The Haunting of Hill House creator reveals hidden ghosts
Then, more alarmingly, objects began moving: pots and pans went flying from empty rooms, bedsheets were snatched away without warning and slippers began “walking” across the room. At one terrifying point during the 12-year haunting of the semi-detached home in Battersea, said Shirley’s family, on a winter night in 1956, they watched in astonishment as she levitated six inches above her bed, like a scene from The Exorcist.
The sensational events at 63 Wycliffe Road – dubbed the story of the Battersea Poltergeist – became so notorious they were even raised in the House of Commons.
Today Shirley is an 80-year-old grandmother of six but her story has been brought back to life in a hit radio series guaranteed to send tingles down the spines of even the most sceptical.
She was coaxed out of the shadows by comedian turned producer Danny Robins for an absorbing docudrama which recreates one of the country’s most baffling “paranormal” episodes.
It all started with that little silver key. After trying it in various locks around the rented home without success, her father Wally, a Tube driver, left it on the kitchen table. But the next day it had mysteriously reappeared on Shirley’s bed. That night the Hitchings family were woken, they recalled, by the first of a series of loud bangs emanating from the floors, ceilings and walls. It was the beginning of a haunting that was to cast a profound shadow over them for years.
“I thought this was going to be the end,” Shirley admits today. “We were all going to die.” In an attempt to rid his home of the ghostly menace, Wally, 47, arranged for an exorcism by part-time medium Harry Hank. But it was halted half-way through by police. This led Labour MP for Brixton, Lt-Col Marcus Lipton, to raise the matter in Parliament in 1956, when he sought an apology from then Home Secretary Major Gwilym Lloyd George for the police intervention. Unapologetic, the minister told Lipton: “Black magic is an offence in common law.”
Shirley’s story has been brought back to life in a hit radio series
When the issue was raised in the Commons it caused a storm and soon almost everybody in Britain had a view on the existence or otherwise of the Battersea Poltergeist.
Famous ghost hunter Harold Chibbett certainly believed Shirley and became obsessed with the case. A former tax inspector who fought in the First World War, he had enjoyed friendships with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.
The records he kept are at the heart of the gripping Radio 4 series, which includes reconstructions of events with actor Toby Jones starring as Chibbett and Dafne Keen, who starred as Lyra in the TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials taking the role of Shirley.
Set to spooky background music, their conversations certainly bring a frightening edge to the show, which started out as a podcast.
But the recollections of Shirley today are even scarier. Despite the passing of the decades, the ghost the family dubbed “Donald” – because it seemed as ill-tempered as the irascible Disney cartoon character Donald Duck – still haunts her mind.
Shirley, circled, during the the aborted exorcism with medium Harry Rank, on her right
Thinking back to January 1956, Shirley recalled: “At the time I had just left school and I was looking forward to going to art school.” She lived at the small house with her father, disabled mother Kitty, Wally’s mother Ethel, then 73, and an adopted older brother, John.
“At the end of January 1956, the banging starts,” explains Shirley today, from her home in Waterlooville, Hampshire. “The whole house shook. It was like an air raid.
“We just used to sit in the kitchen. The lights would go on and off. It happened again and again. It kept it up for some time and we were shattered, really frightened. You could cut it [the atmosphere] with a knife. It was as though there was a presence there watching you all the time.”
A few weeks later, objects were being tossed around the room.
“Pots and pans on the kitchen stove in the next room would come flying out of the door and go across the room and speed up,” Shirley recalls.
“They would suddenly come towards you, you would dodge them. Sometimes they would hover and go down to the floor. Other times they would bang into the wall.
Ghost hunter Harold Chibbett believed Shirley and became obsessed with the case
“Dad’s slippers, that he kept by the fireplace, would walk around the room on their own. That was very scary.
“Sometimes they would raise off the floor and go in the hallway towards the front door. Then all of a sudden they would drop down. How the hell did that happen?”
Her elder brother John initially believed it was all in her overactive imagination. He pointed out that it was Shirley who had “found” the silver key and that she could have been responsible for the night-time noises. Then one night, woken by the sensation that her sheets were being pulled away, Shirley’s screams brought her brother and father running. They arrived to see a sheet being yanked off her bed.
John asked her to hold out her hands to prove she was not moving the sheet and, seconds later, watched in astonishment as she rose six inches into the air, her body stiff.
“I was floating above the bed,” she recalls. “When John pulled me down I was rigid.”
As part of his own investigation, Danny Robins invited Shirley to look over the meticulous notes taken by Harold Chibbett – something she was reluctant to do for fear it might stir things up again.
Shirley’s mother Kitty Hitchings outside 63 Wycliffe road
“I feel very different now. I’m not that scared little girl any more. I am apprehensive it could bring Donald back,” she admits.
“It was horrendous, it really was. I wouldn’t want that back again ever. I’m sorry that it happened because it took all my teenage years. I didn’t have a life. I just existed.”
At the height of the haunting, Shirley heard disembodied voices and spontaneous fires broke out in the house. There were even “letters” from the ghost – spooky scrawlings which put the family on edge.
Shirley became so terrified she left her job making alterations to clothing at a West End department store.
The odd thing, records Robins, was that some neighbours heard the loud noises made by the “ghost”, after Shirley had grown up and moved away. The spirit was reported to be active until 1968. By that time Shirley had married Derek, now 77, had two children, David and Karen, and had moved to Bognor Regis in West Sussex. The house was knocked down decades ago.
Robins said his lengthy investigation led him down many avenues but he still cannot provide explanations for many of the events.
“Every time you think you’ve a handle on this case it throws up something else,” he says. “I considered myself more of a sceptic but in this case I find myself against things I find hard to explain.”
Robins says there’s been a huge response from the public to appeals for help in unravelling the mystery of poltergeists. “We’ve had some amazing theories and we’ll explore some of them in future podcasts,” he said. “Shirley’s account has really struck a chord with listeners.
“When I interviewed her I was struck by how incredibly frightened she was of this thing. Any good ghost story is a person conveying fear to us. You feel the fear that Shirley felt.”
- The Battersea Poltergeist is available on BBC Sounds and on Radio 4