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We go ghost hunting in South Africa's Simon's Town

Seeking Ghosts In Simon's Town

By J.F. Kloppers

In the days of Dutch rule, South Africa's Simon's Town, or Simonstown, was the Cape of Good Hope's winter harbour. It retains much of its antique charm, and its main road, St. George's Street, is often called "the historic mile".

Most tourists come to see the wild penguin colony at Boulders beach, which is usually included in bus tours of the Peninsula. Seals are often seen in the harbour. Baboons are found in the mountains, but I have not seen them on my visits. On one occasion, sailors of the Royal Navy had to be called in to drive them away from the town.

Any whales you may see, from August to October, are protected. This was not always so. Many years ago, a school of whales entered Simon's Bay. The small boats raced out to claim this prize, and one of the boats was smashed by a whale. An American then leapt onto the beast's back, and killed it with his harpoon.

After visiting the penguin colony, most bus tours of the Peninsula rarely spend much time in Simonstown, but if you revisit the village by yourself, I doubt that you will be disappointed. A walk around Simonstown's haunted streets and alleys is well worthwhile. The village was for many years the South Atlantic base of the Royal Navy, and is still used by the South African Navy. It is not surprising that many of the hauntings have a nautical theme.

The Residency, now housing the Simonstown Museum, is on the main road, between the naval dockyard and the Anglican church. The house was originally built as a residence for Dutch governors, on their occasional visits to the port, but it only served that purpose for a few years. When the Royal Navy occupied Simonstown in 1814, it became the seat of the Government Resident, or magistrate, and remained so until 1980.

Some of the doors in the Residency were once cabin doors on old sailing ships. There are stocks where prisoners were restrained for humiliating punishments, and cells where men were chained. Some say that men were tortured here, but apart from the use of the whip or cat, this would have been illegal during the British occupation (which does not necessarily mean that it didn't happen.) In one cell, there are bloodstains and, sometimes, two miserable phantom prisoners to be seen. The spectre of an ancient mariner, unjustly flogged to death, has been seen in the building, as has the grim ghost of a warder's wife, who in life had abused female prisoners.

Photos of a mural in the Residency are often, for no apparent reason, blurred or blank.

In the building is a bar room, originally for visiting sailors, and on the wall hangs the portrait of a young gentlewoman. The ghost of this woman is another "grey lady". Margaret Williamson, who has done the best research on the Simonstown ghosts, wrote that she is sometimes called the "lavender lady", or "lilac lady". She was often seen by the wives of magistrates, and some of the magistrates themselves admitted that the ghost exists. One magistrate, Duncan Neethling, saw the grey lady following his wife around the kitchen. The ghost has also been encountered since the Residency became a museum. Usually friendly, she once surprised a member of the staff by slamming a door on his fingers. Unlike most spectres, this one has been known to speak. She has been seen both inside and outside of the building.

Margaret Williamson convincingly argues that the ghost is not that of the teenaged Eleanor Macartney, daughter of the first British governor. She also argues that the spirit is not that of a young woman who loved Horatio Nelson, but in this she may be mistaken.

In 1776, Nelson came ashore from his ship, The Dolphin, to be nursed through an illness. This was long before the Cape became a British possession. Internet searches sometimes reveal that the Residency was built in 1777, but the authors are probably using Margaret Williamson's book, Haunted Corners, as their source. According to that, Nelson must have recuperated at the Cape before the Residency was even built.

Phillida Brooke Simons, however, in her book Cape Dutch Houses, points out that in 1776, the building had already been used by the Cape's governors for five years. In fact, that was the year in which the building ceased to be used for that purpose, and was sold to Gideon Rousseau, a wealthy entrepeneur with twelve children.

The colonial Dutch were renowned for their hospitality towards polite visitors. If Nelson came ashore at Simonstown while Rousseau owned the house, it is very likely that he would have been invited to stay there, although the building which later became Admiralty House was also used to accomodate visiting seamen.

In any case, as Lawrence Green pointed out, Nelson also visited Simonstown while in command of The Badger.

I suggest that the ghost is that of one of Gideon Rousseau's daughters. Whoever she is, she is said to have drowned herself when her lover, whether Nelson or somebody else, had to leave the Cape.

There were recently organised Ghost Tours starting at the museum, but I gather that they are now in abeyance. Of course, there is nothing to stop you from going on your own ghost hunting expedition.

The building now called Admiralty House has been standing since at least 1740, although there have been significant alterations to the house's appearance, especially after it was damaged by a storm in 1853. Like the Residency, it is on the main road, St. George's Street (on the M4).

When Rudyard Kipling visited the house, he recorded that the Admiral kept turtles tied to the jetty, so that they could swim about in the sea until the soup ingredients were ready for them.

