As a boy David Clarke heard from his grandparents the story of Spring-Heeled Jack, a mysterious white-cloaked figure who terrified Sheffielders by jumping out at unsuspecting women and then escaping as if he had springs on his feet.
“The family were connected to cutlers in Heeley and at one point my grandfather worked for Templars, the spring manufacturers which I thought was appropriate. I heard all these stories at an early stage in my life and I remember my grandmother saying, ‘one day you will write about it’.”
Despite going on to a career as a journalist, writer and academic specialising in unexplained phenomena, it has taken him until the age of 43 to produce that book, Scared to Death.
“For so long I couldn’t find any substance to these stories,” he says. Newspapers would be the primary source but without dates for the occurrences it proved difficult.
The breakthrough came in 2007 when the British Library began digitalising newspaper files and the Sheffield Telegraph and the Sheffield Independent were among the first 40 titles included in the project.
“It meant instead of trawling through entire bound volumes of dusty newspapers and cranking through microfiche pages it opened up a treasure trove. Putting in keywords brought up hundreds of hits.”
A weekly paper called the Sheffield Times in 1855 reported on the Campo Lane ghost which gives the book its title.
“At a house occupied by Mormons (the site now of a sushi bar) sightings had been reported of a woman in white. A visitor to the house, for some reason, descended into the cellar and was startled by a figure in white, fainted and never regained consciousness.
“It became a national story but when I came to search for the death certificate I found that all the newspapers had spelled her name wrongly. And people think misreporting is a modern thing with declining journalistic standards, but I found the opposite,” says Dr Clarke who lectures in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University. “Those early newspapers seemed to write what they thought rather than quoting sources.”
Anyway the death certificate for Rallinson, not Rollinson, records ‘sudden death in a fit believed to have been brought on by a fright’.
The occurrence drew huge crowds to Campo Lane and this seemed also to be a common factor in the ghost stories.
“It’s revealing the role ghosts played in society at the time. There was a lot of what we would call anti-social behaviour, people impersonating ghosts or mob violence,” observes the writer.
In the case of Spring-Heeled Jack, it prompted gangs of vigilantes with shotguns. A crowd of 2,000 people assembled at the gates of Norfolk Park and ended up fighting the police who were seen as the establishment.
Rumours of the Parkhead Ghost in 1887 resulted in a group of workmen beating up a passer-by who appeared out of the mist one morning.
Or the case of a spirit rapping on the wall of a house in Peel Street, Sharrow, where a seven-year-old girl lay in what was thought to be a terminal decline. A policeman called Jacob Bradley, who became the Victorian equivalent of a ghostbuster, stationed a copper by the door and it was revealed that the little girl was jumping out of bed and tapping eerily on the wall,
There was another case of a servant girl spreading false rumours of a ghost. “Victorian society was very hierarchical and here perhaps was an example of a girl trying to gain power over her masters,” observes the writer.
“I don’t care whether there are ghosts or not, it’s what it says about Victorian society that interests me. People talk about anti-social behaviour as if it’s a modern thing and that if you go back to Victorian times people knew their status.
“Look in the newspapers and you see people were using the ghost stories that attracted crowds as an opportunity to steal and pickpockets ended up in court.
“You find out all these amazing things and superstitions and it’s been a revelation to me.”
Scared to Death, which is designed and illustrated by Ann Beedham, is published by ACM Metro at £12.95. On Halloween night, next Thursday, the author will be reading stories from Scared to Death in the atmospheric surroundings of the 18th century Upper Chapel on Norfolk Street for the Off the Shelf festival. He will be signing copies in Waterstones in Orchard Square on Sunday from noon until 1pm.