Haunted Hoxton

The Pepper’s Ghost illusion at the Polytechnic, 1863, (the same year as the Britannia Theatre play), from Illustrated London News

Source: Edmund Yates, ‘Haunted Hoxton’, All the Year Round, 27 June 1863, vol. 9 no. 218, pp. 420-424

Text: At last my guilty wishes are fulfilled! At last I am enabled to look back into the past, and think that one great object of my life has been realised, for I have seen a GHOST! Shade of (ah! by the way, I forget the name of the shade, and I’ve left the document which could inform me in my overcoat-pocket! never mind!) sacred shade, who appeared simultaneously to me and to some hundreds of entranced people, thou hast, so far as I am concerned, set the vexed question of apparitions at rest for ever. My interest in the ghost subject has been intense. I have read every story bearing upon it, and worked myself up to a delightful pitch of agonised excitement. Alone, and in the dead of night, do I peruse the precious volumes: the mere fact of the scene being laid in “an old castle in the Black Forest,” gives me a pleasing sensation of terror; when the student seated alone in the tapestried room finds “the lights begin to burn with a blue and spectral hue,” I shake; when there “reverberates through the long passages a dismal clanking of chains,” I shiver; finally, when “the door bursts open with a tremendous crash,” and there enters “a tall figure clothed in white, with one clot of gore immediately below its heart,” I am in a state of transcendent bliss, and only long to have been in the student’s place. Some years ago I thought I had a chance of realising my hopes. I read a book called, I think, The Nightgown of Nature, the author of which announced that he—or she— was thoroughly well acquainted with several houses where spectres appeared nightly with unexampled punctuality—houses “within a convenient distance from London, and accessible by rail,” as house-agents say—and I wrote to him—or her— for the address of one of these houses, stating that I intended to pass a night there. He—or she—replied that though his—or her—statement was thoroughly correct, he—or she— must decline giving the address of any particular house, as such a course would be detrimental to the value of the property, and might render him—or her— liable to an action at law on the part of the landlord. So I was disappointed.

I heard, however, the other day, that a real ghost, real as to its unreality, its impalpability, its visionary nothingness, was to be seen in a remote and unknown region called Hoxton, I had previously heard that the same, or a similar spectre, haunted Regent-street, but I laughed at the notion. Regent-street! with the French boot-shop, and the ice-making man, and the Indian pickle depôt opposite! A ghost in juxtaposition to electrical machines, a diver who raps his helmet with halfpence, and the awful insects in the drop of water! But Hoxton—there was something ghostly in the very name, and the place itself was as unfamiliar to me as Tierra del Fuego. Nobody to whom I spoke knew anything about it; they “had heard the name;” it was “somewhere out north,” they thought. Ah! in an instant my fancy sketches the spot. A quaint old suburb, where the railway has not yet penetrated, where sleepy cows chew the cud of peace in quiet meadows, where ploughmen whistle o’er the lea (whatever that may happen to mean), where huge elms yet stand waving their giant limbs before square red brick mansions. One of these mansions for years untenanted, roofless, dismantled, a murder was committed in it years ago: an old man with silver hair, a spendthrift nephew, a box of gold, a carving knife, a well in garden where weapon is discovered years afterwards, a wailing cry at twelve P.M., a tottering figure wringing its hands—yes, that must be it, or something very like it! I determined to go to Hoxton that night.

