The carriage

ghost train

Let me, at the very least, be most particular about the order of events, for time may have clouded my memory of some of the details. I had been summoned at short notice to the bedside of an aged uncle from whom I had expectations, and as the telegram informed me that he could not survive this latest battle against the scourges of old age I thought it best to visit and, so, one unseasonably warm day in March, 1911, I embarked on a journey to Killigarth, a little, out-of -the-way, Cornish hamlet, where the old gentleman lived. There were few passengers on the train, and I had the benefit of a carriage all to myself. The landscape was somehow familiar to me, yet I could not recall visiting this part of the country.

“It is just like a fresh canvas painting,” I said to myself as I gazed out of the window and observed the rear of the long corridor carriage, at the end of the train, speeding on its way. I had travelled for much of my life, including eight years’ sojourn on the Continent, but the scenery that met my eyes that day took my breath away. First you would catch a glimpse of the sea, blue and still, and then a sharp turn of the line would alter the scene to a view of the green hills with perhaps a few sheep or horses grazing on the skyline. Then the sea would come into view again, and this time not merely a glimpse between two hills, but a big expanse of blue stretched as far as the eye could see, and the white sails of a yacht gradually fading away, as its course took it farther from land. Closer in, a trawler, dropping anchor and right out where the sea and sky met, the just discernible smoke of an inbound liner. Then the sea was shut out again for a time, and the train rushed along between fields of green wheat, weaving its way across lands speckled by small settlements, churches and the occasional ruin.

It was then that the whistle sounded, and the brakes were put together sharply in the driver’s effort to stop. Presently the guard came rushing along the train, and asked: “Who pulled that cord?” I shook my head and sat watching as he continued to sweep his way through the carriages.

Turning to the window, I noticed that the train had come to a stop at an unnamed way-station, one that was in a considerable state of disrepair. I was examining the station from afar when the carriage was suddenly plunged into darkness. When the lights returned, I was most surprised to learn that I now had a companion, a gentleman who was seated directly opposite.

The man was notably tall and thin, and his skin that of someone in middle-age, with a face sharp and withered like a bad apple. His apparel was close fitting and faded; all in all, he looked to be a man who had lost all interest in his appearance, which perhaps accounted for the unkempt nature of his hair and beard. Studying his clothes, a layer of damp mist rising from the material, I became aware that the air in the carriage had become cold and heavy.

“Quite a sharp change in the weather from this morning,” I remarked. “It is particularly cold now, is it not?”

“Don’t feel the cold myself,” said the stranger. “Perhaps you would like to exchange places with me; there is, as far as one can tell, no draft here.”

I replied that I would appreciate this if it did not inconvenience him, and accordingly we swapped seats.

The temperature was dropping at quite a rate, and no mistake. I must have taken a chill, for the hairs on my arm began to rise, and the cold crept over me in a most unaccountable manner. Looking at the stranger occupying the seat opposite , on whom the lamplight now shone brightly, I saw that his face was not so gaunt nor his features so shrunken as I first supposed; and I must have made a mistake as to his age, for he was by no means as elderly as I had previously judged. How cold it was, to be sure! As I looked at him, I noticed that his countenance change momently — that he was becoming younger; that the creases in his face were filling out and smoothing down, and that he was, by degrees, becoming like someone I had seen before. As his once sallow cheeks grew round and ruddy, and his hair changed from silver to brown before my very eyes, I became nervous, and wanted to cry out, but could not. I was struck dumb with the biting cold— cold that hammered into my limbs and benumbed my vitals, for I was now aware that the man sitting before me was no longer a stranger— no more friend or travelling companion— he had become me! Continue reading

The bays of the dead

ghost ship

If houses are haunted by the spirits of the departed, why not ships? The real reason why you hear so little of haunted ships is that the sailor, unlike the landsman, keeps a very still tongue on such subjects. For one thing, he hates to have his stories received with scepticism; for another, if he happens to be the skipper or owner, he takes good care to be silent on such a subject because history is full of stories of the enormous difficulty of getting a crew for a vessel supposedly haunted.

Tales of the deep relating to spectral ships are among the most attractive of stories, and authors of all kinds have embellished them with many fanciful and picturesque details. Indeed, every maritime country has its phantom ship.

The coasts of Cornwall are second to none in the wildness, the variety, and originality of their sea superstitions. For nowhere else in Europe has the sea taken such a toll of dead and still takes.

