Canadian historian Christopher Laursen reflects on Peter Underwood’s investigation of the famous Tulip Staircase photograph taken by a retired Canadian clergyman on vacation in 1966.
by Christopher Laursen
The Queen’s House in Greenwich, England was never known to be haunted. There were a few vague tales staff knew of disembodied footsteps and some people getting a “feeling of malevolence,” but nothing more. Such tales would not impress retired United Church minister Rev. Ralph W. Hardy and his wife in any case. They were not at all interested in ghosts.
On Sunday, June 16, 1966, the couple were visiting the seventeenth-century villa from White Rock, British Columbia, Canada. “After visiting many famous and historic houses in London, they found they had little time before returning home, so, on the spur of the moment, they decided to go to Greenwich, where they visited the Cutty Sark, explored the National Maritime Museum and then turned to the beautiful Queen’s House where Rubens, the Flemish painted whom they admired, had often stayed,” famed paranormal investigator Peter Underwood wrote in his excellent 1994 book Nights in Haunted Houses. The Queen’s House maintained royal usage from its construction until 1806, when it was handed over to the Royal Naval College and eventually to the National Maritime Museum.
Mrs. Hardy was particularly drawn to the spiralled Tulip Staircase, which was closed to the public with a barrier and ‘no admittance’ sign. “Mrs. Hardy had seen a photograph of the staircase in a book before their visit to England and she really liked it; finding themselves inside The Queen’s House, she immediately decided to obtain a photograph of it for herself,” wrote Underwood. Rev. Hardy took a picture from below the staircase upwards while his wife watched to ensure no one would obstruct the picture. It was an unusual perspective of the staircase, for it was impossible to photograph the staircase from the same angle as Mrs. Hardy had seen in the book and “she had to content herself with a shot of a small section of the stairway.” There was certainly nothing unusual about this moment of tourist bliss.
Returning home to Canada, the Hardys had their film developed, and one night decided to entertain friends with the slides of their trip to England. “When the one of the Tulip Staircase was shown, everyone noticed that there appeared to be a shrouded figure on the stairs and clutching the stairway rail!” Underwood wrote. Later analysis revealed two, perhaps even three, figures on the staircase. Many have likened the figures to monks ascending the staircase in a hurry. The Hardys showed the slide to their cousin, a member of England’s Ghost Club, and the case ended up in Underwood’s care.
The infamous Tulip Staircase photograph to this day remains one of the most inexplicable images ever taken.
In May of the following year, the National Maritime Museum’s photographer, Brian Tremain, corresponded with the Hardys, who gave him the details of their camera equipment, a Zeiss Ikon Contina camera with a Zavar Anastigmat lens fitted with a skylight haze filter. They used Kodachrome X K2 daylight 35-mm film with a speed of 64. They did not know for certain the length of exposure for the picture, however Rev. Hardy had to rest the camera, held by hand, against a door jamb to prevent blurring since it was darker inside the house. “There is no possibility of double exposure with this camera,” wrote Underwood, who was very thorough in his investigation to determine the authenticity of the photograph. The investigator had Kodak and other photographic experts review it, and they always gave him the same opinion that there was no trickery or manipulation involved and “the only logical explanation from the photographic point of view was that there must have been someone on the stairway.”
But no one was on the stairs at the time. Especially no one wearing robe-like clothing as is seen in the photographic print. Underwood added that “museum attendants, there to keep an eye on the valuable paintings and the building in general, are understandably strict and firm and would certainly not countenance any dressing-up or playing about in The Queen’s House and certainly no climbing the Tulip Staircase.”
The Ghost Club séance held in 1967 included, clockwise from the left, Hector McQueen, Margery McQueen, Peter Underwood, Dr. Peter Hilton-Rowe, Richard Howard and (with his back to the camera) a sound engineer.
On the night of Saturday, June 24, 1967, seven members of the Ghost Club spent the night at The Queen’s House, complete with infrared still cameras, movie cameras, audio recording devices and thermometers. They sealed off sections of the house, smeared petroleum jelly on a portion of the staircase to check for fingerprint or other unusual marks, and even held a séance to try and communicate with any wayward souls. Participants in the investigation had to wear soft-soled shoes, synchronize their watches, and carry a flashlight, notebook and pencil.
One of the sitters in the séance was Margery McQueen. “I still have a vivid recollection of hearing a horse trotting outside during that night,” she told Underwood in 1993. “The noise was very loud and the clamour was instantly stopped, like switching off a radio… It seemed obvious to my mind that the horse was trotting on a hard surface like stone… I noticed afterwards that there was no path adjacent to the building, just grass!”
Investigators heard and recording equipment captured the distinctive sound of a baby crying, and the investigators later found out that an infant had been thrown to its death from the upper level down to the mosaic floor during a quarrel between a young married couple. Since then, many staff have had the feeling something malevolent about that spot.
There were other things that night that were not satisfactorily explained, including footsteps that originated from the direction of the Tulip Staircase when no one was there. One investigator reported hearing a bell ring and smelling wet stone at the base of the staircase. All the same, there was nothing that scientifically indicated to the investigators that The Queen’s House was haunted.
Most recently, on May 20, 2002, Queen’s House gallery assistant Tony Anderson reported seeing a woman dressed in an old-fashioned, crinoline-type dress glide across the balcony and disappear through the west wall. Investigating with two colleagues, Anderson reported that all of three of them felt cold, and looking into the Queen’s Presence Room, he said something passed “through the ante-room and out through the wall.”
Peter Underwood calls the Tulip Staircase photograph “the most remarkable and interesting ghost photograph” in his sixty-plus years of psychical investigation. If only, he ponders, someone else had captured something similar that may be sitting in an old box of photos or a forgotten photo album. In the meantime, the Tulip Staircase photograph remains one of the strongest pieces of evidence suggesting the existence of ghosts.
National Maritime Museum article on the Tulip Staircase investigation:
Peter Underwood. Nights In Haunted Houses. London: Headline Book Publishing, 1994.
Tulip Staircase photographic print taken by Rev. Ralph Hardy, courtesy of Mary Evans and Peter Underwood, of the 1967 séance, and the floor plan showing locations of ghostly sightings are all from the National Martime Museum website.