Peter Underwood, Ghosthunter-at-Large
World famous Ghosthunter Peter Underwood, Life President of The Ghost Club Society, has seen his fair share of spooks and haunted places. Here he talks with Ruby Lang about his favourite Australian haunts, spookiest cases and his new book - Haunted Gardens.
Q. What first inspired you to get into this field?
A. Probably seeing what I (and my mother) took to be the ghost of my father the night he died suddenly when I was nine years old; and learning that there was a famous ghost story associated with my grandparent’s home, Rose Hall, where I often stayed during holidays.
There was a so-called ‘haunted room’ and often people who had read about the historic ghost called at the house and asked to see the room and hear the ghost story.
When I was staying there my grandmother would delegate me to do the honours and, very much tongue in cheek, I would tell the story to scores of strangers. And very often they would say words to the effect "Well, we’re not surprised because we’ve got a ghost…".
Eventually it seemed to me that perhaps there was more in this than I had thought and before too long I began to take notes of the ghost stories people told me. I began to look for haunted houses and as I grew older I sought out and joined the societies and organisations interested in such subjects and eventually carried out investigative visits to anywhere that had a substantial story of a haunting.
Q. What was your first case?
A. A very early haunting I heard about was a deserted cottage near Cambridge which was supposed to be haunted by a suicide who had jumped down a well, and his wife who went insane.
A friend and I found the deserted cottage and its overgrown garden, and we sat on the well until we heard a heavy groan or sigh. Then we explored the derelict cottage until ‘something large and white’ scuttled into a corner and disappeared – although there was no other entry to the room than the doorway we were standing in.
Years later my wife and I found the site again, it was now a corner of an old field, a waste plot that nobody wanted, and we found the remains of the well and a few stones of the cottage. Only afterwards did we realise that on that beautiful summer day in the countryside, no birds sang.
We went back and checked this out – nearby birds were busy, but there were no birds in the ‘haunted’ garden and no birdsong.
During another early case I experienced some kind of echo from the past at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, which was supposed to be haunted each year on the anniversary of a murder, when the body was thrown into the moat from an upstairs window.
Spending the night of the anniversary in the room of the murder – in the company of friends (single, uncorroborated testimony being worthless) – a window suddenly threw itself open. As we looked out over the moat, we felt an icy draught over our heads and ‘something’ invisible passed us and landed with a dull ‘plop’ in the water below. We watched the resulting widening ripples on the water but saw nothing.
Evidence suggests that some hauntings run down over the years, almost like a battery, and where once something would be seen and heard, with the passing years the visual aspects fade. Then only dogs and horses, and sometimes people, sense something where once there was ghostly activity seen and heard.
Q. For the record, do you believe in ghosts?
A. As far as I am concerned, belief does not come into it. I endeavour to judge each case on the evidence. If you ask whether there is reliable evidence for ghosts, then I certainly feel there is.
From every part of the world, in every civilisation from the beginning of recorded time, there have been reports of ghosts and ghostly happenings. There is simply too much evidence for it all to be dismissed.
To those who say "I don’t think there are such things as ghosts – convince me", I say I wouldn’t dream of trying to convince anyone. We are all entitled to our own opinions and conclusions.
What I do say is, if you are sufficiently interested in the subject then look at the evidence, overwhelming evidence it seems to me from all kinds of people in all kinds of conditions.
I defy anyone to really look at the evidence and then say there is nothing worth considering.
Q. Have you ever had any truly frightening moments "on the job"?
A. One or two, not many really. But then I have never been in the position of seeing a ghostly form approaching me. If it did I would stand and see whether it would walk through me…or perhaps I would disappear more quickly than that ghost!
I have heard footsteps; in fact on the site of Borley Rectory – once known as the "most haunted house in England" – a companion and I had an uninterrupted view of a path, known as the Nun’s Walk. It was completely deserted, but from which came the unmistakable sound of human footfalls.
At Elm Vicarage in Cambridgeshire I caught a glimpse of ‘something’ and thought I heard the rustle of a trailing garment in the corridor haunted by a phantom monk. And there have been one or two other occasions when I have caught my breath, but nothing came of great moment – yet!
Q. Have you ever seen a ghost?
A. I certainly saw the form of my father after he died, as did my mother. There was also the occasion when I saw a railwayman with whom I passed the time of day when I travelled regularly and I saw him one evening, but not to speak to, and learned afterwards that he had died the day before. There was no confusion as to the day.
