Flying Flowerpots, or, The Strange Story of the Camberwell Ghost

Portrait of William Hardman by Arthur Temple Felix Clay.

The report on the Surrey Sessions printed in the South London Press on Saturday the 7th December 1872 makes fascinating reading.  The venue was the Sessions House in Newington Causeway, and the forty-five cases were tried by William Hardman and a supporting cast of fellow magistrates.  Forty-four of the prisoners were charged with felony, and one with misdemeanour.  Only three could read and write.

The oldest miscreant was Anne Corbett, who was sixty-two, and was sentenced to twelve months of hard labour for stealing six pounds of beef.  The two youngest were Edward Pincham and Stephen Dudley, who were both sixteen, and were sentenced to six months of hard labour for stealing a quantity of zinc and a handkerchief respectively.  But if Edward and Stephen felt that they had been treated harshly, their sentences were nothing compared to the eight years handed down to Charles Coveney, who was not much older.  He had stolen a coat.

However, the most curious of the cases that came before Hardman and his colleagues was that of Maria Horgan.  She was nineteen, and we shall see in due course what she had done, and how she was punished.  For the moment, though, it is enough to say that her story is decidedly odd, and that the reputation she gained was not one that many would want for themselves.

Residential road in Camberwell.  Image in Edward Walford Old and New London volume 6 (1878) page 238.

IN CAMBERWELL ROAD
Our only certain information about Maria’s origins is that she was born in about 1853 on board a ship.  On the other hand, we have a curious assortment of details as to her appearance, thanks to the meticulous records kept by the nineteenth-century courts.  She was four feet ten-and-half inches in height and seven stone ten pounds in weight.  She had dark brown hair and hazel eyes.  She had distinctive blister-like scars on her chest, their cause unknown.

Now, Maria was a servant, and her master in the year 1872 was a man by the name of George Mills.  He was a brewer, and he owned the South London Brewery, which stood at 134 Southwark Bridge Road, that is to say right opposite the Southwark Convict Prison, which had formerly been the King’s Bench Prison, and then the Queen’s Bench Prison.  He was also a family man, and he lived at no great distance from the brewery at 133 Camberwell Road with his wife, Jane, and their three young children.  To complete the domestic line-up he employed a servant or two, one of whom, as we know, was Maria Horgan.

A NEIGHBOURHOOD NUISANCE
The story begins late in 1872, when two detectives attached to the “P” or Camberwell constabulary, William Puttock and Thomas Neville, arrived at 133 Camberwell Road, where they discovered Maria in a state of agitation and with a bruise on her forehead.  They had been ordered to investigate reports of a nuisance in the neighbourhood of the Mills family’s house.  Being confronted by Maria, who seemed to have been knocked about, must have given them food for thought.

A domestic view of the Victorian detective, in this case Inspector Bucket, who is seen on the far right dandling two of the Bagnet children.  Image by Hablot Knight Browne, otherwise known as “Phiz”, in Charles Dickens Bleak House (1853) between pages 476 and 477.

What exactly was the nuisance, and did it have anything to do with Maria’s injuries?  Well, for several weeks the houses along that stretch of Camberwell Road had been subjected to some strange happenings.  Flowerpots had come flying into their gardens and yards, without warning, and for no obvious reason.  Trees had been damaged, and missiles of every description had been lobbed at innocent individuals when they stepped out of doors.  As there had been no sightings of a perpetrator, a rumour had started that the attacks were the work of a supernatural being.  The Camberwell Ghost had been born.

Naturally these happenings had been reported to the police station on Camberwell Green, and it only needed a message from Mr George Mills that one of his servants had actually been assaulted for Detectives Puttock and Neville to be sent scuttling off to no. 133.  There, as we have seen, they came across a hysterical Maria Horgan, bruised and bloodied, and evidently very shaken.  Furthermore, having inspected the outside of the house, they also found that a vine had been torn down and a water pipe damaged.  The Camberwell Ghost had had a field day.

IN THE WASHHOUSE
When questioned by the two detectives Maria had quite a tale to tell.  She began with an unsettling incident that had occurred on the 17th of November, which for most Camberwellians would have been just another quiet and uneventful Sunday.  Not for Maria, though, for there was a startling occurrence in the house of George Mills—a warning of what was to follow.  What happened was this.  At some point in the evening a scream was heard at the top of the house, the source of which turned out to be another servant, a young girl by the name of Martha Platt.  Having screamed, Martha then began calling out for William, who was one of her master’s children.  She wanted to make sure that the little boy was safe because she had noticed that the kitchen window had been forced open, which strongly suggested that an intruder had broken into the house.

A young female servant deals with a minor emergency.  Image in The Illustrated London News 2 April 1887.

Maria then went to explain how the next day the matter had quickly got out of hand.  This time the victim was not Martha but Maria herself.  She was in the washhouse, where she had laundry to attend to, when all of a sudden a man lunged at her, wielding a broom.  He had been hiding in the shadows, and when he saw Maria entering the washhouse he made a vicious assault, hitting her on the forehead with several blows of the broom.  As she was dashing back to the house he hurled a flowerpot at her.  Frightened and injured, but now safely indoors, she raised the alarm with her screams, and was still shaking when the two detectives arrived in answer to her master’s summons.

