Guest writer BRIAN LANGSTON describes how a mysterious ghost sighting turned a Chelsea street on its head in the 1850s…
Walking through fashionable Chelsea today, it is difficult to imagine the scenes of pandemonium which broke out 160 years ago following the extraordinary appearance of a ghost at a private house.
Victorian London was sent into turmoil for weeks after the sudden appearance of the phantom which terrorised not only the resident family, but also several Metropolitan Police officers.
In scenes reminiscent of the Cock Lane Ghost 90 years previously, huge crowds gathered in College Street in a phenomenon known as ‘flash mobs’ which formed spontaneously following the sighting of anything believed to be supernatural.
The haunting of 6 Pond Terrace begins
The haunting began at the home of Mr James Ward who lived with his two grown-up sons and his daughter at 6 Pond Terrace, College Street just off Chelsea’s Fulham Road.
During the evening of Thursday, 8th September, 1853, 17-year-old Emma walked unsuspectingly into her bedroom and was confronted with a spectral entity so horrifying that she screamed and fell immediately into a dead faint. Her elder brother James, hearing his sister’s cries and the bang as her body hit the bedroom floor, raced upstairs and burst into the bedroom. The ghastly sight which befell his eyes sent him in fits of convulsions and he too collapsed on top of her. The unholy commotion was heard by Mrs Parsloe, an elderly lodger who tentatively climbed the stairs to Emma’s bedroom where she found the siblings unconscious in the doorway. As she slowly pushed open the bedroom door, the monstrous spectre lunged forward causing her to turn and run screaming down the stairs as fast as her legs could carry her.
At that moment the eldest son, William, returned home and found the gibbering Mrs Parsloe barely able to speak, at the foot of the stairs pointing a shaking finger towards the bedroom. William, a muscular labourer, believing the family had been attacked by a burglar, sprinted up the stairs. He leapt over the lifeless bodies of his brother and sister and entered the gloomy bedroom. His heart pounding like an express train and running on pure adrenaline, he launched himself at the phantom intruder in the shadows and fell straight through it onto the floor. As the figure turned towards him, he saw the awful visage of the spectre looming over him, wailing like a banshee. Unable to believe his eyes, William screamed out in terror and fled from the room. James and Emma had also regained consciousness and struggled to their feet. They slammed the bedroom door and raced down the stairs where they found William in spasms on the floor, screaming uncontrollably in a shock-induced fit.
They attempted to hold him down, but so violent were his convulsions that it proved impossible and Mrs Parsloe ran out into the street to summon help from neighbours and passers by. Before long the house was teeming with gawping spectators come to see what the commotion was. Word began to spread like wildfire that a family was being terrorised by a ghost and flocks of people descended upon the house. William, meanwhile, was still flailing about on the floor being restrained by several men who struggled to hold him down. Such was the intensity of his paroxysms that it was several hours before he managed to recover.
The police become involved
In the meantime, a passing police officer seeing the throng, which now numbered in the hundreds, pushed his way to the front of the crowd and entered the house. He managed to glean from the hysterical family that an awful ghost had occupied the bedroom. Unwilling to enter the room alone, he blew his whistle and within minutes three colleagues from neighbouring beats had arrived and with batons drawn they approached the bedroom door as the gathered masses craned their necks for a better view.
The four officers burst into the dark bedroom. For a second all was quiet then the silence was shattered by a bone- chilling scream at what they saw in the room. The traumatised officers bounded down the stairs two at a time in fear of their lives. They bellowed out for everyone to flee the house causing a mass stampede as the family and the assembled throng trampled over each other in a furious clamour to escape. Outside, the police officers who were visibly shaken by what they had seen, announced they would not stay in the house ‘for untold gold’.
At this point the father, Mr Ward senior, returned home to a scene of total bedlam and attempted to put an end to the panic. He managed to gather together his distraught children in an effort to establish what had taken place whilst he was away. By now the ‘flash mob’ had grown to such an extent that all the roads in the immediate vicinity were completely impassable to traffic and the risk of public disorder was a real possibility.
Police reinforcements were drafted in from surrounding divisions to restore order and resolve the supernatural impasse. More police officers entered the house in force which by now was filled with the sounds of terrifying wailing and screaming noises. Although every room in the house was searched, nothing could be found but the tortured screeching continued to reverberate through the house, accompanied by the slamming of doors which were seen by Mr. Ward and several police officers to close ‘without any visible agency.’
In desperation a priest was summoned, who conducted prayers and a ceremony of cleansing in an effort to exorcise the house. The crowds clamoured outside in their hundreds until 5am when finally the sounds from within the house began to subside and the entity finally began to dissipate. By the time dawn broke, to the relief of the exhausted family, the house returned to normal.
Exactly what was seen on that remarkable night is unknown. All the witnesses who saw the monstrous figure gave exactly the same account. They described the phantom as a shrouded man wearing a ‘snowy garment which fell to the floor’. However, it was the awful face which distressed them most. All they could say was that it had ‘deathly features’ which struck terror into their hearts and was sufficiently horrific to induce an epileptic attack in its victims.
What caused this sudden and terrifying manifestation to appear remains a mystery. It filled column inches of newspapers all over the country for weeks and the irreverent magazine Punch took great delight in poking fun unmercifully, at the Metropolitan Police who were so affected by the entity.
Reaction from London society
In the weeks that followed, the case was the talk of London with famed poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a devotee of the spiritualism, referring to the case in a private correspondence to her brother George. In the letter she refers to a séance carried out by octogenarian philanthropist Robert Owen in the immediate aftermath of the Pond Terrace incident. This led to the only clue that remains about the reason for the dreadful apparition.
Owen had for some time been investigating spiritual phenomena since witnessing a séance held by American Maria Hayden, credited with introducing spiritualism to England. He claimed to be guided by the spirits of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and used a Ouija board during which the spirit of an old friend Percy Shelley came through to him. Owen wrote:
“. … I inquired of the spirit of Shelley if the ghost in Pond-terrace is a spirit from the spirit world, and he says that he is. I asked of what family? The spirit of Shelley replied, ‘Of the family of Ward.’ I then asked, ‘Do you know what the spirit wishes?’ ‘Yes; to make mediums.’ ‘In what way?’ ‘Because we want to convince them that spirits wish to communicate with their earthly friends.’ …”
The manner in which the entity chose to appear to the Ward family did nothing to encourage communication or convey friendship – quite the opposite. Although many theories circulated about the ghost being that of a murder victim, there was no recurrence of the macabre visitation and the phenomenon stopped as suddenly as it had started. After a few months London soon forgot about the strange appearance of the Pond Terrace Phantom but for the Ward family and the police officers who initially attended the scene, the harrowing experience which they endured that evening in Chelsea remained with them for the rest of their lives.
Today, the street has been renamed Elystan Street and the trendy Sloan Shoppers who frequent it have no idea that it was once the venue of one of Chelsea’s most intriguing paranormal mysteries.
BRIAN LANGSTON is a law graduate and MBA and the former Assistant Chief Constable for Thames Valley Police. Since retirement he has drawn upon his extensive detective experience to conduct forensic research into reported supernatural phenomena. His new book ‘True Ghosts and Ghouls of Windsor & Eton’ is due for publication in the spring of 2015. He currently lives in the Languedoc region of Southern France with his wife Jenny and several adopted cats, where he writes and compulsively haunts fleamarkets. Brian is on twitter @GhostsofWindsor and Facebook.