The most haunted house in all of England, some say, is Abbey House which still stands just outside the center of the university town of Cambridge. Fronted by a high wall, this austere stone house is still very foreboding today, even though it is just a few yards from a major intersection.
Built around 1580 near the site of Barnwell Priory, the house did not begin to develop its haunted reputation until 1860 or so, although actual proof of the haunting was not given until the early 1900s. At that time, Professor Lawson, who taught at the University, moved into the house with his family and began to record the supernatural experiences that they witnessed. For more than sixty years--well after the Lawsons moved out--banging and knocking sounds, phantom footsteps, and the appearances of two ghosts took place in Abbey House. Then, in 1965, the haunting seemed to stop. However, as should be the case of a truly haunted house, Abbey House is said to be haunted again, though apparently by a different ghost.
The first real evidence that Abbey House was haunted was provided by Professor Lawson and his family, who moved into the house in October 1903. The professor and his wife were able to document many instances of haunting that took place during the years that they resided at Abbey House. For example, Mrs. Lawson kept notes of the haunting as it progressed, and both Professor and Mrs. Lawson gave interviews to scientists who studied ghosts.
From the beginning, the Lawsons had little rest from the haunting. In fact, their first night in the house, a ghostly disturbance occurred outside the maids' rooms. Two maids shared one room, while the nursemaid and the two Lawson children slept in another room across the hall. Around midnight, they were all disturbed by a tremendous banging sound at the doors to their rooms. The banging seemed to start at the top of the doors and work its way down to the bottom. Terrified at the banging, the two maids thought that the door would be ripped from its hinges. Then, as the banging died down and as reason took over, they wondered if the nursemaid had needed something and had banged to get attention. Maybe, they thought, they were just acting skittish in their new quarters in this dreary old house.
Cautiously, they opened the door to their room and looked out. When they saw nothing, they hurried across the hall to the nursemaid's room. There, they found the nursemaid trying to console the two children who had wakened and who were howling with fear. When they discovered that none of them had caused the banging, the three women huddled together in the nursemaid's room for the rest of the night and vowed that they would not spend another night in Abbey House.
The next morning, however, Professor Lawson told them that the family's Newfoundland dog had been responsible for the commotion. The dog had been looking for the children and had banged against the doors when it tried to find them. Of course, the Professor knew very well that the freshly-painted doors displayed no nail marks from the dog. Thanks to the Professor's lie, though, the maids remained. Fortunately for him, the banging never occurred again.
However, there were many strange sounds in the months that followed. Both the Professor and his wife were wakened frequently during the night by the sound of footsteps on the stairway outside their bedroom. Even though they would often look out their door to see who had walked by, they saw no one. Sometimes they heard the footsteps in the spare bedroom next to theirs. This was the room in which Mrs. Lawson's brother later spent a few nights during a visit to Abbey House. After the first night, her brother said that "it" walked around the room all night.
Mrs. Lawson wasn't surprised that a ghost had made its presence known as much as she was that her brother, who was a notoriously sound sleeper, had been disturbed by the sound of footsteps.
"Oh, I could've slept through footsteps, I'm sure," her brother said, "but it--whatever it was--tripped over my boots and made a most unholy noise. Then I heard it walking round the room, but at least it avoided colliding with my boots after that!"
The next night, Mrs. Lawson's brother was not disturbed by the ghost who fell over his boots.
The sound of footsteps and banging, though, had little to do with Abbey House's reputation as a haunted house. Rather, two ghosts--the figure of a nun and a furry creature called Wolfie--were responsible for that.
The Nun, who wore a long, dark robe, had a solid, non-transparent form and looked to be about thirty-years-old. All of The Nun's appearances happened between midnight and 4 a.m., and every member of the Lawson family saw her, though at different times.
In their reports about their ghostly experiences, both Mr. and Mrs. Lawson stated that they observed the Nun many times walking across the master bedroom from the door to the foot of the bed. After a few moments, The Nun would turn, walk to the window, and vanish there. During the Nun's many visits, she only attempted to communicate with Mr. Lawson once. One night, he awoke to see the Nun bending over the end of the bed, touching his foot. She moved her hand, then walked to the window and disappeared.
