The Pill Maker’s Poltergeist and Other Tales of Urban Ghosts.
In his always fascinating 'Ghostwatch' column in Fortean Times 291, Alan Murdie draws our attention to the phenomena of 'urban ghosts'. These were not the typical SPR phantoms in nice country houses, nor the traditional ghosts of 'ye ancient pile'; they were stories of ghosts in urban settings, which became the centre of attention for huge crowds. The stories which I present here are a first selection of these.
The first takes place in St Helens, in the late 19th century a rapidly rising industrial town, best known for its glass works. The centre of this story however was another St Helens firm, Messers Beecham’s pill makers, owned by Thomas Beecham, grandfather of the famous conductor of that name.
He had come to the town in 1858/59 and by the 1880s his firm of patent medicines was making huge strides. In the years 1884-1889 the amount spent on advertising (example left) rose from £22,000 to £95,000 and the work force from 19 to 88. (T. C. Barker and R Harris, A Merseyside Town in the Industrial Revolution 1750-1900, Liverpool University Press, 1954, pp.378-9) This meant the construction of new premises and while that was going on the firm moved to temporary premises. This when the trouble began.
The man at the centre of things was the works manager, a man who gave his name as Walter Robert Andrews, said to have been born in the outskirts of Bristol around 1844, but who cannot be found until his marriage to the pregnant Elizabeth Dyson in Walton, Liverpool, in 1870. His association with the firm will terminate soon after the opening of the new factory in 1887. The 1891 census shows him working as an insurance agent in Walton on the Hill, by 1901 he is trying his hand as a mineral water maker and by 1911 he is described as retired engineer. He is joined in this adventure by his son Walter James Andrews (1870-1890).
I have not been able to access St Helens papers as the local studies library there is closed for refurbishment, but regional papers tell the full story.
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 26 August 1885.
THE FREAKS OF A ST. HELENS GHOST. During the past few weeks the employees of Messrs. Beecham, manufacturers, St. Helens, have been alarmed by an extraordinary series of performances of what has been termed "ghost." The Messrs. Beecham some time ago determined to rebuild their manufactory, and for this purpose the machinery was moved into a building in Lowe-street belonging to the same firm, which had been used as sawmill, but which for a year or two had remained unoccupied.
A portion of the ground floor had recently been taken as a co-operative store, and the upper room by the Salvation Army as a barracks: and Messrs. Beecham utilised the remaining portion as a temporary pill manufactory. During the day the work goes on without anything extraordinary taking place, but as soon as darkness sets and the place is locked up, "beings of immortal shape" take possession. The public assemble nightly in Lowe-street watching for the "supernatural," which, however, has not been seen. So far our inquiries go, it seems that the "antics" of the ghost are confined to stone-throwing.
The manager of the works, Mr. Andrews, gives us an instance. On Sunday night week he was a little conservatory the rear of the building with his son, about 15 years of age, and started to go his nightly rounds through the building. He opened back door and he and his son walked in, when a missile, apparently launched at him, struck the door with great force. He looked round, but saw one, as indeed he had seen no one on previous nights when he had experienced the same thing. He moved forward a little, when another stone came in a slanting direction and struck the wall. This was followed by another, which struck some iron wheels, making a clear ring, and then the further door was struck fourth. This sort of thing had been going on for some weeks, and although a number of workmen had been got together and formed band and scoured the place, searching particularly every nook and corner, no trace of anyone could be seen.
The police had been appealed to, and constables had perambulated the premises, but with no effect, and as yet the mystery has not been solved. Of course the excited crowds outside have imagined all sorts of things appertaining to the invisible, and have done some damage to the building by breaking glass, &c. With the exception of the doors inside being dented and brass machine being struck by some missiles, no damage has been done inwardly. The chief work of the police has been to keep the street clear. An entrance has not been made into the works since Sunday night week, but it is stated that the missiles can be heard flying about. This extraordinary occurrence has caused great excitement, and will continue to do so until the mystery is solved. Suspicions are fixed on a certain person who is believed to be playing an exceedingly clover hoax; but if detected in the works it will be "the worse for him," unless he is made of stuff that the penetration of lead will not affect.
