Pitmilly House: 'Poltergeist Manor'

By Lorn Macintyre

From the publisher’s website: Over 70 years ago there occurred in a mansion house in Fife, Scotland, terrifying phenomena which have fascinated those interested in the paranormal ever since. The occupants of Pitmilly House were subjected to spontaneous outbreaks of fires, airborne objects and other occurrences which indicated the activities of a malicious poltergeist.  The story of Pitmilly, which involves a gambler disgraced by royalty, and a connection with Harry Price, the flamboyant psychic investigator of Borley Rectory, ‘the most haunted house in England,’ is told for the first time in this booklet, using exclusive access to the recollections and photographs of the two families connected with the Fife mansion which was demolished in 1968 but whose sinister reputation endures locally and internationally, and was the subject of a Hollywood horror film.

To order copies, visit http://www.priormuir-press.co.uk


Pitmilly House. Priormuir Press, October 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0956768124

Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles


Lorn Macintyre, who gave the opening talk to the SPR’s 2011 conference in Edinburgh on Pitmilly House, has produced a pamphlet containing information about this large residence and the strange occurrences that were said to have taken place there in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  It is a useful supplementary background source for anyone interested in this enigmatic case, but unfortunately it has not drawn on the file held in the Society for Psychical Research’s archives which contains much relevant information that has never been published.  The case was initially investigated by Lord Charles Hope, and the extensive, if barely legible, notes he sent to the SPR’s Research Officer, C V C Herbert in 1940 are a key resource for anyone delving into the Pitmilly affair.

Pitmilly House, which stood between St Andrews and Kingsbarns in Fife (tel. Boarhills 30), had long been in the Monypenny family, but their declining fortunes obliged them to let it to tenants, including the rakish Sir William Gordon Cumming and his unhappy American heiress wife Florence. It was bought in 1930 by Captain John Arthur Jeffrey.  He and his wife Alison had two children, Thomas Ivan, born in 1915, and Mary Elizabeth, born in1924.  At the time the poltergeist outbreak became publicised, the family was living in the house together with a couple of elderly female servants (Hope is vague about the help as he discounted their involvement), a Swiss governess and a Danish daughter-in-law, Vibeke (or Vebike, Hope cannot make up his mind).  Thomas was in the forces and mostly away from home at the time.

The large number of poltergeist-like phenomena which occurred in the house during the Jeffrey years, were recounted by Ivan (as Thomas called himself) in a programme on the brand-new Radio 4 in 1967.  The first, when he was “comparatively young”, was a piece of coal which appeared on the table in the middle of dinner.  According to Hope’s notes, the phenomena started in about 1936 (escalating in late 1939), but Ivan was 21 in 1936, so if Ivan’s memory is accurate, events began earlier.  When on leave during the war he saw a Chinese bronze ornament sail across the hallway and hit him in his “tum-tum”, as he quaintly put it.  Other events he recalled included valuable ornaments discovered upset or broken, pictures falling off the walls, items falling off mantelpieces, and things disappearing that failed to return.  A wardrobe crashed to the floor, hot coals appeared in random places and set fire to curtains.  Fires started in several different places at the same time.  Visiting psychics also experienced phenomena and an “exorcism” carried out by a visiting clergyman had no effect.

In March 1940 an extensive fire broke out, affecting some twenty rooms, and the claim settled by the insurers was later used as evidence that the insurers had recognised poltergeist activity.  Phenomena were not though confined to the family.  From 1942 to 1946 the house was requisitioned, and soldiers had odd experiences, not least seeing the ghost of Captain Jeffrey, who had died in July 1941.  By now word was getting out and an article appeared in the American Weekly in the US in July 1942 entitled ‘No Rest in the Mansion’.  While not named, this was clearly about Pitmilly House.  Yet there seemed to be no long-established history of paranormal occurrences because Charlton Monypenny, the previous owner, was contacted by the press and claimed in ambiguous terms that “since my grandfather went there no-one has seen or heard anything except fancy on the part of someone”.  That may mean that there were suggestions of strange happenings that were attributed by the sceptical Monypennys to imagination.  Even if there were, they would not have been on the scale of those reported during the Jeffrey period.