There was no railway—so far I was right—and I went to my destination in a cab. After a little time I found we were striking out of the great thoroughfares of commerce into narrow by-lanes, where a more pastoral style of living prevailed, where fried fish of a leathery appearance lay in tangled heaps on the slabs of windowless fish- shops, where jocund butchers, seemingly on the best terms with their customers, kept up a perpetual chorus of “Buy, buy!” and slapped the meat before them with a carving knife and a gusto that together seemed to give quite an appetite to the hesitating purchaser. We passed several graveyards deep set in the midst of houses—dank, frouzy, rank, run-to-seed places, where Pelions of “Sacred to the memory” were heaped upon Ossas of “Here lieth the remains,” and out of which the lank sapless grass trembled through the railings and nodded feebly at the passers-by. Good places for ghosts these! City ghosts of misers and confidential clerks, and trustees who committed suicide just before the young gentleman whom they had had in trust came of age, and would have infallibly found out all about their iniquities. I peered out of the cab in quest of any chance apparition, but saw none, and was very much astonished when the driver, to whom I had given particular instructions, pulled up before a brilliantly lighted doorway, round which several cadgers were disporting themselves. These youths received me with great delight, and one said, “You come along with me, sir! I’ll take you to the hout and houtest old spectre in the neighbr’ood. This way, sir!” He led the way along a lighted passage, between rough brick walls, until we arrived at a barrier, where—after a muttered conversation between my guide and the janitor—a shilling was demanded of me, after paying which I was provided with a card talisman and left to find my way alone. Down a broad passage on one side of which was a recess where sandwiches lay piled like deals in a timber-yard, where oranges were rolled up in pyramidal heaps of three feet high, and where there was so much ginger-beer that its simultaneous explosion must infallibly have blown the roof off the building, down a flight of asphalted stairs, at the bottom of which a fierce man wrung my card talisman from me and turned me into a large loose box, the door of which he shut behind me. A loose box with a couple of chairs in it, a looking-glass, a flap table—a loose box open on one side, looking through which opening I see hundreds of people ranged in tiers above each other. Turning to see what they are all intent on, I see a stage—I’m tricked! I’m done! the loose box is a private box, and I’m in a theatre.

Left to myself, what could I do but look at the stage, and, doing that, how could I fail to be intensely interested? I speedily made myself acquainted with the legend being there theatrically developed, and, beyond that the colour was, perhaps, a little heightened, I did not find it more or less preposterously unlike anything that could, by any remote possibility, ever have occurred than is usual in dramatic legends. The scene of action being laid at the present time, I found the principal character represented to be a BARONET (he had a name, but he was invariably spoken of by everybody, either with yells of hatred or shoulder-shrugs of irony, as “the Baronet”), and certainly he was the most objectionable old gentleman I have ever seen. The mere fact of his walking about, in the present day, in a long claret coloured coat, a low crowned hat with a buckle in the front, and boots which, being apparently made of sticking- plaster, had tassels like bell-pulls, was in itself irritating; but his moral conduct was horrible. He seemed to have an insane desire for the possession of his neighbours’ property, not felonious in his intentions, but imbued with a buying mania, and rabidly ferocious when said neighbours refused to sell. First among his coveted possessions stood the house and garden of a clergyman’s widow (no mistake about her widowhood! the deepest black, and such a cap, all through the piece!), who obstinately refused to part with an inch of her ground. Baronet smiles blandly, and informs us that he will “have recourse to stratyjum.” Widow has two daughters, one very deep-voiced and glum, the other with her hair parted on one side (which, theatrically, always means good nature), and funny. Funny daughter is beloved by Baronet’s son—unpleasant youth in cords, top-boots, and a white hat, made up after Tom King the highwayman, vide Turpin’s Ride to York; or, The Death of Black Bess (Marks, Seven Dials), passim. Baronet proposes that son should get clergyman’s daughter to steal lease of premises, promising to set son up in life, and allow him to marry object of affections. Son agrees, works upon daughter’s vanity; daughter, who is vague in Debrett, is overcome by notion of being called the Right Honourable Mrs.——, a title which, as the wife of a baronet’s son, she is clearly entitled to—steals the lease, hands it to son, who hands it to Baronet, who, having got it, nobly repudiates not merely the whole transaction, but son into the bargain: tells him he is not son, but merely strange child left in his care, and comes down and winks at audience, who howl at him with rage.

That was the most wonderful thing throughout the evening, the contest between the audience and the Baronet. Whenever the Baronet made a successful move (and Vice had it all its own way for nearly a couple of hours), the audience howled and raved against him, called “Yah!” whistled, shrieked, and hooted, and the Baronet advanced to the footlights and grinned across them, as though he should say, “I’m still all right in spite of you!” When a villain who, for a sum of money advanced by the Baronet, had murdered an old man, and was afterwards seized with remorse, stole the lease from the Baronet’s pocket, the multitude in the theatre cheered vociferously; but the Baronet, after proving that the purloined parchment was only a copy, and not the original document, which he still retained, calmly walked down to the front of the stage, and literally winked at the people, tapping his breast, where the lease was, in derision, and goading the audience to the extremity of frenzy.

