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The Laughing Ghost of Limehouse and other Local Ghost Stories


Limehouse – St Anne’s Church

As a treat for Halloween I have trawled the local history files for tales of the unexpected, Firstly we have a report from a local newspaper of 1827, where a couple in Limehouse are being visited by a ghost with a unusual  sense of humour.

The neighbourhood of Limehouse, like the Highlands, in the good old days of the bogles, has, it seems, been haunted for, some months back, by a most refractory and incorrigible phantom. The facts of this afflicting visitation are simply these:—A Mr. and Mrs. Dickenson took a small house, in October last, at the upper end of Church-street ; but scarcely had they passed the first half of the first night in it, when a sort of a loud chuckling laugh (the very sound which,if you could fancy a grasshopper intoxicated, he would no doubt make,) was heard, proceeding as it seemed from the bedroom  closet. Now, it so happened, that the bedroom of this worthy couple had no closet, whereupon being puzzled to account for the phenomenon they very naturally explored the whole house from top to bottom. Still no explanation was afforded.

The next night, at the same hour, the same fat chuckling laugh was heard, and as it appeared close to Mr.Dickenson’s ear, that much injured individual jumped up, and throwing his inexpressibles indignantly, but with a due regard to decorum, around him, he rushed again into the adjoining, room, where, however, nothing was found that could at all throw light upon the mystery. Meantime, the confounded cachinnations continued, first threeshort, broken winded laughs, then a halt, then a long asthmatic ululation, the whole wound up by a solemn midnight stillness.

The affair now became truly distressing. To think that an attached couple, when absorbed in those chaste connubial endearments on which all married folks set so high a value— to think, we repeat, that an amiable pair thus engaged should be interrupted by the villainous laughter of a ghost; ‘the   bare idea is revolting, and fully justified Mr. Dickenson- in his application to the parochial authorities. ‘This he did ‘on the third night, but alas! what can a beadle, or even a parish clerk avail against the evil one? Every night, albeit a brace of undaunted constables kept watch in Mr. Dickenson ‘s   apartment, the cacophonious interruption continued till the whole set were fairly laughed to scorn. This was some weeks back, but the noises, we should observe, are heard up to the present time, though, as they have appeared more asthmatic of late, it is to be hoped that their fiendship owner may one night break his wind and die. Meanwhile, the house, like Ossian’s dwelling of Moina (only infinitely more touching), is desolate, for Mr: and Mrs. Dickenson have evaporated, and no one has since, been, found at all desirous of being laughed into fits every night, by an ungentlemanly  good-for-nothing goblin. Here the affair rests at present.

Not sure I know what they mean by  “throwing his inexpressibles indignantly,” and “absorbed in those chaste connubial endearments” but altogether a sad sorry tale of  ghostly manic laughing.


Blackwall Tunnel Entrance

If you thought that such events were a thing of the past, let us move forward in time some 150 years for our next story,  The Case of the  Blackwall Tunnel Ghost

A recent popular story in many Haunted London books and magazines is the story of the Blackwall Tunnel Ghost. The incident is supposed to have happened in 1972 when a motorcyclist picked up a hitchhiker on the Northern Approach to the tunnel at Greenwich. When the motorcyclist picks up the hitchhiker they have a friendly conversation about where the hitchhiker lives. The motorcyclist and his passenger climb aboard the motorcycle which then enters into the tunnel. However when the motorcycle  comes out of the tunnel in Blackwall, the motorcyclist finds that his passenger has disappeared. Fearing that his passenger had fallen off in the tunnel, the motorcyclist returns through the tunnel but can find any trace of the mystery hitchhiker.

The following day the motorcyclist decides to visit the address given to him by the mystery hitchhiker, when he arrives and talks to a woman who lives in the house, he is shocked to find out that the young man had died in a motorcycle accident near the tunnel many years before.

This story has been told so many times in its different versions that it deserves to acknowledged as an Urban Legend. Which is more than can be said for our next story “The Phantom Vicar of Ratcliffe Wharf”.


Wapping Old Stairs

Once again in the 1970s, a magazine printed the story of a famous ghost that haunted the Wapping and Limehouse riverfront known as the Phantom Vicar of Radcliffe Wharf. He was supposed to have run a seaman’s mission in the 1770s, although respected by the local community for his good deeds , he did however have a nasty sideline of killing his guests for their money and throwing their bodies into the water.

In the 1970 article written by a Frank Smyth for the  Man, Myth and  Magic  magazine, there were quotes from people who claimed to have seen the ghost of the evil cleric along the desolate riverfront. According to Smyth, local people who worked on the river never went down to the wharf after it got dark.

After the article, other magazines and books often made reference to Phantom Vicar who haunted the riverfront, It was even featured in a TV special.

However in 1975, Frank Smyth who was a staff writer on the magazine  in an interview with Sunday Times confessed that he had invented the story. His motive was that he was so fed up with stories about modern ghosts that he decided to invent a good old-fashioned ghost and the derelict wharves seemed a perfect location for the mythical old vicar.

The reaction to the original story was such, that it soon become accepted that there was a Phantom Vicar and even when Smyth tried to convince some old river workers that it was fantasy, they replied they had heard the story from their Grandfathers when they were boys.

Which perhaps proves that many of us enjoy  a good scary story even if we know it’s not true.

