By Haydn Brown.
Peter Underwood was considered by some to have been that ‘indefatigable ghost-hunter’…… Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of the great author and a keen student of the supernatural, once described him as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research’. Underwood also carried the labels of being an immaculate, urbane, gentlemanly and quite sophisticated sort of person. He was, for many years, a link with the distant past, outliving those investigators and writers who conducted the drama of the Borley Rectory, considered for a time as “Britain’s most haunted house”; he lived to tell the tales right up to 2014.
Underwood wrote over 50 books about his pursuit of spooks; many of them gazetteers, collections from around the country of oral history on supposed hauntings. In his book ‘No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter’ (1983), he suggested that ninety-eight per cent of these reports had a rational explanation, and were generally put to one side; it was the other two per cent that intrigued him and being worthy of pursuit. Nevertheless, he discarded nothing, allowing readers the option of deciding what was, or was not, a likely story.
Peter Underwood was born on 16 May 1923 into a family of Plymouth Brethren; his home on arrival was at Westholm, Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire. He claimed much later in life that he had his first paranormal experience at the age of nine, apparently seeing an apparition of his father who had died earlier the same day standing at the bottom of his bed. Thereafter, his interest in hauntings was further stimulated by his maternal grandparents, who lived for a time at Rosehall, a 17th century Hertfordshire house in Sarratt, a village considered “a good locality for ghosts – they have more ghosts there than ratepayers!” Rosehall had a haunted reputation, having a particular bedroom in which guests reported seeing the figure of a headless man. Underwood’s interest in hauntings and ghostly phenomena began to take root at this time, and it was said that whenever curious tourists knocked, young Peter would assume the role of tour guide and would regale visitors with tales; he became so fascinated when many shared their own experiences of the paranormal in return that he began to scribble them down.
At the beginning of World War Two and after a private education, part of which was with a personal tutor, Underwood joined the publishing firm of J M Dent & Sons in Letchworth, working at their printing and binding works at Dunham’s Lane in Letchworth. Later he would move to Dent’s publishing office before being called up for active service with the Suffolk Regiment in 1942. However, his military service was short-lived – after collapsing on a rifle range at Bury St Edmunds with a serious chest ailment which rendered him unfit for active service. Following several months of convalescence at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, Underwood was discharged from the army and returned to Dent’s. During this time Underwood became friendly with Harry Price and wrote to him in connection with his own investigations into the hauntings of Borley Rectory with permission of the owner, James Turner the poet. Price gave Underwood considerable advice on the topic and in 1947 invited him to join Price’s ‘Ghost Club’. Barely a few months later, Harry Price died suddenly from a massive heart attack; that was on Sunday 29 March 1948.
Two particular hauntings spoke the loudest to Underwood during his career. The first was of Borley Rectory; a pitiful building on the barren edge on the Essex/Suffolk. Borley became a media circus in the 1930s, when celebrity ghost hunter Harry Price set out to prove its reputation as a site for scary apparitions. The large Gothic-style house was said to have been haunted since it was built in the 1860s, but things took a more sinister turn in 1928 when the wife of a new rector who was cleaning out a cupboard came across a brown paper package containing the skull of a young woman. Subsequently the family reported strange happenings, including the ringing of servant bells which had been disconnected, lights appearing in windows and unexplained footsteps. As a result, the family fled Borley, but things only seemed to get worse after the arrival of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and daughter Adelaide in 1930. In addition to bell-ringing, there were windows shattering, the throwing of stones and bottles, and mysterious messages on the walls. On one occasion Marianne claimed to have been physically thrown from her bed; on another, Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible” and locked in a room with no key.
The building became known as “the most haunted house in England” after the celebrated psychic researcher Harry Price (who had lived at the rectory for a year in 1937-38) published a book about it in 1940. After Price’s death in 1948, however, members of the Society for Psychical Research investigated his claims and concluded that many of the phenomena he described had been faked, either by Price himself, or by Marianne Foyster (who later admitted, apparently, that she had been having an affair with the lodger and had used paranormal excuses to cover up their trysts).
In the years since Price’s death most of the Borley legend has been debunked, but Underwood, Price’s executor as well as his protégé, remained fiercely loyal to him. He claimed to have traced and personally interviewed almost every living person connected with the rectory, and had concluded that at least some of the phenomena were genuine and fiercely defended Price against accusations of fraud. He even went as far as to dedicate his book on the subject, the 1973 ‘Ghosts of Borley’, which he produced in collaboration with Paul Tabori, to his old friend; it was a gesture that straight away rendered the book as useless according to sceptics.
