In 1956 SHIRLEY HITCHINGS was an ordinary teenager – until one day a powerful force began scrawling messages on her bedroom walls, starting fires in the house and making Shirley levitate. Jo Macfarlane is told by her that hauntings feel as real today as they did 65 years ago.

Shirley, aged 15, at her ‘haunted’ home

Shirley, aged 15, at her ‘haunted’ home

 It started with an ornate silver key that appeared one morning on the pillow belonging to 15-year-old Shirley Hitchings. Shirley, puzzled, traced the cool-metal with her fingertips. Shirley, a member of her family, was the first to see it in their Victorian terraced house in Battersea in Southwest London.

It didn’t fit into any of the locks. But that night in January 1956, as the suburban street lay dark and still, the knocking began – loud banging, thumps and incessant pounding that reverberated around the house. The furniture began to creak, and the lights kept flashing on and off. It was so loud, that neighbours complained.

‘It was as if the noises came from the bowels of the earth,’ Shirley, now 80, recalls today. ‘It went on until daylight. We were traumatised. I remember clinging to my dad, saying, “Please make it stop.”’

A newspaper clipping of the story that seized the nation’s attention

A newspaper clipping of the story that seized the nation’s attention

This was just the beginning for the scared Hitchings family. The key disappeared, never to be found again. The noises continued night after night and over the next 12 year period, it became one of the most bizarre and chilling hauntings in British History.

The ‘spirit’ – which the family later nicknamed Donald, after Disney’s bad-tempered Donald Duck – dragged Shirley from her bed and made her levitate. It lit fires in the house and left messages on the walls. The whole saga caught the public’s imagination, becoming a national news story that was even discussed in parliament.

The events of today still defy rational explanation. It’s no surprise then that 3.5 million listeners have flocked to the BBC podcast The Battersea Poltergeist since it was released in January this year. It sought to answer the question, “Was it a malevolent force at Wycliffe Road or an elaborate hoax?”

The podcast examined the files of Harold Chibbett from 1950, a ghost hunter who helped the family. They also interviewed survivors, including Shirley who was accused of causing this phenomenon. The podcast’s producer and presenter Danny Robins spent two years analysing the case and concludes it’s ‘the closest I’ve come to proof that there is something more: that ghosts exist.

‘Speaking to Shirley sent a shiver down my spine,’ says Danny. ‘If true, the implications are extraordinary. What’s so fascinating is this tension between what we can potentially discount and what nothing can explain. Shirley is completely normal. This is the real fear. If it can happen to someone like her, it could happen to anyone.’

Shirley, Harry Hanks (centre) and her family at the exorcism

Shirley Hanks (center) and her family at exorcism

The show’s expert is parapsychologist Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe, who investigates psychic phenomena and the paranormal. O’Keeffe describes himself as ‘an open-minded sceptic’ who believes paranormal activity should be thoroughly tested to see whether there could be an alternative explanation. While some of the poltergeist activity at Battersea could be attributed either to natural or human meddling, O’Keeffe says that other elements remain a mystery.

‘Not all of it is likely to be supernatural,’ says O’Keeffe, ‘but nor is some of it easily explained. There are multiple witnesses. Some events defy the laws. It’s arrogant not to keep an open mind.’

Shirley, a great grandmother living in South England, believes that the hauntings are just as real today than they were all those years ago. ‘It’s all true,’ she says, emphatically. ‘It’s a lot for people to swallow. But it did happen.’ Shirley lived on Wycliffe Road with her mum Kitty and dad Wally, a London Underground train driver, her Irish grandmother Ethel and adopted brother John, a surveyor in his 20s. 

It was almost as if the noises were coming directly from the earth’s bowels  

Recalling that first night in January 1956, Shirley says: ‘The whole house shook like it was an air raid. It continued for three consecutive nights, night after night. We were shattered.’ Sleep-deprived, the family called the police and various surveyors to try to get to the root of the noises – but no one could explain it.

After three weeks, events took an unsettling turn when objects started moving. Shirley’s glove flew from the floor and hit Wally in the face. Heavy pots, pans and other items flew from the kitchen even though no one was there. ‘They’d float towards you then speed up, so you’d have to duck,’ says Shirley. ‘Or they’d hover and hit the wall.’ The family watched, amazed, as slippers ‘walked’ around the room or the piano played of its own accord.

Shirley was jolted awake by her bedsheets being pulled from her body one night. Her family, woken by Shirley’s screams, rushed in to try to put the sheets back on, but found themselves embroiled in an eerie tug of war with invisible hands as a ‘force’ pulled the other way. They saw something even more frightening. Shirley remained stiff as her back arched as she rose several inches above the bed.

Her dad’s notes about the marks that appeared on Shirley’s face, 1956

Her dad’s notes about the marks that appeared on Shirley’s face, 1956

‘I remember the sheets coming off and being tossed about in the bed,’ Shirley says. ‘I was floating above the bed. John pulled me down and I was rigid. My Catholic grandmother thought I was being possessed by Satan. I thought I was going insane. I was crying all the time, very traumatised.’

The family was besieged and the story reached national media in February. It did bring out one positive: Harold Chibbett (known as Chib) was a ghost hunter who dedicated his entire life to the Battersea investigation. Danny describes Chib as ‘a lovely influence in the family’s life, and who was driven to prove there was life after death’.

Chib was the one who explained to the family that they were dealing a poltergeist. Although it is rare, this spirit is thought to be capable of causing physical disturbances like throwing objects and making loud sounds. But there are other things.

