It had been just an ordinary day for Shirley Hitchings until she discovered a mysterious key on her pillow. Baffled, the 15-year-old handed it to her equally puzzled father Wally.
The silver key did not fit in any cupboard or door in the house, but it also miraculously disappeared into thin air after being left on the mantlepiece.
The strange moment in 1956 was the start of one of the most notorious hauntings of all time as, hours later, the family believe Donald the poltergeist took up residence in their home in Battersea, South London, and stayed for 12 years.
“That night we were woken at 2am with all this horrendous banging coming from the walls and under the floors and it woke everybody up, including our neighbours” says Shirley, now 80.
“It went on for two or three weeks. The police and the fire brigade were called. The policeman came during the day and noted down what was happening and he said: ‘I think the whole house has had a bit too much cocoa’.”
The family – dad Wally, a tube driver, mum Kitty and older brother John – pleaded for the authorities to listen but nothing was done. Soon, Shirley says, Donald became even more menacing: “From there the banging noises started going off during the day too. And the pots and pans that were on the stove and hanging up would fly out and we’d have to dodge them.
“At one point, Mum’s clock came off the mantlepiece. It was her pride and joy and it floated across the room and landed on the dining table very gently.
“Things were whizzing around and we had to sit there and ride it out.”
Now a new Radio 4 drama-documentary podcast, The Battersea Poltergeist, is reinvestigating the seemingly paranormal events in a bid to finally unlock the 65-year-old mystery.
At the time it made the papers with the press camping outside 63 Wycliffe Road to try and get a glimpse of what was going on. The Daily Mirror published a story about “Mystery noises that haunt Shirley”.
Ghost hunter Harold Chibbett heard about it and offered to help. He visited regularly and asked the poltergeist if they could call him Donald, to which the ghost is said to have delightedly tapped on the table to agree communicating through writing.
Shirley shivers: “One day, Mr Chibbett asked Donald if he could write. He left an ordinary ballpoint pen and paper on the table in the front room and we all came back to the kitchen. He tapped for Donald to write a message.
“When we went back, it was really creepy, there was a shaky message and he’d written: ‘I come’. It was months before we got any legible writing. Donald said he couldn’t write with the pen. He wanted a quill.”
The family deducted the poltergeist had some intelligence and Shirley says Donald sometimes even played with her.
She laughs: “Slippers would walk around the room on their own. They were in front of the fire. They were my dad’s and they would take off and I would chase them up the passage and around the bedroom and try to catch them and he would play with me.”
But Shirley says Donald also had a darker side. “We were all treading on eggshells. We had to be careful what we said and didn’t want to upset him because he used to set fire to things.
“It started one time when he piled all the tea towels on an electric cooker and it caught fire and Dad had to put it out.
“Another time he set fire to my mum’s double bed and Dad rushed in and he was trying to battle the flames and while he was doing it something pulled him in.
“The fire brigade turned up and got Dad away and an ambulance was called because he burned all his arm.
“When they got to Battersea General Hospital and cleaned it up they took photographs of it and the consultant said he’d been clawed by a wild animal.
“Dad had a terrible arm for about three months because of the burns and he had three claw marks, deep gouges down his arm.”
As she got older, Shirley lost friends as the strange happenings continued until 1968. She even lost her job as a seamstress in a London store, when she says Donald stole all the scissors from the workroom. Her grandmother was convinced that Donald was the devil.
The family tried to organise an exorcism. Shirley says: “My dad had a co-driver, Mr Hanks. He was a medium and so was his wife. He approached my dad and said he could get rid of Donald.
“So we went round to his house one Friday night in Streatham and there was his wife and another couple of mediums and a priest and Dad and I.
“We all sat in a circle and held hands and Mr Hanks went into a trance and the priest had some holy water.”
But the attempt was cut short after the police knocked on the door and accused the party of black magic. The issue was discussed in Parliament and Wally and Mr Hanks gave a statement.
Even when Shirley moved to West Sussex after she got married, she says Donald persisted and it wasn’t until she was 25 that he finally left her alone.
She says: “We didn’t have a phone but Donald would leave messages telling me what my parents were doing in London and he’d tell my parents what we were doing in Sussex. He wrote messages and left them around our house.
“One day I went to the telephone box and called my dad and he said: ‘We’ve had a message girl, Donald’s gone’. He just left a message at my parents saying, ‘My work is done, goodbye’.”
But even though Shirley and her father were elated, her mother went into “mourning” and Shirley says it was as though she had “lost a son”.
As the years went by, Shirley tried to forget about Donald but she now feels that the podcast has given her answers: “I didn’t want to go over everything as I didn’t want him to come back. I was so frightened it was going to happen to my two children when they turned 15.
“Even now I get a bit jittery but I just put it out of my mind and pretend nothing has ever happened. But despite what he put us through, this is Donald’s story. He came for a reason and he could still be out there – although from what I know now I’m not sure.”