‘The Ghost Club’ of 1862: a ‘Secret Society’ of “Brother Ghosts.”

Reaching as far afield as Australasia, The New Zealand Herald reported on May the 23rd 1931, ‘The London Ghost Club: Dining with the dead. Secrets of 50 years! If one were in a certain Street in the West End of London on a certain evening every month, he would see between 30 and 40 prominent men – doctors, barristers, businessmen – going to a fashionable restaurant to have dinner, and to gloat over eerie and fantastic stories of ghosts. No-one who associates with these men in ordinary life ever knows what goes on in the private dining room in this restaurant on the first Wednesday of every month. The diners leave their everyday personalities outside, and for several hours abandon themselves to a psychic orgy. They call themselves The Ghost Club. For 50 years they have been in existence, and no-one has yet revealed anything of the strange and carefully guarded proceedings. They are under an oath of secrecy not to divulge what transpires at these dinners. In the quiet of this private dining room many a tale too gruesome for publication is told, and these are all taken down by the Secretary with the solemnity of a coroner presiding over his court. The rules forbid publication of the stories. They are all stored away – many volumes of them – in a house in Kensington. The rules of The Ghost Club are as such; 1. That the club be called The Ghost Club. 2. That it meet, as a rule, on the first Wednesday of such months as may from time to time be decided in accordance with general convenience, provided that the November meeting shall take place on All Soul’s Day, on whatever day of the week that may fall. 3. That it be the purpose of the Club to unite minds that are directed to the study of psychical subjects, it’s proceedings being regarded as strictly Private and confidential among its Members.’ The Ghost Club is still in existence today, though its members do not quite reach the heady heights of former members such as Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Ghost Club is the oldest para-psychological organisation in the world. It was established in 1862   but, according to the Club themselves, ‘has its roots in Cambridge University where, in 1855, fellows at Trinity College began to discuss ghosts and psychic phenomena.’ It launched officially in London in 1862, although another given date is that it was formed in 1882 by Alaric Alfred Watts and his friend William Stainton Moses. At the height of the burgeoning Spiritualist movement in the Victorian 1800’s, seances and other experiments to attempt to contact the dead had become hugely popular and it was at this time that the world’s oldest and most esteemed yet little heard of club, The Ghost Club was formed. The club had some of the most famous literary and cultural figures of the time, and several Sirs and Lords. It was an all-male club, and perhaps even termed a ‘Secret Society.’  Members call each other ‘Brother Ghost’ and on every All Soul’s Day, the names of all members, both dead and alive are read out. The Ghost Club is still going strong to this day and members never leave; technically, they can’t. After death, members are still considered to be members. By joining the Club, they would remain ghosts in the afterlife, they believed. Old members included famous World War II poets Siegfried Sassoon and W. B. Yeats, and several Nobel prize winners. Chemist Sir William Crookes was a member and he used his laboratory to test the levels of ‘psychic force’ of mediums. Ernest Wallis Budge, the curator of the Egyptian artefact rooms at the British Museum, was also a member. The archives of the hand-written notes of every meeting of The Ghost Club were first kept at the British Library, then moved to be stored at Cambridge University library.  Roger Luckhurst for Oxford University Press says, ‘The most intriguing member for me remains Thomas Douglas Murray, the society gentleman who was known to have been cursed by a mummy he purchased a coffin lid of a malignant Priestess of Amen-Ra in his youth. He purchased the lid in Luxor, then promptly shot his own arm off in a hunting accident. Once installed in the British Museum as catalogue number 22542, it allegedly began a career of malicious revenge on spectators who gawped too hard. Murray told his story to The Ghost Club several times in the 1890’s. The Club was ‘invite only’, and minutes of its meetings were kept strictly confidential. The Club would undertake practical investigations of all paranormal phenomenon.   