Teapot Terror: The Tale of the Stockwell Ghost

By Joseph Hayes on at

Ghosts are associated with many things, disturbed murder victims, demonic forces, but not usually tea pots. Well, the same can’t be said for the flying teapot-centric haunting in Stockwell of 6-7th January 1772. While most hauntings tend to happen at night, this one began at 10am in the morning with a crash of crockery.

Pots and pans suddenly began clattering the floor, startling Mrs Golding, the house’s owner. According to her maid, the crockery and china had magically come to life and began smashing all by itself. Unfortunately the attack was far from over, as clocks, lamps and other objects crashed around, causing Golding to flee to her neighbours in terror.

What was going on? The first thought was that there was a structural problem within Golding’s house, or so said a local carpenter. This idea was pretty quickly debunked though, when the ghost started smashing plates in the next place Golding stayed at. Clearly another explanation was required for the unusual events.

Whatever the cause of the events, it was making the area of Stockwell famous through the country. This was not least because furniture began dancing around the room, with flocks of people coming to visit to see the strange event. Some of the higher classes went so far as to send their servants on their behalf, perhaps out of fear of being pelted by a passing cup.

These ostentatious spectral displays might have been great for tourism in the area, but they were not good news for the nerves of the victims. This was especially true of Mrs Golding, who had fainted at seeing the furniture dance. The situation then became more like a horror story than ever in its violence. After a surgeon drew some blood from Golding and stored it for examination, by some unseen force the blood was emptied out and the container smashed.

Events would get increasingly worse for Mrs Golding. Not only was she being haunted, she now had to deal with accusations about her character. Explanations to try and explain why the ghost had appeared and began to focus on what its victims had done to fall victim to the ghost’s wrath.

During this period ghosts were considered to be the equivalent of an offenders tag, alerting everyone around to misdoings. It wasn’t long before neighbours accused Mrs Golding of being a “bad and wicked woman”. Meanwhile, Golding’s niece, the aptly named Mrs Pain, was worried about the social stigma of the whole events.

But the social ramifications ended up being the least of Pain’s worries, because the ghost started smashing up her home after Golding came to live with her. Matters of the paranormal took a backseat to financial with the equivalent of few hundred pounds worth of damage being incurred.

The barrage began at 8pm onwards and lasted until the next day. Teapots in particular began to move around, once again forcing the family to leave.

Teapots and crockery weren’t the only victims of the haunting either, and during its assault the ghost managed to destroy a bread basket from Japan along with a quantity of international rum.

Despite having previously been a high-standing woman in the community, Golding’s reputation was being damaged by the social consequences of the ghost’s guerrilla campaign. Seemingly it wasn’t content with targeting Golding and her family, and proceeded to affect anyone she happened to be seeking refuge with.

In one instance, as Golding and her neighbours were trying to enjoy a tipple of wine, the bottles shattered through the ghost’s malice. Eventually, things took a very serious tone when the ghost almost set a house on fire with candles and dripping lamp oil.  The ghost had already caused a tremendous amount of damage, and there were now fears that lives might be lost.

The ghost’s invisibility only made the matter worse, fitting in with the wider poltergeist phenomenon. The ghost’s antics also became more elaborate, with instruments falling around and buckets of water suddenly boiling.

Then the ghost’s antics stopped just as quickly they had begun. It wasn’t thanks to exorcisms or supernatural means, but because Golding’s maid, Anne Robinson, was sent on an errand. Robinson had been present at all of the incidents and the Stockwell ghost stopped its haunting in her absence.

It was obvious something shifty was afoot and Robinson was fired as soon as she returned. After all, she was now the most likely culprit behind the hauntings. But, if Robinson was indeed guilty, What Mrs Golding couldn’t prove was how the maid had carried out the hoax. After all, Robinson was with Mrs Golding whenever the ghost’s chaotic antics occurred.

Two main theories came about from the events at the time. The first was that Robinson had been the recipient of some supernatural power that was bent on chaos, while the second was that she had used some clever trickery to create fear and chaos.

Unfortunately, there was no proof – which may be testament to how clever the suspected hoax had been. 18th century social hierarchy was very focused on status, and neither explanation would have been good for Mrs Golding. Both theories would mean acknowledging that she had been at the mercy of a servant girl, whether that was thanks to supernatural means or not.

More widely, views of ghosts were changing, with the spectral being domesticated. Ghosts became now rather an interesting topic of conversation instead of a matter of dread. The main issue with the Stockwell ghost had been about all the loss of money its rampage incurred. Fortunately for the victim, the financial loss was reversed once the haunting was over. People started cashing in on the event, and the furniture that had apparently danced around the room was later sold for a fortune in the 1790s.

Mrs Golding went to her grave without knowing what was truly behind the Stockwell haunting. However, in the early 19th century, according to a book on popular amusements by a William Hone, the maid Anne Robinson had used wires and hairs from a horse to rig and pull the objects and create the impression of a ghost on the rampage.  The 19th century chronicler Charles Mackay even claimed that these hidden cords allowed Robinson to be out of the room while creating the chaos.

The accounts detail that Robinson had some knowledge of science as she had used some chemicals to make the bucket of water boil. However, the sceptical debunking certainly did nothing to stop the interest in the Stockwell Ghost. Indeed, more lurid claims grew over time.

One of the most colourful accusations came from writer Sir Walter Scott. He believed that the maid was using the Stockwell ghost haunting to scare Mrs Golding out of the house so she could carry on an illicit relationship with a secret lover. This claim is unusual given that the ghost’s haunting drew far more people to the house.

The Stockwell ghost incident had cost Anne Robinson her job but since she was supposed to be a rather “restless” individual she may have got some satisfaction from Scott praising the great skill with which she carried out the ghost tricks. According to other accounts Robinson got a lot of pleasure from the whole incident.

Professor Pawel Rutkoswki highlights that the Stockwell incident was on the cusp of a time where ghosts were no longer regarded as a sufficient explanation of events themselves. However, while the Stockwell ghost might have been a hoax, the damage it did and the impact it had on the community for years to come was very real.