This article forms a part of the ‘Year One’ project, reviewing and researching prominent paranormal cases from the perspective of the first year. Find out more here
Twenty years ago, I researched and wrote about one of the most incredible, and highly unbelievable ghost stories I had ever read. I first discovered the story in ‘The Mummy of Birchen Bower and other Ghost Stories’ by Harry Ludlam which I received for Christmas 1986 (!) and on page 263 is Harry’s version of events including his interview of a local mechanic in the area.
The Ghost Bus of Kensington Story
The Ghost Bus of Kensington or Ladbroke Grove in some versions relates to 1930s London and in particular the North Kensington area of London. Often the story is expanded to include nearby Ladbroke Grove as well – and this is a very important aspect to remember.
In the 1930s, the Junction of St Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens in that area had long been considered a dangerous corner – it was “blind” from both roads and had been the scene of numerous accidents.
The decision of the local authority to straighten out the bend was partially influenced by the testimony of late-night motorists. Many claimed that they had crashed while swerving to avoid a speeding double-decker bus that hurtled down St Marks Road in the small hours, long after regular buses ceased service.
A typical report to the Kensington Police read “I was turning the corner and saw a bus tearing towards me. The lights of the top and bottom decks and the headlights were full-on but I could see no crew or passengers. I yanked my steering wheel hard over and mounted the pavement, scraping the roadside wall. The bus just vanished.”
After one fatal accident, during which a driver had swerved and hit the wall head-on, an eyewitness told the coroner’s inquest that he had seen the mystery bus hurtling towards the car seconds before the driver spun off the road.
When the coroner expressed what was perhaps natural cynicism, hundreds of local residents wrote to his office and to the local newspapers offering to testify that they too, had seen the “Ghost Bus”.
Among the most impressing of these witnesses was a local transport official who claimed that he had seen the vehicle draw up to the local bus depot in the early hours of the morning, stand with the engine purring for a moment, and then disappear. Eventually, the local council straightened out the road there, and the accident rate was greatly reduced.
Thereafter there were no more reports of the ghostly red bus.
Researching the Ghost Bus Origin
I wrote the above story twenty years ago based on three references, Harry Ludlam’s aforementioned ghost book, Frank Smythe’s “Ghosts and Poltergeists” book and an article by Bob Griffiths in “Silver Arrow” (November 1998).
Now with greater access to reports, newspaper archives and much more I was able to really deep dive into the local history and try to understand what was happening at the time.
The first aspect of the story I wanted to uncover was the crashes themselves, was St Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens crossroads really a blackspot for crashes, that potentially could be caused by a phantom bus?
I researched over hundred years from 1860 to 1960 to see if there had been any crashes on St Mark’s Road, Cambridge Gardens and Ladbroke Grove in the North Kensington and West Kensington area that are predominately reported in the archives. I discovered, interestingly that there were over a dozen reports during this period, many incidents were reported numerous times and probably caused confusion for future researchers. I have highlighted the incidents as I believe this led to an increase in the belief the crossroads was a dangerous location, and how and why the belief in a ghost bus was haunting the area came to be known.
Reported Incidents in the area:-
Hansom Cab Crash – February 12th 1874
The Northern Whig, Belfast newspaper reports that a Hansom Cab driver, William Goodfellow was charged with being drunk and incapable when in charge of driving a vehicle. While travelling on Ladbroke Grove, Goodfellow was running his horses at “an unnatural velocity” that led to the crash. His horses unnerved, darted across the road into a public house. Interestingly this took place in the thick fog at night, and witnesses saw his cab lit by the lanterns travelling at speed as he galloped down Ladbroke Grove.
Overturned Bus – January 12th 1914
Again Ladbroke Grove, but this is the first time a ‘ motor ‘bus’ is reported to have crashed in the area. Just a few meters from St Mark’s Road, the bus conveying a party of footballer fans and their ‘lady friends’ overturned after passing another bus, striking the kerb and turning over on its side. Seven passengers were taken to hospital with series injuries.
