A 19th century nocturnal adventure

St Peter's Church, 1839
From a private collection

Christmas has always been a traditional time for relating ghost stories. By far the best known example of this is “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, the Victorian era being a golden age for such offerings. Here is a ghost story written by John George Bishop, the renowned Brighton historian, about his personal ‘Nocturnal Adventure’ in the 19th century.

The adventure which I am about to relate was occasioned by such a singular – not to say, ludicrous – circumstance, that, apart from its extra­ordinary character, I am induced to publish it for the lesson it affords, namely, that such occurrences, – often, through fear or excited imagination, attributed to supernatural origin, – will, if thoroughly investi­gated, be found to arise from very simple causes.

The adventure took place in a house situated in the centre of a street in the north part of Brighton, and not far from St. Peter’s Church. In no way did it differ from other houses in the street, so as to provoke suspicion that it offered any special attraction for the visitation of ghost or burglar. It had some half-dozen rooms (two being underground kitchens) and a washhouse, adjoining at the back. On the night in question, the occupants were my wife and I, a stalwart farmer, his wife, and their boy about 10 or 12. The said farmer – who for size and healthy appearance would certainly have gained the prize for such qualities at any Agricultural Show – temporarily occupied two of my rooms, having come to Brighton to embark in the “public” line, and, as I afterwards learned, had brought with him, as purchase-money, about £300, and actually had it in the house.

We retired to rest about eleven o’clock, after performing the routine duty of fastening windows, bolting doors, etc. The farmer and his wife occupied the front bedroom, and I and mine the back bedroom. We had scarcely been in bed half-an-hour when I was awoke by a sound – or rather a succession of sounds – which seemed to proceed from the room beneath –

“A tapping, as of someone gently tapping – Tapping at the window-pane”

I lay for a brief space, and listened – breathless. The noise was not imaginary, or such as might arise from a confused dream. It was a distinct and palpable tapping – generally slow and at irregular intervals, but twice or thrice in rapid succession. At that period, Mr. Home had not enlightened the world with his experiences of “spiritual visitations”, and “spirit-rapping” had not come into fashion; so I drew my deductions as to the origin of the sounds from a natural cause – that of a burglar taking out a pane of glass from a window of the room below! I was all the more convinced of this by the fact that the “tapping” appeared to be so systematically and artfully done – not at regular intervals, but tap . . tap, tap . . . tap . . . tap . . . tap, in such a way as would not be likely to attract attention. I leaped out of bed, and shouted from the top of the stairs, “Who’s there?” And then I listened for a few moments. All was silent. The thought flashed across my mind, “They are off “! Vain hope! –  Immediately after was heard again the same tap . . . tap . . . tap, tap …. tap.

My next thought was – how to encounter the audacious burglar? Not being myself of very for­midable appearance, I determined to arouse the farmer. He,however, was already aroused, as were the rest of the house, by my previous shouting. Quietly opening the door, he asked what was the matter? I told him, in an undertone, that I thought there were burglars trying to get into the house by taking out a window in the room below. At the mention of burglars, my wife, who was standing listening just inside our bedroom door, rushed past us in a state of great excitement into the other bed­room to the farmer’s wife. “Don’t go down”, she exclaimed, “they will shoot you. Give them all they ask, and let them go”! “Not if I know it,” ejaculated my bucolic friend, “they’ll get over my body before they take what I’ve got”; and I then heard his wife tell mine that they had nearly £300 in the room.

All this took place more rapidly than it takes me to tell it; but the knowledge that they had this large sum – their all – with them proved that I had
“Harped the farmer’s fear aright” –
for, like myself, he was fully convinced that it was an attempt at burglary. We now agreed to listen again, which we did amid profound silence.     Tap, tap   ….  tap    .    .    tap ..
tap, tap – there was no mistake.

