Seaton Delaval Hall lies near the Northumbrian Coast, not far from the former mining villages of Seaton Sluice and New Hartley. The house is spectacular, though not excessively large, with a central block flanked by two enveloping wings that reach out and embrace the visitor. It was designed in the early eighteenth century by Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, for Admiral George Delaval. The Admiral never saw the hall completed, as he died after a horse-riding accident before work was finished. Drama and tragedy have always stalked the Delavals, and many strange tales and legends grew up around them, from building a castle in a day, to the macabre tale of the Wallsend Witches, and the tragic story of the white lady of Seaton Delaval.
The White Lady of Seaton Delaval
It is said that the spectre of a lady dressed all in white, or in some versions grey, has, at certain times of day, when the sunlight falls in a particular way, been seen staring soulfully out of a first-floor window on the North front of the house.
Other versions claim the white lady is seen cradling an infant and haunts the nearby family chapel.1
The story is that the son of the Delaval family had a secret love affair with an ‘unsuitable’ girl, possibly a servant. As heir to the Delaval fortune, he was expected to make an advantageous marriage, so his family took steps to end his liaison with the girl. He was swiftly was sent away to the opposite end of the country, never to return. The heart-broken girl pined and died. But her spirit remained, and to this day, can sometimes be seen holding its lonely vigil at the Hall, forever awaiting her lost love’s return.2
It is a tragic and romantic tale, that fits the windswept grandeur of Seaton Delaval Hall. It has also often been linked to a real life Delaval heir who lived in the eighteenth century.
Jack Delaval and the unwilling maid
The White Lady was said to have been in love with John Delaval (1756-1775). John, known as Jack by his family, was the only son of Sir John Delaval, and found himself the accidental heir of Seaton Delaval Hall.
Sir Francis Blake Delaval , Jack’s uncle, had originally inherited Seaton Delaval Hall in 1752. Sir Francis was the original Gay Delaval, infamous for his wild parties, gambling, theatrics, pranks, and sexual liaisons. But even the vast income from the Delaval empire could not keep up with this kind of lavish lifestyle. Sir Francis was soon drowning in debt and forced to hand over his inheritance to his sensible brother John, in return for an annual annuity.
Sir John was an MP and an industrialist, he was the polar opposite of his rakish brother Francis. He was determined that his only son would not replicate his brother’s dissolute behaviour, and tried to stamp this out of Jack through a strictly regulated education. However, it seems that the apple never falls far from the tree, because Jack’s name has forever been linked with another tale of thwarted love and tragic death. However, this tale is considerably less romantic.
Allegedly, young Jack had taken a fancy to a buxom serving girl and decided to exercise his ‘droit de seignior’ and sexually assault her. The girl emphatically rejected his advances and landed him a firm kick in the groin in order to facilitate her get away. Her deftly landed blow hurt more than his pride, and he later died of internal injuries.3 What happened to the feisty servant girl, sadly, is left unrecorded.
Oddly enough, for a young man linked to such unpleasantly vigorous exploits, he was not a strapping lad by any means. Surviving letters suggest he was a sickly, and often peevish boy, and records suggest that while he was definitely sent away from Seaton Delaval Hall, this was to recover from Consumption (Tuberculosis), rather than to escape a mesalliance or to recuperate from an embarrassing injury.4
His obituary in the Morning Post paints a very complementary picture of his character, albeit in the conventional language of the day:
“On Friday last died at Bristol, in the twentieth year of his age, after a severe illness of several months continuance, which he bore with a truly Christian patience, John Delaval, Esq. son of Sir John Hussey Delaval, Bart. whose death is grievously lamented by his most afflicted parents, and by all who had the happiness of being acquainted with him. His manners were so pure, unaffected, and amiable, and his behaviour so engaging and irresistible, that he captured the affections, and was the delight of all that knew him. He spend a precious life of innocence and goodness in this world, by which he prepared himself for the perpetual felicity in the next to which he had been called.”5
Despite this glowing eulogy, the story has stuck, like mud, to Jack’s reputation down the centuries, so much so, that Francis Askham, writing in The Gay Delavals suggests that the Morning Post could have been bribed to keep silent as to the ‘true’ cause of the boy’s death. Askham also quotes lines from The Delavaliad, a satirical poem directed at Sir John, and suggests the poem could hold an oblique reference to the incident with Jack and the girl.
‘And if with foot you kick a ball,
E’en so you may-a Delaval’6
In the context of the poem, the lines could just as easily be talking about the shifting nature of Sir John’s principles in politics, however, it is fascinating to imagine that the story of Jack’s undignified demise might have been an open secret amongst society.
However, it is also worth pointing out that there are no contemporary accounts to suggest that Jack was the victim of his own proclivities and it is just as likely that his posthumous reputation as an unsuccessful womanizer is unfounded.
Jack died in July 1775, at Hot Springs in Bristol. His body was interred at Doddington Church, near Doddington Hall, another of the Delaval family seats. But he was not intended to remain there long.
Sir John was devastated that his only son had died so young, Jack was barely twenty years old.
To assuage his grief, Sir John had a very grand mausoleum built near to Seaton Delaval Hall. It cost the huge sum of £1742.11shillings (about £152,000 in today’s money). However, despite this vast expenditure, he had a falling out with the Bishop of Durham over the cost to consecrate the building.7 In the end, the beautiful structure remained unconsecrated and untenanted, and Jack’s body remained at Doddington. Today, the mausoleum is a blackened and graffitied shell, inaccessible and marooned amongst farmers fields.
Why Jack? Events in Jack’s life were easily grafted on to the tale of the White Lady and her lost lover, the fact that it was known that Jack had been sent away from home suddenly, never to return, may have been used to add a veneer of authenticity to a local ghost story. Such local tales were popular with Victorians.
On the other hand, he also exists in the folk memory of the area as the over-sexed, upper class creep who got his just desserts (and an ignominious death) at the hands of a servant girl. Perhaps this negative story may have something to do with his father being an MP or just a way of local people bringing Bigwigs down a peg or two. What ever the truth of the matter, Jack’s short life will forever been linked to these two very different tales.
All images by Lenora
Asbury, Jonathan, Seaton Delaval Hall Souvenir Guide (National Trust)
Askham, Francis, 1955, The Gay Delavals
Green, Martin, 2010, The Delavals A Family History
The ‘Screaming Spectre’ is one of the most famous hauntings in London. Hundreds of passengers and London Underground employees alike have claimed to have heard a terrifying scream whilst waiting for the last train out of Farringdon Station. Rarely seen, usually only heard, the cry has occasionally led some intrepid soul to go searching for the source of the noise, convinced it is the sound of someone in severe distress, only for them to return confused and empty handed.
The ghost, is believed to be that of a young girl named Ann Nailor, who was murdered, her remains left near the site which later became Farringdon Station.
From the Workhouse to the Sweatshop
Ann Nailor was only thirteen when she was killed in 1758. At the time of her death she was apprenticed out to a millinery in Bruton Street, Berkeley Square, London, along with four other girls; her sister Mary (8), Philadephia Dowley (10), Sarah (Sall) Hinchman (12) and Ann Paul (age unknown). The millinery was owned by Sarah Metyard, a widow with one daughter, Sarah Morgan Metyard, who would have been either 18 or 19 at the time.
Forced to work long hours in a small room, sewing ‘mitts and purses’, poorly fed and only allowed out a couple of days a month, it is pretty obvious the value their mistress placed on her apprentices. They needed to work hard, if they didn’t, they were punished. Ann couldn’t sew as well as the others, she had suffered from a herpetic infection ‘whitlow’ which had led to a finger being amputated. This lack of productivity was reflected in her treatment. She was beaten more often than the others and not given food as regularly. As she became weaker, she was even less able to work and so was punished again. Thus, the vicious cycle continued until reaching breaking point she tried to get away.
Source unknown: 18th century milliners shop.
A Slow, Lingering Death
Ann had tried once before to escape from the Metyards. The second time she only made it as far as the doorstep when she was stopped by the milkman, Mr Brown. She begged him to let her go, pleading that if she stayed, she would be starved to death since she had had “no victuals for so long a time”. Reassuring her that she would not starve, he stood by as Sarah Morgan pulled her inside. Ann was dragged by the neck upstairs where she was held down by the mother on a bed and severely beaten with a broom handle by the daughter. She was then taken up another flight of stairs where she was attached to a door by a string tied around her waist. For three days she was left in this position, unable to sit or lie down. Each evening she was cut down and allowed to return to her room to sleep, on the last day she was so weak that she crawled up the stairs on her hands and knees. According to the other apprentices throughout this time Ann was given neither food or water, was unable to speak and could only groan in agony.