All along the Cornish shores the phantom ship is thoroughly believed in, as also are tales of phantom lights dotting the rocks and shoreline. A hundred or so years ago a schooner-rigged vessel put out signals of distress to the west of St. Ives Bay. A cable sent out reached her, and one of the seamen attempted to grasp at her bulwarks in order to jump on board; but his hand engaged with nothing solid, and as he fell back into the boat the schooner and her sailing light disappeared in the darkness. Next morning a ship out of the port of London was wrecked within the same vicinity, and all on board her perished. The phantom lights are observed generally before a gale; the Cornish seamen call them “Jack Harry’s lights” — named after the first man to be fooled by them — and the ship seen resembles the one that is subsequently wrecked.

The sinister death ship is a superstition peculiar to Cornwall. With a hull as dark as night and stumpy bowsprit she comes in, with all her canvas set, against the wind and tide, and as she turns to steer to seaward again the doomed person dies. Most famous of the stories grouping round the death ship is that of a wrecker who lived at Tregeseal, enticing vessels with false lights and doing to death those who escaped the waves. When a poor soul lays dying, a black ship full rigged with all sail set would be seen coming in upon the land against the wind and tide; and as the man died she bore out to sea again in the blustering gale.

ghost ships Continue reading

Don’t go down the mine!

ghosts of mines

Miners, like sailors and fishermen, believe in omens. But they have many beliefs and superstitions that might seem meaningless to other people. Mines in Cornwall and Lancashire were supposed to be haunted by the wraiths of tiny children who years ago used to toil in the mines until they died from weakness or from want of fresh air. The children appear harnessed to ghostly trolleys, to warn miners of approaching danger. In some of the mines the white figures of ghostly women materialise before an explosion.

Many mines are said to be haunted by spirits and ghosts. They are possessed with a brooding presence, and, here, strong men become weak, overcome by the mere impact of the enveloping palpable fear.

It is this lower order of spectre that seeks the dark recesses of the globe, and frightens the miner at his dismal task.

There was a mine in Cornwall which was haunted by a Hand — a Hand that shone with a light not of this world, and was chill with the shivering dampness of the grave; the Hand would pursue the miner, touch him on the cheek, and then fade away with little gusts of sobbing laughter.

Polbreen Mine, an old shaft in the Forest of Dean, had a ghost all of its own. She was known as Dorcas. She was believed to be the spirit of a woman who had committed suicide by hurling herself down the shaft. She took a malicious pleasure in tormenting the miners, who sometimes became so furious that they would leave their work and rush after her. But they never caught her. Dorcas, however, seemed to have a liking for some of the men. On one occasion a man was wielding a heavy hammer, when between the strokes he said he heard his name called sharply and insistently. He thought nothing of it at first, and went on with his work. But the crying became so urgent that at last he threw down his hammer and walked in the direction of the sound. Half-a-dozen steps, and — crash ! Down on the spot where he had been standing a moment before came a vast mass of rock.

Amongst the best authenticated cases of hauntings are those in connection with tin and coal mines.

Many of them originate in Cornwall where there is a profound belief in what are termed “the Knockers.”

“The Knockers” did not confine themselves to ancient mines. They were at times heard in quite modern ones. There is a story still told in Cornwall to the effect that a man who bought a house that had just been built in a mining district was awakened one night by the sound of tramping up and down the stairs, as of an army of men in heavy boots. He got up several times to attempt to discover what it was but the moment he opened the door and looked out all was quiet. He made inquiries of one of the servants, who was a local girl.

“Those noises?” she’ said. “Why, I’m certain I heard them too. They are the knockers, and they appeared last night to tell us there is a new lode under this house that wants to be worked.”

What she said proved to be an actual fact. There was a new tin lode beneath the building, and a very productive one, too.

Wheal Vor was an old mine situated a mile north of the village of Breage in the west of Cornwall. An oft-told tale tells of a man who was acting as night watchman who distinctly heard knocking, followed by the sound of someone upsetting a cartload of rubbish outside the account house in which he was sitting. On getting up to ascertain the cause of the disturbances, he could see nothing that could in anyway explain them. In the morning he related his experiences to his mates, who shook their heads gravely, and, sure enough, before many days were passed, the watchman was taken seriously ill and died.

For many years a Cumberland man held the post of overseer in one of the coal pits until, being found out in certain acts of fraud and larceny, he was dismissed, his place being taken by a man from another county. The deposed overseer was often heard to express his hatred of his successor, and one day the dead bodies of the two men were found close together in one of the shafts. It was suggested at the inquest that they had died from accident due to fire damp.

