Black & White Photos

House of Bondage

by Ernest Cole : 1967

House of Bondage (UK edition 1968)

An act of protest and resistance in the form of a book, Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage exposed the raw injustice of South Africa’s Apartheid system. Cole risked everything to strike his blow against intolerance and oppression. His photographs held a mirror up to an inhumane system and had to be smuggled out from the country before he himself was forced into exile. It was a book that would open the world’s eyes to daily life in South Africa, but at great personal cost to its author. As a new edition of House of Bondage is set to appear next month, it’s worth looking again at one of the most powerful photo-books ever published.

One of the driving forces of this blog is that books discarded into charity shops or boot sales are the physical legacy of some personal commitment. The things they say are framed by the context of how and why they came to be made, which is to say they have a story beyond the pages, the words and the pictures.

Ernest Cole (from Magnum)

To come across a copy of Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage among the cookery and celebrity biographies that fill a charity shop’s bookshelves is an odd sensation. Perhaps more than any other book I have flicked through in those circumstances, this has almost physically embedded within it the life of its author.

Ernest Cole was born in 1940 in Pretoria, South Africa. His life began just as long-standing inequalities between the different peoples of the country were being codified into the ruthless mechanism of oppression that became known as apartheid. Two pieces of legislation in particular were to have a crucial impact on the young man. The first was the Population Registration Act of 1950 which allocated one of four racial categories – black, white, coloured or Indian – to every citizen of South Africa. The second was the Bantu Education Act of 1953, a nasty piece of work that restricted the education of the black population to a curriculum that would fit them for work in domestic service or manual labour and nothing else.

For many people officially categorised as black, the laws that erected the bars of the apartheid regime were only open acknowledgments of what was already happening. There was a range of reaction from docile fatalism, through petty misdemeanor to active opposition. In leaving school at 16 with a fascination for photography, getting a job with the highly respected Drum magazine as an assistant to Jurgen Schadeberg and completing a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography, Ernest Cole had a very clear idea that he wanted to commit an act of resistance. That act was to be a book.

As a school boy, Cole had been able to go about without carrying the pass book that black adults were obliged to show on demand, and which restricted their movements. Already, he was frequently being stopped on suspicion of having stolen the camera he always carried and he knew that to get the images he wanted, he would have to try to get classified as coloured. This involved an absurd, but deadly serious, bureaucratic obstacle course described in detail by Cole’s friend Joseph Lelyveld, a New York Times journalist based in South Africa.

The story gives a vivid impression of a driven young man thinking on his feet and prepared to take risks. Starting at the Coloured counter of the Labor Bureau, he was asked for a birth certificate to confirm his race. He told them it had been lost, thereby engineering a trail to the Late Registration of Births Office. There he took along a coloured friend who was willing to testify that Ernest Cole was an orphaned child of Coloured parents. The further he followed the path from office to office, the more risk he was taking of prosecution and imprisonment. But finally, he arrived at the Classification Board of the Bureau of Census and Statistics.

This was his final hurdle. It was an office staffed by men who were supposed experts at telling the races apart – an apparently necessary skill in a system that defined a Coloured person as one “who is not a white person or a native”. Being at the darker end of the wide spectrum covered by that definition, meant it would be especially difficult for Cole to get the classification he needed. The examining officer peppered him with questions about his schooling and childhood, designed to catch him out. When he got through all those without stumbling he was asked one final question – ‘how tall were you when you were eight?’

Cole told Lilyveld that he knew this question would come, and he took his time answering. Standing up ‘so I could really do it properly’, he stretched out his hand and indicated the height of his younger self with a downward palm, the way those of Coloured heritage would do, just like the Europeans. An African would naturally have indicated height with the palm upwards. It was sufficient to mark Ernest Cole as Coloured which would give him enough freedom of movement to gather the range of images that would eventually appear in this book.

