Ghost Stories for Christmas.

Christmas has traditionally been a time of family gatherings, story-telling and merry-making. The appeal of the ghost story at this time of year is symptomatic of these things; the requests for tales from a grandparent or the reading of M. R. James heightens our sense of ancestral ties and giddy celebrations. The country house has been synonymous with stories of ghosts and spooky happenings for centuries. Local tales of headless ghouls or floating grey women occur all over the world, and authors of such stories never seem to tire of some dark mansion or dilapidated house as their backdrop.

There are many tales from which I could have plucked something, but these are best read in full. Instead I draw your attention to a piece by George Cruikshank, British caricaturist and book illustrator, better known for his superb visual commentaries of the Prince Regent and high fashion during the first half of the nineteenth century. Second Edition of a Discovery Concerning Ghosts: with a Rap at the ‘Spirit Rappers’ appeared in 1864 and is a fantastic textual form of Cruikshank’s acerbic wit and joviality. In it he highlights specific texts like Catherine Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature (1848), and Robert Dale Owen’s Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (1860) declaring them to be ‘cleverly written’ and ‘elaborately compiled’ respectively, but nonetheless ‘ghastly’ and misjudged (pp. 7 and 13). There is also mention of the Sampson Ghost which Cruikshank notes as a ‘spiritual farce’ (p. 22) and Dr. Hibbert’s Philosophy of Apparitions (1824) whereby Cruikshank really gets his hooks into the appearance of ghosts and provides the reader with true laugh-out-loud material, ‘… we should like to know if there are spiritual-outfitters shops for the clothing of ghosts who pay visits on earth, and if empty, haunted houses are used for this purpose… (p. 26). He even goes as far as illustrating this section with ‘ghosts of stockings’!

The following is excerpts from the full text, but show the lighter side of telling ghost stories, and no matter what your feelings are concerning the existence of ghosts, George Cruikshank (accompanied by a sherry or rum) certainly provides some much-needed respite from the cold, dark evenings!


[All original spelling and punctuation have been retained.]

ghost cover

A vast army, composed of ghost, goblin, and sprite!
With their eyes full of fire, all gleaming with spite!
All lurking about in the “dead of the night”
With their faces so pale and their shrouds all so white!
Or hiding about in dark holes and corners,
To fright grown-up folk, or little “Jack Horners.”
But though they all stand in this fierce grim array,
Armed with pen and with pencil, “I’ll drive them away.”

As the belief in ghosts has long been popular, and considered as an established fact, it may be quite allowable for an author to introduce a ghost into his romance; and it may be argued that authors have thus been enabled “to point a moral” as well as to “adorn a tale,” by using this poetical license, or spiritual medium; but in these cases the tales or poems were given out to the world as inventions of the author to amuse the public, or to convey a moral lesson, and were accepted by the public as such.

It will be observed that there are different classes of ghosts, as there are of living people—the princely, the aristocratic, the genteel, and the common. The vulgar classes delight to haunt in graveyards, dreary lanes, ruins, and all sorts of dirty dark holes and corners, and in cellars. Yes, dark cellars seem to be a favourite abode of these common ghosts. This fact raises the question whether the lower class of spirits are obliged to keep to the lower parts of the house—to the “lower regions “—and are not allowed to go into the parlours or the drawing rooms, and not allowed to mix with the higher order of ghosts! Can this be a law or regulation amongst the ghosts? If so, is it not most extraordinary that these spirits should not be allowed to choose their own place of residence, and take to the most comfortable apartments, instead of grovelling amongst the rats and mice, the slugs, the crickets, and the blackbeetles? “tis strange, ’tis passing strange; but so it appears to be. By the by, some few of these poor spirits of the humble class of ghosts do sometimes, it appears, mount up to the bed-rooms, in the hope, I suppose, of getting occasionally now and then a ” comfortable lodging” and a ” good night’s rest.”

There is also an account of a haunted cellar in a gentleman’s house, out of town, in which were heard ” loud knockings,” “a voice crying,” “heavy feet walking,” etc. The old butler, with his “acolytes,” descended to the cellar (wine cellar) armed with sword, blunderbuss, and other offensive weapons, but the ghosts put them all to flight, and they “turned tail “in a fright. Yes, they all ran up-stairs again, followed by the “sound of feet” and “a visible shadow .'” This, of course, is a fact; and it so happens that I know another fact about a haunted wine-cellar, which, however, had quite a different result to the foregoing.

cellar ghost

In a wine-cellar of a gentleman’s house, somewhere near Blackheath, it was found that strange noises were sometimes heard in the evenings and in the night time, in this “wine vault,” similar to those described above, such as knocking, groaning, footsteps, etc., so that the servants were afraid to go into the cellar, particularly at a late hour. The master at length determined to “lay ” this ghost, if possible, and one evening when these noises had been heard, arming himself with a sword, and the servants with a fowling-piece and a poker, they cautiously descended into the cellar (with lighted candles, of course). Nothing was to be seen there, and all was quiet except a strange, smothered kind of sound, like the hard breathing of an animal, something like snoring, that seemed to proceed out of the earth in one of the dark corners of the vault, when, lo and behold! in turning their lights in the direction from which the sounds came, and advancing carefully, they discovered—what do you think? Don’t be alarmed. Why, the ghost lying on the ground, dead—DRUNK! Yes, the ghost had laid himself, not with ” Bell, Book, and Candle,” but by swallowing the SPIRIT of ALCOHOL, the spirit of wine, beer, and brandy. Most disgraceful; in fact, this ghost had taken a “drop too much,”

