An Appreciation of Peter Underwood, King of the Ghost Hunters
by MJ Steel Collins
Peter Underwood, FRSA, is a name that commands respect in the modern ghost-hunting fraternity. With a career spanning approximately 70 years, 50 books and innumerable ghost hunts under his belt, it’s easy to see why he is so appreciated. And at the age of 90, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down – at least, not by most people’s standards.
Born in Letchworth on 16 May 1923, Underwood’s first ghostly experience occurred at the age of nine, on the night of his father’s death. As he grew older, he developed his interest in ghosts, thanks in part to his grandparents’ farm at Rose Hall, by Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. The house was well known for a haunted bedroom which accommodated a headless ghost. It often fell to the young Underwood, who spent a lot of his childhood there, to look after visitors wishing to see the room. Quite often, they would tell him tales of their own haunted houses, which he began to note down, finding them intriguing.
As he entered his teens, Underwood began visiting haunted locations and even entered into correspondence with the great ghost hunter Harry Price, famous for investigating the Borley Rectory haunting. In fact, Underwood managed to visit the ruins of the house before it was demolished in the late 1940s. These days he is regarded as the world expert on the case, having spoken to just about everyone who had been involved.
Thanks to his regular letters, Price invited Underwood to join the Ghost Club, a legendary psychical research group dating well back into the 19th century. It boasts the likes of Dennis Wheatley, former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Colin Wilson amongst its former members. Membership was by invitation only, and Harry Price was rather strict about it, so Underwood did rather well to get in! Unfortunately, the Club fell by the wayside shortly after as Price died suddenly, but Underwood soon got it up and running again, turning it into an organisation that could well keep up with the prestigious Society for Psychical Research, of which Peter Underwood was also a member.
In the 1940s, Underwood was involved in what he describes as the first official ghost hunt at a house in Weathercock Lane, Aspley Guise. In his autobiography, No Common Task, Underwood writes that the investigation came about after the owner of the house tried to get his rates reduced because of the haunting! The ensuing investigation, which had two mediums, also included H W Richards, a councillor on the Area Assessment Committee. The story was that the house was haunted by two young lovers, who had been killed in a house that previously stood on the property by being locked in a cupboard by the girl’s irate father. The bodies had been found by none other than Dick Turpin, who offered to keep quiet about it as long as he was allowed to use the house as a hideout. Of course, that notorious highwayman also featured as a ghost.
In all, Underwood paid two visits to the house and learned a few tricks he would apply to his later ghost hunts. And there were many of them over the decades. Underwood would investigate hauntings he had been contacted about, take groups off to investigate more famous sites and even took a group back to his grandparents’ old home. In that time, he came up with many investigative techniques, such as drawing an outline around a trigger object that was then locked in a room to see if it moved by paranormal means, spreading flour and sugar to catch foot prints, setting up threads on stairwells and passage ways – the list is quite impressive.
Many of these methods are still in use today, though ghost hunting has gotten incredibly technological with the use of infra-red cameras, a variety of thermometers, various gadgets to capture Electronic Voice Phenomenon, where it’s thought ghosts are communicating with investigators, Electro-magnetic Pumps and meters. It’s a gadget freak’s dream! Though Peter Underwood doesn’t give too much credence to them. He believes that they have their place, but are perhaps a little too sensitive to be reliable! To him, the golden age of ghost hunting was back in his day, when they relied less on technology and more on the ingenuity of a good investigator. He also has some interesting beliefs on what he thinks a ghost is. Not for him the discarnate spirits of the dead – he believes there is a more scientific basis behind what goes bump in the night. We’ve just got to find out what it is.
And whilst Underwood has come up with some convincing evidence of ghosts, such as some eerie recordings captured one night in Borley Church, he’s also caught out a few frauds. In a poltergeist case, he caught out the young girl at the heart of it all by lining her bedroom door with a purple dye. Once the ‘polt’ had acted up for the night, he inspected the girl’s hands and feet and sure enough, they were covered in the dye. Perhaps the most memorable one was a case he was sent on where music could be heard in various rooms of a man’s home, but no rational explanation could be found. Several investigators had been convinced by it, and on his visit, Underwood himself was treated to the spooky performance. However, it came undone when his host went to make some tea and Underwood decided to investigate the chair the home owner was sitting in. On sitting there himself, Underwood felt various parts of the generous upholstery, and the mysterious music began playing. The host rather sheepishly entered the room, admitting he’d been busted.