Municipal Gothic: the other type of scary

An underpass covered with graffiti

Ghost stories are about the uncanny and, of course, about fear. But when do you ever feel really scared?

As in, fight or flight. As in, heartbeat up, breathing shallow, nerves twitching.

For me, it’s in subways, when I’ve committed to the tunnel and have nowhere to go, and I see someone blocking the exit up above.

Or when I find myself on a street I don’t know on an estate I don’t know, maybe walking towards a dead end, while whispering men stop whatever they’re doing in that alleyway to watch me pass.

That reminds me of the most scared I’ve ever been, I think, on the top deck of a bus going through Clapton after midnight. Between Central London and the east, it emptied, until it was just me and some hyped-up lads making a lot of noise about someone who was going to get shanked, if he wasn’t careful.

After a while, they noticed me on my own on the back seat.

“Excuse me,” one of them said, with surprising politeness, “but are you a police officer?”

Back then, I did kind of look like I sort of might be – a sturdy bloke with a shaved head, often wearing a white shirt and black trousers.

What was the right answer? Which would make them less likely to want to beat me up, or stick a knife in me?

While I thought about it, my heart began to thump. I knew my voice would wobble if I spoke.

So, after a moment, I smiled slightly and gave a slow shake of my head.

They stared. I stared back.

After a moment, their leader shouted, “Five oh”, and they scattered off the bus as it pulled into the next stop.

It was a while before I breathed again.

That’s logical, sensible, real-world fear. The fear of actually being injured and, perhaps worse, humiliated.

In my case, this is at least partly the result of growing up on an estate, in a town, where, if you weren’t careful, you’d get a ‘smack in the face’ for glancing at someone for too long, or failing to say hello, or for saying hello with the wrong tone.

It wasn’t so bad, not really – not as long as you remained hyper-vigilant at all times, took no risks, scuttled everywhere by the safest paths, thought constantly about your escape routes, didn’t make eye contact with anyone at any point, and got home before dark.

The problem with that is, you go into adulthood hyper-vigilant, taking no risks, scuttling everywhere… I’m in my mid-forties and still carrying it with me.

On the upside, all that internalised terror means I’ve never been mugged, touch wood, or even beaten up. I’ve got no shame about crossing the road if I don’t like the look of what’s up ahead on this side. I’d rather my face be intact than my masculine pride.

Writing ghost stories with resolutely real world settings, as in my collection Municipal Gothic, I want to draw on some of that energy.

Because when a ghost appears in a place or situation where you’re already on edge, it feels all the more horrifying.

But it’s also important not to lapse into the cheap cliché of the ‘faceless hoodie’ as a stand-in for zombies or ghouls.

And I certainly don’t want to write stories about gentlefolk wandering onto the wrong side of the tracks and forced to confront the ultimate horror: The Working Classes!

I’ll leave that to H.P. Lovecraft.

“He brings a quality that is rarely found in stories that have a genuine power to disturb – wit. Sharp, focused and never to the detriment of atmosphere, his deployment of raillery and even snark, gives his characters a depth of believability.”

David Southwell, Hookland Guide
Municipal Gothic is out now as a paperback via Amazon UK, Amazon US and around the world.

Municipal Gothic: 13 ghost stories

The cover of Municipal Gothic
Council estates, motorway underpasses, bypass hotels, concrete cathedrals and run-down pubs. Places we all know, that we see where we live in suburbs and towns. Why shouldn’t they be haunted?

Municipal Gothic, my new collection of ghost stories, shows that they very much can be. It is now available as a paperback via Amazon, at £8.99 in the UK, $12 in the US and around the world at various prices.

In these thirteen stories you’ll meet a demonic black dog tasked with administering a lineal curse in the age of sperm donation; a witch’s familiar forced to live off fried chicken bones; an architect whose buildings can drive you mad; headless villains, and more.

It includes a revised version of ‘Modern Buildings in Wessex’, originally published as a zine or chapbook to some acclaim in 2020. It’s ghost story in the form of an architectural guide – M.R. James meets Ian Nairn.

David Southwell, of Hookland fame, is a fan of this particular piece which is how I got up the nerve to ask him to supply a foreword for the collection. He has plenty of interesting things to say about how ghost stories work, about working class fiction and, of course, about the power of plausible fake ephemera to conjure places that don’t exist.

In a similar vein, you’ll also find a new piece: ‘An Oral History of the Greater London Exorcism Authority’. Inspired by the kind of self-congratulatory in-house publications put out by public bodies in the 1970s and 80s, and by my love of institutional branding, it started life as a few mocked-up images on Twitter…

…but before long, I knew I’d have to write something more substantial to back up those ideas. It became an exercise in tone of voice – could I write first-hand testimony from multiple people? (Neville Hutchinson, the GLEA engineer who does not believe, and his colleague Ernest ‘Cabbage’ Lacomber are my favourites, I think.)