James Herries, a Spiritualist and reporter on The Scotsman, wrote an article for Psychic Science, published in the October 1942 number, in which he referred only to “a Scottish mansion house”.  He had visited Pitmilly House on 19 March 1940, staying overnight and adds the details that there were a couple of affable dogs in the house.  He conducted interviews, and while he gives a useful overview of events, Hope in his notes calls him “very gullible”.  Herries held a séance with a Glaswegian direct voice medium, Mrs McCallum.  There were some strange voices, but no other results.

Hope visited the house on 28 April 1940, but before this he had had discussed Pitmilly extensively with the Jeffrey family lawyer, Gilbert Hole, of Gillespie and Paterson in Edinburgh.  Hole was acting for the family in the insurance claim and had himself witnessed events, including vases in mid-air, which had scared him.  Herries’s article also refers to “an Edinburgh professional man” who had given him information, and this is Hole because both Hope and Herries recount a story (Herries without naming his informant) in which Hole was sitting in an armchair with an ashtray containing several used matches, and when he looked down he found that these were arranged along the arm of the chair.

As a result of Hope’s lengthy account, Herbert asked W H Salter, the SPR’s Hon Secretary, if it would be worth going to Pitmilly House himself, as Hope was keen for him to make the trip.  Salter thought it would be, if Herbert could be there at the same time as Hope (despite wartime conditions Hope employed a chauffeur, who did a bit of sleuthing for his boss on the side), but there is no further correspondence on the matter so it looks as though Herbert never made it.

Harry Price devotes a chapter to the case in his 1945 book Poltergeist over England.  To maintain confidentiality he calls it “Poltergeist Manor”, which gives Macintyre his subtitle, though the way Price phrases it suggests that the sobriquet was coined earlier (it is not used by either Hope or Herries).  Price refers to a “professional man”, who had given him full reports, the first in 1940, and this again is Hole, as the matchstick story is reused, with the information that prior to the matches being arranged on the arm, Hole had been thrown to the floor with the chair on top; presumably he had picked up any fallen matches so would have known that they were in the ashtray when he sat back down.  Hope’s less dramatic version is that at some point prior to the lined-up matches incident, Hole had been sitting talking to a policeman when he was pushed over.  For a solicitor, Hole seems to have been astonishingly indiscreet, and one has to wonder if he egged things on in order to be at the centre of attention.

Price too lists an extensive range of phenomena.  Incidents included furniture sliding around by itself; ewers of water in bedrooms constantly emptied onto the beds; heavy fire-irons rattling themselves and when tied up managing to jump apart, leaving the string knotless; a heavy wardrobe tilting at an angle of forty-five degrees but not falling over, in defiance of gravity (presumably on the occasion Ivan Jeffrey recounted, gravity won); and a heavy bronze vase which once shot through the open front doorway “at an incredible speed“, changed direction through ninety degrees, and came to rest in the garden, all in front of witnesses.  If this was the object that hit Ivan in his “tum-tum” and it was going at any speed, he would have known about it as according to Price the vase weighed about 15lbs.  There were numerous fires, but conversely on one occasion the owner thought he saw a fire on his bedroom carpet yet after beating it out found no trace of damage.  ‘Exorcisms’, to use Price’s term, were conducted unsuccessfully by both Roman Catholic and Anglican clergy (the latter according to Herries an Episcopalian who merely held “some kind of service”).  Price said at the end of the chapter that he hoped to be able to follow up the case personally, and Macintyre suspects that the result would have made a companion piece to The Most Haunted House in England, as The Most Haunted House in Scotland.  Macintyre speculates that it may have been Price who leaked the story to American Weekly. Price was certainly aware of the article as he cited it in a footnote.

The Jeffrey family sold the house and it became an hotel in 1947.  It was finally demolished in 1967-8, at the time of Ivan’s broadcast.  The Monypenny and Jeffrey families and their relatives and friends had a stock of stories from the house’s heyday, like the bishop who came to conduct an ‘exorcism’ on a cold day sitting in front of the fire and having his hat leap from his lap into the flames.  A woman dressed in green was seen in and around the house.  One particularly bizarre story had a pair of gloves being held up to a fire, as if filled by invisible hands.  The same witness, walking down the stairs, saw the portraits lift on their chains and rotate.  During the period of the hotel, bottles of sealed alcohol mysteriously emptied, the seals left intact.

