15 July 2011


Michael J Hallowell and Darren W. Ritson. The Haunting of Willington Mill: The Truth About England's Most Enigmatic Ghost Story. The History Press, 2011.

This is an account of a fascinating early nineteenth century ghost story, one which gives us an excellent insight into what ghost stories looked like in the days before the Society for Psychical Research. It is also provides a warning as to the pitfalls which can occur to those new to historical research.
One problem which plagues the authors is to exactly when the events at the mill started, and as to whether there were prior traditions. These are not exactly resolved in this book.

The basic background is that a mill owning partnership built a mill and attendant house at Willington Quay in Northumberland in about 1800, in about 1806 one of the partners Joseph Unthank moved into the house, which was taken over at some time by his son George. In about 1830, a newly married partner, Joseph Proctor and his young wife moved in, allowing George Unthank to move out to leafier spots. From this we can probably assume that the young man was to be in charge of the day to day running of the mill, allowing the older to effectively retire. Proctor and Unthank were cousins and Quakers.

For a time it seems all was well, but around October 1834 the nursemaid started to hear strange noises such as "a dull heavy tread on the boarded floor of the unoccupied room above (the nursery) ..pacing backwards and forwards, and on coming to the window, giving the floor such a shake as to cause the window of the nursery to rattle violently in its frame". She seems to have been increasingly disturbed by this, and about a couple of weeks before Christmas reported it to her mistress. This timetable is clear because Procter began a 'diary' on the 28 January 1835, noting that the events were reported 6 weeks before and had been going on for two weeks before that. These dates are confirmed by the fact that the eldest boy, Joseph Jnr. is recorded in the 1841 census as being SEVEN years old, i.e. born between July 1833 and June 1834.

Despite this, the authors try to argue that the events most have occurred before 1830 when the Unthanks were in the mill. Their evidence for this statement is solely that Procter says the nursemaid "told her mistress" and not "my wife Elizabeth", which they find odd. I think this is an example of forgetting how foreign a country the past was. This sort of formal language would actually have been quite usual when talking about servants. The authors indeed seen to be obsessed by the idea that the Unthanks must have experienced the phenomena and were lying when they assured the Procters otherwise. However the Procters themselves had been in the house for some four years before the noises came to their attention. It is of course possible that both families had experienced strange noises from time to time and thought nothing of them, until the nursemaid put supernatural ideas into their heads.

The original sounds, heard at about the same time each night and going on for about 10 minutes each time, which are misinterpreted as "footsteps", but are actually a sound going something like 'thump, thump, thump...thump, BANG!' IS the sound of some sort of machinery in either the mill or the nearby mine.

Once the idea of ghostly sounds was raised people start to experience all sorts of strange experiences, which Procter kept a sort of diary or memorandum of these. It would appear that these were originally kept in loose sheets, later written up, and this fair copy later transcribed and possibly edited by Joseph's son Edmund. It appears that it is this transcript which is in the possession of the SPR and used by the authors. They point out the many difficulties with this, and the possibility of someone else adding and editing.

These events start simply as odd noises heard about the place, but then there is a story of a "respectable neighbour" seeing a white female figure in the window of what was becoming thought of as the haunted room, of the children seeing "an object which could not be real" going into the room, of the foreman's wife seeing the female figure and so on. Soon all sorts of apparitions were being seen around the place, including a grey, eyeless woman, a luminous man, a priest, something like a monkey and other strange creatures, disembodied heads etc.

Some of these incidents which involve feelings of pressure in bed and sensations of the bed moving up and down read like sleep paralysis experiences, others are rather more difficult to explain. It is tempting to think that at least some of the sounds were real environmental sounds being misheard and misinterpreted, on the other hand some of these sounds such as "phantom footsteps" and "the swishing of silk skirts" are reported in many different cases, and in connection with sleep paralysis episodes, which suggests a common, probably internal origin. A strong possibility are that these are actually internal body noises which are normally censored out of conscious experience, the "footsteps" being the sound of the heartbeat and the "swishing" the sound of the blood going through the body. Equally some of these sounds may be hallucinatory as suggested by psychical researchers such as Edmund Gurney and George Tyrrell.

In many ways this melange of experiences shows how far removed from the SPR "perfect apparitions" these things are, and how they are much closer to the ghosts of folklore. Indeed how close is shown by a story told by Thomas Davidson, the fiancee of one of the maids (Mary Young), of when going to meet her, he had met with a phantom cat, which turned into something "as large as a sheep, and quite luminous". This is of course our old friend the boggart.

This sort of stuff seems to have been going on for some time and news got around the community. This led to perhaps the most famous of all the events of the haunting, the vigil by Dr Edward Drury and the chemist Thomas Hudson in July 1840. Anyone reading the popular accounts of this vigil would tend to think of them as two worthy middle aged pillars of the community, but the realisation from this book that Hudson was writing about the event nearly 50 years later in 1887 points otherwise. In fact in 1840 Hudson was twenty and Drury just a year or two older.

These were lads on a lark, and perhaps that is why Procter decided to return home and not let their only supervision be by an aged servant. Drury seems to have been miffed that Hudson turned up and barely spoke to him as they sat in dark vigil. They heard all sorts of odd sounds then things quietened down, It appears that Hudson fell asleep, then Drury saw coming from the room "the figure of a female attired in greyish garments, with head inclined downwards, and one hand pressed upon the chest as if in pain, and ... the right hand, extended towards the floor, with the index finger pointing downwards" moving towards Hudson. Drury leaps up, tries to grab the figure and falls onto Hudson, in a kind of faint. He seems then to have been in a semiconscious state of extreme terror, almost throwing himself out of the window at one point and shaking all over.

