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The Haunting of Willington Mill

Willington Mill. Image by Lenora

In the 1830’s and 40’s a haunting occurred in the small township of Willington, that in its day was as famous as the Haunting at Borley Rectory would be almost 100 years later. However, unlike Borley Rectory, the haunting at Willington Mill House has never been satisfactorily explained.

The haunting caused a sensation in the nineteenth century, with local historians, journalists and psychical researchers all reporting on events and yet now it has been all but forgotten.  

Location, Location, Location

With any ghost story, it is important to set the scene.

“Between the railway from Newcastle Upon Tyne to North Shields and the River Tyne, there lie in a hollow some few cottages, a parsonage, a mill, and a miller’s house; these constitute the hamlet of Willington.”1

Willington in the early nineteenth century was a small, close-knit industrial community, nestled beneath the arches of the new railway bridge, with slopes on either side, and a small stream, known as Willington Gut, running through it and emptying into the River Tyne.

The area was not remote or isolated, by any means –in fact it was a hive of industry, with collieries, shipbuilding and milling providing work for the community. In short, it was not the kind of place you would expect to be haunted.  

And yet, even before the Mill was built, the land had a bad reputation. The locals believed that a witch once lived in the area, possibly at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Some link the story of the Willington Witch to ‘Mrs Pepper’ a historically attested individual, who was tried and acquitted of witchcraft in nearby Newcastle, in the late seventeenth century, although is remains a theory as there are no records to support her presence.2
The witch may have been some kind of cunning woman, a local folk healer, if in fact, she existed. She is said to have been refused final communion and died unshriven, leading her to curse the area. More recent rumours hinted that a murder had been committed by one of the workers during the building of the Mill, creating a further sense unease in the local community.3,4

Willington Viaduct and Willington Gut. Image by Lenora

The Haunted House

The Mill and Mill house were built sometime between 1800 and 1806 (the sources differ) by the business partnership of William Brown, Joseph Unthanks and Joseph Proctor Snr. The mill was innovative for its time and was thought to be the first steam powered flour mill on Tyneside, with engines running well into the night.  

The Mill house was next to the Mill but separated by a road and was originally lived in by Joseph Unthanks and his family. When Joseph Proctor Snr died in 1813, his son, also called Joseph, joined the business, and became a full partner in 1829 (Brown had left the partnership sometime in 1807). The Unthanks’ and Proctors were cousins, and they were both respected quaker businessmen. 

The house was visually unremarkable, it was square, double fronted affair, very typical of early nineteenth century domestic architecture. It had three floors (including the ground floor) and a garret/attic area above. Some sources say that the house did not have a cellar, but again, sources differ, for example, Richardson says there was no cellaring,5 while WT Stead and some modern writers, believe that the house did have a cellar. This point is important, because some believed that the cellar related to the alleged murder at the mill house and may have been where the body was concealed.6,7

Willington Mill and House, with the Gut in front from The History of the Parish of Wallsend by W.Richardson

Living with the dead

Life was unremarkable at the Mill House for many years. The Unthanks lived there from 1806 until 1831, when Joseph Unthank finally retired and moved his family out of the Mill House to Battle Hill Farm. The same year Joseph Proctor had married Elizabeth Carr of Kendal, so he and his new wife took up residence at the Mill house and in a few years their new home was filled with their young family. Things seemed to be going well for the Proctor’s until January 1835.  It was at this point, Joseph Proctor decided to keep a diary, to record events, giving us a first-hand account of the haunting. The accounts of events described below are based on that diary.8

The Disturbed Room

It all began with footsteps in an empty room. For about two months, the nursemaid, employed to look after the children, had heard someone pacing back and forth in the room above the nursery. So forceful were the steps, that they even rattled the window frame in the nursery; this happened every evening and lasted for about 10 minutes. Her unease at these strange noises steadily grew until she became convinced that the noise was supernatural in origin, and she reported it to her mistress. The girl left the Proctor’s employment soon after, terrified by her experiences.

Girl reading ghost stories. Engraving by R. Graves after R.W. Buss.

The nursemaid was not alone in the hearing ominous noises emanating from the third-floor room. Elizabeth Proctor soon bore witness to the strange sounds herself. At 11 am one morning, she was in the nursery, when she too heard a heavy tread in the room above.

The replacement nursemaid was not told why her predecessor had left, but it didn’t take long for her to find out. Soon she too was regularly being terrified by the sound of heavy boots pacing back and forward in the room above the nursery.  

