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  • Georgina Gale

Victorian Ghost Vigilantes: The Hackney Ghost Hunt of 1895


Victorian newspapers are filled with some delightfully bizarre stories. Their contents range from (but are certainly not limited to) tales of monsters in faraway lands, bloodthirsty murderers, strange accidents, and mysterious local occurrences.[1] Given the nineteenth century’s notorious obsession with all things ghostly and spiritual, it is unsurprising that the press also often reported on haunted landscapes and ghost sightings. However, the spirits themselves were not always the object of fascination – many articles honed in on the ghost hunters instead.


A spectacular example of this is the Hackney Ghost Hunt of 1895.


In the late-evening of 20th August 1895, a huge crowd accumulated in the vicinity of St. John’s churchyard in Hackney, London, hoping to rid the cemetery of an alleged ghost. There had already been ample gossip and a handful of reports on this spectre, with prominent local papers such as the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette reporting on a young lady’s midnight encounter with “a white figure suddenly emerging from the shadow of the gloomy building”.[2] The report ominously ends with: “Was it a practical joke? If so, the foolish perpetrator had better discontinue his pranks, for vengeance is averred, and he may find himself entrapped on the next occasion.”[3]


This was certainly not an empty threat, as approximately 1,000 people were reported to have gathered for the midnight ghost hunt just 4 days later, either fed up of the ghost tormenting church visitors or perhaps simply curious to see it for themselves. Armed with lanterns, sticks, and stones to pelt at the ghost in the hopes of scaring it away, people began to turn up from ten o’clock onwards. It is not clear whether this event was planned far in advance or was relatively spur of the moment, but it was certainly a hit.


The earliest report of this ghost hunt I’ve found was printed by the Westminster Gazette, who published an article called ‘GHOST HUNTING AT HACKNEY: EXTRAORDINARY SCENES’ the very next day (21st August 1895), opening with:


“Seldom has such a scene occurred in a London Churchyard as was witnessed during the early hours of this morning in the churchyard of the old parish church of St. John at Hackney, when fully a thousand men and women turned out from their houses in the neighbourhood to hunt the parish ghost.[4]


However, the crowd did not solely consist of believers, with several sceptics joining the scene for what was presumably a nineteenth-century equivalent of reality TV shows. As and when the hype of the crowd began to lull, exhausted after several hours waiting for the ghost’s appearance, some spectators began to imitate a spirit’s “unearthly cries” to agitate the ghost hunters.[5] Others found a more creative and comical way to inject drama into the already eventful evening: “There it goes!” men were purported to shout, watching in amusement as the excited throng of ghost hunters rushed to the direction they believed the spectre had been sighted, then scuttled away in a new one as another voice called out elsewhere. Unfortunately, this Scooby-Doo-esque chase had some negative consequences, including railings and tombstones being scrambled over, graves damaged by trampling feet, a couple of injuries, and several complaints of pockets being picked.


The events provided ample fodder for the British press, with a minimum of 85 articles in at least 50 different newspapers throughout the UK publishing reports on the Hackney ghost hunt between 21st-28th August 1895,[6] including an illustration featured on the front page of the Illustrated Police News. Several of the reports were sceptical and classist, referring to the locals as “poor unsophisticated Cockneys”[7] and dismissing them as fools:


“Foolish Hackney! Is it not written somewhere that there is a sepulchre in every garden, and a skeleton in every cupboard? And if so, then why in the name of spooks do the people of Hackney go to a churchyard to find spirits? Let ’em go to the cupboard!” [8]


Many other reports were similarly tongue-in-cheek about the matter, such as the St James’s Gazette, which opened with: “Spiritualism having gone out of fashion and Theosophy being a trifle off colour, the good old fashioned ghost is having a turn again”. [9] The Sheffield Evening Telegraph mused that, although no spirit was found, “It was good for some “ghosts” though…complaints were made by those present of having had their pockets picked.”[10] In a similarly puckish vein, the Glasgow Evening Post concluded their brief account with:


“ghosts of any decent breeding are coy and gentle, and flee from a vulgar throng; what they like is a solitary midnight passer-by; hence the visitors to Hackney yesterday saw nothing abnormal...they will probably investigate again.” [11]


According to newspaper reports published the following day, this journalist’s predictions came true on a much grander scale than they possibly imagined. The ghost hunters came back with a vengeance, supposedly numbering at 6,000 people and this time descending upon the churchyard as early as nine o’clock on the evening of 21st August, remaining until early morning the next day. Once again, “Sticks and stones were the implements of psychic research, and lanterns and candles were flashed in every cranny where the ghost was supposed to be hiding.”[12] Police returned with about 40 officers trying to manage and disperse the crowd,[13] and some jokers were reported to have sent a sheet of newspaper drifting through the cemetery on the breeze, causing a similar flurry as the first ghost hunt.[14] Another ghost hunt was attempted the following evening, but a storm intervened, forcing the discouraged crowd to leave.