Cheshire Observer 29 August 1885
A ST. HELENS GHOST STORY- A sensation is just now raging in St Helens the cause the cause of which, being shrouded in mystery. has given rise to all kind .of wild speculation. Mr Beecham, the world-famed pill-maker, has. removed his. manufactory to premises in Lowe Street, pending the completion of his new works. The temporary building was formerly a saw-mill. Mr Beecham occupies the basement, comprising three rooms, and the large hall overhead is utilised as the headquarters of the local branch of General Booth's warriors.
Almost every night during the past three months there has been s stone-throwing seance in the works, performed with such success that although the gas has been suddenly turned on the "spirit” escaped detection. Whether these performances have a sinister motive in their accomplishment, or may be regarded as the outcome of a sportive disposition, remains yet to be discovered. But one thing is certain, that if the unknown one who has been the cause of so much annoyance is caught, he will be speedily introduced to a magistrate.
It is the custom of Mr Beecham's manager, Mr Andrews, to make a nightly inspection of the works. For between two and three months his entrance has been welcomed by the throwing of missiles with such velocity and accuracy of aim that it was deemed prudent to erect a door opposite the main entrance for protection. Scheme after scheme for the detection of the perpetrator has been unsuccessfully put into effect. Whoever the individual may be he has carried out his little game with a persistency and an ingenuity that would have distinguished him if employed in s better cause. For four successive nights - that is from eight till dsybreak - Mr Andrew, with s staff of men paraded the works determined to capture the delinquent. The stone-tbrowing went on as usual, but Mr Andrews and his men failed after repeated search to bring the mysterious one to light. At last the assistance of the police was obtained.
A detective backed by five men, good and true, entered the works determined not to leave the premises until they had captured the intruder. The gas had been left burning low. The instant the stone throwing commenced the lights were quickly turned up and the searchers rushed in the direction from which the missiles came. The mysterious one, however, had disappeared into thin air for the nonce, and the detective and his five men quitted the premises baffled and disappointed. On this night about 30 missiles - copper slag, pieces of brick, scraps of stone, etc., in weight averaging from four or five ounces - were thrown. Of the hundreds of missiles thrown, not one has caused personal injury, although some of them have passed in dangerous proximity to the person. No property has been removed from the works.
It having been suggested that the mischief-maker might be a member of the monkey tribe, dogs were introduced, but although the stones darted about as usual no " Jacko " could be found. Meanwhile the public got wind of the occurrence! Imaginative women, peeping through crevices, saw inhabitants of the invisible world in every shape and form floating about the air ; and gossip -mongers knew for s fact that skulls had been dog up, pointing to the conclusion that all kinds of foul murders bad been committed.
Every night last week crowds of people thronged the streets near the works, and on Friday evening when the last seance took place hundreds of people congregated about the works, giving the streets the appearance of a fair. Fried fish sellers and hot potato vendors drove a roaring trade. The police had a busy time of it in keeping the thoroughfares passable, and it was not until the small hours of the morning that the crowd was finally dispersed. Hundreds of people again assembled on Saturday night, but as there was no seance the police had not so much difficulty in dispersing the crowd. The works are now being watched by the police and others, and no doubt the unknown one will cease his pranks — for the present at least.
Warrington Examiner August 29 1885 p. 6, col. b.
A STRANGE GHOST STORY: Extraordinary proceedings. A great sensation , and one that has occasioned very lively comment, has arisen in St Helens during the past few weeks by the alleged haunting of the manufactory of the world-famed pills of Messes Beecham. To say the least, the incidents which have occurred therein have been of the most startling character, and their exceedingly mysterious nature has given rise to rumours that they are of supernatural origin. Whatever doubts may exist as to the latter theory, the occurrences are still unexplained, and the mystery remains unsolved.
Messes Beecham’s establishment is situated in Westfield-street St Helens, but some months ago they decided to rebuild it on a more extended scale. In order to carry out these operations the machinery was removed to another building in Lowe Street, belonging to the firm. The greater portion of this building was formerly used as a saw mill, but it remained unoccupied for a year or two. At present Messes Beecham occupy the basement, comprising three rooms, while another portion of the ground floor is taken up by the St Helens Industrial Co-operative Society, and the upper room is used as a barracks by the Salvation Army.