Workers in the pit soon began to hear the voices of two men raised in furious altercation. They were recognised as belonging to the dead overseers, and from what they said there seemed little doubt that the ex-overseer had decoyed his successor into a spot where he knew there was fire-damp, in the hope that it would kill him. Fearing it might not operate soon enough, he had taken his victim unawares, and after a desperate struggle had succeeded in choking him. He had then himself been overcome by the fumes.

Who is it who climbs the stairs?

ghostly figure

I started writing for the papers when I was barely turned fifteen and since 1899 I have been a constant contributor to the local press. When I began, provincial dailies were the big thing, and ‘The Cornish Chronicle’ had one of the largest distributions in the south west. When eastern Cornwall had no daily of its own, I doubt if the sale of all the London newspapers amounted to a few thousand copies a day there. The Chronicle, a small, twelve-paged sheet, begun in Launceston, was transferred to Looe in the summer of 1901. I contributed to it, and in 1903, when 19 years old, I joined the staff officially as a junior reporter. The provincial paper was then very different from its successor to-day. Political news was the mainstay, and far less attention was paid to theatrical, sporting, and personal chat than now. In those days people followed politics seriously, and did not make them merely the pastime of an idle hour.

In my time, I have made the journalism rounds of stories so far-fetched that they would either have you drop the paper at a glimpse of the article and remain in laughter for several minutes or dismiss the journalism as desperate headline-grabbing sensationalism. However, nothing quite prepared me for the story I was asked to cover in the winter of 1919, certainly one of the strangest I have ever come across.

The story I was asked to report on related to a set of mysterious events that had caused considerable upset in the lives of Florence Duttine, a Dorsetshire woman whose family had lived in “Thomas Hardy country” for many generations. My first impressions was that she was a warm and spirited woman who made every effort to convince me that she was not one to make up fanciful stories. Indeed, she was described by those who knew her as “honest” and “down-to-earth”, and by another as “one who never put her status before her duty; which, for the most part, was benefaction”.

“I wish my father had left me the Abbey,” said Mrs Duttine. “Such, a grand old place; I feel proud to belong to the family who have lived there for so many generations. I could understand it if father had left it to Harold; men can’t bear to let the family name fall into oblivion, and a Duttine has lived at St Matthew’s for centuries. It would be an ideal life, full of occupation and enjoyment, and plenty to do each day — servants to interview, improvements to arrange and my husband Sidney would have delighted in it.”

Sadly this was not to be, as, for reasons unknown to Florence and her brother, her father had omitted them from his will.

In the winter of 1917, Florence and her three-year old daughter went to stay with her niece and nephew in Cornwall. An old and apparently charming house, with a quaint cave that stretched from the cellar down to the sea. It had been mentioned to her as a suitable place in which they could remain for however long they required. She agreed to take it, and they were installed with two maids and a nurse. But there were unhappy times ahead:

“I have certainly tried to forget it, but I can’t. The cold and sombre sea-girt house and the eerie, repulsive spectres that nightly wander through its gloomy, crumbling walls are photographed on my mind, never to be wiped out.”

“Every time I hear the sound of a bell or a certain tone of footstep or the click of a closing door my mind is sent back to that awful place—”

Continue reading

In darkness we trust

cornwall haunted house

Having just spent a wonderful week in Cornwall, seeking out its darker corners, I have been inspired to write about this ancient kingdom and its ghosts and legends. Here is the first tale – one of Cornish men and the spectres that haunt them…


Do you believe in ghosts? Or are you one of those fortunate persons who have no fear of the unseen? Or, again, do you belong to the great majority, who keep an open mind, but who like to feel on certain occasions that, after all, just round the corner, in the mysterious darkness, something might happen? …


I believe in ghosts, and not only on Christmas Eve and other occasions much celebrated. For it was on a perfect summer evening, in July, 1911, tranquil and moonlit, that the astounding experience befell me which the editor of the “Weekly Chronicle” has requested me to relate.

I was staying in Cornwall with an old Cambridge friend, who had taken Orders. I had been living a delightful, care-free existence in the open air, bathing and playing tennis, in fact, doing everything but think of ghosts.

Then, one night, at dinner, the conversation turned, as it so often does, to the psychic, and the usual discussion took place. John, my Cambridge friend, had been reading stories by MR James, and was still deeply affected by the impression they had made on him. His brother, Philip, a clever, cool-headed young man, who was spending his long vacation at home, openly scoffed at his foolishness, and a keen argument took place.

Finally, John leaned forward and said: “Well, we have an opportunity of testing all these theories.” Continue reading