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By Stuart Orme
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Stuart Orme
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Peterborough Museum – Our Most Haunted Building
TUCKED at the end of Priestgate – a quiet street of Georgian buildings in the city centre, inhabited by firms of solicitors and accountants – is a grand stone building which houses the city's museum. Today the museum houses some 227,000 objects, covering all aspects of the city's history – from prehistoric marine reptiles to Britain's oldest murder victim; from manuscripts by the Romantic poet John Clare to craftwork by Napoleonic prisoners-of-war. Several of these collections are of national and international importance.
The building has a more sinister reputation; it is Peterborough's most haunted building and has at least eight different reported ghosts, with sightings or other phenomena reported regularly. As to why it is so haunted? Given the history of this remarkable building, it is perhaps not surprising ...
The History of the Museum Building
The earliest known building on the site of the current museum dates back to the sixteenth century, when the property was acquired and a grand house built for the Orme family (whether or not they are ancestors to the author is unknown!). Humphrey Orme, Groom of the Bedchamber to Henry VIII, leased land in the manor of West Deeping in 1536 and sometime after this built a house, later known as Neville Place, in the nearby town of Peterborough in the affluent street of Priestgate. A grand house is marked on the spot in John Speed's map of 1611, and is shown clearly in the Prospect of Peterborough of 1731. The Orme family was one of the dominant families in the city; the empty tomb of Sir Humphrey Orme can be seen today in the cathedral, vandalised by Cromwell's soldiers during the Civil War. His grandson, also called Humphrey, was MP for Peterborough during the 1650s and 1660s, and was responsible for the construction of the Guildhall on Cathedral Square; the Orme coat of arms can be seen displayed on the side of the building today.
In 1815 the Orme family had left and the property was initially leased, then sold, to one Thomas Cooke. Cooke, a businessman from Wortley in Manchester, had moved south and by 1815 was a city magistrate looking for a grand house to reflect his new status. The Orme house was substantially demolished and rebuilt in a grand Georgian style: this is the central part of the building which can be seen today. However, some of the original walls survived and were incorporated into the current building, most notably in the cellar. Features of the Georgian house also survive, including columns and a pediment over a doorway in the main reception area, and shuttered windows on the ground floor.
Upon Cooke's death in 1854 the building became vacant and was acquired by the second Earl Fitzwilliam on behalf of the Infirmary Trust, of which he was president. It was converted to become the Peterborough Infirmary, the city's first hospital, which was run on a charitable basis in the building until 1928. Various changes were made to the building during this period, particularly after a fire which severely damaged much of the upper floors in 1884. These alterations included a brick extension on the side of the building, with a kitchen, store-room and purpose-built operating theatre; a mortuary and bathhouse to the rear; and the wings, which can be seen today on either side of the main block (added in 1897 and 1902 respectively), to service the needs of the growing hospital.
Eventually the hospital, in this growing city, outgrew the Priestgate building. A new hospital was constructed on Thorpe Road, paid for by subscriptions as a memorial to the fallen of the First World War; this Memorial Hospital (until recently the Memorial Wing of the District Hospital) was opened in 1928. With patients transferred to the new facility, the Priestgate building again became vacant.
The building was bought by Percy Malcolm Stewart, Chairman of the London Brick Company, and donated to the Peterborough Museum Society as a permanent home for their collections. The society, originally called the Peterborough Natural History and Field Club, had been founded in 1871 by a group of like-minded individuals who were interested in local flora, fauna and history. Members included Dr Thomas Walker, surgeon at the Infirmary, and local chemist Mr Bodger. Collections of natural history, archaeology and general interest were acquired, and a permanent home sought. Previous venues for the museum included Becket's Chapel in the cathedral precincts and a house on Park Road.
The new museum was opened to the public in 1931, and originally occupied the ground floor and first floor of the building – the top floor being rented out to a local potato merchant, with the rent helping to pay for the running of the museum and the one paid member of staff, a caretaker. The museum continued to be run in this way until 1968, when the building and collections were given over to the care of Peterborough City Council. Since May 2010 the museum has been run by Vivacity, the Culture Trust for the city, and underwent a major refurbishment in 2011. Today the museum continues to fascinate and enthral visitors of all ages with a wide range of objects, from prehistoric monsters to the fine pieces of craftwork produced by Napoleonic prisoners-of-war at Norman Cross.
The Lonely ANZAC
The museum's most famous (or should that be infamous?) ghost is the figure of a man in grey, seen on the main staircase. This apparition is reputed to be the restless spirit of Australian soldier Sergeant Thomas Hunter, known to many as 'the lonely ANZAC'.
