You can think what you like about ghostly phenomena. Whether ghosts even exist is a good starting point. Could they simply be the ravings of attention seekers? Are they hallucinations or something to do with naturally occurring phenomena? Other explanations vary. Scientists have speculated that some buildings, particularly very old buildings, can somehow replay the events of the past. Could ghosts instead be inter-dimensional entities, somehow manifesting in our world?
Then there are the traditional explanations. Are ghosts lost souls? Are they the dead who are too bitter, too outraged, too consumed by the tragic or horrific circumstances of their death or too frightened to cross to some kind of afterlife? Do they linger in forever in the twilight ruins of their former lives? What happens then when these shades of a former time encounter the living?
When reading about ghosts in Brighton, there are several things you begin to realise about our town. One is that Brighton is awash with ghostly phenomena. The Paranormal Database has 129 entries covering ghosts in Brighton, and reading the accounts you get the impression that the surface is barely being scratched. People have apparently even been forced from their Georgian-era homes by unpleasant interactions with malevolent presences on a number of occasions.
This brings us to the second point. Brighton really is ancient. Some of the stories bring this home. Brighton has a ghost ship, La Nicholas, which is occasionally seen on the horizon. Ok we are familiar with ships in Brighton. They are big blocky things carrying lots of rectangular containers, right? Well you should be able to spot La Nicholas. It is smaller and has sails. It sank 800 years ago.
Others tales are older still. We have a demon dog, a spirit called a Shuck, which follows people on the beach in stormy weather and may be a remnant from Celtic or Saxon legend. The most haunted pub in Brighton – and there are ghosts in every pub in our city – is reputedly The Druid’s Head with at least two resident ghosts and, to date, over 100 recorded instances of psychic phenomena.
Why The Druid’s Head? Well as every horror fan knows the worst place to build is on the old cemetery. The builders of The Druid’s Head (the first record of the pub is from 1510 but as with much of the town nobody knows when it was actually built) went one better. They built the pub next to a druidic stone circle. The druids, if you don’t know, were a cult worshipped by the locals when Caesar first landed on these shores. They practiced human sacrifice and alarmed the usually tolerant Romans so much that they wiped them out. This was two thousand years ago.
Most ghostly phenomena in Brighton are more recent. There have been many sightings of monks and nuns from the medieval period. The Lanes in particular plays host to one of Brighton’s most notorious spirits, The Blue Nun. The Blue Nun has been a fixture in Brighton for centuries, particularly in Black Lion Street and Middle Street, and especially around the Black Lion pub, where another notorious revenant also lurks. The nun appears to be in distress, has a blue habit or a blue glow around her and when seen at close range has a blue asphyxiated face. Although she is centuries old she is still regularly seen. The Blue Nun famously left a Japanese student screaming in the street after an unexpected encounter in 2009. Why is she in this condition? Well legend has it that she was walled up by her order after an affair with a fisherman or soldier. Perhaps she suffocated, explaining her blue face.
“The Blue Nun famously left a Japanese student screaming in the street after an unexpected encounter in 2009. Why is she in this condition? Well legend has it that she was walled up by her order after an affair with a fisherman or soldier. Perhaps she suffocated, explaining her blue face.”
While the Blue Nun is anonymous, we know the names of many of her ghostly colleagues. The phantom in The Black Lion is reputed to be Deryck Carver, a local protestant who was burned in a barrel of pitch in 1555 in the reign of Bloody Mary and is occasionally encountered in the pub cellar and attic. Spare a thought also for poor Henry Solomon, Brighton’s first ever Chief Constable, who haunts the basement of Brighton Town Hall after being murdered there with a red hot poker during a prison breakout.
Many of the stories raise one final point about Brighton, which is what an astonishingly violent place our city has been in the past. Murder victims abound, and some of the resulting phantoms are horrific. The ghost of John Robinson is a case in point. Robinson was an 18th century adventurer and mercenary who decided to try his luck in Persia (modern day Iran). He was brutally tortured and blinded with hot irons after leading a failed rebellion, but made it back to Brighton before finally dying in Old Steine. Poor old Robinson’s ghost was such a mess when it was seen on the road there in 1969 that a police officer threw up at the scene and another witness was hospitalised with shock.
“Kypper is seen on Hangleton Road between Old Shoreham Road and Hangleton Way. He is usually seen through windows and is tall and broad, wearing ragged clothes with a black hood which may be an executioner’s cap. He carries a staff and has a wooden leg, yellow teeth, greasy skin, a dead eye and matted hair. Encounters with Kypper are reportedly accompanied by noises including a loud thud and tapping sounds, perhaps the fall of the hatch and the ‘Newgate two-step’ as prisoners kicked and struggled to survive while being hanged. Like Black Belly the ghost seems aware of, and will look at the witness, but vanishes shortly afterward.”
Another ghostly resident you might not want to encounter, who may also have been the victim of violence is the notorious Black Belly. Black Belly haunts the area around the Churchill Square shopping centre, but was already resident when the centre was built, apparently being given his name by non-Brightonian workers who saw the phantom often enough to name him. Before that he was known to locals as ‘Angry Mick’ and haunted the Georgian housing estate which existed in the area. Black Belly, like The Blue Nun, appears to be a living person when first encountered. He is usually seen in peripheral vision at first and is a large, bald man in his early 50s to late 60s. His shirt is open at the bottom, revealing a distended, bruised stomach. Close inspection will also show that he is floating a few inches above the ground. If you see Black Belly it is best not to look at him directly. If you do he will reputedly rush towards you, albeit in a weird motionless way, wailing and then disappearing. Black Belly even made it onto a police report when a telecoms engineer reported what he though was an encounter with a madman. Surveillance footage showed the man react to something and flee the scene, but of Black Belly himself there was no sign.
If you see Black Belly it is best not to look at him directly. If you do he will reputedly rush towards you, albeit in a weird motionless way….
Not all Brighton’s ghosts were victims though. A hangman, one of two ghostly executioners in Brighton, is reported to haunt the Hangleton area of West Hove, which as the name suggests used to house a gallows and gibbets in which hanged criminals were displayed. The ghost is known to local legend as Thomas Kypper, a 17th century hangman who took pleasure in slowly hanging his victims to extend their suffering. He was himself eventually hanged by his successor, Francis Grey after being convicted of his third known murder. Kypper is seen on Hangleton Road between Old Shoreham Road and Hangleton Way. He is usually seen through windows and is tall and broad, wearing ragged clothes with a black hood which may be an executioner’s cap. He carries a staff and has a wooden leg, yellow teeth, greasy skin, a dead eye and matted hair. Encounters with Kypper are reportedly accompanied by noises including a loud thud and tapping sounds, perhaps the fall of the hatch and the ‘Newgate two-step’ as prisoners kicked and struggled to survive while being hanged. Like Black Belly the ghost seems aware of, and will look at the witness, but vanishes shortly afterwards.
While these are some of the best known stories, strange tales abound in our city. Many, like the ones above, are violent and frightening. Others, like the small boy in pyjamas with a wooden toy seen around the Jubilee Library, are sad and eerie.
As the nights draw in and Halloween approaches we invite our readers to share with us any stories of your own ghostly experiences. In the meantime, do you wonder what those noises in the dark really are as you lie in bed in your Georgian terrace?
Sleep well, Brighton.
The editor reports that while this article was being written the office suffered a mysterious internet blackout. Searches for suitable photographs also found nothing despite having found numerous pictures shortly beforehand. We at Bjournal are not sure what conclusion to draw…