Each day the employees of Messes Beecham perform their accustomed duties without hindrance or inconvenience, but after darkness has set in for some two or three months past their have been nightly occurrences, which have given rise to every imaginable rumour as to “Ghosts and Goblins”. Party of the duty of Mr Andrews, the manager, has been to inspect the building each night after the men have left, and this has lately been an exiting the risky undertaking. No sooner has Mr Andrews entered the works to make his accustomed rounds than he has been assailed by an alarming shower of stones, pieces of brick, copper slag and other missiles, hurled with great force by some unseen hand.
This has been an almost nightly occurrence for a considerable period, and the elucidation of the mystery has baffled the most searching investigation of police officers and other inquirers. As an instance of the stone throwing Mr Andrews states that on Sunday night week he was in a little conservatory at the rear of the building with his son, about fifteen years of age, and started to go on his nightly rounds through the building. he opened the back door and he and his son walked in, when a missile, apparently launched at him, struck the door with great force. He looked round, but saw no one, as indeed he had seen no one on previous nights when he had experienced the same thing. He moved forward a little when another stone came in a slanting direction and struck the wall. This was followed by another which struck some iron wheels, making a clear ring, and then the further door was struck by a fourth.
With the view of unravelling the mystery, bands of workmen have got together and patrolled the works and its neighbourhood, while the aid of the police has been sought. Scheme after scheme for the detection of the author of the stone throwing has hitherto been unsuccessful. The steps taken to secure the stoppage of the noisome visitations have apparently been of a most complete character. For four successive nights, from sunset till daybreak. Mr Andrews with a staff of men have paraded the works. but after the closest searches they have failed to bring the mysterious individual to light. On another occasion five police officers entered the works and determined not to leave the premises until they had [cornered?] the intruder. For that purpose the gas was set burning low, and the instant the stone throwing commenced the lights were turned up and the searchers rushed in the direction from which the missiles had apparently proceeded, but again the search was fruitless and the policemen left the premises disappointed.
On the night in question about 30 missiles, including pieces of bricks, stones and etc., were thrown, their weight averaging from four to five ounces.. A suggestion was made that the mischief maker might be a member of the monkey tribe, but dogs were introduced without success, though the stones flew as usual. Information as to these alarming proceedings naturally spread throughout the town, and each evening for the past fortnight the neighbourhood of Beecham’s Pill Works has had an animated appearance.
A crowd of some hundreds of persons has nightly gathered in the vicinity. The police have had some difficulty in keeping the footpaths clear. The superstitious gossip mongers in the vicinity have imagined all sorts of things, and rumours of “ghosts and goblins” having been seen floating about have been circulated on every hand. It is needless to add that these and numberless other assertions are absolutely without foundation. The genuine manifestations have been confined to stone throwing, and of these mysterious occurrences there can be no doubt. A large number of individuals have volunteered to render assistance in ferreting out the “invisible one” and Mr Andrews on several occasions has permitted them to undergo the trying ordeal. he states however that one trial has been sufficient to test the nerves of the bravest among them., and they have manifested an anxious desire to escape to a place of safety at all possible speed.
Another singular part of the affair is the fact that not withstanding all the stones that have been flying about, neither Mr Andrews nor any of those who have witnessed the occurrences have ever been injured or even struck by any of the stones. There have, however, been some very narrow escapes, many of the stones having past within a few inches of the bodies and faces of those present. The only damage to the property inside has been the “[dinging?]” of doors and other woodwork, while a brass machine also bears evidence of having been struck by a stone. So violent and accurate was the stone throwing a short time ago that it was deemed advisable for the safety of Mr Andrews to erect a wooden partition opposite the main entrance, and this partition still remains.
The excitement attending the affair seemed to reach a culminating point on Sunday evening when some thousands of persons visited the spot. The crush around the doors to look inside the works through crevions(?) in the door was so great that the gate was burst open. From seven o clock on Monday evening until 9 o'clock on Tuesday morning thousands of persons flooded to the neighbourhood, but the crowd was a good deal more orderly than on the previous evening, On Monday night two policemen and six of Mr Beecham’s employees were stationed outside the building while Mr Andrews was on duty inside, with a view of capturing the “spirit”.
