Flickering lights, radios and lights switching themselves on and off, impossible footprints and spectral snatching…something very strange was happening at Continental Shoe Repairs

For today’s tale, and as Weird Norfolk is enjoying its dark summer holiday, we step just outside the county border to Wisbech, just a mile or two west from the Norfolk border.

It was December 1963 – long before films such as The Exorcist and Poltergeist popularised mischievous or demonic earth-bound spirits – but the boundary between the known and the unknown was thin on Wisbech High Street.

There, something was making its presence very clear: a one-legged poltergeist that scratched, snatched and switched appliances on and off, even when there was no power supply.

“I don’t mind admitting that I am scared stiff…” shop manager Bill Hyam told the EDP.

We tend to think of hauntings taking place in crumbling old manor houses or castles with creaking stairs, or romantic ruins: but this took place in a shoe repair shop in the Fens.

For a wonderful step back in Fenland time, visit highstreetwisbech.org.uk, a Fenland District Council Heritage Lottery Fund project which has documented the history of the street since 2013.

The site gives a detailed history of number 23 High Street, a four-storey Grade II building which dates from the early 18th century, but was given a new façade in the 19th century.

Previous residents include a silversmith, grocers and by the 1960s it was Continental Shoe Repairs: floors one and two were stock rooms, the ground floor was a workshop and the basement was the reception and sales area.

Run by manager Mr Hyam, 31 with two staff, Margaret Roper, 20, and Patrick Lee, 17, the shop was preparing for a last-minute rush before Christmas. But the silent partner in the business wasn’t keen on offering a helping hand.

An EDP report from December 21 read: “…behind a window which looks down on the lights, tinsel and Christmas trees there have been happenings so strange and inexplicable that the staff of the shop below have become very frightened people.

“It was several months ago that those working on the premises of Continental Shoe Repairs first began to hear unusual noises in the shop.

“There were footsteps on stairs at the rear of the premises which are never used and in rooms above the shop.

“When the staff went to investigate, they could find no one there…”

Mr Hyam initially put the noises down to working in an old building: but age does not cause radios and lights to switch themselves on and off.

Wisbech shopkeepers in the 1960s were made of stern stuff: Mr Hyam unplugged the lights in order to stop the needless waste of electricity.

The lights still flicked on and off, regardless of the fact there was no power.

“Even when this was happening, I still tended to make a joke out of it,” Mr Hyam told the EDP, “but I ceased to think it was funny when a drill was torn out of my hands”.

The incident with the drill was so unsettling that Mr Hyam closed his shop and went home.

“I never used to believe in poltergeists, but I am convinced that we have one here” he said.

After staff were sent home early, the assistants in the shop next door heard the sound of footsteps coming from inside Continental Shoe Repairs.

Looking back over his notes, Mr Hyam noted that the worst of the activity was when there was a full moon – paranormal investigators have long thought that ghostly activity increases during a lunar cycle.

In a move that the Scooby Doo team would have applauded, Mr Hyam sprinkled flour on the floor of the top floor room – at which point something even stranger happened.

The report says: “Within a few days of the flour being put down, there appeared in it five footprints, well away from the door, leading from a window to a fireplace.

“All of the prints are of a bare right foot belonging to either a child, or more probably, a small woman. There was not a single left footprint. In addition to the prints there are parallel scratch marks in the flour.

“Yesterday My Hyam found two stockings, both right foot, in the chimney.”

Another member of staff, Margaret Roper, said that although she had managed to get used to hearing footsteps, the discovery of footprints had really frightened her.

“All the back doors to the premises are barred and the windows at the front are securely locked and I don’t mind admitting that I am scared stiff” Mr Hyam said.

The other member of the staff, Patrick Lee, was so disturbed that he would no longer venture up the stairs while Colin Cook, who owned the butchers’ shop next door, said he had seen the shop’s lights switching on and off throughout the night.

Keen to see an end to the ghostly goings-on, Mr Hyam contacted the Rev T.F Butler, assistant curate of St Augustine’s to see if he could help.

“I don’t know enough about it yet to give my views on what is causing this,” Mr Butler said, “but Mr Hyam and his staff are obviously genuinely frightened people and I intend to have another talk with them before deciding what to do”.

Tony Cornell, an investigator from the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research, arranged to visit the shop in December for the first of several visits.

Knowing the area was riddled with underground tunnels, his initial thoughts were that the blocked-up tunnels could be causing the knocking noises due to water pressure from the nearby River Nene.

By this time, the national newspapers had picked up in the story. On December 22, the Daily Mirror’s headline was: “One-legged ghost told to hop it.”

Cornell said the report was “unqualified idiocy”.

Returning on Valentine’s Day, Mr Cornell was given a list of new phenomena that had occurred at the shop: workshop doors slammed and toilets flushed by their own accord, lights flickered, boxes moved, and most concerningly of all, two witnesses reporting seeing or feeling an entity.

James Goodrum, Margaret’s boyfriend, claimed to have seen an apparition on the staircase while Mr Hyam said he’d had “a vivid impression of something jumping on his back in January”.

Additionally, other witnesses spoke of how during a town-wide power cut, the only building to be illuminated was the shoe repair shop.

A full and thorough investigation was held: all windows were sealed, tape recorders were set up on each floor along with thermometers and strain gauges and expansion gauges to check if low or high tide effected the building.

Weighted wire was stretched across the second floor to which a pencil was attached which reached a piece of paper on the ground, granulated sugar was left on the steps, handrails dusted with soot and there were cameras on all floors.

Persistent taps and dull noises heard at 2.10am and 3.45am could not be explained and caused two of the party to hastily say they would not go to the top floor alone.

Cornell’s findings were few, but he did point out that hauntings are often sporadic while also sharply adding that if there are attention-seeking entities, what better time to show themselves than when the press and TV cameras are in situ?

Reports came to a swift close after this last investigation: poltergeist activity is typically short-lived, with manifestations lasting an average of five months and no more than a few years. To almost quote horror film Poltergeist, yes they were here, but where are they now?