Chib explained that there was always a teenage girl in the centre of their activities. ‘I was horrified,’ Shirley recalls. ‘We’d never heard of a poltergeist before. We were terrified beyond our wildest dreams. I thought, “This is the end. We’re all going to die”.’ Taking matters into their own hands, the family arranged for Shirley to be ‘exorcised’ at the home of Harry Hanks, a part-time medium who worked with Wally. But before the exorcism could begin, the police arrived, having been tipped off about alleged ‘black magic and witchcraft’ at the address. It led to the haunting being discussed in the House of Commons, with Hanks’s MP calling for the police to issue an apology for the intrusion. 

I was floating on my bedsheets and thought I was going mad.  

Chib suggested that the family contact the poltergeist. He brought a few letter cards with him to the house and set them out on the table. Chib would point at the letters and the spirit would tap when the correct letters were reached to spell words. Slowly, the spirit began to tap out messages. He claimed to be French, and claimed he was afraid. ‘It didn’t make us feel sorry for him. We just told him to go,’ Shirley recalls.

The poltergeist wasn’t deterred. Messages appeared on the walls – ‘Viva France’. Chib would leave paper and a pen in the family’s front room – the only one with a lock – and take the key home with him. The room came to be known as ‘Donald’s room’ because he would tap along to music on the television and arrange dolls in a circle. Each morning, there would be 60 or 70 notes. There are thousands in Chibs’s files. The first simply said, chillingly, ‘Shirley I come’. Many more are illegible, or a strange mixture of French and English, sometimes addressed to ‘mon cherie Chibbett’.

Messages left by Donald on their walls, 1964

Donald left messages on their walls in 1964

Events took a more bizarre turn when Donald claimed to be the ‘lost dauphin’ Louis Charles, heir to the throne of France. 200 years of speculation have followed the fate of the tenth-year-old boy of Louis XVII, Marie Antoinette, and their relationship during the French Revolution. The letters from Donald contained facts few would have known, such as the names of Louis Charles’s bodyguards, later verified in Parisian archives by Chib.

Shirley says March 1956 was the worst month, just a few months after the haunting began. ‘Donald started making demands – wanting me to wear my hair a certain way ‒ then threaten us, saying he’d set fires in the house,’ she says. ‘Dad locked all the matches and knives in our air raid shelter. It didn’t work because fires started all over the house. Dad was setting a fire one night and got burnt. Underneath the burn were gouge marks, like he’d been clawed.’

Shirley’s grandmother Ethel perhaps suffered the most. ‘He would try to push her down the stairs,’ Shirley says. In October 1956, objects began to float around the room and there was a lot of whispering. Then came a voice. It was an Irish woman. Shirley recalls: ‘Nan went to bits because it was her mother’s voice. She spoke back to it, and she went to her bedroom. She had a stroke a few days later and died shortly afterwards.’

Shirely's mother Kitty photographed outside 63 Wycliffe Road – the house was demolished in the late 60

Shirely’s mother Kitty photographed outside 63 Wycliffe Road – the house was demolished in the late 60

The episodes were less intense and the family began to get used to them, despite the fact that it sounds bizarre. But events weren’t confined to the house. Shirley was sacked from her part-time job as a seamstress in Selfridges when scissors disappeared and she was forced to admit to managers she was ‘the poltergeist girl’. The family moved to Latchmere Road about 15 minutes away in 1964. But the activity continued.

‘It ruined my life,’ Shirley says. ‘It took my teenage years. I was 21 when I reached normality. Even then, he interacted with my life. One boyfriend came to the house and was trying to goad Donald by saying things like, “Come on, Donald, do your worst!” But he fled after a bowl was tipped on to his head.’ Once, when she went out in a car with the man who would become her husband, she came home to find her mother sitting with written messages from Donald, saying what they had been up to together.

It destroyed my life. Before I could find some normality, I was 21.  

The last message was sent in 1968. Shirley, her husband and their baby son lived in West Sussex. Donald would leave messages on the notepad that she kept near her telephone. These messages told Shirley what her parents were doing back home in London. ‘It was weird, yes, but for me it was normal.’ The note said he was leaving – and they never heard from him again. ‘My mum went into mourning,’ Shirley says. ‘She’d got to think of Donald like a son. But Dad and I were delighted.’

Shirley today, age 80

Shirley, age 80 today

But the tale doesn’t end there. Shirley was approached at a craft show by a medium in the 1980s. She said Shirley was being followed by ‘a little boy, in fancy dress – blue satin, and he’s got red hair’. It’s a description Shirley recognised all too well. Chib had given Shirley a postcard showing Louis Charles wearing a blue satin dress and red hair once. And recently, at a psychic evening with her daughter, Shirley was given a message ‘from a boy who said he was sorry for all he’d done’.

‘Do I think Donald was the dauphin? No,’ says Danny. ‘But if he was a ghost, he was certainly messing with the Hitchings family.’ 

Dr O’Keeffe is similarly circumspect. ‘If you take all of the witness testimonies at face value, there can only be one possible explanation for one or two of the phenomena, and that’s something paranormal. Because so many people witnessed the knocking at the beginning, it is convincing.

‘But there are problems with eyewitness accounts,’ he says. ‘Fear and sleep deprivation can make you think an object is moving by itself. We also can’t discount that someone in the family, or Shirley herself, wrote the letters and wall messages.’

The Battersea Poltergeist Podcast has started touring live last week. New witnesses have reported additional poltergeist activity in and around the house. ‘It’s a Bermuda triangle of the paranormal,’ Danny chuckles.

Tonight the production will visit the Clapham Grand ‒ situated just a mile away from Wycliffe Road ‒ with Shirley as a special guest. She will find it more poignant. ‘It’ll be like I’m finally taking Donald home,’ she says.

To buy tickets for The Battersea Poltergeist live shows, visit Uncanny, a Radio 4 podcast featuring Danny Robins discussing real-life ghost stories is available on BBC Sounds