In the 1970’s, women were allowed admittance. Member Harry Price, famous ghost investigator, made it clear that with the entrance of women members, this was not to be considered a spiritualist church but rather, a group of sceptical inquirers and investigators who gathered together to carry out paranormal investigations, as well as holding dining evenings with after-dinner speakers.  In Charles Dicken’s day, he warned that its members must approach each supposed case of a haunting with ‘the greatest circumspection,’ and ‘the utmost care. Nothing in them must be taken for granted, and every detail proved by direct and clear evidence, before it can be received.’ It was not to be taken lightly, nor frivolously, nor without scepticism and inquiry. As the Paris Review points out, Dickens wrote in a letter to William Howitt: ‘My mind is perfectly unprejudiced and impressible on the subject. I do not in the least pretend that such things are not. But … I have not yet met with any Ghost Story that was proved to me, or that had not the noticeable peculiarity in it.’ The Review continues, ‘W. B. Yeats would become involved. He was first invited as a guest, and he demonstrated the depth of his arcane knowledge by giving a speech on “Fairy Beliefs,” which he believed were “simply Spiritism happening not round tables but in the fields.” Another member of The Ghost Club was Charles Babbage, a technological genius who apparently invented the first computer a hundred and fifty years ago. He wrote of his time in The Ghost Club in his Biography, ‘Passages from the Life of a Philosopher,’ in 1864. ‘Whilst I was an undergraduate, my chief and choicest consisted of some ten or a dozen friends who usually breakfasted with me every Sunday after chapel. We discussed all knowable and many unknowable things. At one time we resolved ourselves into a Ghost Club, and proceeded to collect evidence, and entered into a considerable correspondence upon the subject. Some of this was both interesting and instructive.’ Amusingly, this was apparently not the only club he helped form; ‘At another time we resolved ourselves into a Club which we called The Extractors. Its rules were as follows; 1st. Every member shall communicate his address to the Secretary once in six months. 2nd. If this communication is delayed beyond twelve months, it shall be taken for granted that his relatives had shut him up as insane. 3rd. Every effort legal and illegal shall be made to get him out of the madhouse. 4th. Every candidate for admission as a member shall produce six certificates. Three that he is sane — and three others that he is insane.’ It appears that in Babbage’s case, he had been fascinated by the paranormal and the occult since boyhood. As a child aged ten, he was sent away to live with a Vicar who ran a boarding school in Devonshire where the climate might better suit his health, and he reveals the occasion that he tried to summon the devil while still just a child. ‘Relations of ghost stories often circulate amongst children. Of course, I shared the belief of my comrades, but still had some doubts of the existence of these personages. After all, it might be a doubtful point whether a ghost or devil ever really existed. I gathered all the information I could on the subject from the other boys and was soon informed that there was a peculiar process by which the devil might be raised and become personally visible. My curiosity at length overbalanced my fears and I resolved to attempt to raise the devil. I went one evening towards dusk up into a deserted Garrett. Having closed the door, I proceeded to cut my finger and draw a circle on the floor with the blood which flowed from the incision. I then placed myself in the centre of the circle and read the Lord’s prayer backwards. This I accomplished at first with some trepidation and in great fear.’  However, ‘After waiting some time for my expected but dreaded visitor, I in some degree recovered my self-possession, and leaving my circle of incantation I gradually opened the door,’ and he left, no more enlightened than before, having received no such visitation from the devil, and Babbage returned to the dorms, presumably relieved but rather deflated too.