At the end of the third day, one of the girls noticed that Ann was bent over double, no longer moving. Starved, dehydrated, exhausted and badly beaten (who knows what injuries she had sustained), her poor, frail body had finally given up. Death in the end would have been a merciful relief; her pain and suffering were at least at an end, even if her story was not yet finished.
Source: By anonymous illustrators of the Newgate Calendar. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.
Scared the girls called for help. Initially the daughter refused to accept that Ann was dead. Taking her shoe, she beat Ann on her backside and hand, insisting that she would make the girl move. When she could not, she called for her mother to come up and take a look. The mother on arriving cut the string and laid Ann’s dead body over her lap. She then sent one of the apprentices, Sall, to fetch some drops, insisting that Ann was just in a fit and was perfectly fine. This was the last time the girls saw her.
According to both the apprentices at the trial, the Metyards began to act strangely sending them to wash in the kitchen or dining room, instead of in the garret as normal, the door of which was kept securely locked. As to Ann they were told that she was very sick and that they were not to disturb her. Despite putting on a show, taking up plates of food and demonstrating concern for her well-being the Metyards were perfectly aware that they could not keep up the charade indefinitely. At dinner a couple of days after Ann’s death, Sarah Metyard pretended to hear a noise and sent Sall to fetch Ann and bring her down to eat. Sall returned frightened, saying that the garret door was open and Ann had gone. Sarah Metyard just remarked that the girl had obviously run away again and with her history, few would have questioned it.
Despite the evidence, the girls were not convinced. For one thing, Ann had left without her shoes.
The Evidence Hidden
Whilst the Metyards were pretending everything was dandy, Ann’s cold body had lain in a garret room for two days before being moved to a second room. On the fourth day, it was unceremoniously dumped in a box, where it remained for two months.
By the beginning of December, the stench of the rotting corpse had become too much and fearful of discovery, they realised that the body needed to be removed from the premises. The first plan was to burn it but that idea was soon abandoned over fears that the smell of burning flesh would arouse suspicion and on a practical note it would have taken far too long. A decision was made to cut the body up into pieces and dump it. The mother aided by her daughter cut the arms and legs from the body. The trunk and head were stuffed into one bag and the limbs in another. An exception was made for the hand with the amputated finger which was burnt on the fire. Possibly the mother was frightened that the disfigured hand would make identifying the remains easier. On 5 December, Sarah Metyard carried the sacks to the sewer in Chick Lane, over 1.5 miles away. Unfortunately for her, the sewer was overflowing with mud and water and so she just left them in the gully-hole. Afterwards, her nerves shattered, she stopped at a public house near Temple-bar. Mr Inch, the landlord, knew Sarah Metyard well and enquired about the stink (of what would have been a mixture of rotting flesh, bodily fluids and guts) with which she was perfuming the place. Sarah Metyard denied all knowledge of any smell and quickly left the public house after just one drink.
A Gruesome Discovery
Late at night, not long after the body had been left, it was found by a constable and two watchmen whilst on their rounds. The pungent smell which Sarah Metyard had claimed to be oblivious to, had attracted their attention. Examining the bags briefly they ascertained it contained body parts and immediately went to report their find to Thomas Lovegrove, the Overseer of the Parish of St Andrew, Holborn. Despite the lateness of the night (it was about midnight), he ordered the men to get ‘a shell’ from the workhouse and go and gather up the body parts. The head and trunk were found first and then the limbs but despite making a thorough search of the area they could not locate the hands. They then took the remains to the workhouse where they were left until the next day when Lovegrove sent for the coroner, Mr Umfreville. The coroner asked for the body parts to be washed and laid out on a board, ready for examination. The body was identified as having belonged to a young female but the coroner mistakenly assumed that it had been dissected by surgeons and as such declined to summon a jury. The body was sent for burial.
That would have been the end of the story but for the fear and guilt which gnawed at the murderers and which eventually was their undoing.
The Murderers Condemn Themselves
During the years which followed, the mother became increasingly paranoid. She initially refused to let her daughter go out to service, afraid she would reveal their terrible secret.
After two years the daughter did get her wish. A tenant, Mr Richard Rooker, took pity on the daughter and offered her work as a servant at his house in Hill Street. Sarah Morgan gratefully accepted. Despite no longer living under the same roof, the mother’s behaviour worsened and she would regularly turn up at Rooker’s residence, causing a scene and accusing her daughter of being Rooker’s whore. Her aggressive behaviour continued even when the household moved out of London.
Matters came to a head one day when Rooker heard a scream come from the kitchen and found Sarah Morgan badly beaten, a knife discarded on the floor and the mother’s hands around her daughter’s throat. The mother and daughter began to trade insults. The mother called Rooker names and the daughter in turn called her the ‘Chick-lane ghost’ .
This last comment disturbed Rooker and played on his mind. Eventually he confronted Sarah Morgan and she revealed everything to him. Rooker convinced of her innocence, persuaded her to turn her mother in. Rooker sent a letter to the Parish in Tottenham High Cross and finally, Sarah Metyard was arrested for the murder of Ann Nailor. Unfortunately for Rooker he had been wrong, the mother exacted the ultimate revenge and her daughter was eventually taken in for questioning and charged.
On 14 July 1762, the trial for the murder of Ann Nailor was held at the Old Bailey.
Source: William Hogarth The Bench. Fitzwilliam Museum.
The feeling of animosity between the mother and daughter was such that they had to be housed in different areas of the prison, so it is not surprising that at their trial, they turned against each other. The mother throughout repeatedly asserted that Ann had not died under her roof (with the exception of one odd statement later denied, given to the Newgate Ordinary, that the girl had been killed by a falling bed post). She claimed that the girl was of a sickly constitution but had always been treated well and that she had run away, possibly with the milk boy, of whom Ann was fond of.
The daughter insisted that it had been all her mother’s doing adding that her only crime had been to conceal the murder, which she had done out of a false sense of loyalty. She stated that she had treated Ann kindly and had begged her mother to give the girl food. She told the jury that she had warned her mother that if Ann was not cut down from the string she would die and that Ann had still been alive, albeit very weak, when she had been laid on the bed. She also testified that it was only later that her mother had called her up and told her that Ann was dead.
The evidence against the pair was overwhelming and they were swiftly convicted. Sarah Morgan made one last futile attempt to save herself, “she pleaded her belly”. A panel of matrons were summoned to examine her, they found her not to be pregnant and the sentence of hanging was upheld.
Justice for Ann and Mary Nailor
Sadly, it had not only been Ann who had suffered but also her younger sister. Mary had been convinced that her sister had been murdered and freely expressed her views. This signed her death warrant. The child was killed, the body ‘secreted away’. Even without the physical proof, the jury found the Metyards guilty and they were duly charged with a second murder. Her body was never found.
On the morning of the 19July, the women were taken to the execution site at Tyburn. The daughter continued to protest her innocence, accusing her mother of various other nefarious deeds whilst the mother lay insensible in the cart. Sarah Metyard had been wailing that she was unable to eat, maybe she was trying to starve herself before the hanging. Somehow fitting in the circumstances.
Source: William Hogarth – Scanned from The genius of William Hogarth or Hogarth’s Graphical Works, Public Domain via Wikimedia.
A Fair Sentence?
In my opinion the guilt of the mother is indisputable, however, I am less convinced when it comes to the daughter.
It is hard to ignore the fact that Sarah Morgan Metyard, like the apprentices had suffered at the hands of her mother. According to her confession taken the morning of her execution, she listed a number of grievances against her mother. She stated that from the age of eleven, she had been raised in a “scene of wickedness” being forced to steal pewter from the scullery at St James Palace and on one occasion being sent to beg money from her friends on the pretence that she had been abandoned . Although the only other witness was not in a state to refute these claims, it seems strange that she would have been lying, it was not as if she was going to be granted a reprieve and even if they were true it did not excuse what had happened to Ann. Maybe she was trying to gain sympathy but she appears to have been eager to receive the holy sacrament, so why risk her soul?