There were several pleasant episodes in which the Baronet was the mainspring: hiding fifty-pound notes in the glum sister’s bundle, accusing her of robbery, and having her locked up in his house, whence she was rescued by the murdering villain who had previously (out of remorse) set the house on fire; but at length the widow, who a minute before had been remarkably lively, and had “given it” to the Baronet with great vehemence and cap-shaking, suddenly declared her intention of dying, and though a young gentleman with a sugarloaf hat and a coat with a little cape to it, like the pictures of Robespierre, announced himself as a lawyer, who would defend her and hers against anything and everybody, she forthwith carried out her intention, sat down on a chair, and died, out of hand. There was a faint pretext of sending for the doctor, but there was an evident fear on the part of most lest that practitioner should really restore the patient, and thus burk the great effect of the piece, so the idea was overruled, and the Baronet, advancing to the footlights, rubbed his hands in derision at the audience, and the audience, cognisant of the fact that the decease of the widow was necessary to the subsequent appearance of her ghost, merely answered with a subdued “Yah!” At this point my former conductor opened the box-door and beckoned me out. “Come in front,” he said; “it’s ghost time!” The words thrilled to my very soul, I followed him in silence, and took my place in the boxes, close by a lady whose time was principally occupied in giving natural sustenance to her infant, and an older female, apparently the child’s grandmother, who was a victim to a disease which I believe is popularly known as the “rickets,” and which impelled her at three-minute intervals to shudder throughout her frame, to rock herself to and fro, to stuff the carved and hooked black bone handle of an umbrella, that looked like a tied-up lettuce, into her mouth, and to grind out from between her teeth, clenched round the umbrella-handle, “Oh, deary deary me!” On my other side were a youth and maiden, so devoted to each other that they never perceived my entrance into the box, and I had not merely to shout, but to shove, before I could effect a passage, when there was such a disentanglement of waists from arms, and interlaced hot hands, and lifting of heads from shoulders, that I felt uncomfortable and apologetic, whereas the real offenders speedily fell back into their old position, and evidently regarded me as a Byronic creature, to whom life was a blank.

The ghost did not appear at once. Though the widow had slipped into a very stiff position in her chair, and everybody around her had said either “Ha!” or “The fatal moment!” or “Alas!” or “All is over!” as their several tastes led them, it was thought necessary to make the fact of her death yet more clear, so upon the front parlour, where the sad occurrence took place, fell a vast body of clouds of the densest kind, out of which, to slow music, there came two or three ethereal persons with wings, which wagged in a suspicious manner, bearing the widow’s body “aloft,” as Mr. Dibdin has it with reference to Tom Bowling, and thereby copying in the most direct and unequivocal manner (but not more directly and unequivocally than I have seen it in theatres of grand repute, where critics babbled of the manager’s transcendent stage- direction) Herr Lessing’s picture of Leonore. To meet these, emerged, in midair from either side of the stage, other ethereal persons, also with wings, whose intended serenity of expression was greatly marred by the obstinacy of the machinery, which propelled them in severe jerks, at every one of which the set smile on their faces faded into a mingled expression of acute bodily pain and awful terror lest they should fall down: while, on a string like larks, or a rope like onions, there swayed to and fro across the proscenium, a dozen of the stoutest and most unimaginative naked Cupids that ever got loose from a valentine, or were made by a property- man.

As the act-drop fell upon this scene, which in itself represented something not to be met with in everyday life, some distrust was expressed in my neighbourhood lest there should be nothing more ghostly than we had just witnessed, but the old lady with the umbrella set us to rights by recovering suddenly from a severe attack of rickets, and exclaiming, “Them ghosts! Oh no, sir! In the next act we shall see her, and which the music will play up for us to give attention.” So accordingly, when the fiddles wailed, and the trombone and clarionet prostrated themselves figuratively in the dust, I looked with all my eyes, and saw the curtain rise upon the Baronet’s apartment, which was the most singularly constructed room I ever beheld. The portion of the floor nearest to us was perfectly flat, as is the case with most floors, but after about three feet of flatness there rose in its centre, and stretching from side to side, a long, sloping, green mound, in military language a “glacis,” up which the Baronet had to walk when he wanted to proceed towards the back of the apartment, where all the chairs, tables, and furniture generally had withdrawn themselves, and up which he himself climbed, as though M. Vauban had taken the place of Mr. Cubitt, and as though outworks and entrenchments were as common in London drawing-rooms as lounging-chairs and grand pianos.

