The Poltergeist Prince of London: The Remarkable True Story of the Battersea Poltergeist
Shirley Hitchings & James Clark (Stroud: The History Press, 2013).
Question: would this note seem to you more likely to have been written by (1) the spirit of a former king of France; or (2) a fifteen year-old girl from Battersea, who had never learnt French at school, but was known to own a French dictionary?
Perhaps the oddest thing about the case of the Battersea poltergeist (1956-1964) is that its investigator, Harold Chibbett, devoted so much time and energy towards establishing whether the phenomena were caused by a spirit formerly King Louis XVII of France. Reconstructed from notes rescued from Chibbett’s posthumous papers, there is more than enough detail here (I think) to suggest that teenage angst and dissociative states probably played a far greater role in the happenings at 63 Wycliffe Road than any alleged spirits.
But, as with many poltergeist cases, it would be too glib to write it all off as due to psychological causes. The happenings certainly centred around Shirley Hitchings, co-author of the book, yet there were numerous witnesses and a range of phenomena that included movement of objects, voices without evident physical cause, apparent telepathic and precognitive phenomena, and highly frequent (but elusive) knocking and tapping sounds, on occasion so loud they could be heard in the street.
Like the classic Enfield case, it’s a huge mess: a melange of psychological disturbance, possible hoax, and lack of investigative controls, but with just enough nuggets of what seems genuinely inexplicable to string along everyone involved in the case, and also to engage the reader of this account. James Clark does a great job of laying out the material in a more or less chronological order, whilst imparting a vivid sense of its main protagonists: the feisty Shirley, the avuncular Chibbett, and the imperiously parochial poltergeist himself, ‘Donald’.
But despite the mayhem of the surface narrative there are serious issues at stake, such as the possibility of collusion between investigator and witnesses, because Chibbett evidently provided Shirley with opportunities and contacts she could not have enjoyed otherwise, and he in turn was provided with material for his spiritualist-oriented researches. In the latter half of the book it becomes especially apparent just how much of Chibbett’s interaction with the poltergeist boiled down to a power struggle, a bargaining for information that the polt never quite delivered.
And then there is Ethel, Shirley’s grandmother, whose death was perhaps tragically hastened by the happenings in the house. Understandably, this angle is not highlighted by the authors, but it’s clear that Ethel of all the householders took the firmest stand again ‘Donald’ and most assertively laid the blame at Shirley’s door. I couldn’t help feeling that maybe she paid the ultimate price for her resistance, although I would not want to imply that anyone was intentionally culpable.
The book has all the hallmarks of a classic in its field. It is rich and detailed and captures the flavour of the era in which the case took place. It also raises a question common to every classic poltergeist case: if only strict experimental controls had been in place, would anything have been reported at all? One day, I hope, there will be a case that provides the answer.