In the mid-1800s, an ordinary-looking house in the village of Willington became one of England’s most famous haunted sites. The first published record of it appears to be a pamphlet titled “Authentic Account of a Visit to the Haunted House at Willington near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne” (Newcastle: Richardson, 1842), but within the year, the same publisher reprinted that account in a volume called The Local Historian’s Table Book. Told mostly through letters, the narrative spotlights an overnight ghost hunt of the house conducted by Edward Drury, a local doctor.
William Howitt later reprinted the account — adding his own findings regarding the haunting — in the May 22, 1847 issue of Howitt’s Journal of Literature and Popular Progress. To a lesser extent, Catherine Crowe continued the ghost hunt, too. In her chapter on haunted houses in The Night Side of Nature (1848), she opens a section on the Willington haunting with a letter she received from the house’s owner, Joseph Procter, and then reprints Howitt’s and Drury’s narratives. From there on, the case and Drury’s important role in it have regularly appeared in books about ghosts, especially ghosts in Britain.
And yet Drury was far from a model ghost hunter. He was very much a novice at paranormal investigating as revealed in his description of what happened the night he kept watch in the Willington house. With small edits made by myself, this is what he reported to Procter about that night’s ghost hunt:
Sunderland, July 13, 1840.
Dear Sir,—I hereby, according to promise in my last letter, forward you a true account of what I heard and saw at your house, in which I was led to pass the night from various rumours circulated by most respectable parties. . . . Having received your sanction to visit your mysterious dwelling, I went, on the 3rd of July, accompanied by a friend of mine, T. Hudson. . . . I must here mention that, not expecting you at home, I had in my pocket a brace of pistols, determining in my mind to let one of them drop before the miller, as if by accident, for fear he should presume to play tricks upon me; but after my interview with you, I felt there was no occasion for weapons, and did not load them, after you had allowed us to inspect as minutely as we pleased every portion of the house. I sat down on the third story landing, fully expecting to account for any noises that I might hear, in a philosophical manner. This was about eleven o’clock p.m. About ten minutes to twelve we both heard a noise, as if a number of people were pattering with their feet upon the bare floor, and yet so singular was the noise that I could not minutely determine from whence it proceeded. A few minutes afterwards we heard a noise as if some one was knocking with his knuckles among our feet; this was followed by a hollow cough from the very room from whence the apparition proceeded. The only noise after this was as if a person was rustling against the wall in coming upstairs. At a quarter to one I told my friend that, feeling a little cold, I would like to go to bed, as we might hear the noise equally well there; he replied that he would not go to bed till daylight. . . . I took out my watch to ascertain the time, and found that it wanted ten minutes to one. 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 grayish garments, with the head inclining downwards, and one hand pressed upon the chest, as if in pain, and the other—viz. the right hand—extended towards the floor, with the index finger pointing downwards. It advanced with an apparently cautious step across the floor towards me; immediately as it approached my friend, who was slumbering, its right hand was extended towards him; I then rushed at it, giving, as Mr. Procter states, a most awful yell; but instead of grasping it, I fell upon my friend, and I recollected nothing distinctly for nearly three hours afterwards. I have since learnt that I was carried down stairs in an agony of fear and terror.
I hereby certify that the above account is strictly true and correct in every respect.
Alas, Dr. Drury hardly ends up being a shining hero in the adventure, despite the suggestion that he acted to protect Hudson. Nonetheless, this brief story carries some of the conventions of many other ghost hunting narratives, including those found in fiction: securing permission to spend a night in the house said to be haunted, bringing a companion (a sort of “Dr. Watson”), packing pistols in case a prank is being pulled, the long wait, and the eventual encounter with the ghost.
Few works of fiction conclude with the ghost hunter unconscious and experiencing amnesia due to fear, of course, but even this element of Drury’s widely published account might have served as inspiration for several fiction writers. In an earlier letter, the doctor says this to Procter: “I am persuaded that no one went to your house at any time more disbelieving in respect to seeing any thing peculiar,–now, no one can be more satisfied than myself.” Unable to explain his experience with “natural causes,” he concludes that the terror he felt “was a punishment to me for my scoffing and unbelief.” In other words, the cocky skeptic who had intended to debunk the ghost rumors was humbled — even punished — while spending a night in a haunted house. This is a theme underlying such fictional works as the anonymous “A Night in a Haunted House” (1848), M.A. Bird’s “The Haunted House” (1865), George Downing Sparks’ “The House on the Corner” (1888), B.M. Croker’s “Number Ninety” (1895), Ralph Adams Cram’s “In Kropfsberg Keep” (1895), and C. Ashton Smith’s “The Ghost of Mohammed Din” (1910). (It should be noted that Charles May’s “The Haunted House” from 1831, before Drury’s narrative, also follows the same basic pattern. Links to all of these works are on my bibliography The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction.)
Those interested in the Willington haunting can find more information in the 1887 volume of The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend, which reprints the decidedly more skeptical version of the ghost hunt told by Tom Hudson, Drury’s companion on the night. In 1892, the Society for Psychical Research published a fuller account of the haunting with additional information provided by Joseph Procter’s son. What may well be the first mention of Drury’s ghost hunt in fiction appears in G. Linnæus Banks’ 1881 novel Stung to the Quick: A North Country Story.