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The Warminster Thing - An Introduction

The genesis of the Warminster UFO phenomenon is described in The Warminster Mystery, the first book written by Arthur Shuttlewood on the subject of the Thing. When the phenomenon began, Shuttlewood was a journalist with the Warminster Journal, the local newspaper. It was through this position that Shuttlewood first came into contact with the phenomenon. At first, Shuttlewood claims he was a dispassionate reporter, simply unearthing the facts. Some evidence that Shuttlewood was outside of the ufological mainstream before his own sighting is given, perhaps, in The Warminster Mystery, where he asks, 'Have you heard of "leys" or "orthoteny"? I had not until Gavin Gibbons, an author, came to see me on 29th October, 1965.'[1]

It took nine months - it might be flippant to note the length of time over which Shuttlewood's beliefs gestated - before Shuttlewood 'dared ... join the small band of local folk who are convinced that our visitors are as real as us and believe that they are not flying fantasies but definitely humanoid, coming from distant worlds which may not be so very different from our own planet.'[2] The general public quickly became aware that something odd was happening in Warminster. A local man, David Holton, appeared on TV in March to proclaim that the strange noises were alien spaceships. Warminster UFO sightings were reported in the News of the World in July, and the the Daily Mirror in September 1965. But events in Warminster dated back to Christmas the previous year.

Interestingly, the Warminster phenomenon began not with UFO sightings but with hearings; which is, perhaps, why the phenomena came to be labelled the 'Thing'. It should be noted, though, that the term 'Thing' had already been used to describe UFOs in Britain. The Flying Saucer Review, Volume 10, Number 1, reprints an article from the Brighton Evening Argus. The article, which describes a UFO sighting near Brighton, uses the word 'Thing' quite prominently, repeating the word twice, and printing it in capitals.

The date on which the Warminster phenomenon started is a moot point. Flying Saucer Review reported that, in November 1961, four witnesses near Warminster saw a UFO leaving 'a trail of sparks.'[3] Two of the events reported by Shuttlewood in The Warminster Mystery as occurring in 1965 are also reported by Shuttlewood in the Warminster Journal, in December 1965, as having happened in 1963 and 1964.[4]

The mythological history of the Warminster phenomenon, however, began on Christmas Day, 1964. The order of events given here differs slightly from that given in The Warminster Mystery; here the events are described in the order suggested by their dates and times.[5] Mrs Mildred Head was woken at her home at 1.25 am. 'Our ceiling,' she reported to Shuttlewood, 'came alive with strange sounds that lashed at our roof.' The sounds began as if twigs or leaves were being drawn across her roof, and then changed to a noise she described as being like giant hailstones. Plucking up courage, she got out of bed and looked out of the window, where the night was dry and clear. Mrs Head also noted a strange humming sound, which grew louder and then faded away, except for 'a faint whisper - a low whistling or wheezing.' This story was reported to Arthur Shuttlewood sometime in 1965, possibly around May, after Mrs Head had read in The Warminster Journal of a similar incident.

Sometime later that Christmas morning, over thirty soldiers at Knook camp, about four miles from Warminster, were rudely awoken by a loud noise. A sergeant told Arthur Shuttlewood that the sound was similar to that of a huge chimney stack being ripped from a roof and being scattered in pieces across the whole of the camp. The guard was alerted, but nothing developed beyond the extraordinary sound.

At 6.12 that morning Mrs Marjorie Bye was walking to the Holy Communion Service at Christ Church in Warminster. As she approached the church the air about her filled with 'menacing sound. Sudden vibrations came overhead, chilling in intensity... descending on her savagely, caught her... in a grip of steel, a peculiar droning.' Before she had reached the church wall 'shockwaves of violent force pounded at her head, neck and shoulders and numbed her. Helpless, she was pinned down by invisible fingers of sound. Wailing, whining, droning - frightening!' What happened shocked her greatly, making it difficult for her to reach the sanctuary of the church. Indeed, such a phenomenon would have been most disturbing; at 6am on Christmas morning, Warminster would have been dark, and the roads quiet. '

At precisely the same time,' Shuttlewood claims dramatically, Roger Rump, Warminster's head postmaster, heard noises almost identical to those described by Mrs Bye. His house was not far from Christ Church. He described the noise as 'a terrific clatter ... As though the ... roof tiles were being rattled about and plucked off by some tremendous force. Then came a scrambling sound as if they were being ... loudly slammed back into place ... I could hear an odd humming tone. It was most unusual ... [it] lasted no more than a minute.'

These four events are the true genesis of the phenomenon, all witnessed, in one case by as many as thirty individuals, in one night. Not one UFO seen. The unidentified noises continued on an ad hoc basis from then until at least June 1966. Roughly nine cases are described in The Warminster Mystery in which the only unusual phenomena are noises. Shuttlewood claims that 'Every few days I learned of roofs bombarded by aeronautical amblings of the Thing in apparently malevolent mood.' Shuttlewood certainly loved alliteration. If he was indeed receiving reports every few days, then most of these are not included in his book. It is, therefore, difficult to tell how many how many witnesses reported these mysterious sounds. We do know that, by August 1965, it is claimed there had been at least 49 witnesses to the sounds.[6] Over the course of time the "noise" phenomenon receded and the visual phenomenon took its place, to become the most important element of the Warminster phenomenon; the Warminster Thing became a UFO.

