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Astonishing Transactions at Stockwell

Kennington Common and Church 1830. Image Source: Vauxhall History online.

In the eighteenth century Stockwell was a rural hamlet in Surrey, repleat with rolling fields and shady lanes flanked by hedgerow. It boasted less than a hundred dwellings mainly centred around a village green, upon which flocks of sheep ambled whilst sparrows and yellow hammers sported in the skies above.  It was a veritable rustic idyll.

Mrs Golding was an upstanding and well-regarded member of the community, a lady of independent fortune who lived alone, but for her maid, Ann Robinson. Her house was situated close by the Tower public house.  A more respectable and unremarkable old body it would have been hard to find.  However on twelfth night, Monday 6 January, 1772, her unobtrusive life was suddenly cast into turmoil.

Mrs Golding’s peaceful forenoon was rudely shattered when her young maid servant, a girl of about twenty, and employed little more than a week, burst into the parlour to exclaim that the kitchen was being turned upside down by hands unseen.  Alarmed, Mrs G accompanied the girl to the aforesaid chamber and to her utter astonishment was witness to the following events:

‘Cups and saucers rattled down the chimney – pots and pans were whirled down the stairs, or through the windows; and hams, cheeses and loaves of bread disported themselves upon the floor as if the devil were in them.’ [1]

While the astounded old lady contemplated the strange turn of events, things escalated –

‘a clock tumbled down and the case broke; a lantern that hung on the staircase was thrown down and the glass broke to pieces; an earthen pan of salted beef broke to pieces and the beef fell about’ [2]

Image Source: La Vie Mysterieuse in 1911.

Soon the cacophony of chaos had drawn quite a crowd. But although Mrs Golding and her neighbours may have feared the devil was at play in her pantry, nevertheless she was also sensible enough to consider that the house may be about to come tumbling down about their ears, and hastily summoned Mr Rowlidge, a carpenter, to inspect the building.  His assessment was that the weight of an extra room added to an upper floor was occasioning the disruptions and that immediate evacuation was required.  Mrs Golding fled fainting to her neighbour, Mr Gresham, for shelter.  She left Mr Rowlidge and his associates to retrieve her remaining possessions – and her maid, who had repaired to an upper chamber.

Mr Rowlidge and his companions urgently impressed on the young woman the need to vacate the property, yet Ann repeatedly ignored their entreaties. Eventually the young woman sauntered downstairs, with such an air of unconcern that it quite amazed Mr Rowlidge and his companions.

In the house next door, Mrs Golding was in a dead faint. Such was her violent reaction to the sudden calamity that it was misreported that she had expired, and her niece, one  Mrs Pain, was summoned from her home at Rush Common close to the nearby settlement of Brixton Causeway.

Image source: unknown.

Of the witnesses present, one was a surgeon, Mr Gardner of Clapham.  He was called upon to practice his art on the trembling Mrs Golding by letting her blood.  Mr Gardner intended to examine the blood later, so it was left to rest in a basin.  The congealing mass was too tempting to the disruptive spirit in attendance upon the unfortunate Mrs Golding, and the jellied lump of blood was observed to spring from the basin, which itself then shattered upon the ground.

The bouncing blood did not bode well, soon the many valuables transported from Mrs Golding’s and stowed in Mr Gresham’s parlour were under supernatural attack. China stored on a sideboard came crashing down, shattering a pier glass placed beneath it.  Pandemonium soon reigned in the Gresham household – as it had done in Mrs Golding’s.

In terror, Mrs Golding fled to another neighbour, Mr Mayling, for respite.  Deciding that her neighbours had been put too much trouble by the devilish commotions, she quickly departed Mr Mayling’s house to that of her niece at Rush Common.  If Mrs Golding had hoped the strange events had ceased, she was to be disappointed.  During dinner, the maid was sent back to Mrs Golding’s house and later reported all was quiet there.  Things were less quiet at the Pain’s – at 8pm:

“a whole row of pewter dishes, except one, fell off a shelf to the middle of the floor, rolled about a little while, then settled, as soon as they were quiet, turned upside down; [..] two eggs were upon one of the pewter shelves, one of them flew off, crossed the kitchen, and struck a cat on the head, and then broke to pieces.” [3]

The Domestic Cat by Thomas Bewick.

