Peter Underwood (parapsychologist)

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Peter Underwood, FRSA (16 May 1923 – 26 November 2014) was an English author, broadcaster and parapsychologist. [1] Underwood was born in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. Described as "an indefatigable ghost hunter", he wrote many books which surveyed alleged hauntings within the United Kingdom - beginning the trend of comprehensive regional 'guides' to (purportedly) haunted places. One of his well-known investigations concerned Borley Rectory, which he also wrote about. [2]

Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts Award granted by the Royal Society of Arts

Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) judges to have made outstanding achievements to social progress and development. In the official language of the Fellowship Charter, the award recognizes the contributions of exceptional individuals from across the world who have made significant contributions relating to the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce. Fellowship is only awarded to those who can demonstrate that they have made significant contributions to social change, and support the mission of the RSA. Fellows of the RSA are entitled to use the post-nominal letters FRSA. Fellows of the Royal Society of the Arts are entitled to use of the RSA Library and premises in central London.

An author is the creator or originator of any written work such as a book or play, and is also considered a writer. More broadly defined, an author is "the person who originated or gave existence to anything" and whose authorship determines responsibility for what was created.

Television presenter person who introduces or hosts television programs

A presenter is a person who introduces or hosts television programs. Nowadays, it is common for personalities in other fields to take on this role, but some people have made their name solely within the field of presenting, particularly within children's television series, to become television personalities.


Early life

Born into a family who were Plymouth Brethren, Underwood had his first paranormal experience at the age of nine, when he claimed to have seen an apparition of his father, who had died earlier the same day, standing at the bottom of his bed. [3] During his childhood, his maternal grandparents lived for a time at Rosehall, a seventeenth century Hertfordshire house which it was claimed was haunted, supposedly having a bedroom in which guests claimed to have seen the figure of a headless man. Underwood's interest in hauntings and psychic matters began to take root at that time. [4]

Plymouth Brethren religious denomination

The Plymouth Brethren are a conservative, low church, non-conformist, evangelical Christian movement whose history can be traced to Dublin, Ireland in the late 1820s, originating from Anglicanism. The group emphasizes sola scriptura, the belief that the Bible is the supreme authority for church doctrine and practice over and above any other source of authority. Plymouth Brethren generally see themselves as a network of like-minded free churches, not as a Christian denomination.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Underwood joined the publishing firm of J.M. Dent & Sons in Letchworth Garden City. In January 1942 he was called up for active service with the Suffolk Regiment. After collapsing at a rifle range at Bury St Edmunds, Underwood was diagnosed with a serious chest ailment which rendered him unfit for active service. He was discharged from the army and returned to Dents. On 15 July 1944 Underwood married his wife Joyce at St. Mary's Church in nearby Baldock (she died in 2003 after having suffered with Parkinson's Disease for 14 years). [5]

Suffolk Regiment military unit

The Suffolk Regiment was an infantry regiment of the line in the British Army with a history dating back to 1685. It saw service for three centuries, participating in many wars and conflicts, including the First and Second World Wars, before being amalgamated with the Royal Norfolk Regiment to form the 1st East Anglian Regiment in 1959 which, in 1964, was further amalgamated with the 2nd East Anglian Regiment, the 3rd East Anglian Regiment and the Royal Leicestershire Regiment to create the present Royal Anglian Regiment.

Bury St Edmunds market town and civil parish in the county of Suffolk, England

Bury St Edmunds, commonly referred to locally as Bury, is a historic market town and civil parish in Suffolk, England. Bury St Edmunds Abbey is near the town centre. Bury is the seat of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich of the Church of England, with the episcopal see at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

Baldock historic market town in Hertfordshire, England

Baldock is a historic market town in the local government district of North Hertfordshire in the ceremonial county of Hertfordshire, England where the River Ivel rises. It lies 33 miles (53 km) north of London, 15 miles (24 km) southeast of Bedford, and 14 miles (23 km) north northwest of the county town of Hertford. Nearby towns include Royston to the northeast, Letchworth and Hitchin to the southwest and Stevenage to the south.

Underwood was much influenced by the work of Harry Price - the grandfather of ghost-hunting - and was particularly struck by Price's ‘The End of Borley Rectory’, which he read immediately when it was first published in 1946. [6] Investigating Borley himself, he corresponded with Price about it. Price then invited Underwood to join the Ghost Club , of which he would later become President. [7]

Harry Price British writer

Harry Price was a British psychic researcher and author, who gained public prominence for his investigations into psychical phenomena and his exposing fraudulent spiritualist mediums. He is best known for his well-publicized investigation of the purportedly haunted Borley Rectory in Essex, England.