There ended Maria’s sorry story.  Puttock and Neville joined forces with Mills in searching the house for any signs of the intruder, leaving the unfortunate servant to her own devices.  They drew a blank, but the search was not without incident, for every now and then they heard a crash as another flowerpot flew to its destruction outside the house.  The Camberwell Ghost was still at it, apparently, and there was now more than a suspicion that he and the intruder were one and the same.  This was too much for Maria, and Mills, who was busy with the detectives, heard her screaming again down on the ground floor near the door leading out into the garden.  He tried to calm her down, but she begged him to give her permission to leave the house.  She had had enough of these frightening manifestations, and wanted to go, and never come back.  Mills gave her his permission, and she dashed up to her room at the top of the house to gather her belongings.  At which point, quite unexpectedly, the plot thickened.

The Peckham Ghost.  Image in The Illustrated Police News 28 December 1872.

SO MANY GHOSTS
Before going on it would be helpful to step back a bit from our story, and look rather more closely at the notion of a Camberwell Ghost.  The fact is that there were many “local” ghosts in these superstitious times.  Avid readers of the London Overlooked website may already have encountered one or more of these, which are, in chronological order, the Bermondsey Ghost, the Woburn Square Ghost, the Peckham Ghost and the Plaistow Ghost.  And we must not forget the strange happenings in Stamford Street and Berkeley Square.

Of all these hauntings the one most relevant to the current story is the Peckham Ghost, not only because Peckham and Camberwell sit side by side in South London, but also because the two sets of sighting both occurred late in 1872.  No one is claiming a connection, though.  When it came to superstition and credulity, Peckhamites and Camberwellians seemed to have maintained a proud mutual independence.

It should be said that these ghostly incidents were not exclusive to the capital, and the Birmingham News reported a similar phenomenon, which, oddly, occurred in the same year and month as the sightings in Peckham and Camberwell.  The details— a servant girl, a mysterious assailant, shock and fear—have a familiar ring.  But the News made the point that, ghost or no ghost, the fact that the girl had been made “very ill” made it a serious matter.

A veiled female prisoner in the Surrey House of Correction in Wandsworth.  Image in Henry Mayhew and John Binny The Criminal Prisons of London (1862) between pages 382 and 383.

HOW TO FOOL MISSUS
But to return to 133 Camberwell Road.  Even as Maria Horgan was hurrying upstairs to pack her bags, word reached George Mills and the two detectives that on top of everything else a theft had been committed.  Who reported the theft is not known, but it would appear that a watch and chain belonging to young William Mills had been snatched from the breakfast room.  Anyone with a shred of decency would have assumed that this latest outrage was the work of the intruder, or the ghost, but not Puttock and Neville, who were described by one newspaper as being not only intelligent but also ungallant.  Ungallantly putting two and two together—a phrase used by the same newspaper—they followed Maria.  And there, in her room, hidden in her bed, they found the missing watch and chain.

When Maria’s case came up before the Lambeth Police Court, the remarkable truth emerged, thanks in no small part to the evidence of her fellow servant, Martha Platt.  According to Martha, the whole business had been masterminded by Maria, beginning with the disturbances in Camberwell Road, which were designed to create the fiction of a ghostly intruder who could be blamed for the disappearance of the watch and chain she had long had her eye on.  On the Sunday Maria had said that she “must do something to make Missus believe somebody has got into the house”, that “something” being opening the kitchen window herself and instructing her accomplice to scream in theatrical alarm.  Then on the Monday she had said that she “must do something else to make Missus believe a man is in the place”, which, it turned out, was hitting herself with the broom in the washhouse and cutting her own forehead with a broken flowerpot.

We already know what happened next, namely that the court committed Maria for trial at the forthcoming Surrey Sessions.  We can now add that at those Sessions, held on the first Saturday in December, she was found guilty of larceny.  She was sentenced to twelve months of hard labour, and was taken off to the Surrey House of Correction in Wandsworth.

Advertisement for the South London Brewery at 134 Southwark Bridge Road.

AFTER THE GHOST
From this point it is hard to trace Maria Horgan in the records with any certainty, and the aftermath of the story must be confined to George Mills.  In fact there is not much more to say about the poor man either, for a year later, in 1873, he died.  He was barely in his fifties.

The South London Brewery continued under the management of his partner, Alfred Jenner.  The business remained in the Jenner family until 1939, when it was acquired by Beamish & Crawford, and later, in 1949, by Woodhead’s Brewery.  Operations finally ceased in 1964, when the brewery was taken over by Charrington United.  The premises at 134 Southwark Bridge Road were pulled down, leaving only old photographs, beer labels, advertisements and other ephemeral witnesses to what had once been a thriving concern.

© london-overlooked 2022

OTHER STORIES ON OUR WEBSITE YOU MIGHT ENJOY

The Bermondsey Ghost, or, Terror on Jacob’s Island

Thrills and Spills, or, The Ghost of Woburn Square

The Peckham Ghost

Lights Out, or, The Strange Story of the Plaistow Ghost

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