One morning last week I spent a couple of hours at the Camden Local Studies & Archives Centre looking through the Holborn & City Guardian newspaper for 1933 and 1935. Fortunately, the newspaper came in bound volumes, rather than on microfilm, so it was easier to scan whole pages quite quickly. I was looking for any mention of British Museum station and, in particular, any references to ghost stories - later accounts say that 'shortly' before it closed there were rumours of its being haunted by the ghost of an ancient Egyptian (see posts below). The newspaper included weekly columns devoted to 'unusual' stories and local oddities, but I found only a couple of surprisingly brief pieces that mentioned the station and both were to do with its closure when the expanded Holborn station reopened in September 1933.
I also checked from July, the month in which the film Bulldog Jack was released, up to the end of October 1935 to see if there were any news stories about mysterious disappearances of women in the borough, especially at Holborn station. I found nothing. As noted in the previous post I had already checked digital files of major newspapers and the British Library online newspaper archive, to no avail. One source claims that a newspaper had offered a reward to anyone who would spend the night in the closed station - although it is highly unlikely that the London Passenger Transport Board would have agreed to this arrangement.
However, in my searches I did find a few interesting snippets gleaned from the British Library's online newspaper archive. There were two incidents of suicide at British Museum station, in February 1930 and May 1933 (curiously, not mentioned in the Holborn & City Guardian), both males, a traditional explanation for some hauntings, but not in this instance. After the closure of the station, a young traveller had a disconcerting experience, as reported in the Lancashire Evening Post 22 Sept 1934 p.4:
'Marooned Underground in London: Burnley Student's Ordeal' by 'North Westerner'
'A Burnley young man, while a student in London, had a quite remarkable experience recently through being marooned in a disused station on the underground railway.
The incident occurred soon after the closing of the British Museum station, whereby by some mischance a tube train stopped and swing-gates at the carriage entrance opened. At that moment the Burnley student who had been ready to alight at the next stopping place stepped from the train onto a station pitched almost in inky darkness. Then he had the more horrifying feeling when he heard the gates of the carriage close and the tube train restart. By the light of matches he felt his way towards the station exit to find that it was boarded up.
Minutes that seemed hours passed and the traveller marooned in the tube had, so he said later on, the sickly feeling creeping over him when first one and then other trains swept along. Ultimately, a train stopped and the guard, having received a message about the stranded passenger, alighted to hail the young man and take him aboard.'
In what seems to have been some pre-publicity for Bulldog Jack, a number of newspapers carried reports of the filming at Gaumont-British Lime Grove Studios in Shepherds Bush. According to the Birmingham Daily Gazette 19 Dec 1934: 'They have had to construct in the Gaumont-British studio a replica of a tube station, a tube tunnel, and a tube train. And the station which has been made is one that is no longer in existence. It is the British Museum station, which has been merged with Holborn. The Hastings & St Leonards Observer 29 December 1934 also noted 'The Gaumont-British studio at Shepherd's Bush now has its own 'tube' station - dubbed 'Gaumont Station' another set represents the British Museum', while the Daily Herald 21 December 1934 added 'Shepherd's Bush studio replica of the former British Museum station has been built together with live rail and train', which must have been rather hazardous.
Addendum 07/08/18 Today my nine-year-old son showed me his copy of Horrible Histories: Loathsome London (Scholastic Children's Books, 2005) p.121 which has a cartoon of a terrified man fleeing a male in ancient Egyptian garb who says 'I haunted the British Museum station. Because your trains disturb my mummy. I'm a pharaoh way from home.'
Sunday, 5 August 2018
Tuesday, 17 July 2018
Hopefully, it can now be (at least partially) understood why this widely disseminated and much-elaborated narrative about a reputedly malevolent object displayed in a world-famous museum, has mutated into a ghost story attached to the nearby abandoned underground station. However, while the majority of accounts agree that the ghost is that of an ancient Egyptian, on studying published and online accounts it becomes difficult to determine the exact identity, or gender, of this spirit. The variety of candidates I have discovered so far are listed below, as they have been described:
- an ancient Egyptian in 'traditional' headdress and loincloth
- the Egyptian god Amun/Amen-Ra
- the mummy of Amun/Amen-Ra (presuming a god can be mummified?)