Whenever noises were heard in the room, the room was swiftly checked, but each time, it was found empty.

The room on the third floor, soon became known as the disturbed room. This room was occasionally used for storage but was usually kept empty by the family. What makes this room unusual, is that the door had been nailed shut until quite recently. In addition to this, the window and fireplace were boarded up and there was no access from the roof. Dust lay thick on the floor and that dust had not been disturbed by a single footprint – not even that of a mouse. Exactly when the door was sealed and by whom it was opened, remains unclear.  The Unthanks only lived on one floor of the house during their tenure, did they know something about the room, did they seal it shut, did Proctor open it, unknowingly releasing something that should have remained sealed up for ever?  

Creepy attic. Image from Jenny Cross on Pinterest

Soon every inhabitant of the house had experienced some form of unexplained and terrifying phenomena emanating from the disturbed room. But things were only going to get worse. 

In early 1835, Joseph Proctor’s diary noted that he and his wife were disturbed in their bed by the sound of a mallet hitting a block of wood ten or twelve times, very close to them. The following night, when putting his baby son in his crib, he described hearing indistinct noises from the room above, then suddenly a metallic sound tapped on the cradle, causing it to vibrate.

These were amongst the last times the noises were heard in the disturbed room. Whatever was in there, had got out, and was now roaming the house terrifying the inhabitants. 

The invisible thief

On the same night, Thomas Mann, the highly respected foreman of the Mill, was working a nightshift, tending the mill engine. At around 1am he was in the Mill yard to collect more coal, when he heard a loud grating noise on the cobbles. The Mill had a wooden cistern on wheels that was used to bring water to the Mill horses. Mann was convinced someone was trying to steal the cistern and rushed to confront the thief. To his surprise the cistern had not moved, and the yard was deserted. By the time Mann described his experience to Proctor, he was convinced the event was supernatural.  

In his journal, Proctor himself noted that he had sometimes heard disembodied footsteps on the gravel outside the house.  

The confrontation

Two Victorian gentleman in debate

By this time, it was clear to Joseph Proctor, that something uncanny was going on in his house. He broached the subject with his cousin Joseph Unthanks.  

In February 1835, Proctor wrote: 

My wife and I were informed by our cousin Unthanks that they understood that the house, and that room in particular in which the noises now occurred, was said to be haunted before they entered it in 1806, but that nothing they knew of had been heard during their occupancy of 25 years.  

How the Proctor’s felt at this revelation and whether they truly believed the Unthanks had not had any strange experience in the house is not recorded.  

After this bombshell, Proctor began to research reasons why the house might be haunted and made an indistinct half erased note in his diary saying: 

“An infirm old woman, the mother-in-law of R.Oxon, the builder of the premises, lived and died in the house, and after her death the haunting was attributed–” 

Much has been made of this phrase as potentially relating to the Willington Witch. But it must be remembered that the Mill House was comparatively new, so if a witch lived there, or nearby, it was likely to have been in an earlier older house.  

The ghost in the window

Throughout 1835, the family and other visitors continued to experience strange phenomena on an almost daily basis. The haunting had now evolved from simple bangs and footsteps to full blown apparitions, as the following incidents from November of that year, testify –  

“A respectable neighbour had seen a transparent white female figure in a window on the second story of the house.” 

The following incident appeared connected –  

“Early in the evening, two of the children, one aged about 8, the other under 2 years, both saw, unknown each other, an object which could not be real, and which went into the room where the apparition was afterwards seen, and disappeared there.” 

The Hammersmith Ghost. N John Graham 1804

By now the house’s reputation had become notorious and some visitors did not wish to stay in the house overnight. In November 1835, Elizabeth Proctor’s sister, Christiana Wright was visiting from Mansfield and chose to lodge with Thomas Mann and his family to avoid the disturbances. However, this precaution made no difference. 

The following incident occurred about 9.30pm. 

“Soon after going to her bedroom, TMs wife went out of the house for some coals and was struck by a figure in the window previously referred to; she called her husband, who saw the same figure passing backwards and forwards and then standing still in the window. It was very luminous and likewise transparent and had the appearance of a priest in a white surplice” 

Mrs Mann called her husband, daughter, and Christiana Wright to observe the apparition, which remained in the window for around 10 minutes until it gradually faded away from the head downwards.  