She also denied hitting Ann, despite the witnesses’ evidence to the contrary, stating that she had never treated the apprentices badly, even on occasion being beaten because of her defence of them. She claimed that when her mother was away from the house, she had often unlocked the garret to let the girls out and had even given them a key to lock themselves back in so her mother would never know. She added that on times she had given the girls “a halfpenny roll; and sometimes a halfpenny; and sometimes other victuals unknown to the mother”. This later assertion was confirmed by Sarah Hinchman.
She also mentioned how she had begged her mother to give the dead girl a decent burial but was ignored, her mother stating that if they did, they would both be arrested as it was obvious to anyone who looked at the body that the girl had been starved.
Source: William Hogarth Rakes Progress detail.
After the murder, the daughter was continuously abused by the mother, confiding in Rooker her desperation and her wish to kill herself if she could not escape her mother’s clutches. In the end she must have been thankful for the lifeline handed to her by Rooker. Did Rooker exploit an already vulnerable girl? Considering, that she most probably was in a relationship with him (otherwise why else would a man have subjected himself and his reputation to such abuse if she was just a servant), maybe, but for a short time he did save her. She always denied that she was sexually involved with him or any man. This then makes her claim that she was pregnant seem ridiculous. Her excuse was that she thought she would get a brief respite and hadn’t realised they would examine her. Yes, this could prove she was a liar or an idiot or equally a desperate young woman clutching at straws.
In my opinion, although Sarah Morgan was culpable and deserved punishment for not having reported the crime, I do not believe the death sentence was warranted. The girl was clearly mistreated both physically and emotionally. Yes, she had beaten Ann, which is inexcusable but possibly she did so out of fear of her mother turning her anger on her. She had obviously been threatened into keeping her mouth shut and forced to assist her mother in cutting up the body. Having to live this type of life must have been hell for the girl, so, for me, Sarah Morgan Metyard was in many ways just as much a victim as Ann and Mary Nailor.
As to the otherworldly scream heard in Farringdon Station, if it does belong to Ann Nailor, then the ghost has wandered as the station is not directly over the area where her body was found and if not, then it makes you wonder what other gruesome discovery has yet to be found.
Source: Tennessee State Library and Archive
Baldwin, W & Knapp, A, The Newgate Calendar Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters who have been Convicted of Outrages of the Laws of England, Volume II, 1825
Ordinary’s Account, 19th July 1762: The Ordinary of Newgate’s account of the behaviour, confession, and dying words of Sarah Metyard, and Sarah, Morgan Metyard, her daughter who were executed at Tyburn, on Monday, July 18, 1762, for the murder of Ann Nailor, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/print.jsp?div=OA17620719
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
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
Living with thedead
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Here at The Haunted Palace Blog, Halloween is our favourite time of year and this year we’ve been busier than ever!
As well as our usual super spooky Halloween post, we have not one, but two podcast collaborations coming up for Halloween!
In the summer, Lenora was lucky enough to be invited onto The Newcastle Witches Podcast to record their Halloween Special. The Newcastle Witches podcast examines the Newcastle Witch Trials of 1649-50, in which 14 innocent women and 1 man lost their lives. In each episode Maria and Caitlin talk to the experts on different aspects the witch trials, seventeenth century belief in witchcraft and magic, and the political and social situation in seventeenth century Newcastle. Each episode is dedicated to one of the victims of the trials. For their Halloween Special they asked Lenora to share the folktale of the Wallsend Witches and consider whether it is linked to a real-life alleged witch in Wallsend.
Look out for updates on release date on Instagram at @newcastle_witches_podcast and @lenora_hautnedpalaceblog the episode will be available from Anchor FM The Newcastle Witches Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Lenora was also delighted to be invited back to the Voices from the North-East Podcast for one of their two Halloween Specials. Voices from the North-East is a social history podcast that is doing amazing work to preserve memories of growing up in the North-East of England, so much so many of their episodes are being preserved in the Northumberland Archives. Last year Lenora chatted with Paul about the Wallsend Witches and the Alnwick Vampire, this year Lenora will be talking about the Willington Mill Haunting, in a podcast that will run alongside our Halloween blog post.
Look out for updates on release date on Instagram at @voicesfromthenortheast and @lenora_hautnedpalaceblog the episode will be available from Anchor FM Voices from the North East Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
If you stroll along the Victoria Embankment between Victoria Embankment and Temple underground stations, you will see a large obelisk flanked by two sphinxes jutting out into the sky. Cleopatra’s Needle is a distinctive landmark in London and a popular tourist spot but few people take the time to understand its history and the supernatural stories which surround it.
The Obelisk of Thutmose III
Although the obelisk in London is associated with Cleopatra, in reality its only connection to the famous Egyptian is that she moved it to Alexandria in 12 BCE, her royal city and set it up in Caesareum – a temple built in honour of Mark Anthony. The obelisk was in fact carved over 1000 years before Cleopatra came to power. Hewed out of red granite from the quarries of Aswan and dedicated to Pharaoh Thutmose III, the obelisk was erected in the city of Heliopolis in around 1450 BCE. Two hundred years later inscriptions on the side lines of the shaft were carved out in honour of Rameses the Great commemorating his military victories.
A Gift for Great Britain
In 1819, the Albanian Ottoman governor and ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali gave the obelisk as a gift to Great Britain. The obelisk was seen as a fitting monument to commemorate the British victories over Napoleon in the Battle of Nile (1798) and the Battle of Alexander (1801). Unfortunately, the cost of transporting the 224-ton obelisk proved too much and plans to bring it over to Great Britain were dropped. The subject was again unsuccessfully revisited in 1822 and 1832.
In 1867, Lieutenant-General Sir James Alexander read a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh outlining his ideas for bringing the obelisk to Britain. In 1875, Alexander visited Egypt to assess its condition. On his trip he met with the civil engineer and Egyptology enthusiast Mr John Dixon who had already been researching the obelisk. At the end of 1876, Dixon and Alexander consulted with Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished anatomist, who agreed to contribute £10,000 to the endeavour. Dixon accepted full responsibility for any other expenses incurred as well as transportation logistics. With a firm plan and the permission of the then Khedive Ismael Pasha, Dixon set about drawing up blueprints for a ship strong enough to hold the obelisk.
The ship, Cleopatra, built to transport the obelisk was ingenious in its design. The cigar-shaped iron cylinder (around 92 feet long by 16 feet wide) which encased the granite monolith was constructed around it, with the sheets of metal riveted together. A bridge was built to shelter the crew. Once the iron case was complete, it was towed to the dry-dock of the Egyptian Admiralty and converted into a ship. Here the internal ballast rails, stern and rudder were added.
A crew of eight Maltese sailors led by Captain Carter were hired to steer the Cleopatra whilst the Olga, a steam ship was engaged to act as a tow ship under the command of Captain Booth. On 21 September 1877, the Cleopatra and the Olga left Egypt bound for Falmouth.
The Deadly Bay of Biscay
Initially the journey was uneventful but on the 14 October as the ship entered the Bay of Biscay, the weather took a turn for the worse. The violent storm whipped up the sea causing the iron rails to break loose. At 9.20pm the Cleopatra signalled to the Olga that they were in trouble and a small boat manned by six volunteers were sent over to assist them. Tragically, the crew of the Cleopatra were unable to secure the ropes flung to them and the small boat drifted away, swallowed up by the rough water. Having not heard from the Cleopatra, Captain Booth was under the impression that she was safe. It was only when a few hours later he received a second distress signal asking for the Olga to pick them up, that he realised the seriousness of the situation. The Olga managed to pull up alongside the container ship, collect the crew and cut the tow-rope. An attempt was made to find the six men but to no avail, the boat had disappeared. The names of the men who drowned were William Askin, Michael Burns, James Gardiner, William Donald, Joseph Benton and William Patan (their names are inscribed on the base of the Needle). Thinking the obelisk lost, the Olga returned to Falmouth.
Incredibly a few days later, the container ship was spotted still afloat proving Dixon’s faith in his design correct, “its buoyancy and sailing qualities have been shown to be of a high order by one of the severest tests to which a vessel, likely to encounter ocean storms can be exposed”. The Cleopatra was picked up by the English steamer ship, Fitzmaunce and brought into the port of Ferrol. After a short and tricky negotiation (the captain of the Fitzmaunce had placed a lien for salvage on the container), the steam ship Anglia was sent to bring the monolith to Britain. On the 21 January 1878, the obelisk arrived at Gravesend (school children in Gravesend were given the day off to welcome the Cleopatra). Even at this stage, the obelisk’s final home had not been decided. Many sites were suggested but in the end the decision was made by the two men who had paid for its journey, Sir Wilson and John Dixon. In September 1878, the obelisk was at last installed to cheers from the crowds and the 68 feet (21 metres) monolith became Cleopatra’s Needle.
