Hull’s Lost Spirit Photography

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In a fascinating slice of Hull’s paranormal history, MIKE COVELL probes a lost spirit photo said to have captured a ghost

Spirit photography in Hull
Holderness Road in Hull in the late 1800s, and the location of several paranormal encounters. Postcard from the Mike Covell’s collection.

Spirit Photography, or Ghost Photography, was the act of taking a photograph and capturing an image of a ghost, or other spirit, on the film.

Spirit Photography was popular in the late 19th century, and was used at the end of such conflicts as The American Civil War, and WWI, so show loved ones in images.

Some years ago I had the pleasure of researching a story from my home city of Hull, England, which claimed that in 1903 an East Hull photographer, whose studio was, in a strange stroke of luck, at the top of my street.

The story appeared in The Hull Daily Mail, dated Tuesday 6 January 1903, when the following was reported:

Set me on the scent of a spook, and I am serenely happy. Psychical research sits on me as though I were a very stead! I sadly wanted to go and investigate the story of that Cudworth farm house “ghost”. However, I am on the track of a real live spirit nearer home. You may not believe in psychical photography.

You may say, since there are no spirits visible, that there can be no spirit photographs. Be not rash. Before me lies a copy of that intensely interesting organ “The Spiritualist.” It contains a portrait of a certain Mrs Garnett, of Goole, which was taken some weeks ago by Mr. J. H. Eley, a photographer, whose studio is on the Holderness-road. Now Mrs Garnett is a Spiritualist. Six years or so ago Mrs Garnett’s son had the misfortune to be drowned. He was a boy of fourteen.

The portrait of Mrs Garnett, a stout, pleasant-looking woman, lies before me, I say. She stands with her left hand by her side; her right hand rests upon the arm of an easy chair. But there is more than Mrs Garnett in the picture. Behind her in the air over her right shoulder is THE FACE OF A BOY, and he looks to be about fourteen years of age! This is where the scoffs will come in.

Being a Spiritualist, and having a strong belief in spirit photography, Mrs Garnett wanted to see if she could get a picture of her spirit-son on the photographer’s negative. Her desires were realised – according to “The Spiritualist,” and also according to Mr Eley, the photographer. Up to that time, Mrs Eley says, the only portrait she had of the boy was one taken when he was quite young. Now, she declares she has a portrait of that son as he was in the flesh at the time of his death.

And what is more, the lad’s uncle, a respectable citizen of Hull, declares it is like a real portrait, too; and is entranced with the success of Mrs Garnett’s experiment. There was nothing for it but that I should see the photographer. He is a young man, and he seemed frank and straightforward enough. He had not seen the reproduction of the picture in “The Spiritualist.”

When I showed it to him he said that was an exact reproduction of one of the five prints from the negative which he “took” of Mrs Garnett. I asked him if he would assure me on his honour, that the negative had not been “faked” in any way. He gave me his solemn word that the negative had not been interfered with in any whatsoever either by himself or anyone else.

“Mrs Garnett came to me twice,” he said. “The first time, after she had been “taken,” she surprised me by telling me that if anything strange appeared in the picture I was not to “rub it off.” I couldn’t understand her. Then she said she wanted to see if she could get a picture of her dead son. “The idea of such a thing made me laugh,” continued Mr Eley.

“When I developed the negative there was nothing unusual. But some time after, when she had sat again, I was very greatly startled when I developed the place, to find that behind her face was another face – the face which she declares is that of her dead boy.” “Since you laughed at the idea,” I said, “you couldn’t have been a Spiritualist yourself.”

“I was not, said Mr Eley,” “but since then I have come to think there may be something in Spiritualism after all. It is the first thing of the kind I have ever come across, and I confess it shook my nerves at first. Since the photograph was taken, I have had sittings from Spiritualists, but have seen no signs of spirit portraits in the pictures taken.”

I asked Mr Eley where the negative was, and recommended him to cherish it as he would a priceless jewel. He told me it was with a lot of others in a shed behind his studio. He added that rain had got through the roof, and had stuck a lot of negatives together. Possibly this spirit-negative was among the lot; he had not looked. I recommended him to look at once, and to take good care of it. He said he would. FATHER HUMBER.

