The Ragged School
Charles Thomson goes ghost hunting in Mile End
November 2008, DAVE Magazine
In a disused Victorian classroom in Mile End, heavy rainfall leaks through the decaying roof into strategically placed buckets. Antique furniture, shrouded by dustsheets, looms in the darkness. Streetlights from the road below cast an ominous glow across rows of century-old school desks and at the front of the room stands a stern looking teacher’s podium.
It is 2am on the night after Halloween when I, accompanied by a group of paranormal investigators, enter the classroom at the Ragged School Museum. I have been invited to accompany a group called Essex Paranormal as they attempt to contact the spirit world, after hearing numerous reports of paranormal activity at the Copperfield Road ‘Ragged School’, established in 1877 by Dr Thomas Barnardo.
One half of the building, which educated thousands of poverty stricken children until it closed in 1908, has been turned into a museum. The other half, however, has not been refurbished and is strictly off limits to the general public. But tonight museum bosses have granted Essex Paranormal exclusive access to the entire building. The disused classroom is located on the top floor.
“I don’t like this room,” grimaces Kay, a petite brunette. “It makes me feel sick.” Kay is our psychic for the night. During an earlier vigil in the basement she claimed to observe a spirit darting around the room, and instructed our scribe, David, to write down the name Elizabeth. Kay can’t explain how she receives this information; she says it just comes to her. “It’s like an urge, a strong feeling that I just need to say a particular thing. So tonight I just got a strong feeling that I needed to say the name Elizabeth.”
“I don’t like this room either,” replies Steve, a tall, dark haired man, “I got a lot of activity when I was up here earlier doing base tests.” He turns to me. Base tests, he explains, are readings taken before an investigation begins – a set of measurements against which later results are compared in order to identify any anomalous temperate drops or increases in electro-magnetic activity.
“Yea,” says Kay, wandering around the room, “I get the feeling that some not very nice things happened up here.”
After exploring the room for ten minutes or so, four group members assemble around a table. The rest of us sit, dotted around the room, and watch them begin their séance.
“If there are any spirit beings here in the room with us,” says Steve, “please use all of our collective energies to move the glass and give us a sign. We don’t want to hurt you – we can’t hurt you. We come with peace and love and we just want to learn from you.”
The room remains silent.
Sitting at the table with Steve and Kay are Kev, a self professed Dominic Littlewood lookalike, and an elderly lady called Lynne. In the centre of the table stands an upturned glass. Each of the four has one index finger placed upon it.
Spirits, they had told me earlier, can use us as vessels, channelling our energy into moving the glass on their behalf. This is why the glass does not move unless the group is touching it.
But there was one occasion, Kay was quick to add, when the spirit built up so much energy that the glass broke free and began dancing around the table of its own accord.
Before we began our investigation tonight, Steve invited us to photograph as much or as little as we wished.
“It’s your investigation,” he said, “It’s your night. Take as many pictures as you like.”
But as the four sit around the table I can’t help but wonder whether the constant clicking and flashing isn’t interfering with their attempts to summon the dead. Every time one of the group attempts to contact a spirit they seem to be interrupted by a loud bleep or a prolonged whirring noise. It is almost a quarter of an hour before the glass eventually scrapes slowly and heavily across the table.
“Thank you!” they cry, “Well done!” But the glass remains largely static, moving in short bursts, despite the group’s encouragement. It is a further ten minutes before the glass appears to be moving with ease and the group begin to question the spirit.
To answer in the affirmative, they say, the spirit should move the glass in a circular motion. To reply ‘no’, it should stop the glass. Before long, they have initiated a dialogue.
“Try to keep the glass moving,” Kay says to the spirit, “to build up your energy. The more you move it, the easier it will get.”
The questioning is frustrating as the glass keeps giving contradictory answers. First the spirit claims not to have any connection to the school, but then it decides that it was a pupil here. Then there is confusion over the spirit’s age and gender. At times, the glass stops dead and doesn’t budge for a few minutes, before scraping back into action. Eventually, the group determines that the spirit is that of a 12 year old girl who attended the Ragged School as a pupil. A man hurt her in this room, she says, and his spirit is in the room with us.