In his photography, Ernest Cole seems to have known exactly what he wanted to do. One of his key early influences was Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose 1955 book People of Moscow showed just how effective the medium could be at telling stories of lives and places. His actual pictures, though, had less of the compositional sleight of hand that Cartier-Bresson is known for, and he seems to have absorbed other influences in his practice. The images in the book remind me more of W. Eugene Smith or even Walker Evans, and they fit well with the rise of what Cornel Capa would dub “Concerned Photography”. Capa’s 1968 anthology of documentary photographs that carried the same name was effectively a manifesto promoting ‘images in which genuine human feeling predominates over commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism’.

The description certainly fits Cole’s work. Many of the photographs in House of Bondage have the immediacy of fleeting glimpses that arrest the viewer either through some outrageous detail, such as the “Europeans Only” sign on a park bench, or through a look on a face. Others are more carefully studied portraits with a strong Family of Man sensibility. But, as Cole well knew, their real power would lie in working together between the covers of a book.

Schoolboy stopped for looking older than 16 and having no pass

Over a period of more than five years, Cole assembled a collection of pictures recording almost every aspect of daily life in South Africa. His Coloured status allowed him to photograph domestic staff working for wealthy white families, and his dark skin meant he could work in the townships and illicit drinking dens without arousing suspicion.

Which is not to say that he didn’t run into difficulties. He was frequently stopped and questioned, on one occasion telling the police as he photographed youths on the streets of Johannesburg that he was doing a story on juvenile delinquency.

And there were places that the authorities would not have wanted him taking pictures even if he had been white. In locations such as the miners’ camps, he had to resort to subterfuge. The powerful image of naked miners lined up for medical inspection like so much livestock, for example, was taken with a camera concealed in a lunchbox.

Cole knew that his book could never be published in South Africa. The witness he was making of the blatant injustice all around him would infuriate the authorities. Increasingly worried that he might fall foul of informers, and concerned that a scattering of his images appearing in foreign publications might come to the attention of people who could stop him working, he set about trying to get a passport. In another dance with bureaucracy, travel documents were only granted when he pretended to be a pilgrim wishing to make a trip to Lourdes. He left his home country in 1966.

Ernest Cole never returned to South Africa. Perhaps the course of his life in exile was not surprising, but it was, ultimately, tragic. Joseph Lelyveld, who wrote the introduction to House of Bondage when it was published in 1967, spotted early on what difficulties lay ahead. It was clear to him that Cole would struggle to maintain a sense of purpose: ‘He had to recognize that no matter how he grew as a photographer, no story could ever mean as much to him as the story he left behind in South Africa…He was free and that was something, but he was also stranded.’

Europeans only

The book was well-received and, with images from it appearing in the Sunday supplements of Europe and America, it opened many eyes to the raw injustices of apartheid. But when Cole was given a two-part assignment by the Ford Foundation to ‘do a House of Bondage’ in the Southern United States and a study of ‘urban negroes’ in New York, Lelyveld’s comments began to seem prophetic.

These were complex situations with differently administered injustices in a country which, at that time, Cole hardly knew. Nothing much came of the work Cole did for these assignments and he became increasingly disillusioned. He travelled around, restless, finding brief companionship with the Tiofoto collective in Sweden. As the 1970s wore on, he dropped away completely and stopped working.

The unravelling of his life meant that his substantial archive of work was vulnerable. Joseph Lelyveld was later to recall that, in 1977, he had accompanied a destitute and homeless Cole to a New York dosshouse called the Pickwick Arms Hotel, where Cole had left a suitcase full of his negatives and the photographs he had of his mother. When they got there, they found that all Cole’s things had been sent to an auction of unclaimed items.

As Cole’s life continued to disintegrate and he took to sleeping in the subways of New York, it was assumed that most of his work was irretrievably lost. In 1989, in urgent need of medical attention, Cole contacted Lelyveld who got him admitted to hospital. He died of cancer early the following year, aged 49. From his sick bed he had spent his last days watching the hospital television as it reported the release of Nelson Mandela.

But there is a twist to Ernest Cole’s story. In 2006, another South African photographer David Goldblatt won the Hasselblad Award. When he travelled to Sweden to attend the ceremony, he took time out to follow up a rumour he had heard that some of Cole’s work was held in a Gothenburg bank. He retrieved a suitcase containing a number of photographs which he donated to the Hasselblad Foundation.

