Danny Robins' paranormal cold cases: the Battersea Poltergeist
In this series, BBC Radio’s Danny Robins will be scouring the archives in search of real-life ghost stories, starting with the Battersea Poltergeist
I’m Danny Robins and I don’t believe in ghosts... is what I would have confidently told you before I came across this truly strange case. On 27 January 1956, a mysterious old key appeared on the bed of 15-year-old Shirley Hitchings at 63 Wycliffe Road, an ordinary terraced house in Battersea, south London. That night, the house was shaken by noises so loud it felt like an air raid, waking the neighbours. It was the start of an alleged poltergeist haunting that lasted an incredible 12 years – the longest-ever documented case of its kind. Objects flew across rooms, areas of the house were trashed, random fires broke out, writing appeared on walls and Shirley’s family even claimed to see her levitating above her bed. The oddest feature of the case, though, was thousands of letters allegedly handwritten by the ghost!
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I was introduced to this story in a way that feels worthy of a horror movie in itself. I was shown an old box that had been sitting in a dark, dusty attic for decades. Inside, were the files of Harold Chibbett, a paranormal investigator, friends with the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. ‘Chib’ had devoted his life to proving the existence of ghosts, and when he met the Hitchings family in Battersea, he believed he’d finally uncovered the holy grail of hauntings – as did I, when I first sifted through his files and decided to put together a podcast series about the case.
Causing a sensation
I found it amazing that this story had essentially been forgotten; back in its day it gripped the British public, doing the 1950s equivalent of ‘going viral’. Shirley was splashed across the tabloids and even appeared on live television. The peak of the family’s fame came after an attempted exorcism of Shirley was raided by police. The resulting scandal found its way into the Houses of Parliament with the home secretary of the day, Major Gwilym Lloyd George, forced to defend the police. It’s the only occasion I can find when a poltergeist was debated in Westminster!
I felt sympathy for Shirley as I researched the press coverage. It makes difficult reading for our modern eyes, with salacious, exploitative headlines about her being in love with the poltergeist, who the family had nicknamed ‘Donald’. Whatever you believe about the existence of ghosts, it’s clear the Hitchings suffered greatly – and if it was a hoax, they certainly didn’t benefit from it. Shirley’s father, Wally, was even injured in one of the fires.
You can hear the full story of this deeply odd case in my BBC Radio 4 podcast series The Battersea Poltergeist, for which I met the person whose attic that box of old case files had been sitting in – Shirley herself. She’s 80 now, but still razor sharp and highly convincing. The thing that sticks with me most is not something she said, but a little tremor in her voice that sent shivers down my spine – I realised, even 65 years later, Shirley is still scared...
This article was first published in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
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