The most pyrotechnically spectacular of these noise-events happened on August 17th, 1965. A 'detonation never so far explained', as Shuttlewood described it, rocked the houses on the Boreham Field housing estate. Walter Curtis described ' a huge blast! A whole series of jolts and explosions were felt underfoot ... the biggest explosion I have ever heard.' His wife added that it 'was as though the gas main right opposite us had blown up with a tremendous roar.' David Pinnell, on hearing the explosion, ran outside to see 'a monstrous orange flame in the sky ... it was shaped like an electric bulb ... by its light I clearly saw ... [the] hills.' The light faded, but then what appeared to him as a great ball of smoke with 'a funny yellow core', floated down from the hills, crackling and hissing whenever it touched grass or trees. Percy Westinghall described the explosion as 'one hell of a bang', likening it to the sound of a building being demolished. His wife also noted that minor quakes seemed to follow the explosion. Another, unnamed, witness to the illuminated ball of smoke described its golden heart, and how it was very large and shining. The puffball settled in the road and 'gradually dispersed in straggling wisps, the fiery centre burning out as it did so.' Two houses had some broken windows, but this was the only damage caused by the explosion.

Seeking possible causes for the explosion Shuttlewood talked to officials at the nearby School of Infantry and Battlesbury Barracks as well local aerodromes. All denied responsibility. Hypotheses put to him regarding thunderbolts or meteorites he 'wrote off as highly improbable'. In The Warminster Mystery Shuttlewood describes the explosion as the capers of 'the Thing in baleful mood.' Shuttlewood also reports that tangled pieces of a white, light, brittle metal were found at the "Battlesbury site", although the use of the phrase "Battlesbury site" only serves to confuse matters. Did the explosion take place near the Boreham Field estate, or near Battlesbury, a large hill about a mile to the north of the estate? If the explosion took place near Battlesbury, why were the windows of other buildings, such as those of the army's barracks, which would have been closer to the explosion, not affected by the blast? Why were houses in The Dene, a part of the Boreham Field estate closer to Battlesbury, not affected? Of course, a more accurate record might be available from the local papers of the time. In this case, you could not hope to get a more accurate version of the story from the Warminster Journal as, surprisingly, the story does not appear there.

The first UFO sighting recorded in The Warminster Mystery was around May 19th, 1965. Hilda Hebdidge informed Shuttlewood that three times during that week she saw unusual objects in the sky. She first related these to the Fleet Street UFO group[7], who passed the information to Shuttlewood. The UFOs were cigar-shaped, and covered in winking bright lights. They (although it is unclear whether "they" refers to the UFOs or their winking lights) were various shades of gold and yellow and most vivid. The UFOs were stationary, with no beams or rays, and made no noise. They appeared to be high in the sky. They gradually faded as she watched. These sightings, however, are not the first reported in the Warminster Journal. On the 3rd of June, Patricia Phillips phoned Shuttlewood to describe a 'brightly glowing, cigar shaped object,' that remained motionless over the south of Warminster for almost half an hour. Shuttlewood sold this story to the News of the World. On the 19th of June, Kathleen Penton saw 'a shining Thing going along sideways in the sky from left to right. It glided over quite slowly in front of the downs. Porthole type windows ran along the whole length of it. To my eye, it was the size of the whole bedroom wall - enormous. These windows were lit up, the colour of yellow flames in a coal fire. It was very much like a train carriage with rounded ends to it. And it did not travel lengthways, but was gently gliding sideways.'

Although UFO sightings had now commenced, the strange sounds still continued to be heard. And, on the 10th of August 1965, came confirmation that the sounds might be connected to the UFOs. At 3.45 am on that day Rachel Atwill was woken by a terrible droning sound. 'It made the bed and floor shake. I went over to the bedroom window and looked out. Between the two bungalows opposite, about 200 yards above the range of hills beyond, was a bright object like a massive star. I have never believed in flying saucer stories, but I cannot describe it as anything else. It was definitely domed on top and was huge in size, an unwinking light of uncanny brilliance. It hung there in all its glory and did not frighten me, but the awful noise it made did.' Yet despite the noise, which, with the sighting, lasted for some 25 minutes 'not one of my neighbours on this private estate saw or heard anything. I asked each one of them later that day.' The humming began to attenuate and the UFO began to flicker[8]; the noise finally stopped, and the object vanished from sight. As with the reports from earlier in the year, it was the noise that was the disturbing aspect of the phenomenon: 'The noise was most upsetting to me. I felt there was a tight band of steel around my forehead towards the end, a pounding and a hammering at my eardrums.' Throughout 1965, and for the first half of 1966, the noises continued to be reported. On the 17th of March 1965, Mr and Mrs Brown's house was rattled. The Marson household was assaulted by the noises in May 1965 and June 1965.

