Victoria and Albert and the Stardoor: The Vacuum Sugar Event

A giant shop window, a flashing of the spoils of imperial conquest, a chance to position monarchy side by side with social and commercial interests: The Great Exhibition of 1851 was many things. Officially, the world fair – opened by Queen Victoria and housed in a vast Crystal Palace of iron and glass in Hyde Park – was a showcase for advances in global industry, arts and sciences. Even at the time it had its critics (Prince Albert only got behind it once he was sure the idea was popular), and post-colonial historians have found endless layers of meaning to this crashingly unsubtle declaration of global power.

Tallis's_history_and_description_of_the_Crystal_palace,_and_the_Exhibition_of_the_world's_industry_in_1851;_(1852)_(14598099079)
The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park

One thought that might have occurred to your average 1850’s Londoner, as they filed slowly past the parade of statues, jewels and stuffed elephants, was that the Great Exhibition was busy. An average day saw over 40,000 visitors, more than twice the number that the British Museum sees today. On one October day, that tally reached over 100,000. With such numbers, it’s easy to see how a small tear in the dimensional fabric could have gone unnoticed by most punters. When a portal opened one Saturday afternoon, it was witnessed by only a handful. Add to that what may have been a conscious effort to keep news of the breach spreading, and frankly we are lucky to have a story to tell at all about what has come to be known as the Crystal Palace Stardoor, or more commonly, the Vacuum Sugar Event.

L0022578 Catalogue of the great exhibition
Crowds averaged over 40,000 people a day

William Canter had booked his stall at the Exhibition in order to show off his patented vacuum apparatus, a device to enable liquids to be boiled at lower temperatures. (The invention was particularly aimed at the sugar industry –  the potential for cutting fuel costs when boiling sugar cane was good news for the profits of plantation owners).

Tucked away in a corner, off the main gallery, Canter was a few minutes into an afternoon demonstration when he heard an unusual pop from inside his machine. Soon afterwards, something strange started to emanate from the large spherical apparatus.

Moving_Machinery_-_Dickinson's_comprehensive_pictures_of_the_Great_Exhibition_(1854)_vol_2,_plate_XXI_-_Royal_Coll
Industrial technology was displayed extensively

“Some manner of darkly coloured smoke”, Canter recalled later. “My first thought was ‘Blast it, the sugar cane’s burning’. My second (and almost simultaneous) thought, was ‘How on earth can that be?'”

Martin Bull, a cab driver by trade, recalled the moment. “It didn’t look like any smoke I ever saw. Black as pitch, it was. But it moved more slowly than smoke. The stuff came seeping out of a valve in the machine and sort of hung there, a few feet off the ground. Like a little dark cloud. Then I noticed the lights”.

The “lights”, as Patty Granger, a nearby flower-seller, quickly recognised, were celestial in nature. “It was like a patch of night sky, really. But the most glorious night sky you ever saw… great swirling clouds of stars…The closer you got to it, the more of the night sky you could see. Like a window, if you get my meaning? The really strange thing was, when you walked round the back of it, you could see stars going the other way”.

Many of the witnesses recall getting close to the stardoor to get a look at the wonders that opened out beyond it; none of them, when they were tracked down years later, could forget the man and woman who got too close.

Great_Exhibition,_Vacuum_Sugar_Apparatus,_HF_Talbot,_1851
The Vacuum Sugar Apparatus

They all retold the moment. Accounts speak of a well-dressed couple, who may or may not have been connected to the sugar trade. The man was bullish and self-important, loudly insisting that they should stand closer than anyone else. The woman seemed reluctant at first, but, perhaps emboldened by her husband’s attitude, she soon made a dreadful mistake. Declaring that she’d like to see the stars beneath their feet, she craned her neck so that her entire head reached beyond the threshold of the opening.

The terrible, strangled sound which filled the air proved hard to describe for most witnesses. Some said it was not human, some said they thought the glass panes were falling in, one was sure it was the sound of screaming, and said that though it was loud it was “fractured, like a cry heard across a stormy valley”. Many said the sound seemed to come from all around them, and expressed amazement that the whole Exhibition hadn’t heard it. Interestingly, one witness said that she’d experienced a prolonged flash of brilliant light, and only afterwards began to think of it as a sound.

