by Angela Bachini, Cataloguer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
There is a long tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. As the days become shorter and the darkness creeps in, we illuminate our houses with flickering fairy lights and candles in an imitation of the fires our ancestors lit to see them through the long cold nights around the winter solstice, and to protect them from what lurked outside after crossing the veil. And what better way to pass the time during those long nights than by telling tales of these spectral visitors?
The weaving of stories of death and resurrection has roots in old beliefs, but there has been an unceasing appetite for these accounts through the ages, with the means of circulation evolving. One of the most famous Christmas ghost stories is of course the Victorian novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, who passed the baton to the early 20th century writer M.R. James among others. Some of James’ stories have been adapted for ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, a series of BBC films for television originally broadcast in the 1970s and revived in the early 2000s.
We’ve come across a number of ghostly tales while listening to the recordings we’re digitising as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project here at The Keep. The following clips were taken from recordings made between 1974 and 1996, and include accounts of recent sightings as well as retellings of local legends. They hark back to the oral tradition of storytelling but are preserved and made available through progressions in audio technology.
On 26 December 1975, BBC Radio Brighton broadcast a Boxing Day edition of ‘Coffee Break’, their daily morning programme ‘especially for the women at home’. This festive broadcast was recorded in the atmospheric setting of a 13th or 14th century farmhouse somewhere in the Sussex countryside, and featured a group of people sitting around a crackling fire discussing Christmas traditions, food and song with presenter Joanna Holles, and also telling ghost stories. Sonia, their hostess who lives in the farmhouse, tells them about a shadowy presence she has seen on more than one occasion.
The following two extracts are also from this episode of ‘Coffee Break’. In the first clip Ruth Cowell recounts a tale about a haunting linked to a grove of ilex trees by a farmhouse in South Heighton near Newhaven.
Bernard Rutherford tells the story of the White Lady of Preston Manor, a Georgian villa built on the site of an earlier 16th century mansion in the Saxon village of Preston, now part of Brighton and Hove.
Although this spectre may never have been seen again, Preston Manor still has the reputation of being one of the most haunted houses in Britain. Here is an eyewitness account of a sighting of the Grey Lady by Mrs Cooke, a former housemaid at the Manor in the 1920s, who was interviewed in 1984 as part of an oral history project collecting the reminiscences of those who worked there.
Ladies in monochromatic attire seem to regularly feature in ghost stories. Here, in another BBC Radio Brighton recording, this time from 1974, local tour guide Cliff Edwards is showing Chris Warbis around old Brighton, and has stopped in The Lanes to tell him about the numerous phantoms seen in the area, including a Lady in Grey. Cliff’s jovial delivery somewhat diminishes any fear factor in his stories, which feature historical and contemporary sightings.
An interviewee from the Southampton Oral History Unit’s Millbrook collection, a series of interviews with residents of the Millbrook area of Southampton, tells Jillian Jackson about growing up in a haunted house. Her experience, while containing the usual tropes such as footsteps heard upstairs and a disembodied breathing, goes against normal ghost story conventions in that the house was a new build, and it seemed that the supernatural activity was of a premonitory nature rather than a haunting; the disturbances ended after the death of her mother, who had been told by a fortune teller not to worry as ‘it’s nothing that can really hurt you. It’s not a ghost, it’s more of a sad presence’.
Finally, in an audio family history made for a relative in 1996 and archived as part of the University of the Third Age Lewes branch’s oral history collection, Ted Naldrett introduces the story of a visitation upon his mother, who was his father’s second wife, by his father’s late first wife Ada, surely something to strike terror into the heart? After all, the second marriage had taken place only a few months after Ada’s death in 1908.
This apparition, which was actually of the benevolent sort, appeared in the very domestic and not particularly spooky setting of the scullery of their Lewes home on wash day, as Ted’s mother recounted to him.
Ted goes on to say that his mother noticed the figure was wearing a distinctive brooch; this had been passed on to Lou, one of Ada’s daughters, and had not been seen since but Lou was able to produce the brooch and prove that her mother had indeed been the ghostly visitor. It is very touching to think that Ada had returned to give her blessing to the step-mother of her seven children.
As a cataloguer on the UOSH project I sometimes wonder if I am one of the only people to have listened to a recording since it was made all those years ago, and feel as if I am hearing ghosts from days gone by. The recordings above were all made within living memory, but they contain recollections and stories stretching back across the centuries. It is fantastic to know that these voices from the past are now digitised and preserved and so made accessible to a wider audience.
The sound recordings in this blog are from a number of collections being digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage and preserved at the British Library. Information on the recordings can be found on the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue.
The BBC Radio Brighton recordings are part of a Royal Pavilion & Museum Trust collection (R6111 | UTK006); the Southampton Oral History Unit recording is part of a Southampton Archives collection (AV/SOHU/M | UTK014); the Archive of the University of the Third Age (U3A) Lewes & District Branch Oral History Group recording is part of an East Sussex, Brighton & Hove Record Office collection (AMS 6416/1 | UTK002); the Preston Manor interviews recording is part of a Royal Pavilion & Museum Trust collection (R6158 | UTK037).
Image of Preston Manor from Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust’s Digital Media Bank.