A very graphic account of the effects of the noise were given by Eric Payne. At 11 pm on the 28th of March, 1965, he was walking down a dark, foggy, quiet country road, when he heard a sound he described as similar to the sound of the wind in telegraph wires. The sound increased in intensity, however, and he was pushed and held down by 'a tremendous racket ... [like] ... a gigantic tin can with huge nuts and bolts inside it, rattling over your head.' He heard a shrill whining and buzzing which 'nearly drove me mad.' He reports that his 'head was pushed from side to side and I might as well have have left my arms and legs at home for all the use they were. I simply could not stop this tremendous downward pressure. I crawled round in the road for a bit and then sank to my knees on the grass verge.' . This report shows how contradictory, or perhaps, how sloppy, many UFO reports, and certainly those of Shuttlewood, can be. If, as Payne reports, he might as well have left his arms and legs at home 'for all the use they were', how was he able to crawl around in the road 'for a bit'. And why - if he was already crawling - did he then sink to his knees on the grass verge? I am not doubting Mr Payne's experience; I merely point out that Shuttlewood's reports could be vague, confusing, even misleading. What is also mysterious is that this event is reported, in an article by Shuttlewood in the Warminster Journal in December 1965, as happening in 1964. Rogers reports this phenomenon as happening early in the January of 1965. In Rogers' account, the only sound described is that similar to the hum one hears from the wind through telephone wires.[9] The more exciting account described by Shuttlewood is omitted. Interestingly, Payne's account is one of a group that came to light after David Holton appealed for reports of the sounds.

As we have seen, from roughly May 1965 onwards, the Thing became a predominantly visual phenomenon; reports were mainly of UFOs. One of the early mass sightings was that of the 3rd of June; Mrs Phillips' report has been described above. The UFO was also seen, from the Philips household, by Mrs Phillips' husband, their three children, and a visitor; by Warminster residents Mr and Mrs Horlock, who described the UFO as 'twin red-hot pokers hanging downwards, one on top of the other, with a black space in between'; and by seventeen people swimming or fishing at Shearwater, a lake near Warminster. One of the Shearwater witnesses told Shuttlewood 'It was obviously huge, but very high up.' Shuttlewood points out that the 'evidence came in before any news of this extraordinary night vision had been published.' Although the UFO was seen by many people, there are discrepancies in the reports: in the colours reported by the groups of witnesses; in the shape of the UFO; and in the way the phenomenon ceased.

It would be pointless to reiterate all of the sightings here; interested readers are directed to The Warminster Mystery.[10] Suffice to say that from Christmas 1965 the reports flooded into Arthur Shuttlewood and the local papers. For those interested in ufology, the Warminster mystery is an essentially 1960s phenomenon. Apart from the unusual sounds, it provided nothing that had not been described for earlier UFO sightings, both in Britain and the US. What marked Warminster out in particular was the sheer number of sightings, as well as the fact that a whole town seemed to be enmeshed in the phenomenon. What was also unusual, perhaps, was that the phenomenon had one prime focus, through which all information flowed. Shuttlewood's position as a respected local journalist helped focus attention on the Thing. It was to Shuttlewood that many of the reports of UFO sightings were made, and it was through him that these sightings were articulated for the public.

[1]  The Warminster Mystery, p. 124.

[2]  Ibid., p. 22.

[3]   Flying Saucer Review, 1961.

[4]  The report of another event that perhaps happened earlier than Christmas 1964 is attributed to David Holton. He reported that a flock of pigeons appeared to have been killed by the sounds on April 11th, 1964. Note, though, that there is some confusion, unsurprisingly, in what happened, and when and where. Ken Rogers, who appears to be quoting directly from a letter of Holton's published in The Warminster Journal cites the date above (The Warminster Triangle, page 3). Gordon Creighton and Charles Bowen, in an article in the Flying Saucer Review (Volume 2, Number 4) report this event as being in April after the noises had started; that is, in 1965. Even more confusingly, in The Warminster Mystery (p.31), the first we hear of dead pigeons is in February 1965; again, David Holton had been on hand to examine them. In all three descriptions of the events, the pigeons were killed at Five Ash Lane. So at least there's some consistency...

[5]  The sightings/hearings noted in this essay are all described in The Warminster Mystery.

[6]  According to Lionel Beer's article 'Curiosity Overtakes The Public at Warminster', in Flying Saucer Review Vol. 2, No. 5 (September - October 1965). Shuttlewood, who quoted this figure at the public meeting in Waminster, was at this time simply referred to as 'a local reporter in the Press gallery'.

[7]  Either a UFO group are already poking their noses in, and contaminating the local culture, or Ms Hebdidge was sufficiently UFO literate to know of a UFO group.

[8]  The actual words attributed to Mrs Atwill in the The Warminster Mystery are: 'When the hideous humming grew less, the starry Thing flickered feebly.' This description has Shuttlewood's love of alliteration stamped all over it. How accurate, therefore, are his reports? How much extra description has he ghosted in to make the report more interesting? How accurate are the reports we receive of the Warminster phenomena?

[9]  The Warminster Triangle, p. 4

[10] The Warminster Mystery, along with Shuttlewood's other books, is out of print.

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