Brighton has always been a cross between style and sleaze. Peel away its chic fade and you will find a seedy underbelly. The playwright and journalist Keith Waterhouse was not one to mince words when he famously wrote: “Brighton is a town that always looks as if it is helping police with their inquiries.” This dark side of the city was, perhaps, most accurately depicted in Graham Greene’s 1938 murder thriller, Brighton Rock, and has since been seized upon in the popular crime fiction of Peter James. So rest the foundations of my tale…
In the early 1950’s a junk shop had premises on the ground floor of a building at the junction of Upper Rock Gardens and St. James’s Street in Brighton’s Kemptown. On one particularly grim February night a heavy squall had risen up in the Channel, bringing gale force winds and driving rain. Huddled in a soaking mackintosh, with trilby hat pulled low across his brow, Richard McColl entered Upper Rock Gardens. He was now rather wishing he had stayed indoors to languish in front of a warm fire.
McColl was a dealer of antiquarian books. Earlier in the day he had called at the junk shop as many old books were stored in its cellar. The owner had been rather preoccupied at the time but, knowing McColl as a valued and trusted customer, offered him a spare key so he might return later that evening and peruse at his leisure.
Now standing in the grim, dimly lit street, soaked to the skin, anxiously fumbling with the keys, his thoughts returned to the warmth of his hearth once more. However, he was not about to pass on the opportunity of being able to find a bargain or two, maybe even a few first editions. On letting himself in he made his way down a narrow staircase. The cellar had once been a kitchen, but was now used as the main book store. Knowing there to be no electric light down there, he had come prepared with two candles.
McColl found the cellar to be particularly oppressive. A rank smell of decay permeated the place. Cobwebs clung to the bookshelves like virulent strains of ivy, paint peeled from the damp walls and mould festered like a plague. At one end of the cellar was an alcove housing an old stone sink. Above the alcove was an archway, built in a curious zig-zag pattern. For some inexplicable reason McColl felt there to be something sinister about it. In the flickering candlelight the cellar took on the appearance of a rather grim dungeon.
Although by no means enamoured by these surroundings, he soon began to immerse himself in looking over the many old tomes stored there.
After a short while, however, he had the disquieting feeling of someone watching him. He then became acutely aware of an extreme drop in temperature. Looking up he noticed a coiling vapour begin to emanate above the old sink. He stood mystified as the vapour started to materialise into the grotesque, mutilated form of a naked woman. Her skin was horribly blotched and scarred with deep gashes, but it was her face that instilled the most horror. Torn and weeping flesh hung in a putrid state of decay, while her baleful eyes bulged hideously from their sockets.
McColl stood aghast at the horrific apparition. Eventually he cried out: “Who are you? What do you want?” the entity merely continued to hover above the sink and remained silent. At which point, the book dealer grasped a heavy tome and threw it at the hideous creature. The book passed straight through it and rebounded off the wall. In that instant, the loathsome entity seemed to shrivel back into the coiling vapour from which it had first emerged and vanished.
McColl hastily gathered up his books and belongings and fled. On reaching the ground floor he came upon the woman who lived above the shop. Having heard the noise she had come to investigate. When he told her he had been perusing books in the cellar she instantly became agitated, saying how the owner should never have allowed him down there at night. Seeing how alarmed the poor woman had become McColl ventured to ask: “Is there something I’ve not been told about the place?” The shaken looking woman then began to tell him that the cellar had been haunted for some fifty years. Furthermore, she too had encountered the entity. One night, while descending the cellar steps, she claimed the thing had passed straight through her, bringing with it a most unearthly chill. She had immediately run to the safety of her room. She further alleged that the hideous creature had continued flopping against her door for almost an hour afterwards.
McColl took a keen interest in what he had experienced that night and, moreover, what the woman had told him. He therefore set about making inquiries as to the history of the building. It was not long before some rather grisly facts began to emerge. He discovered that, some fifty years earlier, the cellar had been the scene of a most gruesome crime. A man had murdered his wife and then proceeded to dismember her body in the old sink. Following this most grotesque and bloody dissection he had intended to bury her body parts beneath the stone floor. However, before he could carry out the task, suspicious neighbours alerted the police. He was subsequently arrested and hanged for the murder.
If you would like to hear more tales of gruesome murder, join us on the Ghost Walk of the Lanes for a 70 minute tour of Brighton’s most haunted quarter.