The brothel fire that caused the deaths of four teenage sailors and the young women they accompanied, plying their trade in Stockton in 1827, was unfortunate to say the least – but one hundred and ninety years ago when this took place – excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and taking drunken sexual pleasures on horse hair mattresses in houses made of wood was pretty much a recipe for such a tragedy.
Once a fire took hold in those conditions, suffocation was fast and furious. This was not an rare occurrence by any means but what made this one stand out for moral crusading at this time was not the sin of the brothel or demon drink and certainly not smoking (which was good for you!), but the sin of playing cards – the sin of gambling.
“Carding” was the path to hell and more and more gambling establishments were taking hold, often associated with ‘houses of ill fame.’ These were known as ‘Hell Houses’. Consequently, any opportunity for broadsides and the newspapers, to rally against the paraphernalia of gambling, whether cards or the newly imported disgrace from France – the roulette wheel – was taken up with vigor.
The Bow Street Runners – the legendary enforcement officers of the period – became skilled in raiding and closing down such ‘hell houses’, whilst the ‘hell house’ proprietors became equally skilled in quickly dismantling their gambling equipment and wheeling out the ‘innocence’ of a high-end brothel back-drop, so sinful was gambling by comparison. It was a battle-field as revealed by a famous exposé run by the Sunday Times newspaper in November of 1823, who ran with the headline;
INTERIOR OF A PALL MALL HELL
True, this is hardly comparable to ‘carding’ – in ‘The Back Row, Stockton’. We are now in the upper echelons of London’s Pall Mall.
Source: Sunday Times (London: England), Sunday November 16th, 1823, pg.2; issue 57
To emphasize how seriously they were taking this journalistic ‘first’, they even quoted Virgil to bring home the classic encounter faced between heaven and hell:
“The gates of Hell stand open night and day
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way;
But, to return to light and golden skies,
That is the task, ’tis there the labour lies.”
The ‘posh’ nature of many of these London ‘Hells’ was deliberately stripped of its lustre – once the high-end proprietors were charged with ‘keeping a common gambling house – At least a Pall Mall and a Stockton ‘Hell’ were equal before the law.
The Times then cited some infamous, known murderers and confidence tricksters, associating them with such establishments on the basis that this is what despicable, immoral rogues tended to do when not being despicable, murdering or scamming – they frequent a gambling hell described by the Sunday Times thus:
“The hell is usually a very splendid apartment, in which the frequenters are treated the choicest viands and the most costly wines, at the expense of the house; at least this is the case in those of the most respectable – or, as we should call it, of the deepest and most destructive class. Before a stranger can be admitted, he must pass three, four or even five sets of doors, strongly barricaded on the inside, and watched by cunning cerberi and club-armed bullies.”
Source: Sunday Times (London: England), Sunday November 16th, 1823, pg.2; ( issue 57)
Whatever the class of gambler, the theme was consistent – God will strike you down and the Devil will be waiting to take you to another kind of hell. This classic broadside message is so clearly portrayed in the following Rothbury incident where a scene of nakedness and sexual promiscuity in a brothel is lasciviously described, and suddenly there is a police raid. Far from worrying about the sexual activities, they followed their moral duty to evict the card gamblers who were sitting aside from the promiscuous cavorting. One gambler whispers to his colleagues;
“They’ll not let us play in a brothel so we’ll go to Betty Powell’s grave, they’ll not find us there.”
The party of six gamblers left and some of the women left with them as they made their way to the churchyard where they sat around their late friend, Betty Powell’s gravestone and leaving the women holding the money stakes – they gambled. The women in particular worried about these men gambling on consecrated ground – but they laughed and toasted ‘…the health of “Old Nick.”
As they did so, a stranger appeared at their side and bid them a fine evening and wondered if he might join their game. They agreed and were especially welcoming when the stranger produced a bottle and bade them drink. One gambler asked his friend if he was going to toast the Devil again. The friend smiled and, raising the bottle to his lips, said:
“Sainted Devil, may thou live long as the superintendent of our festive board and afford us all the spree at thy command. Here’s to thee Mr. Devil and to the stranger whose provided for us.”
The skies darkened, thunder struck and a blast of violent wind scattered all of them – except the stranger- smashing their bodies into the gravestones and railings.
Some died, others had broken thigh bones and one woman ‘stake holder’ identified as Mary Oxley, went completely mad.
In case any readers are left in any doubt about the grave sin of ‘carding’ and gambling of any kind, the broadside publisher, Thomas Mather of Morpeth, certainly leaves you in no doubt with his pictorial representation above.
Finally I leave you with the man himself, as frequently pictured waiting for his next culprit – gamblers in particular!
I think it’s about time we had some ghostly goings on. Part of my time is spent tracking down contemporary as well as old tales about ghosts and the supernatural. So here is a spooky experience I documented in 2008. *
This is Georgina setting the scene as a thirteen year old in 2007:
“It was pitch black. I woke up feeling a cold breeze on my face and I was really thirsty. Mum and dad were fast asleep, so I quietly went downstairs, got my drink but the cold breeze was worse. It was then I noticed that the back door was wide open and I could hear distant barking.
I went out and I saw Rio barking at something and there was a figure in the back of the garden – a man – and next to him was a dog.
I was so scared. Rio didn’t go towards them which was strange, and he suddenly stopped barking and ran inside to his bed whimpering. I sort of looked at the man, he was just standing there – I blinked again – he was still there, very tall standing with his dog looking up at him.
I ran inside and locked the door. I didn’t wake mum and dad. They were cross when I told them in the morning, but I felt the house was okay and I had Rio with me.”