Alex Hailey, Curator at the British Library uncovered a report in the archives at the Library, of a ‘ghost’ experience recorded by one of the members of The Ghost Club. ‘A brief history of the Club written by Alfred J Nicholl (MS 52273) notes that it was founded ‘expressly so that persons who might object to any general publication of their experiences might be encouraged to relate them in strictest confidence.’ Their records were then archived away. ‘MS 52272, containing supporting material referred to in the minutes of the Club, has a number of papers regarding visitations made by the spirit of “Terriss” to Ghost Club member Leonard Francis. Excerpts from Francis’ diary – written up in the hand of ‘Ghost’ Iltyd B Nicholl,’ (that is, Ghost Club member Nicholl, because each member referred to themselves and each other as “Brother Ghost”) describe apparitions occurring on 30th December 1926 and on 27th January 1927. In his first apparition, the ghost delivered a terse message – “I AM WILLIAM LEWIN. I WAS STABBED AT THE ADELPHI THEATRE. I CANNOT REST”.’ Brother Francis’ notes read, ‘He looked about 43 to 45 years of age, he seemed to be clean shaven, and his face was very white. Then all vanished. I don’t know how properly to spell the name, he pronounced it LEE-WIN, with the accent on the first syllable. I at once went upstairs to Flat E. and told I.B.N., who at my dictation wrote down this experience while it still was fresh in my memory.’ Brothers Nicholl and Francis reported the apparition at the 400th meeting of The Ghost Club on 5th January 1927, and apparently Brother R. H. Saunders agreed to investigate further. ‘Notes in the file dated 8 and 11 January describe visits made by Saunders to a medium, in order to consult with the spirit world about the apparition. Saunders had several questions for “the manifesting spirit”, asking whether murder victims felt distress in the life beyond, and whether this would account for the appearance of Lewin’s spirit. On the second visit the spirit reportedly confirmed to Saunders that the Lewin who appeared had been known as Terriss and had been murdered outside the Adelphi.’ William Terriss was the stage name of a famous English actor who was legally named William Charles James Lewin. He was very popular and best known for his swashbuckling roles playing characters like Robin Hood. He was murdered outside the Adelphi Theatre in London 1897, forty years prior to this report by Ghost Club member Francis. He was killed by the actor Richard Archer Prince, who as a result was sent to Broadmoor Asylum for the Insane. The funeral for Terriss saw the London streets lined by onlookers of up to 50,000 people. Alex Hailey, Curator at the British Library continues, ‘Report file with details of corresponding minute book, Add MS 52272,’ describes, ‘Francis subsequently made a trip to Westminster Cathedral to pray for Lewin on January 26, and the following day was visited by the spirit, who “faintly smiled and vanished at once.” I have not been able to find any further references to Lewin (or Terriss) in the subsequent volumes.’  