“Can you move the glass towards where you are?” asks Kay. The glass stops dead, and then grinds slowly to the left of the table.
“And can you show us where the man is?” The glass slides to the opposite side of the table.
The group exchange concerned looks. A lady to my right says she suddenly feels a cold presence on her left. At this, I realise that I too feel a cold presence between us but chalk it up to the power of suggestion and decide not to say anything.
“I think we should try to pass her over to the other side,” Kay says solemnly, “then try to get the male spirit through on the glass.”
The group nod solemnly in agreement, then join hands, bow their heads and concentrate. Kev begins reciting a speech.
“We call upon our spirit guides to help this young girl cross over to the other side...”
As Kev speaks, the group attempts to harness its collective energy and use it to release the spirit from purgatory.
At the beginning of the investigation we had all stood in a darkened room and been instructed to envisage a white ball of light energising our bodies. This was so the spirits can’t use all of our energy, Steve would later tell me, confiding that he isn’t very good at protection and was once so drained by a spirit that he couldn’t walk by the end of the vigil.
When Kev finishes his speech, the group sits in silence for a few minutes before opening their eyes and nodding at each other.
“I think she’s gone,” says Kay.
“She’s safe now,” agrees Kev.
“That’s really drained my energies,” says Lynne.
They place their fingers cautiously back on top of the glass and try to summon the male presence.
“We’re not here to judge you,” Steve reassures the spirit. “We don’t want to hurt you – we can’t hurt you. We come to you with peace and love. We just want to learn from you, maybe even help you.”
Several minutes pass without success.
“He’s probably too ashamed to talk to us,” mutters Lynne.
“We’re not here to judge you,” Steve hastens to add.
“Well maybe I’d better leave then,” says Lynne, vacating the table and inviting me to take her place.
I take a seat at the table and place a finger on the glass.
“We’re not here to judge you,” says Steve, “we just want to learn from you.”
“Evil bastard!” calls Lynne, from across the room.
After several minutes of pleading, the glass begins to move.
There is a loud bang in the corner of the room and everybody jumps. Phil, Lynne’s son, is sitting against the wall. He says that the bang was a spirit kicking his chair and that he is suddenly experiencing pains in his shoulders. He retreats swiftly to the other side of the room.
As the glass builds momentum I find my finger getting left behind. I speed up. As the glass slows I realise that my arm is still moving - not in an attempt not to push the glass, but in an attempt to keep up with it. I realise how blurred the line is between following the glass and pushing it – I can’t tell whether there was a point at which I stopped trailing and began leading. It is definitely plausible, I decide, that one could unknowingly propel the glass. But how each person would know when to speed and slow, and which direction to push in – this remains, to me, unexplained.
Eventually the glass slows to a halt and the spirit stops responding to questioning. The decision is made to return later and try again. As we leave the room I remain unconvinced either way.
Two hours later we return to the gloomy classroom, having conducted an entirely unsuccessful vigil in the museum area of the Ragged School.
As we take another look around the classroom some take photos and inspect them for orbs – unexplained balls of light – and others take final readings for temperature and electromagnetic activity.
“I don’t understand why this room feels so much colder than the rest of the building,” says Steve. “I know there’s no central heating but the other rooms on this side of the building don’t seem this cold. When I measured earlier this room was colder than all of the others.”
“I know,” says Kay. “It’s so creepy. It’s like there’s a presence in here.”
I take the opportunity to nose through the drawers of the antiquated teacher’s podium but am disappointed to discover that they contain nothing but worksheets for museum visitors. The group opts to hold a vigil in the next room and begins to file through the doorway.
On the way out, Phil shines his torch into a small, doorless office adjacent to the spot where we held our chilly séance.
“Look at this, Steve,” he says. “There’s a window over here that’s slightly ajar.”
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