Other items soon flew about – a pestle and mortar, candlesticks, brasses, glasses and china, a mustard pot jumped about, even a ham, hung on the chimney, and a flitch of bacon, all went flying.  There were many witnesses, family and friends alike, many of whom were so afraid that they fled in terror, fearing witchcraft or the devil was at work.

And during all of this tumult, one person one person carried on as if nothing was amiss.  Ann Robinson.  Ann continued to flit between the kitchen and parlour wherever the family was.  She just would not sit still.   Hone reports in his Everyday book that she:

“advised her mistress not to be alarmed or uneasy, as these things could not be helped.”

Following this strange advice, Mrs Golding and the Pain’s began reconsider Ann’s apparent sang froid.  

At 10pm the services of a Mr Fowler were called upon, he was asked to sit with the ladies but fled at 1am, being so terrified by the goings on.  Mrs Pain fled to bed, Mrs Golding paced amidst the ruins of her possessions.  By the early hours of the morning, unable to withstand the destruction any more Mrs Golding left her niece and went to the timorous Mr Fowler’s.   Ann returned to the Pain’s to help Mrs Pain retrieve the children from a barn to where they had been evacuated.  Hone reports that all was quiet at Mr Fowler’s, until Ann returned.

Image source:

Once again, a litany of destruction ensued – candlestick struck lamp, coals overturned and Ann informed Mr Fowler that such events would pursue Mrs Golding wherever she went.  Terrified, Mr Fowler bid his neighbour leave, but first he entreated her to:

“consider within herself, for her own and the public sake, whether or not she had not been guilty of some atrocious crime, for which Providence was determined to pursue her on this side of the grave.” [4]

This slight to her good character – that her travails must be divine punishment for a crime she had committed irked Mrs G and she soon gave short shrift to Mr Fowler’s admonitions and declared:

“her conscience was quite clear, and she could as well wait the will of Providence in her own house” [5]

Unsurprisingly, when she returned home, her supernatural attendant accompanied her – a box of candles was overturned, a table danced, and a pail of water mysteriously seethed and boiled.

For Mrs Golding and Mr Pain her nephew-in-law, the evidence was stacking up against the unflappable Ann.  A trap was set.  Ann was to go on an errand back to Rush Common.  During that time, about 6 -7am on Tuesday morning, all paranormal activity ceased.  Upon her return she was dismissed on the spot as the cause of the diabolical destruction.  As if by magic, all disruption ceased and Mrs Golding was never again to suffer such travails.

Stockwell ghost: poltergeist or hoax?

At the time, the Stockwell ghost was almost as notorious as the Cock Lane Ghost of the 1760’s.  Interest was so great that the main witnesses, Mrs Golding, John and Mary Pain, Richard and Sarah Fowler and Mary Martin, the Pain’s maid, even went so far as to publish a pamphlet a few days after the events, on 11th January 1772: An authentic, candid, and circumstantial narrative of the astonishing transactions at Stockwell … Surry … the 6th and 7th … of January, 1772 …  

The Cock Lane Ghost, artist unknown. Image source: Wikimedia.

The curious thing about the Stockwell haunting is that so many people considered it to be genuine, even after the main witnesses began to express their doubts, it was reported that even years later, many locals attributed events to the supernatural. [6] And this in the eighteenth century: the century famed for the Enlightenment and for thinkers such as Hume, Diderot and Voltaire who to tried to take God out of the equation by presenting a ‘disenchanted’ world free from religious superstition.  However, in tandem with this new rationalistic world view, came an enthusiastic popular religion in the form of Wesley’s Methodism, and Wesley himself claimed to have experienced a poltergeist called ‘Old Jeffrey’ at the family home Epworth Rectory.  And of course, old superstitions die-hard.