The Blackwall Tunnel – The Twenty First Wonder of the World


The Northern Entrance and Dock Entrance were demolished in 1958

Like many other Londoners I am fascinated by the River Thames which winds itself through the great city.  I also have to admit I am also fascinated by the underwater crossings under the river, to this end I have walked through the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels and even braved the car fumes by walking through the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Today we may view these tunnels as a pleasant novelty, however when these tunnels were built they represented cutting edge technology and were a testament to Victorian engineering.

This was certainly the case with the Blackwall Tunnel whose completion in 1897 was heralded as a wonderful example of British innovation and according to one newspaper was ‘The Twenty First Wonder of the World.’

It was not the first tunnel built under the Thames, that honour went to the nearby Thames Tunnel built between Rotherhithe and Wapping built by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel between 1825 and 1843.That tunnel was built to be used by horse drawn carriages but was only ever used by pedestrians until it was used as a railway tunnel.The Blackwall tunnel was designed on a much grander scale to offer access to pedestrians, cycles, horse drawn carriages and other vehicles,

A Pall Mall Gazette  report of the time regarded the tunnel as a source of national pride.

 A Twenty-first Wonder of the World.

The Thames Tunnel at Blackwall.

For some eight years Londoners have been ignorant of the fact that they themselves were carrying out one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of the world.. The Blackwall Tunnel, undertaken and paid for by the County Council as representing the people of London, Is now as good as finished, and perhaps London will wake up and realise what it has accomplished.

A large number of engineering experts, of County Council and other local rate expending bodies, as well as the Mayor of Colchester and other authorities of Sir Wheatman Pearson’s parliamentary borough, went down to Poplar at the invitation of Messrs. S. Pearson and Son. the contractors for the big job. and walked through the tunnel. It is a huge affair. The river from Blackwall to Greenwich Marshes opposite is 300 yards wide. To make an easy gradient on either side, so as to get the roadway down to the depth of the river, it has been necessary to carry out the work to the total length of nearly 2700 yards.

The height of the tunnel from the roadway to the centre of the arch is 17ft. 6in., so that even tall men on seventeen-hands horses will be able to ride through it without stooping. But the outside- diameter of the tunnel that is, measuring from the outside of the great cast-iron plates which form the tube — is no less than seven yards.A subaqueous luncheon such as has probably never been prepared before in the whole history of the world was the feature of yesterday’s function. Nearly 2000 people, among whom were many ladies, sat down at little elegantly-appointed tables in a luncheon-room a-quarter of a mile long under the very middle of the River Thames, and while ships were sailing and the celebrated County-Councll-purified fish were carrying on their pranks overhead they sat in comfort and toasted the persons responsible for the great achievement in the driest of champagne.

When it was officially open in 1897 by the Prince of Wales, it was the longest tunnel under a river in the world, much was made of the cost (estimated at one million pounds) and the fact it had taken 600 men to build it.

Other than financial costs the building of the tunnel caused widespread disruption in Blackwall and Greenwich with many old buildings being demolished, most notable being the Walter Raleigh House in Blackwall.


Plaque marking the opening of East India Docks

Later work on the tunnel destroyed the old East India Dock entrance  and the large plaque from it was removed and placed at the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel.

At first the tunnel was well used by pedestrians  and horse driven vehicles but eventually they were banned because over time  motor vehicles became the main users.

Because the tunnel was not specifically built with motor vehicles in mind, when there was a build up of vehicles, fumes  began to cause problems. In 1928 , 43 people had to be treated in one incident when the fumes caused dizziness and fainting.

Other less likely problems arrived when a  lorry carrying bags of soot  lost its load in the tunnel in 1950, the black fog coated everyone and everything with soot, the tunnel was closed  and it eventually had to be cleaned out with water.

Even as early as the 1930s it became clear that the Tunnel could not cope with the scale of traffic and another tunnel would be needed but due to the war and lack of investment  it was not until 1967 that another tunnel was finally opened, the new tunnel handling southbound traffic while the earlier 19th century tunnel handled northbound.

The Blackwall Tunnel today is often seen as a source of frustration with frequent closures but the next time you go through it, think about the time that 2000 people had their lunch in the middle of it and when it was proudly acclaimed as the Twenty First Wonder of the World.

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs

Here is another selection from Eric Pemberton’s postcard collection.

This time we concentrate on the Isle of Dogs:


An early 20th Century postcard of Island Gardens.


A postcard that illustrates that the foot tunnel was the death knell of the ferry service.

post 9

Greetings from Millwall 1905 with plenty of pride in the ships visiting the docks.

millwall 05

A really unusual card, the Millwall swimming club Polo team 1905.

millwall 07

Stuart’s Granolithic Chimney

Stuart’s were manufacturers of artificial stone made from cement and crushed granite,
originated in Peterhead with offices in Limehouse. In the 1900s the Stuart’s Granolithic Works occupied the  large site between Island Baths and the Capewell Horse Nail Factory.

They built a 45ft-high chimney shaft  constructed entirely of granolithic blocks, it required a special licence
from the LCC, waiving the normal requirement for chimneys to be of brickwork throughout.

post 7

Blackwall Pier was the main embarkation and disembarkation point for emigrants and immigrants up to 1930s.

The Seamans Institute was one of the many Institutes built round the docks.


Early views of  the Blackwall Tunnel


Christ Church still exists in Cubitt Town.


 Swedish vessel Britannia in Millwall Dock April 1965-  the old Granary is on the left.


  Interior of St.Edmunds old Church, West Ferry Road over 100 years ago.The Church was demolished in 1995.


One of my favourites, 1912 there was a strike in the docks, however the policemen seem more interested in the camera.

Other posts you may find interesting

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Limehouse