The witnesses described the night as moonless, the yard empty, the window blind down, and the figure seemed to come through the blind and the glass. The possibility of a projection via a Magic Lantern was discounted at the time because a magic lantern would only have projected only on the blinds.  

The next event took place on 16 December 1835 when Elizabeth Proctor’s sister, Jane Carr was visiting.
“..[A] little before twelve o’clock at night, JC and her bedfellow were disturbed by a noise similar to the winding up of a clock, apparently on the stairs where the clock stands, which continued for the space of 10 minutes. When that ceased, footsteps were heard in the room above, which is unoccupied, for perhaps a quarter of a hour, while this was going on the bed was felt to shake, and JC distinctly heard the sound of a sack falling on the floor. “ 

The ghost was not finished with Jane Carr yet, on the 31 January 1836,  

“About twelve o’clock at night, JC being quite awake was disturbed by a noise similar to a person knocking quickly and strongly on a piece of board in the room; when that ceased, she distinctly heard the sound of a footstep close by the side of the bed.” 

The next event dated around 21st February 1836 involved Mrs Proctor who was sleeping apart from her husband and sharing her bed with the children’s Nurse, a woman called Pollard.  As they were lying bed, they were raised up and let down three times, as if a man was underneath the bed, pushing it up with his back. The Proctor’s son, Joseph, also experienced his crib being raised up several times, and was so frightened that he called out for a light.

Victorian Family, 1840. English School

In 1838, Jane Carr, was again visiting. Terrified to spend the night alone, she was sharing her bed with the cook, Mary Young, when things soon took terrifying turn. Sometime between 11 o’clock and midnight, Mary Young heard the bolt on the door of their room slide back. Steps then approached the dressing table, upon which burned a rush light. The light was obscured as if the figure had extinguished it. Jane Carr then felt the bedclothes raised over her twice, then they both heard something rustling the curtains as it went around the bed. Mary Young claimed she saw a dark figure on the outside of the curtains, Jane heard and felt a sound like a fist hitting the headboard on her side. Mary Young then felt pressure on the bed, and saw the curtains pressed inwards, before they both heard it leave the room without shutting the door. The following morning, the door was found to still be bolted. Quite understandably, Jane Carr kept her head firmly under the bedclothes during this nocturnal disturbance.

A haunted childhood

The Children were not immune from the paranormal activity, and while they were sometimes scared of it, they seemed to cope with growing up in a haunted house quite well most of the time. Their experiences range from the bizarre, to the amusing to the downright terrifying. For example, Joseph junior experienced disembodied snatches of conversation, voices saying things like ‘Never mind’ and ‘Come and get,’ he also appears to have haunted himself, as he claimed to have seen his own image staring back at him on one occasion. On other occasions the children claimed they saw and pursued strange animals, including an odd-looking cat and a strange monkey. As an adult Edmund claimed he recalled these events clearly, although he was only around 2 years old at the time. Other, more terrifying experiences, include disembodied white faces, and a female apparition with hollow eye sockets. 

Creepy dolls. Image by Lenora

The vigil

Willington Mill has an unusual claim to fame, it was the site of one of the first ever recorded ghost hunts in England.  Gossip about the haunting at Willington Mill travelled fast, despite Joseph Proctor’s best efforts to quell the rumours. In 1840, Dr Edward Drury, a sceptic, wrote to Joseph Proctor and cordially invited himself, his dog, and his brace of pistols, to hold vigil at the house at some time when the Proctors were away from home. Surprisingly, Joseph Proctor agreed to the request, he drew the line at the dog, but was fine with the pistols. Dr Drury arrived on Friday 3 July 1840 along with another ghost hunter, a chemist called Thomas Hudson. They hoped to spend the night alone, locked in the Mill house, along with an elderly servant. However, Mr Proctor unexpectedly returned home from his family trip for business reasons, so the two sceptics dined with the hardened believer, suffice to say, they came away converted (or some might say primed).  

After minutely searching the house for any tricks, the vigil began. A letter from Dr Drury to Mr Proctor, provides an account of what happened next.

He and Hudson had taken up position on the landing of the third floor at about 11pm. Just before midnight, they began to hear the sound of bare feet pattering on the floor, but he couldn’t tell where they came from. Then, the sound of knocking was heard by their feet, followed by a hollow cough and the sound as of fabric rustling up the stairs towards them. By 12.45am Drury was feeling cold and wanted to go to bed, but Hudson insisted they stay up until dawn. To occupy himself, Drury picked up a note that he had dropped on the floor, read it, then checked his watch, it was 12:50am. 

