Shirley Hitchings and James Clark. The Poltergeist Prince of London: The True Story of the Battersea Poltergeist. The History Press, 2013.
In January 1956 the inhabitants of 63 Wycliffe Road, Battersea were Walter Hitchins, a 48 year old tube driver, his wife Catherine (51), who suffered from arthritis, their daughter Shirley (15) the co-author of this book, Walter’s mother Ethel, a retired district nurse and midwife, and in many ways the local matriarch, along with a male relative who did not want his identity revealed. It is perhaps significant that while Ethel was a devout Roman Catholic of Irish extraction, her son, like his wife was an equally devout member of the Church of England.
On December 15th Shirley had turned 15, she had left school immediately (possibly at the end of the preceding week) and straight away started work as “a dress cutter in the Alterations Department” of a west end department store. One can certainly think about this as a symbolic rite of passage marking “childhood’s ending” and her joining the adult world of work. In some ways however she was still treated as a small child, sharing the same downstairs bedroom as her parents, into which she was locked at night, because her mother was fearful that Shirley’s sleepwalking would lead to her injuring herself. It is on her bed in this room that at the end of January Shirley finds a mysterious key, which does not fit any room in the house. A symbolic key to the door?
This triggers a series of alleged paranormal events, which, as these things do, escalates from tapping heard all around the house (which may have had some environmental cause), to things allegedly moving about in the classic poltergeist fashion. One of the upshots of these was that Shirley lost her job. However in this case, the poltergeist started tapping out messages, then writing them out, eventually typing them. The rather vague identity of the this spooky writer, given the name Donald, escalated from being a neighbour boy Shirley had been fond of and who had left the district, to the extraordinary claim that Donald was actually Louis-Charles the dauphin of France, who was supposed to have died in prison in 1795, but in this account was rescued only to drown while travelling to England.
The escalation of this story coincided with the arrival on the scene of the spiritualists, journalists, thrill seekers and psychical researchers that one gets in these cases. By far the most important of the latter was a pioneer Fortean, Harold Chibbets. For the next two years or so, Chibbets would be intimately involved with the family, and much of this book is derived from his notes. Despite initial doubts, Chibbets soon became convinced of the paranormal nature of the events, and of the view that ‘Donald’ was a separate entity. This was not a view shared by the veteran psychical researcher Andrew Green, who was sure that Shirley was the author of these missives, though probably in a dissociative state.
Any non-spiritualist who examines the extensive transcripts of these letters and notes reproduced in the book, will surely concur with Green, for they are all about Shirley, from their abuse of her grandmother, her obsession with heartthrob actors such as James Spenser (now entirely forgotten, at least by Google) and James Dean, who for a time gives ‘Donald’ a run for his money in the communications department. His orders and antics lead to Shirley loosing more than one job, so she can stay at home and play with dolls with him, like a little girl. Donald is in fact something like an overgrown childhood ‘invisible friend’, of the sort who is responsible for all the mischief. Donald ensures Shirley gets her own room, passes comment on her boyfriends, match-makes, and indeed acts as dictator of the household.
By contrast his knowledge of French, French history and royalty is shaky. He constantly refers to himself as Louis-Philip, something which puzzled Chibbets, who didn’t seem to grasp that Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) was the last King of France (1830-48). Not an error that the dauphin would have made, but an easy mistake for a teenager with hazy knowledge of French history who couldn’t tell one Louis from another. Only as Chibbets educates him the niceties of French royal history, does Donald’s story change and change. It is perhaps interesting that in a way, the dauphin’s fall from wealth and privilege to poverty and humiliation in prison, is echoed by Shirley’s mother’s decent from relative prosperity to being an utterly destitute orphan, living on some relative’s bare floor.
Of course one can’t prove that all the Donald letters were written by the same person, and it might well be that all sorts of other people got in on the act, both in the family and without, so we can’t be sure that the same person who wrote to Chibbets and Green is the one who was responsible for a spate of poison pen letters in the area.
As seems to be the case the polt gradually fades away after Shirley gets married and escapes her parent’s house.
If this is a case of dissociation then one can’t help feeling that it was greatly exacerbated by Chibbets, who in his fascination for historical research rather forgot that the welfare of the people concerned should have been his primary concern. Ultimately the Donald figure presents dreams of glamour and freedom from what at best must have been a claustrophobic environment, and provided Shirley with extra months of play before fully entering the adult world.
James Clark presents a balanced, neutral picture, which avoids sensationalism, and this book should be of interest to students of the paranormal and human psychology alike. – Peter Rogerson.