Investigating the Paranormal

Underwood's 'calling card', circa 1970s. Peter Underwood's 'calling card', circa 1970s.jpg
Underwood's 'calling card', circa 1970s.

During his investigations into the Borley Rectory case, over a period of years, Underwood traced and personally interviewed almost every living person who had been connected with what the press had dubbed the 'most haunted house in England'. He built up a volume of correspondence with paranormal investigator Harry Price and after Price's death, Paul Tabori would become literary executor of the Harry Price Estate, with whom Underwood worked with to publish all his research into Borley. (Price had written published two books about Borley- The Most Haunted House in England (1940), and The End of Borley Rectory (1946), from which Underwood 'compile[d] a really comprehensive index of the combined volumes'.) [8]

Borley Rectory Haunted House

Borley Rectory was a Victorian house that gained infamy as "the most haunted house in England" after being described as such by psychic researcher Harry Price. Built in 1862 to house the rector of the parish of Borley and his family, it was badly damaged by fire in 1939 and demolished in 1944.

Paul Tabori Hungarian writer

Paul Tabori was a Hungarian-Jewish author, novelist, journalist and psychical researcher. He also wrote under the name Peter Stafford. He was the brother of writer and theatre director George Tabori.

Underwood's published work changed the field of literature on the paranormal. For example, his much imitated Gazetteer of British Ghosts (1971) [9] [10] [11] and Haunted London (1973) - previously unheard of comprehensive and well-researched surveys (or geographical dictionaries - gazetteers) - which, through their encyclopaedic thoroughness, imparted authority to Underwood as an author on the subject he devoted his life to - ghost hunting. They also encouraged others to use them as resources to use to visit the sites he investigated for themselves. Underwood came to be known as a 'veteran psychical researcher ... representing the middle-ground between scepticism and uncritical belief'; the 'Sherlock Holmes of psychical research' - as Dame Jean Conan Doyle would say (when introducing him). [12] [13]

Ghost hunting Process of investigating locations supposedly haunted by ghosts

Ghost hunting is the process of investigating locations that are reported to be haunted by ghosts. Typically, a ghost-hunting team will attempt to collect evidence supporting the existence of paranormal activity. Ghost hunters use a variety of electronic devices, including EMF meters, digital thermometers, both handheld and static digital video cameras, including thermographic and night vision cameras, as well as digital audio recorders. Other more traditional techniques are also used, such as conducting interviews and researching the history of allegedly haunted sites. Ghost hunters may also refer to themselves as "paranormal investigators."

In their book Ghosts of Borley (1973), Underwood and Paul Tabori wrote that they believed "some of the phenomena were genuine" at the Borley Rectory. [14] The researcher Trevor H. Hall criticized Tabori and Underwood for selective reporting. According to Hall, the alleged paranormal phenomena from the rectory were the result of natural causes, such as noises produced by rats or flying bats, pranks by local village boys throwing stones at the house, or tramps trying to keep warm by lighting small fires in the rectory. [14]

Peter Underwood, circa 1980s.png

In his book No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter (1983), Underwood came to the conclusion after years of investigation that 98% of the reports of ghosts and hauntings are likely to have naturalistic explanations such as misidentification, hallucination or pranks and he was most interested in the 2% of the phenomena that he believed may be genuine. [15]

Underwood was a long-standing member of the Society for Psychical Research. [16] For some years Underwood was the Honorary Librarian of the Constitutional Club and the Savage Club, where he was a former Member of the Qualifications Committee. In 1976 a bust of Underwood was sculpted by Patricia Finch, winner of the Gold Medal for Sculpture in Venice (it currently resides with the Savage Club).

In 2018, a website was published dedicated to chronicling his life and work. [17]

Ghost Club Society

Underwood (centre), talking with guests and fellow members during the 1962 Ghost Club Grand Centenary Dinner. 1962 Ghost Club Grand Centenary Dinner.png
Underwood (centre), talking with guests and fellow members during the 1962 Ghost Club Grand Centenary Dinner.

Having been invited to join the Ghost Club by Harry Price, Underwood was its President from 1960 to 1993. [18] In 1994, Underwood formed the Ghost Club Society after his departure from the Ghost Club. [19] Membership to the Ghost Club Society was by invitation only. It was reported that the group had several hundred members. [19] [20] Quarterly newsletters were published to members and regular meetings held around the United Kingdom. [19]


Peter Underwood with fellow members of the Ghost Club outside Sherrington Manor in 1962. Peter Underwood with fellow members of the Ghost Club outside Sherrington Manor in 1962.png
Peter Underwood with fellow members of the Ghost Club outside Sherrington Manor in 1962.

