Spirits on the Rocks

GhostColleen Harrison believes in ghosts, and she not only subscribes to the theory that they’re people who can’t move on, she thinks they’re people who’ve been in a helpless state when they died. “You’ll find a lot of ghosts in prisons and hospitals,” she tells Paranormal. “Maybe that’s why we have so many ghosts around The Rocks, because in the early days so many people were so disempowered.”

Harrison runs a popular ghost walking tour business for tourists and if she’s right, it’s easy to believe The Rocks area of Australia’s oldest city is crawling with supernatural phenomena.

When the First Fleet landed in 1788 harsh, arid scrub surrounded them. Today Sydney is a buzzing modern metropolis with every modern convenience but back then it wasn’t even clear the new penal colony would even survive. The British hadn’t bought nearly enough crop seed or stock to sustain the population of just over 1,300 convicts, crew and soldiers and farming the dry, hot land was nearly impossible.

When the first permanent settlements were built between Sydney Cove and Dawes Point (now a park from which the Harbour Bridge starts its northern journey) it was named The Rocks after the sandstone that went into much of the building.

Since the early 1970s The Rocks has been a sought-after locality for tourists and the urbane, but for most of its 180-year history it resembled the darkest periods of the London East End or Harlem, New York — a hotbed of poverty, sickness, murder, crime, prostitution and disease. Claims of the paranormal were almost a given…

Today Sydney is a gleaming jewel of bright lights, stunning architecture, crippling real estate prices and modernity. At the northernmost end of the city’s main thoroughfare (George Street) you’ll find yourself in the modern Rocks, a stretch of galleries, charming old pubs and funky advertising agencies that pay (and charge) a premium to operate here. Even most of the well-known back alleys are full of sexy boutique hotels, low-lit bars and artists’ quarters.

But there’s another side to The Rocks you’ll need an intrepid spirit and a willingness to get lost in order to tackle. A maze of tiny paths, stairs, nooks and crannies spans an area little bigger than one and half football fields. Ancient sandstone walls with time-worn wooden doorways rise out of cobbles in the darkness, hard to find and poorly lit.

The rest of Sydney is an explosion of light beyond, but down here it’s like a parallel universe. The worn-down corners of sandstone blocks and small, tightly-closed shacks and stores look like the perfect home to a restless spirit who can’t pass on.

Ghost experts

Few people know more about the history of ghosts in The Rocks than Colleen and Brian Harrison. Brian, who’s lived in The Rocks all his life, heard stories from parents and grandparents of people whose spirits remained after dying in despair, violence or the barbaric medical care or penal system of the day.

Then Colleen saw her own unexplained phenomena. “When I first came to live in The Rocks I saw one woman in particular who walked down Ferry Lane,” Harrison remembers. “She walked up the stairs to the Observatory and I thought she was just in my imagination. It wasn’t until later I wondered exactly what I saw. Until this day I’m not really that sure.”

Harrison thinks you do need a certain level of ‘sensitivity’ to see ghosts, and the number of reports she talks about would suggest many people have it. “We probably get two photos a month that are really good,” she says. “On the tours themselves, at least one person a week feels extremely uncomfortable, notices a presence or feels something touching them.”

Of course, it pays to keep in mind while walking around The Rocks looking for ghosts that we often see what we want to see. No matter how theatrical or fun the tour is, you find yourself in some very dingy, dark and scary corners where it’s suddenly very hard to believe you’re in the middle of a big city. Amid the rough-hewn brick walls slick with dank water, the sickly orange of old arc lights and tiny blackened windows with peeling wooden frames, surely the imagination can take over a little too much.

“People do have an expectation they’ll see something,” Harrison agrees, “I doubted it when I saw an apparition for the first time. But about four years ago I was with another [tour] host and we both saw the same woman. She was dressed in a lovely old-fashioned dress and her hair was in a tight bun.

“We both commented to each other about her and the way she glided passed the doorway, it was a very swift action and she looked like she was floating. It wasn’t until later we realised we’d seen the apparition who haunted the Hero of Waterloo hotel. After that I felt confident what I’d seen prior were other apparitions. Some people really want to see something but there are those who don’t expect it. People have told me they were skeptics but after the tour they really doubted their convictions.”

Ivan Nelson, publican of the Hero of Waterloo for the last 20 years, is a slight but spritely man in his 60s. As a descendant not of Nelson himself but a Portuguese merchant who warned Nelson of the coming of the Spanish Armada, Nelson’s a practical man who doesn’t seem given to stories of ghosts and hauntings, but as he showed Paranormal around the bowels of the 169-year-old building, he told us about the hotel’s two resident spirits.

Built by a stonemason near the then-waterfront in Windmill Street, the Hero of Waterloo was home to Thomas Kirkman and his wife Anne. An exhaustive search of old government records bought Anne Kirkman’s existence to light, but failed to show where or how she died. She might be the lady Colleen Harrison and her colleague saw gliding past the downstairs window.

