Search for Truth  by Harry Price  (1942)


Chapter 3  .  I Write a Ghost Play and Form a Society to Perform It

WHEN I was aged 15 years and 9 months I founded the Carlton Dramatic Society.  I did it for a special purpose.  A few weeks previously, when spending my school vacation in Shropshire, I had investigated a story of haunting in an old Salopian manor house.  It was my first haunted house, and my first introduction to Poltergeister.

This case so impressed me that, when I returned home, I decided to dramatise my experiences in the form of a three-act play.  Knowing that I should not find a manager or company to produce it for me, I made up my mind to form my own company and be my own manager.  That is how the Carlton Dramatic Society came into existence.  I forget why I called it 'Carlton' - though there was probably a special reason.

I found it easier than I anticipated to get together some kindred spirits who were interested in the dramatic art, and by the middle of October, 1896, I had everything cut and dried.  We decided to give our first show.

As can be imagined, we had little money to spend on our new project; and, for our first entertainment, the question arose as to where we should give it.  Halls were expensive to hire and not one of my friends had a room or salon large enough for our purpose.  Then my father (whom I had appointed President of the Society) made a suggestion.  Attached to - and part of - our house was a large coach-house.  We used to keep a phaeton and a dear old mare named 'Sallie' (on whose back I used to ride into the country two or three times a week), and my father thought that we could convert the coach-house into a first-class auditorium, as there were two doors opening on to the roadway.  It was an excellent idea, and the Committee adopted it.

So on Thursday, October 15, 1896, we put on our first show.  A carpenter erected a rough stage and proscenium at that end of the coach-house leading into the garden, and we hired fifty chairs.  Actually we crammed eighty persons into the 'theatre.'  The proscenium curtains were provided by my mother, who permitted us to risk damaging her piano by lowering it through a window to the garden entrance of the coach-house.  The phaeton - and 'Sallie ' - was pushed into the garden for the night.  'Sallie's' stable was


used as a dressing-room, and we had a row of gas footlights.  Some rolls of wall-paper, cushions, palms, and a few drawing-room chairs helped to give the stage a professional appearance.

The concert was a great success.  Although our finances enabled us to run to printed admission tickets, I notice the programme before me is duplicated by a gelatine method.

We gave the audience a good show, considering that they paid nothing to come in - and were provided with coffee and biscuits into the bargain!  Among the artistes were Victor Keeley, Percy F. Parry, Bert Webster, Duncan Pollock, Alan Pollock, John Dalton, Bert Bannister, Allan Dale, Sid Palfrey and Albert Watkins.  The musical portion of the entertainment was followed by a sketch Awkward.  There were no lady artistes - why, I do not know.

Percy Parry appears to have been the mainstay of the evening: He not only sang songs and did comic sketches, but he was also the pianist.  He was on the committee, too.  I was the honorary secretary and treasurer - with very little to 'treasure'!

The 'musical evening' was such a success that we quickly followed it by another and more ambitious show - with printed programmes! - which we held at the New Cross Hall, Lewisham High Road, on November 27, 1896.  About 500 people attended.  Most of the evening was devoted to vocal and instrumental items, and I notice the names of the following artistes, who were all members of the Society: D. B. Hales, Miss Laura Capon, Duncan Harvey, Miss Grace Peattie, Horace Pollock, Miss Sarah Neal, E. S. Weatherley, and Miss May Brougham.

But the pièce de résistance of the evening was a sketch by Percy Parry, written, I believe, specially for the occasion.  It was called A Waiter's Mistake.  I forget what the farce was all about, but Parry took the part of a commercial traveller and I was 'Tim Buckett,' a coachman.

