Fortean London: Headless in St James's Park

By Scott Wood Last edited 100 months ago
Fortean London: Headless in St James's Park

Queen Anne.jpg
Queen Anne asks "I Can Has Brandy?" via Southcoasting
In our final entry of 'spooky open spaces to eat sarnies in during the summer' we end at London’s oldest Royal park: St James’s Park. It started life as a swamp frequently flooded by the river Tyburn and was handy for pig farming until Henry VIII converted it into hunting grounds. James I kept a zoo in the park including an elephant, crocodiles, camels and the exotic aviary that gave Bird Cage Walk its name.

At the west of the park, near where Buckingham Palace now stands, was Rosamond’s Pond which had a reputation as being a top spot for heart-broken women to drown themselves. Perhaps due to the suicides, perhaps due to its proximity to the monarchy’s London home, the area is said to be haunted. A ghostly monk is said to clank its chains as it wanders the grounds of Buckingham Palace.

At the western end of Birdcage Walk is Wellington Barracks where, on 3 January 1804 at half-past one in the morning, Lt-Col George Jones of the Coldstream Guards “perceived the figure of a woman, without a head, rise from the earth, at the distance of about three feet before me”. She was dressed in a red striped gown with red spots between each stripe and part of the dress and figure “appeared to be enveloped in a cloud.”

Every good ghost comes with a story: “the old women about the Park were able to account for the ghost’s appearance, and they now recollect that, about sixteen years ago a serjeant murdered his wife in the Park, by cutting off her head”.

King of Ghost Hunters” Peter Underwood, in his book Haunted London, found a driver who almost ran over a headless woman running across the road near Wellington Barracks and Cockpit Steps. He described her as wearing a white dress with spots of blood on it. James Clark, for his Haunted London, contacted park manager Chloe Holloway in 2006 and was told that neither she nor any of the staff knew of any ghosts in the park or even of any ghost story.

There may be a good reason for this. For his book London Lore Steve Roud unearthed a news report six days after the initial description of the headless ghost by Lt-Col Jones. Two “unlucky Westminster scholars” were said to be using a Phantasmagoria in an empty house on Bird-Cage Walk to project the ghost “which so greatly alarmed the sentinels on duty”.

The Phantasmagoria is an early cinematic ‘magic lantern’. One was used at the Lyceum Theatre in between 1801 and 1803, the year before the headless woman appeared in St James’s Park.

Which explains what left Lt-Col Jones mute with fear in 1804 but not what Peter Underwood’s witness saw in the park for the headless ghost near Wellington Barracks that appeared in Underwood’s 1973 book. And was there ever a mad sergeant who cut his wife’s head off around 1788 or did the ghost inspire the old women of the park (or a journalist) to create that vague story to fit the ghost?

We leave the park and head toward nearby Queen Anne’s Gate where a statue of Queen Anne reportedly steps down from and walks around her plinth at midnight on the anniversary of her death. She died on August 1st, 1714, so her next stroll is due at the smallest hour this Sunday. Does anyone fancy laying this ghost story? We would need to bring booze if we do, Queen Anne was known as “Brandy Nan” because of her addiction to the spirit. Londoners used to sing it to her statue outside St Paul’s Cathedral (so it’s lucky that statue doesn’t get up and walk about).

Last Updated 29 July 2010