I don’t believe in ghosts, but when I was a kid, my dad was in the local am-drams. After the final pantomime performance of the year, the stage-hands would stay late dismantling the set, and around midnight, so it was regularly claimed, they would hear unexplained bumps and rattling chains from backstage. The local amphitheatre was called The Priory Centre and it was allegedly built on an ancient monastery, and according to local legend that caused ghosts to appear, for some reason.
In seven or so consecutive years of helping to paint the sets and watch the performances, the most distressing supernatural occurrence I ever saw there was the St. Neots Vamps’ production of Blithe Spirit. But scepticism aside, those stagehands are far from the only reporters of ghoulish appearances in urban areas across the UK.
Sheffield, an area more famous for spawning the Arctic Monkeys than a terrifying army of spectres, is apparently a hotbed of paranormal activity. More bafflingly, most of this appears to be concentrated around Sheffield’s social housing stock.
InsideHousing, the UK social housing industry magazine, reported in late 2013 that, since 2003, Sheffield Council had seen a disproportionate number of complaints from tenants that their homes were being haunted. Sure, other associations received them too – but the sheer volume of Sheffield’s alleged visitations during that ten-year period is a mystery of X-Files-series-three proportions. (In case you were wondering, tenants’ beliefs in the spectral afterlife are treated seriously by most social landlords; Easington Council even paid an exorcist £60 to rid one County Durham resident of a poltergeist.)
So what’s the deal? I’m sure many skeptics would be quick to suggest that the reports indicate nothing more than attempts to exploit councils and housing associations in the hope of upgrades to larger properties. But while different counties do have their own rules regarding transfers, overcrowded social properties and large register sizes are hardly unique to Sheffield, which received 47 separate reports over the ten years.
Relative to the rest of the country, that’s a huge number – unless other social landlords regularly receive hauntings without bothering to write it down, 64 per cent of all UK social housing hauntings in that ten-year period happened in Sheffield.
By contrast, Thames Valley Housing managed a paltry one haunting. Gentoo Housing, which is based in Sunderland, reported the next highest number of hauntings after Sheffield – just four, one reported haunting every two and a half years. Sheffield Council got one such report roughly every two to three months.
Mid Devon Council managed a paltry two reports of spooky goings-on. That’s surprising since, if stick a pin into a map of Devon, you’ll likely hit the site of an alleged haunting, usually involving a smuggler. The unassuming village of Lapford is particularly busy, variously patrolled by the ghosts of a star-crossed couple, a murderous vicar with “a look of angry disdain upon his face”, former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett, and a spooky dog.
Mid Devon is, to be fair, an eighth of the size of the Sheffield urban area, but even proportionally speaking there are three times as many reports in Sheffield as in ghost-studded Mid Devon. Either there’s more to this, or the people of Mid Devon are so used to malign apparitions they’ve given up reporting them to their landlords.
There are other explanations, such mental illness and religious beliefs, but neither are sufficiently widespread, nor especially localised in Yorkshire. Nor are either constants in every report: one Curo Housing tenant had neither illness nor faith, but did complain to his landlord that an apparition “regularly walked through the walls when he was trying to watch Match of the Day”.
Here’s a grab of InsideHousing’s report:
Look at that chart and tell me we’re not deeply in Scooby Doo territory here. Is some Shining-esque historical reason to blame? What about Sheffield’s particular steel-industrial history might lend itself to increased chances of apparitions?
If you believe in the usual tropes of the genre, one factor may be that much of Sheffield’s social housing, including the infamous Park Hill estate, was built on the site of former slums, many impoverished and blighted by crime. Many of these areas were ignominiously demolished during slum clearances in the 1930s.
During the war, buildings in many of these areas suffered yet more damage – take, for example, St. Vincent’s Parish, a slum whose immigrant population had ties to prominent members of Sheffield Gang Wars, and whose church was directly hit by bombing raids. The air raids of the Sheffield Blitz, targeting the city’s industrial production capabilities, were devastating to the entire city, killing 660 people and damaging nearly 80,000 homes.
This explanation is fits neatly with ghostly lore; as my trusted stagehand sources attest, building on top of certain historical sites is a sure-fire recipe for spirits.
And Sheffield is no stranger to calamity: adding to the possible list of restless souls, the city endured the deadly Sheffield Floods in 1864, a disaster which killed 220 people, enough to create an escadrille of ghosts. Some 800 houses were also destroyed, which may explain the ghosts’ heavy concentration around the social housing sector.
This isn’t particular to Sheffield either: the Morpeth floods in 2008 damaged 900 houses, but hey, Morpeth is supposedly haunted too. I think we’re getting warm here. And by warm I mean marrow-chillingly cold.
Ultimately there’s no real way of knowing what lies behind this bizarre discrepancy. Like ghost-sightings themselves, there’s probably a very simple explanation for the mystery.
But one thing stands out: as InsideHousing reports, housing officers themselves often agreed with the tenants that malign presences were lingering; one even fled after witnessing a rope seeming to float in the doorway, Poltergeist-style.
Despite what we may think, the British are generally quite superstitious: according to YouGov, one in three of us believe in ghosts, with just less than that claiming to have personally felt some kind of presence.
The power of suggestion is always a strong possibility in ghost sightings: perhaps what makes Sheffield unique is a tendency for its inhabitants to have a deeper than usual connection own storied history, giving susceptible hauntees a rich wellspring of local apocrypha to ascribe to everyday mysteries.
That, or Sheffield is just really, really haunted.
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