PART TWO: THE CURSE OF THE OBELISK
Cleopatra’s Needle has developed a strange reputation. A reputation which probably stemmed from the idea that Egyptian objects are by their nature cursed and the tragic story of its journey to Britain.
The Suicidal Lady
For some unknown reason the site of Cleopatra’s Needle has become a popular suicide spot. On two separate occasions, a policeman was approached by a distressed woman urging him to come to the banks of the River Thames to prevent someone from jumping into the water. As the policeman reach the area of the needle, they see the same woman, who had just stopped them, leap into the river.
The Phantom Sailor
Unearthly laughter has been heard coming from the Needle at night. This eerie sound has been linked to the ghost of a naked man who has been witnessed on a number of occasions, running from out behind the obelisk and throwing himself into the River without making a splash. The first sighting of this apparition occurred a few weeks after the installation of the obelisk leading many people to believe it was in fact the ghost of one of the sailors who died in the Bay of Biscay.
An Egyptian Curse
As with many Egyptian artifacts some believe the obelisk is cursed and that the soul of Rameses II has been imprisoned inside the granite.
There is a very odd tale relating to the obelisk and Egypt which may or may not have any basis in truth and which is closer to a horror than ghost story. In 1880, a Miss Davies, aged 27 from Pimlico, was wandering along the Embankment when she felt herself being unwillingly pulled towards the site of the Needle. As she got closer to the obelisk, she heard unearthly laughter and losing control of her legs she flung herself into the water. Luckily for her, she was saved by a vagrant. She was taken to hospital to recover. Although physically healed, she experienced terrifying nightmares in which a tall woman with a white face and black almond eyes wearing red robes appeared. As the woman opened its mouth, she revealed sharp pointed teeth and the flesh from her face is ripped off. Miss Davies believed her ordeal to be caused by the obelisk. The description of the woman’s appearance conjures up the image of an Egyptian priestess or member of the Egyptian nobility.
The Crowley Connection
Another unsubstantiated story regards the occultist Aleister Crowley. It is said that Crowley performed dark sorcery one dark night at the base of the obelisk in order to release Rameses’ trapped spirit. The ceremony involved the feeding of animal blood to a human skeleton. Crowley was unsuccess and It is said that Rameses mockingly laughed at Cowley’s failure.
The Ill-fated Needle
Many believe that the curse of the obelisk lead to it being bombed in an air-raid during the First World War. At midnight on Tuesday, 14 September 1917, the obelisk was hit disfiguring the pedestal. After the war ended, it was decided not to repair the bomb damage – the scars having become part of its history and its cursed legend.
A Haunting Time Capsule?
When the obelisk was erected, a time capsule was inserted into the pedestal. This capsule contains many objects including 12 photographs of the best looking women of the day, box of hairpins, a box of cigars, tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, toys, a shilling razor, samples of cables used in the erection of the obelisk, a portrait or Queen Victoria, a written history of the transportation of the obelisk and a map of London.
Could the time capsule contain objects which are themselves haunted? Is that what is responsible for the ghostly stories associated with the obelisk?
The Guardian Sphinxes
Lastly, there are the sphinxes. The sphinxes (as well as the pedestal) were sculptured by the English architect, George John Vulliamy. As with the pedestal, the sphinxes were damaged by the same bomb. It has long been said that the sphinxes were accidentally placed the wrong way round. Logically, they should have been facing outwards, symbolising protection for the obelisk, but maybe the sphinxes were positioned correctly. Maybe their role was not to stop harm from coming to the obelisk but rather to prevent anything from getting out!
The history of Cleopatra’s Needle is a fascinating and sad one and the obelisk itself is very beautiful. Personally, I highly doubt that there is any Egyptian curse on it. Egyptian curses became fashionable after the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun and are now a mainstay of films and books but it is a mystery as to why the site has become a magnet for those with a desire to commit suicide. Does the obelisk have some sort of power or magnetic pull? I have visited it on numerous occasions at all times of the day and night and have never felt any particular draw to it but if you are brave enough there is a legend that if you want a particular question answered you should look at the pyramidon at the top and say the words “I call spirits from the vasty deep”. Maybe you will receive an answer from the spirit of the obelisk!
Bibliography and Further Reading
Brier, Bob (Dr), Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt, Bloomsbury Academic, 2021
Sir Erasmus Wilson, Cleopatra’s Needle: With Brief Notes on Egypt and Egyptian Obelisks, London: Brain & Co, 1877
A compendium of dark history, strange folklore and mysterious hauntings culled from the Haunted Palace Blog. Lenora and Miss Jessel have selected and re-worked some of their favourite posts for your enjoyment.
Did you know that a prodigious palace once stood in the London Borough of Wanstead and Woodford but a dissolute Earl threw it all away, leaving his heart-broken wife to haunt its ruins forever? Or that Victorian tourists flocked to the grim spectacle provided by the Paris Morgue – the best free theatre in town? Or that a murderous jester is reputed to have lured people to their deaths at a castle in Cumbria? Join us as we explore a past populated by highwaymen, murderers, eccentrics, and lost souls.
Lavishly illustrated with specially commissioned art, engravings and photographs from the Haunted Palace Collection, and national collections.
Philip G. Horey is from the North East of England. He is a Commercial Diver and Photographer. For 30 years he lived on the West Coast of Scotland after having sailed there in an old ship’s lifeboat in 1985. He now lives on the outskirts of Newcastle. ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ is his first writing foray into the legends and folklore of the British Isles having previously published two pictorial books ‘3rd Hung Kuen Championships 2018, 70-75 kg: Full Contact’ and ‘Islands of the Blue Men’, a pictorial voyage to the Shiant Islands.
Horey is fascinated by the unknown and in his new book, ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ delves into the mysterious legends which envelope some of the most fascinating places and locations in Scotland and England.
The book is divided into twenty-two chapters with each chapter concentrating on one specific location or theme, exploring both the history and legends which surround it. The book covers a range of topics from spirits to the undead to UFO sightings. The book includes poetry written by well-known writers, as well as stories and legends from oral tradition and is illustrated with the author’s own photographs. All of this adds to the sense of otherworldliness which permeates through the pages.
Sandwood Bay by Philip G Horey
The book opens up with the poem ‘The Haunter’ by Thomas Hardy. A wonderfully atmospheric poem which was written by Hardy, himself a firm believer in ghosts, after the death of his wife, Emma, in 1912. The poem is written from the perspective of his deceased wife, whose increasing frustration at her inability to communicate with her grieving husband, is powerfully conveyed in the last stanza of the poem. The poem itself is the perfect introduction to the book and sets the tone for what follows.
Some of the stories Horley recounts are already well known such as the Loch Ness Monster, Culloden and Chillingham Castle with its multitude of ghosts and grisly stories. Others, less familiar such as ‘The Mermaid of Sennor’, ‘Windhouse’ on Shetland, ‘Sandwood Bay’ and ‘The Cloutie Tree’ are just as fascinating. Even with those legends that have been told and retold countless times, the author with his own unique style manages to resurrect them, making the reader feel that they are being introduced to the stories for the very first time. One particular chapter, ‘Bomber County’ was particularly moving. The loss of so many young men in horrific circumstances is in itself, heart-breaking but Horey in his description of the many hauntings associated with the airfields and crash sites stirs both our compassion as well as our dread. In a very different tone, Horey gives a detailed description of a ‘ghost hunt’ which he participated in, at Castle Menzies in Scotland. The ensuing account is hilarious, as he describes both the other participants and the various scenes he witnessed, revealing here, as elsewhere, both his self-deprecating sense of humour as well as his sympathy for the stories of those individuals he is recounting.
Throughout the book, Horey uses his photographs to illustrate the tales, capturing their spirit and enhancing their effectiveness. Horey is a skilled and clever photographer and I was particularly impressed with the powerful imagery of his black and white photographs.
Castle Menzies by Philip G Horey
Whilst describing the creaking door of an aircraft hangar at night, which had caught his attention and stirred his imagination, Horey ponders whether it is this that is the reason “why ghosts are more associated with the night, when one’s senses can more easily focus on something so subtle and vague, something easily overlooked with the distractions of the day?”. This sentiment for me sums up the feeling of the book; which is one of mystery, wonder and eeriness, with an author who believes that sometimes we are better off not really knowing the answers to our many questions.