The Skidding Bus – November 7th 1924
Sadly this accident led to the death of Mrs Bates who was knocked down by a bus after it mounted the pavement on Ladbroke Grove. A witness told newspapers that, “he noticed a woman on the pavement at the junction of Cornwall Road and Ladbroke Grove when he heard the brakes of a vehicle being applied. Turning around he saw the driver of the bus trying to avoid a lorry…the bus skidded and the vehicle mounted the pavement where the woman was standing.” The cause of the crash was a fast-moving lorry that was never identified, that forced the bus off the road.
Dangerous Bus Driving – September 25th 1925
Thomas Gurden, appeared in court for driving a bus in a dangerous manner in West Kensington. While going round the bend of Mornington Lodge, he ran into a Ford van, mounted the pavement and hit the railings. The newspapers mention several times that the spot is well known locally as a dangerous corner especially when two vehicles are passing.
Strange Accident – September 28th 1928
Cyril Serby, a motor mechanic and brother of famous horse jockey, P.Serby lost his life when he fell off a bus during a test drive. While travelling towards Ladbroke Grove, Serby, standing on the rear platform leaned out, looking at the body of the bus. Witnesses claimed that the bus ‘seemed to jump’ and Serby was thrown from the bus and fractured his skull. The likelihood is that the bus his the kerb or a passing vehicle causing the bus to throw its mechanic.
I included the above stories because there is obviously an issue in the Kensington area with increased traffic and the ‘motor omnibus’ turning on the tight corners of Kensington’s streets. St Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens had such a tight corner, that a garden was removed to help with the turning circle and blind spot. Frank Smythe mentions in his book that the road was straightened and it stopped the ‘Ghost Bus’ from appearing – the road was never straightened.
The question remains, why is the ghost bus associated with Ladbroke Grove and St Marks Road, and not some of the other crossroads that had experienced crashes?
Motorcycle hits Bus – July 4th 1930
A motorcyclist crashes into the side of a turning bus on Ladbroke Grove. The rider apparently failed to see it turning.
The first accident on St Mark’s Road and Cambridge Garden’s Crossroads – October 18th 1930
This is the first reported accident I found taking place on the ‘haunted’ crossroads. The aspects of the ghost story are here (except for the ghost). Two lights in the dark, speeding bus, and swerving actions.
A stationary car was hit on the corner of Cambridge Gardens and St Mark’s Road by a speeding bus late one night in October. The bus driver claimed in court that ‘for some reason had lost control of the bus’. The accusation from the prosecution was that the company, ‘Hastings Tramways Company’ employed inexperienced drivers, ‘it is the custom of this company…to put inexperienced men on buses to train them to drive, while the buses are plying for hire and carrying passengers. They put a man who was not qualified to drive this trolley bus under the instruction of a trained man.”
A witness Helena Trenchard, said she was in the car when it happened and that, “they drove to the refuge and halted for a moment to look up Cambridge Gardens, there were two lights coming down the hill some way up, they then turned into Cambridge Gardens..the two lights swerved towards us when we were practically on the left side of the road, the two lights crashed into us broadside.”
The London Ghost Bus takes centre stage – June 1934
In June 1934 numerous newspapers reported the inquest into the death of Ian Beaton (25) who was killed in a fatal collision on St Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens (sometimes reported incorrectly as Camberwell Gardens). Beaton had been driving a ‘small motor-car’ that collided with a Rolls Royce at the junction. The inquest reported that following the collision the small car ran zig-zag for a short distance, overturned, and then burst into flames by a lamp-post.
One witness said that “he saw that night, a small car coming to the crossroads at a fast pace, at the crossing the driver appeared to accelerate and then slam on his brakes”. This caused the Rolls Royce behind Beaton to slam into the back of him, sending his forward.
So where is the Ghost Bus? During the examination of a witness, Frederick Robinson from Chesterton Road, North Kensington, the subject of a ghost bus arose.
The Coroner: Can you say if either of the cars were to blame?
Frederick: No, it is a very dangerous point there.
Counsel: This corner is famous for accidents and is a spot where the ghost or phantom bus is supposed to be seen?
