The Poltergeist Prince of London: The Remarkable True Story of the Battersea Poltergeist
By Shirley Hitchings and James Clark
From the publisher’s website: It began with a key. One afternoon in 1956, in the home of the Hitchings family in Battersea, south London, a small silver key appeared on Shirley Hitchings’ bed. This seemingly insignificant event heralded the beginning of one of the most terrifying, incredible and mysterious hauntings in British history. The spirit, who quickly became known as ‘Donald’, began to communicate, initially via tapping sounds, but over time – and with the encouragement of psychical researcher Harold Chibbett, whose case-files appear here – by learning to write. Soon, the spirit had begun to make simply incredible claims about his identity, insisting that he was one of the most famous figures in world history – but what was the truth? Here, for the first time, is the full story, told by the woman right at the heart of it all – Shirley herself.
The Poltergeist Prince of London. The History Press, October 2013. ISBN: 9780752498034
Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles
Shirley Hitchings has collaborated with James Clark, an established author of south London ghost guides, to provide an account of what looked like poltergeist phenomena in her Battersea home in the 1950s and 60s. They have been fortunate in having the case files that a dedicated researcher, Harold Chibbett, gathered throughout the period of activity. Chibbett’s papers have been supplemented by notes made by the family at the time, and Shirley’s own recollections.
At the beginning of 1956 the downstairs at No 63 Wycliffe Road Battersea, a rented property, was occupied by Walter (Wally) Hitchens, 47, who worked as a tube driver; his wife Catherine (Kitty), 51, who was disabled by chronic arthritis, and their daughter Shirley, just turned 15. Upstairs lived Wally’s mother Ethel, 73, a retired nurse and midwife, plus a 20-something relative, ‘Mark’ (the only pseudonym of the participants). It was an extended family, with Wally’s two sisters living in the same road, which was in an unremarkable working-class neighbourhood. Ethel was a dominant matriarch, Walter by contrast seems to have been rather unassertive. The downstairs setup was unusual because even though Shirley was 15, she still shared her parents’ bedroom, the door of which was locked at night because of a fear of Shirley sleepwalking. This inevitably meant that she had little privacy.
The strange events began innocuously in January 1956: Shirley found a key on her bed that nobody in the family recognised, and which did not fit any lock in the house. This was shortly followed by tapping sounds which seemed to be connected to Shirley, but which she did not appear to be causing herself, followed by objects found moved to a different place. These low-level events might have petered out if ignored but Wally talked about it at work, which led to an offer to visit by a fellow train driver who was also a part-time medium. They held a séance at which the medium admitted he could not make contact with any entities, but afterwards the taps and bangs steadily got worse. The noises started following Shirley to work, forcing her to leave the job. Someone had the idea of trying to communicate with whatever was making the knocking sounds and they received replies which indicated an intelligence.
Soon after, the goings-on started attracting public attention (an attempted ‘exorcism’ by the medium at which the police turned up didn’t help), and coverage by the local media. The entity was christened Donald, and Donald became a dominant element in the house for some years (another claiming to be James Dean manifested for a while). As usually happens with these things, media interest waned, but investigation was taken up by Chibbett who gained the family’s trust and remarkably stayed with the story until the end, even writing a book that he was never able to get published.
Messages developed from taps to written correspondence. ‘Donald’ eventually identified himself as Louis-Charles, the short-lived Louis XVII, around whom rumours swirled that he had escaped captivity during the French Revolution, rather than dying a prisoner at the age of 10 as the official records had claimed. Donald said that he had drowned while en route to exile in England, a fate of which history was unaware. The patrician Donald took control of the house, even sending out Christmas cards. Enormous efforts were made to keep him sweet in case he created problems for the family, which regularly included the threat of arson.
Meanwhile ‘Chibb’, as Donald called him, made heroic efforts attempting to square the impossible task of verifying Donald’s statements. The problem, interpreting Donald’s hilariously garbled Franglais, was that he kept changing his story, and tying himself up in contradictions. Chibbett must be given enormous credit for sticking with the business despite all its frustrations, even though it seems likely that by giving it so much attention he was assisting in its perpetuation.
‘Donald’ does not hang together as a credible personality and the most likely choices seem to divide between a drop-in communicator having a laugh or a living individual taking bits of information from encyclopaedias and TV and radio programmes and cobbling it all together, throwing whatever came to hand into the mix, and being evasive or silent when attempts were made to pin the claims down. On balance it feels like someone with a smattering of historical knowledge was trying to play a part. Crude it may have been, but it served its purpose. However, by the time Shirley married, in 1965, Donald’s presence was waning. She left her parents’ house, and in 1967 left London. Donald, no longer serving any purpose, gradually disappeared, and had gone for good by 1968.
