The Chelsea Ghost of 1853
AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 31 OCTOBER 2023
6 Pond Terrace — part of College Street in Chelsea — was unusually quiet during the early evening of Thursday 8 September 1853. The small house was shared by two families, the Wards and the Parsloes, but only Mrs Parsloe and seventeen-year-old Emma Ward were at home. The men were at work, or, perhaps, washing away the dust of the day in a nearby public house.
Opening the door to her bedroom, Emma was shocked to come face-to-face with a strange man. He had ghastly, deathly features and was attired in a long white garment that reached the floor — maybe a shroud? The girl was so terrified that she fainted.
Emma, once she had recovered from her swoon, hurried from the room as fast as she could. She was relieved to see her brother James, who had just returned from work, and informed him of the unwelcomed presence lurking in her bedroom. James was a strong young man of twenty-five, well-muscled by his work as an excavator or navvy, and he declared that he intended to deal firmly with the intruder. But when the encounter took place, moments later, it was James who got the worst of it, and he fell into a fit.
In the downstairs flat the middle-aged Mrs Parsloe heard the commotion coming from her neighbours’ quarters and determined to find out what was going on. Having been told about the ghost, she bravely opened the door to Emma’s chamber. She too fell into a fit.
Enter the oldest Ward son, aged twenty-seven, who remains nameless in accounts of the haunting. Since he was not convinced that there actually was a ghost, he decided to catch the joker who thought it amusing to disturb the peace in the household.
Going into the bedroom, he too was confronted with the terrifying visage of the spectre. Bravely he tried to grab the figure, but his hands, meeting nothing solid, simply slid through the phantom’s body. This poor young man also began fitting. His affliction continued for hours, and several men had to be summoned to hold him down so that he would not injure himself.
The blue line
It can be assumed that Emma, Mrs Parsloe and James recovered quickly as nothing more is reported of their fainting and fitting. At least one of them rallied sufficiently to spread the story of what was now called the Chelsea Ghost to the outside world. Soon the local beat policeman was summoned to deal with the crowds of gawkers gathering in the street.
After being told that the commotion was owing to there being a ghost in the house, he refused to go inside to investigate until reinforcements arrived. Eventually three of his colleagues joined him to present a blue line — now slightly less thin than before — and the four men went up to the spectre’s temporary accommodation.
When the policemen emerged, sometime later, far from dragging some miscreant into the daylight, they came out empty-handed. All the same they were not unaffected by their experience. One of them was quoted in the Globe newspaper as saying that he would not ‘stay in the house for untold gold.’ The Wards and the Parsloes were advised to leave as soon as they could.
A swelling crowd
Before they could begin packing up, Mr Ward, the father, arrived. He soon put a stop both to the proposed mass migration and to the hysteria permeating his homestead. Unfortunately, although able to control the interior of his dwelling, he had no influence over external events.
Outside the crowd had swelled: hundreds of people were blocking the street. More police officers arrived to subject the property to a thorough search. The excitable mob reported hearing eerie noises — the slamming of doors and blood-curdling moans — that came from inside the house. The police, having finished their second search, announced that there was nothing to explain the sighting of a ghost. They also dismissed the rather more rational suspicion that a magic lantern had been used to conjure the frightful wraith.
The excited throng was not deterred and continued to disturb the neighbourhood of College Street until the early hours of the morning, when they dispersed, presumably in time to go to work. Over the following weekend even more people gathered, among them a nomadic preacher who had been called in to exorcise the troublesome spirit.
Owen and Hayden
That might well have been the end of the Chelsea Ghost’s brush with fame, except that a famous figure was pulled into the story.
This was Robert Owen, the Welsh-born mill owner, philanthropist, founder of the co-operative movement, factory reformer, educationalist, and creator of Utopian communities. He had been born in 1771, which made him eighty-two at the time of the story. He live on for another five years.
As might be imagined from his résumé, Owen had a mind open to alternative views. He was a deist who believed that all organised religions were false, and at some point in 1853 he met the famous Spiritualist Maria B. Hayden. Spiritualism, a religion that held that the dead can communicate with the living, spread from the United States to Great Britain In the mid-nineteenth century, and it is said that it was Mrs Hayden who brought this belief system across the Atlantic. Owen attended several meetings with Mrs Hayden and was promptly converted to Spiritualism. At the age of eighty-two he reported that she had put him in touch with eight of his dead relatives.
An embarrassment of riches
Since not everyone was as convinced by the medium as Owen, her sessions were held up for rigorous scrutiny. A sitter, having asked a question, slowly ran a pencil along a printed alphabet card until a letter was indicated by a tap or a rap, an action that was repeated in order to establish communication with the spirit world. But, as the sceptics pointed out, it was common for the sitter to hesitate unconsciously when the appropriate letter was reached. I will let you decide whether these answers were transmitted by the dear departed or came via the more temporal pipeline that was Mrs Hayden.
Soon after the Chelsea Ghost made his appearance, and was reported in all the newspapers, Robert Owen attended two seances. At four in the afternoon he took part in a conflab with President Jefferson, who had died in died 1826, and Benjamin Franklin, who had joined the majority even earlier than Jefferson, in 1790. It was a busy day for the spirits, and at six in the evening he had an ‘appointment’ with Queen Victoria’s late father Edward, the Duke of Kent, who had shuffled off this mortal coil in 1820.
