As we embark on a Halloween weekend which will see many of us staying in doors, it is likely that we will choose to put on a suitably seasonal spooky movie for who doesn’t love a good ghost story at this time of year.
Netflix recently released The Haunting of Bly Manor created by Mike Flanagan. This TV show is loosely based on Henry James’s work, particularly his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, and whilst being well worth watching it got me asking if there could be stories and sightings of ghosts at the University of Birmingham?
Do we have ghouls and ghosts lurking at the top of Old Joe keeping an eye on us? Are the floors of Aston Webb creaking with the sound of some university professor? And does the Green Heart which was where the oId library once stood have the spirit of a former librarian trying to find her books? Sadly, my research at the University of Birmingham has shown there are no recorded sightings of the supernatural on our campus.
However, do not be disappointed as the city of Birmingham has its fair share of ghosts stories and if you venture out at night there are a few spots where you may even come across one.
Our first stop is Birmingham Town Hall where Charles Dickens read ‘A Christmas Carol’ aloud for the first time on Boxing Day in 1863. There are rumours but no official sightings that the spirit of Dickens returns to the city to give another reading during the cold dark nights. The figure of a Victorian man with a pipe may be encountered in the corridors and disappears when approached who has a passing resemblance to Charles Dickens who was once approached by a member of staff only to vanish before their eyes. The other resident spooks are a pair of stonemasons who died on January 26, 1833, during construction of the building. John Heap and William Badger had been working on the external carved pillars when a huge block of masonry fell and crushed them. They were buried at Birmingham Cathedral and some staff working at night in the Town Hall have claimed to have heard the two men still chiselling away at the pillars.
Birmingham Council House has had ghostly appearances from the founder of our very own University of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain. Some have said to have seen him at night around the Mayor’s office dressed in black and accompanied by the smell of flowers. The Council house is a busy location for ghostly sightings having formerly been the site of a monastery. So if you don’t bump into Joseph Chamberlain’s ghost there then there’s a good chance it will be that of a monk instead.
The Jewellery Quarter has some of the oldest buildings in Birmingham and an interesting place to explore is Warstone Lane Cemetery, which has been in use since 1847 with notable Brummies, such as John Baskerville, buried there. Among the sightings are the grey image of a young women in 1930s clothing passing through solid objects, including a wall and a parked car. These sightings are accompanied by an unusual scent, sometimes said to be like pear drops but more likely to be the bitter almond smell of potassium cyanide, which was used in gold-plating and silver-plating in the Jewellery Quarter. It could be the unfortunate woman was a victim of cyanide poisoning, perhaps by accident in one of the factories.
Aston Hall is a splendid place to visit and was owned by the wealthy businessman, Sir Thomas Holte (hence the name of terraces at the Villa ground) in the 17th Century. A cruel and powerful man, Holte locked his daughter Mary in her room when she tried to elope with her lover rather than marry the suitor he had chosen. She subsequently went mad and died 16 years later. Mary can now be seen as the White Lady, a shimmering figure who glides around the upper floors. Not all spooks like to wear white. Some are known to give off a bit of colour, such as the Green Lady of the Manor, who was Sir Thomas’s elderly housekeeper Mrs Walker. Her spirit is often seen sitting on a chair in the Great Hall, wearing a green, high-collared dress and appearing so lifelike that she is often mistaken for a member of staff in period costume. Another story tells of the spirit of a servant boy called Dick who hanged himself in the attic after being accused of theft, while kitchen staff have witnessed a glowing white ball coming out of the wall and bouncing around at high speed before disappearing.
If you’re frightened of spending time in Birmingham and thinking of escaping by train then try and avoid Platform 4 at Birmingham New Street. The land was a former cemetery and as anyone who’s seen the films Poltergeist, Night of the Living Dead and The Amityville Horror will know, building on burial grounds disturbs the spirits of the dead. Many passengers have reported a strange unseen presence of two men who had died in unfortunate circumstances. There have also been some tales of supernatural activity linked to a fatal train crash at New Street Station in 1921 with three people killed and 24 injured.
So it seems that Birmingham does have tales of ghost stories – but of course we can’t verify every encounter. Also with social distancing, verifying these stories for my research is now even harder as ghosts are adept at social distancing and it is unlikely that you could get close enough to even catch one.
But remember ghosts can catch you – Happy Halloween.