On the SOAS campus in Bloomsbury is a small plaque unlike any other in London.

The building in Thornhaugh Street is the only one in London to bear a sign apologising for being built.

On the front, facing towards Russell Square, a plaque reads: “The University of London hereby records its sincere apologies that the plans of this building were settled without due consultation with the Russell family and their trustees and therefore without their approval of its design.”

UCL erected the building in 1988 as the Brunei Gallery – an extension to the School of Oriental and African Studies which operates as “an exciting venue in Central London…[hosting] a programme of changing contemporary and historival exhibitions from Asia, Africa and the Middle East”. On top is a Japanese roof garden.

All very unobjectionable, you might imagine. You’d be wrong.

The University is on land which is managed by the Bedford Estates, a trust which benefits the descendents of the aristocrats who bought up the vast empty fields of what would become Bloomsbury three centuries ago.

In 1669, the huge Bloomsbury Estate came into the ownership of the Russell family through marriage. Their land stretched from present-day Euston Road to the north, Tottenham Court Road in the east, and all the way down to Covent Garden to the south – a nice accompaniment to Woburn Abbey, which had been gifted to them by Henry VIII following the dissolution of the monasteries. The Russell family, who were given the title of Duke of Bedford shortly after they came into possession of the land, remain the owners of much of the area to this day.

Piecemeal building schemes continued throughout the centuries, but in 1893, the 11th Duke, Herbrand Russell (1858-1937), felt political and popular feeling was turning against the owners of the large London estates, living as they were in a manner which was entirely alien (and alienating) to most of the population. Worried that their visibility and proximity to the masses might make them vulnerable, he made the decision to sell the majority of the family estate to developers, although many of the pre-exisiting developments remained in the family’s vast property portfolio.

Herbrand Russell was for many years the President of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, and was credited with saving the native Chinese milu (or Pere David deer) from extinction by breeding them in Woburn Abbey, but his grandson, the 13th Duke, John Russell could find little positive to say about him: “a selfish, forbidding man, with a highly developed sense of public duty and ducal responsibility, he lived a cold, aloof existence, isolated from the outside world by a mass of servants, sycophants and an eleven-mile wall.”

One of the many institutions who bought land from the family in the 1920s was the University of London, in an era which saw the tone of the neighbourhood shift from the residential to the academic.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Georgian houses were taken over by publishing companies, who converted the decent-sized rooms into individual offices. On the other side of the road from the Brunei Gallery are the former offices of Faber and Faber, a blue plaque dedicated to one-time employee TS Eliot upon the wall.

While the Russell family have long been unable to prevent the British Museum and the University encroaching into their estate, as educational institutions were given the legal right to compulsarily purchase land when they needed to expand, one of the conditions of sale was that the Bedford Estate retained the right of approval on buildings which fronted onto certain viewpoints.

And one of the viewpoints they have approval on is when buildings – just like the Brunei Gallery – face onto Russell Square.

The Bedford Estates were consulted in the early days of the SOAS project, but, in their words, “the university slightly pre-empted the issue”, and the design was fixed without the consent of the Estate. Thus, when the University set about leasing the new building to SOAS, the apologetic plaque was demanded by the Bedford Estate, who specified the exact wording, size and materials to be used.

Underneath the apologetic notice is a plaque noting that the actual design of the building was never really an issue: it won a Civic Trust Award 1988. The Trust awards “do not simply reward good design, but also take into account the way in which schemes relate to their settings and to the people they serve.”

Essentially, the only reason the plaque is there is as a point of principle.

The current Duke of Bedford is the 15th, who succeeded to the title in 2004. Today’s Bedford Estate consists mainly of “residential property converted to office and small hotel use and private residential property.” It also includes lock-up garages and a number of squares, both public and private.

That list rather downplays the scale of his empire which the Sunday Times estimated in 2011 had given him a fortune of over half a billion pounds.

And, since 1988, a prime view of London’s sorriest building.

“One of the most interesting cases of haunting in London is or was associated with the mummy cases of a high priestess of the Temple of Amen-Ra,” begins the entry in Peter Underwood’s Haunted London (1974.)