Ultimately, the rumours of a ghost were attributed to a woman of flesh and blood. Some reports claimed this woman had apparently been wearing “light garments” and was trying to discreetly pass through the graveyard, but was spotted flitting between the trees at the witching hour whilst being “escorted home by a male friend”.[15] A different report by the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette said otherwise, claiming that the woman was in fact a “domestic servant dressed in white, with streamers, [who] ran across the churchyard…to catch the midnight post”.[16]


Regardless, there were plenty of avid believers in the late-nineteenth century, and an alternative supernatural explanation was of course given. Many articles report that the ghost’s origin had been discovered, and that the spectre was in fact not a man in the clothes of the grave, but a young boy. The story goes that 3 boys were playing cards for money, when the soon-to-be ghost exclaimed “May God strike me dead if I do not win”.[17] And yes, you guessed it, the poor child suddenly died as the game ended. Should you wish to seek out the ghost yourself, he was said to linger by his grave, which supposedly “represent[s] three boys playing at cards on a table” (if it’s still there or, indeed, if it existed in the first place).[18]


As amusing and intriguing as these reports are, it is always important to remember the press, then as now, did have a tendency to sensationalise, and so these episodes of ghost hunting and the behaviour of the crowds may well have been embellished for effect. And whilst many lament the persistence of ‘backwards’ superstitions in the thoroughly rational-minded nineteenth century (“We are nearing the twentieth century, but how far are we removed from the superstitions of the sixteenth?”[19]), there were equally a share of reports that had an amused but nostalgic tone, enjoying the perseverance of spooky entertainment in an age that saw rapid advancements in technologies and social reform:


As in everything else, there has of later years been a great advance in the commercial status of ghosts. The good old-fashioned homely churchyard-haunter has given place to the modern “spook,” who only appears to the curious for a fee, and rides home in his carriage after the séance. Such apparitions are quite mercenary. It is therefore refreshing to hear of a genuine ghost, clothed in white, and hugging tombstones—a ghost of the kind that delighted and frightened our great-grand-mothers.[20]


So there you have it. The Victorians, though remembered for their love of ghosts, were just as interested in ghost hunters, who were often viewed as objects of curiosity and entertainment in their own right. Although this particular case is notorious for its magnitude, there are plenty of other accounts of people encountering and hunting ghosts, many of which have similarly playful and/or snobbish tones as the articles cited here.


If you enjoyed this episode of spooky nineteenth-century history, stay tuned for more bizarre Victorian news posts in the future!


 

Footnotes and sources:

[1] If you’re interested in Victorian newspaper reports on monsters, I highly recommend Michael Horton’s open access article ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Print them’, published online in Victorian Popular Fiction: https://victorianpopularfiction.org/publications/1200-2/victorian-popular-fictions-volume-1-issue-2-autumn-2019/victorian-popular-fictions-journal-1-2-article-10/

[2] The Hackney and Kingsland Gazette was one of the most important local papers in this region, which published 3 issues a week. (See: https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/fd9cac88-d372-4326-b00a-37348383ff8a)

[3] ‘A ‘GHOST’ IN HACKNEY CHURCHYARD’, printed in The Hackney and Kingsland Gazette on 16 August 1895, p.3 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000942/18950816/069/0003)

[4] ‘GHOST HUNTING AT HACKNEY: EXTRAORDINARY SCENES’, printed in the Westminster Gazette on 21 August 1895, p.5 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0002947/18950821/035/0005)

[5] ‘SCENE IN A LONDON CHURCHYARD’, printed in Nottingham Evening Post, printed on 22 August 1895, p.2 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000321/18950822/017/0002)

[6] Based on filtered searches via the British Newspaper Archive.

[7] Article in the Cheltenham Chronicle, printed on 24 August 1895, p.4 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000517/18950824/044/0004)

[8] Article in the Banffshire Herald, printed on 24 August 1895, p.4 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0002649/18950824/047/0004?browse=False)

[9] Article in the St James’s Gazette, printed on 22 August 1895, p.4 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001485/18950822/023/0004)

[10] Article in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, printed on 22 August 1895, p.3 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000275/18950822/023/0003)

[11] Article in the Glasgow Evening Post, printed on 22 August 1895, p.4 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001965/18950822/050/0004)

[12] Article in the Leicester Daily Post, printed on 23 August 1895, p.4 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0002148/18950823/033/0004)

[13] Article in the St James’s Gazette, printed on 22 August 1895, p.9 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001485/18950822/052/0009)

[14] ‘THE HACKNEY GHOST LAST NIGHT’, printed in the Westminster Gazette on 22 August 1895, p.5 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0002947/18950822/012/0005)

[15] ‘THE HACKNEY CHURCHYARD “GHOST”: HOW THE STORY ORIGINATED’, printed in the Westminster Gazette on 23 August 1895, p.7 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0002947/18950823/068/0007)

[16] ‘THE ‘GHOST’ SCARE AT HACKNEY’, printed in the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette on 23 August 1895, p.3 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000942/18950823/061/0003)

[17] This story appears in various reports, but this citation is from the Weekly Dispatch (London), printed on 25 August 1895, p.14 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0003358/18950825/183/0014?browse=False)

[18] Ibid. (footnote 17)

[19] Article in the Hastings and St Leonards Times, printed on 24 August 1895, p.5 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003441/18950824/058/0005)

[20] Article in the Walsall Observer, and South Staffordshire Chronicle, printed on Saturday 24 August 1895, p.6 (see: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000766/18950824/121/0006)

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