“Well,” exclaimed the farmer, now thoroughly aroused to a sense of danger, “if that awhat they mean, we’ll give ’em something for themselves. Get a light, and let’s go down and face ’em! “We both hurriedly threw some clothes about us; I got a light, and we then silently and cautiously prepared for action. My companion had in his hand a truly formidable bludgeon, which would have felled an ox. I took, I believe, the poker from the bedroom fire­place. The sounds, I should add, had been heard at intervals during this preparation. “You go first”, said the farmer – a request com­plimentary, no doubt, but, at the same time, any­thing but agreeable to me; and which was not improved by his adding, “both of us, then, can do something, as I can hit over your head”!

Slowly and stealthily we descended the stairs; but scarcely had we got half-way down, when, totally regardless of the approaching light, there was the noise again! Tap … tap …. tap, tap, tap …. tap! My backer, doubtless, clutched his stick all the tighter; but I must confess my heart went pit-a-pat at the thought of encounter­ing an unseen burglar. However, down we went: and first cautiously entered the back room whence the sound seemed to have proceeded.

Everything was intact-just as we left it on going to bed. We peered through the window out into the darkness; all was still! We looked into the cupboards of the room; under the sofa, and removed the table. There was nothing there!  The wash-house, – the door leading into which was ajar, – was next examined. The back door was tried; all was secure! We went out into the yard, but saw no sign! Returning indoors, the front door was looked to; the front parlour scanned as closely as the back had been; but everything was as usual! Thus far, we were con­vinced, no one had entered the house; nothing was gone. This, at least, was some satisfaction.

We now determined to proceed to the underground kitchens. Like the rooms above, no indications of burglarious entry were any where observable. But, while in the back kitchen, scrutinizing the fastenings of the window, we were suddenly startled by the sound again – apparently overhead – tap  .  .  .  tap,    tap    .    .    .    tap !

Who or what could it be? We hurriedly retraced our steps up the stairs into the washhouse, and listened. We heard nothing. We looked once more out of doors. All was still. We knew not what to think or do. There was no mistake as to the sounds, but whence they proceeded, or how they were produced, was beyond our finding out. Seeing everything again secure, we returned to the bedroom, where the women – my wife in particular -were in no small tremor. It was useless to try to attempt to persuade them that there was no one in the house while that horrid tap …. tap …. tap . . . tap, was heard at intervals. However, we at length separated again for rest! Rest, did I say? I don’t know how the farmer passed the re­mainder of the night; but for myself, I know that, to paraphrase Hood’s Eugene Aram,
“All night I lay in misery From weary chime to chime;
While one besetting horrid tap, was heard from time to time”.
The night, however, passed away, and morning came at length. On going down stairs, my first step was to examine the windows, to see if any had been tampered with. They were all right. This beat me; and numerous were the speculations at breakfast as to the cause of the nocturnal disturbance. We could not, however, wholly get rid of the idea that there had been an attempt at burglary; and the propriety of my seeing the Chief-Officer of Police during the day was considered not unadvisable.

I had been to business about an hour or so when I received a missive from my wife that I was not to go to the Town Hall, as they had found out the cause of our alarm, and she would tell me at dinner time!

Slowly passed the two or three hours till dinner­time came, and on arriving home, my first question to my wife was – “Well, what was it”? She burst out into a fit of laughter, during which I thought I could distinguish the words -“The havels”! “The what”? I exclaimed. “The havels”! she replied.

Now, I knew that ” havels” were a species of small crab found among the rocks in front of the town at low water; but that they should be away from their native element, and, in the middle of the night, too, knocking at my window, or somewhere else, so loudly and continuously as to rouse me from my sleep and keep me on thorns half the night through, was, I said, too much for my credulity. Such, however, proved to be the case; for it appeared that the farmer’s son had, during the previous even­ing, unknown to his mother, been down to the beach, and brought home his cap-full of “havels.” These he had stealthily deposited in a corner of the wash-house; and the precious things, during the night, bent on an exploring expedition, – probably in search of water, – had effected an entry from the wash-house into the passage of the house itself, and travelling blindly on, were, one after another, precipitated on to the stairs leading into the kitchen! The stairs being tightly covered with oilcloth, their falling had produced that horrid tap . . . tap, tap, tap, . . . . tap, which resulted in my “Nocturnal Adventure”.

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