I would strongly recommend ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ for all who are interested in the supernatural, history and folklore. The book veers from achingly sad to amusing and back again but it is always informative and fascinating. It is well-written and on the whole, a thoroughly enjoyable read.
The Code of Honor. Godefroy Durand, Harpur’s Weekly, January 1875.
No duels were to be fought on Sunday, on a day of a Festival, or near a place of public worship.
A Principal was not to “wear light coloured clothing, ruffles, military decorations, or any other … attractive object, upon which the eye of his antagonist [could] … rest,” as it could affect the outcome of the duel.
The time and place were to be as convenient as possible to surgical assistance and to the combatants.
The parties were to salute each other upon meeting “offering this evidence of civilization.”
No gentleman was allowed to wear spectacles unless they used them on public streets.
There was to be at least 10 yards distance between the combatants.
The Seconds were to present pistols to Principals and the pistols were not to be cocked before delivery.
After each discharge the Seconds were to “mutually and zealously attempt a reconciliation.”
No more than three exchanges of fire were allowed, as to exchange more shots was considered barbaric.
The above duelling rules were taken from the Royal Code of Honour which aimed to lay down a code of etiquette governing how duellists behaved. During the height of duelling popularity a number of codes were written in Britain and in Europe, sometimes with conflicting rules and covering a range of topics including how to accept a challenge, how to behave after the duel and even how to die!
Codex Manesse. Early 14th Century. Public domain.
Despite slight differences expressed in the competing codes one area which they wholeheartedly agreed on was that honour of both the challenger and the defender must be maintained at all costs. This idea of personal honour goes to the heart of duelling and in turn acts as a mirror to the society in which duelling as a practice flourished. It also provides a thread connecting it to its distant medieval ancestors, trial by combat and the spectacle of the joust.
Duels were generally considered the preserve of men, in particular those from the aristocratic classes. To refuse a duel was viewed as a stain on a gentleman’s reputation. The most common reason to duel was over a perceived insult to a woman’s virtue but records show that on occasion women did take the initiative. In 1777 Paris, Mademoiselle Leverrier shot her former lover, Duprez in the face after he had left her for another woman. In fairness she had given him the chance to defend himself but chivalrously he had shot into the air, she had no such qualms.
The Honour of the Hotots
Another famous duel involving a woman reaches back in time to a period of history when jousts were not only a popular form of entertainment but also a pretty useful way of settling scores.
Medieval Jousting tournament. Public domain [?]
In 1390 a duel took place in Northamptonshire, on the line was family honour. The story believed to have been documented by a monk living in Clapton during the reign of Henry VII, tells of Sir John Hotot, a wealthy landowner who was in dispute with a man called Ringsdale over the title to a piece of land. Eventually the situation escalated to the point where the only way to resolve their quarrel was through a contest of skill and strength. Unfortunately when the appointed day came, Sir John was taken ill, suffering from gout and so his daughter and heiress Agnes “rather than he should lose the land, or suffer in his honor” decided to take her father’s place.
Dressed in armour “cap-a-pie” style, armed with a lance and astride her father’s steed, she set out to meet Ringsdale. She was said to have fought bravely and hard and finally managed to dismount her opponent. Once on the ground she removed her helmet and with her hair cascading down her shoulders revealed herself to a stunned Ringsdale. Another variation is that she also removed her breastplate in order to remove any doubts that the victor was in fact a woman. This action despite adding a dramatic flourish to the story is extremely unlikely, nothing to do with modesty but simply due to the difficulty of removing a breastplate from armour!
Miniature issue du manuscrit Les vies des femmes célèbres d’Antoine Dufour, 1504, Nantes, musée Dobrée.
The Crest of the Dudleys of Clapton
Having saved the reputation of her family, Agnes later married into the wealthy Dudleys’ of Clapton or Clopton, Northamptonshire. In honour of Agnes’ courage, her in-laws designed a new crest, depicting the bust of a woman with dishevelled hair, a bare bosom and a helmet on her head with “the stays or throat latch down”. The crest was rumoured to have survived for as long as the male line of the Dudley family held the lands of Clapton. In 1764, Sir William Dudley, the last male descendant of the Clapton Dudleys died.
Agnes and Skulking Dudley
This intriguing tale of honour and daring has over time become conflated with the darker legend of ‘Skulking Dudley’. In this version, Agnes is the daughter of Dudley, the bullying lord of Clapton Manor. Her father having insulted a number of his fellow landowners in the area was finally challenged to a duel by Richard Hazelbere of Barnwell. By nature a coward Dudley feigned illness, took to his bed in order to avoid having to fight and persuaded or forced his daughter to go instead. According to this account, Agnes despite fighting valiantly, loses. Just before striking the fatal blow, Hazelbere discovers her identity and allows her to live. Impressed by her courage and virtue, they marry shortly afterwards. Dudley finally gets his just deserts when he is decapitated by Hazelbere.
Bodleian Library. 14th Century Manuscript.
The Legend of Skulking Dudley
The actual legend surrounding ‘Skulking Dudley’ is much more unpleasant and has absolutely nothing to do with Agnes.
The most popular version is that Dudley, a member of the influential Dudleys of Clapton was known to be a violent and vicious character, bullying his servants and tenants. In 1349 he was believed to have committed a gruesome murder. Who he was supposed to have murdered is unclear but one account claims that it was in fact, Richard Hazelbere. Dudley was reported to have shown no remorse and instead revelled in the deed. The tables turned when Dudley was killed by a scythe to the head when a harvester he was whipping fought back in self-defence.
Source unknown. Public domain [?]
For some reason at the beginning of the last century after an absence of nearly 600 years his ghost minus a head suddenly reappeared to torment the villagers (maybe for imagined slights inflicted on him by their ancestors). Locals reported having seen him make his way from the site of Clapton Manor, past the old graveyard, along Lilford Road to a small coppice (later named after him). His spirit was named ‘skulking’ from its habit of dodging in and out of hedgerows. His soul was finally laid to rest by the efforts of Bishop of Peterborough aided by twenty-one clergymen. Skulking Dudley has not been seen since. A popular local tradition has it that Dudley was hunch-backed, a physical deformity which was in the past often viewed as the outward symptom of a corrupt and vicious nature – just think of the much maligned Richard III.
One other interesting variation of the Skulking Dudley legend manages to bring it back to the concept of a duel. In this description, Dudley killed his own cousin in a duel over the ownership of Clapton Manor House. Despite not being injured in any way, Dudley suddenly aged and withered, dying soon after.
Women who joust
Source unknown. Public domain [?]
How probable is the story of Agnes Hotot? In 1348 a British chronicler records how at tournaments beautiful ladies from wealthy families and of noble lineage would regularly take part in jousting competitions. At one event he recounts that as many as forty female contestants were seen participating. From his writing, it becomes clear that he holds these women in low esteem as he describes how dressed in divided tunics with hoods, wearing knives and daggers they fought on splendidly dressed horses and “in such a manner they spent and wasted their riches and injured their bodies with abuses with ludicrous wantoness”. Whether or not the chronicler’s disparaging remarks reflect how the medieval world in general really felt about female jousters is unclear but accounts of women fighting in tournaments do continue to appear in later centuries. So the evidence indicates that the legend of Agnes Hotot could very well be rooted in a real event, as to the legend of Skulking Dudley that could be stretching possibility a little too far!
At 8 o’clock on Monday 18 September 1815, 51 year old Thomas Bedworth was hanged at Newgate for the murder of his on/off lover Elizabeth Beesmore. The details of the murder although vicious were no different to most other crimes of passion, except in one way, Thomas Bedworth claimed that he had been driven to confess in order to put an end to the relentless harrying of Elizabeth’s ghost.
Bedworth was born in 1764 in Bloxidge in Staffordshire. According to him although his parents were good, honest people and tried to keep him on the right path, he was often in trouble. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a brindle bit and stirrup maker in Walsall but left after he had completed the apprenticeship in 1782. He eventually found himself in London and went to work at a factory owned by Mr Rowley in Drury Lane. He left in 1795 when he signed up to join the army.