The second story was known as ‘The Greenwich Ghost’; apparently photographed, by a visiting clergyman in 1967, running up a circular staircase at The Queen’s House Museum. Such a tempting and wonderful image is far too good to be true, particularly when it has never been satisfactorily explained. This was Underwood’s favourite tale, but one where even he would go no further than to call it “puzzling”.
By 1955, Dent’s publishing arm had moved to London and Peter Underwood was living in Twickenham. Through his employers, Underwood was to meet many authors of the day, including Dylan Thomas, and also managed to carry out his own investigations of allegedly haunted places, including the ruins of Minsden Chapel near Stevenage and a house where the owner had requested a reduction in the rates due to it being haunted.
Underwood was to identify nine different varieties of ghost during a life dedicated to investigating ghouls and spooks of all shapes and sizes; these came as elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. He had a talent for categorisation; for example, ‘Where the Ghosts Walk’, published in 2013, was described as a “definitive guide to the haunted places of Britain”, providing a digest of ghosts grouped by location – including Napoleon searching for somewhere to land his invasion along Lulworth Cove.
Simon Farquhar of the Independent wrote in February 2015:
“Underwood never pedalled mumbo-jumbo, but he was drawn to the idea of a ghost being an “atmospheric photograph”, pondering that all of our actions are perhaps recorded on some sort of eternal tape, and under certain conditions, maybe climactic, occasionally they reappear. I don’t honestly think the figures that are seen represent an afterlife. I think it’s much more likely that it’s some kind of echo of a previous life.”
Peter Underwood once claimed that he also had a nose for charlatanry and according to The Telegraph of 2014:
“…… the writer Dennis Wheatley gave a graphic description of a “psychometry” session hosted by Joan Grant, a writer famed for her “far memory” books. During these sessions she would go into a trance and dictate scenes from her past lives. Wheatley described how a stark-naked Joan began to talk in the person of an ancient Egyptian, “glistening and quivering in ecstasy……… writhing and contorting her body sensually in tune with the administration of his hands”. It was said that Wheatley was convinced by her performances – Underwood was not”
Unfortunately, perhaps, Underwood became caught up in some genuinely mysterious goings-on in 1994. Police arrived to question William (Bill) Bellars, a 75-year-old retired naval officer, Loch Ness monster expert and honorary treasurer of the Ghost Club of Britain, founded in 1862, of which Underwood had been president. They were following an anonymous tip-off that club members were really part of an IRA cell. In fact, Bellars had been planning to lead an all-night investigation at a haunted abbey in Hampshire; it took him an afternoon to convince the police that he was up to nothing more sinister than looking for 16th-century Cistercian monks. Eventually, the ghost hunt did go ahead as planned, but the mystery of the tipster’s identity was never solved. Nor did Bellars ever discover the source of abusive calls he claimed he had been receiving. However, it was noted that the previous year Underwood had been ousted from the presidency after 33 years in the post by members who had allegedly become fed up with his “autocratic” ways and who accused him of using the club’s name to help sell his books. “He really ran it to suit his own commercial interests,” Bellars was quoted as saying. Underwood denied any connection to the phone calls or the IRA incident, but Bellars’s description of the final showdown struck an appropriately supernatural note: “I said my piece, then he went purple in the face, just blew a top. Then he vanished.”
Sadly, towards the end of his own life, internal squabbles shattered the gentlemanly mood of the Ghost Club. The departure of Underwood from the Club caused it to split in two. According to Underwood, Bellars led a rump “Ghost Club” with about 80 per cent of the membership leaving to form a Ghost Club Society with Underwood as life president.
Peter Underwood, author, broadcaster and ghost-hunter died in Bentley, Hampshire on 26 November 2014. Again, according to Simon Farquhar writing in the Independent in February 2015:
“He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a leisurely author, thoughtful rather than gullible; Underwood’s work was “no common task”, as he called his 1983 autobiography; but after a lifetime spent chasing shadows, what he leaves behind is a solid treasury of legends and superstitions which make fine fireside reading, and here and there tell us something about the situations and ideas that perpetually disquiet us: stories that certainly would appear to be immortal.”
Banner Heading Image: Copyright Jonathan Stroud 2014
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