To add to this embarrassment of spirit riches, Owen’s former friend the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had famously expired in 1822, made contact. Shelley encouraged Owen to send an account of his spiritualist experiences to the Morning Post. Shelley also proposed that in the interest of promoting knowledge of inter-world communication Owen and two mediums go to Chelsea to meet the Pond Terrace spirit. Given that the dead American gentlemen and the celebrated English poet came to the organised seance, one does wonder why the Chelsea Ghost was unable to join them.
The sound of twelve
The Morning Post obligingly published Owen’s letter in the Saturday 10 September edition. In addition to the above it included Shelley’s confirmation that the Chelsea apparition was from the spirit world — so definitely not the result of an artfully placed magic lantern — and was in fact none other than Mr Ward’s dead grandfather, who was called James Ward.
Mediums were not the only profession keen to commune with the Chelsea Ghost. A steady stream of journalists managed to gain access to the house by crossing the Ward family’s collective hand with silver. ‘Now for it! The very witching hour of night!’ wrote the gentlemen from Diogenes, recalling their less-than-overwhelming experiences. ‘Every pulse beats quicker at the sound of twelve. As the clock strikes the last stroke of the hour, a loud knocking is heard at the door!’ And with a cry of ‘Horror of horrors!’ they opened the door to find the pot boy from the public house round the corner asking if the waiting journalists wanted anything more to drink.
Now for the truth
So much for the haunting hyperbole. Now let us unveil the true story behind the uninvited ghost who turned up in Emma Ward’s bedroom.
Soon after the ghost was known to have taken up residence in Pond Terrace, letters appeared in the newspapers to debunk him. One such was from the anonymous R.H., parading the unpleasant but not uncommon anti-Catholic feelings of the day. Irreverently suggesting that the spectre might be a ‘Popish continental trick,’ he lumped the appearance of the Chelsea Ghost with the Holy Coat of Treves, the sighting of the Virgin Mary by two young shepherds at La Salette in France, and a winking Madonna. I have not been able to identify which of the many winking Madonnas he had in mind.
Wright and Rice
Another popular suggestion was that the ghost was the invention of a ‘penny a liner’, which was the disparaging nickname given to a freelance journalist — or hack, as others might unkindly call him — who was paid a penny for each line of print he wrote. The suggestion being made here was that these stories might have been embellished, even invented, to increase the word count.
The police also regarded the apparition as a fiction, which is not surprising, given how they were mocked in newspaper reports. Now they came forward with an explanation based on the claim of the two officers who attended the scene, Acting Sergeant Wright 39B and Constable Rice 248B, that there had been no ghostly presence in the bedroom. Any disturbance was caused by noises made by poor James Ward, who had intermittently suffered from fits over the past four years.
Henry Joseph Chappell, the landlord of 6 Pond Terrace, had his own theory about the phantom. Mr Chappell was an ironmonger and lived above his shop at 51 Leader Street, around the corner from College Street. He also owned and rented out the haunted property along with its adjoining neighbour and a shop in the same block.
Chappell was indignant at the very suggestion that 6 Pond Terrace might be haunted and on 10 September he wrote to the Morning Advertiser. In his opinion the so-called ghost was nothing more than a malicious invention. He tartly pointed out that his tenants were all quite poor: if the ghost was ‘real’ they would no doubt be exhibiting it for money.
For all his feisty correspondence, these events had a deleterious effect on the ironmonger. Shortly afterwards Police Constable Robert Clark found a drunk and very agitated Henry Chappell outside the haunted house demanding to be let inside. Chappell said that the ghost had been concocted by the Wards to frighten him away from his own property. The sympathetic policeman advised him to go home and sleep it off. The ironmonger initially appeared to take his advice, but then, thinking better of it, returned and got into a scuffle outside the house. With his patience running out, Clarke arrested the belligerent fellow.
The next morning a now sober and respectable looking Henry Chappell explained the invention of the Chelsea Ghost. His tenants, the Wards, owed him rent. Fearing he would evict them, they made up the story of the phantom. It would be hard to find new tenants willing to live in a haunted house and this might deter him from turning them out. They were also financially benefiting from the property’s newfound notoriety by charging credulous folk (and journalists) money to view the haunted room. The magistrate, Mr Broderip, declared that the person responsible for writing such a tissue of lies deserved to be punished. He then discharged Henry.
The end of the ghost
So there ends the story of the Chelsea Ghost — the result of either the painful sounds of a young man who was ill, or the sly concoction of unreliable tenants, or perhaps both. Unfortunately, the Wards or Parsloes have not been traced with any certainty: neither family can be found living in Pond Terrace at the time of the 1851 or 1861 census. Like many Victorian working people, they would have moved house frequently in the hope of lower rent or better living conditions. Of course, it is likely that the landlord evicted them after the ghostly shenanigans. Henry Chappell continued living in Chelsea and died a rich man in 1890: he left over £10,000 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery.
As for Robert Owen, his seance claims were not taken very seriously by contemporary newspapers — while many of his biographies mention his foray into spiritualism, I have found none that mention the Chelsea Ghost — and at about this time good friends persuaded him to leave London for Park Farm in Sevenoaks. Could it be that they wanted to remove him from the clutches of unscrupulous mediums?
Pond Terrace is also no more. Much of the surrounding area was purchased by the philanthropic William Sutton Trust at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The original houses were cleared and social housing was built in its place. College Street is now part of Elystan Street.
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