It does seem indisputable that from the time the mummy case passed into the possession of an Englishman in Egypt about 1860 a strange series of fatalities followed its journey and even when it resided in the Mummy Room at the British Museum, sudden death haunted those who handled the 3,500-year-old relic from Luxor.

Ah, nothing stirs the hackles on the back of an Englishman’s neck than the tale of the Mummy’s curse.

Although it’s not marked at such, the most famous cursed mummy case of all has stood for much of the last century in the First Egyptian Room at the British Museum.

The yarn begins with an Oxford graduate, published author, horse breeder and amateur archaeologist named Thomas Douglas Murray (1841-1911), who had been visiting Cairo since 1866. Sometime around 1889, he and two colleagues were shown a remarkably well-preserved mummy case by an Arab, supposedly excavated in the 1880s. The hieroglyphics described the owner as a high priestess of Amen-Ra.

Murray and his friends drew lots to determine which of them would buy it – Murray won, completed the sale and the case was packed up and on its way to his home in London the same evening.

A few days later, Murray’s shotgun exploded while he was duck-shooting on the Nile. Tremendous headwinds hampered his progress back from Thebes to Cairo to seek medical treatment, meaning it was ten days before he could get medical attention. By that time, gangrene had set in and Murray’s arm had to be amputated.

On the return journey to Cairo, one of his companions died, while, according to Montague Summers’ Witchcraft and Black Magic, “the most distressing news was awaiting another member of the expedition. Two servants who had handled the mummy case, perhaps without sufficient respect, both died within a twelvemonth, whilst a far swifter fate overtook a third who had made some jesting sally.”

Back in the hall of his London home at 34 Portland Place, Murray found the mummy case unpacked.

At once, he found the object chilling and ominous, the formerly beautiful face on the board now seeming full of malevolence.

One source claims that Madame Blavatsky, the clairvoyant founder of Theospophy, “detected an evil influence” from the case when she visited the house.

Madame Blavatsky

A journalist profiling Murray asked to borrow the board, and Murray found himself relieved when it left his house.  Misfortune struck the journalist while it was in her possession – her mother fell downstairs and died, her fiancé called off their relationship, her dogs went mad and she became ill. She told her lawyer that she believed the mummy case was unsettling her, so it was returned to Murray.

Rattled, he gave it to his friend, Mr Wheeler, “who very shortly experienced several sad reverses, and died not long afterwards broken-hearted. He had given the case to a married sister living near London, and from the day it entered her house this lady was pursued by troubles and sorrows which it is hardly necessary to detail.”

Wheeler’s sister took the case to be photographed at a studio in Baker Street, and to her horror, “when the plate was developed, although the negative had not been touched in any way, it was seen that there looked out the face of a living Egyptian woman whose eyes stared furiously with an expression of singular malevolence. In the course of a few weeks the photographer died suddenly and in most mysterious circumstances.” It was said that when a later owner of one of the photographs brought it into his home, every piece of glass in his home shattered.

The lady who had taken possession of the case happened to meet Murray, “and naturally poured out to him her pitiful story. He urged her to get rid of the case immediately, whereupon it was offered to and accepted by the British Museum.”

An Egyptologist who acted as the middleman in the handover had the case sent to his house so he could study the hieroglyphics – he died shortly after, his servant saying his master hadn’t slept since the day the coffin was brought into the house.

The carrier who brought the case to the British Museum died within a week, and it was rumoured that anyone who tried to photograph or sketch the mummy case would be struck down. Another photographer who had taken an image capturing the terrifying face of a woman shot himself after presenting it to Sir Ernest Wallis Budge, the Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum.

Wallis Budge was reportedly so concerned with the number of stories he had heard – numerous staff reported unexplained hammering noises and raucous sobs coming from the case – he began to wonder if the priestess was unhappy with her position and presentation in the Museum. He arranged for the mummy to be installed in a display case of its own adorned with a laudatory notice. It was said the disturbances largely ebbed away once this was done – although night cleaning staff continued to report ghostly appearances and overwhelming feelings of terror emanating from the case in the decades to come.