‘The Curse Follows the Seed’ is, as they say, ‘a very personal piece’ for reasons you might be able to work out when you’ve read it. It was the first story I wrote with the concept of municipal gothic in mind. Has anyone ever before set a key scene in a story in the area by the bins in a supermarket car park? I can’t help myself.

Other stories in the collection evolved from an abandoned novel. Why, when I try to write social realism, do ghosts, premonitions and black dogs keep turning up? See ‘Who Took Mary Cook’ for evidence of this.

Certain pieces emerged slowly, over the course of years, as I worked on them with my Wednesday night writers’ group. I must thank Andy Hamilton, Corinne Dobinson, Mike Manson and Piers Marter, and others who have come and gone, for their encouragement and advice. They saw scraps of ideas and helped me find the way, as with ‘Protected By Occupation’, which first landed with them in 2019 as a scrappy period piece inspired by the Lamb Inn haunting (PDF, bris.ac.uk).

Please do buy a copy of the book and let me know what you think. Or, more importantly, let Amazon and Goodreads know what you think – a quick rating and review is worth more than you can imagine.

Municipal Gothic

Municipal Gothic

Why is my novel called The Grave Digger’s Boy? Well, finding out is part of the fun, but here’s something I’ve kept a bit quiet until now: I’m a grave digger’s boy.

For a year or so when I was at junior school, my dad had a job as a grave digger for the council.

At the time, I thought this was pretty cool. I enjoyed telling other kids who would either recoil or want to know more.

There certainly were macabre stories – days spent opening up old graves so the newly-dead could join their spouses or siblings, boots through the rotten lids of coffins, slips and falls among the mud and bones…

But it was also utterly mundane. Rotas and requisition orders, job sheets and sheds. Cheese and pickle sandwiches in the back of the van, sheltering from the rain.

Part of being a writer is throwing different ideas into your brain and letting them bounce around until they stick together in interesting ways.

So if The Grave Digger’s Boy is ingredient one, here’s number two, freshly added: John Braine’s The Vodi, which I came across as part of my #reading1959 project, has been described as ‘kitchen sink gothic’ – bleak social realism with an added flavour of the sinister supernatural.

Suddenly, I realise that lots of things I’ve written or have been working on that I’d thought were separate and distinct, aren’t.

For example, there’s my big work in progress – the epic novel I expect to finish in a decade or so that I jokingly refer to as War and Peace but set on a council estate. When I launched into writing last year, something happened that I hadn’t planned or expected: incidents of the uncanny began to manifest in what was supposed to be raw realism.

Here’s an example, from the opening, set in 1957, as two central characters arrive at a half-built council estate after dark, late at night:

John Patrick slammed the brakes on and the little car jerked to a dead stop. He turned off the headlights and they sat in the dark as the engine ticked.

‘Will you bloody give over? We’re nearly there.’

Another sigh, softer, came from between her dark lips.

‘You’re gorgeous, you are,’ he said after a moment. ‘Like a film star.’

She tutted. ‘Well? Go on, you daft sod.’

He looked at her for a moment longer and then pushed a lick of his brown Bryclreemed hair back into place behind a big ear.

‘It’ll all look better in daylight.’

He switched the lights back on and they both started.

Staring back at them from the road was a big cat, as big as a man, with oily black fur and eyes reflecting back as yellow stars.

Irene shrank back in her seat.

The engine purred.

The cat licked its lips, yawned, and bolted away.

After a few seconds, Irene cut into the silence.

‘What the bloody hell was that?’

With a shaking hand, John took the cigarette from between his lips, snuffed it, and tucked it behind his ear.

‘A large female yaws,’ he said.

‘Yaws? What’s a yaws?’

‘A-Mild and a-bitter with a whisky chaser, a-thank you kindly.’

Elsewhere in the story, there’s the ghost of a dead sibling and an echo of Bella in the Wych Elm – “Who Took Mary Cook?” The UFO my dad swears blind he saw might turn up, too.

Another novel, abandoned for now, tentatively titled The Red Lodge, combines the case of the Lamb Inn haunting with the modern trend for buildings ‘protected by occupation’:

“Charlie boy!”

A hand on my arm, those fat digits digging into my bones.

“I’ve missed seeing you.”

“Hello, Uncle Bernard.”

His hand dropped away and he looked me up and down.

“You look like shit,” he said, rummaging in his pocket for a bunch of keys.