There is a possible clue on what has gone on in Hudson's memoires, Drury had told him that "he was strongly endeavouring to touch my foot with his, but though our feet were only inches apart, he had not the power to do so". This is strongly suggestive of sleep paralysis and its attendant terrifying hallucinations, while the extreme arousal and overwhelming terror suggest another sleep phenomenon, night terrors.

Whatever its origin, this ghost with one hand on the bosom and the other pointing, is very much a stage melodrama ghost, with more than a hint of the 'gothick'. It is a product of the imagination of the time.

This story ended up in a local pamphlet (who was the author and how did he get hold of the letters quoted in it?), which is then quoted in a book of local folklore, then incorporated in a travel book by William Howitt, and thence into Catherine Crowe's Night Side of Nature. These seem to be the source of much of the later literature.

Eventually the changing times were to see to the ghosts, the Procters moved away, partly to get away from the ghosts, but also for "social reasons". The authors are somewhat puzzled by this and try to make something out of it. However this was just part of a major social change. In the early 19th century the owners of mills and factories tended to live on top of the works, cheek by jowl with their work-people. By mid century they are moving on away from the noise, smell and pollution of the industrial areas out to the leafy suburbs, aided in no small part by the rise of the railways. These social changes also probably account for the dropping of the Quaker 'thee' and 'thou' in Procter's later correspondence, as they grew wealthier and moved into higher social circles these old fashioned idioms were being dropped.

There was a later factory on the site which had its own ghost, a worker Catherine Devoir, said to have been killed in an industrial accident in about 1902 (however the surname given is not recorded in the 1901 census for Northumberland, and no one with the name like it died in Northumberland between 1890 and 1910. It would appear that this is just another legend.

It is unclear whether there was any prior tradition of unusual experiences on this spot, and it seems that much of the authors' speculations on this point are based on a series of misunderstandings and the conflation of a number of different rumours and tales.

One of these goes (from Howitt) "We have lately heard that Mr Procter has discovered an old book which make it appear that the very same hauntings took place on the very same spot at least two hundred years ago"

Edmund Procter reports that his father had left a memorandum which read "An infirm old woman, the mother in law of R. Oxton, the builder of the premises, lived and died in the house, and after her death the haunting was attributed ...." -- this is unfinished and crossed out. The authors make something of a mystery of this, but a reasonable explanation might be that having started to make this statement, Procter decided to check his facts and found them to be incorrect. There is no indication as to when Mr Oxton lived or if these two stories are connected. It a subsequent letter Procter admits he was mistaken and the earlier haunting referred to mysterious ringing of bells in a house some distance away.

A second story which seems to conflated with this has a rather different origin. In Ingham's The Haunted Homes and Family Legends of Great Britain, Vol 1, 1884, there is a chapter on the Willington story which ends with the statement "Mr Proctor states that a strange lady, strange to the district, being thrown into a clairvoyant state, and asked to go to the mill, ... described the priest and the grey lady, the two apparitions which haunted it. She also added that the priest had refused to allow the female ghost to confess a deadly crime committed at that spot many years ago, and that this was the troubling cause of the poor woman's apparition".

It may be from this story that the idea of a wicked woman who was a witch who had sold her soul to Satan had arisen, and if Ingham's account is correct the story began in the fantasies of a psychic, Whether this strange lady is the same as the clairvoyant 'Jane' described in chapter 21 of The Haunting is again unclear.

These stories meld into the tale of the Willington witch, whom the authors have practising Wicca (a religion invented in the second quarter of the twentieth century) and living in a cottage.

Do these stories have any origin before the publicity attached to the mill? Procter seems to think there was some vague talk of haunting before the Unthanks moved in, but no written source.

If there is a source for the 'old book' referred to by Procter it might be in an old magazine. Robert Davidson, the son of Thomas, published a series of articles in the local paper, and in a bound copy of these in Newcastle Central Library there is a list of references, including one to Rev Anthony Hails a local Methodist minister and to the Umanian Magazine of 1782. This latter reference sends the authors on a series of wild goose chases, but the connection with Hails shows it is a transcription error on someone's part for the Arminian Magazine, the house journal of the Methodist movement (Link HERE - not Armenian!, the title refers to Wesley's theological views).

The Arminian Magazine and Wesley were noted for their partiality to stories of ghosts, witches, signs and wonders (for which Wesley earned the contempt of Hogarth). If Hails was the author of a piece in the 1782 edition, he would have been a boy of about 16 at the time. The authors might like to know that microfilm copies of this journal are held at Newcastle University Library.

Such stories really exist to provide 'rational' explanations for unusual experiences and a sense of closure. The same goes for the various historical romances produced by various mediums and psychics.

After this passage of time it is impossible to get any clear idea about what might have caused various phenomena. At the minimum we would have to have detailed floor plans and elevations of the Mill House and wider complex, know exactly what processes were going on there, the sorts of activities in the neighbourhood, the relations between the Procters and the wider community, relationships within the family etc. We in our electric light age find it almost impossible to imagine what conditions were like in dark, rambling houses, lit only by candle or the even dimmer and more primitive rush lights.

Though I don't agree with a number of their methods and conclusions, the authors should be congratulated for bringing this fascinating story to the attention of a new audience. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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