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

A nineteenth-century spine chiller. Image in James Hain Friswell Ghost Stories and Phantom Fancies (1858) cover.

In the year 1857 Sarah and Charles Bacon were terrified by the strange happenings in their small house in London Street in Bermondsey.   Even Charles’s thirteen-year-old daughter Caroline, a sullen and resentful stepdaughter to Sarah, was disturbed by the goings-on.  For five days mysterious noises resounded at all hours throughout the building.  When Charles was at work during the day, things got even worse, with crockery and glasses flying from the shelves of their own volition and smashing on the floor.  Fifty-three-year-old Sarah feared that the invisible malevolent presence would eventually destroy everything she owned.  And who knew what it would do next?  All this overshadowed the troubles they were having with Caroline.  They almost felt like a family again. 

Rumours of the haunting spread through the neighbourhood, and as each evening passed large crowds gathered in the hope of seeing or hearing the ghost.  (For this popular Victorian pastime see my earlier post about the old lady of Stamford Street.)  Over five or six nights the increasingly unruly horde inconvenienced the inhabitants and trades people of the locality.  (Local pubs probably did a roaring trade).  There were said to be over a thousand people gathering in the narrow streets and alleys.  And so on the nights of Thursday the 12th and Friday the 13th of November between twenty and thirty police constables, commanded by Superintendent Branford and Inspector Mackintosh, were mobilised to disperse the crowds and prevent an attack on the house. 

Jacob’s Island.  Watercolour by James Lawson Stewart.

A DESOLATE ISLAND INDEED
The Bacons’ home south of the Thames was an appropriate place for a haunting.  For London Street was in the notorious Bermondsey “rookery” called Jacob’s Island, which, while not an island in the strictest sense, was bordered in a watery way by St Saviour’s Dock, the Thames, the River Neckinger and Hickman’s Folly at Dockhead.  The interior of the “island” contained ramshackle and crowded houses surrounded by the filthy man-made ditches that had been dug in the seventeenth century to provide a ready supply of water for the mills and the lead factories, and for the tanneries with their awful stench of urine and dog shit.  Writing in 1852 Thomas Beames tells us that   

the houses are evidently old, the first storeys slightly overhanging the ground floor, yet not so much as in many of our old towns where these projections form penthouses: there is nothing particularly quaint and interesting about them; hovels they were, and hovels will they remain as long as they exist.

Bill Sykes stares down into the abyss.  Image by George Cruikshank in Charles Dickens Oliver Twist volume 3 (1838) frontispiece.

Until the late 1830s, when Charles Dickens brought the area to public notice, few would have heard of Jacob’s Island, apart from those who had the misfortune to live there.  Towards the end of Oliver Twist, or The Parish Boy’s Progress the criminal Bill Sykes travels down to Jacob’s Island to hide after the murder of Nancy, his lover, and it is there that he meets his own end, accidentally hanging himself above Folly Ditch.  Here is Dickens’s description of the place in Chapter 50 of the novel:

In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke.  Thirty or forty years ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed.  The houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die.  They must have powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island.

The river at Dockhead in Bermondsey, with privies at the water’s edge.  Watercolour by Robert Blemmell Schnebbelie dated 1813.

The Bacons were long-standing Bermondsey residents.  Charles Bacon, fifty-one at the time of the haunting, worked as a dock labourer and a carman, which was the Victorian equivalent of a van driver.  In 1827 he married his first wife, Rachel Ball.  They had at least seven children, of whom Caroline, who was born in about 1841, was the youngest.  Several died in infancy, a not uncommon fate in Jacob’s Island, where people were poor and underfed.  Perhaps most damaging to health was the drinking water, which was found only in ditches full of industrial and human waste.  In the summer of 1849 over half of London’s twelve-and-a-half thousand victims of cholera died south of the river in Southwark, Lambeth or Bermondsey.  The journalist Henry Mayhew wrote a piece in the Morning Post—A visit to the Cholera District of Bermondsey”—in which he described the tidal ditches surrounding the dwellings in Jacob’s Island.  In London Street

the water is covered with a scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease.  In it float large masses of green rotting weed and against the posts of the bridges are swollen carcasses of dead animals, almost bursting with the gases of putrefaction.

When a small girl lowers a tin can into this dreadful liquid, scooping up “drinking water” to take home, perhaps it is Caroline herself, taking death back to her family.

The church of St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey.  Engraving by William Pearson dated 1810.  © London Picture Archive

In March 1852 Rachel died—she was forty-eight—and was buried in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey.  Within seven months Charles had married a widow called Sarah Tuckey.  Perhaps he was lonely.  Perhaps he needed the income of two working adults to survive, or perhaps he wanted a mother for the two daughters who remained at home.  But just over a year after Sarah joined the household the disturbances started. 

TWO RATIONAL MEN
The behaviour of the Bermondsey ghost would suggest that it falls into the category of the poltergeist.  The word means “noisy ghost” in German, and to be sure poltergeists are not passive spirits, serenely drifting in and out of sight.  Instead they make their presence felt by moving furniture, slamming doors, destroying property and making unexplained noises.  They haunt people rather than places, and their victims are commonly adolescents, and girls in particular.  Records of London poltergeists include those of Cock Lane, and Stockwell, and Wycliff Road and Eland Road in Battersea.  There are many fascinating—and improbable—explanations for poltergeist activity.  Supernatural phenomena, hallucinations, air currents, ball lightening, underground water courses, psychokinesis—they are all there.  But let us now move on to discover the origin of the London Street spirit.