Thomas Hunter was actually born in England, in County Durham in 1880, but as a young man he emigrated to Australia, as many people did at that time. He eventually settled in the town of Kurri Kurri in New South Wales, where he worked as a coal miner. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 he enlisted with the Australian army and served with the 10th battalion of the 10th division, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces. As part of this unit he fought at Gallipoli, then in the misery of the trenches of France and Belgium. It was here, during the Somme offensive of the summer of 1916, that Sergeant Hunter was seriously wounded. Taken to a field hospital, his condition was judged to be such that more advanced medical facilities would be needed in order to operate and remove the bullets lodged in his body. So, he was shipped back to England for surgery.
On arrival in Portsmouth, Hunter was placed on a hospital train bound for Halifax in Yorkshire, with other wounded men. As the journey went on his condition worsened, leading to the nurses on the train taking the unusual step of asking the driver if he would stop the train at the next available station, so that Sergeant Hunter could be rushed to a nearby hospital for emergency treatment. The next such station happened to be Peterborough. The train was stopped and Hunter was rushed to the nearby Infirmary (today the museum), where sadly it was too late. He died in the building on 31 July 1916.
News of the story and death of Sergeant Hunter touched the hearts of Peterborians, who were perhaps moved by his plight because, in a sense, he represented all their own young men who were away fighting in the war. A public subscription fund was set up to pay for a memorial to Sergeant Hunter. A public funeral was held, in which the Mayor and civic dignitaries led the funeral cortège from the Infirmary to his final resting place at the Broadway Cemetery, during which virtually the entire city came to a stop and paid their respects. A 2m-tall granite cross was placed as a monument on Sergeant Hunter's grave, and a brass plaque to his memory mounted in the military chapel in the cathedral. Even today he is still commemorated in Peterborough, with an annual civic ceremony held at his graveside on 25 April, international ANZAC Day. The ceremony is always attended by the Mayor, civic dignitaries and a representative from the Australian High Commission. It is said, though, that his spirit does not lie easily in that grave.
There have been many sightings of a mysterious grey apparition around the building, most commonly gliding up the main staircase. It is said that this figure is the restless spirit of Sergeant Thomas Hunter.
The first documented sighting was in 1931, barely weeks after the museum was first opened to the public. At that time there was only one paid employee at the museum, by the name of Mr Yarrow, who acted as the caretaker. He lived on the premises, in a flat on the first floor, with his wife and two children. One afternoon he went out and left his wife alone in the building, to deal with the last few visitors and lock up at the end of the day. Mrs Yarrow duly locked up and returned to the flat in order to start preparing the evening meal, ready for when the family came home. After about half an hour she heard a noise echoing down the corridor from the main stairs and, assuming it was her husband returning home, went out to greet him. Coming out onto the corridor to collect some crockery from a cupboard, she observed through the glass panels in the doors leading out onto the main staircase that there was a figure coming up the stairs; not her husband but a man she said was about thirty years of age, dressed in a grey suit and with a slight 'phosphorescent glow'. To her astonishment, the figure vanished into thin air. Over the following months she saw him five times more; her daughter also witnessed him on a number of occasions.
These sightings were reported in the local newspaper, the Peterborough Citizen, in May 1932, and aroused a deal of local interest, prompting local children to regularly come into the museum at the end of the day in order to say goodnight to the ghost! According to the article, the ghost was known as Thomas because he was first seen on St Thomas' Day. The author has interviewed a former nurse from the days of the hospital, who maintained that the ghost had been seen before the hospital left the Priestgate building and that he had been positively identified as the spectre of Thomas Hunter. Interestingly, the ghost has always been seen in a grey suit – something which British and Australian wounded were issued with as a hospital uniform during the Great War.
Thomas Hunter's ghost has been seen on many occasions since then, usually at least once a year and most commonly around July and August, around the anniversary of his death. A few years ago he was seen by the young daughter of a member of staff in the museum staffroom, just off the main staircase. Having lunch with her father and mother in the room one Saturday, the little girl casually remarked to her astonished parents, 'Can I give a bit of my sandwich to the man in grey in the corner?' She then described the man; her account tallied exactly with that of the ghost, a description which she knew nothing about as her father had never told her, not wishing to frighten her or put her off coming into the museum.
In 2005 the ghost was seen twice, firstly by a Museum Officer locking up one evening. She locked up the top two floors, ensuring that there were no staff or visitors left there. As she headed back downstairs, she happened to glance back up and saw a grey figure standing at the top of the staircase. She went back to investigate but the figure was gone. A few months later, a young electrician working in the building was standing at the top of the main stairs one Thursday morning, waiting for his boss to come and give him instructions for the day. As he waited he stared out of the window, daydreaming, and glimpsed a grey figure walking past him out of the corner of his eye; when he turned to look, the figure was gone ...