Notwithstanding these precautions, however, when Mr Andrews paraded the works a large stone of about half a pound in weight was violently thrown and struck the wall near to where he then was. That was the only missile thrown during the night. On Tuesday morning a member of the Salvation Army volunteered to solve the mystery, not by physical means, but he declared that he would invoke divine aid, and since Monday night the stone throwing has ceased. Mr Andrews expressing the opinion to our representative on Thursday that he thought the manifestations would (cease?)” for the present”.
He added that he did not think the occurrences were due to any supernatural cause but he thought it was a clever dodge on the part of some scheming individual. In their efforts to the latter men had surrounded the works, been on the roof, stood at every door, and yet the stone throwing had gone on. He observed that one constable who was rambling in the dark through the works in his endeavour to discover the marauder fell down an old saw “pit” and so damaged his clothing that the firm produced new articles of clothing for him. The room of the Salvation Army had also been visited by the nocturnal wanderer and on one occasion the drum and money-box were struck, sending a rattle through the room.. Up to Thursday evening the strange affair had not been explained, but as long as it remains in its present state the excitement is not likely to diminish.
For the last two days hopes have been entertained by Mr Beecham, Mr Andrews, his employees and public generally that the extraordinary performances had ceased, and that the “ghost” had either vanished entirely or removed his quarters. About half past seven o clock on Thursday night however, Mr Andrews and his son went into the works to fetch out their overcoats as the evening was wet. All seemed quiet and Mr Andrews remarked that he should very much like to do a little of the work, which was in arrears owning the disturbances, but that he was almost afraid to stay. He had scarcely uttered the words when a large piece of copper slag, weighing half a pound, came whizzing through the air, rolled over a number of parcels, struck a bench and then dropped to the floor. Neither Mr Andrews nor his son was hurt.
Previous suspicions have been carried into another channel by the following letter which on Thursday was received by Mr Beecham:
- ”Dear Sir In reference to the ghost in Lowe-st by Reports I note that you cannot find anything, have you, Sir, Examined the floor. It is my firm opinion that someone Carrying out an illegal Business and that there are subterranean vaults of which you are not aware, it may be a subterranean passage from Cowley Hill (C.M.) Perhaps dynamitards) it is very advisable to be very Cautious in the Proceedings as the consequences might be fatal should you fall on them in their lair they would in all probability be desperate it is quite evident that there are someone there that have no business there, and you are stumbling block in their way, and so they have formed a conspiracy to try and frighten you from the premises. “
The envelope bears the Prescot postmark and is addressed to Mr Beecham, pill manufacturer, St Helens, private. The letter bears a signature but until enquiries have been made it is not considered advisable to publish it. Mr Andrews says many persons have an idea that 'Beecham’s Ghost' has been 'got up' as an advertisement, but he states that no such idea has been entertained, and that the members of the firm are all mystified as to the extraordinary occurrences.!
We can see one of the great “traditions of disbelief” here; that ghostly things are got up by nefarious people trying to drive the residents out. These tend to be folk devils of the current social panics, here we see the coiners and smugglers of tradition replaced by 'dynamitards' (i.e. Anarchists, who occupied the same role as folk devils as do radical Islamists today).
This was not the first industrial haunting in the St Helens area. Peter Underwood in his Ghosts of North-West England (Fontana 1978) records the strange events in a flint glass work and showroom at Croppers Brow in September 1875 when “an industrious loyal and reliable glass engraver” was interrupted at 3 o clock one Wednesday afternoon by a shower of stones smashing the windows. These did not come from a polt but from a crowd of people outside who claimed that they saw a ghostly face in the window. Clearly there was something of a local tradition for ghost stories to be an excuse for vandalism.
Meanwhile the phantom chucker moved to the leafier Warrington suburb of Stockton Heath, an area that was just beginning the suburbanisation that would accelerated with the building of the Manchester Ship Canal the next decade.
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday 31st October, 1885, p.11.
