Certainly at least five Symposium attendees felt that they did, and conveyed so to John Plews our host, and myself. Out of respect for the privacy of those who shared their observations, I won’t be posting them here – but please do feel free to comment on this post, anonymously if you wish, or to email me privately via the contact form. It would be great to collect more stories about one of Highgate’s oldest ghosts, especially in context of a day when her name was stated publicly to the audience at an event which most certainly could have stirred up the spirits of the past. Call it autosuggestion, call it ghost-raising, but some strange things seemed to have occurred on Sunday 19th. Let us hear about them!
Who is this Mother Marnes, you may ask? No one knows for certain who she ‘WAS’, but many claim to have experienced her presence in the rooms above The Gatehouse public house. The upper storeys are now largely occupied by the theatre Upstairs at the Gatehouse, where the Highgate Vampire Symposium was held on the 19th July. Mother Marnes as she is known today is very familiar to staff and actors at the theatre, which was established by John and Katie Plews around twenty years ago. But recorded reports of strange manifestations upstairs in the core of the original building can be dated to 1947, and Mother Marnes’ 17th century appearance suggests that there may have been an unbroken line of similar sightings which remain unrecorded – or so far undiscovered.
As John will tell sincere enquirers after a little prompting, there are two conflicting tales regarding this grey-clad, female apparition, and both involve murder. One version of this purely oral Highgate tradition holds that Mother Marnes died in the 1600s (or less commonly the 1700s), during a robbery occasioned by her status as a relatively wealthy widow. The other suggests that she was a witness or a falsely accused suspect during a corrupt murder trial held on the premises during the days when a part of the building was utilised as a court house.
After collating many first hand accounts of Mother Marnes’ activities in this ancient building whilst researching Haunted Highgate, I am personally inclined to think that if she was a witness at any murder trial it most likely pertained to her own death – if that makes sense?!. But that is merely my opinion.
During many lively interviews with mid-1960s Gatehouse landlord Jack O’Connell, who lived above the pub for several years, I learned about the footsteps which were frequently heard passing from the village end of the bar ceiling to the centre. During Jack’s tenure the raised voices of a man and a woman, accompanied by clattering knives, were heard in what was then a kitchen and is now the box office, on one occasion by two policemen.
Similarly the agent who managed the sale of the upper storeys of The Gatehouse to the Plews / Ovation Productions was surprised to find the old door which once led from the main stairs to said kitchen resound with loud knockings upon being locked by himself. I was fascinated to learn from one of the technicians who assisted me at the Symposium that he and a colleague, working alone in the theatre very late one night and fairly recently, were terrified when the main doors to the theatre some two yards away from the now-removed door repeatedly banged open and shut of their own volition.
John Plews has further furnished me with accounts of a woman fitting Mother Marnes’ description who has been seen hanging out of a nearby window facing North Hill as if silently screaming for help. He also reports complaints from the adjacent flats of a heavy object being dragged around in the vicinity of the adjacent Green Room at 3am – a time when his burglar alarms were in the past regularly set off before one particular sensor was de-activated (after being replaced to no avail). And let us not forget witness Tony Abbott’s 1966 account of a “Guy Fawkes-type hatted” man who attempted to strangle him in one of the rooms leading off the theatre (then a ballroom), an apparition which seems to have also made a spate of appearances in the 1980s in the dining area downstairs adjacent to the old stables (now beer garden).
Do we appear to have various aspects of a long-forgotten murder being played out over and over again, like a video-replay? A murderer approaching the upper storeys by night, breaking open the doors, rousing Mother Marnes from her sleep – the sounds of his violent entry drawing her towards the vestibule, a violent tussle leading to her screaming desperately for help towards silent and sleeping Highgate High Street before her light was finally snuffed out? It seems possible.
But from speaking with Jack O’Connell I learned that his children frequently saw Mother Marnes in their rooms at night, in the area now occupied by the auditorium, and in the various corridors upstairs, invariably wearing a heavy grey dress and a broad-brimmed hat, and seemingly interacting and aware of their presence. I also enjoyed learning from John Plews about the shock of one of his actors upon encountering Mother Marnes sitting on a plastic chair, and the horror of another when he learned that she had apparently followed him into the private toilet on the first floor! Not to mention the frequent disappearance and reappearance of actors’ shoes from the dressing room – which lays directly upon the trajectory of the mysterious footsteps.
These discrepancies are what make Mother Marnes, for me, one of the most intriguing cases I have ever researched. Not only is it rare to encounter the ghosts of both murderer and victim in one haunting, but apparently sentient ghosts do not tend to engage in replays, to my knowledge. Can a sentient ghost observe their own insentient recording? It is a fascinatingly awful prospect to consider. Equally, what is it about this ancient centre of Highgate inhabitation, situated upon its crossroads, straddling ancient parish boundaries and once attached to an imposing tollgate separating one dominion from another, that enables it to seemingly act as psychic flypaper?
And where does the spectre on the balcony, reported in 1947 and 1967 fit in? His appearance makes him harder to date, limited merely to straggly, centrally parted hair and a smock. He also appears able to interact, uttering cryptically to one landlord as he turned off the last lights at the end of the night “You’re taking him with you.” The unfortunate George Sample was taken to hospital suffering from shock, and took his barman – who fell violently down the stairs after witnessing the same spectre soon afterwards – with him when he quit The Gatehouse for good. Just how many ghosts inhabit the Gatehouse? And just how aware of us are they, how much of the time?
Regarding the real-life circumstances of Mother Marnes, I find a Martha Marnes (un-murdered), becoming the victim of a robbery in 1685, one of her assailants being tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to transportation, but unfortunately the location of neither victim nor crime is given. It may be a weak link, but it did raise the possibility for me that perhaps ‘Mother’ is a corruption of a forename, and Martha would make perfect sense. The shift to the prefix ‘Mother’ could perhaps be explained by the relatively local to Highgate traditions of Old Mother Red / Black Cap, and even Old Mother Shipton via her Highgate-related prophecy, viz. the archetype of the crone as played out in Camden and south Highgate (Archway to the rest of us 😉 ) But we will most likely never know. Much as we will probably never know if poor Martha Marnes went on to be robbed again, but did not live to tell the tale.
What we do know is that the tradition of Mother Marnes remains fervent in Highgate, and with the theatrical world’s fondness for and general acceptance of ghosts and other superstitions, she does not appear likely to be relegated to the past from which she reaches out any time soon.
Did YOU see or sense anything strange at the Symposium? If so, please do feel free to share below!
~ Della Farrant