Strange hauntings and tales of the paranormal seem to be able to fall upon anyone at any time. The Hitchings family was a seemingly ordinary family living in a rather unassuming terraced Victorian semi-detached home located on a quiet stretch of Wycliffe Road, in Battersea, Southwest London, England. Here Wally Hitchings, his wife Kitty, their 15-year old daughter Shirley, adopted son John, who was in his 20s, and their grandmother Ethel lived normal working class lives, and in 1956 of that year Shirley was excited to be starting at a new art school. There was nothing particularly special or unusual at all about the Hitchings family, but in 1956 their lives would suddenly be thrown into chaos as they were thrown into supernatural horror that has gone on to become one of the most intense and terrifying hauntings England has ever seen.
It all began innocuously enough. One morning in January of 1956, Shirley discovered a silver key sitting on her pillow, neatly set out as if placed there with great care. It was obviously meant to be found and seemed to have been put there for Shirley, but when she asked her family what it was for no one knew anything about the key or why it was there. Wally Hitchings took the key and tried it on every door and lock in the house, but it did not fit anything, and it wasn’t even clear what kind of key it was or what it was meant to open. At one point the key suddenly just seemed to vanish and no one could find it anywhere. It was rather baffling, but not particularly bizarre at this point, so they just sort of shrugged their shoulders and went on with their normal day, but that evening things were about to take a sharp turn into strangeness.
That evening after everyone had gone to bed, there began a peculiar scratching sound from within the walls of the home, at first faint but growing steadily louder and more insistent. Thinking that there were rodents about, Wally got up to take a look around and that was when a thumping started, as if someone were pounding on the walls and floor. This graduated to a loud banging that suddenly erupted all over the home, rattling pictures in their frames and causing furniture to shake as it grew in intensity into a cacophony of noise joined by the lights flickering on and off of their own accord. The family, now fully awake, stood there stunned as the whole home was besieged with thumping, rattling, banging, and scratching noises that assaulted their senses and built into a crescendo of noise. Shirley would say of it:
I lived through the Blitz and I remember the bombs dropping, it was the same level of noise. The sound was coming from the roots of the house. The whole house shook like it was an air raid. It went on night after night for three weeks. We were shattered. It was as if the noises came from the bowels of the earth. It went on until daylight. We were traumatized. I remember clinging to my dad, saying, ‘Please make it stop.’
It was such an enormous commotion that neighbors were emerging from their homes to see what was going on. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the incessant banging and pounding stopped, leaving a wall of relative silence to come crashing down on the baffled witnesses. An inspection of the home turned up no rational explanation for the ruckus, with everything seemingly in order and no obvious sign of anything amiss. It was all very unusual, but everyone eventually went off back to bed. The next morning, the police were notified about the previous night’s disturbance and a surveyor was brought in, but no cause for the incident could be found. However, although the noises had stopped for the time being, this was far from the end of what was to turn out to be a harrowing ordeal.
That evening the noises returned, in particular the banging and the scratching sounds, which seemed to come from the walls, floor, ceiling, and even from within furniture. Indeed, these sounds became a regular occurrence which would spring up out of nowhere and without warning at all hours of the day. This all soon graduated to moving objects, with various items and furniture moved, flung about, or knocked over by unseen hands, often as horrified witnesses looked on. At times objects would even levitate through the air or be thrown across the room, often seemingly aimed at people. Evelyn Hollow, a Scottish writer and parapsychologist who witnessed the events, would say of it:
We're talking about a clock floating through the air. We're talking about pots and pans being thrown from a room that nobody was in. Rooms are trashed. The house must have looked like a bloody warzone. It’s a truly wild case.
The phenomena intensified in both ferocity and weirdness. Slippers were seen to walk about on their own as if someone was wearing them, clothing would hover and dance about, the piano would play tunes on its own, pens would fly about and scrawl pictures onto the walls, and this would all go on to take a rather violent turn. Objects were often thrown with great force at people, a snarling sound like a wild animal could sometimes be heard emanating from the shadows, and one time a pair of gloves floated up into the air and began savagely slapping Wally across the face to leave red marks behind. The grandmother, Ethel, was also almost pushed down the stairs by unseen hands. Sheets were ripped off of beds, objects were found smashed to pieces, and it all came to a head when Shirley was attacked one night by an unseen force dragging her from her bed, making her levitate, and wrapping sheets around her. She would say of this frightening incident:
The bedsheets came off and I was floating, I thought I was going mad. I remember the sheets coming off and being tossed about in the bed. I was floating above the bed. When John pulled me down I was rigid. My nan, who was Catholic, thought I might be possessed by the devil. I thought I was going mad. I was crying all the time, very traumatized.
Indeed, much of the activity seemed to gravitate towards Shirley, and it got to the point where strange banging and noises would follow her around town, even when she was out shopping or at her job as a seamstress. In fact, the noises got so disruptive that her boss thought she was pulling a prank, and when scissors and other items began to go missing they accused her of stealing and fired her. By this time the case was hitting national news, and it was even mentioned in the House of Commons, but no one had any real rational explanation for any of it, despite a great many witnesses having seen the phenomena for themselves. At this point the entity even had a nickname, being called “Donald” by the family, and it even followed her to the BBC studios when she went there to be interviewed about the phenomena, of which Shirley would say:
We went up on the bus and the tube. Dad took me. When we got to the studio Donald was banging. He had followed me. We were waiting in the green room and they were asking me questions. Donald was tapping quietly on the table and they all heard it. ‘Oh great are you going to come on the Television he was saying.’
They even found a way to communicate with it to a degree through using letter cards. In this case they would point at a letter and the “spirit” would tap when they reached the correct one, and this graduated to actually having the entity write out messages on a piece of paper, but at first little of what it had to say made any sense and were quite often illegible. Some of the messages that were able to be gleaned from this communication were “Viva France,” “Go away,” and rather chillingly, “Shirley I come,” and at one point it claimed to be the ‘lost dauphin’ Louis-Charles, the short-lived Louis XVII of France, who was rumored to have escaped captivity during the French Revolution. As time went on, it got more eloquent, and started making demands and threatening to burn the house down, something which it made good on when fires started to erupt around the house. Shirley has said of this:
Donald started making demands – wanting me to wear my hair a certain way ‒ then threaten us, saying he’d set fires in the house,’ she says. ‘Dad locked all the matches and knives in our air raid shelter. But it did no good because fires would start all over the house. One night Dad got burned putting out a fire. Underneath the burn were gouge marks, like he’d been clawed.
Rather bizarrely, Donald seemed to be obsessed with the actor Jeremy Spenser, who it insisted that Shirley meet, and when she refused it threw a tantrum, trashed the house, and rather eerily Spenser was involved in a non-fatal car crash not long after. The desperate family turned to psychics and exorcists, but nothing seemed to work as the paranormal activity went on unabated. This went on for a full 12 years (!) before one day Donald left a message simply saying he was leaving, and just like that the ordeal was over. In the late 1960s the house would be demolished and Shirley would move off to the South of England to start a new life and put it all behind her, only revisiting it when she was an 80-year-old grandmother to write a book on the strange events titled The Poltergeist Prince of London. What was going on here? Was there anything to this at all, or was it a hoax perpetuated by the family or Shirley herself? Whatever the answer may be, the strange case of the "Battersea Poltergeist" has gone on to become one of the more iinfamous hauntings in England, and we are left to wonder just what was going on here.