During the American Civil War, the house was visited by the captain of the Confederate raider Alabama. This visit inspired Daar Kom Die Alabama, the best known of the songs sung by Cape Town's Muslim community. H.M Stanley called in, on his way to find Livingstone, as did Captain Scott, while on his way to the Antarctic. In 1947, The Royal Family attended a garden party here.

In the nineteen fifties, Lady Campbell, wife of Vice-Admiral Sir Ian Campbell, saw the ghosts of men in naval uniform on the stairs. In the nineteen seventies, Mrs. Johnson, wife of Vice-Admiral J.V.Johnson, also experienced weird happenings, including an invisible gentleman who opened a door for her, and closed it behind her.

Admiralty House is also haunted by a woman with brown hair, who wears a long, grey dress (it must be the uniform of the afterlife). Some say that it is the same "grey Lady" which haunts the Residency, and another naval residence, Ibeka. The three buildings are supposed to be linked by tunnels. The haunting at Ibeka, however, may be linked to a governess who hanged herself on the attic landing. Also at Ibeka, the spectre of an old man, sitting on the toilet, has been seen. Ibeka is on Cornwall Street, on the hill.

The fine Georgian building called Palace Barracks, on the brow of the hill, was once linked to the seashore by a cable car. It is haunted by an old sea captain, who disturbs officers in their billets. The sounds of drinking and billiard playing are heard from the billiard room, even when there is nobody in it. Upstairs, the ghost of an elderly woman bends over beds. An unusually dangerous ghost lifted an officer from his chair, and threw him across the room. (Obviously, this seat was was already taken.) The entity which sits on people's chests and tries to strangle them, however, is such a common worldwide phenomenon that doctors have a name for it. Of course, having a name for something is not the same as having a satisfactory explanation.

Another ghost at Palace Barracks is that of Mary Kingsley, the famous explorer of West Africa, much admired by Trader Horn and Rudyard Kipling. The jungle experts had advised her to wear male clothing, but always a lady, she took more feminine attire. The thick skirts saved her life when she fell into a spiked game pit. Of course, this sensible attitude would work just as well for men. As a matter of fact, Lord Baden-Powell wrote in a guide for Boy Scouts, that the nimbleness he acquired as a young man, by dancing in long skirts, saved his life when he had to flee from the Matabele in the rocky Matopo Hills. So, intrepid explorers, pop into your local branch of Transformation, strip off your prejudices and your trousers, and put on a dress. It may save your life! But I make no promises.

In 1900, at the age of thirty-seven, Mary Kingsley volunteered to nurse Boer prisoners during an outbreak of enteric fever. She contracted the illness herself, but her indomitable spirit does not know that she died, and remains in the building.

Between the main road and the sea, is the alley called Black's Lane. On this alley was, and possibly still is, Mafeking Terrace, a group of three houses. If it is still there, the house which was once number three is haunted by the voyeurish spirit of a tall, dark man, nicknamed "Wilbur" by the family which lived there. In life, the ghost was Robert Coupar, who, while a boarder at the house, strangled his lover's baby and threw it in the sea. He was later hanged. According to Margaret Williamson, Mafeking Terrace was deserted in 1992, and unfortunately, I did not have the chance to check on it during my visit to Simonstown in 2001.

In the naval dockyard is St. George's Church, the "Sail-Loft Church", on the upper floor of an eighteenth century stone building. As the name suggests, sailmakers once plied their trade in what is now a church. This building, with its clock tower, and gable decorated with an anchor, is worth seeing for its picturesqueness alone. The doors at the entrance are of stinkwood, and the floors are yellowwood. These are South Africa's most prized timbers. There is a mural by the South African artist Joy Collier, who is one of the people to have heard ghostly footsteps in the church.

The former rectory of the Anglican Church (the one on the main road, next to the Simonstown Museum), is a stone-built residence, and another place where ghostly footsteps and banging doors have been heard. In 1949, a Mrs. Martin was the wife of the Anglican minister. In a letter to the Cape Times about the haunting, Mrs.Martin also mentioned a ghost called the "white lady", which haunted a house a few doors down in the same street.

Don't forget to see the statue of Able Seaman Just Nuisance, in Jubilee Square. Just Nuisance was a great dane much loved by the officers and men of the navy, during the Second World War. I haven't heard that it haunts Simonstown, but it should. The martello tower, in the naval dockyard, should also have a few ethereal residents, but I don't know anything about those, either.

Incidentally, False Bay, of which Simon's Bay is part, is noted for its sharks, especially Great Whites, which are attracted by the large numbers of seals. The sharks are sometimes seen jumping right out of ther water to catch seals. Boat trips to see the sharks, and even dive with them, can be arranged.

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