Cambridge is not just a centre of scientific excellence; in the past it was also a centre of theological reformation and debate. Furthermore, it was one of the places where individuals asked the questions: Is there anything beyond death? And if so, what is it? Are there such things as paranormal abilities? And, importantly, can any of this be proven?
In 1855, some fellows of Trinity College started to meet – by invitation only – to discuss ghosts and other psychic phenomena. In time this group metamorphosed into an organisation based in London called the Ghost Club. which has taken various forms throughout the years. The Ghost Club is still going strong and meets regularly.
Arthur Grey, the Principal of Jesus College, Cambridge, fictionalized the Ghost Club in 1919 as The Everlasting Club in a ghost story that some still believe to be true. Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as Cambridge men such as Charles Babbage and Siegfried Sassoon, were members of the Ghost Club.
Charles Babbage, by Samuel Laurence (1854). Public domain
Victorians saw ghosts the way modern people see UFO’s and aliens. In Victorian times and in the early twentieth century, spiritualism was in vogue, and people were convinced they could communicate with the dead. You just needed to find a way to do it. Alongside the Spiritualist movement, there were mediums who held large public séances, as well as many amateurs holding small private séances, often involving mysterious tapping on tables.
However, in the 1920s Harry Houdini’s training in magic allowed him to expose fraudulent mediums who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. Following his death (on Halloween!) in 1926, his wife unsuccessfully held a yearly séance to hear a code that they had pre-arranged, which would prove his ability to communicate after death. She stopped in 1936, saying “ten years is long enough to wait for any man”.
Eleanor Sidgwick by Sir James Jebusa Shannon (1889). Public domain
Eleanor Sidgwick, one of the founding principals of Newnham College, Cambridge, was a physicist who worked with Nobel Prize winner Lord Rayleigh to improve the accuracy of experimental measurement of electrical resistance; she subsequently turned her careful experimental mind to testing the veracity of claims for psychic phenomena. Most of her writings in this field can be found in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.
Sidgwick, who was highly critical of mediums, took part in research which exposed the tricks of those whom she viewed as nothing more than clever conjurors. In 1891, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Wallace requested the Society to investigate photography of subjects such as the famous Cottingley Fairies; she responded with a paper which cast doubt on the subject and revealed the fraudulent methods used by spirit photographers.
Arthur Conan Doyle article on the Cottingley Fairies, The Strand Magazine (1920). Public domain
Yet, along with this intellectual activity, Cambridge also has a history of witches and witchcraft, of ghostly occurrences, and of a large black hellhound galloping around Cambridge and across the fens. There is still a need to understand and explain, and when strange and weird things happen, often a strange or weird explanation appears.
A survey has shown that about one in ten people have had some kind of paranormal or ghostly experience. That is quite a high proportion. Are you one of the 10% of the population who can see ghosts?
A small group of professional Green Bage Guides offer regular tours of ghosts and the macabre in ‘Haunted Cambridge’, as well as offering private tours for interested parties. Tours run all year round on Friday and Saturday evenings, with extras on high days and holidays, and particularly at Hallowe’en, which is prime ghost time! You can find out more on our ghost tours website haunted-cambridge.co.uk.
So come to Cambridge, and walk with us down dark back streets while we tell you tales of ghostly happenings and weird events. Who knows what you may see? Is that a large dog behind you with fiery red eyes? Don’t look now, just in case!”
About the Author Ruth Meyer is a qualified City of Cambridge Green Badge Guide. She first came to Cambridge as a student, and then followed an eventful working life which included teaching English in Japan, and working for the United Nations as an elections adviser across many countries. She specialises in bespoke small-group walking tours taking in the main Cambridge sites and some of the colleges, including the magnificent Kings College and its world-famous Chapel. Ruth also offers specialist tours on Cambridge Spies; the history of women in Cambridge; the new district of Eddington; and stories of Cambridge ghosts, the gruesome and the macabre, best enjoyed on a winter evening! You can book one of Ruth’s tours here