- the priestess of the cult of Amun/Amen-Ra said to be depicted on the mummy-board in the British Museum
- the mummy of the priestess of the cult of Amun/Amen-Ra at the BM
- the priestess Amen-Ra
- the Princess of Amen-Ra, the Princess Amen-Ra (from the same page of a book on ghosts on the underground)
- an Egyptian looking for a mummy
A further facet of the underground ghost story is the secret tunnel that supposedly connects the British Museum with the abandoned station of the same name and is traversed by the ghost. The most likely source for this added element is a British film released in 1935 (two years after the station closed) called Bulldog Jack (Dir. Walter Forde, released as Alias Bulldog Drummond in the USA). Older readers will probably remember Captain Hugh "Bulldog' Drummond, often described as a 'gentleman adventurer' perpetually getting into scrapes with foreign spies and damsels in distress, whose roots lay in such popular fictional figures as Sexton Blake and Richard Hannay. In this film Drummond is injured in a sabotaged car and has to be impersonated by the hapless Jack Pennington (Jack Hulbert), who becomes involved in a plot to replace a valuable necklace in the British Museum with a forgery.
A gang led by a villain called Morelle (Ralph Richardson) kidnap the jeweller grandfather of Ann Manders (Fay Wray), who they need to manufacture the worthless copy. Significantly the thieves' hideout is an abandoned underground station named 'Bloomsbury', obviously based on British Museum. To get into the museum at night they make use of a secret tunnel from the station, emerging through a tomb-chest, the lid of which rises up on jacks. This film is mentioned in some of the literature on abandoned stations, but one book mistakenly states that the museum entrance to the tunnel in the film is through the lid of an Egyptian sarcophagus, which swings open, thus evoking once more the Egyptian mummy theme.
To add to the mysterious underground shenanigans, online sources now note: 'It is often said that on the night that this movie opened, two women went missing from Holborn station and never-described marks [?] were found in the British Museum station during the investigation.' I have so far been unable to find any national newspaper article from the mid-1930s referring to 'missing' women at Holborn station or, it has to be added, any mention from the early 1930s papers of the ghost of an 'ancient Egyptian' at British Museum station. There were, however, a number of articles in the national press about the 'Unlucky Mummy' in the museum. I have yet to go through the local newspapers for Camden and Holborn, (which have not been digitised) for this period and these may yield more information.
Another film should also be mentioned with reference to this piece of folklore: Death Line (dir. Gary Sherman, premiered in London in December 1972 -later released in the USA in October 1973 as Raw Meat - to be issued on Blu-ray in August this year) concerned the grisly antics of a cannibal living in abandoned tube tunnels, the last descendent of a group of Victorian railway workers who survived a cave-in when they were tunnelling the tube. He subsists by snatching passengers and railway workers late at night, taking them back to his subterranean lair and devouring them. The only words he can utter are 'Mind the doors'. Much of the underground action takes place in Russell Square and Holborn stations. The plot has possibly influenced an urban legend, reported in Issue 105 of Fortean Times (December 1997) of a race of subterraneans living on a diet of discarded takeaways and careless vagrants.
Plots involving monsters or mutants living in the London underground and preying on commuters also feature in a number of films, including An American Werewolf in London (dir. John Landis, 1981) and Creep (dir.Christopher Smith, 2005). From their spaceship, unearthed during a tube extension at Hobb's Lane underground station, Martians although long dead, are still capable of wreaking havoc in Quatermass and the Pit (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1967) and in the Patrick Troughton-era Doctor Who episodes The Web of Fear (thought lost, but now mostly recovered and issued on dvd) robot yeti stalk the tube tunnels of central London.
In recent years attention has focussed on Holborn station, presumably as very few people have heard of the abandoned and inaccessible stop nearby. To quote the Daily Mail online once more: 'It has long been rumoured that there is a secret tunnel stretching from Holborn station to the British Museum's famous 'Egyptian Room' - perhaps Amun-Ra has been letting himself loose on the Underground during the small hours.'