The house was referred to by G W (not F W, as Macintyre has it) Lambert in a 1964 paper in the SPR’s Journal, ‘Scottish Haunts and Poltergeists II’, calling it “Pitmillie” (which he probably took from Hope’s notes, which also refer to “Pitmillie”) and noting its proximity to the Ochil fault.  He links the bulk of phenomena at the house to the sorts of effects that occur with earthquakes, there having been a number of them locally in the period 1936-40, the very years in which events at the house were at their height.  Lambert famously proposed hydraulic pressure caused by underground water action as a mechanism for poltergeists and was here seeking another type of natural explanation, though rotating paintings and levitating gloves would have been beyond its scope.

Macintyre notes that Frank Harvey Junior’s 1947 play The Poltergeist and the 1948 film based on it, Things Happen at Night, have their origin in Pitmilly House (the film was not a Hollywood production as Macintyre states, but was made at Twickenham).  The film acknowledges Price in a preamble: “The characters and incidents in this film are entirely fictional, although all persons interested in poltergeist phenomena must necessarily be indebted to Mr Harry Price for his research work in that field.”  Coals feature extensively in the film, something particularly associated with Pitmilly House, and an insurance investigator is a major character.  A psychical researcher, presumably a version of Price, is the most authoritative person present, directing the investigation.  Events at ‘Hilton Grange’ in the film, largely played for laughs (supposedly), go beyond even the most outlandish aspects of Pitmilly, culminating in the sight of Alfred Drayton discharging buckshot at flying vases, of which there seem to be an unfeasibly large number on the premises. (This was not Drayton’s only brush with the paranormal, having been a guest at The Halfway House in 1944, an establishment kept by ghosts)  There is a poltergeist focus at Hilton Grange, a school-age daughter based on Mary, though despite the uniform she looks as if she probably left her school days behind a good few years earlier.

There has been surprisingly little written about Pitmilly House since the 1940s.  Apart from Lambert’s mention in JSPR, Alan Gauld and A D Cornell include it in the appendix to their 1979 book Poltergeists, as Case 429, but do not discuss it.  Sadly, it seems unlikely that a complete explanation for Pitmilly House will ever emerge at this late stage.  Eyewitnesses attested to remarkable events, but are now beyond further interrogation.

Herries was convinced that the poltergeist was genuinely paranormal, with an intelligence behind it.  Hope’s verdict was much more tentative, and was essentially ‘open’.  He did not think there was collusion, yet no one person seems to have been present during all of the events.  Hope thought the “easiest” solution was that Captain Jeffrey began it, and Vibeke was frightened, then realising he was responsible, when he was away she also faked events to get even, which frightened him in turn.  Surprisingly, given that he was supposed to have witnessed paranormal events, Hole told Hope that he thought that Captain Jeffrey had faked some.  Presumably Hole would have told Herries and Price the same thing, but neither mentions it as it would not have suited the ‘genuine poltergeist’ narrative.

However, even this, Hope thought, was not satisfactory, and a scenario to cover all of the phenomena would require at least one more participant, or self-deception by large numbers of people.  Hope adds the titbit that Mrs Jeffrey was not positively disposed towards her husband, who drank heavily.  Captain Jeffrey had seen ghosts in a previous house and his wife considered him to be psychic.  On the other hand, Hope speculated that Mrs Jeffrey might be a focus, torn between duty to husband and a desire to be away from him.  There certainly seem to have been a lot of emotions swirling around, perhaps including Vibeke’s for her largely absent husband.

Macintyre wonders if Mary was responsible as the poltergeist focus, and she was an obvious suspect given her age.  Price certainly saw a parallel with the Amherst Mystery, which featured fires, though Mary at Pitmilly House was never as obvious a focus as Esther Cox was at Amherst.  Price also mentions a maidservant at Pitmilly who seemed to be associated with some of the outbreaks of fires, but this may relate to Vibeke, who was accused by a fireman.  Some of the events occurred when Mrs Jeffrey, Vibeke and Mary were living in the Dower House, away from the main building, but Hope states that the poltergeist had followed them, and they were reporting activity there as well.  That hints at possible fraud by at least one of them, and Hope had both of the younger women in mind as possible fakers though he also more charitably thought that they might be so “nervy” in the Dower House that they were misinterpreting normal occurrences as “supernormal”.

