It has gone unnoticed by his biographers, but the Eton lodgings in which M.R. James set his scholarship in the 1870s was the location of a famous 17th Century ghost story. Roger Clarke, who attended the same school exactly one hundred years later, tells the story for the first time.
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I have in front of me the original third-edition of Saducismus Triumphatus by Joseph Glanvill. It’s a very old book, from 1700, and it's full of ghosts and witches. It has the royal insignia on the front, which means it was owned and probably read by George III or “Mad King George.” His grandfather George II was a staunch believer in vampires, but I digress. I’m not allowed to photograph it, but I’m in the British Library in London.
Saducismus was a theological work designed to rebut the cynics and sceptics by trying to demonstrate that the supernatural world—and by extension, God—really existed. It influenced, famously, Cotton Mather and the witch trials held 1692-3 in Salem, Massachusetts. In those days, ghosts were thought not to be spirits but demons, and often associated with witches and witchcraft. Glanvill, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Chaplain to the King, managed to make a belief in ghosts and witchcraft respectable in England for about a decade. One of his early jobs was as a curate to Eton College.
Curiously, this book also includes a now-forgotten ghost story that’s relevant to one of the best English ghost story writers of them all, M.R. James (1862-1936).
On page 116 of this edition of Saducismus, wrinkled and brown, its pages over 300 years old and speckled with foxing and morbidity, a reek of dust and the evaporated damps of many forgotten winters rising from its pages, there’s a ghost story called “The Apparition of the Ghost of Major George Sydenham, to Captain William Dyke, taken out of a letter of Mr. James Douch of Mongton, to Mr. Jos. Glanvil”
It’s the 17th Century. Captain Dyke has an agreement with his cousin Major Sydenham. We don’t know anything about these two outside of Saducismus; they seem unremarkable members of the West Country gentry.
The agreement between the two went as follows: Sydenham would attempt to contact Dyke after death. He died and nothing happened. Six weeks after Sydenham had passed away , Dyke was, it seems, now resigned to not hearing from his dead family member, and life went on, including the business of taking his son to school. Dyke’s son had been accepted as a scholar at Eton College, and while he was in town, Dyke stayed at the St. Christopher Inn that for many years stood on the Eton high-street before finally being converted into private lodgings by the school in the 1980s when I was there. It was known, by the Eton schoolboys over many centuries, as “Tap.”
The morning after Dyke had delivered his son to the school, a doctor who had accompanied him on his journey was alarmed to find his friend in a terrible state, “his hair and eyes staring, and his whole body shaking and trembling.”
Dyke had been woken at first light by a figure who came to his bedside and drew back the curtains, saying, insistently, familiarly, “Cap! Cap!” Recognising the private name assigned him by his dead cousin, Sydenham, he cried out “what, my Major?”
“To which he returns,” writes Glanvill, “‘I could not come at the time appointed, but I am now come to tell you, that there is a God, and a very just and terrible one, and if you will not turn over a new leaf… you will find it so.'”
Sydenham's ghost then recognised a sword on the table in the room; he “took up the sword, drew it out, and finding it not clean and bright as it ought, observes ‘this sword did not use to be kept after this manner when it was mine.’” Upon which accusatory observation, the apparition vanished from sight.
Glanvill records that Dyke never really recovered from this spiritual encounter, and went into a decline. His previous hale-and-hearty manner reduced to something “strangely altered” and he was unable to eat much. He only lived another two years, and expired. I imagine him obsessively cleaning the sword until his death.
Two hundred years pass. Many people come and go in the St. Christopher Inn—schoolboys, parents, travellers.
In July 1875, there was a party of scholarship boys from Temple Grove, one of England’s best-known “prep” schools then sited in East Sheen. One of these boys was M.R James. They stayed at the Christopher Inn. This was Monty’s first real encounter with a landscape and a set of buildings which would be with him for the rest of his life, since from the inn he could see the South-facing buttresses of the College Chapel. He wrote at the time “the Chapel is awfully jolly from the outside, but I didn’t see the inside.”
Monty James, author of such stories as “Casting the Runes” and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” was a great influence when I was at Eton almost exactly 100 years after his own schooldays. In 1881, Monty edited the Eton Chronicle, as I did in 1981, with a boy who is now Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Monty’s first term there was disrupted by illness, as was mine, but not, as in James' case, from a “tin of cold sausages” sent as part of a hamper.
The Temple Grove boys, according to the biography of James by Michael Cox (sadly out of print), were mobbed by the Lower Boys after the scholarship examinations with jeers and kicks. There was also a “dreadful explosion” when James' headmaster Ottiwell Charles Waterfield found out he had put “the subject of a sentence into the ablative absolute.”
“The Examiners are the Provosts of Eton and Kings,” Waterfield wrote to Monty’s father in a state of incredulity. “This sort of thing will make their hair stand on end.”
It’s both a strange prediction of Monty’s future fame and an unknowing description of Captain Dyke’s night of terror in the same building.
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Roger Clarke is best known as a film-writer for the Independent newspaper and more recently Sight & Sound. Inspired by a childhood spent in two haunted houses, Roger Clarke has spent much of his life trying to see a ghost. He was the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research in the 1980s and was getting his ghost stories published by The Pan & Fontana series of horror books at just 15, when Roald Dahl asked his agent to take him on as a client.