Most who know about the ghosts of the Hero of Waterloo characterise them as ‘happy’ spirits. We asked Nelson whether it gives him the creeps laying down to sleep every night above a haunted pub. “It’s scary when it starts,” he says, assuring us the invisible residents are harmless, “but you can feel that they’re happy. There’s a happy, jovial mood in the place.”

A visiting Thai businessman who was also a practicing monk also felt many ‘happy’ presences in the hotel and told Nelson if he left food and gifts out for them they’d leave in their own time. At the bottom of the current wood staircase into the cellar you can see the top step of the original stone staircase.

Many a visitor has felt the rising of the hackles on the back of his neck where Paranormal is standing right now, hearing Nelson tell the story. The Thai businessman also felt the mood turn when he stood here, telling Nelson something terrible had happened. Might the stairs be where Anne met her end?

After meeting Nelson, we chat to Stephen, the strapping Irish lad behind the bar who also witnessed the Hero of Waterloo’s darker side. “I was showing a pair of American lads around downstairs,” he says. “As one of them was leaving the lock-up [a small, shower-sized enclosure where the publican would manacle disobedient convicts to the wall for punishment] one of them suddenly jolted to a halt. Something had grabbed him and pulled him back by the hood of his jacket, and the cross pendant he was wearing was turned around as well.”

The Hero of Waterloo’s regular phenomena are from more active but far less frightening poltergeists. After upstairs functions rooms are reset for a new day, several chairs can be found facing the fireplace the next morning, even though nobody’s been inside since the previous evening.

Until earlier this year, Nelson and his wife would be awoken in the middle of the night by beautiful classical music coming from the piano in the main bar area. In each case as he descended the stairs from the upstairs apartment towards the bar, the music stopped before he got there, the lid of the piano left open.

Nelson says the piano phenomenon used to be far more common, occurring every few weeks. But the Nelsons now live alone above the hotel after their two daughters moved out, and as every ghost enthusiast knows, we usually equate poltergeist activity with the young. Could the Hero of Waterloo’s supernatural residents be fading away after the more youthful energy that attracted them has moved on?

Who will they call?

Curiously, while there’s no shortage of psychics who will ‘clear’ your house of poltergeists or disturbances for a fee, our investigations found very few Australian academics willing to visit supposedly haunted premises and use sensitive equipment to watch for paranormal phenomena.

With a much smaller population than the UK or other economically developed English speaking countries, Australia has a comparatively smaller academic community, much of whose resources are geared towards business and industry. After reading records and calling several university faculties around the country and particularly in Sydney itself, it appears there’s never been a detailed study of haunted sites in The Rocks by scientists.

When Paranormal asked Colleen Harrison if she’d welcome such a study, we expected bad news. Her guides wear wide brimmed black hats and capes and hand out plastic props to the participants to act out the violent or sad stories behind each disturbance. The theatricality of the tours depends on a shroud of morbid and mysterious you can see as soon as you visit their website at ghosttours.com.au. Might proof one way or another erase her market overnight?

We were pleasantly surprised when Harrison said she’d be happy to give investigators access to the sites her tours take in, some of which are off limits to the public. All the ghosts who haunt The Rocks need is someone to step up…

The Ghosts

The Little Girl at the Gumnut

Walking along Harrington Street you’ll pass pubs and restaurants full of young professionals unwinding after work, and the white-walled house nestled behind a small courtyard seems much like any other historic building. It’s the second oldest building that still stands in The Rocks, recently home to the Gumnut Café and currently unused.

The Gumnut Café’s proprietor was sorting boxes in the upstairs room when she became convinced someone was watching her even though she was the only one in the room. Several years later a customer saw a little girl in old-fashioned dress sitting on the stairs nursing a doll. It’s believed the little girl is the daughter of the Reynolds family who bought it in the 1830s.

Hospital Lane

What might be mistaken for an abandoned laneway was the site of Sydney’s first hospital, a short stretch of makeshifts shelters and tents adjacent to the old prison cells and police station off Nurses Walk.

The conditions were often worse for patients than the injuries or illnesses that had bought them in to start with. So many people died here of malnutrition, stab and gunshot wounds from drunken fights, brutal punishments like floggings and various other mistreatments and calamities it’s one of the most active haunted areas in The Rocks. Along with manifestations of apparitions, a strong theme here is a sense of unease and discomfort felt by witnesses and even the staff of nearby businesses.

Parbury Ruins

When a property developer started work on a swanky apartment building in Pottinger Street a stone’s throw from the water, they found the ruins of a sandstone cottage below street level, forgotten by time and dating back to the 1820s.

Today it’s a historical exhibit, and after climbing down a metal staircase you can see the remains of the old kitchen trough, well and chimney. If you?re lucky, you might also see the wife of the man who owned the house, standing in the gloom in her black dress and veil. Other witnesses have reported being touched by her invisible phantom presence.