By Kaia Wallis
It’s pitch-black, silent and cold when something drops.
I’m standing in what was once the Adelaide Arcade’s tea room, an underground space where shoppers came for their afternoon refreshments. Now, it’s nearly empty, bar a life-sized Spiderman mannequin on the staircase, which peeks out to shoppers through a glass window.
We stand in silence for two minutes; nothing much happens – a shiver down my spine and a few light touches that could easily be passed off as my subconscious.
It’s when the lights come back on that someone asks, ‘who dropped something?’.
The silence is clear, nothing was dropped. It’s not much, but it would be another in a long list of unexplainable events that have occurred in the arcade since it opened in 1885.
The tea room is the last stop on my ghost tour of the Adelaide Arcade, which is said to be one of the nation’s most haunted shopping arcades and the home of three ghosts.
My night starts when – armed with a healthy dose of scepticism – I join a small crowd eager to investigate the paranormal side of the building as part of South Australia’s History Festival, which is in full swing until 31 May.
We’re led by Haunted Horizons Ghost Tour guide Kag Allwood, who promises us no ‘shenanigans or gimmicks’ throughout the tour.
Haunted Horizons has exclusive access to the arcade after hours and also hosts tours in some of SA’s most haunted locations including the Adelaide Gaol, the Railway Museum in Port Adelaide and the Z Ward at what was once the Parkside Lunatic Asylum.
Our first stop on the tour lies within a passage between the arcade and men’s clothing store Conner. The now enclosed space was once an open laneway, and it’s where the arcade’s only confirmed murder took place.
It was 1904 when Florence Horton was strolling down Rundle Mall with friends after beginning divorce proceedings with her husband, Thomas Horton. An allegedly violent man, Thomas lures her down the alleyway and shot her several times in the back.
Those closest to Florence rushed to her aid, carrying her into the arcade where she died from blood loss near Shop 50 on the bottom floor. Her husband would go on to be tried for her murder and sentenced to hang at the Adelaide Gaol.
Adelaide Arcade wasn’t just Australia’s first shopping arcade – it was also one of the first buildings in the nation to have electric lighting; a rare luxury in 1887 that required large machinery to power.
This machinery – once located near the downstairs bathroom – is where the body of the arcade’s former caretaker, Francis Cluney, was found brutally mangled in 1887. Newspapers at the time reported on the death with graphic details, and speculations flew that he was pushed into the machinery.
However, the team at Haunted Horizons thinks differently.
Francis was said to always don a top hat, long coat and an array of military badges down the left side of his chest and Kag is adamant his intriguing fashion choices were the cause of his death.
“There are rumours he was pushed or murdered, but, it’s a tiny room, I think his coat simply got stuck,” she tells us.
His ghost is a common sight among visitors, with one shopper certain he was led downstairs by a man in a long coat and shown the generator – which was removed from the arcade years ago.
The arcade’s current security guard Peter has also had more than a few run-ins with Francis – who once lived in what is now the building’s security office.
“I was washing my hands one day and heard someone call ‘Peter’, but when I came out, I realised no one was around,” he says.
“I’ve even had new security guards quit right after starting, because of the ghosts.”
While now home to a barbershop, restaurant and many offices, the balcony floor of the arcade was once split into apartments – and Francis isn’t the only ghost believed to have lived in one.
Shop 100 was once home to Bridget Kennedy, a woman whose alcoholism only grew stronger when her husband fled to Tasmania with their son, Sydney.
Distraught, Bridget hired a private investigator and brought her three-year-old son back to SA, where they lived until the young boy was found dead in 1902 in their apartment.
Sydney had fallen victim to asphyxiation from coal gas poisoning, and rumours of Bridget’s involvement were rampant – despite the death being ruled accidental.
A few months later Bridget was found dead from poisoning in Adelaide’s west parklands. Her husband later returned to live out his days in the arcade – which is now home to a free exhibition exploring the building’s history.
Our last stop on the tour is the tea room, where Kag says the most paranormal activity occurs. Our security guard Peter chooses to stay outside, “I’ve been down there too many times,” he says.
Flashlights on, we head down, and the group silently explores the empty space, it’s cold and eerie.
Gathered in a circle, Kag recounts an investigation Haunted Horizons conducted at the arcade, where she is sure they heard young Sydney’s voice.
She plays us the recording and sure enough, we hear it too.
“I did,” a small voice chimes, after being asked if he had accidently turned the gas on.
My scepticism tells me this can’t be real, but Peter’s refusal to enter and Kag’s no-nonsense demeanour and historical stories, tell me otherwise.
So, are there ghosts in the arcade? I can’t be sure. But there is a rich tapestry of history worth exploring.
Feature image by Josie Withers.