Nothing more is made of the ghost bus during the inquest, and the Coroner gives a verdict of ‘accidental death’. However, the question raised created a stir with several newspapers, particularly the Daily Telegraph who sent a reporter to find witnesses to the ‘Ghost Bus’. The Daily Telegraph’s story was syndicated across the UK and is the origin of many of the aspects we know in the story today.
A Mr T.H.Henn told the Telegraph, “It was first supposed to have been seen in broad daylight..a lady was going to get into a bus which she saw turning from Cambridge Gardens into St Mark’s Road. She went to the corner, and when she had got there, she found there was no bus in sight. It had completely disappeared.”
A Dr A.K.Gibson told reporters, “I am told that the bus made one of its latest appearances when it pulled up at a garage near the corner, the driver indicated he wanted petrol, and the garage foreman gave orders for some to be obtained. By the time the petrol had arrived the bus vanished.”
I find it interesting both of these witness statements are actually third hand and are likely to be stories or local folklore in the area. The Pictorial newspaper added to the stories with their own witness that elaborated on the ghost bus and added key aspects to the story.
“The legend of the phantom bus has been going strong for years. I have never met anybody who has seen the bus, but the version I heard was that on certain nights, long after the regular bus service has stopped, people have been awakened by the road of a bus coming down the street. When they have gone to their windows, they have seen a brilliantly lighted double-decker bus approaching with neither driver nor passengers.” Said the female witness. The Pictorial added, “according to this story, the bus goes careening to the corner of Cambridge Gardens and St Mark’s Road and then vanishes. A number of accidents have happened at this corner and it has been suggested that the phantom bus has been the cause.”
I feel there is a correlation between the previous accidents on Ladbroke Grove and the alleged ‘Ghost Bus’. The claims of ‘bright lights’, swerving and causing crashes on a crossroads is very in keeping with the incidents that have taken place earlier around Kensington. I also find it very unusual that a ‘Ghost Bus’ story that is apparently so well known in the area hasn’t had greater newspaper coverage. One thing I have learnt from scouring the archives is that even the simplest of ghost stories appear in the news, so something as amazing as a Ghost Bus should have been reported earlier.
The story of the Ghost Bus doesn’t end here, and the same with St Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens. In October 1934 residents held a demonstration to hold up traffic in protest and with the hope to have traffic lights installed due to the speed and accidents occurring on Cambridge Gardens. Throughout 1937 the crossroads are once again subject to reports about its safety after the death of a little girl while crossing the roads. Later in the year, there was another crash after a car crashed into a bus (a physical one this time), and tellingly in the report, it stated, “numerous accidents happen in this district. A garage attendant said yesterday that many motorists come through Cambridge Gardens and St Mark’s Road to avoid traffic signals in the vicinity. He declared that cars often travelled at a speed of 50 miles an hour.”
Is this the clue we needed to understand why there were so many accidents on this crossroads and Ladbroke Grove? Since the installation of traffic lights in the area around 1920, St Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens became a short cut for passing lorries and motorists – many of which were speeding on very narrow streets not suitable for buses and lorries. It seems to me that the roads at that time had an issue with speeding traffic, inexperienced drivers but not a Ghost Bus.
The 1950s and Enter the Ghost Hunter’s Apprentice
After nearly a twenty-year break, I found in the 1950s a series of accidents again on Ladbroke Grove and Kensington. In 1957 there was again rumours of demonstrations that further work needed to be completed on the St Marks/Cambridge Gardens crossroads to stop accidents, even though previously the local council had removed a garden for greater visibility for drivers. Sadly in October 1957, a car collided with an ambulance, injuring nine people. A month later a female cyclist turned the corner of Cambridge Gardens too fast and hit the rear of the lorry, killing her instantly. I found no mention of the ‘Ghost Bus’ in any of these reports or referenced anywhere until the mid-1960s.
