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

View of East Ham and West Ham from the marshes.  Image in Walter Besant East London (1901) page 215.

You may have read my recent piece on the Woburn Square ghost, which can be found by following this link.  The essence of that affair, which occurred in 1867, was that rumours of hauntings and other supernatural phenomena were liable to whip up a sort of collective hysteria.  A desire for free entertainment combined with honest curiosity was able to fill streets wherever unusual sightings had been reported.  The authorities took a dim view, and made patronising comments about the gullibility of the populace.  In reality they were afraid that crowds would get out of control, and on occasions they did.

Well, here is another little story along the same lines.  We are slightly further forward in time, as the events I am about to describe took place in 1889.  We are also a fair distance from Woburn Square and Bloomsbury, and we need to decamp to the East End of the Victorian capital.  What part of the East End?  The part that had its borders with East Ham and West Ham, and Forest Gate and Canning Town, and was known, and is still known, as Plaistow.

THE EAST LONDON CEMETERY
Now, in Plaistow, along Grange Road and Upper Road, you will find the East London Cemetery.  At the time of our story the cemetery was still relatively new, having been established only seventeen years previously in 1872.  The tree-lined paths are laid out symmetrically, crossing at right angles everywhere other than in the centre, where they sweep round two Gothic chapels.  One of the chapels is dedicated to the church of St Michael and All Angels.  The other has no denominational affiliation.

Recovering bodies after the collision of SS Princess Alice with the collier SS Bywell Castle on the River Thames.  Image in The Illustrated London News 14 September 1878.

The cemetery bears witness to some of the great and tragic events of recent times, both local and national.  There are memorials to two River Thames disasters of the late nineteenth century, namely the sinking of SS Princess Alice in 1878, and the drowning of spectators during the launching of HMS Albion in 1898.  There are, of course, memorials dedicated to the military and civilian victims of war.

THERE FOR A LARK
What happened in 1889 was this.  Throughout May crowds had been gathering on a nightly basis in Upper Road in order to see a ghost rumoured to be residing among the tombstones.  The ghost could not have been all that frightening, for it was reported that the crowds spent most of the time behaving badly.  They pushed passers-by off the path, and generally larked about.

One solid and sober witness to these scenes was Herbert Dubery, a police constable in his mid-twenties attached to the “K” or Bow division.  One night towards the end of May he had been keeping his eye on the rubbernecks, which had been his constant occupation for the past few weeks.  He estimated that they numbered about two hundred.  However, although he had a dim view of the crowd as a whole, it was the behaviour of one particular individual that caught his attention.

Foundry work at the Royal Gun Factory in Woolwich.  Image in Robert Routledge Discoveries and Inventions of the Nineteenth Century (1900) between pages 26 and 27.

That individual was George Orchard, who was sixteen years old, and worked in a brass foundry.  George’s behaviour, certainly as reported by the doughty constable, was very odd indeed.  He shinned up a lamp post, and, having reached the lamp itself, turned the gas down until the light went out.  This was too much for Constable Dubery, and he promptly took the boy into custody.

NOT SO LONELY A ROAD
On Monday the 27th of May George appeared before the magistrate, Mr Ernest Baggallay, at the West Ham Police Court in Stratford.  Two charges were made against him.  The first, which was disorderly conduct, must have had a tiresomely familiar ring, for the antics outside the East London Cemetery had been annoying the keepers of the peace for longer than they cared to remember.  But the second charge, which was wilfully extinguishing a public street lamp, would surely have raised a magisterial eyebrow or two.

When asked how he pleaded in answer to the second of the two charges, George claimed that he had turned the gas light off simply because people had asked him to.  He elaborated.  With the gas light on, the street and that part of the cemetery adjacent to the street were fully illuminated, which made it difficult to see the ghost.  “The what?” Baggally spluttered, while the courtroom filled with laughter.  “A ghost?”  “Yes,” George replied.  “And I was asked to put the lamp out.”

Caricature of Ernest Baggally.  Image in Vanity Fair 13 July 1905.

Constable Dubery was called as a witness.  The crime had been committed at half-past ten at night, he stated, when he had been on duty in Upper Road.  “This road is close to the cemetery, is it not?” Baggally asked.  “Yes,” replied the copper.  “It is very lonely.”  “Not lonely if there were two hundred people there,” the magistrate countered.

But the sober Dubery was not unsettled by Baggally’s quip.  He told the court that Upper Road was long, and that it had no houses on it, and that it really was not the sort of road that one wanted to be immersed in darkness.  And it has to be said that the constable had a point.  For on the map issued by the Post Office in 1886 Upper Road can be seen to emerge from West Ham Abbey Marsh and edge its way north with the cemetery on its western side and very little on its eastern side.  Wayfarers would have welcomed a gas light that bathed the road in a comforting glow, banishing at least some of the inky gloom, and making it harder for ne’er-do-wells to steal up on them.  Turn down the gas, dim the light, and you were left alone with your fears, seeing nothing other than the shadowy shapes of the graves, hearing nothing other than the ghostly sough of the wind.

UNVEILING THE GHOST
When Dubery described the behaviour of the crowds, the magistrate agreed that it was a nuisance, and that it had to be stopped.  Baggally then turned to George, demanding to hear his side of the story.  In particular he wanted to know who had ordered him to turn off the gas light.  George recalled that three men, who had gone into the cemetery to look for the ghost, had called out the order.  Baggally now asked George if he knew who they were, and George said that they were the cemetery keeper, one of the grave diggers, and a third man he could not identify.

