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A Magazine for Sheffield

Mr P Dreadful: Sheffield's dark past unveiled

You may have seen a mysterious character roaming the streets of Sheffield - a bearded, top-hatted man in Victorian garb, usually followed by a group of terrified onlookers. This is Mr P Dreadful, the city's resident ghost tour leader and spook hunter, who, along with his wife Mrs Dreadful, leads the good people of Sheffield to our most haunted nooks and crannies, telling spine-chilling and gruesome stories about some of our most familiar buildings. I went on one of the ghost walks a while ago and was impressed by the wealth of tales Mr Dreadful had to offer, as well as his historical research and skill as a storyteller. I was intrigued by the character behind the stories, and met up with Mr Dreadful (or Darren Johnson-Smith, as he is known by day) in the Old Queen's Head for a chat. "We first started doing the ghost tours as a joke," says Darren. "I was unemployed in about 2005, and my advisor said 'What do you want to do as a job?'I just said as a joke, as an off the cuff remark, 'I'll start a ghost walk', and she said 'Fine, you're going to business school'" "Years later, the fastest-selling ghost book in the United Kingdom, magazines, radio, television, film parts, interviews... This joke has become like Frankenstein's monster. We don't know what it's doing in the morning until we look at our diaries, and we have to chase it down the streets some nights." Darren has a high standard of research, with three different eye-witness accounts requiired before a spooky story makes his tours. Hours of research in the library and archives go towards each one, ensuring historical facts in the stories are accurate. "It's very time laborious, believe me!" he says. Darren says Sheffield's long and chequered history makes it the perfect city for these stories."If you think how long Sheffield's been here we've had the agricultural revolution, we've had the industrial revolution, we've had the medieval period, we've had cholera, we've had Black Death, and we've had Stone Age workings.So we're a story of industry, of people who had bad health and safety in the steelworks, bad factories, bad living standards, bad housing." Darren has always been interested in the paranormal and horror stories. His mother says he was "born morbid" and he has been seeing ghosts since he was a child. This morbid streak is reflected when I ask him about his favourite Sheffield ghost story. "It's about The Bessemer pub up on Leopold Street," he says, "It's about the nurses of World War II on the first night of the Sheffield Blitz, and how they had to work in what was really an abattoir and a butcher's yard, with the burns victims. "Some of the nurses got killed going home, in the daylight, after nine hours of being in this stuffy cellar of what was then the Grand Hotel. And how they'd gone back, and how they actually are still at work, and still get seen, and you can still smell the dead and the dying from where they're burning... "We've had a lot people actually faint from when I actually tell the story," he admits. This actually turns out to be a fairly common occurrence on the tour, Darren explains."I've had people faint, I've had a couple of ladies actually run to the toilet because they needed to throw up.Sometimes when they keel over, I think wow, what did I say, which part of this story relates to them in some way or another?" Despite this dramatic effect on his audience, he's adamant this reaction isn't his intention."If they faint it's a story, and the story worked, and if it was one of the gruesome stories, well that's how it goes. But I'd rather they didn't. I'd rather they came and enjoyed it and saw Sheffield in a bit of a different way, and go home and think this city is old, this city has stories, this city has a dark past. I'm part of it." Although he says he's weary of punters expecting Most Haunted-style encounters with spirits while on his tours, Darren says there are still chances to see ghosts. A mysterious spectre, dressed not unlike Mr Dreadful, has been sighted following the tours with a clipboard, before vanishing into thin air ("I think 'oh... oh right so I'm getting audited again am I?!'). He also claims it's the skeptical members of the group who see the ghosts, with non-believers on tours glimpsing such sights as a gaseous apparition outside the Boardwalk, and a ghostly maid washing an outside window of The Bessemer, before fading away from view. Skepticism is something that Darren touches on, saying he has a respect for science, but he sees some scientists as narrow-minded, and says he's had skeptics on the tours being "nasty". It's at this point in the interview I admit my own skeptical bent - I don't believe in ghosts, but nonetheless appreciate a good, gruesome tale. "Stories to me are just stories, with facts and figures and names in," he says. "How you interpret the story is down to the individual. I'm not here to change anyone's life, I'm just pointing out the stories of the city that are historical stories. If people choose not to believe them well hey, your life may not be as colourful as others, but that's not for me to say." I leave Darren in the Old Queen's Head - which incidentally is Sheffield's most haunted pub, with at least nine ghosts, including a massive black hound and a mischievous medieval child called Pierre in the cellar - and venture into the night. Although I had hardly been turned into a believer in the spirit world during our time together, it had at least made me keep an eye on the darker corners, imagining what horrors may lurk there as I wandered home. Sheffield is a city with a long past, and you could do a lot worse than let Mr & Mrs Dreadful be your guides of its macabre moments and terrifying places. And if you don't believe their tales then who knows, you may be the skeptical one that comes face to face with the fright of your life. Ghost Tours run in the City Centre every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, with private parties bookable. See for more info. )

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