Andrew Green, or ‘Brother Green’ was also a member. As a teenager in 1944 Andrew Green accompanied his father to an empty house in West London that his father needed to inspect for his job as a housing officer. When Andrew reached a set of stairs inside the house that led up to a tower, he felt as though there were invisible hands on his back, pushing him up. On reaching the top of the stairs, he heard a deep voice in his head telling him the garden was only a few inches below him and that he wouldn’t hurt himself if he jumped. Andrew was only made aware of the deadly height of the drop when his father suddenly grabbed hold of him and pulled him back from the edge.  Both of them were very confused and disturbed by this incident, and his father asked a friend of his who was a policeman to look into the history of the house. To their shock, the policeman discovered that there had been twenty suicides reported at that house, all of which involved the person throwing themselves off the tower where Andrew had been standing when he had heard the voice telling him to jump. So perturbed by this strange and rather dangerous experience was Green that he went on to dedicate his life to studying the paranormal.  

From the archives of The Ghost Club comes another investigation some of their members carried out in Scotland. Their ‘Official investigation report’ is listed as ‘private and confidential’ although it’s now easily accessible on the Internet on their website, so presumably it isn’t actually now confidential. The report is entitled ‘Forfar Dispatch, 117-119 Castle Street Forfar. Saturday, June 9, 2012. Investigation into alleged hauntings report,’ compiled by Derek Green, Scottish area investigation coordinator of The Ghost Club.’ 12 members were present. It was a night-time investigation. The property is the location for the Forfar Dispatch Newspaper offices and a building that is over 100 years old. The report says ‘Since the building has become the Forfar Dispatch, staff and reporters have experienced a number of unexplained occurrences in this very old building.’ The report says that according to Ghost Club member Andy Granville, ‘The evening before the investigation and on the journey up, the number 39 kept coming into my head, rather bizarrely. Around 5.45 the team walked around the premises of three floors. There were some stairs leading to the second floor. There was an open area as one walked from the stairs and two small rooms directly ahead. Neither rooms were in use. Up the stairs to the second floor was the landing of the room on the right where we were warned not to shut the door as we would not be able to open it again. The number on the door was 39. There was another room on this floor at the end of the landing that we visited in which I felt that the atmosphere was very heavy, seemingly full of foreboding.’ According to fellow member, Brother Ghost Barry McCracken, his experience was as follows; ‘On the walk around before investigation, top floor, top of the stairs, a feeling of being dizzy and then as I was the last to walk down, a loud auditory “pssst” or “hiss” in my left ear as I was descending.’ Another member, Marco Piva’s experience was as such; ‘Marco noted that in the dark room on the first floor there was a dark shape moving about.’ And, ‘During walk round room 42 had something very uncomfortable in it.’ Member Lynn Robertson, ‘Felt the presence of a very glamorous female in her 60’s laughing at something she was finding funny.’ At 18:45 member Tracy noted ‘I sense a man, black hair and goatee beard, he has brown suede tallish hat. I have a cold feeling on the back of my neck. I feel this man is from a few centuries ago.’ Lynn added that she felt ‘there was an accident to the hand of one of the males and due to this he had suffered a mental illness and went around with a strange expression on his face. Lynn now was feeling uncomfortable and she said all the other staff at the time were aware of him but kept away from him. Lynn said that after the accident he could not work the machine and seemed to be allowed to just wonder about. Stephanie noted she felt something dangling about her head and neck. At 18:45 a loud thud was heard from above.’ The group then decided to try and communicate with the spirits, and instigated knocking to see if they got responses. ‘Joan kept knocking on the table and faint replies were heard coming from the room above. At 19:10 hours Marco noted it was hard to keep his balance, and noted someone in spirit saying “You don’t want to go up there!” Then there were two very distinct knocks from the room above. Stephanie commented that she had a sore neck as though she’d been scratched. There was no visible mark. Lynn said she was sensing a vicious guard dog on a chain. Stephanie now uncomfortable, said she was being touched and felt her clothing being tugged.’ The report continues, ‘Prior to Vigil two, as Dave McIntyre was ascending the last few steps onto the top landing, Dave felt someone grabbed him just under the back of his knees. Nobody was on the stairs behind Dave and he described that fingers grabbed either side of both legs. Dave did admit he got a bit of a fright,’ and, ‘Sarah and Trudy both said they had seen the figure of a man who ended up seeming to dive out the cupboard to the side of them.’ On Vigil Five, Andy noted, ‘I heard a lot more hissing which felt malicious to me.’

All-in-all, it sounds like an action-packed series of vigils!

In October 2014, Varsity, Cambridge University’s own newspaper reported that The Ghost Club was examining ‘the claims of an American mystic who has apparently photographed a goblin in his hair.’ The mystic, John Sutton, ‘sent in a photograph of his hair to the ancient Cambridge University society in an attempt to confirm the presence of a small goblin in it. He claims that the image shows what he “believes to be an elf or fairy, materialised” in his hair. After having his claims dismissed by “scientific sceptical experts” and photographic experts, Sutton contacted the historic Cambridge Ghost Club.’ Sutton, ‘emphatically states that there has been no tampering with the file, although he admits his twenty years of experience of photographing “discarnate spirits” may have privileged him to see phenomena which others cannot.’

At the home of the original Ghost Club’s formation, Cambridge University, there’s a tale of a rather strange ghost. There was once a fellow by the name of Barrett, who was quite an eccentric academic by all accounts. He was found dead in his room in a coffin, one arm over his face in a death-mask of a scream. Says the local Cambridge Independent, ‘A former fellow, known as Barrett, was something of an oddball as he kept a coffin in his rooms and was often noted to be both frightening and erratic in manner. He apparently lost all his money through bad luck which always seemed to conspire against him and then, one night, screams were heard in his lodgings. He was found dead in his coffin the next day.’ 

Former Cambridge student Anil Balan, now a principal lecturer in Law, says on his ‘anilbalan’ blog, ‘It was said afterwards that Barrett had not been laid there by human agency but by the unknown and infernal forces with whom he had been conspiring during his cursed life. It was rumoured that he was haunted by dark forces, which accounted for the bad luck that caused him eventually to lose his money. In brief reports in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research, which were given to the Cambridge University Library, one finds a chilling explanation for Barrett’s bizarre death. Secret papers discovered in Barrett’s rooms after his death, and concealed subsequently by the college authorities, record his discovery of chalk marks, several years old, under the floorboards of his apartment. Careful study revealed that they showed a linguistic pattern, albeit not for any identifiable language, and hinted at some religious meaning. Eventually Barrett was rewarded when he discovered a volume in the college’s rare book room which was embossed with similar signs – a tome which did not appear in the university’s list of rare collections. It is clear that Barrett speculated that the markings were designed to ‘unlock potential.’ Whether he ever made any progress in this regard – or whether his attempts to do so led to his untimely death – can only be speculated upon.’