Wallis Budge, who had translated the Egyptian Book of the Dead, was even quoted as saying, enigmatically, “Never print what I saw in my lifetime, but the mummy case of Princess Amen-Ra caused the war.”

Nor did Murray’s problems stop when he had rid himself of the case – he was reportedly lost a large part of his fortune over the following years and died in 1912.

But like any good ghost story, the truth is both more prosaic and harder to locate than the myth.

Douglas Murray was indeed at the heart of the tale of the Cursed Mummy Case – but he was neither the intrepid traveller nor the reliable witness he might have seemed.

In 1889, Murray was part of a large movement of people becoming interested in the paranormal. At a time when séances, table tapping and communicating with the other side were terrifically en vogue, he was not unusual. But like many of the spiritualists at the time, his desire to find the existence of an afterlife came at the expense of the truth.

At some point prior to his dabblings with the mummy board, Murray had heard a popular story about an Englishwoman who had brought a mummy from Egypt which was displayed in her drawing room. The next morning, everything in the room was found smashed into pieces. She moved the mummy and the same thing happened again. When it was taken up to the attic, all night long the sound of heavy footsteps going up and down the stairs were heard, accompanied by strange flickering lights. The following morning, all the servants resigned. It was a story that captured Murray’s imagination.

When Mr A.F. Wheeler presented to the British Museum “the inner mummy case of a Princess of Amen and a member of the college of Amen-Ra at Thebes” on behalf of Mrs Warwick Hunt of Holland Park in 1890, Murray contacted the museum to ask if he could hold a séance in the Egyptian Room with his colleague, the journalist WT Stead (who wrote one of the first articles about the ‘curse’).

WT Stead (1849-1912)

The men had studied the coffin lid, and “felt the expression on the face of the cover was that of a living soul in torment.” As recounted by Budge, “they wished to hold a séance in a room and to perform certain experiments with the object of removing the anguish and misery from the eyes of the coffin-lid.”

Murray was turned down, but the papers reported the story (most likely through Stead’s contacts), mixing together the abortive séance, the creaky old ghost story, the coffin lid and Douglas Murray into a composite nonsense tale that’s survived for a century.

In some ways, Stead gave the whole story credence – one of the forefathers of modern investigative journalism, he was famously  jailed following his landmark investigation into child prostitution, when he arranged the ‘purchase’ of a 13-year-old to prove that the trade existed.

Combative, creative and a pacificist frequently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Stead became increasingly interested in spiritualism during the 1890s, claiming he was receiving messages from the dead. He believed he had a spirit guide, in the form of an American temperance campaigner named Julia Ames, who he had met shortly before her death. His absorption in spiritualism began to dominate his writings, and marginalised what had once been a massive influential talent.

In 1912, Stead inadvertently added a further dimension to the tale – he was one of the victims onboard the Titanic.

After the ship struck the iceberg, Stead helped several women and children into the lifeboats, in an act “typical of his generosity, courage, and humanity.”  After all the boats had gone, Stead went into the 1st Class Smoking Room, where he was last seen sitting in a leather chair and reading a book. He had been due to take part in a Peace Congress at Carnegie Hall at the special invitation of President Taft; it was said that had he survived, he would have received Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

Stead’s death led to a resurgence of rumours about the case when one survivor related he had told the story of the mummy’s curse onboard.

 It was claimed the British Museum had reached the end of their tether with the unexplained goings-on, and had sold the board to an American museum – the case was being exported on the doomed ship’s maiden voyage and the curse had caused the sinking. One version of the story had the board being salvaged after the disaster, and continuing to cause mayhem as it travelled to new owners in Canada, being responsible for the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the St Lawrence River.

The truth was actually far less elaborate: the case was on display in the British Museum, just as it always had been.

When I contacted the British Museum, I received an email back from Dr Julie Anderson, the Assistant Keeper in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, who enclosed a leaflet about the ‘Unlucky Mummy.’