A bigamous marriage
During his time in London he married Mary Bainer, the daughter of a tradesman from Soho with whom he had three children. He left the army in 1803 and went with family to Birmingham. In 1804 he joined the navy where he gained a reputation as a good sailor. He was discharged in 1813. On returning to his wife he found she had bigamously married again and had three children from this union.
The murder of Elizabeth Beesmore
Shortly afterwards he met up with Elizabeth Beesmore who had been deserted by her husband and left destitute with a child. They took up together and Bedworth promised to provide for her as long as she had no contact with her estranged husband. This she agreed to and they pledged themselves to each other to be as husband and wife. To make matters even more complicated she also happened to be the sister of Mary Bainer and so Thomas Bedworth’s sister-in-law.
Detail from William Hogarth’s ‘Four Times of Day’ series. 1738. Public Domain.
They were together for two years when out of the blue John Beesmore returned to London looking for his wife. Thomas was outraged, Elizabeth had broken her word and worse still was giving Beesmore money. Bedworth moved out and took up other lodgings. Attempts on both parties to reconcile failed and during the last altercation Elizabeth announced that she was returning to her husband. Hearing this news a jealous Bedworth vowed to kill Elizabeth.
On the 20 June 1815 Bedworth, his mood heightened by gin, made his way to Elizabeth’s rooms armed with a shoemaker’s knife. On the way he met a woman (Sarah Collis) who lived in the same lodgings as Elizabeth who told him that she was not at home. He and Sarah decided to go for a drink to wait for Elizabeth’s return.
Later he arrived at Elizabeth’s obviously drunk and she allowed him to sleep it off. On awaking he left (without his shoes and coat) and went back to the dram shop, had more gin and returned. He drank tea laced with gin provided by Elizabeth and announced he was going. Before he left, he called Elizabeth to the kitchen where she embraced him and he conflicted “between jealous passion and strong affection” drew his knife and slashed her throat, nearly severing it from her body. He then made his escape.
Willliam Hogarth. 1751. The Four Stages of Cruelty, Cruelty in perfection (Plate III). Public Domain.
Bedworth recounts that he first went to Spa-fields where under the cover of darkness he got rid of his blood-splattered apron and then wandered to Regent’s Park where he threw the knife into the canal. He spent the day hiding in Hampstead. It was during that night that he first heard the agonising moans which filled him with ‘disquietude and alarm’.
The next night, which he spent in St Albans, he heard the terrible sounds again and a voice which he recognised as belonging to Elizabeth, crying ‘Oh Bedworth! Bedworth! What have you done?…You have deprived me of all the happiness of this life’. Bedworth terror-stricken prayed for the apparition to leave him in peace.
The nightly visitations continued and grew worse. Tormented by guilt he wandered the streets of London until he came to Highgate Hill. There he saw Elizabeth’s grisly ghost in front of him, she walked by his side and taking his hand placed it on her severed throat. Bedworth fled in terror and lying down in a field felt her lay down alongside him.
Thomas Bedworth. Detail from his Confessions. 1815. The Lewis Walpole Library_Yale University
Driven out of his mind and despite being by this time wanted by the police Bedworth managed to obtain a ‘walking pass’ from the Magistrates Public Office and left London. He eventually found himself in Coventry. Although still on the run he had at last come to terms with his guilt. The haunting had also ended. After arriving in Horsley, the torment returned and unable to cope any longer he went back to Coventry where on the 6 July he turned himself in. He was arrested and brought back to London where he signed his confession in front of a magistrate.
The confession of Thomas Bedworth
1815 Edition of the Confessions of Thomas Bedworth. The Lewis Walpole Library_Yale University
The above account of the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore is taken directly from a statement made by Bedworth the night before his execution. He told his story to witnesses, one of whom wrote it down and produced an 18-page pamphlet costing 6 pence a copy. As always with first-hand accounts it is difficult to know how trustworthy the narrator is and some of the details vary significantly from the two witnesses, Sarah Collis and another friend, Ann Webber who were present at the time of the murder. At the trial Bedworth argued with them causing the judge to admonish the defendant who he believed was trying to recant. Bedworth denied the accusation explaining that he just wanted everything to be accurate such as the murder weapon being a shoemaker’s knife and not a razor.
The major difference surrounds the supposed reappearance of John Beesmore. Bedworth claimed his return was the motive behind Elizabeth’s murder but Sarah Collis stated at the trial that Bedworth moved out due to a dispute with Elizabeth’s son, also called John (even Bedworth admits to arguing with John the day of the murder). Neither Collis or Webber mentioned Elizabeth estranged husband. It is difficult to know who to believe; maybe Bedworth thought that a crime of passion would gain more sympathy with the general public than a senseless murder committed by a drunk. It is also strange that if involved, John Beesmore never appeared to give evidence at the trial especially if Bedworth was telling the truth and Elizabeth had decided to go back to him.
It took less than an hour for the jury to bring in a guilty verdict of wilful murder. The judge sentenced Bedworth to hang on the following Monday and his body to be given to the surgeons to dissect and anatomise. He also hoped that Bedworth would spend the time he had left repenting and berated Bedworth for taking away Elizabeth’s chance to confess her own sins and die at peace.
A ghastly visitation
So on to Elizabeth’s ghost. The unique aspect of this case was Thomas Bedworth’s assertion that he had been plagued by the restless spirit of Elizabeth who pushed him to the brink of insanity and forced him to confess. Despite many attempts to convince people that ghosts and spirits did not exist through both religious arguments and scientific investigations, the belief persisted. Why a ghost would appear varied but general consensus was that it was more likely if the person had met a violent end and stories of ghosts seeking revenge for their untimely demise were told and retold in all parts of the country. So to many Bedworth’s account would have been entirely credible.
Setting aside the argument that Elizabeth’s ghost was real; the only other logical conclusion is that the ghost had been a figment of Bedworth’s imagination. How and why did Bedworth’s mind conjure up this hallucination can be attributed to two possible causes; alcohol and guilt.
“Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, Makes human Race a Prey. It enters by a deadly Draught And steals our Life away.”
William Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane. Public Domain.
The above is the first verse of a poem which accompanied Hogarth’s print of ‘Gin Lane’ and it really says it all. Although since the 1751 Gin Act, gin was no longer viewed as the devil as it had been in the first half of the 1700s, its popularity did return during in the early 19th century. Gin could be easily bought in ‘dram shops’ which flourished in areas of extreme poverty and unemployment. Dram shops were small shops where you could either drink the gin there and then or take it away with you. Later these small shops were overtaken by the popular Gin Palaces which sprung up in London in the Late Victorian period.
Then as now people drank to drown their sorrows and forget the misery of their lives, if you were drunk then you couldn’t feel the pangs of hunger. Gin was cheap and strong and easily available. It is noticeable that Bedworth was in the days leading up to the murder pretty much constantly drunk. A witness’ testimony that Bedworth’s was a ‘very quiet man when sober, but when drunk he used to swear a little’ seems odd considering Bedworth’s drunken, murderous exclamation at the Two Spies Public House that ‘it would be blood for blood’. All involved on the day of the murder including Elizabeth herself were drinking gin even if it was diluted in water.
Even in the 1800s drinking in excess was understood to be one of the triggers behind ghost sightings. Gin in excess was believed to cause ‘terrible hangovers, depression, anger or even insanity’. If it was the effects of the drink which led Bedworth to murder Elizabeth then it must have been the withdrawal from alcohol, the DTs which caused Bedworth to hallucinate the spirit of Elizabeth raised from the grave. Side effects of DTs include ‘nightmares, agitation, global confusion, disorientation, visual and auditory hallucinations, tactile hallucinations, fever, high blood pressure, heavy sweating’. Maybe if Bedworth had been sober he would never have killed Elizabeth.
The Gin Shop. Cruikshank. 1829.
The product of a distorted mind
The most famous work in English literature depicting a descent into madness through guilt is Macbeth. Macbeth during the banquet scene sees the gory apparition of his murdered friend, Banquo and murmurs ‘when the brains were out, the man would die; and there an end, but now they risen again’ This line encapsulates perfectly the struggle between logic and irrationality and the slow crumbling of a mind at war with itself.
Even in the Victorian period it was accepted that ghosts could be a product of illnesses such as melancholy which could lead to madness. The warning signs of melancholy included dejection, sadness, gloominess and haunting dreams. In many ways it is the modern equivalent of depression with the exception of hallucinations and visions. Melancholy was said to be the result of ghost stories told in childhood as well as anxiety brought on by religious enthusiasm, fear of bewitchment, grieving and guilt. Murderers were known to see their victims and there are countless more recent reports of killers being haunted by the spirits of those whose lives they took.