Great_Exhibition,_Transept_looking_south,_HF_Talbot,_1851

After the initial shock, people rushed to the woman. By the time they had pulled her back across the threshold, her fur hat and shawl had gone. Some recall a glimpse of strangely matted hair and wide, black eyes set in a bone-white face, before the woman’s husband threw his jacket over her and hurried her away into the crowds. They have never been tracked down. Canter later said he was amazed not to have heard from their solicitors.

Those still surrounding the stardoor now had a new problem. Someone noticed that while the size of the portal had initially stabilised, it was now growing again. This threw the small gathering into a panic. What if it didn’t stop? Canter himself tried desperately to tinker with his machine, thinking that somehow if he could reverse its process, the thing might be sucked back in.

Some tried to help him, some began to turn and walk rapidly away, but then, just as Canter was about to run out of ideas, there was another sudden POP, and the stardoor snapped shut.

Canter recalls a moment in which “it seemed to me as if the whole of the Crystal Palace fell silent, although of course it was only our little corner”. But the silence in Canter’s little corner was broken by something unexpected: applause. It appeared that many in the small crowd had decided that it had all been some elaborate entertainment, and they soon dispersed into the great hall around them. Canter packed up soon after, and withdrew from the exhibition the next day.

L0023919 Steel engraving: Crystal Palace, 1851 exhibition

It’s unclear exactly how high up news of this event reached. Canter and the other witnesses were tracked down years later by a civil servant, and the interviews remained classified until very recently. Someone must have made the initial report. What does seem clear is that a decision was made to keep news of the phenomenon from Prince Albert, the Exhibition’s great patron. To PoL’s mind, this presents an intriguing ‘what if?’. Prince Albert was keen to position himself as a champion of scientific progress. The Victorian Movement didn’t really get going until after Prince Albert’s death. What if he had learned of the stardoor, and with his support the 19th Century interest in portals had peaked twenty years earlier? Would the Movement have retained its momentum to a greater extent than it did? If it had, we might be living in a very different base reality today.


  • Candidate: The Vacuum Sugar Event
  • Type: Stardoor
  • Status: Historic

Door to Nowhere: The Blackheath Vanishments

This is a short post to aggregate some of the stories concerning what locals have come to call ‘The Blackheath Triangle’. These stories, drawn mainly from local press archives, go back some time. They have an eerie similarity. All vanishments occurred within a relatively small area towards the southern point of the heath. None of the missing reappeared. In many cases witnesses were not believed, some even accused of concocting the stories to hide murder or mishap. There is little explanation for the phenomena, and – as is often the case in the absence of returnees – it is hard to categorise from a portals point of view. Still, the relevance to the catalogue should be clear.

Blackheath,_looking_south_-_geograph.org.uk_-_493184
The southern corner of Blackheath  source | license

One night in 1712, at the height of the ‘highwayman’ era, a carriage carrying a Naval officer across Blackheath was held to ransom. (Watling Street, the present day A2, was the main route between London and Kent, and the remote heathland was a dangerous crossing). The robber pocketed a large sum of money, but before he could make his escape the carriage’s coachman managed to discharge a pistol, which spooked the highwayman’s horse to such a degree that the man was thrown to the ground. The highwayman then ran with his takings across the heath, the coachman giving chase on foot. The coachman later explained that under the full moon, and despite the shrubs and small trees which then covered the heathland, visibility on the heath was good. The highwayman was fast, but the coachman was faster. He said that when he was some six feet away from apprehending his mark, he saw the thief appear to stumble or trip, and then “(fall) somehow into vanishment”. At which point the coachman also stumbled – but stumbled “over naught but air”. When he got to his feet, the highwayman was gone. The coachman’s story was derided in the press at the time, and it seems he suffered some damage to his reputation, though he retained the confidence of the Naval officer.

Blackheath_near_Vanbrugh_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_378005
The area around the Vanbrugh gravel pits gives some indication of how most of the Heath would have looked 300 years ago  source | license

In 1887 a man leaving Sunday service at All Saints Church stopped at the door to speak with the Vicar. As he did so, he watched his wife, as she walked out from the church and across the heath – where, in bright sunlight, and in view of her husband, she vanished.

In 1956, a woman was imprisoned after failing to convince a jury that she had watched in horror as her child – running after a ball on the Heath – had vanished, some three metres from where she stood.

Blackheath,_looking_east_-_geograph.org.uk_-_651615
All Saints Church, Blackheath  source | license

Headlines attest to a spate of dog disappearances in the late 1990s. Initially blamed on the incompetence of one professional dog-walker, the disappearances began to affect dogs out walking with many different people. Since then it is said that dogs do their best to avoid the area, becoming agitated if compelled to walk there.

Other stories of animal disappearances include one from a retired local man who reported seeing a flock of mallard ducks fly across the heath and vanish in mid air.

Two joggers vanished side-by-side in 2002.

Blackheath
Blackheath from the air. All Saints Church can be seen at the top of the image source | license

The Blackheath Cricket Club became so tired of losing balls which had gone for sixes that they moved off the Heath altogether in 1886.

And during WW2 the heath was notorious among the pilots who used it for parachute training. They nicknamed it ‘The Void’ and were so terrified of ‘over-shooting’ that they often landed in the much more wooded Greenwich Park to the north.

PoL’s research into this phenomenon is ongoing. We will continue to update the list as stories come to light. Meanwhile, we hope that Blackheathians continue to warn their youngsters to be wary of the patch in question.


  • Candidate: The Blackheath Vanishment Zone
  • Type: [Unknown]
  • Status: Under observation

Source and licence for featured image

The Gas holder that isn’t a Gas holder: Remembering Henderson’s Door

London’s gas holders are vanishing. These towering Victorian marriages of form and function have, for several generations, been a distinctive part of the urban landscape. But modern gas networks have rendered them obsolete, and they now stand redundant and vulnerable, occupying valuable land.

While most Londoners would acknowledge the need for new housing, not everyone looks at gas holders with the cold eye of the developer. Many want them to stay. They are admired from trains, gazed at from pavements, campaigned over, documented, repurposed, pulled down and put back up again. They are loved.

hornsey_-_hnrc_08892_by_gasometer
Part of the urban fabric –source | licence

Of course, they can be met with indifference, too. But if you stopped your average Londoner and asked them about that hulking great circular relic of the industrial era behind those houses over there, at the very least they’d know what it was. They may call it a gas holder, or a gasometer, or something else, but they’d be able to tell you roughly why it was built. And, 99 times out of 100, they’d be right. Because all of those hulking great things were built to hold gas.

Except for the one that wasn’t.

399px-gasometer_on_corner_north_circular_road_and_station_road_london_n11_-_geograph-org-uk_-_931158
Not a gas holder – source | licence

Henderson’s Door

By the late 1860s Frederick Hercules Henderson was down on his luck. Thirty-nine and unmarried, he was broke. Born of not inconsiderable means, he had invested his money in urban canal shipping, only to see the industry destroyed by the railway boom of the 1840s. He had the air of a man who had been left behind by his century.

But Henderson still enjoyed a degree of social status. His influential friends included the scientist Arthur Longthorn, and thus he was present at the Greenwich Unveiling (more of which in a later blog), the event at which Longthorn showcased his revolutionary ‘Worlds Machine’ to a select gathering, so kickstarting the Victorian interest in inter-dimensional travel. Henderson was far from the only person present at the Unveiling who would become involved in the 19th Century Portal movement. But he was perhaps the only one who saw clearly the popular, commercial potential in what he had witnessed. His pursuit of this potential would eventually devastate his health, end a valued friendship, and financially ruin Henderson for good.

greenwich_observatory-1830s
Greenwich Observatory at around the time Longthorn was active there – sourcepublic domain

Sadly, the early part of the development of London’s first commercially accessible Portal appears to be undocumented (Henderson feared corporate theft so initial plans were a closely guarded secret). We know, of course, Henderson had concluded that only the constructors of London’s cast-iron gas holders could produce the huge, circular frame he needed. His model even included the customary telescopic ‘frame-within-a-frame’ mechanism. Only it wasn’t a gas container that Henderson’s machine needed to hoist.

At Greenwich, he had witnessed Longthorn harness electricity to create what Henderson referred to as “modest openings in the Kosmos: akin, if you will, to doors that are slightly ajar, facing one another across a dark hallway”. Henderson wanted to throw those doors wide open, and to do this he needed to generate a lot of power. His contraption was designed to hoist a membrane filled with zinc and copper sulphate, and is said to have utilised four miles of wires. It has been described as a giant walk-in battery and electrical circuit in one.

800px-groovesches_element
A 19th Century battery – source | public domain

Opened among great fanfare, ‘Henderson’s Door’ was advertised as offering a brief, life-changing vision into the reality of other worlds. ‘Step From This Earth in an Instant!’ proclaimed the posters.

Many took up the offer. Initially, The Door was a great success. Members of the public spoke of visions of ‘impossible worlds’, and of having seen ‘heaven itself, more glorious than I ever imagined’.

A range of pricing catered for all Londoners. Politicians and other members of high society paid 2 guineas for an hour-long ‘voyage’ on Saturdays, and the working classes queued up for the popular 1 shilling ticket on a Tuesday night. Whatever the occasion, whenever Henderson opened his Door, the surrounding streets would buzz with food stalls, postcard sellers, and others hoping to cash in on the phenomenon.

(The image below, a contemporary drawing, shows a man selling dumplings near Henderson’s Door on ‘poor night’. Note how the Door’s wiring is wound so tight that only a few spots of light shine through. However, light bursts out of the top of the structure. It was said that when active, Henderson’s Door lit up the sky “from Hampstead Heath to the Oak of Honor”)

poor-night-at-hendersons-door
Selling dumplings near Henderson’s Door – source

For a brief moment, Frederick Henderson was the most venerated man in London. But it would not last. Just four months after opening his attraction, Henderson was forced to close it, amid concerns about the safety of the electrical framework.

Opinion had already begun to turn against the project following stories of disappointed punters. Many questioned Henderson’s claim to have opened a door to other worlds. He was accused of hoodwinking a susceptible public with the use of ‘hidden vents’ and lighting tricks.

These claims were leant credence by the fact that, as Henderson himself admitted, not everybody would experience other worlds once walking inside his machine. “I can only open the Door”, said Henderson. “One must step through it oneself”.

A public spat between Henderson and Longthorn didn’t help. Longthorn accused his former friend of stealing his work uncredited and turning it towards ignoble goals.

times_1788-12-04
The Times of London – sourcepublic domain

But it was an editorial in the Times of London which perhaps did most to close the Door down (and there are many who detect the hand of Longthorn in its writing):

“…This mountebank, this fraud, this thief. This shameless charlatan. With nothing but the basest contempt for you, my fellow citizens, he would enrich himself by endangering London – and so, by extension, England, for surely our fair land would flail and flounder like a wounded beast were its head to be cut off by the wires and trickery of this vile imposter…”

Henderson went to his grave defending his invention, and he went to his grave early, entering a rapid physical and spiritual deterioration which his contemporaries ascribed to his very public ‘trial’, but which modern scholars believe was caused by a high concentration of dimensional breaches. Nobody walked through Henderson’s Door more often than Henderson himself.

Forgotten now, many books were written about Henderson’s Door in the years after Henderson’s death. But it was the mysterious case of Sam Peech – the Lambeth street urchin who several witnesses recalled walking wide-eyed into Henderson’s contraption during an early test – that provided the subject of the best-selling book on the whole affair:  T.P Maudley’s  ‘The Boy Who Didn’t Return’.

gas-holder-being-dismantled
A gas holder being dismantled in Surrey – source | licence

The disappearance of the gas holders is sad enough. It is happening in towns and cities across Britain. Only when they are entirely gone from our neighbourhoods might we fully understand the connection we had to them.

But if what remains of Henderson’s Door was to go, pulled down by an energy company scratching their heads at the apparent administrative error that led to such a large piece of infrastructure going unrecorded  – that would be a shame indeed.


  • Candidate: Henderson’s Door
  • Type:  Interstellar (Unconfirmed)
  • Status: Historic

Source and licence for featured image

Exit strategy for a restless dead: The Hell Tree of St Pancras

There are a host of possible reasons for an unquiet grave. Ghosts themselves rarely articulate them in detail. However forceful they may be when it comes to communicating general anguish, getting to the nub of what troubles the dead can, for the living, involve little more than guesswork.

For John Tweed, the newly installed vicar at St Pancras Old Church when it suffered what appears to have been a mass supernatural manifestation in 1859, the initial cause of the phenomenon was clear: London’s over-stocked graveyards were being carved up to make way for the railway age.

The coming of the steam train uprooted corpses and headstones across London. St Pancras was bang in the middle of the new route north. But this alone shouldn’t account for the number of apparitions that haunted Tweed’s church and its grounds. Most souls rest easy, regardless. The vicar’s diaries, and the letters he wrote to his wife, Charlotte (who was to remain at their marital home in Buckinghamshire until things were ‘settled’), show he had further ideas as to what was animating the restless spirits he shared his workplace with.

grave-robbers
Between robbers, railways and rushed night-time burials, graves were restless places in Victorian London

In August, 1901, he wrote to Charlotte:

“Every thief, vagabond and ne’er-do-well in London seems to have wound up buried at St P. Which would be all well and good, except that the digging up of late seems to have unearthed more than just bones.  Judging by the number of lost souls drifting about the place in one spirit form or another, I would offer that many of my guests are far from welcome in Heaven.  I can only assume that having been buried in consecrated ground further precludes them from the other place, which leaves them, it is my horror to say, stuck in the churchyard with me”.

Tweed was not entirely without sympathy for his ghostly companions, going on to tell his wife that they were:

“Sad seeming things. I feel quite sorry for them. I don’t suppose I should mind at all if only they kept their mournful meanderings to the night-time hours.  Last Sunday I was midway through service when a wraith came down the aisle – an infernal thing, it stalked among the shadows between the shafts of morning light, wailing and moaning like a baleful cat. There were already murmurings amongst the parishioners about the foul stench from the digging up. Dearest Charlotte, I am not sure how much longer I can pacify them.”

church-with-grave-clearances
Thousands of graves were removed to make way for the line north out of London

Any hope Tweed might have had of placating his flock, or coming to terms with his supernatural neighbours, faded as the events of 1859 developed.

In October of that year, Tweed sent a letter to his wife which appeared to mark a decline in his temperament. It wasn’t just that the apparitions were taking their toll. The vicar alludes to something new, something “strange and troubling”, happening in the graveyard. The letter is uncharacteristically vague, but much of it is fixated with the health of a young ash tree in the grounds of the church.

banner-edit
St Pancras, martyred by the Romans for his faith (source)

Whether Tweed was intentionally hiding the details from his wife is hard to say. Luckily for us, his diary entries pick up the story.

This is an entry from December, 1859:

‘Most unpleasant occurrences in the graveyard.  Several headstones removed in the night, earth strewn about in a most unusual fashion. Not the railway workers, as it’s a Sunday. So who?’

And a few days later:

‘More missing headstones. Increasingly certain of connection with my guests. Today I traced strange lines of disturbed earth across the graveyard. Each lead to the ash tree. Are they being dragged there? And then where? The ash tree itself is looking increasingly unhealthy, possibly diseased. I don’t like to get too close to it.’

And then:

‘If I hadn’t seen such as I have seen these past months I may not have trusted my eyes, but trust them I must. I shall record it in as plain a manner as I know how: By the light of the moon last night I saw a gravestone, moving with some speed, and quite of its own accord, across the graveyard. It hurtled towards the ash tree, at the base of which it disappeared, as if plunging in to the very bowels of the tree.’

Finally:

‘Good God. Hundreds of them, of all shapes, just pouring into the tree.’

hell-tree-1-edit
The ash tree, gravestones seemingly halted in their tracks (source)

So what was happening here?