The painted and gessoed (the coating which prepares the wood for painting) inner coffin lid made to cover the mummy of a woman was discovered in Thebes, dating to the 21st or early 22nd Dynasty (c.950-900 BC.) Standing 162cm tall, little is known of the coffin’s owner, other than the fine work on the board suggests she was a person of high rank, although the mummy associated with the board is believed to have been left in Egypt. Ascribing her royal status, or claiming she was a priestess (as Budge did) is simply supposition based on a reading of the high quality of the board, a conclusion which today’s experts tend to disagree with.

The board has been on continuous display in the British Museum since 1890 – it has only left on a handful of occasions, when moved for safekeeping during the two World Wars and in 1990, when it formed part of a temporary exhibition in Australia.

The New York Times debunked the story as early as 1923, saying “the public proceeded to identify the Priestess of Amen-Ra with the crockery-smashing mummy of the suburban drawing room. People have written from so far afield as New Zealand and Algiers enclosing money to place lilies at the foot of the coffin lid. The money has been acknowledged, but it has been put to the much more prosaic use of the general upkeep of the museum.”

In 1934, Wallis Budge even issued a statement saying the British Museum had never possessed a mummy, coffin or cover that had been involved in any unusual events. He stated the case had never been sold by the terrified Museum, had never been on the Titanic and had never left the museum at any point since its arrival (aside from a brief period when it was stored in the basement during the First World War).

That said, Wallis Budge died in the same year he made his statement, so if he was hiding the truth, perhaps the vengeful mummy had one last burst of malevolence left…

One source claimed every part of Douglas Murray’s story was entirely fabricated, but in truth, he did seem to have some part in handling the board before it ended up in the British Museum’s collection. Some sources claim he bought the lid from an American millionaire collector of antiquities named James Carnegie, the patron of the famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), who may have discovered it at a dig in the late 1880s.

Heinrich Schliemann

Carnegie may have sold the coffin lid to Douglas Murray in Cairo in 1910 (the popular ‘curse’ rumour being he died of cancer before the Englishman’s cheque even cleared.) Quite how the case ended up passing from Murray into the hands of Mrs Hunt is unexplained.

But he real mystery is why did Douglas Murray promote the story of a curse?

He was in his forties, established and seemingly had no need to promote himself. By the time his story was known, the mummy had already been bequeathed to the Museum so he wouldn’t even have financially benefitted from its unique back-story.

It seems most likely that his Spiritualist beliefs led him to claim the coffin he had bought was in some way haunted. If it was an attempt to capture the imaginations of those who did not believe in the paranormal, he succeeded in a way he could never have envisaged; over 120 years later, his ghost story is still doing the rounds.

Thomas Douglas Murray died in 1912, his will founding a scholarship in Egyptology which still exists at UCL (a legacy which contradicts the claim he was bankrupt at the end of his life, part of the ongoing curse.) Aside from having his name attached to one of the country’s most enduring ghost stories, Douglas Murray was also the man who first brought the Pekinese Spaniel to Britain.

Today, the Mummy-board EA 22542 has just been returned from loan, but has not yet been returned to display. It will soon be back in its usual place: Gallery 62, case 21.

My thanks to Dr Julie Anderson, Assistant Keeper (Curator) of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the The British Museum for additional information.

The area between Bloomsbury and Euston is a strange part of London. The wide empty roads run between towering buildings set around a series of large, flat, featureless squares. Most are canopied by vast trees. With no shops or businesses along the road, and large silent academic buildings fencing the squares in on both sides, there aren’t often many people around. The squares are consequently unusually (almost eerily) quiet for a central London location.

The people in the squares are so unaccustomed to having company, they often look up as you wander in, stare suspiciously for a while and hesitatingly dip back into their books. Whenever I’ve been into one, there are only ever a couple of solitary UCL students sitting on a distant bench, or a runner briefly diverting through the grass before popping back on the road. Like me, many of them must half-wonder if the squares are private and just be waiting for someone to come over and angrily ask them how they got in and what the hell they think they’re doing. It’s the type of place you half expect to spot George Smiley whiling away the hours waiting for a contact to arrive.

Tavistock Square Gardens are much the same as the neighbouring seven squares, but the large statue of Gandhi in the middle means there are usually one or two Indian students hanging around at the gates, some of whom leave handfuls of fresh flowers at the base. A tree, planted by the then Indian Prime Minister Nehru in 1953, grows in the south-east of the square.

