England is next up in the series where we take a look at some of the most intriguing mysteries from a country’s dark and bewildering history. Aliens, ghost ships, unsolved murders, poltergeists, unexplained disappearances, they can all be found right here.
10. The Balham Mystery
The death of Charles Bravo became preserved in London lore as Murder at the Priory, or sometimes the Balham Mystery. In April 1876, a well-to-do lawyer died after several days of suffering, following what multiple physicians concluded was a clear case of antimony poisoning. So then, naturally, the new question became “Who killed him? And why?”
At the time, Bravo had only recently married a woman named Florence Campbell. Before her marriage, she had had a scandalous affair with an older, married doctor. Her reputation in Victorian society wasn’t exactly spotless so, in the eyes of many, she became the obvious suspect. But then again, she was the rich one in the marriage so, if money was the motive, then it was Bravo who should have been trying to poison her. And that is actually what some people believed – they thought that he intended to kill Florence and ingested some poison by mistake, thinking it was genuine medicine.
Other popular suspects included the doctor who used to have an affair with Florence Campbell, a disgruntled coachman that Bravo had recently fired, and Mrs. Jane Cox, Florence’s companion whom Bravo had also threatened with dismissal. All were plausible, but the true identity of the poisoner remains unknown to this day.
9. The Enfield Poltergeist
One night in August 1977, Peggy Hodgson called the police to her home in Enfield to report hearing strange noises and objects being knocked over. She didn’t know at the time that she was about to launch one of the biggest paranormal sensations in English history.
Her haunting became known as the Enfield poltergeist and it seemed to center around two of her daughters, 12-year-old Margaret and 11-year-old Janet. Dozens of people unrelated to the Hodgsons ended up reporting various strange happenings such as hearing sudden noises and disembodied voices, seeing drawers and doors open by themselves, while tables and chairs moved on their own across the floor.
So was it genuine? Well, most paranormal investigators thought so, which isn’t really surprising. Also not surprising was that plenty of skeptics dismissed the whole case as nothing but the antics of two clever and bored girls, which were then sensationalized by newspapers looking for a good story. Decades after the fact, Janet admitted to faking some of the alleged phenomena with her sister, although she insisted that most of it had still been genuine.
Like with most of these cases, the paranormal activity stopped suddenly in 1979, but the legend of the Enfield poltergeist still lived on long after that.
8. The Vanishing of Mary Flanagan
The disappearance of Mary Flanagan has the ignoble distinction of being Scotland Yard’s oldest missing persons case. On New Year’s Eve, 1959, the London teenager left her home in West Ham to attend a party at her workplace. When her parents realized that she did not return home the following day, they went to the refinery where the 16-year-old worked and were dismayed to discover that she never showed up to the party that night. Mary Flanagan had last been seen heading for the metro station before she vanished, never to be heard from again.
An investigation revealed that Mary had called in sick and not showed up for work for the last two weeks. This actually gave her family hope that her disappearance had been planned, and that instead of something sinister happening to Mary, she ran away with her boyfriend. Her family knew a bit about him – his first name was Tom, he was an Irish immigrant and he may have worked as a stoker for the merchant navy. His last name could have been McGinty, except that there was no Tom McGinty employed by the navy.
Even if Mary Flanagan ran away with her boyfriend, it still seemed unlikely that she would not reach out to her family in the decades that followed. That is why police were reluctant to dismiss her as simply a “typical teenage runaway,” and why the case was officially reopened in 2013, hoping that modern technologies and policing methods might yield new clues. So far, no luck…
7. Who Shot Robert Pakington?
While we’re talking about dubious honors, we should also mention Robert Pakington, possibly the first handgun murder victim in the history of London, killed almost 500 years ago.
Pakington was a merchant involved with the Worshipful Company of Mercers and a Member of Parliament. He was also a big critic of the clergy which, at the time, placed him at odds with the Catholics and in the favor of the Protestants. Anyway, on the morning of November 13, 1536, Pakington was on his way to church when somebody shot him dead. Although plenty of people heard the booming noise, the identity of the killer was concealed by a heavy mist that had set over London that day.
Pakington became regarded as somewhat of a martyr, and many people accused the clergy of being behind his murder. Several names have been put forward, but chroniclers of that time could not agree on the identity of the culprit, which will likely remain a mystery forever.
6. The Truths and Falsehoods of Elizabeth Canning
Back in 1753, an 18-year-old maid named Elizabeth Canning made her appearance in a deplorable state, with a shocking story to tell. She had been missing for a month, time during which she said that she had been held prisoner in a brothel, being restrained and denied food unless she agreed to work as a prostitute. Eventually, Canning managed to escape and returned to her mother’s home.
After telling her story to outraged friends, neighbors, and family members, Elizabeth took the police to the house where she had been imprisoned and identified her captors: two women named Susannah Wells and Mary Squires. They were arrested and Canning’s case was taken on by a prominent London magistrate named Henry Fielding. Bizarrely, back then assault was not as serious as theft, which carried with it the possibility of the death penalty, so Mary Squires was actually sentenced to death for stealing Elizabeth’s corset.
Not everyone was convinced by Canning’s story, and among the skeptics was Sir Crisp Gascoyne, the Lord Mayor of London, who decided to open his own investigation. He found witnesses who could testify in favor of Wells and Squires, as well as other witnesses who said they had been bullied into testifying for Canning by an angry mob of her supporters. The case took a dramatic new turn, as Elizabeth Canning now stood accused of perjury.
This pretty much split the entire city in two camps: the Canning supporters who believed that she had been kidnapped, and the skeptics who thought that she made up the whole thing to conceal something scandalous, such as a secret birth or some kind of criminal plot.
In the end, Mary Squires was exonerated, and Elizabeth Canning was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ transportation to America. There, she married and never returned to England, and the true story behind her disappearance still remains unknown.