Jane, the Lawson's daughter, had her own experience with the Nun. For a short time, she slept in her parent's bedroom. One night, Mrs. Lawson woke to hear her daughter crying in the crib beside her. She rocked her back to sleep and in the morning asked her daughter what had happened.
"Something came and stared at me, Mummy" Jane told her mother. "It came in at the door. Then it came to my crib and stared at me."
Then, Jane reported, it went and hid in the curtains.
"Mummy, I'm so scared. I think it was a big bear."
Her mother told her that there were no bears around Cambridge; it must have been something else. At any rate, Jane wouldn't have to sleep in her parents' bedroom any longer.
That night, Mrs. Lawson overheard Jane tell her brother, John, that she was glad that she'd be sleeping in the nursemaid's room again.
"I don't like Mummy and Daddy's room," she said. "Something comes in and stares at me at night and it frightens me."
"You're a great goose to be frightened at that," John said, as if he knew what she meant. "I used to be afraid of it, when I was little, but I'm not now, because I know it's just God walking about and looking after us and He sometimes forgets to be quiet, when He thinks we're all asleep."
Mrs. Lawson was astonished that her son had obviously seen the Nun many times as well.
During the summer of 1907, when Mrs. Lawson was ill for a few week and resting in bed, she grew impatient with the Nun's nightly visits. Mrs. Lawson needed her rest, but the Nun kept standing at the foot of the bed and sighing loudly. Finally, one night, Mrs. Lawson sat up and made the sign of the cross. Then she said, "In the name of the Holy Trinity, poor soul, rest in peace." The Nun walked away towards the curtain and vanished. According to Mrs. Lawson, she never saw the Nun after that.
By that time, the Lawsons had mentioned the Nun that haunted their house to their friends in the neighborhood. Their neighbors had heard rumors, from previous tenants, that the house was haunted by a nun.
As for why the Nun haunted the house, no one has been able to find an answer. Some believe that the Nun lived in a nearby nunnery where she fell in love with a young monk living at Barnwell Priory. According to this account, the Nun would meet the monk for a rendezvous in a secret tunnel that ran from the priory to the nunnery. However, when the Nun's romance was discovered, she was taken to the tunnel and placed inside, while the openings of the tunnel were bricked up, sealing the Nun inside alive. If you were able to visit Abbey House today, you would be able to see the bricked up opening in the basement wall. No one knows, however, whether the Nun's body is inside--or even if the tunnel really exists behind the bricked-up opening.
The other ghost to be found in Abbey House is a bit stranger than the Nun; in fact, it's not the ghost of a person at all. Commonly called "Wolfie" by the Lawson's children who saw this ghost more often than their parents, the animal-like creature resembled a large rabbit, but with short ears. Mr. Lawson reported that the Animal "was always seen and heard running about on its hind legs."
The first person to see the Animal was the Lawson's son, John, sometime during early 1904. John, who was three at the time, was in the nursery when his mother came to get him.
"Where's it gone, Mummy?" he asked. He was standing in the middle of the room, looking around as if he had lost something.
"Where has what gone?" his mother asked.
"That little brown thing--it was standing there," he said, pointing to the door. "It ran to the curtain and now it isn't there."
Mrs. Lawson looked at the window and saw that it was closed. Then she searched the room with her son, but found nothing.
In her diary, Mrs. Lawson wrote that her son "looked strange--though not frightened--and I did not like to question him much" for fear that she would frighten the boy.
Shortly after this incident, both Mr. and Mrs. Lawson saw the "little brawn thing." Even their daughter, Jane, saw it.
One night, as she was being tucked into bed, Jane told her mother, "Sometimes after you go downstairs again at night, Mummy, I see a lot of little brown things walking in at the door and round the room. Do you think they is wolfies?"
"There aren't any wolves around here," Mrs. Lawson assured her. "Maybe it's the cat."
"No, it's not the cat," Jane said. "There are lots of them and they're all brown, but I'm glad it's not the wolfies."
Where Wolfie came from is still a matter of debate. At one time, it was thought that Wolfie was the ghost of a dog that belonged to a former owner, Squire Butler. The Squire, who lived in Abbey House in the 1700s, supposedly had a pet dog that he trained to walk on its hind legs. This might account for Wolfie's strange scurrying, but no one has any real proof that the Animal is really the Squire's dog.
