Author Matt Wingett tells DAVID SAUNDERSON about the weird and wonderful tales he’s collected from his hometown in his new book, Mysteries of Portsmouth
David: Matt, over the years, you’ve written many books about Portsmouth, focusing mainly on its social history. Why’s it taken you so long to look at the more bizarre side of Pompey?
Matt: This is also social history in part, because it’s not your standard book of hauntings and strange phenomena. This book focuses on newspaper reports and history to ask the question of the mysteries it reports, “Are they true?”
For a story to get into the book I needed the stories to make the history books, or to have appeared in newspapers. Of course, that means I set myself a harder task, because I wasn’t going to accept any old story about a guy seeing a ghost when he was walking home from the pub, drunk.
So, this book isn’t a conventional gathering together of “true ghost stories”. Some of what it’s about is how urban legends start, and the nature of fake news – and how that’s been going on for centuries. It’s also fun. It’s got over 100 illustrations and is in a chatty style and doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it’s also full of wonders and mysteries.
How did you find these stories – you’ve done lots of research in the past – I imagine you must have had heaps ready to go?
Some of the stories were drawn from historical notes I’d already made. For example, who knew that Portsmouth is mentioned in Arthurian legend?
Or again, there is one pamphlet written by a local historian who gathers evidence to show that the Holy Grail is buried on nearby Hayling Island and that the outlying town of Havant was the real sight of Avalon. Anyone who knows Havant now will find that hilarious!
Some stories are well documented parts of wider global events. The UK’s first officially recognised UFO sighting was over Portsmouth in 1950 . What isn’t widely known is that in the Edwardian era prior to the Great War, strange flying objects were seen in the night sky during the Phantom Airship Panic that spread across the UK, Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand between 1909 and 1913. Who knew!?
Bad journalism is the starting point for some stories, or they’re the result of a slow news day. It’s interesting to see how one 1912 report of a rumoured haunting in Portsmouth gets repeated and distorted by regional newspapers over the following weeks so the story completely changes. In many ways, I’m looking at how fake news spreads, done in slow time, rather than the high speed of the internet.
But that all said, there are genuine mysteries here. It’s just that sometimes the mysteries are not quite what they seem!
What is it about Portsmouth that has so much strange and wonderful history?
Well, I love Portsmouth’s history, so I’m biased. But it’s had a lot of people come through the town over the years, and living conditions were extremely harsh. The town is nearly 850 years old, so it’s going to have amassed a few tales. In the 1880s, Arthur Conan Doyle became a Spiritualist while living in the town. He was hanging out with Theosophists and mediums and talking to the dead.
At the top of Portsmouth harbour you have Portchester Castle built over 1700 years ago. And on the line of chalk downs overlooking the town, you have 5,000-year-old graves. Out at sea you have a mediaeval sunken church and a petrified forest that’s 10,000 years old. So, there’ a lot of mystery and history to play with, here!
Speaking of Arthur Conan Doyle, do you think he would have been aware of any of the strange things happening in Portsmouth when he lived there?
Absolutely. Conan Doyle was fascinated by the weird and uncanny in every form. I wrote a book about his Spiritualist career, and it all started with telepathy experiments in Southsea, the seaside resort of Portsmouth. He went on to become a world leader in the Spiritualist movement, and he came out as a Spiritualist the same year his first Sherlock Holmes novel was published in 1887.
What is your favourite strange story about Portsmouth?
I love the fact that the first Ministry of Defence UFO investigation team was formed after a verified sighting over Portsmouth. They called the group the FSWP – that is, the Flying Saucer Working Party. That is the name of a weird rock band, right there!
There is also a story written by the Bishop of Portsmouth about encountering the ghost of Thomas Beckett, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury. In an interview with the Express newspaper, he claimed the story to have been heard from a reliable source. Yet later he said he completely made the story up himself. Why would he say two different things to the national Press? So, in the book, what I love to do is explode some mysteries, and then find other mysteries underneath them.
What did you learn about Portsmouth you didn’t know before researching the book?
I had no idea that the man who found the site of Tutankhamun’s tomb and told archaeologist Howard Carter about it lived in Portsmouth – nor that he was the last survivor from the dig team who all succumbed to the Curse of King Tut!
I also hadn’t really considered how many sailors coming into port would have marvellous tales to tell of sea monsters and sea serpents. I look at how reports of animals are misreported and myths build up around them. Yet at their heart, there is still something strange going on.
Another thing I didn’t know is that there was a plague of fortune tellers working the town in the late 19th Century.
And, of course, there is the story of Helen Duncan, the last person to go to prison under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. This happened in 1944, which blows people’s minds when they hear the date!
How can people get a copy of the book?
I’d love it if you would come to my website on www.lifeisamazing.co.uk and order from there. I deliver free in the UK, and it means my small publishing company makes more money, rather than giving it to a big corporation like Amazon. But, it is also available on Amazon and through book stores – so take your pick. By the way, reviews really help, so if you like it, it would be great if you reviewed it.