Mr. Eley’s photographic studio was situated at number 293 Holderness Road, and on Wednesday 2 September 1903 he advertised in The Hull Daily Mail for a young lady to work at the property.

Number 293 Holderness Road stands on the north side of Holderness Road, and stands between Buckingham Street, which stands to the west, and Severn Street, which stands to the east, standing opposite Holland Street.

Previously the property had been used by Mr. William Lofthouse, who was heavily involved in the auditorship of Hull City Council, when he was working from the site in September 1897 as an accountant and auditor. He advertised his business in The Hull Daily Mail dated Thursday 23 September 1897.

After Mr. Eley’s photography shop was based at the property, it was taken over by Miss Alice Maud Gibson, who was registered in the Kelly’s 1912 Commercial Trade Directory of Hull, where she is listed as a photographer.

Today the original property is no more, the bombs of the Luftwaffe destroyed the shop and its neighbours, with the site left empty for many years, and later replaced by modern shops, with the property today being the R.S.P.C.A. Charity Shop.

Post war image showing the site of the shop
Spirit Photography
Post war image showing the site of the shop

Not everyone convince by ‘spirit photograph’

At the time not everyone was convinced, and one such article appeared in The Hull Daily Mail, dated Wednesday 7 January 1903, which stated:

It is suggested that when a man thinks he sees a ghost he should move one eyeball with his finger, so as to produce a squint. If the vision is not affected, it is clearly a vision of the brain.

The Hull Daily Mail, dated Tuesday 13 January 1903, featured a follow up article about the alleged ghost photo of the boy, with a letter from someone calling themselves Disbeliever; it states:

As I expected, a good many people “winked the other eye” when they read the story of the “spirit portrait” spoken of in this column last week. I don’t wonder. But then, you know, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy; and spirits are not in the philosophy of all of us.

One correspondent signing himself “Disbeliever” writes expressing his surprise that the photographer was not surprised! That is a very obvious and reasonable view to take. Most of us who are amateur photographers would have had a fit if, when developing, we had seen on the plate the figure of someone who was not there at the time the photograph was taken; but when he had recovered from our temporary collapse we should have taken mighty good care of the ghost-recording negative.

“Disbeliever” would be glad – and I should be glad – if the Holderness-road photographer of psychic phenomena would let us know whether, since he knew of the interest the story had created, he has looked through that box of plates in his workshop, and discovered if the negative bearing the record of the spirit-boy’s presence as really amongst the lot damaged by the rain.

I will do anything to help Mr Eley to prove his case. A sight of the negative would interest me very much – and others. I invite Mr Eley to reply, saying whether he has hunted up the wonderful negative yet. Meanwhile “Disbeliever” asks if he might write a letter to prove that the photograph behind the lady is not the portrait of that of the lady’s deceased son. By all means, “Disbeliever” sends it on. I should like to see a few arguments from correspondents, for and against. WHITE FRIAR.

The Hull Daily Mail, dated Friday 30 January 1903, featured the final letter in relation to the ghost of the spirit boy that was allegedly caught on camera, it stated;

EAST HULL “GHOSTS.” Writing with reference to “the East Hull Spirit,” Mr. H. Abba, Victoria Studio, Holderness-road, sends us a photograph taken in his studio, which shows, (he adds) that “it is still in this district.” The “it” is, of course, the “spirit.” Mr. Abba adds, “I think you will agree with me that I caught it fairly well this time – no faking, bear in mind, because I knew I was photographing it all the time, and you are at liberty to see the negative if you wish.”

The writer adds that he shall use the utmost care to see that the negative is kept from damp and moisture, and that he shall “cherish it as one of his most valued productions.” We certainly think Mr Abba is entitled to do this. The “spirit,” in this case, seems very intelligent, and have made a very intelligent appearance! He is a very up-to-date spirit, and will, perhaps, be recognised in the “Daily Mail.”

MIKE COVELL runs Amazing Hull Tours, which includes fantastic insights into the darker side of Hull

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