for many helpful suggestions. And particularly to my son Chris who has provided most of the excellent photographs.

I am always interested to receive first-hand or reliable accounts of ghosts and haunted houses: a subject that has interested me for almost as long as I can remember and will probably continue to interest me until, perhaps, I become a ghost myself!

Peter Underwood

The Savage Club,

London S.W.1

 

Extracted from The Gazetteer of British Ghosts by Peter Underwood

The Gazetteer of British Ghosts is available free on Kindle in today’s promotion: https://amzn.to/2JpLEEg

You can find our other Peter Underwood title – Where the Ghosts Walk here: https://bit.ly/2HWOBMW

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