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THE HAUNTING OF WILLINGTON MILL

Posted on: January 27, 2012

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The haunting of Willington Mill, in Northumberland, is one of the most strange in our rich history of British hauntings. It was a wildly prolific haunting, and to this day it is embedded in mystery. I’d heard that the house was reputedly built on the site on the site of an old cottage, where a terrible crime had been committed many years before, and where a priest had refused to hear the confession of a dying woman.

I am indebted to Michael J Hallowell and Darren W Ritson for adding further detail in their book ‘The Haunting of Willington Mill’. Apparently there were tales from the 1660s of a Newcastle midwife called Mrs Pepper, who was put on trial for witchcraft. It isn’t certain what happened to Mrs Pepper, as there is no official record of her after the trial. But at around the same time a man built a cottage for his mother-in-law at Willington Quay. The old lady had a reputation locally for being a witch, and the authors suggest that Mrs Pepper and the Willington Quay witch were one and the same. On her deathbed she did indeed ask a priest to hear her confession. It is thought that she was buried on the site of her cottage, which was pulled down after her death. For a 100 years after her death a female ghost was sometimes seen flitting in the area.

In 1780 William Brown built a flour mill on the site of the old lady’s cottage. Twenty years later the mill was pulled down and a more modern, swish one built in its place. Brown went into partnership with two Quakers called Joseph Proctor and Joseph Unthank. Brown moved his family into a new house built next to the mill. It is all frustratingly vague what happens at this time, but there was reputedly a murder carried out at the new house circa 1800. No one knows who the victim is, other than that she is female. Between the years of 1800 and 1806 another murder is carried out, also a woman, this time reputedly a foreign lady. It seems no one was ever brought to book for these crimes, and the identity of the two women remains unknown.

To us, these days, it is perhaps astonishing that two murders in a small community could go unresolved like this, but … well it happens. You only have to look at how long Fred and Rose West’s crimes went undetected for so long to see that. I can imagine the gossip-machine was in overdrive in the Willington area at this time, but perhaps the dark rumours were all whispered about behind the scenes. Without knowing more about the women it makes it very hard to speculate. Were they servants? Were they migrant workers? The fact that the second one was said to be “foreign” (which could just mean that she came from another part of the British Isles!) might suggest that, in which case she would have had no family nearby to raise questions about her death.

In 1806 William Brown and his family left the mill house, and moved elsewhere. A year later he terminated his business partnership with Proctor and Unthank. He went on to open two further mills in Sunderland and North Shields. Joseph Unthank moved into the mill-house. He and his family were to remain there for another 15 years, and it is said that they experienced a wide range of supernatural phenomena, but we have no record of this, and during his lifetime Joseph Unthank denied that he had experienced anything paranormal there.

The original Joseph Proctor was now dead, and had been succeeded in the business by his son, also called Joseph (there is a surfeit of Josephs in this story). When the Unthanks vacated the mill-house in 1831, the newly-married Joseph Proctor Jr moved in. Joseph Jr was to keep a diary of the supernatural phenomena in his new home. The family were strict Quakers, who have an emphasis on honesty at all times, so the diary has always been highly regarded for that reason.

The Unthanks had mysteriously boarded up the attic room, but as the Proctors needed the space the room was unsealed. One winter evening in 1835 the nursemaid was in the bedroom directly underneath it, putting the children to bed, when she heard heavy footsteps pacing about overhead. This went on for several nights, even though no one was ever found in the room. The family scattered meal over the floor, but no footsteps were ever discernible.

One morning the entire household were saying prayers in the parlour when they heard someone coming down the stairs and walking along the passage. When they heard the front door opening, Joseph rushed out into the hall to see who it was. The disembodied foosteps carried on down the path outside. Poor Mrs Proctor fainted.

Other reported phenomena at this time were doors opening, the sound of thumps, blows, laboured breathing, chairs being moved, the tiny footsteps of a child, and a rustling noise like a silk dress. On Whit Monday the maid, Mary Young, was washing dishes, when she saw the ghost of a lady in a lavender silk dress walking up the stairs.

Joseph Proctor’s diary is invaluable for giving insight into a haunting that would otherwise be lost to us now, apart from local rumour and hearsay. But sometimes it can be maddeningly obtuse. On 13 November 1835 he records:

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

Two of Mrs Proctor’s sisters came to stay in February 1836 and were allocated a four-poster bed. The first night they felt the bed being lifted up, in his diary Joseph records it as “the bed was lifted up, as if a man were underneath pushing it up with his back”. On another night it was shaken violently. Both ladies saw a female phantom come out of the wall and hover over them. Not surprisingly, they refused to spend another night there.

Neighbours of the Proctor’s, the Mann family, were walking past one evening when they saw the ghost of a priest at an attic window. During the summer of 1840 Edward Drury, a specialist in supernatural phenomena, was invited to hold a vigil in the attic room. His male colleague went to sleep in a chair. At 12:50 AM Drury saw a woman emerge out of a closet and stumble towards his sleeping friend, as though in pain. Drury was carried downstairs, screaming hysterically “keep her off!”

Drury later described what had happened:

I took out my watch to ascertain the time and found that it wanted ten minutes to one. In taking my eyes off the watch they became riveted 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. It advanced with an apparently cautious step across the floor towards me. Immediately, it approached my friend, who was slumbering, its right hand extended towards him. I then rushed at it …

Even more sinister, one of the Proctor daughters reported seeing a woman sitting on her mother’s bed, who didn’t appear to have any eyes. (Although this can also be read as that the ghost-lady was blind, not necessarily physically eye-less). Another child said he saw a strange man come into his room, raise the window, and then leave again.

Equally as bizarre were the sightings of odd animals in the house. In the autumn of 1841 Joseph’s son Edmund, then barely 2 years old, reported seeing a “funny cat”, which spooked him considerably, and led him to spend the rest of the day looking under chairs to see if he could find it. Shortly afterwards, the little lad woke up at night and heard “the sound of an animal leaping down off the easy-chair which stood near the bed”.

A couple of weeks later Edmund’s older brother, 8-year-old Joseph was in the nursery with his siblings, when he said he saw a monkey, and that it pulled his leg by his shoe-strap. There has been much speculation about these animal sightings. Every one concerned seemed pretty certain they weren’t real flesh-and-blood animals. There is the incident concerning Thomas Davidson to vouch for that. Thomas was courting Mary Young. On calling for her one evening he saw a cat outside the house. He went to kick it (as you do), and his foot went straight through the animal.

The family finally had enough and moved out in 1847. It would seem that just about everybody in the household had experienced some kind of supernatural phenomena, including visitors who had spent the night there. The Mann family moved in for a while, but didn’t stay there long. The house was converted into flats, and eventually degenerated into a slum. At the turn of the 20th century a young woman called Catherine Devore was killed in an accident at the mill, which was now a rope factory. Her ghost was also now said to haunt the site.

Several years ago I read a book about hauntings in the north-east, which focussed on an evil Quaker living at Willington Mill, who was responsible for the dark happenings at the house. To most of us the idea of an “evil Quaker” is absurd, and I find it hard to believe it was Joseph Proctor Jnr who was responsible. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the book or the author. I can recommend ‘The Haunting Of Willington Mill’ though, which invaluably publishes a transcript of Proctor’s diary. Anything that helps shed some light on this most intriguing of haunted houses is welcome.

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