London is no doubt a contemporary city: it sets global standards of design, style, gastronomy, shopping, technology, culture, and lifestyle. You hear people talk about their favourite city as a ‘City of Contrasts’, and most cities are. I don’t think I have ever been anywhere that was completely homogenous, no matter how small the town is. But to be in a place where you can walk out of the 21st century and into the 19th century with ease and grace is a uniquely London experience. A ‘contrast’ implies a sharp, shocking change, but London is more of a harmonious swirl, a city that lives outside conventional time: both traditional and at the forefront of progress and novelty.
As you walk around Berkley Square, you will encounter fast-food restaurants (Pret and Itsu, not McD’s!), hedge fund offices, and a Bentley car dealer. And then you see it, a dark and looming figure in the row of houses, this is 50 Berkley Square, allegedly the most haunted house in London, and home to one of the oldest and most established book sellers in the world, Maggs Bros.
The story of the building’s haunting, jokingly perpetuated by the friendly, bookish staff, seems to have originated in the nineteenth century. The building, erected in 1740s was famously occupied by a prime minister, but otherwise has a fairly unremarkable history passing from owner to owner. It is a home for the wealthy: large, with the basement dedicated to servants quarters and a kitchen (now full of books), I lost count how many rooms are in the house as it is a maze of bookshelves boxes and desks, but there is a certain feeling of bygone luxury.
The story is that the fourth floor is occupied by a shapeless, spine-chilling specter. Most encounters occur at shortly after the clocks strike midnight, and none of the witnesses could describe what they have seen, most lose their minds and die shortly after the encounter. There is even one death, attributed to the haunting. One notorious rake, Sir Robert Warboys, in 1840 accepted a challenge from his buddies to spend the night in the infamous room. The landlord at the time tried to talk him out of it, but reluctantly agreed on the condition that Warboys takes a pistol with him. Shortly after the clocks struck midnight the landlord heard a gunshot, rushed to the fourth floor, and found Warboys. Dead, lips pulled back, teeth clenched, and eyes bulging with his gun still clasped in his hand, there was a hole in the wall opposite where Warboys sat. The brave rake literally died of shock after shooting at whatever was scared him. The hole is allegedly still there.
In one of the rooms near the entrance to the bookshop, there is a police notice from the 1950s. It states the top floor of the house if not to be used, even for storage. Perhaps to avoid more tragic ends because of the haunting? Nevertheless the rare books dealers use the room as an office, and have not reported anything uncanny. No doubt the ghost is too busy reading these days.
A more likely explanation to the haunting is that it was created by 19th century horror stories and picked up by newspapers and cheap street literature. The Victorians loved crime stories and ghost stories, and the haunted house of 50 Berkley Square is both! Personally, after an admittedly cursory search I couldn’t even find any reference to Sir Robert Warboys except in conjunction with the story of his tragic end at the haunted house perhaps he is completely fictional?
The house if well worth a visit, the building is largely unaltered, and you can still see gorgeous plasterwork and piping inside. This is also one of the few buildings from the period to keep its inner courtyard. The bookshop is a delight as well, the website lists over 6,000 items available for purchase, but surely this is an understatement, the building is brimming with books. It has the enchanting atmosphere of absolute chaos, where someone, somewhere knows exactly where everything is. The rarest and most important books are above most people’s budget, but for £100 or less you could walk away with a respectable addition to your library, remember collecting is possible at different price levels! If dusty, worm-infested old tomes are not your thing (shame on you), Maggs Bros also has a uniquely modern department: Counterculture. As far as I can tell they deal in all things hippie, what’s not to love?
London has no shortage of book dealers, but Maggs Bros, dealing for over 150 years, stands apart for it’s authentic Victorian feel. They occupy a beautiful building and have yet to be hit by the corporate bug that requires order and cleanliness. Well worth a visit, but don’t expect to find any ghosts.
Opening hours: Monday-Friday 9.30-17.00
50 Berkeley Square
London, W1J 5BA