Harry Price described the particulars of the Battersea case and his involvement in it in his penultimate book Poltergeist Over England (Country Life, 1945). This page contains the complete contents of Chapter XX of the book and includes both the original plate of the house and John Hookham's line drawing in their correct sequence in the original text. The 'London Poltergeists' to which Price refers at the beginning include the haunting of No. 50 Berkeley Square, the Stamford Street case of 1820 and the famous Cock Lane ghost.
Having told the story of some old London Poltergeists, I will now relate my adventures with a comparatively new one - an amazing affair exhibiting many unusual features; so unusual, in fact, that in some respects the case is unique.
The focus of the manifestations was centred in a small villa in Eland Road, Lavender Hill, Battersea, a bustling working-class district of London with no attractions, one would have thought, for a Poltergeist.
This villa was inhabited by Mr. Henry Robinson, an invalid of 86, who had lived there twenty-five years, and who was removed to the infirmary at the request of the family when the disturbances commenced. With Mr. Robinson senior, lived his twenty-seven-year-old son Frederick, and his three daughters: Miss Lillah Robinson, Miss Kate Robinson, and Mrs. George Perkins, a widow, who had a fourteen-year-old son, Peter. The Misses Robinson were school teachers and their brother was a tutor.
The house in Eland Road is of a type of which tens of thousands can be found scattered all round the Metropolis. It has two floors and a small garden at front and rear. It is the typical abode of the London artisan. From the garden can be seen the back windows of some premises then occupied by a medical practitioner who kept a private asylum or mental home. I was told that men suffering from shell-shock were his principal patients. From the doctor's windows to the back of the 'mystery house', as the Press dubbed it, is about eighty yards. It would be possible for a person standing at the windows of the private asylum to propel, by means of a catapult, small objects such as coins, pieces of coal, etc. with sufficient force to break the windows of the houses in Eland Road.
It was just before Christmas that, from a private source, I first heard of the strange happenings in Eland Road; but I attached no importance to the report, which differed little from many others that I receive. I heard nothing further until the week commencing January 15, 1928, when reports of alleged extraordinary happenings began to appear in the Press. I decided I would investigate.
On Thursday, January 19, at 9.30 a.m., I paid my first visit. I thought I was fairly early on the scene but a garrulous female free-lance journalist - who opened the door - had arrived there earlier and tried to bluff me into abandoning my investigation. Not being easily bluffed, I successfully negotiated the outer defences of the 'mystery house' and
entered the building. I found the family at breakfast, and my first impression was distinctly favourable as regards the family and the improbability that the inmates of the house were responsible for the destruction of their own home. For I at once saw that someone or something had caused considerable damage to the Robinson ménage. Broken windows, smashed furniture, and the débris of ornaments were much in evidence. After a few minutes' chat I withdrew and promised to call again.
On my return to the National Laboratory I found a message from the news editor of the London Evening News asking if I would allow a reporter of that paper to accompany me to the house. I consented and at three o'clock the same afternoon a car was sent for me, and for the second time that day I found myself in Eland Road - this time with a Press representative. Miss Kate Robinson and Mr. Fred Robinson were the only members of the family who were in the house on this occasion, and from them we obtained the complete story of the disturbances.
'Except for Percy,' said Mr. Robinson, 'we lived in the house for twenty-five years, happily and peacefully. Then on November 29, lumps of coal, pieces of soda and pennies began to fall on the conservatory - a lean-to building at the back of the house.
'It stopped for a few days. It began again early in December. It struck me as being extremely curious at the time that, although the pieces of coal were very small, they broke the glass.
'Things became so serious that I decided to call the police. I had no other idea except that some person was throwing things over the garden wall.
' A constable came along, and together we stood in the back garden and kept watch. Pieces of coal and pennies crashed on to the conservatory roof, but we could not trace their flight. One lump of coal hit the constable's helmet. He ran to the garden wall, but there was nobody there.
'On December 19 our washerwoman said she would not work any longer in the house. She came to me in a state of terror and pointed to a heap of red-hot cinders in the outhouse. There was no fire near. How could they have got there?
'Again I called a constable, and we decided to watch in the kitchen. Two potatoes were hurled in while we were sitting there.
'It was on Monday that the climax came - at nine o'clock in the morning - and for an hour the family was terror-stricken. There were loud bangings in all parts of the house. My sister ran to tell the magistrate. The window panel in my father's bedroom was smashed, and as he was in such a state of fear I decided to remove him from the house. I called a man from the street, and together we carried him from the room. Just as we were taking him out a heavy chest of drawers crashed to the floor in his bedroom.
