Sunday, 19 May 2013

Black Country Ghosts

An excerpt from my book of a couple of years ago, my first look at such and a book which has recently been reprinted. I have chosen one of the best-known towns in the area but not its most famous building, Dudley Castle. Locals will be aware of the Station Hotel, which stands in the shadow of the castle and a venue for many tales including the following.

Dudley seems to be a magnet for spectral sightings, particularly the region around the castle and below at the Station Hotel. The coming of the railway in 1850 was a major boost to the prosperity of the region and the town grew steadily. Until the end of the 19th century the main place for visitors was the hotel named, somewhat predictably, The Castle.

By May 1898 the new Station Hotel had taken in its first visitors, most of whom arrived in horse-drawn vehicles. In these early days the main entrance was on the corner of Trindle Road and Castle Hill. Once a fountain stood on the site of the traffic lights, an impressive first impression for visitors and a welcome watering place for the horses. This fountain had been relocated from its earlier site at the top of Castle Hill.

The Opera House opened opposite the hotel a year later, bringing the upper classes and their money to the town and, of course, to the Station Hotel. Even today the splendour of those early days is still evident, although what is seen inside today is largely the interior following the extensive refurbishment just prior to the second World War. The height of the ceilings instantly dates the place, while the broad and ornate staircase is as much of a delight to descend today as it must have been soon after it was first varnished. Doors of the rooms at this time were numbered and named using a method of embossing. These numbers are still visible when the light catches them from the right angle, as are the doors leading to the public cloakroom and water closet. The colours in some of the windows are mirrored in the glass of the light shades and are also from around this time. Both must be cleaned with care as replacements would have to be hand-made and thus tremendously expensive.

This refurbishment of the hotel coincided with the building of The Hippodrome, a brand new and modern theatre replacing the Opera House which had succumbed to a devastating fire in 1933. The hotel further enhanced its reputation with a guest list of stars from around this era including Laurel & Hardy, Johnnie Ray, Bob Hope and George Formby who, it is reported, appeared on the balcony of his suite where he performed a song or two to a crowd of fans who had gathered outside hoping for just a glimpse of their idol.

In the Swinging Sixties the hotel underwent yet another major facelift. A cocktail bar was opened, while the function room boasted 'the longest bar in the country' at that time. Still the place was considered very desirable and delightful way to round off the night after enjoying a show at the Hippodrome. However the place was still out of the reach of the pockets of most of the locals.

When I visited the hotel the former grandeur of the place was still very much apparent. I was treated to a tour, which took in the seemingly endless succession of passages and side rooms which formed the cellar. My guide allowed me to take the lead into one room, the murder scene. Here too is a disused passage which reputedly leads from the cellar to Dudley castle, the latter having closed that end shut many, many years ago. Yet there is no record of anyone ever having attempted to follow this subterranean route and, with the two famous buildings occupying entirely different moments in time, it seems this is a tunnel tale of folklore rather than fact.

My reason for visiting was the extraordinary number of reported ghosts here. Indeed a number of visitors here come simply to see if they have a ghostly experience, there is even a 'Spook Book' for those who wish to record any of their experiences. Those who hope to encounter something will reserve a room on the third floor where the vast majority of sightings occur. Dudley may well be able to warrant a ghost book of its own, if so the Station Hotel would figure at least seven times - for that is the number of regular visitors reported in this place.

I was taken on my tour by Sarah, a charming young lady who had worked here for a few years. This is a hotel and open twenty-four hours of every day, which means it needs to be staffed every moment of every day. Because of the shift system in operation the staff sometimes find it necessary to take advantage of the rooms themselves. It was during one of her overnight stays that Sarah had her visit from Eliza.

It was the early hours in the morning when the door, which had been locked and secured, opened and in walked a woman. This woman was wearing a drab brown woollen dress of full length, with a white apron. She was of small build, only about 5ft 4in tall, and wore a mob cap over a noticeable bun. Understandably unnerved by the intrusion Sarah challenged the woman, who made no response but simply disappeared into the ensuite bathroom.

