‘I was terrorised by the Battersea Poltergeist’
In 1956 SHIRLEY HITCHINGS was an ordinary teenager – until one day a powerful force began scrawling messages on her bedroom walls, starting fires in the house and making Shirley levitate. She tells Jo Macfarlane that the haunting feels as real today as it did 65 years ago
Shirley, aged 15, at her ‘haunted’ home
It started with an ornate silver key that appeared one morning on the pillow belonging to 15-year-old Shirley Hitchings. Puzzled, Shirley, traced the cool metal with her fingertips. No one in her family at their terraced Victorian house in Battersea, Southwest London, had ever seen it before.
It didn’t fit into any of the locks. But that night in January 1956, as the suburban street lay dark and still, the knocking began – loud banging, thumps and incessant pounding that reverberated around the house. Claw-like scratching emanated from inside the furniture; the lights flashed on and off. It was so loud that the neighbours came round to complain.
‘It was as if the noises came from the bowels of the earth,’ Shirley, now 80, recalls today. ‘It went on until daylight. We were traumatised. I remember clinging to my dad, saying, “Please make it stop.”’
A newspaper clipping of the story that seized the nation’s attention
For the terrified Hitchings family, this was only the beginning. The key vanished, never to be seen again. But the noises returned, night after night, and what followed over the next 12 years became one of the strangest and most chilling hauntings in British history.
The ‘spirit’ – which the family later nicknamed Donald, after Disney’s bad-tempered Donald Duck – dragged Shirley from her bed and made her levitate. It set fires around the house, seemingly out of nothing, and drew messages on the walls. The whole saga caught the public’s imagination, becoming a national news story that was even discussed in parliament.
Today the events still defy rational explanation. It’s no surprise then that 3.5 million listeners have flocked to the BBC podcast The Battersea Poltergeist since it was released in January this year. It set out to answer the question: was it a malevolent force at 63 Wycliffe Road, or an elaborate hoax?
The podcast delved into the detailed files of 1950s ghost hunter Harold Chibbett, who helped the family, and interviewed surviving witnesses including Shirley, who was accused at the time of causing the phenomenon. The podcast’s producer and presenter Danny Robins spent two years analysing the case and concludes it’s ‘the closest I’ve come to proof that there is something more: that ghosts exist.
‘Speaking to Shirley sent a shiver down my spine,’ says Danny. ‘If true, the implications are extraordinary. What’s so fascinating is this tension between what we can potentially discount and what nothing can explain. The real fear comes from the fact that Shirley is entirely ordinary. If it can happen to someone like her, it could happen to anyone.’
Shirley, Harry Hanks (centre) and her family at the exorcism
The show’s expert is parapsychologist Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe, who investigates psychic phenomena and the paranormal. O’Keeffe describes himself as ‘an open-minded sceptic’ who believes paranormal activity should be thoroughly tested to see whether there could be an alternative explanation. And while some of the poltergeist activity in Battersea could be attributed to human meddling or natural causes, he says, other elements in the case remain a mystery.
‘Not all of it is likely to be supernatural,’ says O’Keeffe, ‘but nor is some of it easily explained. There are multiple witnesses; some events defy the laws of gravity. It’s arrogant not to keep an open mind.’
For Shirley, now a great-grandmother living in the South of England, the haunting is as real today as it was all those years ago. ‘It’s all true,’ she says, emphatically. ‘It’s a lot for people to swallow. But it did happen.’ Shirley lived on Wycliffe Road with her mum Kitty and dad Wally, a London Underground train driver, her Irish grandmother Ethel and adopted brother John, a surveyor in his 20s.
Recalling that first night in January 1956, Shirley says: ‘The whole house shook like it was an air raid. It went on night after night for three weeks. We were shattered.’ Sleep-deprived, the family called the police and various surveyors to try to get to the root of the noises – but no one could explain it.
After three weeks, events took a sinister turn when objects started moving. Shirley’s glove flew from the floor and hit Wally in the face. Heavy pots and pans flew from the kitchen, even though no one was in there. ‘They’d float towards you then speed up, so you’d have to duck,’ says Shirley. ‘Or they’d hover and hit the wall.’ The family watched, amazed, as slippers ‘walked’ around the room or the piano played of its own accord.
Things came to a head one awful night when Shirley was jolted awake as her bedsheets were dragged from her body. Her family, woken by Shirley’s screams, rushed in to try to put the sheets back on, but found themselves embroiled in an eerie tug of war with invisible hands as a ‘force’ pulled the other way. What they saw next was even more terrifying. Shirley went stiff, her back arched, as she rose several inches from the bed.
Her dad’s notes about the marks that appeared on Shirley’s face, 1956
‘I remember the sheets coming off and being tossed about in the bed,’ Shirley says. ‘I was floating above the bed. When John pulled me down I was rigid. My nan, who was Catholic, thought I might be possessed by the devil. I thought I was going mad. I was crying all the time, very traumatised.’
In February the story reached the national press and the family were besieged. But one positive came from it: Harold Chibbett, known as Chib, was a ghost hunter who devoted the rest of his life to the Battersea case. Danny describes Chib as ‘a lovely influence in the family’s life, and who was driven to prove there was life after death’.
