As a child growing up in nearby Hatch End, the gravestone of John Port was always a highlight of a visit to St Mary’s Church in Harrow On The Hill.

On the afternoon of 7 August 1838, Port was a guard on the London to Birmingham train and as it travelled through Harrow, he slipped and fell while walking between the carriages to check tickets. Both his legs were severed as the train went over him and he died later that day from massive blood loss.

The coroner’s inquest found that:

the unfortunate deceased started with the Denbigh Hall five o-clock train on Tuesday last from the station at Euston grove, and having arrived within a mile and a quarter of Harrow, as was the usual custom, he dismounted from his seat for the purpose of collecting from the passengers what is termed the ‘excess fares.’ … In the performance of this duty the deceased was engaged on Tuesday, which compelled him to pass from one carriage to the other by the steps, and when in the act of placing his foot on one of them, at the time the train was proceeding at upwards of thirty miles an hour, his foot slipped between the wheels, which as they successivley passed over, dragged his legs in, crushing them inch by inch up to one of his knees and above the other.

His tombstone bears a gruesome poetic account of the incident.

TO THE MEMORY OF
THOMAS PORT
SON OF JOHN PORT OF BURTON UPON TRENT
IN THE COUNTY OF STAFFORD, HAT MANUFACTURER,
WHO NEAR THIS TOWN HAD BOTH HIS LEGS
SEVERED FROM HIS BODY BY THE RAILWAY TRAIN.
WITH THE GREATEST FORTITUDE HE BORE A
SECOND AMPUTATION BY THE SURGEONS, AND
DIED FROM LOSS OF BLOOD.
AUGUST 7TH 1838 AGED 33 YEARS.
Bright rose the morn and vig’rous’ rose poor Port.
Gay on the Train he used his wonted sport:
Ere noon arrived his mangled form they bore,
With pain distorted and o’erwhelmed with gore:
When evening came to close the fatal day,
A mutilated corpse the sufferer lay.

Over the years, the headstone has eroded to the point of near illegibility, despite being Grade II listed in 1983.

Port’s death came only eight years after the first ever British rail fatality, that of William Huskisson MP, who died in similar circumstances.

At the opening of the Manchester to Liverpool railway, he “lost his balance in clambering into the carriage and fell back upon the rails in front of the Dart, the advancing engine” which then ran over his leg, severing it. Huskisson died of blood loss, having “lingered in great agony for nine hours.”

Surprisingly, there is also a memorial nearby for another transport-fatality pioneer.

Two minutes stroll down the hill, on the corner of Grove Hill, is a plaque commemorating the first car  driver ever to die in a road accident.

The driver, Mr E.R. Sewell had been demonstrating the vehicle, a Daimler Wagonette, to 63-year-old Major James Stanley Richer, Department Head at the Army & Navy Stores, with the view to a possible purchase for the company.As they drove down the hill at 14mph, a wheel shed it’s rim. Both Sewell and Richer were thrown from the car onto the road.

Sewell died instantly, and when Major Richer died four days after the accident without regaining consciousness, it became a dubious double-first – the first death of a driver in Britain, followed by the first death of a passenger in a car

The dubious accolade of being the first person to be killed by a car in Britain goes to Mrs Bridget Driscoll of Old Town, Croydon who on 17 August 1896 was run over by a Roger-Benz car while attending a folk dancing festival at Crystal Palace.

The driver was going at 4 mph (described by witness as “a reckless pace”), and at Mrs Driscoll’s inquest, Coroner William Percy Morrison said he hoped that “such a thing would never happen again.” He was also the first to apply the term ‘accident’ to violence caused by speed.

Since then, some 30 million people have lost their lives in car accidents, but a woman from Croydon is the name which appears at the very top of the list.

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Just to the right of the doorway of St Mary’s Church, at the summit of Harrow On The Hill, is a small memorial tablet dedicated to Allegra, daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont.

The lack of detail on the stone hides one of the most poignant, saddest tales in literary history.

Born in Bath in January 1817, Allegra Byron was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), the teenage stepsister of the writer Mary Shelley.

She had relentlessly pursued Byron, and despite thinking her “foolish”, the combination of her advances and his weakness for women was too much: “I never loved her nor pretended to love her—but a man is a man–& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night—there is but one way.”

Byron in 1822

When the child was born, Byron was in Venice, and showed little interest in ‘the little being’ who had been named Alba in his absence. The child’s birth coincided with a time when Byron was at his most dissolute: a time, according to Edna O’Brien in Byron in Love, he was “bargaining with mothers and father for their daughters, brazenly naming his conquests from contessas to cobblers’ wives and claiming to have ‘tooled’ with two hundred women of one sort or another.”

Considering his lifestyle, his decision to have the child sent to him when she was a year old seems positively bizarre. The penniless Claire believed their daughter would be guaranteed a better future with her famous father, and sent him “my child because I love her too well to keep her.” Although she could not have realised it, she would never see her daughter again.

Claire Clairmont

None of her many heartbroken, pleading letters to Byron would ever be answered and worse, his deep-rooted animosity for Claire was passed on to his child.

Byron had decided to “acknowledge and breed” his daughter, albeit in a conditional way – he gave her the surname Biron to distinguish her from his legitimate daughter and renamed her Allegra (its meaning of ‘cheerful, brisk’ couldn’t be a less accurate premonition of the child’s fate.) The first meeting between father and infant daughter was not promising: “My bastard came three days ago,” he wrote. “Heathy – noisy – & capricious.”

