The Secret of 50 Berkeley Square

keli ciesemier
keli ciesemier / keli ciesemier

by Paul Collins

It starts with the house. Long before it inspired one of London’s most popular haunted house rides, the building at 50 Berkeley Square inspired fear. The dark and dilapidated structure sat ignored, caked in decades of soot and grime. Handbills and loose straw accumulated in the yard. In the words of Charles G. Harper, author of the 1907 book Haunted Houses, the four-story manse was “the very picture of misery.”

A spectacle of decay in an otherwise respectable central London neighborhood, the house became a magnet for ghost stories. One magazine claimed: “When touched, [the walls] are found saturated with electric horror.” Those foolhardy enough to spend the night inside, it was whispered, were found dead in the morning, their faces contorted with terror.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the few who dared knock at the door were waved off by a tight-lipped servant. One would-be investigator, fortifying his courage with drink, was promptly arrested and fined 10 shillings—though he never managed to get inside. The local Spiritualist Society had no better luck contacting the owner, leaving the Victorian poet Frederick Doveton to muse:

The cobwebs in the windows lie, And dirt and dust are there; What is the unknown history Of 50, Berkeley-square?

In 1880, the disappointingly mundane answer emerged in Notes & Queries magazine. Despite its vacant appearance, 50 Berkeley Square had been occupied by a Mr. Myers since 1859—unlisted and unseen but brought to light in 1873 by a tax summons. The “ghost” was simply a recluse who had let the place decay. But like the best haunted houses, 50 Berkeley Square had juicier secrets tucked beneath its floorboards. In fact, the home’s true legacy may be more fantastic than any ghost story and may hold the key to unlocking one of literature’s greatest puzzles.

Who, exactly, was Mr. Myers? Only one person seems to have had any knowledge of the ghost of Berkeley Square: a grande dame of Victorian society named Lady Dorothy Nevill. Born just down the street, Lady Nevill was a writer, horticulturist, and “noted conversationalist.” But in her 1906 memoir, The Reminiscences of Lady Dorothy Nevill, she spilled insider knowledge about Mr. Myers: namely, that he was a relative. Her hints, traced through peerage records, reveal him to be Thomas Myers.

It turns out Myers was the son of a member of Parliament, though he didn’t follow his father into politics. According to Nevill, “He was exceedingly eccentric, to a degree which bordered on lunacy.” Myers had acquired the home after becoming engaged, and “he made every preparation to receive his bride in it—ordered carpets, pictures, china, everything—but a few days before the day fixed for the wedding the lady to whom he was engaged threw him over and married another man. ... [He] remained there, leaving everything in exactly the same state as when he heard the news which had ruined his life. ... some of the carpets were not even unrolled, and remained for years tied up just as they were when they left the warehouse.”

If Lady Nevill's description of Myers sounds eerily familiar, it’s because it matches Charles Dickens’s immortal character Miss Havisham, from Great Expectations. Dickens began writing the novel in September 1860, around the time that Thomas Myers became unhinged.

In Dickens’s telling, the tragic Miss Havisham is jilted on her wedding day and morbidly preserves her home as it was at that moment. She lives out her life dressed in her bridal gown, with all the clocks stopped at 20 minutes to nine. “Everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago,” Dickens wrote. “Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal-dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.”

Though Dickens himself never gave away the inspiration, Miss Havisham was indeed based on a real person. Dickens’s colleague James Payn revealed in his 1884 memoir that Havisham was modeled after someone he’d told the novelist about. Payn discreetly neither named nor revealed the gender of the person but vowed the Dickens version was “not one whit exaggerated.”

Dickens was known for borrowing his characters from real life. The London criminal Ikey Solomon inspired the infamous Fagin in Oliver Twist. Fellow author Walter Landor became Lawrence Boythorne in Bleak House. Dickens often didn’t cover his tracks: After his wife’s chiropodist complained that she’d inspired the vulgar Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield, the author admitted she was right.

But for decades, biographers and academics have been unable to find an entirely satisfactory inspiration for Miss Havisham—perhaps because they have always looked for brides. Favorite candidates included the obscure Australian eccentric Eliza Emily Donnithorne, who sequestered herself and let her wedding cake rot after her 1856 nuptials were canceled, and Eliza Jumel, an elderly former wife of Aaron Burr rumored to have once hosted Dickens on a visit to New York and to have maintained a decaying dining room feast, leftovers from her grief over a lover. But the arguments in both cases are thin—in fact, Jumel’s feast and Dickens’s visit both appear to be apocryphal.

While the smart money would bet that the original Miss Havisham was a mister and that her eerily preserved home was inspired by the decaying walls of 50 Berkeley Square, only Dickens would know for sure. Today, the building’s shiny, polished exterior at 50 Berkeley Square occupies a less spooky role in literary history: It houses the famed antiquarian bookshop Maggs Bros. Ltd. “The stories about the ghost are complete horlicks. ... Nothing to it at all,” bookseller Ed Maggs assures us. But the first edition of Great Expectations in his shop is quite real—it’ll set you back £60,000.

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