CLAIRE BARRAND asks why so many of Britain’s pubs, like Bristol’s White Hart, are haunted
Across the UK older public houses often boast about having a resident ghost and stories of flying glasses and disgruntled old landlords are retold, exaggerated and with imagination perhaps loosened by liquor, locals swap stories across the fireplace on a cold winter’s night.
Part of the “olde worlde” charm of a historic building has to be its bygone tales of famous travellers that once frequented there.
With creaking wooden doors and beams adorned with horse brasses that tell of a time forgotten, is it any wonder that so many of our locals herald these stories and even host popular paranormal investigations after dark, once guests have, of course, consumed a delicious supper and swapped ghost stories?
But could there be more to the phenomenon of a haunted public house than mere folklore?
What if there were a plausible reason behind the hauntings of so many buildings of similar history than just merely it being “old”?
I was the landlady of a haunted pub in Bristol
I was once the landlady of one such pub.
In Bristol city centre, on Lower Maudlin Street stands The White Hart.
Built in 1672, this boozer, by the city’s central bus station, is a buzzing and lively place.
Think of welcoming hearty pub lunches with homemade pie and hand cut chips, Greene King ale, and karaoke in the evenings, and you’d be close.
Regulars frequent the bar, travellers stop for refreshments between bus journeys and students liven up the weekends.
But take away its colourful customers and vibrant young culture the building is reputed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Bristol.
How I met George, Ghost of The White Hart in Bristol
Legend states that two brothers in the 1600s once owned the pub had a dispute over some land and during a furious fight one murdered the other there.
“George”, as the locals affectionately call his ghost, now roams the buildings still angry at his untimely violent death and seeks revenge.
Bar staff regularly place a vase of flowers on the bar to keep him happy.
On my first evening as landlady of The White Hart, indeed George did make himself known to us!
As apparently was expected for all new landlords, all the lights in the bar cut out with no apparent cause.
Forced to serve the beer by candlelight that night, we listened with a mixture of horror and amusement to stories told to us by the delighted bus drivers.
Men, that regularly propped up the bar after their night shifts in the bus station, regaled stories of terrified past landlords that had encountered the foul-tempered soul.
At night, after locking up, the city never slept, and birds would still chirp at 1am as if it were morning because of the unnatural urban lights, yet the bar area would take on an eerie feeling.
Shadows cast on the walls and beams at the back would trick you into thinking you had seen a dark figure move, and the settling of the old building as pumps and equipment switched off would cause your weary mind to imagine heavy footsteps above your head or chains rattling in the cellars below.
The office and kitchen led to a narrow back staircase which was avoided by staff as it felt oppressive and as if they were being “watched”.
One bedroom that overlooks the front of the pub had a horrible atmosphere too, causing you to feel nauseous but the floors were uneven, so perhaps it was that.
Something dark lurked in that building there and of that I had no doubt, but to be able to continue working and living there it was comforting to dismiss the strange occurring with scepticism.
Haunted history of Bristol’s The White Hart
Looking into the history of the place revealed that a hostelry had evidently existed on the site since medieval times when pilgrims were offered shelter if they found themselves locked out of St Johns after the curfew and the gates were closed.
The cellars dated back to the 1100s and were rumoured to have been once part of a network of tunnels leading down to the docks.
In the 18th century, Bristol Docks were heavily part of the slave trade and was a smugglers lair.
The wall was bricked up, and a part of it was crumbling away, an investigation with a torch revealed a vast black expanse beyond, but the pub was not ours to damage and our jobs were not worth losing to knock it down.
Directly behind the pub stands a Benedictine Priory called St James built in 1138 and the tunnels were said to be also connected to that.
A fair was held annually in the grounds of the church from 1238, and there would be bare-knuckle fights, bear baiting, exhibitions of wild animals, circus freakshows of pig-faced women and living skeletons for people to peer at.
Jem Belcher, the bare-knuckle pugilist, was born in the churchyard of St James and gained his fighting experience at the fair.