There is a hiatus in my first Press-cutting book, and I have no more programmes of the Carlton Dramatic Society until 1898, when I staged my ghost play.  But we gave a number of entertainments and concerts - all for charity - at various places.  I also wrote a number of playlets, including Snowed Up, 'a honeymoon episode in one act'; and, later, Miss Angelica's Séance (in which many magical effects were employed).  About this time I also wrote the first edition of Half-Hours with the Mediums, a two hours' entertainment consisting entirely of 'miracles' as staged by the fake mediums, with whose tricks I was becoming thoroughly acquainted, young as I was.  This entertainment was brought up to date from time to time, even as late as 1920.  I also wrote the 'book' for an ambitious


Harry Price at the age of nineteen, from a painting in oils by John Dumayne (Reproduced from Price's Search for Truth)

musical comedy called Claude Duval.  I forget who supplied the musical score, but it was very successful.  I took the part of Claude.  Where are all these old friends of my schooldays?  They passed completely out of my life when the Carlton Dramatic Society rang down its curtain for the last time, somewhere about 1902.  Some of the members joined the Blackheath Dramatic Society, a flourishing concern in those days.  Others achieved success on the concert platform.  I occasionally hear the name of Percy Parry mentioned as the author of plays.  This probably is the same man who helped to inaugurate the 'Carlton' in our old coach-house at Brockley.  If it indeed be he, I wonder if he remembers those far-off happy days.  Another member was Orton Tewson.  Looking through the membership list of the Savage Club the other day I came across the name of W. Orton Tewson.  This 'brother Savage' may be my old friend, but I have never met him at the club.  Another picturesque member of the Carlton Dramatic Society was a painter named John Dumayne (a member of the well-known family of dentists), who painted - and drew - my portrait several times.  His studio at Lee was a favourite meeting-place for us amateur Bohemians, and many a jolly evening have I spent there.  I wonder where all my old friends are now!

Having founded the Carlton Dramatic Society for a specific purpose, I set about - rather tardily, I am afraid - writing my ghost play.  I called it The Sceptic and, as I have said, the plot was based on my experiences with a Shropshire Poltergeist.  The play was ready at last and we performed it at the Amersham Hall, New Cross, on Friday, December 2, 1898.  We had a packed house and it proved a great success.  A short account of the performance appeared in the South London Press on December 10, 1898 - one of my earliest Press notices.  I was then nearly eighteen years old.

I will not give the reader an outline of the plot, as I am going to relate to him my actual experiences in the haunted house on which the play was based: But there was an amusing incident during the course of the evening - a diversion that was not in the script!

The 'ghost' had to make his appearances and disappearances by means of a stage trap.  I believe we arranged this contraption ourselves.  The trap was raised and lowered by means of a long wooden cantilever, like a scaffold pole, worked up and down by two men.  The fulcrum of the lever was anchored to the floor, below the stage.  At the final 'appearance' of the ghost, as it - or he - shot up through the stage, the too-slender bolt of the fulcrum snapped.  The ghost certainly shot up all right, but, as the trap-door then shifted laterally, he shot down again still more rapidly - being unable, unlike most ghosts, to stand on nothing! - turning head over heels in the process,


into the dusty sub-stage regions.  The 'curses loud and deep' of the assistants down below, as the somewhat weighty ghost tumbled on them, were not in the script, either.  But the audience took it all in good part.

And now for my experiences with my first Poltergeist.  I used to spend many of my school holidays in a little Shropshire village a few miles from Shrewsbury.  In the village was - and still is - an old manor house.  It had remained empty for some time but, just previous to my visit, had been leased by a retired Canon of the Church of England, and his wife.  The man was in failing health.  The house had a reputation for being haunted, and very soon after the Canon's settling down in the place, strange occurrences were reported.  This was especially noticeable as regards the stables and outbuildings.  Though fastened securely overnight, stable doors would be found ajar in the morning.  Animals were discovered untethered and wandering; pans of milk in the dairy were found overturned, and the utensils scattered.  Piles of logs in the woodshed, neatly stacked up at night, were found scattered in the morning - in spite of locked doors.  The manifestations in the woodshed became so frequent that it was decided to keep watch.  This was done on several nights, a farm-hand secreting himself behind a stack of logs.  Upon each occasion when a watch was kept on the wood, nothing happened inside the shed.  On those nights when the shed was guarded from within, pebbles were flung on to the corrugated iron roofing, the noise they made rattling down the metal being plainly heard.  Then a watch was kept both inside and outside of the shed, but no one was seen, though the pebbles were heard as before.

Suddenly the manifestations outside the house ceased, at the same time as the Geist transferred its activities to the inside of the building.

I will now describe the interior of the manor.  From the large hall a wide staircase, with fifteen steps, led to a landing, at the top of which was an oaken 'dog gate' to keep the domestic pets and hounds from wandering all over the house.  The staircase led to a number of rooms, opening out of a short gallery.

The first indication of anything unusual inside the house was a pattering sound, as of a child's bare feet running up and down the gallery.  They were heard by all the members of the Canon's household.  The noises were at first taken to be those caused by a large bird or small animal out of the fields.  A watch was kept, but investigation proved fruitless.  These same noises were heard night after night, but nothing was discovered.  Then the maids began complaining that the kitchen utensils were being disturbed, usually


during their absence, in the daytime especially.  Pots and pans would fall off shelves for no ascertainable reason when a maid was within a few feet of them, but always when her back was turned.  Fires in various rooms would be raked out during the night by unseen entities, the burning embers being scattered all over the rooms.  The danger from fire from this cause was so obvious that the Canon's wife had water poured on the fires before retiring to rest.

Of course, there were legends connected with the house, the most persistent being that a rich recluse who had lived at the Manor many years previously, had strangled his niece, who kept house for him.  The old man was found drowned in the river the next day.  Actually there is a slender foundation for this story.

It can be imagined that the events at the Manor House did not improve the Canon's health, and his wife finally persuaded him to leave the place, at least for a short period.  This was in the early autumn, just before I arrived in the village for my usual few days' vacation.  What really drove the family out was the fact that the nocturnal noises were becoming more disturbing.  In particular, a steady thump, thump, thump (as of someone stamping about the house in heavy boots) spoilt the inmates' rest night after night.

When I arrived in the village, the 'haunted manor' was almost the sole topic of conversation.  The place was being looked after by the wife of one of the Canon's cowmen, and I had little difficulty in persuading her to allow a boy friend and me to spend a night in the house.

I must confess that I had little idea as to what I was going to do in the house, or how I was going to do it.  But I had a small tripod camera with me, so I decided - hopefully - that I would photograph the ghost, if possible!

I was an ardent amateur photographer in those days - as indeed I am now - and knew that I should have to photograph 'it' by flashlight.  So I cycled into Shrewsbury and bought some magnesium powder, a couple of batteries with which to fire it, some acid, a coil of wire, a switch, and other odds and ends.

In order to make sure that the magnesium should ignite properly, I mixed with it the smokeless powder from some sporting cartridges.  Fortunately, I had with me a short piece of thin platinum wire belonging to a chemical balance.  This I intended placing in the centre of my magnesium-cum-gunpowder mixture, after attaching the electrical flex to each end of the platinum.

With our modest ghost-hunting kit, my friend and I made our way to the deserted - but of course furnished - Manor House.  We arrived about 9.30 p.m., and proceeded to search the house from


cellars to attics.  I locked most of the rooms and put the keys in my pocket.  Some rooms had no locks, so we barricaded them by placing chairs and tables in the passages.  The doors leading to the road and gardens we barred in a similar manner.  I determined that we would not be' invaded' from outside.  Then we waited for someone - or something - to turn up.  We established ourselves in the morning-room, and sat there, hoping, by the light of a stable lantern.

At about half-past eleven, my companion thought he heard a noise in the room overhead (the traditional apartment of the murdered niece).  I, too, heard a noise, but thought it might have been caused by rats.  A few minutes later there was a 'thud' overhead that left nothing to the imagination.  It sounded as if someone had stumbled over a chair.  The fact that we were not alone in the house almost paralysed us with fear.  However, we pulled ourselves together and just waited.  Just before midnight we again heard a noise in the room above: it was as if a heavy person were stamping about in clogs.  Then we heard the same noise traversing the short gallery.  Then we heard it approaching the head of the stairs.  'It' paused at the dog-gate, and began descending.  We distinctly counted the fifteen 'thumps ' corresponding to the number of the stairs.  We wondered what it was going to do next.  When the entity reached the hall, it paused for about three minutes, and then stumped up the stairs again.  We again counted the fifteen thumps.

I forget why we did not investigate the intruder while it was in the hall.  I expect we were too frightened.  But when we thought it had disappeared, our courage returned and we decided that we would explore the rooms that opened on to the gallery.  We had hardly come to this decision when the entity began to descend the stairs again.  We resolved that we would have a look at our guest this time.  We had closed the door of the morning-room while waiting.  We softly opened it, and the heavy steps ceased instantly as we stepped into the hall.  The entity must then have been about half-way down the stairs.

We again decided that we would examine all the rooms leading off the gallery, and this we did very thoroughly.  But nothing was disturbed.  Our barricades were intact, and whatever descended the stairs was, apparently, both invisible and intangible.

I have omitted to mention that, in order to take photographs, I had placed some household steps (removed from the kitchen) in the hall.  They were about six feet high.  I decided to make the attempt at photographing the entity, should it again descend the stairs.  To this end I placed my camera on one of the lower treads of the steps, and then proceeded to focus the centre of the stairs. On the top of


the steps I placed an eggcupful of the flash mixture in an old Waterbury watch case that I had with me.  The platinum wire was inserted in the powder, and the flex, batteries, and switch were taken into the morning-room.  I extinguished the stable lantern and, after withdrawing the shutter of the dark-slide and uncapping the lens, we crept into the morning-room, the door of which we softly closed.  We then lay down on the floor.

It was about an hour before we heard any further sounds, again from the room overhead.  And again it seemed as if someone were walking heavily in clogs.  Then we heard the steps approaching the dog-gate at which the entity paused.  Then the steps moved on again, and were heard stamping down the stairs.  Having arrived at the hall, our visitor appeared to stop.  Perhaps it was - with ghostly curiosity - examining the arrangements we had made for taking its photograph.  For a few minutes we heard nothing.  Then the 'clogs,' and, I assume, the wearer, stumped up the stairs again.  When I estimated that the thumps were half-way up the stairs, I pressed the pear-push switch that I held in my hand.  Then an extraordinary thing happened.  In addition to the expected flash and explosion (the rays from which were so vivid that even the morning-room from which we were directing operations was lit up by the light coming from under the door), whatever it was on the stairs distinctly stumbled.  At the same time a clattering down the stairs of some object made us hope that we had shot the Poltergeist to pieces!  For some moments we were too startled - or frightened - to do anything.  Then we bravely marched into the hall, and made a tour of inspection.  We found that the steps had moved slightly, but there was no sign of the ghost or of the Waterbury watch-case.  This we found later on the stairs.  The force of the explosion had projected the case up the stairs, and it had rolled down again.  That was the clattering noise we heard.  I had used too much gunpowder.

We searched the house again, restored the furniture, etc., to its usual positions, and tidied up.  Then we rushed home to develop the plate.  I regret to report that there was nothing on the negative except a picture of an over-exposed staircase.  But the trip had been worth while as - very definitely - we had contacted a real ghost in a real haunted house.  The experience was thrilling, and made a great impression on me.

And so that is the story on which I based my first ghost play.  The mise-en-scène of the play was not the Shropshire manor, as one can as easily libel a house as a person.  The Canon returned to his residence some weeks later, when the manifestations had abated somewhat.  They finally ceased-gradually.  This is true of most


Poltergeist disturbances.  Some years later I was destined to visit the house many times, as it was then in the possession of a friend.  Neither he nor I, nor his family, experienced any untoward incident in the Manor.  I wish I could give the reader the exact location of the place, but it is now - I believe - in the occupation of a well-known London business man, and he might object.  I hope to call upon him one day.

If I had known half as much about Poltergeister then as I do now, I would have looked for some 'exciting' cause.  It is a fact that often a young person - usually a girl - is the unconscious 'inducer' of these intriguing phenomena, and it is possible that a young maidservant in the Canon's household was the unwitting agent who provided me with my first experience of a haunted house, and my 'plot' for The Sceptic.

My last appearance as an actor-manager was in January, 1910, when Miss M. Davies-Colley and I produced a musical adaptation of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.  We gave five performances in Pulborough and Horsham.  There were seventeen scenes and many tableaux, and some eighty villagers took part.  The fervour, sincerity, and skill of the village people in portraying the scenes and incidents of Christian's long and adventurous journey from the City of Destruction to the gates of the Celestial City were reminiscent of the Passion Play at Oberammergau.  I played only a small part (that of the judge in the trial scene in Vanity Fair), as my time was so fully occupied off-stage.  As the Sussex Daily News remarked (January 20, 1910), it was a splendid representation.  People were turned away at every performance.



Chapter Two              Chapter Four


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