One of the most vivid sightings was a few months later, when another electrician also saw the ghost. Standing at the bottom of the stairs at about 6.30 p.m., waiting for a colleague who had gone to the toilet, he saw a grey figure appear halfway up the flight of stairs, glide up the staircase and then vanish. The rather shaken man later said that the figure didn't appear to walk up the stairs so much as 'glide up like a cloud of ash ...'.
Prior to refurbishment, ghost-hunters occasionally observed the light fittings (which hung down the middle of the staircase on long cables) swinging for no apparent reason, like some form of strange pendulum. Was this the ghost of Thomas Hunter, or was it one of the museum's other spirits trying to draw attention to themselves? Many visitors and ghost-hunters have claimed to see or sense the restless spirit of Thomas Hunter. Most commonly, when people are in the Geology gallery on evening tours, guests or staff will catch a glimpse of someone walking past the door; when they go to investigate, there is never anyone there ... it seems he has no intention of leaving any time soon.
Death on the Stairs
Tucked away on the top floor of the museum building is an area not normally open to visitors. This part comprises a second staircase, a corridor, and rooms which are today used as office and storage space. Clues in the design of this area give an idea as to what it once was. The corridor is much narrower, the rooms smaller and the ceilings lower than the much airier ones throughout the rest of the building – denoting that some 150 years ago, in the days when this was a private house, this was the servants' quarters. The staircase would have been the servants' stairs, so they could get around the house whilst disturbing the family as little as possible.
We know from census records that the Cooke family kept five servants in 1851. The Orme house would also have had many servants to tend to the family. The wall on one side of the back staircase is some 3ft thick, much thicker than the rest of the Georgian building, indicating that it is possibly a remnant of the earlier house.
There is a piece of local folklore which I was told about shortly after starting work at the museum – that the ghost of a serving girl is said to haunt this staircase. According to the story this girl was a rather attractive young lady, which got her the unwelcome attentions of one of the male servants. When she refused his advances he forced himself on her and is said to have raped her on a number of occasions, as a result of which she became pregnant. She is then said to have stood at the top of these stairs one day and fallen – tumbling down to snap her neck and lie dead at the bottom. The reasons for her fall are unclear – did she fall, or maybe faint from morning sickness? Did she commit suicide, feeling sullied and desperate at her situation? Or did her tormentor push her down the stairs, wishing to dispose of her and the evidence of his crimes, her unborn child? There is no historical evidence to substantiate this story, not least as records from the earliest days of the private house are virtually non-existent.
Whatever the truth behind the tale, many people have reported strange phenomena in this area of the museum building, which have become associated with the ghost of this unhappy young girl. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of phenomena reported in this area are witnessed by women. Sightings often include feelings of unease and even physical illness. The symptoms seem to be very similar to those experienced during morning sickness, even by women who have no knowledge of the legend associated with the stairs. A female voice and unaccountable noises have been heard in this area, audible to witnesses and picked up on recording devices. People have felt someone who they cannot see brushing past them on the stairs, and a dark figure has been observed sometimes halfway up the stairs.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, women who have been standing at the top of the staircase have complained about the sensation of having a pair of hands gently, but firmly, trying to push them down the stairs. Evidence perhaps that the girl was murdered? In 2005, during an organised ghosthunt, one witness was deeply upset to see what she claimed was a 'grey disembodied hand' floating at the top of the stairs before vanishing up into the ceiling!
Being objective about these phenomena, the staircase is very old and atmospheric, and due to its age does lean very slightly. This could account for many reported experiences of feeling ill or disoriented, but it is remarkable how many reports of strange activity have come from this area and how they all seem to tally.
There have also been reports of cold spots and a male presence, as yet unidentified, along the old servants' quarters corridor. The author can attest to this from personal experience during his first month working at the museum in May 2001. Locking up alone one evening, I checked the corridor was locked on what was a roasting hot day – the temperature on the corridor was probably in excess of 30 degrees. Then, almost at once, the hairs went up on the back of my neck and the temperature plunged ... at which point I locked up and left that area very quickly!
Excerpted from Haunted Peterborough by Stuart Orme. Copyright © 2012 Stuart Orme. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
About the Author,
One Peterborough Museum – Our Most Haunted Building,
Two Monks and More ... Ghosts of the Cathedral,
Three Military Ghosts,
Four Railway-Related Ghosts,
Five Ghosts of the City Centre,
Six Greater Peterborough Ghosts,
Afterword What is a Ghost?,