Image: Yan Qin
Those witching hours of Halloween night might now be lost in that shadowy void of memory, and yet that does not mean that Cambridge is now rid of its ghosts and ghouls. On the contrary, what many students fail to recognise throughout their time within the ancient halls of this historic institution, is the sheer number of reported paranormal sightings littering the pages of two very important historic annuls: memory and the internet.
Not to state the obvious but, shockingly, Cambridge is quite old. With the founding of its first college Peterhouse in 1284, no wonder there are the spirits of discontent and restless souls wandering the corridors at after nightfall. Britain’s longest running paranormal investigation group, The Ghost Club, was founded in Cambridge in 1855 when Trinity fellows initiated discussions concerning paranormal and psychic activity. The club is said to have played a key role in the establishment of the Society for Psychical Research, and also cites Charles Dickens amongst its earliest members.
All in all, one must admit that Cambridge is filled with the ghosts of its past; either through the chilling apparitions themselves, or else through the stories that such encounters have formed and inspired. There is something to fascinate rather than frighten the supernatural researcher in the sheer quantity of sightings appearing out of both the rumour and the cyber woodwork of Cambridge. If multiple sources can cite the same testimonies with assurance and vigour, then surely there is something to be said of the restlessness of either the dead or the living?
To keep the Halloween spirit alive, here are a few of the traits and haunts of some of these college spectres, and their accompanying dark tales of murder, suicide and exorcism. Be warned: some of these tales are not for the faint hearted.
Peterhouse has a history of multiple exorcisms, and remains wary of its haunted past. One of its ghosts made such a fuss that its exorcism was reported on the BBC News Website in December 1997, as six people were thought to have seen the apparition that year.
The ghost was identified as Mr Dawes, a former bursar of the college, who hanged himself after the controversial election of the new master Francis Barnes in the 18thcentury. College staff refused to enter the combination room where two butlers had reported to have seen the apparition gliding across the floor, disappearing over the point his body had been found.
Dr Graham Ward, the Dean at the time, was reported to have been considering the exorcism in an attempt to return the college back to a sense of normality. The article details two other such attempts:
“Two previous exorcisms have been carried out in the college. In the 18th century a poltergeist was removed from a student’s room and, more recently, a former Dean carried out a ceremony because of the appearance of a dark presence in a corner of the old courtyard overlooking the graveyard.”
This latter exorcism might have been for the same dark, crouching figure seen by some on top of the cemetery wall: it is said that ten students who saw the apparition committed suicide soon after and yet the connection cannot be proven. It hasn’t appeared again since its exorcism in the 1960s.
CORPUS CHRISTI COLLEGE
In 1632, the joint university Vice-Chancellor and master of Corpus, Henry Butts, was found hanged in the Old Master’s Lodge above the kitchens. It is reported that his ghost became so agitated in the 1880s that cooks refused to enter the kitchens alone after nightfall, and that a fellow was found crawling onto the roof to escape the tormented noise of the spirit. Students apparently attempted to exorcise the figure in 1904 and yet never fully succeeded, leading to multiple students rushing into the lodge upon hearing the ensuing noise. The ghost has lingered on, spotted sporadically throughout the twentieth century.
ST CATHARINE’S COLLEGE
Adam Kirton reports on the mysterious encounters to be had in both the library and its books in St Catharine’s College.
The college library. Alone. It’s late, there’s a woman opposite, but… the library is empty? She’s mouthing something, you don’t understand – then you realise she’s transparent. You doubt your sanity but your college librarian later confirms it. Not only that, but he shows you records of past students and fellows, confirming your ghost story with theirs.
There was once a room above St Catharine’s Sherlock Library where the librarians slept – Sky Hall – which later became student accommodation. It was notorious in its own way: one librarian, Mr. A. R. Kennedy, slept with a pistol under his pillow out of fear. A Dr. W. H. S. Jones in 1952 told of a working class scholar who stayed in Sky Hall how each night he’d see an old man warming himself by the fire, and was confronted by him one night after extinguishing it. He eventually changed rooms, but college asked him not to mention it, for the college’s honour.
Dr. Jones had another story; he lent his room to an education inspector; whose clothes were thrown everywhere, furniture was moved and the bed was overturned after he had fled. It took three men to repair the damage, and after investigating, Dr. Jones discovered that in that south west corridor room, in St Catharine’s main court, on the dates the inspector stayed, a college servant had committed suicide twelve years before. Adam Kirton
SIDNEY SUSSEX COLLEGE
Despite the obvious dismembered body part lying somewhere in Sidney Sussex Chapel – for those not clued up, Sidney Sussex has had the head of Oliver Cromwell incarcerated somewhere in their chapel since it came into their hands in 1960 – several students in 1967 apparently found disembodied human parts in their rooms. Although it was claimed to be an isolated incident, the occurrence of a seemingly similar event concerning two maids and the discovery of a divided human body is said to have happened 120 years previously.
Too far out of town for any other college to hear the screams, Girton Porter Peter Wood recalls his own encounter with the college’s famous Grey Lady.
“When I first came to the main college at Girton everyone told me about the Grey Lady. Some say she is the ghost of an ex mistress or a young girl who died before she came up to Girton. One Christmas at about 2 a.m. in the morning I was in the lodge on my own and with nobody else in the college. I felt a presence in the room and turned round to see a lady in a grey blouse and long grey skirt with a belt and a bunch of keys. After my initial shock I said “hello” and she disappeared.
My theory is that, because of the keys, she is possibly an ex-porter who takes exception to male porters, as Girton used to be an all female college.
The hospital wing at Girton is also said to be haunted [by soldiers] as it was used to treat wounded soldiers in the First World War, hence the name hospital wing.”
The author Thomas Charles Lethbridge read archaeology at Trinity in the early 1920s. In his time studying at Cambridge, he reportedly saw a man in a hunting outfit and a top hat – primarily thinking it was a porter before realising that it wasn’t a Sunday, and Porters only wear top hats on Sunday, so therefore concluding that it couldn’t actually a porter – in a room off of New Court.
His friend, also stood in the room with Lethbridge, failed to see the figure entirely. This apparition is said to have given him a life-long interest in the paranormal, whilst also leading to his work in supernatural research.