The Phantom Organist: The Unsettled Musician Who Haunted The Church Of St John The Apostle, Torquay

For decades people claimed to have seen the ghost or felt its presence while in the Church of St John the Apostle in Torquay, England. Clergymen, other organists, choir singers, and visitors alike claimed to have witnessed the apparition.

Ghost of St Johns Church in Torquay
The phantom organist was said by many to haunt the Church of St John the Apostle for decades

Mr Henry Ditton-Newman was an accomplished organist who greatly raised the standard of the service at St John's Church, in the Devon resort of Torquay. When he died on November 19, 1883, after only four years in the post, it was a great loss to the church. After a choral service, he was buried in Torquay Cemetary. That was when the long, extraordinary haunting of St John's began.

While the body of the organist was lying in the church before burial, the organ was heard to play entirely on its own. Months later, people were startled to hear organ music coming from the empty church at night. Then the vicar, when alone in the church one day, heard the organ suddenly start to play, and on looking up, saw the late organist sitting at the organ. The apparition also appeared to the other people in the church on a number of occasions.

There had been nothing strange about the organist's death, which was from pleurisy. Yet for years the hauntings continued, the organ music being heard played by a phantom hand, and the organist's apparition being seen or his presence strongly felt by a great number of people.

The Rev R. J. E. Boggis, who became vicar of St John's in 1924, wrote a history of the church which was published in 1930. In this he referred briefly to the phantom organist, noting that "there are well-authenticated accounts of apparitions of him in St John's Church". His appearances, said Mr Boggis, were recorded "even down to the present time, and he has been seen by persons who had never known him, and were unaware that St John's had a ghost".

And still, through the 1930s and the years of the last war, the hauntings went on. There was talk of one organist who would not stay in the post because he sensed someone unseen sitting beside him on the organ seat and touching the keys.

The Rev Sir Patrick Ferguson-Davie, who was vicar of St John's from 1945 to 1948, used to hear the ghost in the vicarage. Once, he said he thought it was a burglar. He seized a riding crop and chased the footsteps down the front stairs and into the dining-room wall.

Sir Patrick said the ghost never worried him - it was quite a kind sort of spirit. He had a locum who saw or hear the friendly ghost frequently, called it "Henry", and regarded it as part of the family.

In August 1956 the Rev Anthony T. Rouse, who had then been vicar of St John's for some years, spoke of the church's ghost when conducting a service of commemoration and thanksgiving for the organ before it was dismantled and taken away to be reconstructed. The organ had been installed in 1873, six years before Ditton-Newman was appointed organist for his tragically short-term.

Mr Rouse disclosed at his service that former incumbents and himself had heard footsteps come down the backstairs from the vicarage, Montpelier House, which was formerly the church's resident choir school, and walk across the yard into the church.

"There are quite a number who will still vouch for the authenticity of this," the vicar said. "I also had many guests who have known nothing of the story, and who have spoken about the mysterious footsteps in the night."

The Church of St John the Apostle in Torquay, Devon
The Church of St John the Apostle in Torquay, Devon

Mr Rouse himself had heard "a heavy sort of music" coming from the organ in the empty church while he was in bed in the vicarage. On each of several occasions, it played for just a few minutes. His own theory to explain the persistent ghost was that Ditton-Newman, who had died a young man leaving unfinished several pieces of music which he had composed, wanted to come back to the organ to complete them.

Mr Rouse said he had privately held two services to stop the hauntings, sprinkling holy water and saying prayers in the vicarage, and he thought they had now stopped - "unless there is some new manifestation because the organ is being taken away."

But the hauntings did not stop. Two years later, in November 1958, Mr Rouse admitted that the phantom organist had recently returned. Members of the church's choral society had been practising "when the organ made an extraordinary noise and the ghost appeared. He was seen by a number of people there, and his presence was felt by all."

A material link with Ditton-Newman did in fact still exist, because although the rebuilt organ had a new console, most of the pipes which belonged to the old organ were still in use, having been revoiced.

Shortly after this incident, Mr Rouse revealed that his organist, Mr Frederick Fea, had written to the Bishop of Exeter "pointing out that from time to time he definitely feels a presence on the organ stool with him while he is playing, and he finds it unsettling. The same thing has been experienced by other people while playing the organ. We are hoping that the bishop will be able to take suitable action."

Mr Fea himself explained "I have never seen the ghost, but there is a feeling of somebody watching, and one gets that very strongly at certain times. For two years running, I have noticed it on the same Fridays and the same Sundays. It makes one feel paralysed and you just cannot think or play normally. I have felt that I just could not get through a hymn because of the feeling of strain. In fact, I have always finished the hymn, but more by willpower than anything else. The feeling also seems to paralyse the choir. They find it very difficult to sing and the results are not what one would wish."

What now really worried the vicar was that whereas through the years since its first appearance in 1883, the ghost had been described as a "friendly" spirit, and even a "happy" one, latterly the pattern of the haunting had changed. A feeling of acute depression had settled on the top floor of the vicarage, the former choir school. Mr Rouse said he had kept this development to himself until Mr Fea several times complained of a similar depression he had frequently experienced while sitting at the organ, and which reached such proportions that he had even consulted his doctor. Sprinkling the organ seat with holy water had resulted in only a temporary respite from the "presence".

So, shortly before Christmas, 1958 Mr Rouse - "In desperation, and because these experiences were at complete variance with the long-standing 'friendly ghost'" - visited the College of Psychic Science in London, where he consulted a medium. The medium, on being acquainted with the facts, said she was conscious of a man, an organist of the church, who had gassed himself and had not been given the funeral he felt he should have had, considering what he had tried to do for music at St John's. She advised the vicar to get someone to go to this man's grave and sprinkle it with holy water and say prayers over it.

When Mr Rouse returned to Torquay and told Mr Fea what the medium had said, the organist said it confirmed his belief that the present haunting was not by the apparition of Ditton-Newman, but by the ghost of another organist who had gassed himself a few months before Mr Rouse became vicar. On making inquiries, Mr Rouse found that the body of the man who had committed suicide had been left outside the church in a hearse while the funeral service was being held. And the man had for a short time lived in the former choir school - on the top floor.

The vicar reported all the facts to the bishop, who gave his approval for the medium's advice to be acted upon. And so on New Year's Day, 1959, Mr Rouse visited the grave of the suicide victim in Torquay Cemetery. He sprinkled it with holy water, prayed that the man's soul might be at rest, and recited a psalm.

After this ceremony, the depression in the vicarage suddenly vanished, as did the "presence" at the organ. Both phantom organists of St John's appeared to have found peace at last.

Now you have read about the Phantom Organist of the Church of St John at Torquay, Devon, England, make sure you take a look at the Marine Ghost Demands Justice: The Restless Spirit Of A Young Man Who Wanted The Truth To Be Known.


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