It seems the source of Goldblatt’s information is unclear, and he himself died earlier in 2018. Whether or not this was the suitcase from the Pickwick Arms, there was enough material to spark a reappraisal of Ernest Cole’s career. Exhibitions of his work were held in Johannesburg and New York, a new book, Ernest Cole: Photographer, was published in 2011 and a prize for documentary photography carrying is name was set up by the University of Cape Town.

Mine labour awaiting ‘processing and assignment’

But, significant as Goldblatt’s contribution was, the whereabouts of the bulk of Cole’s output remained a mystery. Then, in 2017 Leslie Matlaisane, Ernest Cole’s nephew living in South Africa, received a surprise call from a bank in Sweden. The bank said that they were looking to create more space in their vault when they came across three safety deposit boxes containing 60,000 of his uncle’s negatives, and would he kindly come and take them away.

Matlaisane took the negatives and, earlier this year, handed them to the Magnum photo agency. They are currently being examined and catalogued. The story of how they came to be in the bank vault cannot yet be told. The trail is being investigated and it is likely that there will be legal implications around ownership and rights.

Meanwhile, Ernest Cole left this book. It is a mirror held up to a system that saw nothing wrong with itself, yet was terrified of criticism. A place where a majority of citizens were herded and controlled and denied even basic dignity. A place that armed racism with inhuman laws and enforced it with brutal repression. House of Bondage retains its power to invoke anger and incomprehension as to how apartheid can ever have been tolerated by the outside world.

Ernest Cole’s book played its part in breaking that tolerance. It is a book that ought to be far better known. It is his cry of protest and, like a bee’s sting, it cost him his life.

Segregated platform at Doornfontein

Update: It appears that Steidl will be re-issuing House of Bondage in December this year, which is good to know.

To see more images from House of Bondage, visit the gallery page here.

Read more

Lev and Let Lev

During the Cold War, Progress Publishers was in the business of talking to the West. With its logo of a stylized sputnik next to a Cyrillic ‘P’, it had taken over the duties of Moscow’s Foreign Languages Publishing House in 1964. As well as editions of the works of the towering figures of communism, they produced little books like this offering carefully curated glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain.

How They Reached the Top contains ten short biographies of Soviet sports stars who would have been familiar to Western fans through the great international jamborees of Olympic Games and World Cup. The tales of determination and resilience, of overcoming set-backs and relentless hard work, are aimed at young readers. They embody universally applicable values of dedication and perseverance that would have been heartily applauded by the schoolmasters of Eton and Harrow.

But in the background, and probably the point of the book, are pictures of talents nurtured by the daily machinery of the state and organised society. All of the stories describe an individual whose maverick precocity threatens to make them outcasts and failures, until they overcome their difficulties with the help of public facilities and the guidance of mentors. Their ultimate personal success – which earns them medals, world records, championships and a place in this book – is shown to be the result of teamwork. Team USSR.

To Western readers, some of the biographical details seem almost to parody the idea of the communist state. When the weightlifter Yuri Vlasov takes time out from the Zhukovsky Airforce Engineering Academy he trains with a coach who he later remembers gratefully ‘as we remember our first school teacher or first foreman’. Chess Grand Master Mikhail Tahl wins his first National Championships in Moscow at the Central Railwaymen’s Hall of Culture. Gymnast Larissa Latynina is advised that she ‘must have a conductor’s sense of rhythm and must be able to move in space like a cosmonaut’.

Our atomised society sees the structures of state, or any organised structure for that matter, as stifling and anathema to individual achievement. It’s why so few of us feel we would have anything much to learn from our line manager, let alone remember him or her as fondly as our first school teacher. It’s why there is no Central Hall of Culture for Baristas or Deliveroo riders.

It used to be said of English football in the 1950s that if you ever wanted a centre forward, all you had to do was whistle down a mine. In the USSR at that time, the place to look was in the factories. The first story in the book concerns Lev Yashin who began by representing his workshop in the factory championships and rose to become a goalkeeper described by Gordon Banks as the best there has ever been.

