In January 1956, 15-year-old Shirley Hitchings of No. 63 Wycliffe Road in Battersea, London, discovered a silver key sitting on her pillow. Her father tried the key in every lock in the house. It didn’t fit.
Little did the family know that this was the beginning of a chain of seemingly supernatural events that would torment them for 12 years, with the famed ghost (named ‘Donald’ by the family) moving furniture, writing notes and even setting objects on fire during his reign of terror.
At the centre of the case was 15-year-old Shirley, whose teenage years were consumed by the poltergeist, and who was suspected by many of having a hand in the mysterious goings-on.
At its height, the terrifying case of the Battersea poltergeist attracted international attention, and today it continues to puzzle sleuths around the world.
An ordinary family
We normally associate ghost stories with castles, churches and manor houses. However, No. 63 Wycliffe Road in Battersea, London, was a seemingly ordinary semi-detached home.
And its occupants, the Hitchings family, were a seemingly ordinary working-class group: there was father Wally, a tall and gaunt London Underground driver; his wife Kitty, a former office clerk who was a wheelchair user due to chronic arthritis; grandmother Ethel, a fiery character known locally as ‘Old Mother Hitchings’; her adopted son John, a surveyor in his twenties; and finally Shirley, Wally and Kitty’s 15-year-old daughter who was about to start art school and worked as a seamstress in Selfridges.
In late January 1956, Shirley discovered an ornate silver key on her pillowcase that didn’t fit any lock in the house.
The very same night, noises began which were reminiscent of the Blitz, with deafening bangs reverberating through the house and shaking the walls, floor and furniture. The sounds were so loud that the neighbours complained, and Shirley later reflected that the “sounds were coming from the roots of the house”.
The noises escalated and continued for weeks, with a new scratching sound within the furniture tormenting the sleep-deprived and terrified family day and night. Neither the police nor surveyors could get to the bottom of where the noises came from, and various photographers and reporters were left unsettled upon visiting the house.
The theory that the noises were being caused by a supernatural presence – a poltergeist – therefore emerged, with the family naming the mysterious entity ‘Donald’.
As time went on, activity within the house became more extreme. Multiple witnesses claimed to have seen bedsheets flying off beds, slippers walking around of their own accord, clocks floating through the air, pots and pans being thrown across rooms and chairs moving around the house.
It was clear that Donald was fixated on Shirley, with the noises following her to work, and the paranormal happenings occurring around and even to her.
Most significantly, Shirley herself was witnessed involuntarily moving in her bed and around the room by various family members and neighbours. By now, her association with the poltergeist had caused her to lose her job and friends, and many believed her to be possessed by the devil.
Fame and investigation
From around March 1956 onwards, the Hitchings family began to draw press attention. Photographers lingered outside the house, while newspapers reported that the poltergeist was romantically obsessed with Shirley. Many believed that the poltergeist was a figment of her imagination and that she was purposefully stirring up the story for attention.
Eventually, the Daily Mail got in touch. Shirley was invited to the head office, where she was strip-searched to ensure that she wasn’t hiding anything. The paper published a sensational account of the story which attracted widespread attention.
An attempt was made by the BBC to contact Donald on prime-time TV, and the haunting was even spoken about in the House of Commons.
Paranormal interest increases
In early 1956, paranormal investigator Harold ‘Chib’ Chibbett was drawn to the case. A tax inspector by day and paranormal enthusiast by night, he was well-known and connected, counting author Arthur Conan Doyle, psychic researcher Harry Price and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke as friends.
The case became one of the biggest of his life, and his extensive records demonstrate that he authentically believed in the Battersea poltergeist. He spent days and nights recording events at the house, and eventually became a close family friend of the Hitchings. He even wrote a detailed book about the case which was never published.
Donald reveals his identity
As time went on, Donald’s behaviour became increasingly violent. Rooms were supposedly found trashed, spontaneous fires would apparently break out – one which was so severe that it hospitalised Wally – and writing, symbols of crosses and fleur-de-lis, began appearing on the walls.
Exorcisms were attempted and the police would check up on the house. Mysteriously, Donald even circulated Christmas cards.
It’s said that the family learned to communicate with the poltergeist, initially by using alphabet cards and through tapping a certain number of times to mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and then, in March 1956, through written correspondence addressed to Shirley, which said ‘Shirley, I come’.
From March 1956, Donald left notes around the house ordering the family to do things such as dress Shirley in courtly clothes, and contact the famous actor Jeremy Spenser. This led to a breakthrough.
In a handwritten letter dating to May 1956, ‘Donald’ identified himself as Louis-Charles, the short-lived Louis XVII of France, who was rumoured to have escaped captivity during the French Revolution, rather than dying a prisoner aged 10 as was later proved.
‘Donald’, or Louis XVII, used a number of elaborate French phrases in his letter and claimed that he had drowned en route to exile in England. His story, however fascinating, was often changing and contradictory.
Shirley married and left her parents’ house in 1965, by which time Donald’s presence was waning. In 1967, she left London altogether, and by 1968 it appeared that Donald had finally gone for good.
There are many who propose scientific explanations for the strange goings-on. Some point to the noises coming from the house being located on uneasy marshland, while others have suggested that acid in the soil could have led to madness. The family cat – named Jeremy, after Jeremy Spenser – even ended up being analysed by fans desperate to prove Donald’s existence.
Others point to Shirley being a starry-eyed but ultimately bored teenager who lived a rather sheltered life, and may have manufactured Donald and drawn others in as a means of attracting attention to herself and making demands that would work to her advantage.
Over the 12 year course of the haunting, some 3,000-4,000 written messages were delivered to the family from Donald, with a staggering 60 messages being left per day at the height of the case. Handwriting experts have analysed the letters and concluded that they were almost certainly written by Shirley.
Through these letters and the attention they drew, Shirley was able to move out of her shared room with her parents, was given money for clothes and more fashionable hairstyles and was the subject of much press hysteria.
The case remains unsolved
The original haunted house was demolished in the late 1960s and never replaced. What is clear, however, is the profound impact that the events had upon Shirley, who stated that the haunting robbed her of her childhood.
Whether a real malevolent spirit, figment of an overactive imagination or a mass projection of fear, the case of the Battersea poltergeist will continue to fascinate paranormal enthusiasts and sceptics for many years to come.