I said nothing.

He slapped flatfootedly towards the temporary steel gate with its warning signs and chains and opened the padlocks one by one.

Together, we dragged the gate across rough concrete, scratching a white semi-circle.

Bernard drew on his vape stick and exhaled a blueberry flavoured cloud around his unruly head as he considered the overgrown driveway.

“Got decent boots on? Let’s walk.”

I looked down at my well-worn, thin-soled Adidas trainers, but didn’t protest.

“It’s a lot of land,” I said, partly to break the uncomfortable rhythm of our synchronised steps.

Amid the brambles were the remains of concrete and brick structures, pieces of pipe cut off a few inches above ground, and chunks of rusting machinery. Here and there were burst bags of rubbish, hurled over the fence and left for rats and gulls to tear apart. A lone shoe grew moss.

“Lovely, isn’t it?”

He wasn’t being sarcastic – to Bernard, it really did look beautiful, a virgin plain beyond the frontier.

“They built parts for planes here before the War, until they moved production under Salisbury Plain.”

The house was getting nearer, flooding the horizon with a wall of red.

“There were Italian prisoners of war here until 1947, working on the farms.”

Beneath our feet, concrete gave way to smooth asphalt and Bernard began fingering his keys again.

We stopped at the doorway with its clamshell hood and four white stone steps as Bernard muttered to himself, irritated: “Fucking thing… Checked it before I left the office… Should have… Fuck sake…”

I could hear the motorway in the distance – a constant exhalation – and the wind shaking the brambles, but there was also something else – a high, secret sound.

A signal.

And, of course, right in plain view, I’ve been writing about haunted council houses and factories:

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 simultaneously cold and stuffy, and that opening the window caused a localised breeze to swirl 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.

Focusing on the connections between all of this, more items from the memory banks presented themselves – a body of family stories, from the morbid Lancastrian side, that must have settled in my subconscious.

Greaty Aunt Ann, for example, who tried to kill herself by walking into the sea but came back to shore to get an umbrella when it started raining.

The great-great-uncle who tramped around the country during the depression of the 1930s sleeping in graveyards: “They’re safer than anywhere else; it’s the wick ‘uns outside you’ve to worry about.”

A vague tale of a relative, or family friend – urban legend, more likely – who worked as night-watchman at a funeral parlour and ran screaming from the premises when at two in the morning, through the action of tightening muscles and trapped air, a corpse sat up and groaned at him.

My grandmother’s story of a childhood acquaintance from Crawshawbooth who awoke to find a rat that had eaten its way into her bedroom from the attic chewing at the tip of her nose and cheeks.

My current project, which I’m unsubtly trailing on Twitter, sits in the same territory – the darkness of recent past, the modern world weighed down by the old, blood on the lino.

‘Kitchen-sink gothic’ is good – and there’s an anthology that uses that title. I gather ‘gothic realism’ is also a term that sometimes pops up. But I prefer ‘municipal gothic’, perhaps because it suggests a Venn diagram of two of my favourite projects, Hookland and Municipal Dreams.

I’ve been writing municipal gothic by accident until now but I reckon it’ll be deliberate from here on.

The Ghost Factory

British Cellophane.

Growing up in the shadow of the British Cellophane factory in Bridgwater, Somerset, I often heard stories of its ghosts.

The factory opened in 1937 as a joint project between the French firm that owned the rights to the process for mass-manufacturing cellulose film and British textile company Courtaulds.

It was built on fields next to Sydenham House, a 16th century mansion with its own stock of strange tales as recounted in Berta Lawrence’s 1973 book Somerset Legends. The Duke of Monmouth, she suggests, haunts a bedroom where he is said to have stayed (‘said’ always being a danger sign in such stories) before the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685. The room overlooked an oak tree, and some years later a member of the Perceval family was lifted by “some invisible spirit out of the chamber beyond his window-bars and, by levitation, set in the oak’s branches”. The house was also the scene of violence during the peasants’ revolt of 1381.

In the 20th century, the house was used by Courtaulds for corporate hospitality and, beyond the security boundary, hidden behind foliage, attained semi-legendary status among local children. I was taken to the garden once as a child, on a hot but darkly overcast day, and found it unsettling – the perfect setting for a timeslip.

I spent most of my childhood living within five minutes’ walk of the factory and its famous stink – it was often called ‘Smellophane’ – and my father worked there in the 1970s and 1980s, as did the parents of many of my peers. Every Thursday morning, as I was walking to school, they’d test the emergency sirens, adding to the collective sense of Cold War dread.