But close by the tree there’s something which doesn’t grow.

Long before the area was laid out as squares and terraces at the end of the 1700s, it was known as Southampton Fields. Unlit, undeveloped and on the far edge of seventeenth-century London’s sprawl, it was a popular haunt for lovers who picked plantain, a low growing herb, for it’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities.

The same privacy which attracted lovers also attracted those who had scores to settle away from the bright lights (and the justice) of the town. As the nineteenth century antiquarian John Timbs put it in The Romance of London, “the ground lay waste, and being on the edge of the great town, presented a ready arena for its idle and lawless dangerous classes…They were the resort of depraved persons, chiefly for fighting pitched battles.”

According to legend, two brothers, both soldiers in the Duke of Monmouthshire’s short-lived peasant army, met on the site of the present day Tavistock Square in 1695 to fight a duel. They had both fallen in love with the same woman “who would not declare a preference”, and as she coolly watched, the two brothers “fought so ferociously as to destroy each other; after which, their footsteps, imprinted on the ground in the vengeful struggle, were said to remain, with the indentations produced by their advancing and receding; nor would any grass or vegetation ever grow over these forty footsteps.”

In this unnatural act – brother killing brother – the very ground on which their blood had been spilled is said to have revolted. The scene soon became known as the Field of the Forty Footsteps, a phrase coined by one “Miss Porter and her sister”, who heard the story and used it as the basis for a romantic novel.

The poet Southey visited “The Brothers’ Steps” after a friend recommended he “take a view of those wonderful marks of the Lord’s hatred to duelling.”

We sought for near half an hour in vain…We were almost out of hope, when an honest man, who was at work, directed us to the next ground, adjoining to a pond. There we found what we sought…The steps are of the size of a large human foot, about three inches deep, and lie nearly from north-east to south-west. We counted only seventy-six; but we were not exact in counting. The place where one or both the brothers are supposed to have fallen is still bare of grass. The labourer also showed us the bank where (the tradition is) the wretched woman sat to see the combat.

Of course, with popularity came the reason why the footsteps were so apparent. As stated by A Book For A Rainy Day, the author mentioned that “the fact is, that these steps were so often trodden that it was impossible for the grass to grow.”

In 1800, the author of Commonplace Books, Joseph Moser, claimed the footsteps were built over as the terraces were erected.

June 16, 1800. Went into the fields…and there saw, for the last time, the forty footsteps; the building materials are there, ready to cover them from the sight of man. I counted more than forty, but they might be the footprints of the workmen.

Huge numbers of London books over the centuries have retold the tale – but none of the authors I’ve read actually bothered to see if these footsteps were still in Tavistock Square. So I went with my camera to see if they were.

And you know what?

They are.

I know – it’s silly.

I was looking for patterns. Look at the mud in any park you chose to go into, and you’d find similar shapes. The mind tricks the eye into seeing what it wants to see.

But whatever the real explanation is – mental suggestion, an ancient fraud, or some botanical fungus that kills those particular portions of grass – it sure looks to me like a row of man-sized footprints walking in a straight line exactly where the old books said they’d be.

There’s a strange synchronicity with second-hand books. Two days ago, I’d finished all the books I had on the go, so randomly picked out one I’ve owned for years and not read for ages: WH Davies’ 1908 The Autobiography of a Super Tramp. While I know he’s not using the word in the modern way, I love the idea he thought of himself as a “super tramp”, as opposed to just an adequate one.

Davies was a Welshman born in 1871. Regarded as a delinquent, with expulsions from school and trouble keeping jobs, he spent much of his early life living rough in America. While there, he lost a leg while riding the trains with a fellow tramp (in a foreshadowing of the loss of limbs, the other tramp’s name was Three-Fingered Jack) and for the rest of his life sported a wooden one.

Destitute, he returned to England, where he lived in large doss houses in south-east London (including Southwark’s infamous Salvation Army hostel, known as The Ark) and sold shoe laces, saving his money with one single purpose: to self-publish his poetry.