Holborn is one of the busiest stations on the tube network, with 63 million passengers using it every year. According to Transport for London: 'The station is too small for current demand, creating crowding and queuing.' Plans are currently underway to substantially increase capacity at Holborn (including a second entrance, eight new escalators and an additional 700 metres of tunnel). Work is intended to begin in 2021, if permission is granted, and also, one imagines if the peripatetic spirit of Amun-Ra will allow it to proceed.
Sunday, 15 July 2018
I'm aware that I haven't been posting very much recently. I've been kept busy trying to be a publisher having to sell books rather than write them. However, I offer here a much-expanded version of part of the talk I gave at the recent Haunted City conference on one of London's stranger pieces of ghost lore.
The numerous abandoned and disused stations on the London underground network are often known as 'ghost stations' and it is hardly surprising to learn that some of the them are claimed to be haunted, as is also the case with many of the stations still functioning. Perhaps the most well-known of the latter is Covent Garden (on the Piccadilly line), where a number of witnesses have testified to seeing, in various parts of he station, the ghost of the popular actor William Terriss, murdered by a jealous fellow thespian at the stage door of the nearby Adelphi Theatre. The last recorded sighting appears to have been in 1972.
One of the most famous 'ghost stations' was named British Museum, with an entrance building at No.133 High Holborn. It opened on 30 July 1900 on the Central London Railway (today's Central line). In 1907 a new station opened nearby, at the junction of High Holborn and Kingsway, on the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway (today's Piccadilly line) called Holborn. As the two stations were so closely situated it was proposed to tunnel a subway between them to facilitate an easy underground interchange, but this was rejected, leaving passengers to walk a couple of hundred yards through the busy streets to change lines. Finally, in 1930 work began on enlarging Holborn to create a combined Central and Piccadilly line station, which opened on 25 September 1933.
Now deemed superfluous, British Musem station closed the same day. The platforms were later dismantled, and the station was abandoned, until finding use as one of the many tube air-raid shelters during the Second World War. By 1989, the street-level former entrance building had been replaced with a post-modern block and the lit and staircase shaft filled with concrete; the only access to the station is now along the tube tunnels. See here.
Of what interest is this to folklorists? Before closure in 1933 there were said to be reports that the station was haunted - these reports have persisted - internet sites claim that it is still haunted - but by what?
According to an article from The Daily Mail online from Halloween 2015: 'Legend has it that the disused station is haunted by the ghost of Amun-ra, an Ancient Egyptian God, dressed in traditional Egyptian loincloth and headdress - and a couple of years after the station's closure, two women vanished from nearby Holborn station, with witnesses claiming they heard ghostly moaning around the time of their disappearance.'
When attempting to unravel this mystery it becomes clear very quickly that the 'haunting' rumour attached to the abandoned station has become inextricably entangled with the more widely disseminated story of the so-called 'Unlucky Mummy' in the collections of the British Museum.
In 1889, Ms Warwick Hunt, on behalf of her brother Arthur F Wheeler, gave the museum a mummy- board, a wooden cover placed over the mummified body, carved and painted to represent the deceased as if they were still alive. Classified as exhibit No.22542 it was believed to date from the 21st dynasty (c.950) and was probably from Thebes. The female depicted on the mummy-board was identified, by Keeper of the Egyptian Rooms Ernest Wallis Budge, as priestess of the cult of Amen-Ra or Amun-Ra, a patron deity of Thebes, fused with the sun god Ra; with Osiris, he is the most widely recorded of the Egyptian gods.
In addition to the standard catalogue information about it on the museum's website, the entry for exhibit 22542 also includes the following:
This object perhaps best known for the strange folkloric history attached to it ... has acquired the popular nickname of the 'Unlucky Mummy', with a reputation for bringing misfortune. None of these stories has any basis in fact, but from time to time the strength of the rumours has led to a flood of enquiries.
The mummy-board is said to have been bought by one of four young English travellers in Egypt during the 1860s or 1870s. Two died or were seriously injured in shooting incidents, and the other two died in poverty within a short time. The mummy-board was passed to the sister of one of the travellers, but as soon as it had entered her house the occupants suffered a series of misfortunes. The celebrated clairvoyant Madame Helena Blavatsky is alleged to have detected an evil influence, ultimately traced to the mummy-board. She urged the owner to dispose of it and in consequence it was presented to the British Museum. The most remarkable story is that the mummy-board was on board the SS Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912, and that its presence caused the ship to collide with an iceberg and sink!'
