Sunday, 15 July 2018

British Museum Station Spectre? Part 1

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

Next Events

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

Netherwood and Stevie Smith

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

Jack in the Green

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

The Haunted City Conference

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

Further Spring and Summer Talks and Events

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

Talks On The Way

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.

Bookings here.

Thursday April 5 7.30pm Burgh House, Hampstead for Camden Local History Society (non-members £1 at door)

Tunnels Under Holborn

Bookings here.

Thursday April 12 6.30pm Kensington Central Library FREE

Subterranean City - Underground London in Fact and Folklore

Bookings here.

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

The London Mithraeum

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.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Talks and Walks 2018

It looks as if I shall be quite busy with talks and walks this year. Some are still being finalised, but so far we have:

     Thursday 15 February talk The Underground Folklore of England    Kensington Central Library Lecture Theatre starts 6.30pm

See here for booking.  Only about 20 FREE tickets left from 200. This subject is always popular.

     Thursday 15 March talk Aleister Crowley: Life and Legacy    Kensington Central Library Lecture Theatre starts 6.30pm.  Gary Lachman will also be talking at this event.

See here for booking.  This FREE event is also doing well, about half the places have been booked.

Thursday 5 April talk Tunnels Under Holborn    Camden Local History Society Burgh House, Hampstead starts 7.30pm.  See here for booking.  Non-members pay £1 entry.

Also in April there will probably be one of my general Subterranean City talks about underground London. To be confirmed.

Late May a walk with Bill Redwood and others about William Burroughs to coincide with an exhibition about him in central London. To be confirmed

June a walk about Whistler in Chelsea visiting some of his haunts and locations. To be confirmed.

There will probably be more later in the year.

I shall have copies of my books for sale at all events, usually with considerable discounts. Obviously there are more available at the talks as it's uncomfortable carrying large numbers of hardback books around on a walk.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

The Fall of the House of Usher

An article in the latest issue of Hastings Town (No.121 February 2018) on the film The Fall of the House of Usher made on location in Hastings between March 1946 and November 1947.  The director was Ivan Barnett and the article provides some useful background information on the director, provided by his son Adrian, a professional photographer.

When I contacted Adrian during the writing of the first edition of Netherwood his father was still alive but very frail (he died in 2013), and my questions  about the film were conveyed to him by his son. The results form one of the sections of the Netherwood book. They also very kindly allowed me to use a number of stills from the film as illustrations.  Many scenes were filmed inside Netherwood (the House of Usher was the exterior of the guesthouse) and most famously Aleister Crowley was present during the filming, as the director confirmed to me (he found the Great Beast 'very polite...pleasant and amenable'). The article repeats the claim that one of his paintings appears in the film, although I've been unable to confirm this, having viewed the film a couple of times. An unusual monument in Beauport Park - now a caravan park - appears in the film and can still be found in situ.

While the article is interesting, there is no indication that the author has read, or even heard of, Netherwood: Last Resort of Aleister Crowley (which does not really surprise me, as it's had no coverage locally, despite some efforts on my part, such as contacting the local newspaper - to no avail - this is definitely one of the plus points of social media and the internet, which enable these traditional gatekeepers to be bypassed). Coincidentally, I watched the Roger Corman Vincent Price 1960 version of Usher last night, before I knew about the recent article.

Also there's no mention that the author of the article has actually seen the film, which I initially saw on a DVD purchased online that had probably been burned on someone's laptop.  More recently the BFI has restored the film and it can be viewed on cheap subscription on their website here.  It looks considerably better, clearer and sharper, and I enjoyed it much more on second viewing in its enhanced format ( a missing reel has been restored to make the running time 70 minutes, rather than the 60 of the DVD).  Vernon Symonds, proprietor of Netherwood and amateur actor (Crowley ended up at Netherwood following an enquiry from one of Symonds' fellow actors) also appears in the film. Recently critical opinion has been brought to bear on it - Jonathan Rigby in the latest edition of his excellent English Gothic (2015) - my British horror film bible - declares it 'a compellingly weird and atmospheric one-off.' Worth checking out.