Georgina was unaware that mum, Leslee and dad, David – had already been experiencing unexplained events for the last few months and were now convinced that the home they had moved into in the summer of 2006 was haunted and told me it was not the first time that the back door had been unlocked and left open – but they had never seen a man and dog at the end of the garden.
Their story begins at the end of August 2007 when Leslee’s older daughter Layla and her boyfriend were visiting for a barbecue and drinks in the garden. Conversation got round to séances and how Leslee’s recently deceased mum had joked about trying to contact them from the ‘other side.’ They decided to hold a séance to contact ‘mum’ with the usual requests to knock once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’ – but nothing happened and all ended with foolish laughter and more to eat and drink.
About a week later, Leslee and David were in the kitchen, very late at night, about to go to bed when Leslee said “Sssshh – I can hear something!” David listened, and agreed, he too could hear something. It was a kind of distant thumping noise. They thought it might be next-door’s rabbit out in his garden hutch – its name was actually Thumper, and he was fond of making such a noise. This noise, however, was too loud for rabbit, David thought. It was somehow just in the air, in the distance, yet at the same time, in their kitchen.
Leslee thought David was mucking about but he assured her it wasn’t him. Leslee told me;
“I started knocking back – so when ‘it’ knocked twice or three times – I did twice or three times back. Then I started doing four and then ‘it’ matched what I was doing, so if I did six ‘it’ would do six, I did two, ‘it’ did two. David said to me ‘I don’t like this’, and went upstairs to check if Georgina was playing around – she was fast asleep.”
Leslee decided it might be her mum actually trying to communicate after their failed attempt, so said: “Mum is that you? One knock for yes and two for no.”
Two knocks immediately followed Leslee’s question.
“So it’s not your mum,” said David. “Hang on a minute, this isn’t right – it’s really weird.”
Leslee persevered, “Is there somebody here?” One knock was the reply. Leslee and David continued with the questions and, over the next hour and a half, began to accept that a supernatural force was in communication with them.
By all their “yes” and “no” knocks, they ascertained it was a man who used to live there and although the house only dates from the 1970’s, he had been there many more years before the house was built, living on that same site but David and Leslee failed to establish an actual date.
“By going through people’s names,” David told me, “we learnt he was called Paul, that he lived here and he said he died before he should have done. He was not murdered; it seems to be as a result of an accident. He had a family and a dog and they are all long dead.”
As the questions continued, family dog, Rio suddenly got up from his bed and sat transfixed – staring, absolutely rigid.
Leslee said, “Where are you?” then realising Paul could not answer that question, she quickly added, “Are you in the kitchen?”
No answer at all.
“Are you near our dog?” One knock followed. Rio was very nervous and shifted uneasily, staring at something unseen close to David and Leslee.
Then it all finished. The communication was broken, Rio went back to his bed and David and Leslee were left with all kinds of thoughts whirling around in their minds. A conversation with a ghost is quite an experience to mull over. One thing was certain; they agreed not to tell Georgina of their experiences.
During the week that followed they had endless trouble with Rio. He had been successfully trained as a puppy not to go upstairs – his territory was down in the hall and the kitchen area but over the week that followed the communication with Paul, he kept running upstairs at night and moving around the bathroom.
Leslee told me, “The dog was driving us nuts because he kept coming upstairs. I could hear him pattering around and going into the bathroom like he was scared of something to the point where I’m putting stuff at the top of the stairs to block it – but he would not stay downstairs.”
Rio, it should be revealed – is no puny little dog but a Bull Mastiff/Great Dane cross – a hunting breed of great renown. Tall, heavy and, it seems, now scared of ghosts.
After a week of this, David and Leslee heard the tapping again when they were in the kitchen. They had not dared start it again themselves after all the trouble with Rio.
“Is that Paul?” Leslee asked.
One knock followed.
“Do you like dogs?”
“Do you like Rio?”
“Do you go and see Rio?”
“You are scaring him,” said Leslee, “will you stop doing that? Please leave him alone.”
One knock confirmed a yes.
David told me how bizarre it all felt and the more they “talked” they worked out that Paul was unable to go upstairs – he had no concept that the upper part of their house existed.
After that night, Rio was content to stay downstairs. The story ends however when Leslee’s older daughter visits and she and David confide in her what has been going on. Layla was incredulous and could not believe what they told her until they began a session to contact Paul whilst she was with them.
As Leslee began the one-knock-two-knock conversation, Layla accused David of banging the wall, so he stood clearly away from any wall with his arms folded while Layla and Leslee sat at the kitchen counter area on stools.
“Are you near us?” asked Layla.
One knock confirmed yes.
“Are you in the corner of the kitchen – tell us where you are?”
This was not a question Paul could answer, but suddenly David felt absolutely frozen – the temperature plummeted.
“Are you by the oven?”
Two knocks for no.
“Are you by the bin?”
Then Leslee now feeling distinctly cold herself, looked directly at Layla. They were both sitting one seat apart at the breakfast counter ever since David got up to demonstrate it was not him knocking. They both knew what the next question had to be.
“Are you sitting between us?”
A measured pause followed – then one knock.
Leslee told me, I’m going cold now just thinking about it.”
Remarkably laid-back, Layla asked a totally unexpected question, “Would you like a cuddle Paul?”
A single knock followed and Layla reached over and cuddled the empty air between them – then it was over – the temperature changed and the silence was heavy – Paul was gone and did not come back.
In the summer of 2008 while digging at the end of David and Leslee’s garden to build a summer house, contractors unearthed the bones of a dog just at the spot where Georgina had seen the tall man with the dog.
*All my authentically researched and recorded spooky and supernatural tales from my local county have been put together in a title called Buckinghamshire Stories of the Supernatural, by Countryside Books. www.countrysidebooks.co.uk