From the Western Mail, 20th September 1884:
Cwmbran is excited.
In all parts of the village discussion is rife on the probabilities of some supernatural visitations which are reported to have been recently made to the residence of Mr. Place, blast manager of the works. In comparison with this absorbing topic, the Franchise agitation, colloquially speaking, takes a back seat, and, forgetting for the nonce the matters local and Imperial which nightly form the subject of angry argument in the bar parlours of this usually serene village, the public oracle waxes eloquent on supernatural agency in general, and the recent visitations in particular.
Having heard various statements on the subject, I made it my duty last night to make personal inquiries into the matter. This duty involved a rather unpleasant task. In the first place I was a stranger in a strange land, and in the second I was delayed so long that I found it necessary to ride home alone along the cheerless road from Cwmbran to Cardiff. From Cwmbran to the main road to Newport the lanes are as fearfully and wonderfully made as the most old-fashioned of surveyors could imagine; in fact, the whole region of Cwmbran on such a night as last night would compare favourably with the most intricate of mazes in the world. It was a night of darkness, a night on which churchyards must have yawned if Shakespeare was right in saying they ever did yawn—until they made the night hideous, and a night par excellence suited to the consideration of superstition and things supernatural.
The moon withheld her light, and the only indication that Cwmbran was neither dead nor sleeping was an occasional flickering from a cottage window. Under these circumstances, and imbued with a calm and curious spirit, I pursued my inquiries. I had previously learnt that at a late hour in the evening numbers of the villagers formed themselves into groups and visited the house of Mr. Place in order to attest the truth of the rumours; and with a desire to make myself "one of the crowd" I kept my eyes open for the likely parties. I failed to find any, and was consequently obliged to hire a guide, in the person of a youth I picked up near the station, and wend my way with him along circuitous paths—including canal paths and muddy lanes—to Mr. Place's residence, which is situated about three hundred yards beyond the blast furnaces, in a lather lonely part of what the villagers are pleased to call "the suburbs."
The house adjoins two or three others, and bears the appearance of being a highly desirable and comfortable place of residence. The current story is that periodical visits are made to the rear part by the spirit of a man dressed in a black coat and vest, a wideawake hat, and moleskin trousers. The form in which it is said to manifest its presence is by tapping at the kitchen window, and blowing a whistle. These manifestations have been frequent, but by only two persons—a female servant and a policeman—has the form been seen. Regarding the matter superficially, I was inclined, with others, to treat the matter as a kind of hoax, and to think that the servant and the policeman had been fooled by a "follower."
The searching inquiries I made somewhat changed my mind.
But dropping my personal opinion, I will proceed to relate what I gathered, leaving the further investigation of the matter to that philosophical body the Society for Psychical Research. A subject more worthy of occupying their great minds could not be found. It seems that the supernatural visits have been going on for the past three years, and that, although until recently no decided action has been taken by the occupier of the house, they have caused him considerable annoyance. Three or four months ago he engaged a new servant — a somewhat dull and ingenuous maid of twenty-six. She, like the subject of Edgar Allan Poe's "Raven," heard a tapping at the chamber door, and for a time thought it was that and nothing more.
Prompted by curiosity, she one night ventured to peep out, and there, according to her story, she saw the form of a man, as already described. Moved by this new feature of the case, Mr. Place sought the assistance of the police. For several nights Police-Constable Lawrence watched the premises with a vigilance worthy of a better cause; and on one night—last Wednesday week—about half-past eleven, had his curiosity satisfied by obtaining an ocular demonstration of the rumour. He stoutly affirms that after hearing the a tapping and whistling he actually saw the form of a man approach the window and peer through. With the valour of a policeman he first threw his staff at the object—and then fainted. On recovering he declared that directly he threw his staff the object vanished.
On another occasion he sat up with the servant and awaited the coming of the spirit. It came, and from the outside went through the usual performance. The constable and the girl immediately repaired to the door, where the girl declares that she again saw the form, although to the constable it was invisible. Now comes a remarkable part of the story. With her hand clasped in that of the constable—" so the legend runneth; so the old men tell"—she commenced conversing with the spirit.
"I am a young woman," (having been asked by the spirit who she was), "and if you want me you must come to me. What do you want ?" A pause. "What does he say?" remarked the constable. "He says he wants to cut my b- head off," replied the girl. "You won't do anything of the sort," she continued, and if you come here I'll cut yours off." So ended the séance for the night.
There is another remarkable version. About a month ago a young man came down from London to visit some friends who live in the house adjoining that of Mr. Place. He occupied the back bedroom, and about three o'clock one morning was awakened by what he thought was a noise on the roof. Rising up, he saw a form at the window. He immediately sought his revolver, and fired several shots, after which the form disappeared. Upon these statements being bruited about they aroused a great curiosity, and parties began to visit the house at a late hour in the hope of receiving the same ocular proof as the policeman declares he did. It was then Mr. Place felt the annoyance and caused the police to interfere.
I should state that, with the object of proving whether the tapping was caused by a corporeal being, the officer one night placed across the window a large board loaded with broken bottles, etc. He felt satisfied that it was impossible to get at the window without removing the board, and causing a loud noise; but still the tapping came, and the whistle blew. So much for the stories I picked up last night. Prompted by the same curiosity as the villagers, I went to the house and watched anxiously for the spirit. I watched until I began to sneeze, and acting on this timely forewarning of an incipient cold I left. It may be that I was too early or that it was not the spirit's night, out. Anyhow, it failed to appear, and I am, therefore, obliged simply to record what I heard, and not what I saw. I know from my professional experience, in courts of law—as a journalist, and not as a member of the legal profession—that this is not evidence, and that an affidavit from the spirit itself would receive the court's —I mean my readers'—most serious attention.
Still, I would ask the reader to have some respect for the honesty and veracity of the constable and others from whom I obtained my information, and patiently await farther developments.
Mr. John Place was born in Merthyr in 1825, and is listed in the 1881 census as a widower living at Old Moulders House with two nieces, Mary Place Cole (b. 1856) and Alice A Cole (b. 1871). He was the blast furnace manager at Cwmbran, and before that had served for many years as a furnace manager for the Plymouth Iron Company. He seems to have been an active figure in local life; a quick newspaper search shows him as a member of the local school board, relief committee, and he was said to be 'in his customary genial humour, and an entertainment in himself' while chairing and adjudicating local Eisteddfodau.
In June 1883 John married again to Sarah Ann Haines (b. 1844). Sarah gave birth to a son, John Bertie, on May 17th 1884; the baptism took place on August 7th. By this time they're living in Green Hill Villa - maybe Greenhill Rd in Forgehammer? Anyway, that's a lot of upheaval in a short amount of time, especially when you factor in that niece Mary was about to marry a local farm steward, Andrew Murray, on October 4th.
In the middle ages people believed that a ghostly visitation brought death and suffering, and this case seems to bear it out. John Bertie was followed by two sisters, Florence Helena (28/05/1885) and Nora May (c. September 1886), but died aged just 2 in c. October 1886. Nora May died in early 1888, and it wasn't long before John Place himself died. His widow, Sarah Ann, died in January 1897.
Florence's life, at least, has a happier ending. She married a John Powell and, in the 1911 census, together they were running the Marine Hotel in Southerndown, which would later become the Sunshine Home for Blind Babies.
Finally, a word on poor police constable Lawrence. He may have fainted at the sight of the ghost, but he managed to redeem himself on 4th May 1885:
I'm guessing this - Osborne Lawrence (b.1861) - is our guy. He's married in the 1891 census and living in Trevethin.