In 1905, he sent his book of poems, entitled The Soul’s Destroyer, to George Bernard Shaw. “I get a gift of minor poetry once a week or so,” Shaw grumbled, but “before I had read three lines I perceived the author was a real poet.” Shaw was puzzled by what sort of man Davies was.

There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments, indeed no publisher in the ordinary channel of the trade in minor poetry. The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed in his manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots. It was marked “price half a crown.” An accompanying letter asked me very civilly if I required a half-crown book of verses; and if so, would I please send the author the half-crown; if not, would I return the book. This was attractively simple and sensible.

Shaw bought eight copies, and when they were reviewed in a London newspaper, he discovered Davies was a tramp. Noting the review mentioned Davies had a manuscript of an autobiography, Shaw wrote back and offered to read it through. He was amazed by it.

All I have to say by way of recommendation of the book is that I have read it through from beginning to end, and would have read more of it had there been more to read…another effect of this book on me is to make me realise what a slave to convention I have been all my life. When I think of the way I worked tamely for my living during all of those years when Mr. Davies, a free knight of the highway, lived like a pet bird on titbits, I feel that I have been duped out of my natural liberty.

Having read the introduction to the autobiography two days ago, I’d started wondering what Davies’ poems were actually like. Today, browsing a small pile of old books in one of Finchley Central’s junk shops, I found a 1946 hardback of his collected work. That’s 48 hours between my wondering about them and subsequently having them in my hand. There’s a strange providence with second-hand books – somehow they start to find their way to you.

In all, Davies self-published fifty volumes of poetry, and this book collects all 636 of his poems.

He’s largely forgotten today – but his work’s not at all bad. Befitting his preoccupations as a tramp, Davies writes about outside spaces, his nights spent sleeping rough in the woods, his desire to have a house, about rogues who “come this day to borrow / A sum that’s promised but not paid tomorrow”, and portrays scenes of life from the lodging houses he frequented. One poem concerns a sailor in a doss-house shouting at his parrot for it’s foul language.

With his autobiography a success, Davies was immediately accepted by London’s literary and artistic circles (albeit more for his unusual life story than his work.) He was painted by Augustus John and in 1916 had a bronze made of his head by Jacob Epstein.

WH Davies by Augustus John (National Museum of Wales)

In 1911, he was awarded a civil list pension of £50, which later increased to £100, and then £150. It meant he could live comfortably for the rest of his life and concentrate on his literary work. The same year, he coined his most recognisable (although often misquoted and rarely attributed) couplet in the poem Leisure:

What is this life if, full of care

We have no time to stand and stare…

A comfortable-looking Davies in 1913

In 1916, having lived for short periods in houses across London, Davies settled into a flat at 12 Great Russell Street (directly opposite the YMCA) with his pet toad, Jim.

He stayed at the flat until 1921 when he moved to 13 Avery Row, off Brook Street, in the smarter neighbour of Mayfair.

Davies’s flat in Avery Row was one of the dark brick properties on the left

During his time in London, Davies occupied himself by writing a second volume of autobiography entitled Later Days and giving readings of his work; fourteen of his readings for the BBC reside in their archives.

Marrying in 1925, Davies and his wife left London for Gloucester. He died in 1940, the doctors telling him that his heart was showing alarming signs of weakness, which they attributed to his dragging the extra weight of his wooden leg about.

In his introduction to the collected poems, his friend Osbert Sitwell called Davies an

extraordinary and memorable being, who, for all his humility, bore about him something of the primitive splendour and directness of the Elizabethan age: in which, as his appearance testified, he would have been equally at home. No one who knew him will, or ever could, forget him, even had he never written so many lovely poems, fresh and exquisite as flowers to keep his memory alive; and no one who knew him will ever be able to recall him without a smile of pleasure and regret.

Sir John Squire summed up his poetry with a lovely turn of phrase:

Mr. Davies is astonished at everything the rest of us take for granted. What to the rest of us is the first primrose of spring is to him the first primrose in all the world. In other words, he is pure poet.

Open editions of Davies’ The Autobiography Of A Supertramp can be read in full here.