A scare at bedtime: The ghosts that haunt Boom Hall

Although it is now a ruin, I was invited to visit Boom Hall by the last person to reside there, Miss McDevitt.

Tuesday, 30th October 2018, 11:16 am
Updated Tuesday, 30th October 2018, 12:20 pm
Boom Hall.

She was an English and Latin teacher at Thornhill College, then known as the Convent of Mercy Grammar School, Thornhill.

When I returned to teach in the school in the 1970s, Miss McDevitt, although retired, was often called upon as a substitute teacher. In the mornings she caught the school bus, since it passed the gateway to Boom Hall.

In the afternoons I usually gave her a lift home and was invited in to have a cup of tea. Because I had heard that Boom Hall was haunted I initially refused, but later, after some persuasion, I did accept out of politeness.

My initial impression was that it had a very gloomy interior with several rooms off the square entrance hall. The wide staircase on the left leading to the first floor was partially in shadow and dust motes floated in the light rays from the landing window.

The dark wooden bannisters cast warped shadows on the flagstones covering the hall. Miss McDevitt lived mainly in what she called the morning room, which looked out over the river. The room must have been beautiful in its day with the high ceilings, the ornate cornices and chandelier, but at that time it looked weary for the want of necessary maintenance and a heavily carved sideboard dominated it.

She admitted that she had neither the will nor the means for the upkeep that the house needed. I did not stay too long on the occasions when I accepted her invitation. Every time the hall echoed to the sound of our footsteps I almost prepared myself for the ghostlyappearances for which the house was famed.

In Colby’s book, Ordnance Survey of the County of Londonderry (1837), Boom Hall is described as a fine example of a classical villa and it has an illustrious history.

In 1779, ninety years after Derry was saved from the starvation of the Great Siege of 1689, Boom Hall was built by John Alexander, younger brother of the first Lord Caledon, on the west bank of the River Foyle.

The site is of great historical importance because it was there that King James established his headquarters during the siege and it was from there the famous wooden boom’ was erected across the river to prevent help from reaching the besieged city.

It was a formidable obstacle, which defeated many onslaughts until three ships, The Mountjoy, The Jerusalem and The Phoenix succeeded in breaking it. There was a delirious welcome for the ships’ crews when they landed at Shipquay to unload their cargo of food. Unfortunately, Captain Robert Browning of The Mountjoy died of wounds received in the battle to relieve the city.

The land surrounding Boom Hall was known as Gunsland and was also the location of Charles Fort, which played a part in the siege of 1659 as well as the later Great Siege. Skeletal remains, believed to be of soldiers and citizens who died during the sieges, were found in the area nearest the road when the foundations of a new church, St Peter’s Church of Ireland, were being dug.

All of this history adds to the reputation of Boom Hall and its lands being one of the most haunted parts of the city. Stories abound of ghostly visitations, one of which is supposed to be the spirit of Captain Browning.

It is said that his wife Jane watched from the shore, from the site of Charles Fort, believing that she would see her husband soon, but it was not to be. Could it be that it really is his ghost that is reputed to walk along the river on the land known as Gunsland in search of his wife, to fulfil a promise that he would return?

There have been stories that on misty evenings sounds have echoed across the water and a tall man stands perfectly still, looking towards the river before moving in an erratic way along the riverbank. Some say he wears a military garb but no one really knows.

The secret lies with Captain Browning in the churchyard of St Columb’s Cathedral.

The house was handed down through John Alexander’s grandson Robert to his son Henry, a diplomat who eventually died in South Africa in 1818.

The estate then passed to Lord Caledon, a distant relative who sold it in 1849 to Daniel Baird, a wealthy merchant of the city, for £6,000. Because of the many changes of ownership it is difficult to pinpoint who the spectres that haunt it may be.

One story involved a girl who was a relative of the family. She had been sent to stay with the Alexanders in an effort to remove her from the attention of a young groomsman employed in her own home in England.

Love being what it is, the young man followed her and hid out in the stables where they had secret trysts. When they were discovered, the girl was locked in an upstairs bedroom and the young man was banished.

The girl pined and a few weeks later there was a fire in the bedroom. The family frantically fought the flames, terrified that the young girl under their protection would die such a horrific death, but eventually when the flames were extinguished the body of the young girl was not to be found.

Perhaps she did die or more likely she made her escape to follow the young man. Some years ago a group of people were visiting the ruined hall, and they were adamant that in the gloom of the late afternoon a shimmering form of a young woman appeared at the aperture where a top window once was.

The Alexanders were important people in the city. William Alexander (1824-1911), was Bishop of Derry and later Primate of Ireland; his wife Cecil Frances Alexander wrote the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful’; and Field-Marshal Harold Alexander (1891-1969) was renowned for his bravery during the Second World War and later became Governor General of Canada.

Over the years, the house was let to several people. The last occupier was Michael Henry McDevitt who owned a haberdashery business in Derry and had leased the house from Mr Maturin-Baird. However, during the war the Royal Navy requisitioned it and the WRNS who were billeted there apparently left it in a dreadful state.

After the war in 1947 McDevitt approached the owner, who was delighted to sell it, and there was some local talk that the ghostly residents were responsible for the price being lowered. He even offered to do the extensive repairs needed. The sale went through in 1947 and the McDevitt family moved back in.

Miss McDevitt, the last owner, must have led a lonely life in that mausoleum of a house. Even on a bright summer’s day it had an eerie sepulchral feel about it, although she was quite proud of its history and when asked had no hesitation about sharing it. I asked her about its reputation as a haunted house. Her answer was quite straightforward,

Of course it is. They keep me company. There’s no need to fear the dead. It’s the living that will do you harm.’ That is a phrase I’ve heard often since I started gathering stories of ghostly goings-on.

She was proved right because the house was burgled several times and valuable items of silver and even furniture were taken. Obviously the thieves had no fear of ghosts either.

A well-known local historian, Ken McCormack, tells of an even stranger story that came to light when William Alexander’s anecdotal notes were discovered.

According to these notes, Martha Waller married Sir Robert Alexander in 1793. They had four children; the youngest, Waller, was born in 1796, just a year after his brother Robert.

The two boys had the freedom of the extensive grounds of Boom Hall and often played in the front area. When he was eight he visited his grandparents in Drogheda and his parents were delighted to hear that he was enjoying himself immensely.

Some weeks into his visit, his paternal grandmother, Anne Alexander, who lived with her son’s family in Boom Hall, was descending the stairs and happened to look out of the window.

Waller was playing and running around the front lawn. Anne rushed downstairs to see him, delightedly calling to Martha about how happy she was to have Waller back home. Martha looked at her strangely and answered that Waller was still in Drogheda. The old lady decided to say nothing more but had a very uneasy feeling about what she had seen.

Two days later the terrible news arrived that Waller had suddenly been taken ill and died at the exact same time when old Mrs Alexander had seen him playing on the front lawn of Boom Hall.

There are other stories told of spirits haunting Boom Hall, its grounds and stables. Perhaps they are the spirits of the families who lived there previously: James, the 3rd Earl of Caledon, Thomas Bunbury Gough, the Dean of Derry, Daniel Baird and his wife Barbara, the Cooke family, and the Maturin-Bairds. Every family has its secrets, and some only emerge after death, so beware when walking on haunted grounds.

This extract from 'Haunted Derry' by Madeline McCully was reproduced with permission in the 'Journal' in 2015.