Resurrection men at work.  Image by Hablot Knight Browne in Camden Pelham The Chronicles of Crime volume 1 (1887) between pages 274 and 275.

Understandably Baggally was curious about the ghost, and he asked Constable Dubery if anyone had seen it.  “I have been on duty there for a month,” Dubery said.  “And you have not seen it?” Baggally asked.  “No,” the bobby replied.  He was going on to complain about the disorderly behaviour of the crowd when the chief clerk of the court, William Henry Fowler, picked up the ball.  “They have found out now what the ghost is, haven’t they?” he said.  Dubery concurred, adding that “the ghost” was in fact light from the street lamp catching a granite tombstone at a particular angle.

Fowler was now getting into his stride, and, when Dubery was quizzed about the disorderly crowds, and reported that the cemetery keeper had been patrolling for several nights with a gun to keep “the roughs” away, he seized the opportunity.  “There is some suspicion of body-snatching?” he asked with carefully feigned surprise.  “I’ve never heard of it,” the constable replied.  Now it was Baggally’s turn to intervene.  “I read of it this morning,” he said.  “Perhaps the press were before the police for once.”

Well, we at London Overlooked have scoured the newspapers for a report of body-snatching in the East London Cemetery, and sadly we have found nothing.  Given that this unsavoury practice was by then a thing of the past, it is possible that the magistrate was indulging in some pointed humour.  We shall never know.  But what we do know is that he took a lenient line with George Orchard, advising him not to go around dimming gas lights.  The boy was given a good character reference by Inspector Edwin Bishop, who had questioned him at the police station, whereupon Baggally concluded that he had simply done as he had been told, and sent him on his way, adding that he expected the police to do a better job of controlling the crowds in Upper Road.

Not the East London Cemetery, alas, but Bunhill Fields.  Image in Walter Thornbury Old and New London volume 2 (1889) page 204.

HERE WE GO AGAIN
The newspapers had a field day, and clever comments peppered the articles on the Plaistow Ghost.  The Globe, with gleeful irony, recommended the “salubrious neighbourhood” of Plaistow to members of the Psychical Research Society.  The Daily Telegraph went even further by suggesting that the credulous crowds outside the East London Cemetery were the modern counterparts of Dr Johnson, who allowed himself to be caught up in the excitement around the Cock Lane Ghost, and who later said on the subject of the supernatural that

all argument is against it, but all belief is for it.

In the end, though, the only person haunted by the Plaistow Ghost was Ernest Baggally.  He might have expected the fuss over George Orchard to draw a line under the affair, but if so he was proved triumphantly wrong when a labourer by the name of William Ford appeared before him on the 30th of May, charged with wilfully extinguishing a street lamp in Upper Road.  Ford claimed that he had simply covered the gas light with his hat in order to establish that the ghost was an illusion, and that when he clambered down he found a constable waiting to arrest him.

Baggally was not impressed.  It was one thing for a sixteen-year-old to tamper with a street lamp, but a man of Ford’s age—Ford was twenty-eight—ought to know better.  He handed down a fine of ten shillings, and costs of eight shillings, with the option of a ten day prison sentence.  But he was running out of patience, and warned that anyone else caught behaving in this way would go straight to the slammer.

Ford, failing completely to read the magistrate’s mood, now piped up.  “Will you give me time to pay?” he asked.  “No,” came the reply, “certainly not.”

A flower seller.  Image in Henry Mayhew London Labour and the London Poor volume 1 (1851) page 127.

A CRUEL AND NASTY OFFENCE
All that remains is to record a final and much later incident, almost by way of a footnote.  We must fast forward to May 1934, when the East London Cemetery once again featured in newspapers, thanks to the behaviour of a Plaistow resident by the name of—wait for it—Emily Jane Orchard.  What a coincidence!  However, we have found no evidence that Emily and George were closely related.

At the time of the incident Emily lived in Falcon Street, only a short distance from the cemetery.  Given that she was in her late sixties she was unlikely to have been climbing street lamps, but she was more than capable of stealing cut flowers from graves, and it was for precisely this unpleasant activity that she achieved her brief notoriety.  She was caught in the act by Mary Jane Johns, who was also local, and lived in Willow Grove.  “You are a very wicked woman,” Mary said to Emily.  “You have been stealing from these graves.”  “I am sorry,” Emily replied.  “It is the first time I’ve done it.”

The thief was hardly in a position to protest her innocence, as she was carrying eighteen tulips and a bunch of white flowers, probably with a view to selling them on the street.  She was charged at the West Ham Police Court, where it was revealed that her haul was worth two shillings, and it cannot have helped her defence that in the previous three weeks there had been fifty complaints of the theft of flowers from the cemetery.  The magistrate—Mr Forbes St John Morrow—did not mince his words—“a cruel, dirty, and nasty offence”—and he fined the culprit twenty shillings with the option of a thirteen day prison sentence.  But which of these punishments Emily Jane Orchard opted for is not recorded, for her flirtation with fame, or infamy, was over almost as soon as it had started, and like the ghost of yore she faded quickly from sight.

© london-overlooked 2022

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