Crowds flock to see church spectre

ON January 7, 1864, several people were walking past a church in Whitechapel, London, when they saw the ghostly figure of an old man floating past the railings nearby.

As you might imagine, they screamed, turned tail and fled.

Before long, a crowd of Victorian thrill-seekers had gathered in anticipation of seeing the spectre for themselves.

They were not to be disappointed, it was soon spotted again.

This second sighting was all that was needed to turn the event into a melee.

Over the following days the ghost of the old man, who allegedly had a "stern countenance", was seen numerous times.

Before long the road became blocked with sightseers. Horse-drawn carriages were unable to pass.

The police were called in an attempt to restore order and disperse the throng, but to no avail.

Speculation was rife as to the identity of the phantasm, but no one was able to positively ascertain just who he was – or rather had been.

Before long, newspapers picked up on the story.

However, in the mid-19th century, respectable journalists were not supposed to take seriously such "nonsense".

Inevitably, accounts of ghosts and hauntings were treated with disdain, and it was no different in the case of the Whitechapel spectre.

One broadsheet spent precisely half a paragraph outlining the story – and several more berating the authorities for not being sufficiently robust with those who had turned up to watch.

"We may say," thundered the editor, "that visitors of this kind are becoming sufficiently frequent at east-end churchyards to be a nuisance; and the authorities ought to take them up, or lay them down, or in some way rid us of them."

Well, at least he didn't beat about the bush.

Had he, it would have been Shepherds Bush, for the week before a ghostly nun was seen staring from the window of a church there.

Not to be outdone, the congregation of an Independent Methodist chapel in Bethnal Green Road claimed that the spirit of a previous minister had started to make appearances in the vestry.

As the editor of one paper triumphantly pointed out, however, this later turned out to be nothing more than "a reflection from a cabinet-maker's workshop".

Not being able to resist putting the metaphorical boot in further, he then added somewhat enigmatically: "In the present circumstances, it seems to be traceable to nothing; not even a shell or turnip".

What on earth he was hinting at is anybody's guess.

Meanwhile, the spectre of Whitechapel carried on appearing regardless.

The crowds got bigger, the excitement grew and the Press continued to express its indignance.

Thankfully, people these days are far more enlightened.

Save for the bleatings of a few narrow-minded bloggers who are still stuck in a philosophical time-warp, most journalists seem happy to at least consider the possibility that ghosts may actually exist and there truly is more to our strange universe than meets the eye.

To my knowledge, the spectre of that old chap in Whitechapel no longer appears outside the church – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Perhaps in death he eventually found the peace that possibly eluded him when he was alive.

Should he make a dramatic reappearance, I'm sure that the papers will treat him far more kindly today.

Who knows, he might be immortalised by some lucky passer-by who happens to have a digital camera at hand. Now that would be something.