In Britain hauntings occur in ancient manor houses, old inns, and Gothic asylums – places whose very age makes them groan and creak, where shadows sit deep, and which are scarred by the lingering imprint of lives lived and lost. And yet arguably the most famous British ghost story of the 20th century took place somewhere quite different: in a humble council house, only half a century old, in Enfield, north London.
There, between 1977 and 1979, sisters Margaret and Janet Hodgson were the centre of a poltergeist manifestation that has inspired books, articles, and even a recent Hollywood film.
This turns out to be far from the only such instance, however, and was certainly not the first.
“The world of the ghost is riddled with class,” wrote Roger Clarke in his 2012 Natural History of Ghosts, “and the poltergeist is occasionally tagged as ‘the council house ghost’.”
Here are just a few examples of that particular, peculiar phenomenon.
Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire, 1947-50
The tenants of a red-brick council house on Queen Street, built only in 1945-46, reported having seen a figure glide through the hall and then disappear. Mrs Thomas Bicknell (her own name is not given) first saw the ghost in around 1947, as reported in the Northampton Mercury and Herald for 6 January 1950:
She and her late husband, Mr Thomas Bicknell – a man with 23 years’ service in the Royal Artillery and not given to imagining things – had just finished a game of cards when they heard a rustling and tapping noise coming from the direction of the hall… Their dog, a large Airedale retriever, rose to its feet, raised its hackles and growled… Mr Bicknell went into the hall but could see nothing. The dog went up the stairs, still growling, and his master followed. Again there was nothing, but as he turned to descend the stairs, he saw a ghostly figure glide through the hall, go into the kitchen, and disappear. Mrs Bicknell, sitting in the living room, saw it too.
After her husband died, Mrs Bicknell saw the ghost a second time, on Christmas Eve 1949, doing the same gliding and disappearing act. When her distress story was reported at a council meeting it was met with laughter. “This added amenity warrants an increase in the rent,” said Mr D.H. Jelley, following in the grand gentlemanly tradition of scoffing at superstitious proletarians.
Earby, Lancashire, 1954
Mr E. Peasey, a chimney sweep, evacuated his wife and nine children to a single downstairs room in their council house at 1 Melrose Street as a result of ‘queer things’ happening upstairs, and multiple ghostly apparitions. Here’s a summary from the Burnley Express and News for 16 October that year:
[For] three years doors had opened on their own, footsteps had been heard overhead, crockery had flown into the air and pictures had gone crooked… One of the boys, 14-year-old [Bobby] described a shadow in his bedroom. At first he thought it was a reflection but it advanced to the middle of his room and then began to tickle his feet and scratch him… The ‘thing’ was white, with no arms or legs, and when an alarm clock went off it had backed into the corner and disappeared… Ten-year-old Kathleen described seeing two hooded figures “floating” and similar shapes were described by others in the family.
Another report, from the Barnoldswick and Earby Times for 15 October, adds more details: a bright light seen in an upstairs room, door knobs turning on their own, and two of the children waking their father to report that they had “seen a man in Daddy’s attic”. A small twist: this was apparently an older slum property with gaslighting rather than a modern council house and the story came to light precisely because Mr Peasey wrote to the council requesting a move to just such a new-build.
Sedgley, West Midlands, 1954
From the same year and month as the tale above comes the minor story of a haunting in Sedgley in the West Midlands in which the tenant, an unnamed woman, supposedly asked the council sanitary inspector to fumigate for ghosts while he was hunting rats on the property. It was reported in the Birmingham Gazette for 29 October 1954 as a “Nowt So Queer as Folk” sidebar scant on details, and with a decidedly unfunny punchline: evidence of haunting in her daughter’s bedroom was chalked up to the resident vermin, and the family were evicted for failing to maintain the house properly.
Sunderland, County Durham/Tyne & Wear, 1957
It was in spring when Norman and Audrey Dixon first reported that the council house in General Havelock Road, Sunderland, into which they had recently moved with their three young children was haunted in a rather colourful fashion, as recounted in the Birmingham Post for 23 October 1957:
[The ghost] takes the form of a zig-zag line [which] appears on the wall of their living room…. The first night they slept upstairs sheets were ripped off the bed and fingers dug into their chests, Mr Dixon said. “A few nights later I felt something clammy on my back and so did my wife. There seemed to be no air in the room. We staggered downstairs and took the family to my brother’s house.”
This case was taken seriously enough by the local vicar that he appealed to the Bishop of Jarrow, J.A. Ramsbotham, who visited the property and conducted a ten-minute blessing service on 22 March, including the sprinkling of holy water. But when journalist Ken Culley followed up (‘I was guest in the haunted house’, Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 25/03/1957) the Dixons told him that the exorcism had been effective for only 24 hours and that the “unwanted visitor” had returned in full force.
They too were eventually evicted after refusing to pay their rent in protest at the Council’s refusal to provide them with alternative accommodation. (Newcastle Journal, 29/10/1957.) Another family, the Rowes, moved into the house in November 1957 and reportedly found it “all quiet”, and that was that. (Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 05/11/1957.)
Swindon, Wiltshire, 1966
A brand new council house in Penhill Drive in Swindon was the subject of national press coverage when Gladys and Robert Tucker, who lived with their adult children Beryl and Victor, asked to be moved after they saw a shadowy figure on the landing and strange lights on the walls. (Daily Mirror, 04/04/1966) The council agreed to rehouse them, reluctantly, and had the house exorcised by a priest before reallocating it to new tenants. In his 1967 book Swindon: An Awkward Size for a Town Kenneth Hudson reported this incident as a blot upon the image of a town keen to present itself as modern and forward looking.
Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, 1968
In March 1968, Gerald and Audrey Burke, 34 and 31, moved out of their council house on Fern Avenue as a result of “tappings, loud thumps and the breaking of glass”, and the ghost of “an old lady…. wearing a white hat”. Mrs Burke asked the Council to re-house the family. (Aberdeen Evening Express, 13/03/1968.)
It seems the Burkes were not the first tenants to complain of such occurrences (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27/02/1968) and so the Council resorted to sending in, first, a Roman Catholic priest, Father Gerald Walker (Birmingham Daily Post, 27/02/1968), and then “psychic experts” – brothers Alan and James Bell, from Formby – to attempt to exorcise the property.
The Bells were convinced by the evidence they saw and urged the council to move the Burke family, even offering to rent the house themselves while they continued their investigations. (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 04/03/1968.)
I haven’t been able to pin down what happened next but I can say this: Fern Avenue no longer exists, even though nearby Ivy, Pine, Larch, Ash and Laurel avenues do.
Coventry, West Midlands, 1973
In 1973 it was a council house in Stoke Heath that scared away its residents. Lynne and John Edwards first moved their family into a single room at 63 Hill Side, before fleeing altogether, after they heard “whining noises and footsteps”, and felt the house turn freezing cold in in instant. (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19/11/1973.)
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After all that, it begins to feel as if not only is the council house not such an unusual setting in which to encounter a ghost but, in fact, a setting positively prone to hauntings.
What can possibly cause these relatively history-less houses, designed to be light and airy, to be such fertile ground for the uncanny?
In America the answer would surely be an ‘Indian burial ground’, as in Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film Poltergeist, which sees shiny new-build suburban houses haunted not by the ghosts of previous inhabitants but by those who once possessed the very land. (Sort of. It gets complicated in the sequels.) But, based on historic maps available via the National Library of Scotland, there’s no such obvious plot engine – no burned-down orphanage or gruesome battle site – at any of the other locations listed above, though a couple are near cemeteries.
Then again, it doesn’t take much age at all for a house to gain the potential for a haunting. In the 1968 haunting of another Coventry council house, this time at Treherne Road, the anxious 37-year-old resident, Miss Barbara Mills, connected a serious of spontaneous fires with stories she had heard of a wartime suicide at the property. (Birmingham Daily Post, 22/10/1968.) The Dixons in Sunderland invited a local psychic, James Long, to conduct a séance at the General Havelock Road house which resulted in a message from a drowned man, John McKenzie, who apologised for the trouble he had caused, but mentioned that there was also the “earthbound spirit of a woman” haunting the house. (Newcastle Journal, 29/04/1957.) Legends grow quickly, even in poor soil.
In more concrete terms (no pun intended) is there perhaps something about the way the houses were constructed? In the Sunderland case journalist Ken Culley slept in the haunted bedroom but, despite apparently making every effort to spook himself, saw no evidence of anything supernatural. What he did observe was that the construction of the house made it uncomfortably stuffy, while opening the window caused a localised breeze to swirl oddly around the foot of the bed, numbing his feet. Light and airy may have been the intention but large rooms with high ceilings, sparsely furnished, offer great potential for echoes, reflections and strange circulations.
Then there is the question of location, and here I’m going to indulge my own memories of growing up on an estate. Council developments often occupy what in the jargon of the psychogeographer are called ‘edgelands’, neither town nor country, and can resemble lonesome frontier towns. All that space, a joy on a summer afternoon, has its downsides: winds whistling across shopping precincts and playing fields, or along showpiece boulevards; long, dark gardens with no walls and too many shadows, butting on to fields or woodland; neighbours at arms’ length, and family further yet, back in the old country. A bedroom for the parents and one for each child sounds like the ideal unless you’re used to something more intimate and find yourself alone at 3 am listening to silence, staring at a black shape creeping across an excess of freshly-plastered wall. With that in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of the cases described above resulted in the afflicted families bunking up together in a single room, or crashing with neighbours or family. Could this be a sort of stress reaction to the trauma of being almost forcibly cleared from the so-called slums?
Roger Clarke’s observations on class are relevant here, too. He suggests that, at least until recently, middle class people were less likely to publicly report experiences of ghosts, even if they might admit to them privately. Talk of ghosts is viewed as evidence of either peasant stupidity (see above), or working class mendacity, and either way ‘showing off’ by talking about this kind of thing for whatever reason is rather vulgar.
Finally, there is the very fact of the stress of life on an estate. I should be clear here: in my experience, English council estates aren’t as bad as some people like to suggest; but nor are they, in practice, anything like Utopian. There is crime, and there is anti-social behaviour. One small example: our back door-knob used to rattle after dark when my Dad worked nights. A small thing, but terrifying. My Mum got into the habit of having my Uncle’s Army riot baton by her armchair or next to the bed, and I got out of the habit of sleeping too soundly, just in case intruders needed seeing off. Living like that, never quite relaxed, wears you down and sets you on edge. And, at the same time, you are also dealing with poverty which can leave you cold and hungry, and which at the same time can erode your sanity and sense of self.
“I cannot stand it much longer…. I am living on my nerves”, wrote Peasey the Earby chimney sweep with nine children to feed in his letter to the council. He was certainly haunted by something.