By the time the Lawsons moved out in 1911, they had witnessed a series of supernatural occurrences. But some questions remained: how much had Professor and Mrs. Lawson's discussions influenced what the other saw? Years later, after the parents were dead, ghost researcher Alan Gauld attempted to contact the Lawson children to see what they remembered. At the time, in 1972, John, who was over seventy-years-old, wrote Gauld that he had "no recollection of the events recorded by my parents.... Years after we left Abbey House I was very surprised to hear from a third party that I had lived in a 'haunted' house, and asked my parents whether this was true. Even when they described events which I had reported to them it did not bring back any personal recollection."
It may be that the Lawsons, so as not to frighten their children, tried to play down the strange occurrences. But of one thing John Lawson was most certain: his parents' honesty. Neither of his parents, he wrote, "was over-imaginative or predisposed towards belief in the supernatural. ...My father had considerable critical ability and would not have accepted his own experiences and recorded them without having carefully tested and cross-examined himself. My mother was a religious woman who would have been naturally unwilling to accept such events...."
But even if the Lawson children could not verify the haunting, other tenants have reported seeing the two ghosts. For example, the Animal may well still haunt Abbey House, especially when you consider the experiences of two young children almost thirty years apart. In 1920, Charmian, the two-year-old daughter of the owner, was found crying in the doorway of the dining room. When her mother asked her what was the matter, she pointed to the far corner of the dining room and asked, "Will it hurt me?"
Her mother told her that nothing was there, so she wouldn't be hurt, but Charmian refused to go into the room alone at any time from then on.
A week later, the same thing happened. When her mother asked her what she had seen, her daughter said that it was "an animal."
Since she was a very young girl, who was never away from her mother's side, she couldn't have heard anything about the Animal from the other children in the neighborhood. She might well have seen Wolfie running across the room.
Similarly, in 1947, another two-year-old, this time a boy named Christopher saw Wolfie. He was running ahead of his parents into the kitchen and called out, "Oh, look! Tiny doggie!" His parents knew the reports about the Animal, but had taken great pains to protect their son from them. It seems likely that he saw Wolfie, too.
Both Charmian's and Christopher's mothers maintained that their children were not pretending; both were convinced that their children had truly seen something real.
At the same time, there have been reports about the Nun as well. In fact, Charmian had the honor of witnessing the Nun's first appearance since the time that Mrs. Lawson thought she had scared her away.
One night at bedtime, Charmian told her mother that she didn't like being alone in her bedroom because "mummies" came into her room at night. Her mother explain to researchers that Charmian used the word "mummies" to refer to women in general.
Her mother told her that nothing could hurt her.
"But I don't want to be alone."
"But why?" her mother asked.
"Mummies come in and lean over my crib. They look at me. And they only come in when you've gone downstairs."
Not long after, Charmian's mother discovered that Charmian slept in the room that the Lawson's had used for a bedroom--the same room that the Nun frequently visited.
From 1965 to 1980, little of interest happened at Abbey House. The new owner of the house, Professor Danckwerts, reported that no one in his family had seen any ghosts in the house. He was convinced that Abbey House was not haunted.
In June 1980, however, an elderly woman who rented a room from the Professor experienced a strange encounter. Here is her account:
At approximately 3:30 a.m. ...I was in bed but awake when suddenly the figure of a man appeared in the doorway. The door was open and the figure was framed in brilliant white light.... The man was conventionally dressed in light gray jacket, light colored shirt, and dark tie. The complexion was ruddy, rather mottled, and the eyes were dark. The hair was gray and wavy. Every detail was quite distinct. He did not move but looked straight at me. I suppose it was a matter of seconds until the figure and light vanished. Immediately afterwards a 'procession' of whitish nun-like figures passed quickly across the room in front of the door in an arc formation as if climbing up a step or two and down the other side. About 5 or 6 passed in this way and then all was normal.
The ghost of the gentleman and the procession of nuns had never been seen before in Abbey House. Why they appeared to the woman is uncertain. Surely, it is easier to explain the procession of nuns; they may have been images of the past related to the nearby nunnery. But the gentleman, who sounds as if he were dressed in contemporary clothing, is impossible to account for. As time passes, the residents at Abbey House may see more of this new ghost. As they do, perhaps this new mystery will be solved.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Originally published as part of Chapter 6 in How to Find a Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 1988). All rights reserved.