A Residential Haunting

Original house plansIt started with a ghost story, but maybe a hint of sleep deprivation furthered the plot. My son was about 4 months old, sleeping away up in his nursery for one of his all-too-short daytime naps. I was in the kitchen, making a cup of tea, as you do on a chilly spring day in England. His baby monitor was up half a level in the living room, and as I began my short ascent of the kitchen stairs, tea in hand, I heard it very clearly over the monitor: a woman’s voice saying, Hello baby.

It was a whisper – but a loud one – and a voice that was not sinister, but rather, neutral. For whatever reason, it was that neutrality that haunted me over the coming months. Like Mona Lisa’s smile, what did it mean?

baby monitor

My son, sleeping like a baby.

I, of course, instantly ran over to the monitor to look at the video. There was nobody – other than a sleeping baby – there. I then ran up the stairs to my son’s nursery and scanned the room. Again, nobody there. As I walked down the creaking stairs of my 100-year-old house, my mind began to turn. What was that?

“I read somewhere that people can hack into your baby monitor,” said my mom a few hours later, on Skype from California. “There was a woman somewhere in Illinois who was changing her baby’s diaper and a voice came over the monitor and said, ‘Ooh, that’s a poopy diaper,’ and then advised her to change her network password.”

My mom was trying to be helpful, but the thought of some sinister person hacking into my baby monitor was more spine chilling than a neutral ghost haunting my house. I brought it up to my computer geek husband when he got home from work.

“There’s no way that could happen with our monitor,” he said, “the [enter technical reason why here, as my eyes usually glaze over when he starts talking about math or computers], so that’s why it couldn’t happen with our particular type of baby monitor.”

Great, I thought – not particularly sarcastically, as I was relieved some pervert wasn’t watching my baby. But then the relief gave way to mystery and a bit of terror, as the realization hit me that I either had a ghost or I was going crazy.

Neurochemicals

From there forward, my 3 am journey from my master bedroom in the loft down to my son’s nursery below for nighttime feedings was suddenly a nightmare, as my exhausted brain conjured images from every single scary movie I had ever watched.

8 year old me

8-year-old me, at the top of the dreaded stairs in my childhood home.

For whatever reason, it was always stairs that got me. I can remember being 8 years old and needing to walk across the hallway of my childhood home in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.

But it involved walking past the stairs that led down to the living room, and the dark unknown below always scared me.

Now, I was facing this on a nightly basis, as I had to balance the neurochemicals that elicited fear with the ones that elicited ecstasy, which is what needed to happen if my letdown reflex was going to allow me to breastfeed my son.

Some nights, I forced my husband to come down with me. Some nights, I held my breath as I ran across the top of the stairs into my son’s nursery, adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Eventually, she came into my mind, and sent me on a journey I didn’t realize I needed at the time.

She is a stark-looking woman, from the early 1900s, dressed in black up to her neck, with one of those Edwardian Psyche knot hairstyles so popular for women of that time.

The Keep

When my mind first conjured an image of this woman, she appeared neutral, like her voice over the monitor.

Woman from early 1900s

My nightly spectre: this is the closest depiction that lines up with the image my brain conjured of the woman.

But as 3 am feedings gave way to terror, she developed yellow eyes whose neutrality was replaced with malice.

I was clearly a woman on the edge, and my sleep deprivation – often used as a form of torture – was getting the better of me. A friend marvelled at the power of my imagination, capable of bringing this spectre to me every night.

He suggested I use this creative energy for something productive and positive.

So I did.

Much like my religious agnosticism, I was always on the fence about ghosts. They could exist, but they could also not, and I went into my research project with this same opinion – despite my late-night hauntings.

A journalist by trade, and a former student of literary critical theory, for me, research is always a fun adventure. With a 5-month-old baby strapped to me in a baby carrier, I began taking weekly trips to The Keep, an archive center here in Brighton, England, where I live.

Male-dominated records

I decided that, in order to either find out more about my ghost, or to put this absurd idea to rest, I needed to learn more about my house and the people who once lived in it.

My house

My house, a typical English house of the early 1900s.

Who were they, and what were their lives like?

These walls I lean against every single day and these stairs I tread regularly have seen the most intimate details of lives that were lived during two World Wars, during economic boom and bust, during the most extraordinary and the most mundane moments of life.

I suddenly felt very connected to this house, and I needed to delve deeper into its past.

As I entered the newly built Keep, my sleeping baby strapped to me, I quickly learned that Milo – my son – was the youngest researcher in the building.

The next-youngest person, aside from me, was probably around 60 years of age.

It made me hopeful that someday, when I’m retired, this is where I would spend my days, alongside other pensioners who are combing through the past.

I spent months going to The Keep during my maternity leave. It was a way of keeping my sanity, and, in a way, it kept my mind sharp in the wake of constant baby babble.

Baby

With my baby strapped to me, I began to excavate the past of my house.

But it was not an easy task. The records at The Keep are vast, and because I wanted to learn about the women who lived in my house, it was a bit tricky.

A lot of records are tied to voting registers; since women in England did not have the right to vote until 1918, I had to rely on census records, which were – surprise, surprise – male oriented.

Still, after hours and hours of combing through delicate pages and scouring records tied to my address, I was able to collect quite a bit of information.

The house and the people

Firstly, I was able to procure the original 1913 plans for my terraced house – a typical “two up, two down” arrangement, where the kitchen and living room are on the ground floor (in Americanese: first floor) and the bedrooms are on the first floor (Americanese: second floor).

