Tom Slemen's Haunted World

The Thing in Berkeley Square
by Tom Slemen

Long before Mayfair's Berkeley Square was synonymous with nightingales (thanks to Eric Maschwitz's song), the place was invariably associated with a rather nasty ghost that was alleged to inhabit number 50, a four-storey townhouse that dated back to the 1740s. It was once the London home of Prime minister George Canning (1770-1827), but it seems very unlikely that the well-documented supernatural goings-on at number 50 are anything to do with his spirit, as Canning died at Chiswick. No one seems to know just what haunted number 50, because few who encountered it lived to tell the tale, and those who did survive were always left insane by the supernatural confrontation.

All we can do is piece together the fragments of anecdotes and accounts that concern the Berkeley Square entity.

In 1840, the 20-year-old dandy and notorious rake Sir Robert Warboys heard the eerie rumours about the Berkeley Square Thing in a Holborn tavern one night, and laughingly dismissed the tales as 'unadulterated poppycock'.

Sir Robert's friends disagreed with him, and dared him to spend a night in the haunted second-floor room in Berkeley Square.

Warboys raised his flagon of ale in the air and announced: 'I wholeheartedly accept your preposterous harebrained challenge!'

That same night, Sir Robert visited the haunted premises to arrange an all-night vigil with the landlord. The landlord tried to talk Sir Robert out of the dare, but the young man refused to listen, and demanded to be put up for the night in the haunted room. The landlord finally gave in to Sir Robert's demands, but stipulated two conditions; if the young man saw anything 'unearthly' he was to pull a cord that would ring a bell in the landlord's room below. Secondly, Sir Robert would have to be armed with a pistol throughout the vigil. The young libertine thought the conditions were absurd, but agreed to them just to get the landlord out of his hair.

The landlord handed Warboys a pistol and left as a clock in the room chimed the hour of midnight. Sir Robert sat at a table in the candlelit room and waited for the 'Thing' to put in an appearance.

Forty-five minutes after midnight, the landlord was startled out of his sleep by the violent jangling of the bell. A single gunshot in the room above echoed through the house. The landlord raced upstairs and found Sir Robert sitting on the floor in the corner of the room with a smoking pistol in his hand. The young man had evidently died from traumatic shock, for his eyes were bulged, and his lips were curled from his clenched teeth. The landlord followed the line of sight from the dead man's terrible gaze and traced it to a single bullet hole in the opposite wall. He quickly deduced that Warboys had fired at the 'Thing', to no avail.

Three years after Warboys' death, Edward Blunden and Robert Martin, two sailors from Portsmouth, wandered into Berkeley Square in a drunken state and noticed the 'To Let' sign at number 50. They had squandered most of their wages on drink and couldn't afford lodgings, so they broke into number 50. Finding the lower floors too damp, the sailors staggered upstairs and finally settled down on the floor of the infamous room.

It proved to be a serious mistake. Blunden told his friend he felt nervous in the room, and felt a 'presence', but Martin told his shipmate he'd been at sea too long, and was soon snoring.

A little over an hour later, the door of the room burst open, and the enormous shadowy figure of a man floated towards the sailors. Martin woke up and found himself unable to move. He was paralysed with fear. Blunden tried to get to his feet, but the entity seized him by the throat with its cold, misty-looking hands and started to choke him.

Martin suddenly gained enough courage to enable him to spring to his feet. He tried to confront the apparition, but was so horrified by its deformed face and body, he found himself fleeing from the house. He encountered a policeman in the square outside and told him of the vapoury assailant that was throttling his friend. The bemused policeman followed the distressed sailor into number 50 and when the two men entered the room up on the second floor, there was no sign of Blunden. They searched the entire house, and found the missing sailor's body in the basement. His neck had been broken and his face was contorted in a terror-stricken grimace.

Documentary evidence for the aforementioned incidents is very scant, but the eminent psychical researcher Harry Price unearthed a great deal of data on the Berkeley Square bogeyman while investigating the case in the 1920s. Price scoured periodicals and newspapers from the mid 18th century onwards for a reference to the ghost of Berkeley Square, and discovered that in the 1790s, a gang of counterfeiters and coin-clippers had used number 50 as their headquarters. Price speculated that the criminals had invented the ghost to disguise the true nature of the bumps in the night: the printing presses churning out bank notes. But the theory could not explain how the ghost was heard decades after the counterfeit gang had been detected and thrown into prison. Price discovered more intriguing references to the ghost. In 1840, several neighbours of number 50 Berkeley Square heard a medley of strange sounds emanating from the haunted house; bumps on the stairs, dragging noises as if heavy objects were being moved around, jangling of signal bells below the stairs, and the tramping of footsteps. Price read that one of the braver neighbours who had grown weary of the noisy spectre obtained a key and dashed into the house one night during the creepy cacophony. There was no one in the house. Down in the kitchen, the signal bells were still bouncing on their curled springs.

Price found another thought-provoking account of the ghost in Notes and Queries, a magazine published during the 1870s. An article in the publication by the writer W. E. Howlett stated: The mystery of Berkeley Square still remains a mystery. The story of the haunted house in Mayfair can be recapitulated in a few words; the house contains at least one room of which the atmosphere is supernaturally fatal to body and mind. A girl saw, heard and felt such horror in it that she went mad, and never recovered sanity enough to tell how or why.

A gentleman, a disbeliever in ghosts, dared to sleep in number 50 and was found a corpse in the middle of the floor after frantically ringing for help in vain. Rumour suggests other cases of the same kind, all ending in death, madness, or both as a result of sleeping, or trying to sleep in that room. The very party walls of the house, when touched, are found saturated with electric horror. It is uninhabited save by an elderly man and his wife who act as caretakers; but even these have no access to the room. This is kept locked, the key being in the hands of a mysterious and seemingly nameless person who comes to the house once every six months, locks up the elderly couple in the basement, and then unlocks the room and occupies himself in it for hours.

Price continued to research the history of number 50, and learned that the house had been empty for remarkably long periods, yet the address was one of the most desirable ones in London, so why had the house been left vacant for so long? Had the rumours scared off prospective occupants, or had the ghost itself frightened them away? Price could not answer this question, nor could he draw any firm conclusions to the whole case. His final surmise was that a particularly nasty poltergeist had been active at number 50 in the 1840s, but doubted that the 'thing' was still at large.

But there have been many ghostly encounters at number 50 in recent times. In January 1937, Mrs Mary Balfour, an octogenarian lady of a stately Scottish family, moved into a flat in Charles Street, which lies adjacent to Berkeley Square. One night Mrs Balfour's maid summoned her to come to the kitchen situated at the rear of the flat. The maid was staring intently through the window at the rear of a house diagonally opposite. It was the rear of Berkeley Square. The maid drew Mrs Balfour's attention to one of the rear windows of number 50, where a man stood dressed in a silver-coloured coat and breeches. He wore a periwig and had a drawn, morose ashen face. The two women thought he had been to some New Year fancy dress party, because his clothes were centuries out of date. The man moved away from the window, and Mrs Balfour and her maid were later shocked to learn from a doctor that they had sighted one of the ghosts of number 50 Berkeley Square. The doctor told them that number 50 was currently unoccupied, but workmen in the building two months back had seen the phantom of a little girl in a kilt on the stairs.

Stories of the haunted house continue to circulate today in Mayfair. Late at night, faces are said to peep out from the upper windows of number 50, which is now occupied by a firm of antiquarian book sellers. Will the 'thing' ever make a comeback? Only time will tell.