“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Napoleon’s Penis and the most (Un) Haunted House in London

During a recent visit to London I happened across Berkeley Square in Mayfair, which during the Victorian era was believed to be home to the most haunted house in London. The property with this spooky reputation is 50 Berkeley Square. 50 Berkeley Square is a four storey town house that was built in the mid 1700s and over the years was home to a number of occupants, including one British Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister in question was The Right Honourable George Canning, who took up office on the 10th April 1827 but popped his clogs after only 4 months in office on the 8th August 1827. This untimely death means that Canning currently holds the record as Britain's shortest ever serving Prime Minister. Canning was the first person to apparently report any ghostly happenings at 50 Berkeley Square. It is said that during his time in residence that he experienced strange noises and psychic phenomena.

The most commonly told form of the ghostly legend associated with the house revolves around its attic room. Different versions of the legend state that a person (sometimes a young woman, sometimes a young man) met a tragic end (sometimes suicide, sometimes abuse) in the attic room and that they now haunt the property in the form of a brown mist or sometimes a white figure. In the legend, the ghost of 50 Berkeley Square is reported to be so terrifying that it resulted in the death of at least two people during the late 1800s, people who were brazen and foolish enough to try to spend a night in the property. One of the victims apparently died of fright, the other apparently died from a fall when trying to escape the property after seeing the terrifying ghost.

In 1937 the antiquarian book dealers Maggs Bros became the owners and residents of this notorious London address. Maggs Bros (established in 1853) is one of the longest-established antiquarian booksellers in the world, and they have made some interesting transactions over the years. The firm's record purchase occurred in 1998 when they bought a copy of the first book printed in England, William Caxton’s The Canterbury Tales, for a whooping £4,200,000. Their most notorious purchase probably occurred in 1916, when Maggs Bros bought the penis of Napoleon Bonaparte! The penis was apparently purchased from the descendants of a person who had performed Napoleon’s last rites, and had taken the opportunity to pilfer his penis. Maggs Bros sold the penis on in 1924, undoubtedly for a tidy profit.

Maggs Bros continued to operate from 50 Berkeley Square until last year (2015), when they decided to relocate their business to 46 Curzon Street. As you can see in the pictures below, when I passed the building the removals people where in attendance. During their 78 years of residency in the property Maggs Bros never had any cause to report any unusual phenomenon in the house. So this begs the question, was the house really haunted or did the ghostly presence become silent sometime before 1937?

In his article “The Most Haunted House in London” in Fortean Times Issue 335, Jan Bondeson argues the former, that this house may have never been haunted at all. Jan suggests that the house’s spooky reputation may have begun when the house was owned by the eccentric Thomas Myers Jr. Myers possibly owned the house from as early as 1859 until his death in 1874, and during his tenure it is said that he mostly lived in a single room and let the rest of the house fall into disrepair. This dilapidation of a once prestigious house led to it having the reputation as the spooky house in an otherwise respectable square. The rundown and spooky state of the house may have been all the inspiration needed for over eager ghost hunters in the early 1900s to readily declare the house haunted, possibly repeating existing tales or perhaps creating their own as they saw fit; tales that have become repeated over time until they become well known "facts".

Or perhaps the house is haunted and Maggs Bros just did not declare any strange occurrences? I guess we will have to wait and see if the new owners report any odd goings on!

50 Berkeley Square and the removals men.

A blue plaque commemorating George Canning's residency at the property.

Pictures: London (February 2015).

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