Lev Yashin

His trajectory follows an arc that becomes familiar in the other stories of sports people rising to the top. His talents are first noticed by his fellow workers and the representative of the town Soviet. This leads to him playing at a slightly higher level where he comes to the attention of Dynamo Moscow scout Arkady Chernyshev. Once at Dynamo, he then finds his trainer is to be his idol the great Alexei Khomich, who hones the young Yashin with a gruelling regime of jumping, running and ball exercises.

But the thing that opens the doors of success to all of these sports people is their refusal to let failure stop them from trying. In Lev’s story, his initial set-backs are contrasted with a fictional hero that ‘every Soviet boy dreams of emulating’. This was Anton Kandidov, protagonist of Lev Kassil’s 1939 book Goalkeeper of the Republic. Kandidov’s first appearance in an important match comes when he substitutes for his team’s senior keeper and the crowd scratch their heads at the use of an untried youngster – ‘Has someone gone mad?’ Of course, he quickly saves a certain goal and goes on to stop everything that is thrown at him – ‘but each time, the ball as if bewitched, flew into the arms of the unbeatable new goalkeeper.’

Bewitched or cursed

Goalkeeper of the Republic

Lev Yashin, we are told, dreams of making a debut just like Kandidov’s. But when his time comes – in a game against Spartak Moscow – the ball is not so much bewitched as cursed. He blames himself for the result but carries on working on his game, developing a unique personal style that will become a major influence on later generations of goalkeepers. Ironically, this consisted of working with the whole of the penalty area rather than staying rooted to the goal line. Yashin learned to be a master of anticipation, making quick decisions about where and how to intercept passages of play, instead of waiting for the ball to be fired at him. But, although How They Rose to the Top does not mention it, Kandidov in Goalkeeper of the Republic is nearly brought to ruin by exactly this kind of behaviour. Filled with corrupting ideas about individuality learned on a foreign tour, he rushes from his goal in a vital match and costs his team the game.

For the sports stars in this book, team meant country. In their appearances at major events all over the world, they were products and representatives of a society that considered itself misunderstood and threatened. Sport, like the exploration of space, was one of the key theatres of the Cold War. It was a way of saying the society we have is just as capable of producing winners as yours. Like the ad hoc Kitchen Debate of 1959 where Nixon tried to get one up on Kruschev at an exhibition of American consumer goods, it is a tussle of ideologies as much as a physical contest. For Western audiences, Soviet participation in the major sporting events between 1952, when they first appeared at the Olympics, and the fall of the Berlin wall presented competitors who were regarded as oppressed and hot-housed onto the winner’s rostrums of Helsinki, Rome and Munich. They seemed to exude a kind of fervent, almost aggressive, nationalism that was difficult to understand for the sophisticated citizens of the West. This book was published in 1966.

Read more

Cabbage Crates


Published in 1919

They’re not much more than a seat on top of an engine decorated all around with bits of wire and wood, with a couple of pram wheels tacked on. From a 21st century point of view, you’d have to be insane to get in one, let alone have it take you 2,000 feet up into the air. But, on balance, we should all be grateful that, back in the early 20th century, people did exactly that.

Rafbird wrote this collection of anecdotes in 1918, the year in which the RAF was formed through an amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. It was only 15 years after the Wright Brothers had managed to get their own assembly of flimsy junk to cover 120 yards at a dizzy 20 feet in what marked the first powered flight of a machine heavier than air.

Rafbird’s cabbage crate

And it was dangerous, although you might not think so from Rafbird’s general insouciance. He has a chapter on the various ways in which new fliers manage to crash their machines. At the beginning of the First World War, they were trained, he tells us, in a plane known as the “Rumpety”, which – for the enthusiasts – he identifies as a Maurice Farman biplane from 1914 (shorthorn type). The exact type of plane in which W E Johns would have Biggles learning his craft a decade or so later.

The Pancake: The machine hovers at about 12 feet, before belly flopping into the ground, crushing the undercarriage. The pilot sits there thinking he has made a correct landing, restarts his engine and wonders why he is not taxiing back to the hangar.

The “Rumpety”

Landing on one wing: The machine comes down sideways and one of the wings hits the ground and crumples up. The pilot remains in the plane wondering only why his seat is at a funny angle.