On the top of this entrenchment stood, on either side, two thick dumpy pillars, supporting a heavy piece of masonry, which joined them together at the top, and which looked like a portion of the ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbek seen through the wrong end of the opera-glass: or, to use an illustration nearer home, like the front of the catacombs of Kensal- green or Highgate cemeteries. Between these pillars was a hazy vista into which the Baronet walked, and seating himself on a stool in the corner, so as to be quite out of the way, commenced informing us (without any apparent necessity for the statement) of his disbelief in all supernatural appearances, and of his thorough contempt for Death—ha! ha! The second of the two vocal double-knocks given by him in ha! ha! had scarcely been given, when there appeared in the middle of the empty space behind the pillars a stereoscopic skeleton exactly like that which dances in the Fantoccini—so like, that one looked for the string which guides that puppet’s movements (and which, of course, in the present instance, was not to be seen), and expected him momentarily to fall to pieces and re-unite in a comic manner. At this sight the Baronet appeared a little staggered; he said, “Ha! do I then behold thee?” and retreated several paces on his heels, but recovering himself, exclaimed, “‘Tis a dream, an ill-yousion!” and advanced towards the skeleton, which disappeared, to return immediately armed with a dart, or harpoon, with which it made several well-intentioned but harmless thrusts at the Baronet, who appeared immensely flabbergasted by the harpoon, and begged piteously to be spared. Either the skeleton was moved by the appeal or he had work somewhere else, for he disappeared again, and no sooner was he gone than the Baronet so plucked up that he declared he defied Death altogether, and was beginning to be offensively joyous, when in the place where the skeleton had been, appeared the ghost of the widow in her shroud! No mistake about it now! There she was, a little foreshortened, a little out of the perpendicular, leaning forward as though accustomed to a cramped and confined space, and not daring to stand upright! For the Baronet this was, to use a vulgar metaphor, a “corker.” He rubbed his head, but there was nothing there; he tried a taunt, but the ghost answered him with deep-voiced briskness; he rushed towards her, and rushed right through her! Finally, he picked up from the table, where, as we know, they always lay in libraries, a long sword, with which he aimed a very unskilful blow at his visitant. The sword passed through the ghost, who was apparently tickled, for it exclaimed, “Ha! ha!” and disapeared, and the Baronet fell exhausted in the very spot where the ghost had been! Up went the lights, down went the curtain, and the audience gave one great gasp of relief, and pretended they hadn’t been frightened—which they had!

Unquestionably! undoubtedly! The skeleton had been a failure; ribalds in the pit had mocked at him—had given tremulous cries of feigned terror—shouted “O-oh! m—y!” and pretended to bury their heads in their jacket-collars; boys in the gallery had called upon him to dance, and had invited their friends to “look at his crinoline;” the arm of the youth in front of me tightened round the waist of the maiden with evident conveyance of the idea that that alone could them part; and the old lady with the umbrella had considered him a “mangy lot.” But the ghost was a very different matter; when it appeared, not a sound in the pit, not a whisper in the gallery; all open-mouthed, eager, tremulous excitement! The old grandmother clasped the umbrella like a divining-rod, and muttered a hoarse “Deary—dea—ry me!” the mother let the infant fall flat and flaccid on her lap, the youth’s arm unbent, and the maiden, rising stiffly three inches from her seat, said, “Go’as!” and remained rigid. Only one sound floated on the air, and that was emitted by a French gentleman, with more buttons on his waistcoat than I ever saw on a similar amount of cloth (how on earth did a foreigner penetrate to Hoxton?), who clutched his curly-brimmed hat between his fat fists and hissed out, “A—h! Superbe!” It was his testimony and it is mine!

Comments: Edmund Hodgson Yates (1831-1894) was a British journalist and author. He was a good friend of Charles Dickens, to whose journal All the Year Round he was a regular contributor. Yates reports on a production of the play The Widow and the Orphans; or, Faith, Hope and Charity, by C.H. Hazelwood, which featured at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, London as a means to showcase the invention of ‘The Ghost’ or ‘Pepper’s Ghost’. This was an optical illusion invented by Henry Dircks and exploited professionally by John Henry Pepper – in which, by means of projected light and a hidden inclined sheet of glass, the reflection of a ghost-like figure could be made to materialise on a stage. It first featured in a stage production of Dickens’s novella The Haunted Man at the Royal Polytechnic on 24 December 1862. In The Widow and Orphans the ghost was played by Mary Henderson.

Links: Dickens Journals Online

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