Tragedy of teen murder victim who haunts ancient cemetery

High St West. Canons, the butcher shop, was once the home of Rawling Smith, 31 High Street West.
High St West. Canons, the butcher shop, was once the home of Rawling Smith, 31 High Street West.
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One Wearside location more than most is likely to attract visitors of the ghostly kind this Halloween - Rector’s Gill.

Hundreds of townsfolk were buried at the cemetery near Silksworth Row until the 1850s, but today only a few tombstones remain.

Rector's Gill .

Rector's Gill .

“There have been many strange sightings, but one in particular fills the heart with dread,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.

“A young woman with a piteous cry is said to haunt the Gill, and her story starts on a balmy night in July 1846.”

It was midnight on July 4 when master brazier Rawling Smith asked his stepdaughter, Catherine Hindmarch, to pop out and buy some eggs.

The shops were often open all night, to accommodate shift workers, and the grocer’s was just a few doors from their High Street home.

“Catherine thought nothing of setting out into the darkness by herself. Sadly, her confidence would prove misguided,” said Norman.

After half-an-hour, when the 19-year-old failed to return home, a worried Rawling shrugged on his coat and set off to find her.

Upon visiting Fairbairn’s store, however, he discovered Catherine had been in. Rawling’s heart sank as he wandered back outside.

“He shouted out Catherine’s name and checked every yard and alley in Bishopwearmouth, just in case some misfortune had overtaken her,” said Norman.

“But he knew there was also a chance she may have met Joshua Turton, a puddler at the Bishopwearmouth Iron Works, who was a bad character indeed.”

Rawling set about tracking Turton down and, upon reaching the home of the Ayre family, he heard a woman he thought was Catherine arguing inside.

After receiving no answer to his knocks, Rawling summoned a passing policeman to help out. However, the householders claimed Catherine was not there.

“At 1.30am, up at Hopper Street, Alice Turner was woken from her slumbers by a woman’s screams coming from the area of the Gill,” said Norman.

“Three piercing screams - the last trailing off into a blood curdling shriek. But it was another few hours before Catherine was discovered.”

A Fenwick’s glassmaker was first on the scene, after spotting a woman’s bonnet lying above the Gill as he walked along Silksworth Row.

Something just wasn’t right and, fearing the worst, he looked over the edge of the cliff. There below, near the railway tunnel, was a woman.

“Thinking it prudent to get help rather than go near the body, he ran to the police station and hammered on the door,” said Norman.

“Within minutes he was leading two officers to the scene. There they found Catherine, who was badly bruised but still hanging grimly to life.”

The youngster had, according to Victorian newspapers, been “violently ravished by a worthless seducer” before being thrown from the cliff.

Two days later she died at Sunderland Infirmary but, despite the launch of a murder hunt, no one came forward to point the finger at her killer.

“Many had seen Catherine; some in Castle Street, others standing near the Gill with a man, but none knew who had done the deed,” said Norman.

“Even Joshua Turton had a cast-iron alibi. His landlady, Jane Lloyd, ran the Royal Tent bar and swore that Joshua had been drinking there for hours.

“How no one had seen Catherine dragged past shops and pubs before being thrown off a cliff was beyond the comprehension of Wearsiders and police alike.”

An inquest at the Londonderry confirmed she had been murdered but, after police failed to catch a killer, her file was stamped “undetected” and forgotten.

“Her case may have been forgotten, but her spirit isn’t. Each Halloween Catherine is said to walk through Rector’s Gill moaning and crying,” said Norman.

“Perhaps, just perhaps, one of the other restless spirits is that of Rawling, who searches still for his beloved Catherine. Let us hope that one day they are reunited and their shadowy spirits are seen no more in the Rector’s Gill.”