Weird Norfolk: The ghost of 19 Magdalen Street, Norwich
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Does the spirit of a murdered woman still roam the rooms of a shop on Magdalen Street, or has she finally found the peace she was denied in life?
It looks like an ordinary shop but behind the façade a different story is told, one of typewriters worked by invisible hands, floating paper, spectral mists in corridors, eerie footsteps and the presence of a spirit whose untimely end in the attic has left her in ghostly limbo.
Built more than 300 years ago, number 19 Magdalen Street has a rich history which has seen it serve as a boot and shoe shop, a wine and spirit merchant, an electrical equipment store, a charity headquarters, a travel agents and a pet shop specialising in reptiles. But our story begins when the unassuming building was one of Norwich's houses of ill repute.
In 1860, number 19 was where drink was taken downstairs and, to put it delicately, adult pleasures enjoyed upstairs. It is unknown whether resident ghost Sara was a 'working girl' or if she was coerced into the attic by an aggressive customer, but the encounter led to a violent struggle and her death by strangulation.
Some stories say her murderer was brought to justice and hanged, others that he walked away from the scene of the crime leaving Sara caught between two worlds.
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In the decades that followed her death, number 19 has passed through a series of owners, many of whom shared hair-raising tales of sharing the building with an unquiet spirit.
Eerie footsteps were heard, phantom fingers worked empty typewriter keyboards, door handles were rattled, cold draughts appeared from nowhere and there would be occasional sightings of Sara at the top of a long-since disappeared flight of stairs.
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Radio Rentals traded from the building and were the first to note a series of unusual events – unaccountable footsteps, slamming doors, grey smoke appearing from nowhere in a corridor – and the firm's intrepid manager took the decision to stay for a night to try to get to the bottom of the spectral squatter. Sara chose not to make a guest appearance.
In January 1973, Pat Symons, who was a secretary at Radio Rentals, wrote a letter to the then Eastern Evening News: 'Poor, poor Sara! If it wasn't bad enough being 'foully done to death' in a pub of ill repute, now the poor soul can't even find any understanding. For two years I worked as a secretary at 19, Magdalen Street…on many, many occasions I was the only person in the whole locked-up building.
'There I would sit, tapping away at my typewriter on the first floor front with an empty boarded-up shop on one side and a 'closed on Thursday afternoon' on the other. Oh yes, Sara was certainly around, footsteps, draughts and all (but no clanking chains) but even though I don't think I would have run screaming, she didn't favour me with a personal, full frontal visitation. Pity really, we could have had a nice chat together.'
Charity Oxfam used the building as a city headquarters from 1972 and blamed Sara for a sharp decline in volunteers: on one occasion all the women's garments from a bin bag of donated clothes had been taken out and neatly folded despite being in a locked room which no one could access.
The six-strong Borderline Science Investigation Group from Lowestoft spent a summer night in number 19 to see if the ghost would manifest.
Using high-tech equipment, the group kept vigil from 9pm to 4am. An account in the Lantern, a local magazine published in the 1970s which was dedicated to the paranormal, says: 'We did not have to wait long before all the lights in the front showroom were unexplainedly (sic) turned off and the source of light had to be physically reinstated. A little while later I was in the upstairs toilet when to my astonishment the originally locked door swung violently open with no apparent physical explanation, but no-one was there to substantiate this. As if this wasn't strange enough, a tape recorder picked up a woman's voice saying something like 'we know you're there' or 'who's there?''
The Lantern adds that a year later, Sara made her most daring appearance to date, causing an icy draught to 'paralyse' the Oxfam manager from the waist down, stopping him in his tracks as he watched a rack of clothes inexplicably moving in front of him. A blueish cloud gathered force above the rack before it floated out of the room and glided up the stairs. Understandably shaken, the manager called in help from mediums who said they had made contact with a spirit who had felt a connection to a dress on the rack.
A report in the Eastern Daily Press in 2006 includes an interview with Brian Roberts, who had bought number 19 at auction unaware of its ghostly past but who planned to restore original features such as a flint and brick wall and roof beams.
The report mentions a séance held by Oxfam staff and contact with the Bishop of Norwich to talk about an exorcism. But Mr Roberts, who said visitors asked to see the loft where Sara allegedly met her demise, said that he was more fascinated than frightened by the spectral stories.
'I have sat in here in the evenings and I don't sense anything,' he said at the time, 'I only believe it if it happens to me. If it was a violent ghost I wouldn't be so happy but she is meant to be friendly. I even say goodbye to her when I walk out the door. And I was going to put a bundle of clothes out to see if she would sort them.'
Weird Norfolk spoke to the current tenants of number 19 who told us that they'd heard of the ghost and that a previous tenant had apparently opened up the shop one morning only to find the mirrors there all turned round to the wall while another had come in to find all the cabinets taped up. They had been told of an exorcism in the shop in the 1980s.
The tenants said they hadn't personally experienced anything strange at the Magdalen Street address…other than the time that a customer was in the back room of the shop and, without warning, suddenly ran out at speed, as white as– well, it would be foolish not to draw the comparison – a ghost.
You can view back issues of the 'Lantern' here.
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