Pembroke Street in Oxford is not an obvious place for hauntings. It boasts a mixed row of houses on either side, probably 17th century in origin, together with the undistinguished building that houses exhibitions of modern art and the back entrance of Marks and Spencer. The only obvious mystery in this street is the lack of letterboxes, doorbells and keyholes on many of the houses on the southern side. This is clear evidence of college accommodation. In many areas of the city the colleges have purchased adjacent homes and incorporated them into the college as student accommodation. With this comes an extraordinary reversal, the original fascias of the houses are now actually the backs of them. Internally these particular houses now face onto a new quadrangle belonging to Pembroke College.
However, our tale does not concern Pembroke or any of the nearby colleges. It actually relates to an old people’s home that was in operation until quite recently on the northern side of Pembroke Street, not far from the St Aldates junction and almost in view of Christ Church.
Our witness in this case is Mr Rex Henderson who lived and worked in the home and his story is based on various reports including that recorded in Oxford and County Ghost Stories compiled by John Richardson.
Mr Henderson, what was your function in the old people’s home?
A bit of everything really. The wife did the cooking and washing, I looked after everything else: maintenance, cleaning, putting out the rubbish and laying out the dead ‘uns.
What does “laying out” entail?
Oh, you know, stripping them down, cleaning them up, dressing them in their Sunday best. The undertakers will do it, but our folk are like family, and laying out should be done by some one that knows you, don’t you think?
I’ve never thought much about it, it sounds an unpleasant job.
Not really, not when it’s a friend, and most of the old folk were our friends. The worst laying out I ever did was on old Vernon.
Was he the one…?
Yes that was Vernon. Fine old chap. Never gave us any trouble. Liked a little joke now and then, he once put a dead mouse on his plate and said that he had found it in the food. The wife was quite upset until he started laughing. Then she started laughing too, infectious like. She liked old Vernon. He used to walk slowly around the place, nodding and smiling to anyone he passed. Appetite like a horse though, but then he was so big you see. We didn’t mind him eating. Most of them ate like little birds; it was a waste giving them food most times. But Vernon would eat anything the wife made, and he’d see to the leftovers. I reckon that he weighed well over twenty stone when he died.
And you had to lay him out?
Yes, he died at the table you know. Finished his dinner, sat back, belched very loudly, like a pig, then died. That wasn’t at all like him – the belching I mean. He was a gentleman where that sort of thing was concerned. So there he was, slumped in his chair just like he was asleep. I knew he wasn’t though. You could tell by his face. It went grey very quickly. He had a merry, reddish face. After the belch it sort of crumpled and turned grey. I rang for the doctor but I knew it would be no good. You get to know these things when you work with the old folks for a few years.
Anyway the doctor pronounced him dead, made out the certificate and left me to it. Problem was that I couldn’t move him. The room I used to lay ‘em out in was on the same floor as the main hall where we eat, so that wasn’t so bad. But I just couldn’t lift him. Of course all the other old ‘uns had gone. Nobody wants to sit with a corpse. Reminds them that they haven’t got long to go either I suppose. Not that they would have been much help anyway, they were all far too frail. So I tried to drag him along in the chair. That was hopeless. It almost fell on me when I tilted it. Then I tried to ease him out of the thing but I couldn’t get a grip and he was just too heavy – dead weight you see. So I had a think and decided to ask Eddy from the Old Tom around the corner to give me a hand.
Eddy was more than happy. He wasn’t a big bloke, but he was as strong as an ox. We soon had Vernon out of that chair, then dragged him along the floor to the room. I’d already put the oilcloth on the table so we heaved him up there and I was all ready to start work. I asked Eddy if he’d stay and give me a hand but he had to get back to the pub, which is just as well since Vernon and Eddy didn’t really know each other.
God it was hard work getting his clothes off. He was such a big man you see.
And he sighed a lot whilst I was doing it. They do you know. Sometimes you think
they’ve come back to life, but it’s just the air coming out of them as you move them
around. Once I’d stripped him off I gave him a good wash down. He wasn’t too bad.
Some of ‘em let go a bit when they pass away, but not Vernon. For all his bulk he
held it all together. Then I went to his room to get his best togs. I like to dress
them up well, I know it doesn’t much matter to them -
He looked fine when I’d dressed him up. A bit grey of course and his face looked strained as if he had died in some pain, but he certainly looked smart.
Well by the end of all that I was as tired as a cat that’s been chasing rats all day. I struggled off down the corridor past the main hall and got ready for bed. I always slept down there you see. The wife liked to sleep up at the top, but I slept on the ground floor. Means I was always on hand if anything happened and besides she always went to bed before me. It was convenient for both of us you know.
Yes – go on.
Well, I thought I’d be asleep as soon as I got my head on that pillow, I was that tired. But sometimes sleep just won’t come. It’s as if you’re waiting for something yet you don’t know what it is. Every time you start to nod off something in your head wakes you up. Anyway I couldn’t sleep. Then I heard the shuffling.
Yes. A noise as if someone was coming along the corridor, dragging their feet. A sort of “shhhh, shhhh” noise. It was gradually getting louder. Usually I would have jumped out of bed and been in the corridor in a flash. But that night I couldn’t do it. The tiredness I suppose. So I listened and told myself it was nothing. You can always imagine things in those old houses. It’s as if the house itself is going to sleep, creaking and groaning like an old dog that can’t get comfortable. But this noise was getting louder all the time even though it was still that soft “shhhh, shhhh” sound. Then it stopped. Just like that, suddenly stopped. And I was certain that whatever was making the sound was outside my door! I stared at the door handle, my eyes were so wide open that they hurt. And then I saw the handle move. Just a bit at first, but it was a lever handle and I was certain that it had moved. Then it moved again. Just at this moment I had a thought that will sound crazy to you, but to me it was deadly serious.
What did you think?
I though that if I saw this thing, this shuffler, that was opening my door I would die. Yes I know it sounds silly now, but it wasn’t then. I was scared, really scared, more scared than I had ever been in my life.