After arranging for a copy of the house plans, I was surprised to find that what is now my dining room used to be the kitchen, and what is now my kitchen used to be a “scullery,” which is sort of like a utility room with an outhouse toilet/bathroom.

House plans

The original plans to houses on my street, 1913.

And what is now my bathroom used to be a third bedroom. Looking at the neatly drawn original plans made me appreciate my house even more. This dwelling that I own (well, partly own along with the bank) isn’t really mine, is it? It was here long before I was born, and – because it’s made of bricks and not timber – will be here long after I am gone from this Earth.

I felt humbled and finite, looking at the bones of my house on paper.

Next, I was able to find plans from 1973, when the owner did a re-design on the house and extended the scullery – which he turned into the kitchen – and put a proper bathroom at the end of that.

Though the walls have seen a lot of change, that old brick that was originally laid – and which I was able to touch when we converted our loft into a master bedroom suite – still held everything together.

The ghosts of my house’s past were calling to me, and I needed to know who else brushed their hands over these bricks and whose lives these bricks observed during their slow descent into decay.

I won’t bore you, dear reader, with lists of who resided in my house. Actually, yes I will. I worked very hard to find them and cobble them together, so here they are:

  • 1917-1923: George Stephen Goodall; 1923 voters list includes Letitia Goodall
  • 1924: Davies, J.
  • 1926-1932: William John Steer; voters list includes Winifred Steer
  • 1936 Tate Horace Frank
  • 1938 William Russel
  • 1940: Fred K. Green
  • 1947-1962: Henry Taylor; 1947 voting list includes Lilian L. Taylor and Lilian E. Taylor
  • 1964: Peter Stirling
  • 1966-1974: Henry J. Taylor

It should be noted that in order to obtain this information, I had to comb through, year by year, and match up my address with who lived there that year. So if there is a span of time someone lived in my house – for example, 1947-1962 – that means I went through the voting records for every year to find that the same person was living in my house.

Winifred

Now, for some reason, and I can’t explain why, Winifred Steer stood out to me. She lived with her husband at my house from 1926-1932. I decided she was my ghost. Winifred. Her name reached out and grabbed me.

So, I decided I would dig and dig until I found out who she was. In England, a census is conducted every 10 years, and the information in them is sealed for 100 years. As such, the most recent census I have access to currently is the 1911 census.

I first combed through both the 1901 census and the 1911 census to find out as much as I could on William John Steer – her husband. Obviously, more records were kept on men than women during this time. I found two William Steers who were born in the Sussex area, but then, through deductive reasoning, I realized that my William Steer is the one who was born on January 8, 1887, and who died in 1973. He was a Driller Railway Worker for the National Union of Railwaymen.

Through marriage records, I discovered that he married Winifred in Arundel, Sussex – a town about 45 minutes away from Brighton – in 1924.

Arundel

Arundel is a town in West Sussex. This photo depicts the castle in the background and is from the early 1900s.

But I still didn’t have her maiden name. Because they married in Arundel, I decided to comb through church and census records for a Winifred in Arundel. Sure enough, I eventually found my girl.

Born Winifred Sturt in 1892, in Arundel, she had a father named Robert, a mother named Anne and a younger brother named Leslie.

Again, because better records were kept about men, I was able to discover that her father was a Journeyman Carpenter and her brother enlisted in the British Army during WWII at the age of 22. Through his records, I was able to find his childhood address: 7 Mountain View, Arundel.

And yes, I even ventured out to Arundel with little Milo strapped to me and looked for 7 Mountain View. Sadly, Winifred’s childhood home – and the street – doesn’t exist anymore. I went to the local churches to try to find out more about her, but my journey ended there.

Pieces of her

As my baby stopped needing night feeds and was beginning to sleep through the night, miraculously, Winifred’s ghost stopped haunting me. Her presence and hold over me began to dwindle.

Autumn began to settle on my road, and the days of my 9-month maternity leave were numbered. I returned to my job in October, leaving Winifred and my quest to know more about her behind.

Back to work

My son bids me farewell as I leave the house for my first day back at work.

But her story still remains a mystery to me. I was never able to find a photo of her. What if it turns out that the woman in my mind is an exact likeness of her? Or, perhaps worse, what if she bears no resemblance?

The records reveal that Winifred died in 1976 in Cuckfield, Sussex, which is 4 years after her husband died. Interestingly, she and William married in 1924, and they must have moved into my house immediately after their wedding, because at some point between 1924 and 1926 – when the voting records are kept – they popped up as residing here.

A writer and storyteller, I want so desperately for this adventure I’ve had with Winifred to turn into some meaningful narrative.

I had planned to have a home birth for my son, but after 24 hours of laboring at my house, my temperature spiked and I had to be transferred to the hospital, where, after another day of tricky labor, my son entered the world through an emergency C-section.

His heart rate was dipping with each contraction, and he and I ultimately needed an intervention. At one sleep-deprived point, I thought, what if Winifred tried to give birth at home – in the very room that is now his nursery – and lost her baby?

What if her spirit had raised my temperature while I was laboring at home because she knew something was wrong and wanted me to get help? What if it was her voice that I heard over the baby monitor, and she wasn’t saying Hello baby in a sinister tone, but rather in a celebratory one?

Of course, this is all just a grand story, made up by a sleep-deprived first-time mom who desperately needed a research project during her maternity leave.

And anyway, ghosts aren’t real. Right?

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