One famous example is Al Capone who masterminded the murder in 1929 of seven members of a rival gang including James Clark. Shortly after Capone was arrested, his guards ‘would later report that he [Capone] would let out bloodcurdling screams, shouting for Jimmy to leave him alone’. For the rest of his life Capone would see Clark’s ghost, he even hired a medium to banish the spirit but to no avail. 
So it is very likely that Bedworth’s guilty conscience did contribute to the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost.
The haunting immortalized
Dickens never claimed to have used the story of Bedworth’s haunting and deranged ramblings as inspiration for his depiction of Sikes wild behaviour, frenzied wandering and hallucinations after the murder of Nancy but the parallels are clear.
He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. If he ran, it followed–not running too: that would have been a relief: but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose or fell…
At times, he turned, with desperate determination, resolved to beat this phantom off, though it should look him dead; but the hair rose on his head, and his blood stood still, for it had turned with him and was behind him then. He had kept it before him that morning, but it was behind now–always.
It would be odd if Dickens hadn’t known about the murder since his friend, the artist George Cruikshank and illustrator of Oliver Twist had produced the frontispiece for another friend William Hone, whose pamphlet concerned ‘The Horrid Murder of Elizabeth Beesmore’. After Dickens death, Cruikshank claimed that the idea for Oliver Twist was his.
Oliver Reed as Sykes in Oliver! 1968. Dir. Carol Reed.
In my opinion the most likely theory for the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost is guilt mixed with the effects of alcohol withdrawal but I do think that Bedworth did genuinely believe himself to be haunted by Elizabeth’s ghost. The loss of his grasp on reality can be detected in a newspaper article on the trial which reported that Bedworth appeared ‘insensible of the awful situation in which he stood, and was smiling and talking to all the persons about him’.
Whatever the reason behind Elizabeth’s murder, whether jealousy, anger or drink one thing is certain ghost or not, Elizabeth did finally get her revenge.
The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth: delivered to one of the principal officers of Newgate, the night before his execution, onSeptember 18, 1815, for the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore, in Drury Lane, Thomas Bedworth, https://archive.org/details/powerofconscienc00bedwiala
Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures, (ed.) Robert L. Patten, 2016
Notes The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth
 Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815
 William Hogarth - Gin Lane.jpg
 Gin Craze
 Gin Palace
 The Haunted: Social history of ghosts
 Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16
 Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815
 How Gin Came to Be Known as the Big Bad Wolf of the SpiritWorld
 Delirium tremens
 Macbeth Act III, Scene IV, Shakespeare
 The Haunted: Social history of ghosts
 10 Murderers Haunted By Their Victim’s Ghost
 Oliver Twist
 Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures
 Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16
“Ghosts commonly appear in the same dress they usually wore whilst living; though they are sometimes clothed all in white; but that is chiefly the churchyard ghosts.” (Francis Grose, 1787)
“How do you account for the ghost’s clothes – are they ghosts too?” (Saturday Review, 19 July 1856)
Just how do you account for ghosts clothing? A disarmingly simple – yet vexed – question that has been debated for centuries by both sceptics and believers.
If ghosts are supposed to represent the spirit or eternal essence of a human being, why, then, do they need to appear in something so prosaic as clothing or the ubiquitous white sheet? I mean, have you ever heard of anyone saying they saw the ghost of their dearly departed grandma – naked?
Naked ghosts are rare in the UK – it must be the weather. However, there are some examples, often with Medieval or early modern origin.
In Rochester a Medieval tale tells of the ghost of a priest who appeared to witnesses shivering and naked. His state of undress was important because his spectre had a message for the living – it wished to symbolise how his estate had been stripped bare by his corrupt executors. 
Image from an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery. Photo by Lenora.
A tale that circulated in London between the 15-18th Centuries, concerned the fate of five condemned men. In 1447 the men were said to have been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – a particularly grisly fate. Once hanged, the five were cut down from the hanging tree and stripped in preparation for the gruesome denuemont of their punishment. Their clothing was distributed to the gaping crowds. An added twist in the tale lends poignancy to their fate by claiming that a pardon arrived just too late to save them from their deaths.
Railing at the injustice and humiliation of their execution, the unhappy spirits were said to have risen up from their corporeal bodies in a misty vapour. The ghosts accosted the crowd demanding their clothes be returned and then fled. The tale persisted for around three hundred years, with occasional reports of five ghostly naked men importuning startled strangers apparently still seeking the return of their clothing – and presumably their dignity.
Scotland, too, has reports of naked ghosts. In 1592, Agnes Sampson was accused of witchcraft, tortured and burned at the stake (in England witches were usually hanged). Her tormented spirit is said to walk naked in the grounds of Holyrood – although she sometimes covers up and wears a white shroud (again, it must be the weather).
These three examples fit into a Medieval ghost-type, the ghost who has suffered a wrong in life, and in the first two cases at least, is trying to right that wrong post mortem, so their nakedness is necessary to their stories.
So, while sightings of naked ghosts clearly do occur, their nakedness is for a particular reason. In short, these cases appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule – that most ghosts prefer to wear clothes when being seen.
Of course, sometimes naked ghosts turn out to be something else entirely – in 1834 a primitive Methodist got very primitive indeed and scared the bejazus out of his neighbours by jumping out at them ‘dressed’ – or should that be ‘undressed’ – as a naked boggart. His eccentric prank was not appreciated by the judiciary, and he got three months hard labour for his efforts.
What do ghosts wear?
Accepting that most ghosts wear clothing of some sort, what, then, do they wear?
White sheets – obviously
The popular image of a ghost is of a floaty, often transparent, figure in a white sheet – although most modern ghost sightings don’t seem to support this image. In fact, this version of ghostly attire has particular origins, which will be examined later.
The three living and the three dead. British Museum Collection.
The animated dead found in European Medieval art may often wear white but they look anything but ethereal – rather they look very solid and corpsey. There is no mistaking them as former denizens of the grave, with their mouldering bones poking out of tattered flesh and their wormy eye-sockets all a-stare.
The spectral fashion for white is linked to burial practices. Until about the 17th century, most people in Britain and Europe would have been buried not in a coffin, but in a simple undyed linen or wool winding sheet. It’s not surprising, then, that early ghost sightings tended to describe ghosts dressed in their winding sheets or shrouds.
Detail of grave clothes from Astrology (1806) by Ebenezer Sibly. Wikimedia.
By the eighteenth-century ghosts had a more extensive wardrobe to choose from. However, white clad ghosts were still sighted, Daniel Defoe, writing in his 1727 work ‘An Essay on the History of Apparitions’ describes the traditional ghost as:
“[..] dress’d up …in a shroud, as if it just came out of the coffin and the church-yard”
And Francis Grose, writing in 1787, reported some ghost as ‘clothed all in white’ but that those were mainly confined to churchyard sightings.
But by the eighteenth century there had been a revolution in grave clothes. Funereal fashion had moved away from the long winding sheets and shrouds of old and developed a new line in more everyday death-wear: tailored shirts for men, and shifts for women. Examples of this fashion can be found in satirical prints by the likes of James Gillray (1756?-1815) and George Moutard Woodward (1765-1809). Many Christians believed in actual bodily resurrection for the Last Judgement, so a shirt or shift probably seemed like more practical and respectable attire in which to meet one’s maker!
Of course, while this change was great for the manufacturers of funeral clothes, not everyone appreciated the change. The 18th century saw the rise of Gothic literature and following publication of Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) came a growing appreciation of the beauty of horror. So, what is an artist or a theatre director to do, to recapture the ‘magnificent horror’ of the vengeful spectre? 
Artist unknown. University of Austin Texas.
The answer, it seems, was to be found in that other 18th century passion – classical antiquity. The ghosts of art and theatre now took on the white draperies of the ancient Romans or Greeks. Henry Fuseli, George Romney and Johns Flaxman all helped cement this image in the popular imagination and added a cloudy transparency to top it all off.
The white clad ghost captured the public imagination so much so, that this element was incorporated into the Hammersmith Ghost hoax of 1803/04 (in which the belief that ghosts wore white resulted in a tragedy when a white clad bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, was mistaken for the alleged spectre and shot dead).
