A College Mystery

19 Aug

Visitors to Cambridge will find Christ’s College – the alma mater of both John Milton and Charles Darwin – in the middle of a crowded shopping precinct. To get in, you will normally have to go through a narrow door set in the large oak portal of the gatehouse. At once, you are a world away from the hustle and bustle, in a court that leads to another court that leads to a garden that could be in the heart of the countryside. When it was founded in 1505 (or more accurately re-founded – the college has been around since the early 1400s in one form or another), Christ’s College lay on the edge of town and this has enabled it to expand over the centuries. Now, beyond a gatehouse decorated with mythical horned beasts (known as ‘yales’), the college is one of Cambridge’s most attractive enclaves, boasting extensive gardens that must have been a Paradise Gained for Milton. Yet in the heart of any paradise there is almost always a serpent and at Christ’s this takes the form of an unusual and unsettling ghost story. Alfred Ponsford Baker, a graduate of the college, used Christ’s as the setting for a novel entitled A College Mystery. Published in 1918, this tells the story of how the ghost of Christopher Round came to haunt Christ’s College. Although it was ostensibly a work of fiction, it has since come to be widely accepted as true.

Baker studied at Christ’s from 1892 to 1895 and later became a writer and history lecturer at Cambridge. The most beautiful features of his alma mater include the 17th century Fellows’ Building and the attractive Fellows’ Garden, which is noted for a picturesque bathing pool. Much of the activity in A College Mystery centres on the Fellows’ Building and Garden. Early in the 19th century Christopher Round went to Cambridge to take a classics degree. Here he made the acquaintance of another freshman, Philip Collier, who was noted for his good looks and charming personality. Round was the harder worker, with a sound grasp of his subject, but he lacked Collier’s grace and style. Consequently, Collier won awards at every academic contest, while Round could only secure an honourable mention. After taking their degrees Round and Collier were elected Fellows of Christ’s College, and given apartments in the Fellows’ Building. Soon afterwards, Collier was nominated to become Professor of Greek, above the more methodical Round. At the same time both men fell in love with a woman called Mary Clifford but, to Round’s disappointment, she chose Collier’s offer of marriage. So were the events set in motion that climaxed in a scene of violence at the pond in the Fellow’s Garden.

One night Round was walking past the pond in the Fellows’ Garden when Collier came staggering towards him with an unsteady gait, as if drunk. Suddenly, Collier stumbled and fell into the pond. Round then noticed a pole lying on the ground; picking it up he extended it to Collier, initially with the intention of rescuing him. But then Round was overcome with anger and jealousy: why should he rescue an apparently drunken scoundrel who was about to cheat him out of his Professorship and the woman he loved? He raised the pole and struck Collier furiously about the head. The next morning, the local newspapers reported that Collier’s body had been found at the end of the Fellows’ Garden. An inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. Mary Clifford, heartbroken, left Cambridge, never to return. Round meanwhile collapsed and was semi-conscious for weeks after Collier’s death. When he recovered he spent the rest of his life at Christ’s College, a lonely figure, immersing himself in his studies, shunning company and refusing all offers of promotion. It appears that the guilt over what he did preyed on his mind so greatly that he wrote a confession, which he gave to his solicitor in a sealed envelope to be opened 50 years after his death. Yet there was an anomaly in the confession, which was inconsistent with the conclusions drawn by the coroner on the death of Collier. The coroner’s inquest took place during Round’s illness and he never knew its official findings, which cast considerable doubt over whether he was in fact responsible for Collier’s death at all.

This discrepancy is never explained in the book, and readers are, perhaps, supposed to come to their own conclusions as to which version is the most accurate. Either way, A College Mystery raises a number of intriguing questions. Did Round murder Collier? Did his confession contain the full truth? Did the University authorities, fearing a scandal, seek to conceal the real circumstances? Most intriguingly, exactly how much truth is there in Baker’s little story? Certainly, the Dr James Young Simpson who appears as a witness at Philip Collier’s inquest, was real enough. During the inquest, he tells of his experiments, with his friends ‘Mr George Keith and Mr Duncan’ and Collier, in ‘inhaling various preparations to see if we could produce the state of temporary unconsciousness we desired’. Simpson (1811-1870) was an Edinburgh surgeon specialising in obstetrics, whose experimentation with anaesthetics culminated in a famous and near-fatal occasion in 1847 when he and his friends Drs George Keith and Matthew Duncan were all able to bear witness to the efficacy of chloroform. Having inhaled it, they promptly collapsed insensible to the floor! It is interesting that Baker, whose early ambitions to become a doctor were thwarted by a sports related injury in 1895 which crippled him for life, should have chosen a well known event in medical history around which to base the explanation for certain events in his tale. There was, however, no Philip Collier and no Christopher Round at Cambridge throughout the relevant period. Their lives and deaths were entirely fictional, including the documents (the newspaper reports of Collier’s inquest and will) with which Baker added verisimilitude. He did such a good job of this, however, that the account has been retold as factual in a number of volumes of ‘true ghost stories’, such as Peter Underwood’s Gazetteer of British Ghosts (1971), Andrew Green’s Our Haunted Kingdom (1973) and John Brooks’ Good Ghost Guide (1994).

An even more intriguing twist to the tale is the ‘real-life’ ghost of Christ’s College: an elderly man who has been spotted walking across the Fellows’ Garden by members of the college. He wears an old fashioned swallow-tailed coat and a beaver hat which conceals his face, but he conveys an air of care and unhappiness. Always avoiding the pond, he vanishes into the shadows at the end of the garden. Witnesses affirm that his appearances are preceded or followed by the sound of footsteps on the staircase of the Fellows’ Building, and the sound of a door opening and closing in the chambers which Christopher Round was said to occupy – but when they look the passage is empty. The fictional story of Round and Collier has become so firmly attached to the ghost at Christ’s that it is impossible to say whether Baker invented that too, or whether there really were sightings of a strange figure in the Fellows’ Garden around which he wove his fiction. It is also interesting to note the link between Baker and the master of the ghost story, M R James, who was then in his pomp as a writer, and who must have cast a long shadow over the many other genre authors associated with the city and university of Cambridge at the time. In the Preface to A College Mystery, Baker thanks “the Provost of Eton [i.e. MR James] for reading through the manuscript of this little book and for kindly comment”. There is, however, no evidence of any connection whatsoever between the two men.

Baker died in 1919, taking all of the mysteries referred to above with him to his grave, and is commemorated by a plaque in the college chapel. Before his death he dedicated A College Mystery to the many young men of his beloved Christ’s who gave their lives for their country in The Great War. His obituary ends: “Many, outside the walls of Christ’s no less than within, will sadly miss an ever cheerful and very gallant spirit”.

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2 Responses to “A College Mystery”

  1. charlespaxton August 20, 2012 at 11:59 pm #

    Good post, Anil.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. New ghost post A College Mystery « Hugh Paxton's Blog - August 20, 2012

    […] A College Mystery […]

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