“In taking my eyes from the watch, they became rivetted upon a closet door, which I distinctly saw open, and saw also the figure of a female attired in greyish garments, with the head inclining downwards, and one hand pressed upon the chest, as if in pain [..] and the other extending towards the floor, with the index finger pointing downwards.”

The terrifying figure advanced on Drury and his sleeping companion, stretching out its hand towards Hudson. In an attempt to protect his friend, Drury charged at the figure, but only succeeded in crashing into Hudson, whilst giving out a terrible yell. He was carried from the scene in paroxysms of fear and did not regain his senses for a full three hours.

Man trapped by a ghost, 1889. Photographer unknown.

Some link this apparition to the alleged murder at the Mill house. Hallowell and Ritson, in their excellent book on the haunting have suggested that the body of a woman was buried beneath a large stone in the cellar. WT Stead also thought that there was something hidden in the cellar. 9, 10

Life goes on

The strange events continued for many years, and Proctor continued to record them in his diary and communicate with interested parties on the subject, including William Howitt, Catherine Crowe, and the Spiritualist Magazine (despite his professed efforts to stop the story spreading he seemed fairly open to discussing it).

By 1847 the Proctor’s had finally had enough of their haunted house and moved to Camp Villa in North Shields. The ghost gave them one final performance the night before they left, when they heard banging and dragging of boxes down the stairs, as though the ghost was planning to move house with them. 

Fortunately for them, their new home was quiet (although the servants may have played upon the families haunted past to scare new staff!)  

When Joseph died in 1875, Edmund, his son, found the diary amongst his papers. Frustratingly the manuscript was incomplete, ending abruptly in August 1842. Joseph was never able to find the missing pages – which were promised to contain absolute proof the events were supernatural. The widowed Mrs Proctor asked Edmund to wait until after her death before publishing the diary and Edmund respected her wishes. Edmund finally submitted the diary to the Journal for Psychical Research, and it was published in their 1891/2 edition.

Page from the JSPR 1891/2 edition. Image by Lenora


After the Proctors, the Mill house was split into two, and was occupied by two families, one of them being the Mann family. The Mann’s were familiar with the house’s history and did continue to experience some strange events, nevertheless they remained there for twenty years. Later it was broken up into tenements and eventually fell into ruin.  

Joseph Proctor closed the mill in 1865 and eventually sold it in 1871.  It is worth mentioning that the mill has its own ghost as well. The ghost of a little girl named Kitty is said to haunt the Mill, having been killed in an industrial accident.

Willington Gut looking towards the viaduct. Image by Lenora


The Willington Mill Haunting has never been satisfactorily explained. 

Most of the contemporary accounts stress the reliability of the witnesses, Joseph Proctor and his wife were devout Quakers, Proctor was an abolitionist and a member of the temperance movement. Several of the other witnesses were trusted family members or long-standing servants and employees.  

Great pains were taken at the time to consider trickery, environmental factors, or noises from heavy industry. All were, at the time, discounted.  

Often, hauntings of this kind can be tracked back to bored children or teenagers faking poltergeist activity. There are two famous eighteenth century cases: the Stockwell Ghost and the Cock Lane Ghost, where the culprits in both cases were young girls simply out for mischief.  

This is a possibility at Willington, it was a presumably young nurse maid who first reported the phenomena, however, she left soon after reporting it. There are also the Proctor children to consider, however the haunting starts in 1835 when the oldest child was only 2 years old, so that would seem to rule them out, at least initially.  

As far as environmental factors go, the railway viaduct was not opened until June 1840, so would not seem to be a cause, however, it would be interesting to know when construction began, and if digging deep foundations for the railway arches could have caused vibrations or noises in the house. In addition to this the noises of the steam mill, and even the gut emptying and filling with the tide, could account for some of the noises.  

Willington Gut at low tide

It is also a possibility that once the family, and others, experienced some inexplicable phenomena, they remained hypervigilant, ascribing unusual events to the supernatural, rather than looking for a natural explanation.11

Priming may also be a factor, in particular with Dr Drury, who began as a sceptic but was rigorously primed about what kind of events to expect by Proctor. This may also account for Edmund recollecting chasing strange animals when he was 2 years old – his 8-year-old brother Joseph may have been playing a prank and priming him by saying ‘did you see THE Strange cat’ rather than ‘did you see A strange cat?’ causing Edmund to create a false memory of events. 12

By Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare. Public Domain

There are also several instances that could be attributed to sleep paralysis and hypnogogic or hypnopompic hallucinations which are associated with the first stage of sleep and with waking up. This could be a factor in Dr Dury’s experiences with the apparition of the old lady. If he had nodded off, he could easily have had a terrifying hypnogogic hallucination and then woken himself with a shout. Others had experiences that could similarly be linked to this natural phenomenon.13

The diary itself is also problematic, can we be sure it is genuine, and that Joseph wrote it when events were occurring? He could have written it after the event, and misremembered or misinterpreted things.