Upon looking a little closer, they found that this ghost was one Tom Brown, an under-gardener; and it was discovered that he had tunnelled a hole from the “tool-house” through the wall into the cellar. This spirit was so over-charged with spirit, that he was unable to walk, so was doomed to be carried in a cart to the “cage;” and all the people living round about came next morning to look at the ghost that had been haunting the squire’s wine cellar. Oh! what & fortune it would be to any one who could catch a ghost —a real, right down, “‘arnest” ghost, and put him in a cage to show him round the country! I wish I had one.* It would cost little or nothing to keep such a thing; only the lodging, as he would require neither food, fire, clothing, nor washing!

In one of the tales brought forward by this author [R. D. Owen] is an account of the haunting of an old manor-house near Leigh, in Kent, called Ramhurst, where there was heard ” knockings and sounds of footsteps,” more especially voices which could not be accounted for, usually in an unoccupied room; “sometimes as if talking in a loud tone, sometimes as if reading aloud, occasionally screaming.” The servants never saw anything, but the cook told her mistress that on one occasion, in broad daylight, hearing the rustling of a silk dress behind her, and which seemed to touch her, she turned suddenly round, supposing it to be her mistress, but to her great surprise – and terror could not see anybody.

Mr. Owen is so thoroughly master of this spirit subject that he must be able to tell us all about this “rustling” of the “silk dresses” of ghosts, and surely every one will be curious to learn the secret of such a curious fact. The lady of the house, a Mrs. R , drove over one day to the railway station at Tunbridge to fetch a young lady friend who was coming to stay with her for some weeks. This was a Miss S , who “had been in the habit of seeing apparitions from early childhood,” and when, upon their return, they drove up to the entrance of the manor-house, Miss S perceived on the threshold the appearance of two figures, apparently an elderly couple, habited in the costume of the time of Queen Anne. They appeared as if standing on the ground. Miss S—— saw the same apparition several times after this, and held conversations with them, and they told her that they were husband and wife, and that their name was “Children;” and she informed the lady of the house, Mrs. R , of what she had seen and heard; and as Mrs. R was dressing hurriedly one day for dinner, “and not dreaming of anything spiritual, as she hastily turned to leave her bed-chamber, there, in the doorway, stood the same female figure Miss S had described! identical in appearance and costume—even to the old ‘point-lace’ on her ‘brocaded silk dress ‘—while beside her, on the left, but less distinctly visible, was the figure of the old squire, her husband; they uttered no sound, but above the figure of the lady, as if written in phosphoric light in the dusk atmosphere that surrounded her, were the words, ‘Dame Children,’ together with some other words intimating that having never aspired beyond the joys and sorrows of this world, she had remained ‘earth bound’ These last, however, Mrs. R scarcely paused to decipher, as her brother (who was very hungry) called out to know if they were ‘going to have any dinner that day?'” There was no time for hesitation; “she closed her eyes, rushed through the apparition and into the dining-room, throwing up her hands, and exclaiming to Miss S , ‘Oh, my dear, I’ve walked through Mrs. Children!'” Only think of that, “gentle reader!” Only think of Mrs. R walking right through “Dame Children “—” old point-lace, brocaded silk dress,” and all—and as old “Squire Children” was standing by the side of his “dame,” Mrs. R must either have upset the old ghost or have walked through him also.

Although this story looks very much like as if it were intended as an additional chapter to “Joe Miller’s Jest-book,” the reader will please to observe that Mr. Owen does not relate this as a joke, but, on the contrary, expects that it will be received as a solemn serious fact; there was a cause for the haunting of this old manor-house, with the talking, screaming, and rustling of silk, and the appearance of the old-fashioned ghosts; there was a secret which these ghosts wished to impart to the persons in the house at that time, and if the gentleman reader will brace up his nerves, and the lady reader will get her “smelling-bottle” ready, I’ll let them into the secret. Now, pray, dear madam, don’t be terrified! Squire Children had formerly been proprietor of the mansion, and he and his “dame” had taken great delight and interest in the house—when alive—and they were very sorry to find that the property had gone out of the family, and he and his dame had come on purpose to let Mrs. R and her friend know all this! There now, there’s a secret for you—what do you think of that?


Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Full link for Second Edition of a Discovery Concerning Ghosts: with a Rap at the ‘Spirit Rappers’ (1864)

Works by George Cruickshank

Selection of images by Cruickshank

The Davenport Brothers

The Ghost Club, to which Cruikshank dedicates this work (founded in 1862)

Joe Miller

The eeriness of the country

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