Elliott O’Donnell was Britain’s leading ghost hunter, or at least the most publicly visible. By the 1960s, Elliott was in his late 80s and relying on Harry Ludlam to edit or ghostwrite his books. And it was in these books the Ghost Bus story gained real traction, in 1969 Harry Ludlam was interviewed about Elliott’s favourite ghost stories.
“Kensington and Chelsea it seems were two of O’Donnell’s favourite haunting places.”
And then Harry continues and completely mixes up the Ghost Bus story,
“At the junction of Cambridge Gardens and St Mark’s Road is a spot which had a very high accident rate during the early 1930s. These accidents, some of them fatal, were apparently inexplicable. Eventually, a coroner gave his verdict: a ghost bus had been causing drivers to swerve in alarm. The ‘ghost’ bus always arrived at about 1.15 am and was never seen anywhere but at this junction.”
The statement above in the Post Mercury (November 14th 1969), not only is factually wrong but adds detail that is either made up or only known to Harry and Elliott. As I’ve detailed above, yes there were accidents, but all were easily attributed to human errors caused by speeding or inexperience. The coroner gave a verdict of “accidental death” on every incident reported on this crossroads. And finally, where did time of 1.15 am come from? None of the Daily Telegraph witnesses stated this time, only the ‘female witness’ claiming that the ghost bus appeared long after the buses stopped running.
Luckily I have Harry Ludlam’s ‘Mummy of Birchen Bower and other stories’, as previously mentioned. In a previous article, I detail that Elliott O’Donnell’s archive sold for £25,000 and interestingly this was a few months after Harry’s death. I am convinced that Harry’s ghost books of the 1960s utilised this archive for content. In Birchen Bower, Harry relays the Ghost Bus story as known, but adds,
“talk of a mysterious “ghost bus” seen hurtling by in the early hours first began to spread among the residents of North Kensington…People who had until then kept secret their own glimpse of the strange vehicle, for fear of ridicule and their own sanity, were relieved to find, as the matter came out into the open, that they were among at least a dozen positive witnesses of the phenomenon.”
I have yet to find any direct witness of the “ghost bus” but Harry takes the crash of 1925 and places it in St Mark’s Road, “at one in the morning the dazed driver telling those who rushed out to his aid that he had been travelling along Cambridge Gardens when he suddenly saw a bus drive fast around the corner. He swerved to avoid it, hitting the wall, yet when he turned to look after the bus, there was no vehicle to be seen.”
Harry then uses Dr A.K. Gibson’s statement to the Daily Telegraph and claims, “A mechanic at nearby St Andrew’s Garage then disclosed that several puzzled motorists had told him of their personal encounters with the phantom bus. He added that one night the foreman and assistant were on duty at the garage when the foreman saw a bus out in front, evidently wanting petrol, and called to the assistant to attend to it. But the mystified assistant came back to say that the bus had gone.”
Harry further elaborates the truth, “the inquest court now heard how the dangerous junction was firmly believed to be haunted by the phantom bus; how hundreds of people in North Kensington talked about the apparition and dozens claimed to have seen it.”
This is an utter fabrication since there was only one mention during the question about the Ghost Bus, and it was only the Daily Telegraph and The Pictorial that brought the stories about the Ghost Bus to the fore. Not only that, but all three statements came from people who had not seen the ghost bus, just heard the alleged stories.
In Harry’s chapter, he paints a picture of hundreds of people being affected by this phenomenon, when actually there is little evidence at all the ‘Ghost Bus’ actually existed. Aside from the three statements from 1934, no other experiences or sightings have been reported, but, and this is why I highlight it, Harry’s chapter on the Kensington Ghost Bus has influenced and been repeated through countless ‘Ghost Books’ and websites. Sadly in the paranormal world, not many people try to get to the original source of the story and discover the truth.
Update: No.7 – a quick couple of points on the Ghost Bus being the ‘No.7’ that is mentioned in several online references. The use of No.7 doesn’t seem to appear in any references previous to J.A.Brooks ‘Ghosts of London’ book from 1982. If you spot the use of No.7 – in a previous reference please do get in touch.
I am still working on this story, so do welcome your thoughts and pointers if you can help further with my research.