The Titanic-related element of the story derives from the fact that the campaigning investigative journalist W T Stead was onboard and did not survive the disaster: he had earlier written about the 'Unlucky Mummy' and often mentioned it at dinner engagements. This loose connection somehow led to the belief that the mummy-board itself was being carried on the fateful vessel - the British Museum, in a bid to rid itself of the curse, had decided to sell it to a museum or wealthy collector in the USA. In fact the exhibit only left the museum for the first time to be shown abroad in 1990, and can still be seen in London.
Roger Luckhurst's scholarly investigation The Mummy's Curse: the True History of a Dark Fantasy reveals that the British Museum's 'Unlucky Mummy', which caused death and misfortune to those who came into contact with it, predated the much-publicised curse of King Tutankhamun, said to have been unleashed on the opening of the chamber by Howard Carter in 1922 (although no curse was found inscribed in the tomb). The tales attached to the 'Unlucky Mummy' were first publicised in the summer of 1904 via an article in the Daily Express by a rising young reporter Bertrand Fletcher Robinson - the fact that he died of enteric fever three years later at the age of 37 was said to be attributable to the malign influence of exhibit 22542. Luckhurst offers a detailed history of the mummy's alleged owners and the wide variety of personal disasters that befell them, as well as demonstrating the way in which the tale subsequently grew in the telling and retelling. Books on London ghosts always include a few pages on this chilling story.
Event after the mummy-board entered the collections of the British Museum, tragedy was said to have followed in its wake and the 'curse' also seems to have applied to anyone who photographed or sketched the object. A photographer contracted from the firm of Mansell to photograph the mummy-board met with misfortune that same day. According to Peter Underwood in Haunted London: 'Upon the way home in the train he injured by some unaccountable accident his thumb, and hurt it so badly that he was unable to use the right hand for a long time. When he reached home he found that one of his children had fallen through a glass frame and was suffering from severe shock.' It was claimed (and later refuted by the Museum authorities) that employees who moved or handled the object suffered accidents or died unexpectedly.
Part 2 to follow shortly.
Monday, 2 July 2018
The Haunted City conference at Conway Hall on Saturday was extremely successful and I was fortunate to sell a lot of books. Thanks to those who organised it and to all those who came along on a very sunny day.
Also on the way:
24 July Decadent London talk at Kensington Central Library see here.
7 September Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London see here.
There's a fascinating conference organised by the splendidly named Decadence Research Unit on Decadence, Magic(k) and the Occult on 19 and 20 July see here. I'm hoping to attend for at least one of the days.
Monday, 11 June 2018
I see that the new edition of Netherwood can be yours for a mere £2000 on Amazon. See here.
It is still available for £30 (plus p&p) at the Accumulator Press 'shop' on The Big Cartel here and for varying prices at the usual bookshops listed in previous posts. At the upcoming talks this month and next you can buy it from me for even less.
Thursday 28 June Whistler Chelsea's Greatest Artist here
Saturday 30 June The Haunted City: Modern Monsters and Urban Myths here
Thursday 12 July Whistler in Chelsea: A Guided Walk here
Thursday 24 July Decadent London here
JUST ADDED: Subterranean City: beneath the streets of London Friday 7 September details to follow.
In preparation for the Conway Hall talk I've been searching through some old newspapers online and coincidentally found a review of The Magic of Aleister Crowley by John Symonds from The Guardian of 13 April 1958, written by the renowned poet Stevie Smith.
She finds the book 'comical', but also notes 'how wretched [Crowley's magick] really is and with what horrid echoes from past centuries it dins on the mind.' 'To the author Crowley was an eccentric old gentleman, more comical than horrible, shrewd enough off the record, and well worth visiting, and cosseting ... In his retreat in Hastings, in the boarding-house called Netherwood, Crowley was a great attraction. His eyes stared, his ears stood out, he took drugs, swigged black market brandy and was long and spectral - in fact just what one wants in an English seaside boarding-house.'
