Guest writer RICHARD HOLLAND researches haunted London for a new project and discovers the spooky past of St Bartholomew the Great Church in Smithfield
Recently, I’ve become focused on the very many haunted sites recorded in London. If we accept that the UK is the most haunted country in the world (which of course it is!), then London is certainly the most haunted city in the world. Last year, I made a concerted effort to try and trace every site in the capital said to be ‘ghosted’. This was no small task – I ended up finding more than 300 of them.
The reason for all this research was that I have embarked on a new project: creating SmartPhone apps, which ghost hunters and tourists alike can use to easily find spooky locations throughout the UK (and indeed elsewhere). I started with London not only because I knew there were hundreds of such sites but also because there are so many people living there (over 8 million) and even more people visiting the city. So, in January of this year I launched Ghost Finder London: 315 haunted locations accurately plotted on Google maps, with information written by me on each location and its ghosts. Currently it’s only available for iPhone but I intend to shortly make it available for Android, too.
I was greatly helped in my research in that London’s ghosts are so well documented. There are many books dedicated to London’s hauntings, the best being by Elliott O’Donnell, Peter Underwood, Jack Hallam, John Brooks, Richard Jones and – concentrating on the spooks of the London Underground – David Brandon and Alan Brook. Hats off to them!
One of the things I enjoyed most about my Ghost Finder London work was that it introduced me to locations which were new to me or which I had previously overlooked. The most significant of these is the ancient and magnificent church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield. My research has convinced me that the number of different ghosts and the varied paranormal activity reported here makes St Bart’s the Great one of the most haunted sites in London and arguably the most haunted church anywhere in Britain.
This is a bit embarrassing for me because in addition to Ghost Finder London I have been compiling my own suggested chart of the Top 50 Most Haunted Places in Britain, over on my website Uncanny UK. This Top 50 includes Borley Church, haunt of the nun of Borley Rectory fame, and – high up in the chart – Westminster Abbey, famous for its many spectral monks. But St Bart’s is more haunted than either and features nowhere on the list.
St Bartholomew the Great started life as a priory and Christian worship has been conducted within its walls since 1143. It was founded by a Norman courtier and monk called Rahere, whose tomb can be found within. Rahere is St Bart the Great’s most persistent ghost. A number of witnesses over the years have seen him, wearing his monk’s habit, in the vicinity of the Lady Chapel. Researcher Jack Hallam was told that Rahere’s ghost always manifests on July 1, at 7am, emerging from the Vestry and strolling through the church – so there’s a date for any ghost-hunter’s diary!
A clergyman in a black gown has also been seen in the pulpit of St Bartholomew’s, earnestly but silently delivering a sermon to an invisible congregation. Another apparition seen within the church has been recognised as a former Duke of Argyll. Then there is the distinct, and distinctive, ghost of an unassuming little fellow with his hat cocked at a rakish angle. This has been identified as the ghost of William Hogarth, the 18th century satirical painter. Hogarth was baptised at St Bartholomew’s and, according to Peter Underwood, spent a lot of time here.
If these apparitions were not enough to put St Bartholomew the Great firmly on any ghost enthusiast’s map, further examples of paranormal activity have been recorded from within its ancient walls. According to Elliott O’Donnell a ‘luminous white form’ has been seen in the central aisle and on one occasion it briefly took on the shape of a woman. Equally mysterious, and more disturbing, is the dark shape which drifts down one of the ambulatories. According to those who have seen it, the shadowy figure ‘emanates evil’.
So, is St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield the most haunted church in Britain? I believe it might be. At any rate, it is well worth a visit for its grand architecture and extraordinary atmosphere. It’s just possible that between the massive Norman pillars with their imposing arches you will glimpse a less substantial but even more fascinating echo of its long and intriguing history.
Visit RICHARD HOLLAND’s website at Uncanny UK.