5 January 2011


Peter Underwood. The Ghost Club: A History. Limbury Press, 2010.

The Ghost Club, as described in this slim volume, seems a rather strange, but very interesting organisation. Peter Underwood recounts a number of early starts in the nineteenth century. A 'Ghost Society' was first set up in Cambridge in 1851, its members including both a future Prime Minister and a future Archbishop of Canterbury.
So the social level of the organisation was determined from the start. This eventually became mixed up with a rather vague Ghost Club Version II which was set up in 1862 or thereabouts in London, and included amongst its members characters such as the Headmaster of Westminster School, the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick and "other men of quality", as Underwood phrases it.

Version II didn't last long, but with the development of Spiritualism in the USA and England, interest revived and Version III was set up in 1882, which was again the exclusive preserve of "men of quality". Some of the details of the operation of this Club are very revealing. It seems to have been run as a combination of a London Gentleman's Club such as Whites or the Carlton, and a public school; both worlds which would be familiar to its members.

Meetings started with a ceremonial roll-call at which members present stood and called out "Here" as their name was called. When the name of a deceased member was called, the President proclaimed "Passed on". The meeting consisted of a formal dinner, after which a member would relate some personal experience of haunting or the occult. Members referred to each other as 'Brother Ghost' and membership was strictly by invitation only, with the threat of being 'blackballed' always hovering over potential members.

Naturally no women were allowed, although in 1926 an Annual Ladies Guest Night was inaugurated. Clearly the Suffragettes did not campaign in vain!

To be fair, during the course of these meetings a great deal of interesting material was discussed, although there seems to have been little critical examination of the evidence presented by the speakers - this was, after all, primarily a gentleman's social club.

By the 1930's the Club was in decline, Underwood suggesting that by then most members had heard each others' anecdotes rather too many times! In 1936 it was wound up with its records finding their way to the British Museum (now in the British Library) with a 25-year embargo on them being opened.

Version IV was started by Harry Price in 1938. This version seemed to have a rather broader recruitment policy than its predecessors, membership now extending to 500, but still dominated by men (and now women) of quality; people like Siegfried Sassoon the poet, Osbert Sitwell, Robert Gibbings the wood-engraver and travel writer, and a certain Cyril Wilkinson, described as a "society ear piercer" - how exactly do you get a job like that?

There were also, however, people who were active in the field of psychic research such as Dr Soal and Kathleen Goldney of the SPR. The meeting were again held over a formal dinner, but some quite interesting topics were discussed, and usually from guest speakers rather that relying on the membership's anecdotage. Version IV faded away after the death of Harry Price, who seemed to be the motivating force.

1954 saw the birth of Version V, operating under a distinguished Committee including the society ear-piercer, and with Peter Underwood emerging as President. Much of the rest of this book is basically a summary of the minutes of the Club meetings, with a list of speakers and topics discussed. And also it's the point at which we start to meet some of the many ghost-hunters and psychical researchers who operated at a slightly less elevated stratum of society than in the Club's earlier incarnations. There also seems to be evidence of some actual research being done, and members venturing beyond the confines of London's clubland.

Gordon Creighton was a member and is described as "of Fortean Times fame" which rather puzzled me. I had the unworthy thought that it might not have been considered de rigeur to have acknowledged his links to flying saucers, but noticed that later on he did actually speak on 'The Mystery of Flying Saucers'. However the author is careful to note that he did this "with his background of 25 years in British Diplomatic and Intelligence work in Europe, the Americas and the Far East".

A few other familiar names begin to creep in at this point, too: Jenny Randles spoke on 'UFO Retrievals', Hugh Pincott of ASSAP on Uri Geller, Mary Caine explained the Glastonbury Zodiac, Mick Goss spoke on his specialist subject of the phantom hitch-hiker, and Charles Bowen and Hilary Evans both paid a visit.

And so did I. Or did I? This account ends very suddenly in 1993, with the announcement that "Bill Bellars saw himself in authority. He was suddenly and unkindly critical of me and everything I had done". Bill seems to have sprung out like the Demon King from a pantomime trapdoor, and there is no mention of him anywhere earlier in the narrative. I had to check Google to find that he was "Polaris submariner Cmdr. Bill Bellars OBE". Distinguished ex-military types being very much part of the establishment of the Ghost Club in all its versions.

This usurping of Peter Underwood from his 'President for Life'-type role caused the Club to split in two; Bellars leading what appears to be a rump 'Ghost Club', with according to Underwood, about 80% of the membership leaving to form a Continuity 'Ghost Club Society'. It was one or the other of these that I spoke to some time in the 1990s, at rather elegant premises just off Connaught Square in Bayswater, but to my shame I cannot remember which!

This is, as I have said, a very slim volume (44 pages plus 12 pages of photographs) and very specialised in its content, so I doubt it will be of much interest to the general public, but I am sure anyone connected with the Ghost Club, in any of its versions and offshoots will certainly want to have a copy.-- Reviewed by John Rimmer.

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