Ivan does not seem to have been regarded suspiciously at all, and was in France when things were particularly bad.  Even so, one would expect a bit more precision for such a significant event like coal appearing suddenly on the dinner table than that he was merely “comparatively young”, if it had actually happened.  He may have been covering for his wife by suggesting that phenomena had occurred before he met her.

Although Price claimed that all of the descriptions of activity in his book were contained in signed witness statements in his possession, Macintyre notes that there appears to be no sign of these in Price’s methodically preserved archives.  Items have certainly disappeared from the Harry Price Library over the years, but one wonders if the reason for the lack of documentation is that Price eventually came to the conclusion, given the florid nature of the communications from Hole, that despite the numerous signed statements, he had been hoaxed.  He did not visit the house himself, though as he died in March 1948 perhaps he simply never had the opportunity.  Presumably then all of the statements in his possession were gathered by Hole on his behalf, and perhaps he concluded that his initial trust in his contact’s probity was misplaced.  His categorising of the house as “Poltergeist Manor” was certainly premature.

The reports gathered by Hope, Herries and Price seem to suggest some paranormal element, but once a narrative gets going, it is easy to misinterpret innocent events as paranormal, and later reports could have been stimulated by the place’s reputation, or there could have been opportunistic mischief-making.  As far as someone giving the story to the American Weekly is concerned, its article appeared on 12 July 1942, but Price refers to stories in the British press about the insurance pay-out earlier than that – the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail carried the story on 8 April 1942, and .it appeared in other papers as well, so it is possible that the American Weekly picked up the story from one of those, though that begs the question who leaked the story to the British press.  Or, rather than Price give the story to the American Weekly, as Macintyre suggests, it could have been Hole, who seems to have been willing to tell anybody about it; the story was certainly common knowledge in the area.

There has been a great deal of confusion over the insurance claim, how much damage was done, how much was claimed, how much was paid out, and what it signified.  Hope put the cost of damage at some £600 and wondered if the family would make an insurance claim as this might prompt the police to investigate it as arson.  Hole it would seem was, ironically, concerned that a lawsuit might involve unwelcome publicity, but considered that a failure to claim might be tantamount to a confession of arson.  In the event a claim was made, and Price stated that the insurance claim was settled for £400, reduced from a whopping £800.

However, an article in Psychic News, dated 16 December 1967, was published to coincide with the demolition of the house.  It said that Herries had stated in a lecture that £400 of damage had been done (indeed the figure given in the Psychic Science article), and this had generally been assumed to be the amount of the claim.  In the event, according to Psychic News, the claim was for only £50, which may have meant that the insurers did not bother to look into the matter too closely.

Price considered payment an acknowledgement by the insurers that poltergeists existed, as it was conceding that the fires were not started accidentally, but were not started by the occupants either.  Without seeing the insurance report, though, it is impossible to know what the insurer paid out for, and why, leaving us with hearsay as to the grounds for payment.  That the company could not assign a cause, if that is what happened, did not entail endorsement of a paranormal agency.  All that the payment signified was that the insurers did not consider the family responsible, because they would have instituted an arson investigation if they had.  As so often, Price overstated the situation.

It would be interesting to learn if the insurer’s report still exists so that these questions can be settled.  As such loose threads suggest, there is still some mileage in this fascinating old case, even if ultimate explanation is elusive.  Discussion of the poltergeist activity actually takes up only a very small part of Lorn Macintyre’s well-illustrated 26-page booklet , but he brings together some details about the house and its various occupants, and gives a name to Poltergeist Manor for readers of Price‘s rather ill-titled Poltergeist Over England.

 

References

Archives of the Society for Psychical Research, Poltergeist file P4, 1940/1967.

‘Fife’s Fiery Ghost’, Psychic News, 16 December 1967.

Gauld, Alan and Cornell, A D. Poltergeists, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Herries, J W. ‘Poltergeist in a Scottish Mansion house’, Psychic Science, Vol. 21, No. 3, October 1942, pp.88-92.

Lambert, G W. ‘Scottish Haunts and Poltergeists II’, JSPR Vol. 42, March 1964, pp.223-7.

Price, Harry. Poltergeist Over England: Three Centuries of Mischievous Ghosts, London: Country Life, 1945.