Michael J Hallowell & Darren W Ritson have looked at many theories and possible explanations from a paranormal perspective in their excellent book The Haunting of Willington Mill. They consider whether there was a murder at the site, and whether the Browns, Unthanks and Proctors knew or suspected a body was located in the Cellar of the Mill. Hallowell and Ritson also consider the intriguing possibility of a time slip in the area (were the family hearing echoes of the future or seeing into the deep prehistoric past?). 14 

A dark path by Willington Gut. Image by Lenora

Personally, I want to know why the disturbed room was nailed up and sealed off, what, if anything, was in there? Opening up the disturbed room seems to be the key to this whole mystery. But, in the end, without the rest of the diary, we may never know the secret of the Willington Mill Haunting.  

Willington MIll from across the Gut. Image by Lenora

For anyone who would like to visit the site of Willington Mill, sadly the house is long gone, now under the carpark next to the old Mill building. The Mill itself remains, reduced in size. It is still operational and is run by Bridon Bekaert as a Rope works, so you cannot access the actual site.  However, you can get great views of the Mill Building by walking along the wooded footpath on the other side of Willington Gut. Seeing the rose-coloured building emerging between overhanging tree branches, and reflecting in the still water of the gut, it is easy to imagine that this is a place out of time, where strange things might still happen.  

You can hear me talk about the Haunting of Willington Mill House on the Voices from the Northeast Podcast Halloween Special soon, available at https://anchor.fm/voicesfromthenortheast and on Spotify.

Happy Halloween


Crowe, Catherine, 2000, The Night Side of Nature, or Ghosts and Ghost Seers, Wordsworth (original edition published 1848)

Hallowell, Michael J., and Ritson, Darren R., 2011, The Haunting of Willington Mill, The Truth behind England’s most Enigmatic Ghost Story, The History Press

Howitt, William, 1840, Visits to Remarkable Places, Old Walls, Battlefields, and Scenes illustrative of Striking Passages in English History and Poetry, Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman

Liddell, Tony, 2004, Otherworld North-East, Ghosts and Hauntings Explored, Tyne Bridge Publishing

Proctor, Joseph and Proctor Edmund, The Haunted House at Willington, in Journal for the Psychical Research Society Vol V, 1891/2

Richardson, M.A., 1847, An Authentic Account of a Visit to the Haunted House at Willington, The Local Historian’s Table Book Vol 6

Stead, William, T., 1897, Real Ghost Stories, Audible

Wiseman, Richard, 2015, Paranormality, Pan (Originally published 2011)


[1] William Howitt, Visits to Remarkable Places, Old Walls, Battlefields, and Scenes illustrative of Striking Passages in English History and Poetry

[2] Michael J Hallowell & Darren R Ritson, The Haunting of Willington Mill, The Truth behind England’s most Enigmatic Ghost Story

[3] William T Stead, Real Ghost Stories

[4] Michael J Hallowell & Darren R Ritson, The Haunting of Willington Mill, The Truth behind England’s most Enigmatic Ghost Story

[5] MA Richardson, An Authentic Account of a Visit to the Haunted House at Willington, in The Local Historian’s Table Book Vol 6

[6] William T Stead, Real Ghost Stories

[7] Michael J Hallowell & Darren R Ritson, The Haunting of Willington Mill, The Truth behind England’s most Enigmatic Ghost Story

[8] Proctor, Joseph and Proctor Edmund, The Haunted House at Willington, in Journal for the Psychical Research Society Vol V, 1891/2

[9] William T Stead, Real Ghost Stories

[10] Michael J Hallowell & Darren R Ritson, The Haunting of Willington Mill, The Truth behind England’s most Enigmatic Ghost Story

[11] Richard Wiseman, Paranormality

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] Michael J Hallowell & Darren R Ritson, The Haunting of Willington Mill, The Truth behind England’s most Enigmatic Ghost Story