Running into the far hedge: Misjudging the length of the airfield (which at this time really was just a field), the pilot cannot stop in time to avoid the hedge. The plane is more or less shredded, but he just sits there surrounded by twigs and watches the cows in the next field.

This book was one of several written in the early days of flight, feeding a market that loved the thrills and adventure of the new, and rapidly developing, phenomenon. Already, as Rafbird complains, a character of the Devil-may-care airman had been cultivated by these books and the popular press. He is sniffily described as ultra cool and glamorous, always clad in furs and always photographed with a cigarette in his mouth.

The war brought this chap up sharp and double-slapped his chops with a mega-dose of reality. It also accelerated the technological development of aviation. For Rafbird, it was a time when airmen became professionals and experts, rather than privileged hobbyists. He makes much of the down-to-earth, practical skills that see him and his colleagues survive everything that primitive mechanics and a determined enemy can throw at them. And yet, he still displays a remarkably stiff upper lip, a prototype of the scrambling aces of World War Two, cool and philosophical in the face of extreme danger. Despite a couple of hints, though, there is a feeling throughout this book that there is at least one place where Rafbird does not want to go.

The author’s real name was Philip George Marr. He was a captain in the RFC who had spent the war training pilots and flying reconnaissance missions accompanied by an observer operating an aerial camera. Many of the anecdotes in the book concern flying across enemy lines, trying to keep a steady height and level wings amidst the flak while the observer records the tragic, pock-marked mudscape below. Zooms and Spins was written from his hospital bed.

Hell below us

The crash that put him there was not one that left the pilot cartoonishly unharmed, like those he describes in his tales of the Rumpety. Nor was it brought about by enemy action. Instead, it happened on 21 January 1918 in a training flight above Stamford in Lincolnshire, when the Curtiss JN-4 he was flying stalled on a steep turn and spun like a sycamore seed into the ground, disintegrating on impact.

Marr describes this crash in a separate two-page chapter, describing the earth coming up at him, the terrible sound of splintering wood, his broken ankle and rescue from the wreckage with its leaking petrol. Saying that he fully intends to fly again, he claims that this experience was no more “thrilling” to him than when he once found himself accelerating down a hill on a bicycle whose brakes had failed. But he has nothing to say about his pupil, lieutenant Hilary Thomas Buss who died in the accident.

Curtiss JN-4

When I first found the details of Marr’s crash, I thought that the dedication on the front endpaper “To an Irish Friend” might be a reference to this. But Buss appears to have been a local boy who was buried there in Stamford and the surname is a Middle English one relating to coopers, from the old French “busse” for barrel.

There are several explanations, apart from selfish indifference. It could have been in deference to Buss family wishes or it could be because the publishers wanted to keep the tone light-hearted. Or it could have been that flying in those early days so commonly ended in tragedy that it was hardly worth mentioning. In the 31 days of that January of 1918 alone, there were at least 70 other deaths from flying accidents over the skies of the UK.

Marr himself lived on well into the jet age, dying in 1966. How far aviation evolved in that time is made clear by reading the final chapter of Zooms and Spins, where he has a go at predicting the future. The basics, he gets right when he sees that air travel will rival ocean liners and when he cautions that the space for accommodating passengers is unlikely to allow for “luxurious divans, Turkish baths [or] an American bar”. But, in 1918, he is unable to envisage an aeroplane that climbs higher that a few thousand feet or travels at more than about 130 mph. In a passenger craft like that, he sees no reason why there shouldn’t be an outside walkway with taffrail to admire the views and take the air.

Read more

Sloping Off

Judy Magazine back numbers 1872-1873

Marie Duval, cartoonist

Opera Bouffe? Think Offenbach, Bluebeard, disreputable Parisian entertainment
Judy – The serio-comic journal

A few years ago, I picked up this tatty bunch of paperwork from a secondhand book shop that used to be housed in one of the London City churches off Gracechurch Street. I’ve always been fascinated by the gulf in context that renders swathes of 19th century humour unintelligible to modern readers. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, that those old Punch cartoons with their laborious captions ever had anyone spitting tea over their writing slopes. The Victorians have come down to us as a notoriously po-faced lot, certainly not given to belly laughs. But the sheer number of humorous publications produced throughout the 1800s suggests otherwise.