Shirley comes across as a glamour-struck family girl, not particularly well educated, immature, rather sheltered and socially naive, with cultural aspirations but lacking the motivation to persevere with them. Instead she found herself shuttled into tedious low-skilled jobs in which she had no interest. Born on 18 December 1940, by January 1956 she had already left school, so without taking any qualifications, and was working as a dress cutter in the alterations department of a store in the West End. This rather mechanical work may have been stifling to someone who had artistic aspirations.
What emerges is how Donald’s demands work to Shirley’s advantage. Through his offices she is able to move out of her parents’ room into one of her own (and sleep walking isn’t a problem); she is prevented from taking jobs that she doesn’t want to do, but instead is given carte blanche to stay at home dressing dolls, justified as expressing an interest in costumes; at his ‘suggestion’ she is given money for clothes and make-up and is able to adopt a more fashionable hairstyle. In short she is able to lead a leisurely life in marked contrast to most other girls of her age and class. She even gets to appear on BBC television. People visit and pay attention to her, and Donald takes a keen interest in the welfare of young men who might be of interest also to a teenage girl, notably the actor Jeremy Spenser who is an obsession of Donald’s. Donald is able to make negative remarks about Shirley’s family, and especially her grandmother – who was particularly victimised by the phenomena to the extent that she moved out for a spell – that Shirley might have thought but could not say openly.
Generally Donald acted as a proxy to ensure that household affairs were ordered for her convenience. He even dictated when the family went to bed. Remarkably Shirley’s parents went along with it for a quiet life, though Ethel evidently had her own suspicions. Her relationship with Shirley was poor, to the extent that on 9 July 1957 the old lady tried to hit her granddaughter with her stick as she suspected the teenager of stealing 5/- from her. The result was a row between Ethel and Kitty, presumably Kitty defending Shirley. Ethel’s room was then turned upside down twice, on 13 and 24 July, and one has to wonder whether her death from a stroke on 27 July was a direct result of the stress.
Chibbett concluded that Donald was a spirit, not a hoax or some manifestation of Shirley’s subconscious. Andrew Green, a much better known psychical researcher than Chibbett, visited and made himself unpopular by focusing on Shirley’s mental state, presumably not telling the family what they wanted to hear, but also by giving the impression to Wally and Kitty that he looked down on the family for being working class. His conclusion was that the raps and knocks were externalised creations of Shirley’s psyche, in tandem with Donald’s historical scenario as her fantasising (which would explain its lack of coherence), and that the letters and notes were written by her in a dissociated state. That is claiming a lot for Shirley’s subconscious powers, and even Green was mystified by hearing knocks coming from locations some feet from where he and Shirley were standing.
And it is true that while Shirley was the focus, there seems to have been a general view that she could not have hoaxed all of the phenomena. Even so it is possible that she hoaxed some, despite her protestations to the contrary, while other events, particularly after she moved out, were ordinary everyday occurrences which were misinterpreted by family and visitors. In the chaotic atmosphere that Donald’s presence was creating it would not have been surprising if others jumped to unwarranted conclusions. Or it is possible that Shirley had some help. An obvious candidate is Kitty, who may have experienced a lack of fulfilment, frustrated by her disability and made unhappy by her fall into poverty as a girl, with a domineering mother-in-law upstairs and sister-in-laws down the road to outnumber her. Hoaxing some of the events may have acted as much of a release for her as for her daughter. This is all supposition, but has more plausibility than the reality of Donald as ‘he’ presented himself.
James Clark must have felt somewhat constrained in what he could say by having Shirley as co-author, but he has done a clear job setting out the narrative. He does not, and cannot at this remove, reach any definitive conclusions, but he does set out the possibilities, from Donald as a discarnate entity or entities, either of Louis-Charles or a drop-in communicator, to Green’s idea of the poltergeist as a psychokinetic creation of Shirley’s subconscious, to fraud (the last naturally dealt with somewhat cautiously). The result is a fascinating case study, though one has to wonder why Shirley, who owns the files upon which the book is based, agreed to it being written. An epilogue refers to her disinclination to rake the matter up in later years after she and her husband left London, so one has to wonder what has changed to cause her to want the matter raked over now.
As is the way of such cases one can never say for sure what went on in 63 Wycliffe Road for a decade, and it may be a massive injustice to point the finger at Shirley, but, using that handy razor, it seems more likely that she was actively – and consciously – involved in perpetuating the situation that brought misery and massive inconvenience to her relatives than that Donald was the surviving consciousness of a member of the French royal family.
Clark has painted a picture of a maturing teenager living in a tense, overprotective, family at what was a rather dreary time to be growing up in south London, in a cold decaying and soon-to-be-demolished house, in which the best room was kept unoccupied for the occasional visitor, a period of conflict between the strict mores of the past and their loosening with the growth of youth culture in the late 1950s. It was a pivotal moment in society, and one likely to create friction in a traditional household where opportunities for a bit of fun were limited. What was a girl to do?