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Ghosts of the past: a Victorian horror that haunted a house of tragedy in Norwich

It is a house that has been lost to time and which once stood as a silent witness to the

unspeakable horrors that unfolded within its walls: a murder that sickened Norwich.

But can walls really retain memories of past events, in particular those that are highly

emotional or tragic? If so, it may be a mercy that the house in question, close to Bishopgate in Norwich, has long-since been demolished.

Our story begins when a curious tale about a haunted house in Norwich was told in – of all

places – the Falkirk Herald of December 1869 in a page of collected stories of strange

happenings. An unnamed author writes: “Why should old houses so frequently have the reputation of being haunted? This was the question asked myself ten years ago as I hired a house with this evil name in the city of Norwich.

“Shortly after I took the house, however, a curious series of events began. At first, servants

complained of noises in the house. Next, a friend came in, and remarked - "I say, X, what a

dreadfully dark staircase! Just the sort of house, this, for murder!"

The author lived in the house in Tabernacle Street in Norwich for eight years until his

landlord ended his tenancy and asked him to make alternative arrangements. A deep sleeper, he was surprised to wake in the middle of the night in a start with “a sense of expectancy”.

He added: “A shadow, as of a coming of the unseen, was cast over my spirit and chilled it,

without the tangible or sensible evidence of one bodily organ.

“No fear assailed me. Surprised, expectant, I listened. The ear had been roused, and

pulsated with an anxiety to catch the earliest sound, nothing more.”

It was a bright, moonlit night and as the author looked round the room, he realised he could

hear something coming up the stairs. “My heart gave one bound—of excitement merely—when the brain analysed the sounds. What were they? Not a booted tread, nor a stealthy step, nor the creaking ascent of a heavy weight, nor the trip of a light woman, nor tinkle of little feet, but pat, pat, pat in what musicians call crescendo.

“Imagination never once depicted the owner of the feet, nor tortured me either with the

ghastly or the terrible. Account for it how you will, I did not stir. But here, for the first time, I

became conscious that, silent and motionless I had been, something had woke my wife as

well as myself.”

The steps continued towards the couple’s door. Beside him, the author’s wife quaked with terror and her fear became contagious as he realised “…it will kill my wife with fear if anyone enters our room.”

Suddenly, the handle on the door of the bedroom turned. The author jumped from the bed, rushed to the fireplace and seized a poker.

“Then, the sound of breathing—not our own—came from behind the still closed door. In

flash I speculated on the delay. The man—l say man, for I fancied I had him in my mind's

eye, and had endued him with all the accessories of the burglar —is listening, waiting,

alarmed, undecided, or is ignorant whether, small I am, I am bold and will fight.

“I smiled grimly, as the thought flashed on, we will soon settle that, and perhaps him.”

The author opened the door and, when he saw nothing, his uplifted weapon fell to the

ground and he realised that whatever had been at his door was now in the room next to his

and his wife’s. He then recalled a tale told to him by a relative who had stayed in the spare room and who had tried to untangle a blind at the window by standing on a chair to adjust the strings. Suddenly, the room became icy cold and she felt the presence of someone else in the room but was too frightened to turn and see her silent companion. Feeling that she was about to be attacked, she screamed and a servant raced to her aid, pointing out that the room had a terrible smell: that of death.

The author admits the room had often smelled of something terrible: “I cannot be mistaken.

My profession brings me face to face with death too often for me to be deceived,” he said.

“Surrounded as I have been with corpses in every stage of dissolution, I am not likely to err

in the detection of odour familiar to my nostrils.”

Two other people encountered the strange presence. One visitor was so frightened that she ran into the author’s room in the middle of the night to seek refuge with his wife. She had heard “…a rustling female dress pass close beside her, and enter the suspected room, of whose ill-repute she had never heard.

It was only after sharing the stories about the house that its occupants discovered that it

formed part of the same dwelling that had once been lived in by Mr and Mrs Sheward, the former who had murdered the latter in a most terrible fashion.

Poor Martha Sheward had her throat cut by husband William in an upstairs bedroom and

was then subjected to an horrific butchering post-mortem. William disposed of his wife’s body in chunks across Norwich, many of which were later discovered and taken to the city’s Guildhall to be pickled in a bucket while the crime was investigated. No one linked the body parts with the disappearance of Martha, and it would be 18 years until a guilt-wracked William admitted what he done, a crime he paid for with his life.

The author of the letter about Tabernacle Street concluded: “Has not my reader already

drawn the conclusion, that some unknown link bound that little room with the memory of

the poor murdered woman?”

The belief that houses or locations can retain memories of past events is often associated

with the concept of residual hauntings in paranormal and supernatural lore. The Stone Tape Theory is a hypothesis in paranormal research that suggests that inanimate materials, such as stone and wood, can absorb and store energy. According to this theory, the stored energy may later be released, leading to manifestations like ghostly apparitions or paranormal phenomena.

The term "Stone Tape" originates from the idea that certain minerals in stone, like quartz,

might have the ability to record and play back events like a natural equivalent of a tape recorder. The idea is that the energy from intense emotional experiences, such as a tragedy or a violent incident, can become embedded in the environment. Therefore, individuals who subscribe to this belief suggest that certain locations might "hold" the memories of past happenings, and under certain conditions, people may perceive or experience elements of those events.

Does this corner of Norwich store the energy of that terrible day? And has destroying the

house destroyed the energy…?


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