Tuesday, 1 May 2018
The magnificent Jack in the Green festival starts in Hastings on Friday. Details here.
The weather forecast is very good, so the Old Town should look beautiful.
I shall be making efforts to sell copies of Netherwood over the weekend. It will be on sale at Albion Books in George Street and the new premises of the lovely Hare & Hawthorn, also now in George Street, the epicentre of much Morris dancing and general JITG activity. There will probably be a poster in the window advertising it.
Netherwood is still available through the Big Cartel. See here. About half the 500 copies have been sold since September last year.
Wednesday, 25 April 2018
I am delighted to have been asked to speak at The Haunted City: Modern Monsters and Urban Myths, a conference to be held at Conway Hall in central London on Saturday June 30.
Booking details here.
There is a fascinating array of speakers including many whose works I have cited in my own books and research. For example Mike Dash has produced excellent archival work on Spring-Heeled Jack, banishing the myths perpetrated by Peter Haining; Dr David Clarke has not only written on folklore but is the (co) author of some of the most clear-eyed books on UFOs, particularly the British experience, based on meticulous research through government files in the National Archives. I am also interested in hearing more about Slender Man, who infiltrated the online community a few years ago.
I hope to have books for sale throughout the day.
I imagine tickets will go fast, so make sure you get one.
Tuesday, 17 April 2018
More talks and events coming up.
A talk on the life and art of J A M Whistler at Putney Library Thursday 24 May 7pm. Details here.
A walk based on William Burroughs sojourn in London in the late 1960s, early 1970s will take place on Saturday 26 May from Westminster Reference Library 3-5pm. I will be joined on this guided walk around Burroughsian haunts in Soho and St James's by Dr William Redwood and samizdat printer and publisher Jim Pennington who met Burroughs during this period - see this interesting piece about him here. This event is organised by Salon for the City and tickets must be booked and paid for online in advance. See more details and for booking tickets here.
It will coincide with an exhibition at Westminster Reference Library featuring parts of the archive of London countercultural legend Barry Miles. See here and here. There will be a live interview with Miles at the library on Wednesday 30 May again organised by Salon for the City. Details here.
An article in The Quietus here.
A talk on the life and art of J A M Whistler at Kensington Central Library Thursday 28 June 6.30pm. See here.
Whistler in Chelsea walk from Chelsea Library Thursday 12 July. Details here.
Decadent London talk at Kensington Central Library Tuesday 24 July 6.30pm. Details to follow.
Talk at an urban folklore conference in central London in late June. Details to follow.
'Tunnels Under Holborn' talk at Holborn Library Local Studies Centre Thursday 11 October 7.15pm. Details to follow.
Gary Lachman's talk on Aleister Crowley at Kensington Library last month can be seen here.
Sunday, 25 February 2018
Just to confirm talks this spring (hopefully, it will be warmer by then):
Thursday March 15 6.30pm Kensington Central Library FREE
Aleister Crowley: Life & Legacy I shall be joined this evening by Gary Lachman.
Thursday April 5 7.30pm Burgh House, Hampstead for Camden Local History Society (non-members £1 at door)
Tunnels Under Holborn
Thursday April 12 6.30pm Kensington Central Library FREE
Subterranean City - Underground London in Fact and Folklore
As usual, at all talks a selection of my books will be for sale at reduced prices. Always signed on request.
Sunday, 18 February 2018
To the London Mithraeum last Friday. Removed from its previous post-war incongruous location at ground level in the heart of the City of London, and unavailable for some years, it has now been returned to its subterranean location on the banks of the now-sunken river Walbrook. An excellent piece about the reconstruction here. I've visited many Mithraea over the years, some of the most atmospheric in Rome, at San Clemente for example - see here.
I think the newly-restored London temple has managed to conjure up the numinous atmosphere of the all-male congregation chanting in Latin before the stone image (now in the Museum of London) of the tauroctony very effectively with sensitive lighting, sound and smoke. There is also a very well-displayed array of finds from the site of the new Bloomberg building, beneath which the temple now sits. The guide told me that 80% of what you see is original, the side walls are much higher than I remember them from the original and make it more impressive. Entry is free, but you have to book in advance - see here.