In fact, the 19th century was a golden age of cartooning and caricature that laid the foundations of some of the forms we are so familiar with today. Punch, which set out to avoid ‘grossness, partisanship, profanity, indelicacy, or malice’ launched the careers of more cartoonists than any other publication of the time. But it had its rivals, including Judy – whose stated purpose was to lower the tone a little, and whose readership came from the lower-middle classes and, in particular, women. Partly for economic reasons and partly because because it was less straight-laced, Judy had a much less polished appearance than its illustrious rival. In the illustrations, this led to a freedom of line that gave rise to some surprisingly modern images and an appetite for new ideas.

Lowering the tone

The magazine was established and edited by Charles H Ross, who is generally credited with the invention of one of the first-ever comic strip characters Ally Sloper. A bulb-nosed drunkard and inept conman, Sloper became a household name by the end of the 19th century through a dedicated comic called Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and a raft of spin-off products that included ceramics and condiment sauces. He was even an influence on early cinema comedians, particularly W C Fields.

Hallo, Hallo, Hallo

Although Ally Sloper was first born from squiggles, doodles and ink blots that Ross had made in boredom while working as a clerk for the Admiralty, his early appearances in Judy some years later were penned by Ross’s wife who signed her work ‘MD’ or ‘Marie Duval’. In keeping with the tendency to marginalise the work of women artists, it was on record until the mid-1980s that the illustrations signed this way were, in fact, the work of Ross himself who used his wife’s name as an alias. Then in 1986, an analysis by art historian David Kunzle showed that the early Ally Sloper drawings, and many other cartoons in Judy, were indeed by Ross’s wife. It may seem trivial for a professor of art history like Kunzle to delve into the illustration of a long-forgotten comic journal, but – as he points out – Duval was something of a pioneer in conventions and techniques of cartooning that we now take for granted, such as using repeated lines to suggest movement.

Jack Sheppard / Marie Duval?

As it happens, Marie Duval was a pseudonym – just not for Charles H. Ross. She was born Isabelle Emilie de Tessier in Paris in about 1850. For a while, she may have worked as a governess in England, but she also started appearing on the stage and began to develop a theatrical career. This was cut short by an accident when she was touring with a popular melodrama in the male title role of Jack Sheppard, the notorious 18th-century criminal. In a scene where she was fleeing thief taker Jonathan Wild by climbing a rope ladder, a cartridge fired form a stage pistol hit her in the face so that she fell, gashing her leg in the process.

Marie Duval went on to become one of the main contributors to Judy and was one of three female illustrators on the staff. Ally Sloper became so popular that the 1870s saw the publication of several sixpenny one-offs, such as Ally Sloper’s Guide to the Paris Exhibition and The Eastern Question Tackled and Satisfactorily Disposed of by Ally Sloper (the Literary Torpedo). With influences from the simple outline style of Richard Doyle who illustrated fairy stories and humorous social commentaries in the 1840s and 50s to the startling innovations of the German artist Wilhelm Busch, Duval’s contribution to the graphic language of the comic strip has only recently been recognised.

Marie Duval’s Spoons


Read more

Bump in the Night

True Ghost Stories

Written in collaboration by The Marchioness Townshend of Raynham and Maude M. C. ffoulkes – 1936

True Ghost Stories 1936

This is a fairly ghastly copy of Gwladys, Marchioness of Townshend’s amusing foray into the world of the supernatural. Its cover is marked with other-worldly stains, and psychic scribbles disfigure some of its inner pages.