It was Chib who told the family they were dealing with a poltergeist. Although rare, this type of spirit is said to be responsible for physical disturbances, such as throwing objects and making loud noises. But, as
Chib explained, there was usually a teenage girl at the centre of their activity. ‘I was horrified,’ Shirley recalls. ‘We’d never heard of a poltergeist before. We were scared out of our wits. I thought, “This is the end. We’re all going to die”.’ Taking matters into their own hands, the family arranged for Shirley to be ‘exorcised’ at the home of Harry Hanks, a part-time medium who worked with Wally. But before the exorcism could begin, the police arrived, having been tipped off about alleged ‘black magic and witchcraft’ at the address. It led to the haunting being discussed in the House of Commons, with Hanks’s MP calling for the police to issue an apology for the intrusion.
Chib suggested the family try to make contact with the poltergeist. He brought letter cards to the house and laid them on the table. The idea was that Chib would point to the letters and the spirit wouldmtap when the right letters were reached to spell out words. Slowly the spirit began to tap out messages. He claimed to be French and said he was scared. ‘It didn’t make us feel sorry for him. We just told him to go,’ Shirley recalls.
The poltergeist was not deterred. Messages appeared on the walls – ‘Viva France’. Chib would leave paper and a pen in the family’s front room – the only one with a lock – and take the key home with him. The room came to be known as ‘Donald’s room’ because he would tap along to music on the television and arrange dolls in a circle. In the morning, there could be 60 or 70 notes. There are thousands in Chibs’s files. The first simply said, chillingly, ‘Shirley I come’. Many more are illegible, or a strange mixture of French and English, sometimes addressed to ‘mon cherie Chibbett’.
Messages left by Donald on their walls, 1964
Events took a more bizarre turn when Donald claimed to be the ‘lost dauphin’ Louis Charles, heir to the throne of France. The fate of the ten-year-old son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution has been subject to 200 years of speculation. The letters from Donald contained facts few would have known, such as the names of Louis Charles’s bodyguards, later verified in Parisian archives by Chib.
For Shirley, the worst period was March 1956, a couple of months after the haunting began. ‘Donald started making demands – wanting me to wear my hair a certain way ‒ then threaten us, saying he’d set fires in the house,’ she says. ‘Dad locked all the matches and knives in our air raid shelter. But it did no good because fires would start all over the house. One night Dad got burned putting out a fire. Underneath the burn were gouge marks, like he’d been clawed.’
Shirley’s grandmother Ethel perhaps suffered the most. ‘He would try to push her down the stairs,’ Shirley says. One night in October 1956, objects started to float around and the room filled with whispering. Then came a voice, an Irish woman. Shirley recalls: ‘Nan went to bits because it was her mother’s voice. She spoke back to it and went to her room. She had a stroke a few days later and died shortly afterwards.’
Shirely’s mother Kitty photographed outside 63 Wycliffe Road – the house was demolished in the late 60
As strange as it sounds, the family became used to the phenomena, and the episodes became less intense. But events weren’t confined to the house. Shirley was sacked from her part-time job as a seamstress in Selfridges when scissors disappeared and she was forced to admit to managers she was ‘the poltergeist girl’. In 1964, the family moved to Latchmere Road, a 15-minute walk away, but still the activity continued.
‘It ruined my life,’ Shirley says. ‘It took my teenage years. I was 21 before I could get anything near normality. And even then he interfered in my life. One boyfriend came to the house and was trying to goad Donald by saying things like, “Come on, Donald, do your worst!” But he fled after a bowl was tipped on to his head.’ Once, when she went out in a car with the man who would become her husband, she came home to find her mother sitting with written messages from Donald, saying what they had been up to together.
The last message came in 1968. Shirley was living in West Sussex with her husband and baby son and Donald would leave messages on the notepad she kept by the telephone, telling her what her parents were doing back in London. ‘It was weird, yes, but for me it was normal.’ The note said he was leaving – and they never heard from him again. ‘My mum went into mourning,’ Shirley says. ‘She’d got to think of Donald like a son. But Dad and I were delighted.’
Shirley today, age 80
But the tale doesn’t end there. In the 1980s, a medium approached Shirley at a craft fair. She said Shirley was being followed by ‘a little boy, in fancy dress – blue satin, and he’s got red hair’. It’s a description Shirley recognised all too well. Chib had once given her a postcard featuring Louis Charles wearing a blue satin suit with red hair. And recently, at a psychic evening with her daughter, Shirley was given a message ‘from a boy who said he was sorry for all he’d done’.
‘Do I think Donald was the dauphin? No,’ says Danny. ‘But if he was a ghost, he was certainly messing with the Hitchings family.’
Dr O’Keeffe is similarly circumspect. ‘If you take all of the witness testimonies at face value, there can only be one possible explanation for one or two of the phenomena, and that’s something paranormal. The knocking at the beginning is convincing because it was witnessed by so many people, including the police.
‘But there are problems with eyewitness accounts,’ he says. ‘Fear and sleep deprivation can make you think an object is moving by itself. We also can’t discount that someone in the family, or Shirley herself, wrote the letters and wall messages.’
A live show of The Battersea Poltergeist podcast began touring last week and includes new witnesses who have reported further poltergeist activity in the area where the house once stood. ‘It’s a Bermuda triangle of the paranormal,’ Danny chuckles.
Tonight the production will visit the Clapham Grand ‒ situated just a mile away from Wycliffe Road ‒ with Shirley as a special guest. For her it will have added poignancy. ‘It’ll be like I’m finally taking Donald home,’ she says.
To buy tickets for The Battersea Poltergeist live shows, visit batterseapoltergeistlive.com. Uncanny, a Radio 4 podcast by Danny Robins about real-life ghost stories, is available on BBC Sounds