5. The HMS Eurydice
The year 1878 saw one of England’s worst maritime disasters during peacetime when the Royal Navy corvette HMS Eurydice was caught in a snowstorm and sank off the Isle of Wight, during a return voyage from Bermuda, taking 281 men to their cold, watery graves. The wreckage was refloated later that same year, but it had been so badly damaged that, ultimately, it was decided to break it up.
However, that has not stopped sailors from seeing the HMS Eurydice, now as a ghost ship, still sailing the waters of the English Channel, particularly near Sandown Bay on the Isle of Wight. In the 140 years that have passed, there have been numerous sightings of the vessel, including in 1998 when Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, claimed to have spotted the ghost ship along with a film crew while making a documentary.
And there was an even stranger encounter, reported by Commander Lipscomb during the 1930s. While he was in charge of a submarine around the Isle of Wight, he saw that he was on a collision course with an old-fashioned, full-rigged ship, and ordered immediate evasive maneuvers to avoid striking it. After the danger had passed, the ghost ship was nowhere to be seen.
4. The Ghosts of Hampton Court
It won’t surprise you to discover that England has loads of haunted places, from old castles, to inns and pubs, to roads that were once preyed upon by highwaymen. Today, we will only be looking at one location, but it is said to be one of the most haunted places in England, and it is also one of the biggest. It is Hampton Court Palace in London, the 500-year-old royal palace originally intended for the Archbishop of York, Thomas Wolsey, but used mainly by King Henry VIII.
There are several ghosts which allegedly make their residence at Hampton Court, and two of them used to be married to Henry VIII. The first is Jane Seymour, the king’s third wife, who died at Hampton Court during childbirth. People have reported seeing her on the Silverstick Stairs which led to the room where she passed away. The second apparition belongs to Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife who was beheaded for adultery and treason when she was only 19 years old. Her ghost is a lot louder and angrier and can allegedly be heard screaming down the corridor, pleading with the king, the same way she did in life when she was arrested and taken to be executed.
Then there is also the third ghost known as the Grey Lady, believed to be Sybil Penn, a 16th century servant and wetnurse who died of smallpox. She appears to be the busiest of all the Hampton Court ghosts. People have reported seeing her and hearing her working on a spinning wheel numerous times since 1829, after her tomb was disturbed during renovations.
3. The Hoxton Horror
The most notorious mystery from Victorian London has to be the true identity of Jack the Ripper, but he was hardly the only one responsible for gruesome, unsolved murders at that time. Another case from around that era which is almost forgotten nowadays was dubbed by newspapers of the time as the “Hoxton Horror.”
On July 10, 1872, mother and daughter Sarah and Christiana Squires were found murdered inside the stationery shop that they owned and ran. They both had been bludgeoned with a hammer or an iron bar, and the store was in complete disarray, seemingly the target of a robbery.
The biggest conundrum in the case seemed to be a disagreement over the time of the murders. Multiple witnesses claimed to have seen the mother and daughter between 9 and 11 a.m., and one witness was adamant that they saw Sarah Squires in the door of her shop at 12:30. However, inside the store, investigators found a broken clock which, presumably, had been knocked over during the fight and it had stopped at 12 p.m.
Authorities were never able to figure out this discrepancy. Was the witness simply wrong or did they see someone else by the door, perhaps even the killer? Police only had one solid suspect – Sarah Squires’ son – but he was locked up in an insane asylum at the time, so the Hoxton Horror went on to become another one of London’s unsolved mysteries.
2. The Rendlesham Forest Incident
England has had more than its fair share of UFO sightings, but none are more famous than the Rendlesham Forest Incident, sometimes referred to as “Britain’s Roswell.”
Forty years ago, something strange happened near the Woodbridge Royal Air Force station in Suffolk. At the time, it was being used by the US Air Force, and between the dates of December 26 and December 28, 1980, several members of personnel reported seeing strange, colorful lights moving through the forest, as well as a metallic, glowing object. When they investigated one morning, they found a glade with burn tree marks, broken branches everywhere, and three indentations in the ground in a triangular pattern.
The story gained steam a few years after the event, when the US Government released the memo written by deputy base commander Lt. Col. Charles Halt, which described the incident. Since then, it has become one of the most popular sightings among UFO enthusiasts.
As far as the skeptics were concerned, they put forward alternative explanations such as the lights coming from the Orfordness Lighthouse or from natural phenomena like a meteor or a bright star, but if the eyewitnesses are indeed telling the truth, then nothing accounts so far for all of the strange things they reported seeing.
1. Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?
On April 18, 1943, four young boys entered Hagley Woods in Worcestershire, looking for bird nests. One of them decided to climb a wych elm that looked promising, but he didn’t find any nests. Instead, inside the hollow trunk he saw a human skull.
One of the boys told his parents who alerted the police. The following day, detectives and forensic experts were on the scene, and they recovered most of the skeleton of a young woman who had been murdered at least 18 months earlier. She appeared to be in her mid 30s and was about five feet tall. The victim had very protuberant teeth, which gave her a distinctive bite and this, in turn, gave authorities hope that she would soon be identified. However, the weeks turned into months, turned into years, and the identity of the woman was still a mystery.
Some of the popular theories said that the victim had been a prostitute, or a spy, and even a sacrifice in a witchcraft ritual.
The case took an unusual turn the following year, when a piece of graffiti appeared in Birmingham, which read “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm – Hagley Wood?” Was this a taunt from the killer and the woman was actually named Bella or simply a prank? Police looked into the new lead but again came up short. Ever since then, the graffiti keeps appearing on occasion, and while we may never find out who put Bella in the wych elm, at least it serves to remind people of one of England’s greatest wartime mysteries.