The Case of the Crawley Poltergeist
What does this World War 2 Morrison shelter have to do with paranormal investigations?
Answer: it marks the beginning of a fascinating poltergeist case that began in the summer of 1944. Hold on to your proton packs folks because I’m about to recount a real doozy of a ghost story.
SOURCE: An example of the Morrison shelter used by Britons during the Second World War.
There is a small collection of materials relating to a poltergeist case at the Harry Price Archive located in the Senate House Library at the University of London. Along with some surviving correspondence, the collection includes a set of photographs that visually document the details of the case. So how did it all begin?
In November of 1945 the famed psychical researcher Harry Price received a letter from a grandmother named Mrs. Rhodes who lived with her grandson in the village of Crawley, West Sussex. She claimed that for many months she and her grandson had been tormented by a poltergeist, who was wreaking havoc in their small bungalow. Desperate for help she invited Price to their home so that he could investigate the matter and potentially find a solution to the problem.
SOURCE: Portrait of Harry Price taken by the psychic photographer William Hope in 1922.
According to the surviving records of the story, Mrs. Rhodes and her grandson Alan, who was twelve years old at the time, claimed to have been harassed by a malignant spirit at their bungalow for nearly a year. The disturbances began one evening in August of 1944 during an air raid.
Photography of the Rhodes family bungalow in Crawley, West Sussex.
SOURCE: Crawley Poltergeist Photographs, Harry Price Archive, Senate House Library, London, HPG 193, no. I.
As the village sirens rang across the streets, Mrs. Rhodes led her grandson to a Morrison shelter, which she kept in her bedroom. These shelters were distributed to half a million families during the Second World War, and were essentially small reinforced steel cages that could be placed inside homes in the event that an airstrike hit your neighbourhood.
While taking refuge in the shelter, Alan heard a series of knocks, almost as if someone was rhythmically playing along to a musical tune. There was nobody else in the house at the time, and the knocks were therefore deeply unsettling. Without being able to find the source of the knocks, the pair concluded that some spirit was probably responsible for the rapping.
This incident during the air raid was only the beginning of what would become a full-blown haunting, and in the months that followed Mrs. Rhodes and her grandson were harassed by the alleged spirit. Objects were regularly thrown at them when they least expected it, and things would disappear without a trace. Circumstances got so bad that they could barely sleep at night for fear of what the spirit might do.
In comes Price to investigate the matter, and he brought along a team of journalists from the Picture Post to document the proceedings. This was no minor publication, but a mainstream magazine with a readership of over a million and a half people by the mid 1940s.
The investigation, which was led by Price, was conducted on the night of Wednesday, 28 November 1945. The master bedroom was transformed into a controlled space so that the investigators could observe the kinds of phenomena that were supposedly produced by the spirit. Because it was alleged that Alan was the main target of the paranormal activity, he was used as bait to attract the entity to the bedroom.
To prepare the room for the investigation, Price and the journalists set up various controls to limit the possibility that the phenomena occurring at the bungalow were fake. These controls aimed to ensure that if anything extraordinary was witnessed, Alan, his grandmother, or some other unknown accomplice were unlikely to be the source.
Price set to work by sealing the windows to the master bedroom with tape. A photograph of Price sealing the window was taken to document the process, and it appeared in the final published report. With the tape in place Price believed it was much harder for anyone (or anything) physical to enter the room without detection.
Photograph of Price sealing the master bedroom at the start of the investigation.
SOURCE: Crawley Poltergeist Photographs, Harry Price Archive, Senate House Library, London, HPG 193, no. VII.
Chalk dust was then strategically sprinkled around the room to track whether anyone moved in the space, and small vases were also placed on marble stands to further make it difficult to manoeuvre undetected. This would be especially useful once the lights were switched off.
Finally, Alan was instructed to sit on the bed so that Price could tie him to the frame. This, it was argued, would limit his ability to move around the space once the investigators left the room. Some slack, however, was given to the child so that he could move enough to knock on the door should something strange occur.
Nobody seemed at all fussed about the prospect of leaving a child tied to a bed while a supposedly malignant spirit loomed in the background...
Things remained relatively calm during the first hour of the investigation, but eventually phenomena began to occur. Each time something happened, Alan alerted the investigators by either knocking on the door or calling for help.
For example, around 11:30PM some puzzle pieces, said to have come from the living room, whizzed past Alan’s head while he was lying on the bed. These pieces were carefully documented by the photographer for the investigation’s record.
At 11.55PM Alan called for help again, and when Price and his collaborators entered the room, his bindings were untied. The team believed Alan could not be responsible for untying them unless he was a highly skilled escapist. A photograph of Alan’s untied hand was taken at this point in the investigation to document what had occurred. While the team remained in the bedroom to discuss this seemingly miraculous feat, they noticed that suddenly Alan’s left hand was tied up again ‘with a curious triple knot.’ This seemed to genuinely baffle the investigators.
Photograph of Alan's untied hand.
SOURCE: Crawley Poltergeist Photographs, Harry Price Archive, Senate House Library, London, HPG 193, no. XVI.
There continued to be more manifestations in the bedroom over the next two hours, especially objects being apported into the room from other locations in the house. For example, an adjustable spanner from kitchen was found on the floor of the bedroom during one of the routine checks.
Photograph of adjustable spanner found on the floor of the master bedroom
SOURCE: Jacobson, ‘We Investigate a Haunted House,’ 22.
There was also evidence to suggest that objects in the bedroom were levitating. For instance, a trinket box, which Mrs. Rhodes kept on top of her chest of drawers, somehow ended up at the foot of the bed while Alan was securely tied up.
In the published report of the investigation, it was noted that the movement of the trinket box was particularly remarkable because it was completely full and unlocked, which made it ‘very difficult to move without using hands and spilling the contents.’ Essentially, the investigators were implying that Alan could not have lifted the box onto the bed using his feet, which was the most reasonable explanation for how it ended up there.
Photograph of the trinket box at the foot of the bed.
SOURCE: Crawley Poltergeist Photographs, Harry Price Archive, Senate House Library, London, HPG 193, no. XIV.
After witnessing various phenomena over the course of the evening, Price and his collaborators completed the proceedings and left the property. What they had witnessed under controlled conditions was intriguing, but they were unwilling to assert any conclusions in their final report, which eventually appeared in the December issue of the Picture Post in 1945.
The team agreed that remarkable occurrences had been witnessed, but it would be brash to form any definitive conclusions as to whether the bungalow in Crawley was actually haunted by a poltergeist. Aside from the knot retying itself while the investigators were present, all of the other occurrences happened when Alan was alone. It is conceivable therefore that he was the true culprit in the case. But why would he fake a poltergeist? There aren't any obvious motives beyond him wanting to have some fun and get attention.
Alan was eventually removed from the house to determine if the spirit would follow him to another location. However, everything seemed to be fine when he stayed at a different property. What happened next in the case is unfortunately unclear because the evidence trail ends.
Even without knowing the final results of the case, the Crawley poltergeist is an interesting story that provides a small glimpse into the paranormal practices of investigators during the middle of the twentieth century.
Jon Coaffee, David Murakami Wood, and Peter Rogers, The Everyday Resilience of the City, (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Trevor H., Hall, Search for Harry Price, (London: Duckworth, 1978).
Sydney Jacobson, ‘We Investigate a Haunted House, Picture Post, 29 (22 December, 1945) 19-22.
Richard Morris, Harry Price: The Pyschic Detective, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2006).
Paul Tabori, Harry Price: The Biography of a Ghost-Hunter, (London: Athenaeum Press, 1950).