WARRINGTON GHOST STORY. During the past few days (says a Liverpool contemporary) the inhabitants of Stockton Heath, a usually quiet suburb of Warrington, have had their minds considerably agitated by some extraordinary phenomena. A short time ago the public of St. Helens were startled by mysterious operations a certain pill manufactory that were popularly supposed to be due to supernatural agency.
It will be remembered that despite all precautions that could be taken large numbers of stones of rather peculiar appearance wore thrown about the building in all directions in a most unaccountable manner. This took place whenever anyone entered the building, and in the presence large numbers of people, who had been attracted there by the rumours of the mysterious doings In spite, however, of the closest watching no one so far has fathomed the mystery, and a mystery it still remains. From what can be learned it would appear that the ghost, if ghost it be, migrated from the busy manufacturing Lancashire borough to the rural Cheshire village. Here mysterious stone-throwing, similar in character, has been taking place at intervals for some days.
The particular part of the village where this has been going on in close proximity to the churchyard, and the unwelcome visitant has displayed considerable activity. The scene of its operations is one of a row of better-class houses abutting on the high road. Instead of, like the rest of its kind, disturbing the quietude of timorous mortals in the darkness of night, it has not feared to brave the full light of day. The first indication of its presence was the smashing of glass in the greenhouse. At first little notice was taken of this, but when the first stone was succeeded by others, a temporary feeling of annoyance gave way to one of uncomfortable anxiety. The missiles were common paving stones, and after a large quantity of glass had been destroyed it was determined that no effort should be spared to clear up the mystery.
Accordingly sentinels were stationed in front, behind, and on the top of the house. Despite their vigilance, in one day, the third since the commencement of these strange doings, no fewer than twelve fomidable-looking stones were quietly dropped from the direction of the roof on the greenhouse, shattering about as many large panes of glass. A day of quietness intervened, but on the following day the window smashing was repeated in a more singular manner still.
While several people were watching at various points, a crash of breaking glass was heard at the front of the house, and, a rush being made to the spot, an ordinary pane of glass was found to have been broken, and the glass was lying some yards away near a paving stone, and everything pointed to the theory that the stone had been thrown the inside of the house. The singular part of the story is that no one so far as can be ascertained, was in that portion of the house, which was the parlour, and the thing remains shrouded in mystery despite the efforts of the inhabitants and the police.
Warrington Guardian, 24th October 1885 p.5, col. 2.
BEECHAM’S GHOST AT STOCKTON HEATH: During the past week a peculiar affair, which has caused considerable excitement has taken place at Stockton Heath. A clerk employed by Wilderspool Brewery has had nearly twenty widows of his conservatory, which is attached to his private residence, broken. A rigorous look out has been kept both night and day for the depredators but they have not been discovered and some of the credulous attribute the damage to “Beecham’s Ghost”, which caused so great a sensation at St Helens a short time since, but more sensible people consider it to be the work of some mischievous persons.
- Four years later a disused flour mill in Warrington was to become the scene of crowd excitement similar to that at Cropper’s Brow.
Liverpool Echo, 5 September 1889.
ALLEGED GHOST AT WARRINGTON. The headless lady. The inhabitants the neighbourhood of Dial Street Warrington, are just now somewhat exercised in their minds regarding the alleged appearance of a ghost and other supernatural mysteries In the street in question there is an old mill formerly used as corn mill by Messers Fairclough, which is now in a state of disuse and neglect. One night this week, it is stated, a strange light was noticed in the building and rumours have since been circulated (about) a ghostly visitant, blood-curdling tales at the same time being told as to what occurred in the locale some time ago.
It said that in the dim and distant past a lady was murdered in the neighbourhood. in question, and that now her spirit haunts the place at that particular hour when "churchyards yawn and .graves give their dead." Tradition does not say what means were adopted to put an end to the to the life of the poor lady, but as she is reported appear in the spirit in a headless condition; its is surmised that her death must have been a terrible one. The apparition, it is alleged, when the ghostly presence is revealed to unfortunate members of the male sex, give an utterance to a scream (to) literally make the flesh creep, and hence the name of too "Screaming Lady" has been awarded the wandering headless one.