Q. You obviously derive a great deal of pleasure from your work. What has been your most interesting case to date?
A. Very difficult to say. There have been many interesting cases and I hope there are some more in the future! I recall a haunted church on the Essex marshes where the whole surrounding area seemed to be affected – a case that I investigated on and off for 12 years. There was another, the Nottingham case where the unlikely ghost seemed to be that of a young man wearing cricket clothes, and only months and months later did we locate an elderly woman who had lived in the house with her son who and been paralysed in an accident. He had always been fond of cricket and used to be dressed in cricket clothes. One day, while so dressed, he got hold of a gun and killed himself.
Q. In your opinion, what impact has technology had, if any, in the field of ghost research?
A. The impact of technology in paranormal research is a mixed blessing in my view. Obviously self-registering thermographs, sound recorders and instruments for measuring atmospheric pressure, vibration, humidity and magnetic and electric fields, and such sophisticated equipment as sound scanners and infra-red telescopes, add to the scientific record of a case. But the value of any report is only as good as the investigators concerned and is never entirely dependent upon the equipment used. In my opinion there is no argument but that simple ghost hunting equipment is just as effective and convincing in the investigation of ghostly activity as the most elaborate equipment.
Q. What advice would you give aspiring ghost hunters?
A. Always search, and search again, for a normal explanation for what is happening or reported to be happening before considering the possibility of a supernatural explanation. Be straight-forward, kind and understanding – always listen carefully to what people have to say – and above all be truthful at all times.
Q. Who are some of the more interesting characters you have come across in your work as a ghosthunter?
A. Professor H.H. Price, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, with whom I visited a haunted house in Cheltenham. He was modest, charming, drove an old banger, courteous and completely convinced of the reality of psychic phenomena. Then there was Dr Oskar Goldberg, a member of the Security Council of the United Nations and general delegate-at-large of the International Society of Naturopathic Physicians of America, who had spent years in India and Tibet and dreamed of establishing the reality of psychic phenomena. Algernon Blackwood was another who had had numerous encounters with ghosts: "adventures come to the adventurous" he told me.
Q. Name your top three haunted locations around the world.
A. The Tower of London (UK), Versailles (France), and Glamis Castle (Scotland).
Q. What are your feelings toward the role of mediums in ghost-hunting?
A. I try to investigate in a scientific manner and so mediums have no place in my investigations. But I am sure there are genuine mediums, and on occasion visiting haunted houses in their company can be very interesting.
Q.To what degree do matters of the occult figure in paranormal phenomena in your experience?
A. Not at all, but I could be wrong!
Q. What Australian hauntings intrigue you?
A. Several: Fisher’s Ghost Creek, Campbelltown; the Quarantine Station, Manly; the Princess Theatre, Melbourne; the Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney; the Min Min lights near Boulia, Queensland; Monte Cristo homestead, Junee, NSW – all have fascinating stories associated with them.
Q. What encourages you to continue in the field?
A. Just round the corner may well be the case that answers all the mysteries that will repay the patient, extensive and exhaustive investigation, that will lead me beyond the edge of the unknown where I have walked for so long.
Q. You are writing a book about the world’s most famous haunted gardens. What gardens rate?
A. My new book Haunted Gardens includes the stories of ghosts and hauntings associated with Bramshill House, now a police college and long known as Hampshire’s most haunted house. Other gardens include Camfield Place, the home of Dame Barbara Cartland; the Chateau de Gratot, Normandy, France; Clouds Hill (the one-time home of Lawrence of Arabia); Edzell Castle, Scotland (visited by Mary Queen of Scots; El Greco’s House in Toledo, Spain; Lamb House in Rye, Sussex (once the home of novelist Henry James); the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall; Monte Cristo, Junee in Australia; Old Battersea House in London (where Lady Churchill was amongst those who witnessed ghosts); the Old Vicarage, Grantchester – once the home of poet Rupert Brooke and now the home of novelist Jeffrey Archer; Raffles Hotel, Singapore; the White House, Washington DC; the Palace of Versailles, France.
Q. (If it is not too impertinent to ask) is this your last book?
A. I hope not! I have in mind a new biography of horror actor Boris Karloff and a history of the Indian rope trick.
Ruby Lang retains sole copyright for this article.