Sarah refused to move from the bed until, after what could only have been a few moments, the mysterious woman emerged again and let herself out through the door. After regaining some of her composure she got out of bed, first to check the door and then to examine the bathroom. She instantly noticed the towels, which were once on the floor and now neatly folded. It was this that gave Sarah the clue to the identity of the woman. It seems that a former maid regularly pays visits to the rooms during the night and tidies up. There have been reports of clothes, which have been left on the floor where they fell, being found in the wardrobe on a hanger the following morning.

The woman she saw did not glow, was not transparent and, apart from her obviously dated attire, seemed a perfectly normal individual. Sarah was and remains sceptical about the existence of ghosts, despite her experience. However she did admit those towels went untouched. Her shower that day was followed by the use of a towel she collected from the reception desk.

The most frequently told tale of the hotel is that of George Williams - sometimes given as Williamson. A former manager of the hotel he was having an affair with a maid employed by him by the name of Elizabeth Hitchen. It seems the young Miss Hitchen, having discovered she was pregnant, confronted her employer demanding to know what he intended doing about this situation. She is supposed to have been less than impressed by his lack of interest and had threatened to reveal everything to his wife during a particularly vehement confrontation in the cellars. He snapped.

In a fit of rage he brutally murdered his mistress. Elizabeth is said to have been stabbed and strangled, her body lay in the cellar while Williams attempted to cover his tracks. Eventually he is said to have moved her body out via the chute and trap door which were used for the delivery of barrels and crates. Presumably this was achieved by pulling her body up by means of a rope, as the empty barrels would have been, for it is impossible to climb up this chute - especially while holding a lifeless corpse. Reports suggested it was here, under a patch of grass at the front of the Station Hotel, that the murderer concealed the body of his victim and former lover. During the recording of a recent television program the presenter, himself a medium, reported the body was still there.

However in recent years a guest came to the hotel, a woman who hoped to experience something of the paranormal activities. Indeed she was hoping to find she was visited specifically by either the perpetrator or his victim, for she had her own particularly good reasons. It seems that this crime was of particular interest to this lady, for she had undergone regression. This is where the individual is put into a hypnotic trance and taken back in time to see if they have any recollections of a former life. This was where this person had learned of the murder of Elizabeth Hitchen, for she claimed to have been her in a former existence. She had little waking memory of the events she had divulged during her regression, however she did report a feeling that she was in water. This suggests the body had been dumped in the nearby canal, not buried.

While this woman did not meet up with her former self, nor her attacker during her visit, others have reported seeing things which seem to point to this macabre event. For example there are numerous reports of hearing a woman screaming, wailing, or sobbing and clearly greatly distressed. In the part of the cellar where she was murdered a number of people have reported feeling chills, terribly uneasy, even scared with no apparent cause for this anxiety. There is also a report of a man seen cowering in the corner of the cellar, head in hands, sobbing. Could this be the guilt-ridden murderer? Nobody has ever been traced nor did George (or anyone else) face charges for the crime. Indeed we would be unlikely to known anything of these events had it not been for another George, who recorded this story and left his own mark on the hotel as we shall see in the following narrative.

An historian about whom more is known regarding his family and working life, than is known about his writings. He seems to have written the vast majority of his articles and reports anonymously. However it is known that what was written about the murder of Elizabeth Hitchen (see previous item) came ostensibly from the pen of Mr George Lawley.

George was a regular visitor to the Station Hotel, always sitting in the same place. Today this large round table is known as George's table. Indeed when bookings are made regular patrons often ask for this table by this very name. It is George's table which has been known to throw cutlery around the restaurant - thankfully so far this has only happened when the staff have been there and not when the place was full of customers.

However George is better known for his nightly patrol of the bar area of the function room. Apparently at twenty minutes to midnight a sudden chill is felt passing through from the direction of George's table through the bar in the direction of the reception area. This effect is highly localised, reports of just one side of the body or even just an arm or leg being affected are quite common.

George died in 1935 and, as far as anyone has managed to ascertain, his official record of the murder has never been seen since soon after it was written. Certainly nothing has ever been found in print. While his regular appearances through the bar can be unnerving for some, George Lawley's appearances are seen as an old regular keeping his eye on the place when he patrols his favourite haunt nightly. Indeed George is rapidly becoming seen as much a part of the place as anything else. Hopefully George will continue to watch over this part of history for many years to come.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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