In recognition of his more than seventy years of paranormal investigations - Dame Jean Conan Doyle described him as 'The Sherlock Holmes of Psychical Research' [21] - Underwood accepted the invitation to be the Patron of The Ghost Research Foundation (founded in Oxford in 1992), which termed him the King of Ghost Hunters. In 2000 Underwood was contacted by Clark R. Schmidt, Doctor of Esoteric Sciences from Celestial Visions School of Metaphysical Arts in Fort Lauderdale (founded in 1994) Florida, to become a lifelong member of the Universal Parapsychological and Metaphysical Association (founded in 1996), which he accepted. Shortly before his death he accepted an invitation to be the Patron of Paranormal Site Investigators (UK). [22]


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  1. Williams, Michael. "Peter Underwood obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 December 2015..
  2. "Peter Underwood - obituary". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2 December 2015..
  3. Underwood, Peter (1983). No Common Task. London: Harrap. pp. 18–19. ISBN   978-0245539596.
  4. Profile of Peter Underwood: Adams, Paul. "Harry Price Website" . Retrieved 2 December 2015.; see also the first chapter of Underwood, Peter (1983). No Common Task. London: Harrap. pp. 13–39. ISBN   978-0245539596.
  5. Underwood, Peter (1983). No Common Task. London: Harrap. p. 39. ISBN   978-0245539596.
  6. Underwood, Peter (1983). No Common Task: Autobiography of a Ghost Hunter (1st ed.). London: George G.Harrap & Co Ltd. p. 45. ISBN   9780245539596.
  7. Adams, Paul; Underwood, Peter; Brazil, Eddie (2009). The Borley Rectory Companion (1st ed.). Stroud: The History Press. p. 300. ISBN   9780750950671.
  8. Underwood, Peter (1983). No Common Task. London: Harrap. pp. 187, 70–71. ISBN   978-0245539596.; Price, Harry (1940). The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years Investigation of Borley Rectory. Longman's Green.; Price, Harry (1946). The End of Borley Rectory - The Most Haunted House in England. Harrap.
  9. "Modern Living: The Great Ghost Haunts". Time. 1971-08-30. ISSN   0040-781X . Retrieved 2016-11-10.
  10. Karpeles, Maud; Smith, A. W.; Gunda, Béla; Hudspeth, W. H.; Briggs, K. M.; Ettlinger, Ellen; Briggs, Katharine M.; Brown, Theo; Burland, C. A. (1971-09-01). "Book Reviews". Folklore. 82 (3): 249–260. doi:10.1080/0015587X.1971.9716735. ISSN   0015-587X.
  11. "The A-Z of British Ghosts". Retrieved 2016-11-10.
  12. Drury, Nevill (2003). The Dictionary of the Esoteric. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 315. ISBN   978-8120819894.; Williams, Michael (2014). Haunted North Cornwall. The History Press. p. 41. ISBN   978-0750954396.
  13. Peter Underwood; "My Friend Dame Jean Conan Doyle"; pp.128-131; The Shoso-in Bulletin of Japan, Volume 12, 2002, Edited by Hirayama Yuichi & Mel Hughes (Sherlock Holmes Journal)
  14. 1 2 Hall, Trevor H. (1985). A Note on Borley Rectory: The Most Haunted House in England. In Paul Kurtz. A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. pp. 327-338. ISBN   0-87975-300-5
  15. Underwood, Peter (1983). No Common Task. London: Harrap. p. 11. ISBN   978-0245539596.
  16. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-10-19. Retrieved 2006-08-22.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) Underwood on the Gothic Press website
  17. "The Life & Work of the Renowned British Ghost-hunter". Retrieved 2018-10-26.
  18. Adams, Paul; Underwood, Peter; Brazil, Eddie (2009-04-09). The Borley Rectory Companion: The Complete Guide to the Most Haunted House in England (1st ed.). Stroud: The History Press. p. 301. ISBN   9780750950671.
  19. 1 2 3 Cheung, Theresa (2006). The Element Encyclopedia of the Psychic World. Harper Element. p. 244. ISBN   978-0-00-721148-7.
  20. Darnton, John (April 30, 1994). "Was it a ghost of a chance - or vice versa?". The Houston Chronicle.
  21. Williams, Michael (2014). Haunted North Cornwall. The History Press. p. 41. ISBN   978-0750954396.; Williams, Michael. "Peter Underwood obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  22. "Peter Underwood R.I.P 1923 – 2014". 29 November 2014.