The Hammersmith Ghost. Wikimedia
Even in the 20th century the power of the white draped phantom is used to particularly chilling effect by MR James in “Oh Whistle Lad, and I’ll come to you”. Here the classical drapery is replaced with more mundane, but no less terrifying, bedsheets that take on a ghostly form and possess an “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen.” Anyone who has ever slept alone in a room with a spare bed must surely feel horror at this description.
Their ordinary clothes
By far the most common attire reported, particularly in modern sightings, is a generic costume appropriate to the era of the apparition. A knight might appear in armour, a religious in the habit of their order, a lady might appear in the fashions of her day, granny might appear in her Sunday best.
Many reports of ghosts have them mistaken for the living, dressed in their ordinary clothes. For example, Daniel Defoe famously reported on the case of the ghost of Mrs Veal. Mrs Veal visited her good friend Mrs Bargrave and the two ladies had a conversation before Mrs Veal finally went on her merry way. Only later, did Mrs B find out her friend had passed away. In order to validate her experience Mrs B was able to describe her late friend’s silk gown in great detail: “you have seen indeed, for none knew, but Mrs Veal and myself, that the gown was scower’d” (to make the fabric softer)  so who could it have been but Mrs Veal? 
The Penny Story Teller – The Fated Hour 1832. Wikimedia.
Many modern sightings, particularly of deceased friends and relatives also follow this model, with the ghost appearing in their familiar garb (and as with Mrs Veal, sometimes this can make them appear less like ghosts and more ‘real’ to the witness).
Sightings of ghosts in particular period dress, such as Roman Legionaries in York or Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London, are also frequently reported. However, as Owen Davies has noted, some periods are favoured over others – he provides a possible explanation in in that popular culture and cinema make it easy for most people to identify a Tudor ghost or the ghosts of Roman soldiers than, say, a bronze age ghost.
The Woman in Black
The Woman in Black. 2012. Dir. James Watkins.
Susan Hill’s 1983 novel ‘The Woman in Black’ fixed the black clad ghost firmly in the public psyche. Jennet’s black clothing symbolise her mourning for her lost child and her malevolent nature as the bringer of death to the innocent. However, black clad ghosts are rare in Britain compared to in Europe. Owen Davies suggests this could be down to religious differences. In Europe, and some medieval English ghost reports, black clad spirits often represent the souls passage through purgatory. One example, provided by Joe Nickell, was of a corrupt money lender whose doleful ghost appeared to his wife, dressed in black for seven years. To assist his soul’s journey through purgatory, she prayed at his grave for seven years, until his ghost re-appeared dressed white. After the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, purgatory fell out of favour in Britain, and black clad ghosts became rarer. 
Things changed in the nineteenth century when the Victorian’s elaborate mourning rituals, including black mourning clothes, saw a spike in reports to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) of ghosts in black clothes.
Skeptics and believers
“[H]ow is a spirit, in itself immaterial and invisible, to become the object of human sight? How is it to acquire the appearance of dress?” (Anti Canidia, 1762)
“…as a matter of course, that as ghosts cannot, must not, do not, for decency’s sake, appear WITHOUT CLOTHES; and that there can be no such thing as GHOSTS or SPIRITS of CLOTHES, why, then, it appears that GHOSTS NEVER DID APPEAR AND NEVER CAN APPEAR” (George Cruikshank, 1863)
Both writers express the rationalist position in relation to the existence of ghosts. In doing so, they raise the vexed question of ghost’s clothing – a seemingly trivial question but one that actually strikes at the heart of the nature of ghosts and ghost sightings.
Clothing at its most basic level keeps us warm, but it also expresses social status, tribal identity, and sexual allure. If ghosts are supposed to represent the eternal spirit part of human existence, surely clothing is redundant?
This question, often highlighted by sceptics to support the non-existence of ghosts, forced psychic investigators and believers to examine more critically why this apparently illogical phenomenon is frequently reported by seemingly credible witnesses. Are there ghost clothes, or could ghostly clothing represent something else entirely – how the living receive and perceive such phenomena?
A very brief guide to how ghostly clothing has been explained
The nature of apparitions, how they appear, to whom and why some people see them while others do not, it is a vast topic. This is a brief overview of some of the views presented by early writers and psychical investigators.
The growth of spiritualism, mesmerism and clairvoyance promoted the idea that the sentient souls of the dead could convey thoughts and images to the living via the medium of clairvoyance.
Catherine Crowe (1803-1876), writing in 1848, seemed to support this view when she: “If a spirit could concieve of its former body it can equally concieve of its former habiliments, and so represent them, by the power of will to the eye, or present them to the constructive imagination of the seer” and the reason for this “to appear naked [..] to say the last of it, would be much more frightful and shocking.” 
Basically, Crowe suggested that ghosts were trying not to offend the Victorian sensibilities of their audience.
Giles Scroggins Ghost. 1893. Wikimedia.
In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, many psychical investigators, often working under the aegis of the SPR, wanted to encourage a more scientific approach. Moving the focus away from the power of the apparition to shape it’s appearance, to the power of the viewer to do so.
Here are a few of the theories that came out of these investigations:
Spiritualist Newton Crossland (1812-1895) proposed a ‘spiritual photographic theory‘ suggesting that every moment of a life is psychically recorded and can be reproduced by apparitions – therefore a suitable outfit and props were always on hand. This view was dismissed by many psychical researchers at the time.
Edmund Gurney of the SPR. Wikimedia.
Frank Podmore (1856-1910) pointed out that many cultures provide grave goods for the dead to utilise in the afterlife, so perhaps ghost clothing was not unreasonable.
Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), co-founder of the SPI, and Frederic Meyers, looked for a more scientific theory and both suggested some form of telepathy. That in the case of crisis apparitions, such as when a person is dying, a blaze of energy from the subject could telepathically project their apparition to a sensitive ‘receiver’ who then clothed the apparition via the medium of their own emotions and memory. Nora Sidgwick (1845-1936), working with Gurney, noted that many witnesses were vague on the detail when pressed to describe the clothing worn by apparitions, which might support this view.
However, this theory would seem to be focused on apparitions of the recently deceased and not to fit so well with historic ghosts where any final blaze of energy would surely be dissipated over the passage of time.
GMN Tyrell (1879 –1952), another member of SPR, considered ghosts as a hallucination of the conscious mind and supported the telepathic theory as the mechanism. He supported the concept of the ‘apparitional drama’ and proposed that clothing and props were part of the apparition as a whole and that the details depended on the viewers personality.
The work of the SPR laid the foundations for a psychology-based approach to understanding why people see apparitions – and why they usually see them clothed.
In setting out to look into why ghosts wear clothes, I was surprised to find that how and what they wore was subject to so much debate. That the apparently frivolous question of where ghosts obtain their clothing, actually leads on to more serious questions such as: whether ghosts exist, why eternal immaterial spirits would need clothing in the first place, whether apparitions have ‘agency’ to create illusions of dress in the mind of the viewer, or whether the psychology of the person witnessing the apparition has bearing on the appearance.
While the jury is likely to remain out for the forseable future, on whether ghosts really do exist , for me the question of why ghosts wear clothes is answered best by Joe Nickell, in his 2012 book, The Science of Ghosts. Nickell opts for the principle of Occam’s Razor, preferring that the simplest, most tenable explanation is most likely to be true. In this case, that apparitions (and their clothing) are the mental images of the living, appearing as they do in memories, dreams and the imagination. I like the elegant simplicity of this theory.
What do you think?
‘Oh Whistle Lad and I’ll come to you’. 1904 illustration by James McBryde. Via Wikimedia.
Sources and notes
Anonymous, 1762, Anti-Canidia: Or, Superstition Detected and Exposed. in a Confutation of the Vulgar Opinion Concerning Witches, Spirits, Demons, Magick
Crowe, Catherine, 1848, The Night-Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost-seers (Wordsworth reprint 2000) 
Cruikshank, George, 1863, A discovery concerning ghosts: with a rap at the “spirit-rappers”
Dafoe, Daniel, 1727, The History and Reality of Apparitions <https://archive.org/details/TheHistoryAndRealityOfApparitions> 
Davies, Owen, 2007, The Haunted: A social History of Ghosts, Palgrave MacMillan 
Grose, Francis, 1787, A Provincial Glossary 
Nickell, Joe, 2012, The Science of Ghosts: Searching for the Spirits of the Dead, Prometheus books -
Owens, Susan, 2017, The Ghost A cultural History, Tate 
Tyrell GNM, 1953, Apparitions, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd