Tom Potter

The last time I promised a week of Greenwich ghosts, back in October, I went down with some terrible affliction, so I’m promising no such thing this time. But even more traditionally than Halloween, Christmas is the time for ghost stories so I am risking further curses and tentatively continuing with the series I’ve been doing with local illustrator Aliyahgator.

I’m now going to disappoint Dennis and tell him that unless I get inspired in the next 48 hours there’s not going to be a new ghost story from me this year (soz – I fully intended to, then forgot…) If you want a modern Greenwich horror story there’s one about a goddess and a deer in Greenwich Park in one of the One Eye Grey publications – I’m sure Chris Roberts (no – not that one…) will enlighten us as to which one; I don’t seem to be able to find my collection.

No – today we have a rarity – a ghost with a name, seen on an actual date – 8th September, 1866, though he only manifested the once. Even more, I may have even found him. Then again, I might not…

The story is centred around St Mary’s Lodge in Crooms Hill. Now unless there’s another St Mary’s Lodge in Crooms Hill, the only one I know of is the sweet little Nash building that currently houses the Cow and Coffee Bean Cafe at the St Mary’s entrance to the park (named, in case you’re wondering, for the long-gone St Mary’s Church, which stood pretty much where King Billy flourishes his scroll these days (Ooh-er, Missus.)

According to legend a young sailor, Tom Potter, arrived on the doorstep of the lodge asking to see his mother who used to work as a maid but who was no longer there. The new housemaid sent him away, but the mistress of the house was curious. On looking into the story, she discovered Tom had died in Jamaica two days before he’d knocked on the door. Ooooooh, Shiver…

Thing is, to me this story feels a bit odd. Hasn’t anyone looked at the size of the lodge? It’s teeny. There might just about be enough room for the ‘mistress of the house’ – but why would anyone who could afford servants live in a place the size of a large garden shed?

I guess it could just be the one servant and ‘the mistress of the house’ a single old woman. So okay, we’ll leave that for the moment.

I made a cursory check of the 1861 census, five years earlier (sorry, the very unfriendly rules and regs of the horrible-and-expensive-to-use Family History website who I will not name as they don’t deserve the publicity, don’t let me reproduce it) and actually found a Thomas Potter, who at the time was 11 and lived in Crooms Hill. Brilliant bit of research, TGP! Yeah! That would have made him 16 when he died – a good age for a Victorian sailor boy. Fantastic! You got it!

But hang on. There’s also an George Potter, also aged 7 and a Wilson Potter, aged 5, both, like Tom,born in Middlesex.


They are listed with 24 other kids in what is clearly an orphanage in Crooms Hill. The horrid family history website I used didn’t let me look at the pages either side (even though I’d paid, gnassh, gnassh - bah…) so I couldn’t see the Crooms Hill entry in its entirety. Perhaps some nice person can tell me where the Crooms Hill Orphanage was. ‘Cause there is no bloomin’ way you’d fit 25 children and their ‘carers’ in St Mary’s Lodge.  And hang  on – aren’t ‘orphans’, by default, um, motherless?

So even if Tom’s mother had died a year before they ended up in Oliver Twist-ville, he’d have known all about it before he went to sea, so why would he knock on the door of St Mary’s Lodge in 1866 looking for her?

I guess he had been dead two days. None of us are  at our best at that time in our lives…

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5 Comments to “Tom Potter”

  1. Dazza says:

    One of the things I love about Greenwich is the fact that so much of the folklore could be true.
    OK, so in some cases the mists of time may have obscured the hard facts but the gist is correct and more than a little feasible.
    Who knows, there may have been a ‘Mother’ Potter on a fiddle with the ‘census collectors’. Claiming for nonexistent kids isn’t a new thing!!
    I would like to think that ‘St Mary’s Lodge’ was bigger and nearer the Gate than the current building…….I feel a little investigation coming on….LOL

  2. michael says:

    At 11am on 20th December i was walking over the bridge that crosses Deptford creek when i was pushed into, i was taken back and looked behind me, there was no one there !! i have never had anything happen to me like that before,

  3. valley_girl says:

    With a little more digging in the Censuses for 1861 and 1871 I can add the following information: there are 80 orphans in total listed in 1861; they appear to be housed in a Roman Catholic establishment as an R.C priest is shown as a chaplain; by 1871 it looks like the same building has become a school; on my 1890s map there is a school shown next to the R.C. church which was called St. Mary’s at the time (now Our Lady Star of the Sea); next in the 1871 Census listing after the school is a “St. Mary’s Lodge” which houses a family of 6 plus 3 servants.

    So what does that tell us? There could be 2 St Mary’s Lodges, the other one down by the Park and the C. of E. St Mary’s church. Tom Potter would have resided next to the R.C. St Mary’s Lodge; his mother might have worked there while Tom was at the orphanage (you could still be counted as an orphan if you still had one parent).

    Does anyone else have any more information?

  4. Neil Rhind says:

    Here we go again.

    Dear Phantom

    Sorry to be a Scrooge and spoil a good story concerning the ghostly Tom Potter.

    St Mary’s Lodge was part of what became Nos 70 + 72 Crooms Hill. The two parts – quite substantial – were united, split asunder and reunited again a number of times. But the important point was that the name is misleading. The use of the appellation “lodge” for a house of substantial size, like Rangers Lodge [now House], was then quite common.

    The name was given to the houses/s by Dr William Gowan Todd, a protestant clergyman who had converted to Catholicism. Todd (1820-1877) opened an orphanage for young lads in Chislehurst in the 1850s but the premises were inadequate so he moved the enterprise to Crooms Hill in 1860, taking over the premises from a Ms Elizabeth Lockhart.

    The establishment was indeed sizeable: In 1861 Dr Todd was assisted by two masters and two matrons, and cared for 80 orphan boys, included the four years old (not 11) Thomas Potter, all aided by five residential servants. Quite a civilised set up in those days.

    Legend has it that Todd fell out with a neighbour – Canon Richard North – so Todd moved his boys to a large house (now the RC Presbytery) in Cresswell Park, Blackheath Village.

    No time to go into more history here except to say that both sites still have strong Roman Catholic connections. The Crooms Hill orphanage became a National School in the early 1880s and, eventually, a Convent and School of Girls – flourishing today as St Ursula’s.

    I am certain the Tom Potter story is fantasy – then I would, wouldn’t I?

    Have a nice Christmas all Phantom followers

  5. Thank you Neil. I never could read handwriting on censuses…

    He’d have been a very young sailor indeed…

    Ah, well…

    Cheers – and Happy Christmas!