Robert Southey, who attended the fair, notes in his Commonplace Book:
“At Bristol, I saw a shaved monkey shown for a fairy; and a shaved bear, in a check waistcoat and trousers, sitting in a great chair as an Ethiopian savage. This was the most cruel fraud I ever saw. The unnatural position of the beast and the damnable brutality of the woman-keeper who sat upon his knee put her arm around his neck, called him husband and sweetheart, and kissed him, made it the most disgusting spectacle I ever witnessed.”
In 1954, a plague pit was discovered at the Horse fair that the White Hart backs onto and three hundred bodies were exhumed and reburied so that building work could continue.
So, for all this history, it is more of a wonder that it is only George that haunts The White Hart?
I moved after about 18 months to manage another pub in Wales, and this one had not the same history to match however there was still a resident ghost!
This one was the spirit of a female that seemed to appear at the end of the bar and vanish.
You would think a customer was left in the bar after locking up and go to investigate, but nobody was there!
I have shaped a philosophy over the years of living in these fantastic buildings.
Haunted pubs have one thing in common
As I began to research and to investigate the paranormal, the experiences caused me to forge some sort of working theory behind the haunting of public houses as a collective.
In all these buildings, the history is entirely different, but if we think about what they all have in common with each other, we will find the common theme being the customers.
Whether regular drinkers, or occasional teetotal people just out for refreshment before a movie, we still have everyday situations.
People meeting friends, from business meetings to clandestine affairs, dodgy dealings, whispered conversations to raucous laughter, drunken brawls to merrymaking, singing and celebrations from weddings to the emotional funeral wakes.
The colourful characters that pass through the doors every single day bring with them a plethora of moods attitudes and intentions.
Intentions overwhelmingly to offload troubled thoughts. Aims to sever ties with people, or to make new ones. Goals to confront, appease, appeal to or let down others.
Every individual has brought into the building with them, a purpose, and combined with alcohol, which is also a potent potion with an intoxicating effect on enhanced human emotion, it has the potential to cause them to lose control.
Conclusion, it’s people’s energy
My thought is that if many people leave traces of this behind and it collects and manifests in the focused area, which builds, and attracts more of the same.
Residual hauntings combined with the spirits of those that return to the building where something compelling has drawn them back creates a lot of paranormal activity.
The continued energy of the people, the continuous situations to which they might relate, feeds this further.
I believe it happens in the same way as we have “black spots” on roads where accidents seem to occur.
People are killed, and the emotional trace of that sudden death followed by the grieving family returning to the same spot with flowers and the attention of human energy from passing vehicles focusing on that spot seems to cause more of the same.
It happens anywhere where there is a build-up of negative energy, but in a pub, it is offset by the positive. You cannot have black without white. Yin without Yan. Negative without positive. Death without life. Laughter and the music in the pubs help to diminish the negativity but will raise the energy nonetheless.
Whenever we had a karaoke evening in the White Hart or a party, the atmosphere would lift, and we would get no activity, but after a fight broke out once (Bristol City and Rovers fans clashed, and a few glasses were thrown!), the atmosphere changed, and I felt an unease for days. The whole building seemed darker, and I triple checked the locks on every window. Being so on edge meant, maybe my senses were sharpened, but I saw the shadowy figure and heard creaks and taps all night long as the building settled down and I slept with one eye open.
One morning, soon afterward I found every light bulb out of its light fitting and resting on the floor beneath. Inexplicable and creepy.
Within the walls, all this energy is compounded and repeated day after day year after year, century after century.
I look back on my time as a landlady with mixed emotions. The trade was a crash course at the school of hard knocks and left me with many emotional scars, with lessons learned about love, human nature, morality, and human psychology. I did find that all who lived and worked were eventually dragged down mood wise and affected by the dark atmosphere of the place too.
But all those things have served me well and have strengthened my ability to perceive, detect and write about the paranormal.
Most people will tell you that the answer is not to be found at the bottom of a bottle. However, my personal conclusion is that if there are enough bottles in one building for long enough, you won’t have to drink from one to find the spirits.