Spine Tingling

To sceptics, a True Ghost Story is an oxymoron. But this collection was put together by people who were completely convinced of the reality of ghostly encounters. It has an introduction by Nandor Fodor who, far from being a figment of Tolkein’s imagination, was the head of the International Institute for Psychical Research. In the era after the First World War, when almost everyone knew someone who had passed violently over to the other side, he was a highly respected investigator into the world of spirits, ghosts and manifestations. He gives a neat description of the two types of unquiet spirit as he understands them:

The first type indicates the persistent survival of great mental agonies and their periodical projection as a kind of film on an etheric screen. … The second type implies direct discarnate action: the return of the dead…

Gwladys knew all about returns from the dead because her home was at Raynham Hall in Norfolk, one-time seat of ‘Turnip’ Townshend, where the celebrated Brown Lady made regular appearances. She also had some experience of mental agonies projected onto screens, having been one of the earliest writers of scenarios for the silent movies. Her works included When East Meets West (1915), in which a fakir uses hypnotism to explode light bulbs filled with poisonous gas from a distance in order to rob unsuspecting Westerners. As a critic in the Bioscope put it: “plausibility has been sacrificed to the exigencies of melodrama”.

Her collaborator on this book was Maude M. C. ffoulkes who, appropriately enough, was the ghost writer of My Past, the scandalous memoir of Countess Marie Larisch. Between them, Maude and Gwladys had an impressive roster of contacts with the aristocracy and other upper-crust notables, who they badgered to provide stories of psychic encounters.

Villish Mona Veen – Manx Ghost Cat

Among the scattering of stately homes and manor houses pestered by spectres, there are some more unusual hauntings. There are the two white Manx show cats who had brought their owner, a Miss Thessel Cochrane, a cabinet full of trophies. After death, each of them returned for one visit only to reassure Miss Cochrane that she need not worry about them.

Another testimony comes from Mrs. Winifred Graham, a prolific author and tireless campaigner against the Mormons. She tells a seriously underwhelming story of an “ordinary-looking” man who gets into her train carriage at Thames Ditton, apparently gets off at Surbiton, but is there again when the train pulls in to Vauxhall. To her “unutterable horror”, he sits opposite gazing at her “quite calmly and normally”.

Perhaps the spookiest, though, concerns an untended grave in Kensal Green Cemetery. The protagonist is identified only by the letter L and is described as a self-obsessed, wealthy publisher. He moves exclusively among the most rarefied company such as may be found at the Ritz or Claridge’s, and his name never features “as a guest at Bohemian or theatrical gatherings”. But things were not always so. When L stumbles upon a shabby grave in a remote corner of Kensal Green while trying to make his way home from a funeral, he is startled to see the name on the headstone. Elsie was a young woman who he had dallied with before his giddying rise in the world. As wealth and reputation gathered round him, Elsie had dropped away to be forgotten.

He had heard of her death some years before but had not sent a wreath because the address was in a dowdy suburban area and he shuddered to imagine what a Bond Street florist would think of him knowing anyone in such a place. Returning home, he is moved by remorse and vows to set up a fund for the upkeep of Elsie’s grave. Back in his Mayfair flat, he decides to ring his stockbroker after dinner but forgets the details and finds himself asking the operator for a Kensal Green number, which – to his horror – he realizes is the plot number of Elsie’s grave. It is her voice that answers.

‘Yes, who’s calling?’ Do you want me to come over? Of course I’ll come. I won’t be long, but I was very far away, darling, when you rang up.’

L waits, terrified, for his visitor. And eventually, there are three soft knocks on his door. At which point, L faints and lies unconscious on his floor until his butler finds him in the morning. Around him, and in the hallway, are clods of wet clay and mud.

L’s story is typical of the flavour of the book. The bringing together of ghostly tales from among the collaborators’ acquaintances gives the feeling of eavesdropping on a high-society soiree. There is a background cast of befuddled common people whose primitive reaction to the unexplained is in contrast to the spirit of refined enquiry that is induced in their betters. Almost every stately home in the book has domestics upping sticks and vowing not to stay a minute longer when the banging noises and the footsteps start.

The day-to-day world of ordinary folk seems to have been as much of a mystery to Gwladys, Maude and their friends as the hereafter, but it was at least verifiable and observable. To understand the world of manifestations and apparitions, on the other hand, requires a faith in the truth of the stories people tell and a belief that there is a spirit world waiting to be revealed. And that’s the thing about ghost stories – you can never quite dismiss them. Or as Doctor Johnson put it: “some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears”.

Read more