The house in Eland Road, Battersea, the scene of extraordinary Poltergeist
manifestations. (See Chapter XX.)
'Previously, my sister had seen the hall stand swaying and had called me. I caught it before it fell, but some strange power seemed to tear it from my hands, and it fell against the stairs, breaking in two parts.'
Mr. Bradbury, the man who was called in to help move the old gentleman, confirmed Mr. Fred. Robinson's account. He said:
'Mr. Robinson called me to his house, and when I arrived there at about ten o'clock there were a fishmonger and a greengrocer discussing with him what had happened. I saw several women in the house and they appeared to be very frightened. Mr. Robinson took me up to a bedroom, where he said his father had been sleeping, and showed us an overturned chest of drawers.
'One of the women said that she was afraid to stop in the house, and that she was also afraid to go into her room to pack up her clothing. We went with her into her room, and she told us that she had been awakened by loud bangings on the door, and the crashing of glass. We stayed there until she had packed her bag and then returned to the back bedroom, where Mr. Robinson showed us pennies and coal on the conservatory roof.
'The four of us - all men - were watching these, when suddenly from another bedroom came a great crash and downstairs we heard a woman scream. We ran to the room and there we saw a chest of drawers lying on the floor. It was all very strange, and Mr. Robinson then took us to the kitchen and showed us the damage done there.'
After we had heard the history of the disturbances from their commencement, the Press representative and myself made a tour of the house and carefully inspected the damage, which was considerable. Several of the windows were broken, some with small holes in them as if stones had been fired at them. Some of the panes of glass of the conservatory roof were also shattered, and, lying on the roof, were pebbles, pennies, lumps of coal, potatoes, pieces of soda, etc., which had been thrown there. A door inside the house had also one of its glass panels broken. In the back bedroom we found the panels of the door shattered; a heavy chest of drawers was splintered as if from a fall; and the remains of several smashed ornaments were scattered about. In the hall we saw a smashed hat-stand in two pieces and we viewed the remains of two broken bedroom doors, a tea tray with one of its sides ripped off, and a number of pictures that had fallen to the ground. In the small garden were strewn lumps of soda, coal, etc., and Mr. Robinson pointed out two windows of neighbouring houses which had received the unwelcome attention of the alleged Geist: both had small holes in them as if caused by stones shot from a catapult.
After our tour of inspection we returned to the kitchen where the four of us - Miss Kate Robinson, Mr. Fred Robinson, Mr. Grice, the Evening News representative, and myself - stood chatting. We were the sole occupants of the house. Mr. Grice and I were just about to leave when some hard object fell with a resounding thwack in the passage at the back of us.
The kitchen is connected with the scullery by a short passage. The scullery leads directly to the garden by a door which we had just closed.
Upon the fall of the object we four at once proceeded into the passage and found that a metal ferro-cerium gas-lighter, with a wooden handle, overall length about eight inches, was lying mid-way between the kitchen and scullery. Undoubtedly it had been projected from behind us and had, apparently, struck the wall in its flight. We immediately went back through the scullery and into the garden but no one was visible.
Miss Robinson told us that the gas-lighter - weight about two ounces - was always kept on the gas stove in the scullery. Certainly no one was in the scullery, garden, or passage when the lighter was thrown or fell. I say 'fell' because it is just possible that it may have been placed on the top of the open door that separates the kitchen from the passage. But experiment proved that a considerable push on the door was needed to displace the lighter, which, however, might have been so balanced that a touch would bring it down. But the Robinsons declared that the lighter was on the gas stove when we first visited the scullery. I did not see it there myself; neither did the Evening News representative. It was a curious incident and made an excellent stop-press paragraph for the evening papers!
The Evening News representative and I again visited Eland Road the next morning (Friday) and were told that a number of phenomena had been witnessed since our previous visit. Pieces of coal, pennies, lumps of soda and stones had been thrown about and one more window had been smashed. We stayed about an hour but witnessed nothing unusual.
I arrived back at the National Laboratory about 11.30 and half an hour later was rung up by the editor of the Evening News, who told me that the authorities had removed young Robinson for observation as to his mental state. I was astounded at this fresh development. I had had an hour's conversation with Mr. Fred Robinson on the previous day and had found him quite normal and very intelligent. It is alleged that the police formed a theory that Mr. Robinson, junior, was responsible for the manifestations and had decided to examine him at St. John's Hospital, Battersea.
I again visited the house on Monday afternoon (Jan. 23) and had a long interview with Mrs. Perkins, the widowed sister. Mr. Grice of the Evening News again accompanied me to Eland Road, and again went over the house with me.
The fact that Mr. Frederick Robinson was not now in the house made no difference to the alleged phenomena. Mrs. Perkins told us that during the week-end the manifestations had been both violent and varied. Besides the usual arrival of pieces of coal, etc., there had been 'great activity amongst the furniture'. Chairs, of their own volition, 'had marched down the hall in single file' and three times Mrs. Perkins attempted to lay the table for Saturday's dinner. On each occasion the chairs had piled themselves up on the table, making it impossible for the woman to proceed with the preparation of the meal. At the third attempt, she went out into the road and asked a police officer who was on duty there to enter the house and examine the 'phenomena' for himself. The stolid London policeman naturally accused Mrs. Perkins of piling up the furniture herself. A London policeman knows little about Poltergeists! (See the drawing from Punch, page 3.)
Mrs. Perkins's sister, Miss Robinson, stated that after her brother
had left the house an attaché case 'flew' from a kitchen chair to the floor; an umbrella sprang from the stand in the hall to the kitchen floor; a cruet crashed to the ground; and the table fell over after it had been prepared for dinner.
She continued: 'We were so frightened that we went outside. Through the kitchen window we saw all the kitchen chairs fall over. We went upstairs and found stones on the roof. An extraordinary part about it is that the furniture seemed heavy (1) to pick up again'.
Three persons appear to have witness the alleged spontaneous movement of the furniture, viz. Mrs. Perkins, Miss Robinson, and Peter Perkins, the fourteen-years-old boy who was so frightened - it was stated - that he could hardly be induced to sit on a chair in case it should move. He was afterwards sent to he country to recuperate.
After we had heard the story of what had happened during the weekend, we made another examination of the house. It appeared to be in much the same state as when we left it on the previous Friday. We then returned to the kitchen and the four of us (Mrs. Perkins, Miss Robinson, Mr. Grice and myself) stood chatting in the kitchen when suddenly there was a sound as if a heavy object had fallen behind us, in the kitchen, but near the passage leading to the scullery, the door of which was shut. To me the noise sounded like the fall of a heavy boot or brush and I at once began to look for such an article: so did the Evening News representative. In a minute or so I saw something dark under a chair in the corner and putting my hand on it I found it was a pair of lady's black shoes. Actually I put my hand on a hard object which was in the right shoe and brought it to light. It was a small bronze ornament in the form of a cherub, weighing about four ounces.
The cries of astonishment - real or simulated - with which the ladies greeted my 'find' were renewed when it was discovered that the ornament was missing from the mantlepiece of the front sitting-room, where, I was informed, it had reposed (together with its fellow cherub) for twenty-five years. We were assured that these cherubim and never been removed from the front room. I continued my search of the kitchen but could discover nothing else which could have fallen. If the bronze ornament really came from the next room it must have made two right-angled turns and travelled over our heads. It is conceivable that the ornament may have been thrown by one of the women, but I was within a few inches of both Mrs. Perkins and her sister and saw no suspicious movement on the part of either. Mr. Grice also declares that he saw nothing that could account for the flight of the ornament, which was quite cold when I picked it out of the show; if it had been held in the hand, it would, of course, have retained some of the heat.
We searched the house once more but satisfied ourselves that we
1. It is often alleged that objects displaced by Poltergeists acquire extra weight - H.P.
were the only occupants. Mr. Grice and I arranged to spend the next night in the house. The next day I was informed that the Eland Road house had been shut up, so that I gave up the idea of staying all night. The strange occurrences were driving the family to distraction. With both of its male members away, one daughter ill, and the little boy dispatched to the country, the two remaining sisters determined to quit the house of evil associations. The crowds, too, were frightening them. During the week-end mounted police were necessary in order to keep back the gaping mob which all day and night stood in the road and gazed, open-mouthed, at nothing more thrilling than a couple of broken panes of glass. On the Saturday evening the Battersea hooligans threatened to break into the house if they were not permitted to 'investigate' the phenomena for themselves. As I was leaving on Monday a burly ruffian with a Russian accent accosted me and asked if he could 'mind the place' for me. He would have looked - and felt - much more at home in a vodka bar at Minsk. I declined his services - without thanks.
During the early part of the week Miss Robinson and her sister decided to return to the house. On the Tuesday the news editor of the Daily Express asked me if I would make the experiment of taking a medium to the house in order to see if she could get any 'impressions'; I consented.
The psychic was a Miss X., the daughter of a well-known London professional man and, of course, an amateur. The Daily Express representative was Mr. F.G.H. Salusbury, a gentleman with whom I was already acquainted. We visited Eland Road on Wednesday afternoon, January 25, arriving at the house about three o'clock. Mrs. Perkins was there - the only member of the Robinson family who entered the place that afternoon.
We took Miss X. to every room in the house in order to discover if she received any impression. She at once declared that the place made her feel 'miserable'. This was not particularly illuminating, as many suburban houses have the same effect upon me. But in the kitchen Miss X. declared she felt 'chilly'. There was a good fire burning in the room - in fact, the kitchen was the only apartment which was heated. Neither Mr. Salusbury nor I felt cold in this room; on the contrary, we felt much warmer. But Miss X. continued to get colder and positively shivered. Her respiration slowed down, and her hands were distinctly cold. We left her sitting by the fire watching Mrs. Perkins do her household duties. We then continued our search of the house, carefully closing the kitchen door behind us.
We again examined the upper rooms of the house, inspecting and examining minutely every article of furniture, ornaments, etc., and noting their exact position. Hardly had we reached the top floor when Mr. Salusbury thought he heard something fall down below. I heard
nothing myself, but we visited the lower rooms and could find nothing that had moved. The kitchen door was still closed. In reply to our query we were informed that the ladies in the kitchen had heard nothing. We returned to the upper story after again closing the kitchen door.
The rooms on the top floor of the Eland Road house are divided by a passage which runs from the back to the front of the building. During our inspection of these rooms we must have traversed this narrow and well-lighted passage at least six or seven times. Neither of us noticed anything on the floor of the passage. At this juncture we were in the front room when we both heard an object fall in some part of the house. We immediately turned to go once more to the lower part of the building and simultaneously saw in the passage, with the light falling full on it, a piece of common yellow soap as used for washing clothes. It was lying right in our path, about six feet from the door of the room we had just entered. We both declared that it was utterly impossible for us to have passed that soap without seeing it; to do so seven times without noticing it or treading on it would have been a miracle. Curiously enough, we did not hear it fall - if it did fall.
Without touching the soap, we made our way downstairs to the kitchen, the door of which was still closed. Both Mrs. Perkins and Miss X. declared that neither had moved during our tour of inspection; the door of the kitchen had not been opened and no one could have entered the house except by the front door (which opened only on the inside) or through the garden, scullery and kitchen.
Mrs. Perkins accompanied us to the top floor again and examined the soap, which she said belonged to the scullery. She could not account for its appearance on the top floor. The ladies also had heard something fall in the house, but we all agreed that it did not sound at all like a piece of soap falling. We then carefully examined the soap, which showed no signs of having had a blow or of falling heavily. Miss X. was still cold and shivering, though she had just come from a warm kitchen. We stayed in the house for another half-hour, but nothing further happened.
Mr. Frederick Robinson returned home a few days after the incident of the soap and 1 have heard of no phenomena there since. As I surmised, Mr. Robinson was found to be perfectly normal, and it was preposterous that he should have been compelled to leave his home. The Battersea 'mystery house' affair died a natural death and so another 'Poltergeist case' ended in a very unsatisfactory and inconclusive manner. The elder Mr. Robinson died in the infirmary. The Robinsons vacated the house.
It is obvious that the occurrences which I have described were either genuine phenomena, or were due to some mischievous person or persons with a very powerful motive for disturbing the peace of the locality.
My own first impression was that the ex-soldiers at the mental home had discovered that the Eland Road house was an excellent target for their missiles. The angle at which portions of the house were struck originated this theory in my mind. There had also been 'friction' between the Robinsons and the inmates of the mental home. But no normal exterior force could have smashed crockery and broken the furniture inside the house. I was then faced with the alternative of suspecting the Robinson family of deliberately destroying the home that had sheltered them for twenty-five years, or attributing the phenomena to a paranormal origin.
I at once acquitted the boy, Peter, of having any guilty knowledge of the disturbances, assuming they were caused normally. In the first place, he was absent when many of the phenomena occurred; secondly, he had not the physical strength to inflict the damage which some of the furniture sustained. And with a house fun of people any suspicious action on his part would have been noticed instantly. And on the one occasion when I saw him, he looked thoroughly scared. Though phenomena of the so-called Poltergeist type are often associated with adolescents I am not certain that in the case under review there was any connection between the boy and the manifestations. (1)
More than one visitor to the 'mystery house' has suggested to me that the disturbances were deliberately planned by some of the members of the Eland Road family in order to frighten Robinson pére out of the house - for what reason is not stated. But that theory will not stand analysis. Though the most violent of the alleged phenomena occurred when Mr. Robinson, senior, was in residence, the manifestations were afterwards so numerous and disturbing that, as we have seen, Mr. Robinson, junior, was suspected of originating them and was subjected to considerable annoyance and personal discomfort after his father had left the house. And no family would deliberately smash up their home for the purpose of driving out one of their number, especially when that member is the head of the family and the responsible tenant. And it was after Mr. Robinson senior's departure that the remainder of the family were subjected to the distracting attention of the public, police and Press.
The incidents of the gas-tighter, the cherub and the soap are still puzzling me. On the three occasions when I witnessed the movements of the objects I could never be quite certain that a normal explanation could not be found for the supposed phenomena.
It must be admitted that the problem presents some very unusual features. The removal of the two members of the household, and the suggestion that the early disturbances were caused by the inmates of the sanatorium at the rear of the house, mark the Battersea mystery as being decidedly out of the ordinary run of such cases. I feel convinced,
1. But see Mr. F. Robinson's view, p.238.
though I have no evidence, that the disturbances were started originally by some of the soldiers who were receiving treatment at the private mental home. That the worry and anxiety caused by these disturbances may have reacted on some of the Robinson family seems obvious. Whether this reaction was a normal or extranormal one is, in the absence of further evidence, a matter for speculation. But I consider that the evidence for the abnormality of the occurrences is much stronger than that for the theory that the Robinson family were wholly responsible for the trouble.
In 1941, Mr. Frederick Robinson himself gave the world an account (1) of what happened in Eland Road. What I was not aware of at the time is what he calls the 'most wonderful piece of psychic phenomena anyone could observe, i.e. the dropping of small white slips of paper on the stairs, and about the rooms. This, by the way, never appeared in the Press for some unknown reason. Held up to the light these slips revealed writing as if done with a pin - the messages were sometimes threatening, and sometimes more sober in character. I recall one night after an unusually loud series of rappings seeing a message on a slip of paper come down from nowhere to fall on my bed. Upon elucidation, I read this: "I am having a bad time here. I cannot rest. I was born during the reign of William the Conqueror". The message was signed by the gruesome name of "Tom Blood". Sometimes it was "Jessie Blood".' Those readers who have read the story of the Borley hauntings, will remember that similar messages were found on slips of paper that were found scattered all over the house. And the Borley wall writings are, in many ways, unique.
What supports the theory that Poltergeist phenomena are frequently associated with children or adolescents is the fact that 'these occurrences only took place when my young nephew was in the house .... I was an actual witness of the happenings nearly one hundred times, often when the lad was under observation, and at other times when we were sure he was safely in his room upstairs'. Something similar occurred in the famous Epworth Parsonage case, in which the Wesleys were concerned, as the reader is aware. I think we can be sure that Miss Hetty Wesley was the unconscious prime-mover or focus of the manifestations. She was then about nineteen years old. The phenomena would continue even during her slumbers. Her face would be flushed, she would moan and turn over uneasily in her sleep. The Wesley case has certain correspondences with the Battersea affair in that the disturbances were associated with a child or adolescent - as so often happens.
Well, so much for the Battersea Poltergeist. As I said at the beginning of this chapter, the case was very unusual, particularly the intervention of the police and their extraordinary treatment of Mr. Frederick Robinson.
1. Two Worlds, March 14th, 1941.
While I am on the subject of modern London Poltergeists I will mention a curious case that Professor J. C. Flugel, Dr. C. E. M. Joad and I investigated in 1935 and 1940. The disturbances were in a house at Woodside, Wimbledon, and were originally reported to Joad, who called me in. We visited the place one night and heard the whole story from the occupants - a professional man and his family, including some young children.
The usual phenomena had occurred: raps, bangs, sounds as of heavy furniture being moved, something walking up and down the stairs, doors opening of their own volition, maidservants being locked in their rooms (as frequently happened at Borley), etc. Many of these manifestations were experienced when all the inmates were under observation, and even when the children were away from home.
But we neither heard nor saw anything. The manifestation ceased suddenly, and, five years later, recommenced. Then they again stopped abruptly. I have heard nothing of this case since 1940.
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