Within months, Byron had tired of Allegra and placed her in the care of the British Consul-General Richard Belgrave Hoppner and his wife, neither of whom were very fond of the child. When they left Venice, Allegra was passed on to their servant Antonio and then to the wife of the Danish Consul, “by which time she showed the remoteness of an abandoned child.”

At the same time, Byron was indulging in any romantic encounter which came his way, contracting myriad sexually transmitted diseases and writing his vast blasphemous and bawdy work Don Juan, published anonymously in 1819.

Byron’s feelings for his banished daughter veered between irritation and repulsion. Sent to a convent for her perceived attitude – at three years old, he said she was “obstinate as a mule and ravenous as a vulture” – Byron received a letter from Allegra.

My dear Papa – it being fair time I should so much like a visit from my Papa as I have many desires to satisfy; will you please your Allegra who loves you so?

The abbess of the convent included her own note inviting Byron to come to see Allegra before he left for Pisa and assuring him “how much she is loved.” On the back of this letter, Byron wrote: “Sincere enough, but not very flattering – for she wants to see me because ‘it is the fair’ to get some paternal Gingerbread – I suppose.”

Byron never responded to Allegra’s letter and never visited the child during the thirteen months she was in the convent.

In 1822, as Claire begged to see her daughter again – “I can no longer resist the internal inexplicable feeling which haunts me that I shall never see her anymore. I entreat you to destroy this feeling by allowing me to see her” – Byron sent Allegra even further away, to the Capuchin convent in distant Bagnacavallo.

Shelley and Byron had become friends after Claire had introduced them (their friendship quickly shattered due to Byron’s debauched behaviour), and the poet visited Allegra (who was effectively his niece) at the convent. Bringing her a gold chain as a present, he found the ‘shy and serious’ child expressing the wish that she would one day be visited by her mother or father. Claire was so desparate to see her daughter that she considered kidnapping her, or forging a letter in Byron’s hand directing her to be returned to England.

Sadly, any plans she was devising came too late. During the summer, Byron received word that Allegra had been “ill, dangerously ill” and as he half-heartedly arranged for her to conveyed to a doctor, she died “of a convulsive catarrhal attack” (most likely either typhus or malaria.)

She was just five years old, and had spent the last four of those effectively alone.

Whether it was genuine grief, or deep, unassailable guilt regarding the way he’d acted during his daughter’s short life, Byron was devastated by the news about the detested child he’d completely abandoned. When he was first told:

A mortal paleness spread over his face, his strength failed him and he sunk into a seat…He remained immovable in the same attitude for an hour and no consolation seemed to reach his ears, let alone his heart.

It was a “stunning and unexpected” blow, Byron told Shelley, but he refused to publicly admit his feelings or conduct towards Allegra had been anything but perfect.

Three years after Allegra died, however, he told the Countess of Blessington that her death had filled him with retrospective grief:

Let the object of affection be snatched away by death, and how is all the pain ever inflicted upon them avenged! The same imagination that led us to slight or overlook their sufferings, now that they are forever lost to us, magnifies their estimable qualities … How did I feel this when my daughter, Allegra, died! While she lived, her existence never seemed necessary to my happiness; but no sooner did I lose her, than it appeared to me as if I could not live without her.

Having never visited the convent while she was alive, Byron made a pilgrimage to it after her death, and gave what remained of her clothes for a statue to be erected on the grounds.

Allegra’s tiny body was sent back to England – “the body is embarked – in what ship – I know not’ – and a ghoulish rumour circulated that the child was sent back to England in two parts to save money. Whilst untrue, it’s existence hints as just how depraved the people of England believed Byron to be.

In fact, Byron lavished more attention on Allegra’s corpse than he ever had while she was breathing. She was conveyed from the London Wharf in a fine hearse and mourning coach, drawn by horses festooned with feathers and velvet; her destination was St Mary’s Church on Harrow-on-the-Hill.

The church was chosen as Byron spent many boyhood hours in the churchyard while a schoolboy at Harrow between 1801-1805, and it inspired his 1807 poem Lines Written beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow.

He knew exactly where he wanted her to be laid. “There is,” he wrote in May 1822, “a spot in the church’yard’, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree (bearing the name of Peachie, or Peachey), where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy. This was my favourite spot; but as I wish to erect a tablet to her memory, the body had better be deposited in the ‘church’.”

Byron composed a eulogy to be carved on a marble tablet inside the church door, commemorating “the memory of Allegra, daughter of George Gordon Lord Byron” and quoting a verse from Samuel: “I shall go to her but she shall not return to me.”

But the Rector of Harrow, the Revd John William Cunningham, and the churchwardens considered Byron so immoral, they refused the stone, citing Allegra’s illegitimacy which was compounded by the identification of the father’s name (it’s also likely Byron’s imfamous immorality helped sway their decision.) As such, Allegra was buried in an unmarked plot outside the door of the South Porch.

It was only in 1980 that a memorial tablet was erected on the side of the church near to the place she was interred.

Following Byron’s death from a fever in Greece, his remains were returned to England and a squabble broke out as to where he would be buried – his reputation was such that no one wanted him.

Westminster Abbey refused him burial, as did St Mary’s Church, something which Byron acknowledly sadly at the time of Allegra’s death.

The spot he had chosen for her grave, he wrote in a letter to his publisher John Murray, was the very one “where I once hoped to have laid my own.”

Lord Byron on his Death-bed by Joseph Denis Odevaere (c.1826)

“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.