Faced with chaotic, frightening and inexplicable events, many apparently rational people will question their view of the world before looking for more prosaic explanations.  In fact, many ‘sober’ and respectable persons attended Mrs Golding, ostensibly to express their sympathies for her not inconsiderable financial losses, but also with an undoubted air of rubbernecking at someone else’s misfortune.  Many came away terrified and convinced of the diabolical origin of the disturbances and some no doubt, like Mr Fowler, questioned what the respectable Mrs Golding had done to bring down Providence’s displeasure. As seen with the Cock Lane Ghost, there was an enduring popular belief that ghosts often returned in order to right a wrong or uncover a crime.[7]  Mrs Golding stood to lose much more than just her china and plate, she stood to lose her good character.

Eighteenth Century Servant Girl. Image Source: Life takes lemons blog.

Poltergeist activity is often associated with young girls.  Anthropological studies suggest the are an expression of inter-personal conflicts or domestic violence within kin-groups.[8]  In the case of young servant girls, away from home and family, perhaps in a restrictive or oppressive environment, it is understandable that some found it tempting to rail against the power imbalance between master (or mistress) and servant.  The historical record certainly provides many examples of young servants perpetrating hoaxes on their employers.[9]

Even if one gives Ann the benefit of the doubt and attributes her sang froid and comment that such things were normal, to the fact that the poltergeist was attached to her and perhaps for her it was normal, it seems fairly clear that the young Ann Robinson was faking it (in order to clear the house for an illicit liaison).  The pamphlet points the finger of blame strongly in her direction, whilst stopping short of making an outright accusation, claiming rather to be simply recounting events as they happened (even maids can get litigious). However,  all doubt must have been dispelled several years later when Ann finally confessed to her part in orchestrating events.   Her confession was made to one Reverend Brayfield and was reported by William Hone, in his Everyday Book of 1825:

‘She had fixed long horse hairs to some of the crockery, and put wire under others; on pulling these the ‘moveables’ of course fell [..] Ann Robinson herself dexterously threw many of the things down, which the persons present, when they turned around and saw them in motion or broken, attributed to unseen agency’

19th century kitchen maid. Image source: unknown.

It is worth noting that not everyone was convinced by this confession: Catherine Crowe, famous for introducing the term poltergeist into the English language in her 1848 work The Night-side of Nature, was convinced the phenomena was real.  But she was in the minority.

Ann may well have been a simple serving-maid, but many of the middle and upper class writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century believed that servants were routinely committing similar dastardly deeds, and pulling the wool over their unsuspecting employers eyes.[10] All of which suggests that the ‘umble folk had a pretty good grasp of basic psychology, allowing them to tap into popular fears to get the better of their betters.

The god-fearing folk who witnessed events at Stockwell were often so terrified that they would refuse to look upon the shattered items for fear of what devilish imps they might see – thereby giving the nimble and nefarious Ann further opportunity to create mayhem, even going so far as to add a paper of chemicals to a pail of water to make it ‘boil’.

If not for the ultimate callousness and meanness of the trick – Mrs Golding was an elderly lady and she was badly frightened as well as suffering considerable financial loss – young Ann was clearly a force to be reckoned with.  One wonders if she ever repeated the tactic on future employers – or if her descendants can be found employed in todays popular Halloween entertainment, the Haunted House.

Happy Halloween

 

Sources and Notes

Crowe, Catherine, 1848, The Night-Side of Nature:

https://archive.org/stream/nightsideofnatur02crowiala#page/240/mode/2up

Davies, Owen, 2007, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts [7] [8] [9] [10]

Hone, William, 1825: The Everyday Book: [2] [3] [4] [5]

https://archive.org/stream/everydaybookorgu01hone#page/30/mode/2up

MacKay, Charles, 1852, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: [1] [6]

https://archive.org/stream/memoirsextraord13mackgoog#page/n248/mode/2up

http://vauxhallhistory.org/stockwell-ghost/

 

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