In those dark November days a desperate Charles begged for help from the priest at the Roman Catholic church of the Most Holy Trinity at the top of Parker’s Row.  The Bacons were not Catholics, but it may be that someone had suggested to Charles that they needed an exorcism.  The priest refused to intervene or to have anything to do with the Bermondsey Ghost, whereupon the matter came to the notice of Mr Hancock from the District Visiting Society.  (The “visiting societies” encouraged the poor of the parish to attend church and Sunday school and gave them clothes and small handouts.)  Mr Hancock duly visited the house on London Street to investigate, and with him went the vicar of Christ Church in Parker’s Row, the Reverend Robert Marshall Martin.  I imagine Hancock and Martin as a sort of ecclesiastical Holmes and Watson. 

St Saviour’s Dock at Shad Thames.  Coloured lithograph dated 1840.  © London Picture Archive

The good vicar, a graduate of St Edmund Hall Oxford, had been the curate of Christ Church from the time it was built in 1845.  He lived in Bermondsey with his family, and he knew Charles Bacon as a good worker, and Sarah Bacon as a respectable woman.  But after questioning the family he rejected the idea of a ghostly presence, as did Hancock.  Being rational men they were certain that the perpetrator of the nuisance was to be found close to home. 

I BLAME MY STEPMOTHER
By the afternoon of Saturday the 15th of November Charles Bacon had been persuaded to bring his daughter Caroline before Mr Combe, the magistrate at Southwark Police Court, on a charge of wilful damage to her father’s goods.  The Reverend Martin declared that the thirteen-year-old girl was known to him as an occasional scholar at the local Ragged School.  (He failed with her so spectacularly that even as an adult she was unable to write her name.)  In spite of his presumed belief in redemption he regarded her as bad, and idle, and beyond reforming.  Meanwhile Charles told the magistrate that he was at his wit’s end with a recalcitrant daughter who only ever wanted to be out on the streets, keeping bad company.  Caroline in her turn announced petulantly that she had become the “ghost” to punish her parents for not letting her join her friends.  She was obviously not stupid, and she explained how she had attached strands of hair to cups and glasses so as to send the objects tumbling.  Her stepmother, who had been in the same room during most of these acts, was astonished. 

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.

The magistrate did not take kindly to a girl who had scared her parents, destroyed their property, and diverted a large number of policemen from their legitimate business of preventing crime.  There was little consideration of what today might be seen as mitigating factors—her youth, the loss of her mother and young siblings, her father’s hasty remarriage— and Mr Combe sentenced Caroline to two weeks in the Wandsworth House of Correction in the hope that this would persuade her to mend her ways.  But punishment did not have the desired effect—as is so often the case—and on her release Caroline returned home as disobedient as before.  Unable to control his daughter, but unwilling to abandon her, Charles got her admitted to a private reformatory.  When she escaped he sent her to another institution, which obligingly expelled her as incorrigible and uncontrollable.  

Charles then persuaded his recently married daughter Rachel to give Caroline a home for a small weekly consideration.  Even though Caroline stole a watch from the couple—she sold it and pocketed the money—Rachel and her husband Frederick later allowed her back.  The last straw was the pawning of a bundle of clothes that Rachel—she was a washwoman, or took in mending—had instructed Caroline to return to a client.  So it should come as no surprise that a “Caroline Bacon” appears more than once in the records of workhouse casual wards.  And she was in the workhouse in Rotherhithe when in July 1863, at the age of nineteen, she landed in court again.  Something had upset her, and she had promptly begun destroying her clothes, which she had probably been given by the workhouse.  When it was put to her that she was from too good a home to take up space and resources in the workhouse, she said, as she always did, that she could not live with her cruel stepmother.  The police investigation proved that Caroline was lying, that even when her father provided alternative accommodation, sans stepmother, she still ran away to lead a dissolute life on the streets.  On hearing which the magistrate sentenced her to a month’s imprisonment. 

For those who did not want to enter the workhouse proper, the casual ward was a way of getting a meagre supper and a bed for the night in return from some work, such as picking oakum.  Wearing workhouse nightshirts while their own clothes were being fumigated, inmates would sleep in shared dormitories, often on the floor or in hammocks.  The image of women in the Lambeth workhouse is in The Poor Man’s Guardian 13 November 1847.

THE GHOST DISAPPEARS
Where Caroline was for the next thirteen years is not known.  But she then makes a brief appearance in 1875 when she marries a John Thomas Cox in Bethnal Green.  Her long-suffering brother-in-law Frederick Epps witnessed the marriage.  He was probably relieved that there would be no need to take Caroline into his home again. 

Most London poltergeists can be explained away as the behaviour of resentful or unhappy adolescents.  Caroline longed for the excitement of the streets in preference to nights at home with her hated stepmother.  The Stockwell Ghost was a downtrodden servant, the Cock Lane ghost was a manipulated child, and the twentieth-century Wycliff Road poltergeist was a fifteen-year-old who was supposedly able to make eerie knockings with her hammertoes.  And in common with all these “ghosts” Caroline disappeared into the ether, taking the hauntings with her.

© london-overlooked 2020

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