The Battersea Poltergeist, BBC Sounds, investigated by Danny Robins

An ornate key turns up on your pillow, it doesn’t fit anything in the house. You ask other members of your family. Nobody knows how it got there. Did it teleport from somewhere else?

You hear knocking sounds. Your neighbours come to complain. It goes on all night. It goes on for weeks on end. Months. Who’s doing it and why?

Your Irish granny says it’s the work of the devil.

A young pretty girl is the fulcrum of the investigation. Does she need to be pretty? No. But it helps sell newspapers. Front page news. Questions asked in the House of Parliament. Ronald Maxwell, of the Daily Mail, for example, picked up Shirley Hitchings from her house, 63 Wycliffe Road, and took her to his office in Fleet Street. He took numerous photographs without her permission. She was sixteen, or thereabouts. But when she said she wanted to go home, he said her elder brother John wanted to speak to her on the phone. John said it was alright, and she should do as Mr Maxwell asked. He took a picture of her holding her shoe.

Maxwell concluded she had double-jointed phalanges and she was using the heel to make the tapping sounds. Knock, knock, wink, wink. ‘Donald’ was her paranormal sweetheart. He took her to see a consultant who confirmed that she was deluded, her unconscious was reaping havoc in the real world, without her knowing it. But the consultant ran away from his own office when a wind blew against the curtains from the inside and scattered objects from his desk.

We know this because Shirley Hitchens is still alive. She can take the investigators and presenter Danny Robbins back to that first day when the key had appeared on her pillow. 27th January 1956. She was able to confirm that her brother John hadn’t made that phone call, but an associate of Maxwell pretending to be him.

Harold Chibbett, the paranormal expert of the day, who’s offer to help with the poltergeist (noisy ghost) suggests that in most cases the paranormal can be explained by many of the things that sceptics suggest. But in very few cases, this being one of them, there are no rational explanations. And that poltergeist activity usually follows certain rules that a teenage girl, or girls, are in the house. Their psychic energy is tapped by this unknown entity to display certain behaviours. The girl acts a kind of battery which allows it to happen. In other cases such as the Enfield Haunting of 1977 reporters claim also to have been attacked by the poltergeist. Wally Hitchings, Shirley’s dad, for example, was taken to hospital with burns to his leg. The surgeon asked where the three claw marks inside the burn had come from. ‘Donald’ as the poltergeist was named, had a nasty streak.

That was then, of course, we’ve left all that behind. Shirley’s botched exorcism by a spiritualist friend of Wally’s dad was described as the wrong thing to do by Harold Chibbet, who concluded we should be seeking to communicate with the entity, see what it wanted, and not try to assault it. Ciaran O’Keeffe, an expert in parapsychology (if there is such a thing) suggested that exorcism was akin to rape. An account of this procedure is given by Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,  but most of us are more familiar with swivelling heads, green bile, and The Exorcist.

The sting in the tale, whatever you believe, was British exorcist Robert Keenan telling us he gets around a 100 phone calls a day and 30 emails asking for his help. He suggests there are evil entities out there and inside people and some he’s no match for and they have attacked him. Has seen cases of levitation and spontaneous combustion that feature here.  

Evelyn Hollow, another parapsychologist, (if such a thing exists) offers the usual array of explanations of group dynamics, train tracks running underneath the house, mine shafts to someone faking it, whether consciously, or unconsciously.

I’m with Hollow in all this, until it gets dark and I hear the crunch of footsteps outside and hear the drag of fingernails across the window. Then I’m shitting myself, like everybody else. The question of why didn’t they run away from 63 Wycliffe Road came up. The simple answer was it was their home. Why should they? Emmm? Listen, and tell me you’d have stayed. Listen, there’s no way I would have. Makes you think. You’re on your on mate.

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