Haunted pubs in Peckham, spectral dancers in Dulwich, and a circus act gone horribly wrong in Camberwell. Lock the doors, turn out the lights, and be prepared to discover why people really should be afraid of South London.
As Halloween draws upon us, people prepare to celebrate by dressing up in all manner of ghoulish and fiendish guises, perhaps going to haunt the city’s local pubs and clubs, or stalk the streets in anticipation of sweets. However, on such a day as October 31st, the spirits of the dead are also prone to roam amongst the bustling crowds and mingle with the living.
Let’s begin with a tour of some of Peckham’s haunted pubs. The Kings Arms, which has now been demolished and replaced by flats, was once reported to have been haunted by a group of regulars, killed when a bomb smashed through the pub and exploded in the cellar, which they were using as an air raid shelter. Afterwards, the pub was rebuilt and continued use as normal. However, between then and the buildings demolition in the 1990’s, patrons of the pub would report hearing spectral footsteps, objects being moved, and the apparition of a woman from the 1940’s. Also, in the dead of night, people could sometimes hear the voices of the deceased singing, accompanied by wartime piano, with songs like ‘Lilli Marlene’ often being heard:
“Well she knows your footsteps,
Your own determined gait.
Ev’ry evening waiting,
Me? A mem’ry of late.
Should something e’er happen to me,
Who will under the lantern be,
With you Lili Marleen?”
The Nuns Head Ghost
Another well known pub haunting in Peckham relates to The Nuns Head. It is said to be home to the ghost of a nun who was executed in 1534 by Henry VIII, for refusing his order of expulsion from the church. After her execution, her head was placed on a pike staff and displayed in the grounds of the nunnery. Her ghost has been spotted around the pub many times, lamenting the loss of her head, and has also been known to give men a fright as they wander into the gents – much to the chagrin of the cleaners, one might assume.
The old Tower Cinema, also in Peckham and which is now demolished, was known to have been beset by supernatural occurrences. The ghost of a middle aged man was seen in 1953 and again in 1954 by a group of workmen, and there were also reports of bags of cement being ripped open, and water dripping from the ceiling, although the source of a leak was never found. Staff had seen the aforementioned spook floating 10 feet in the air and across the main stage, only to disappear into a bricked up recess. Later on, it was discovered that the cinema had been built on the site of a 19th century chapel, and on consulting the floor plan for the original building, it was found that the ground floor had been 10 feet higher than it currently was.
A rather grisly incident is famed to have occurred at the old Camberwell Palace in 1902 (formerly on Orpheus Street, off from Denmark Hill). A lion-tamer was working through his act when something went disastrously wrong, and he was subsequently mauled to death by his lion. Although the palace has since been destroyed (the spot now occupied by a bank) it was said that his ghost often returned to the stage where his act went so fatally awry.
One Tree Hill and The Horniman
Dulwich also had some tales, although they were a little harder to find, of the goosebump raising kind. One Tree Hill in Honor Oak Park, for example, has been the site of a peculiar spectral vision. In 1948, a female dancer was seen performing a routine of complex ballet moves on the hill late at night. The strangest thing about it seems to have been that she made absolutely no sound, despite carrying out these moves on a debris strewn ground.
An article by Richard Jones entitled ‘Haunted London’ reveals that The Horniman Museum has its very own ghost story. People have puzzled over the strange sight of a man and woman who appear dressed in 1920’s style. Describing the man as having greased back hair and the woman as wearing a bright red dress, the two of them are seen waltzing across the terrace to the rear of the museum, enjoying what appears to be a garden party, although no music can be heard. After a few moments the apparitions appear to glide off into the nearby trees, disappearing into the ether.
The Peckham Ghost and Spring Heeled Jack
Another supposedly supernatural incident which occurred in Dulwich was reported in ‘The News of the World’ in 1872. It describes a terrifying vision, known as the “Peckham Ghost”, appearing before a carrier on Lordship Lane one evening. The figure was described as being “eight feet tall”, with the ability to pass over walls and hedges with ease, and which on approach, changed suddenly “from grim blackness to luminous white”. The driver that the spectre charged at, in a state of panic, whipped his horses into a gallop and fled the assailant.
It is thought however, that the “Peckham Ghost” was merely a continuation of the figure of Spring Heeled Jack, who terrorised 19th Century London with his “devil-like” appearance and superhuman ability to bound over obstacles with ease. It is thought that he was merely a prankster with a morbid sense of humour, who relished scaring the wits out of his victims. However, other theories suggested that he was an extraterrestrial, a “Devil”, or perhaps just the collective creation of superstitious minds.
He mainly tended to assault females. One specific incident, which occurred in October 1837, involved a woman named Mary Stevens, who was walking home down Cut Throat Lane in Clapham Common when she was “groped and kissed by a laughing maniac”, and another in Dulwich, where two young girls were assaulted, the clothes being torn from one of them. Many of his victims reported that he had sharp metallic talons, fiery eyes, and hands “cold and clammy as those of a corpse”. His ‘reign of terror’ has been recorded as lasting from 1837 until 1904, imposing himself on the imagination of so many that he is a popular figure in world folklore. His name, especially in Victorian London, was synonymous with ‘the bogeyman’, and was used as a means of scaring children into behaving themselves, lest he jump up and peer in at them through their bedroom window while they slept.
Well, that brings me to the end of my sojourn among the ghouls and ghosts of the South East. These are just a few of some of the strange tales I have come across, and there are doubtless many more where these come from, if you dig deep enough. Have fun, drink, and be merry…but think twice this Saturday before dismissing that tap, tap, tapping on your window pane as just the wind, that slow ominous scratching in the night as probably the cat, or the sight of something moving amongst the shadows as a trick of the mind. It could be Spring Heeled Jack, back to terrorise a whole new generation. As the witching season approaches, I bid you farewell.
Many thanks to the following people for their help researching this article:
Chris Roberts (One Eye Grey)