“A Category 2 hellgate”, says Susan Macks, Professor of Gateways and the Multiverse at the University of Connecticut.  A good friend to PoL, Susan’s work has inevitably drawn her to London and what she terms its “filo-thin dimensional membrane”. When we meet over flat whites and sandwiches in her favourite Bloomsbury cafe, she is excited.

hell-mouth
A medieval vision of a hell mouth (source)

“I’m not talking your full scale hell mouth – not a main entrance. But yeah. Look, like the vicar says, these spirits are stuck. Too bad for heaven, but too buried in holy ground. And then their bones get all dug up. Would you be happy? They mope about the graveyard, desperate to change their situation. Then they find the tree. Except to them it’s not a tree. It’s a wrinkle, a snag, like that one corner of sticky tape that your fingernail finds on the roll. Now, for whatever reason – maybe the tree’s roots aren’t sanctified, or maybe some godless killing took place beneath its boughs at some point – anyway, one of these ghouls manages to get a toe through the gap between church world and the underworld and pow. That’s it. You don’t have to ask these lost souls twice. Eternal damnation is a relief for these guys.”

Church today edit.jpg
St Pancras Old Church today (source)

John Tweed seems to have been thinking along the same lines. On the 30th January, 1860, he wrote to his wife for what appears to be the last time. The letter is rambling, desperate and disturbing. It bares quoting at length.

“Dearest Charlotte,  I do so love hearing your news from the vale, it pains me to have to recount the horrors of my life here… When you open a window to let out smoke does it not allow cold air in also?  When you open your heart to the voice of a lover, does not some precious part of your soul seep into their heart also? Oh dearest love, there is a deep sense of foreboding about the place… My flock has flown, but I am far from alone… At night I am plagued by nightmares so vivid and dreadful that I am afraid to sleep at all. I have been nailed to the cursed iron frontage of a flame-licked and hell-bound locomotive. I have walked through the dark miasma and fetid slime of a London choked by death. I have seen the flagstones of the church floor thrust violently upwards by a sudden eruption of uncertain origin. And these are only the visions I have the constitution to retell… I begin to suspect that it is not just the lost ones that are being dragged down to that place. For how to account for the sheer number I watch descend every night? Where will it end? Must every dead soul in the parish, every dead soul in London be reclaimed for damnation?! No Charlotte, I shall not see it happen.”

So exactly how and when did this hellgate close? Frustratingly, John Tweed’s diary entries come to an end around this time, too. However, Macks thinks there may be a simple reason for this: John Tweed lost the ability to write. That is, he lost the use of his hand. Church records back this up, but they aren’t the only source of Macks’ theory. She says that scans have shown that buried within the roots of the ash tree is a large book. She has failed to be granted a dig, but that hasn’t put her off theorising.

“You want my 99.999% certain guess as to what book that is down there?”, she emails.  “It’s the bible. Only way I know of to close a Cat 2 hellgate is if a holy person rams a holy book into its mouth. You gotta say the right words of course, and according to who you ask you may or may not have to dance a jig and wrap three strands of hair around the thing beforehand. Either way, I reckon Tweed figured this out and put a stop to the whole darn thing. That’s why there’s no talk of any disturbances after early 1860, and why John stops writing his diary then, too. We know from John the gate nearly killed that tree. Imagine what it might do to any part of a man’s body he cared to stick in there”.

the-hell-tree-2-edit
The Hell Tree, with the still active railway north behind it (source)

What’s certain is that the hellgate seems to have been closed between early 1860 and 1863, when John Tweed ceased to be vicar at St Pancras. There are no records of any disturbances from his time onwards. After that John and Charlotte’s trail goes cold. The one clue we have as to their wellbeing (other than the fact that three and a half years is exceedingly short tenure for a vicar) comes from Charlotte. One letter, dated March 1863, is present within her husband’s papers – its presence there suggesting it was never sent. It is addressed to Charlotte’s mother and speaks of a tentative hope for the future: “although, I am perhaps not as hopeful as John that the darkness within him will be left behind when we go”.

Anyone can read the papers of John Tweed. Despite the account they give of the origins of a notable local sight, the true history of the Hell Tree is in danger of being lost to posterity. A rival mythology has arisen around the tree, perhaps reflecting Londoners’ willingness to ignore, or forget altogether, their city’s predisposition to portals of all kinds. For whatever reason, there is little celebration today of the story the tree tells: that of the quiet sacrifice of a loyal and committed member of the clergy.


  • Candidate: The Hell Tree, St Pancras.
  • Type:  Hell Gate (Secondary)
  • Status: Historic