The first person to tell me a ghost story about the factory was my childhood best friend whose father worked in the section of Courtaulds dedicated to the production of non-woven synthetic fabrics. I asked my friend if he remembered what he’d told me all those years ago and his reply (edited for clarity) was as follows:

Late one night Dad saw someone in a checked shirt at the end of the production line. There wouldn’t have been many people about at that time so he went to investigate but the person had gone and the only door nearby was locked. The bloke couldn’t have gone anywhere else. It turned out someone from the other shift had died in just that spot (drowned, I think, in a cooling tank, or dragged under the rollers) and had been wearing the same clothes as the figure Dad saw.

As an 8-year-old I’d simply enjoyed shuddering at this story but I find myself wondering today if his father – quite a joker – might have been teasing him. My friend thinks not: “Mum said he was absolutely convinced at the time and quite shaken.”

I also remember a variant of this ‘drowned in a vat’ tale told by another school contemporary: a figure spotted on a high gantry, then apparently falling from the edge into a tank; emergency services called, the vessel drained, but no body found.

Adapted from ‘British Cellophane’ by Noel Jenkins, via Geograph, under CC BY-SA 2.0.

I asked my own father if he’d ever found working on the site unnerving. He talked at length about the general twitchiness of factory life, especially working nights, practically alone in vast, echoing spaces, and the long stretches of boredom between bouts of strenuous labour. But as to specifics, he said:

The only experience I had was of something that passed through a corridor. It might have been that somebody opened a door and it was a cold chill or something… It was weird. It wasn’t something I saw, just felt.

My younger brother suggested I get in touch with a friend of his who worked on the site in its final years, who wrote:

[One] of the machines there, called C2, killed a guy back the 1970s and it was definitely creepy in that area. [He] was pulled into a huge heated steamrolling press. [There was no] reverse mechanism and the firemen had to sledgehammer the machine apart to peel him out.

With prompting, Dad recalled a similar story from British Cellophane – strangely similar, you might say – about an operator who got cocky while threading a length of film through the moving parts of a machine. He was pulled into the workings and then when the machine reached full speed it “tore his limb right from his shoulder, voom! He Dropped dead.”

My suspicion is that these were scare stories, garbled and embellished as they spread, perhaps intended to reinforce the importance of safety procedures, or merely to wind up new recruits. The arm-ripping incident my father recounted of course happened ‘a few years’ before he joined the firm, like all good urban myths.

It’s hard to prove that something didn’t happen but I can say that I have not been able to find any record of any events like these in newspapers, even though relatively less gruesome accidents at the factory were reported. (A painter died during construction of the plant; a laboratory apprentice fell from a landing stage with no barrier and later died; a foreman dropped dead while walking along a gantry; and Raymond Culverwell set a legal precedent when a truck crushed his leg: being late back from his tea break, the Court of Appeal ruled, he was not entitled to compensation.) Gruesome limb-tearing and crushing incidents at other industrial sites were frequently covered so the press were clearly interested.

After a version of this story first appeared in Fortean Times in 2018, however, I heard from Gavin Hogg whose grandfather, George Rogers, worked at Cellophane in the 1950s and 60s, and died while working at British Cellophane, in 1963. He asked his mother for more detail:

He was killed in an accident during the night-shift (22:00 – 06:00) and she writes that he was on his own at the time (I don’t know if she means just in the immediate area, or the whole factory). The official inquest verdict was death by misadventure.

There was no compensation or any financial help for my grandmother and her two daughters – my Mum would have been 21 at the time and her younger sister would have been around 16-17.

Mum says that the factory destroyed all the evidence after the accident and changed the machinery.

A little digging turned up an account of the inquest from June 1963, which set out the details: at about 5am, Mr Rogers was alone, his colleague having stepped outside for a few moments, and accidentally put an amount of vinylidine chloride into a hot vessel rather than a cool one, whereupon it instantly vaporised and gassed him to death.

Again, no falls into vats, or torn limbs, but this does echo my own father’s explanation for the uneasy atmosphere in the factory, which is simultaneously more down-to-earth and scarier than any ghost. The premises was, he says, often dense with chemical fumes, and he would frequently find himself wading in pools of toluene, a liquid solvent known to cause hallucinations. It’s easy to see how that sort of thing might combine with the disorientation of shift work, and those grim shock tales, to generate paranoia, confusion and even strange visions.

Though none of that, of course, explains how Perceval got into the oak tree.

Council Houses: Haunted by Something

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.

Church spire with pull quote from below.

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.

Barbed wire with pull quote from below.

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.

Council houses and pull quote from below.

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.

A young family in black and white.
John and Lynne Edwards, 1973.

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.)

* * *

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.