HAUNTING tales of restless spirits dominated fireside conversations and newspaper headlines in Victorian times – but one ghostly case sent very real shivers down many a Wearsider’s spine.
“Most ghost stories of the time were lighthearted affairs, which spread like Chinese whispers and died as soon as people tired of chasing non-existent shadows,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“But the Hat Case story caused genuine fear among Sunderland residents and could have given the creepy old house in the Amityville Horror films a run for its money.”
Hat Case was the name given to a swathe of ancient buildings which sat south of the old High Street, stretching from Silver Street to Warren Street and including Fitters Row and other dark alleys.
“At one time these dwellings were home to the rich and famous, with wide oak staircases and beautiful fixtures and fittings,” said Norman, a retired police officer who now works as a forensic artist.
“Towards the end of the 19th century however, it was little more than a rat-infested slum, occupied by those who could afford no better – and for whom death and disease were constant companions.”
One house in particular gained great notoriety from the 1840s – not for its class of lodger, nor the activities of thieves and prostitutes who frequented the locale, but for a far more sinister reason.
Number 9 Silver Street, which also went by the name of Lady Bowser’s House, was known – and feared – by everyone who lived, worked and begged in the East End as “The Haunted House”.
“All those who dared to lodge there left very quickly after moving in, complaining that the house was “troubled” to say the least,” said Norman, author of a sell-out book on murderous Mackems.
“Tenants would sleep in big four-poster beds, around which heavy curtains were pulled – a necessary precaution against the cold draughts on freezing nights in unheated Victorian slums.
“Many tales were told of a spirit appearing during the hours of darkness and ripping back the curtains, terrifying the occupants before slipping unseen into the shadows.”
Local legend has it that plates on shelves would mysteriously roll backwards and forwards, for no apparent reason and one family found to their cost that the spirit certainly had no love of children.
Having finished a meal, the parents started clearing away the remains – leaving a four-year-old boy in his high chair in the dining room. Seconds later, the child’s howls brought them running back in.
The youngster sobbed uncontrollably as his parents attempted to comfort him, repeating over and over: “Oh, the man...the man...”
“The terrified little lad had been lifted to the ceiling and thrown violently back to the floor, dislocating his shoulder in the process,” said Norman.
“By nightfall, the family had moved out, taking only what they could carry and not a stick more.”
Another family managed to brave it out at No. 9 for several weeks, but eventually fled too – never to return – after becoming “terrified by the unnatural activities” which went on there.
“Their furniture, including a canary in a cage, was thrown out of the windows after them. By whom? You may well ask! It still remains a mystery to this day,” said Norman.
“A month was the longest most families managed to occupy the house and rumours of a gruesome murder or a bloody suicide were given as explanation of the haunting.”
The “true” reason behind the paranormal activity would not be known until the end of the century – when Hat Case was demolished as part of a slum clearance project.
“In a parallel with many movie horrors, it seems the troubled spirit had been locked beneath the floorboards for centuries,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“As the lower floor was being dismantled, and the floorboards were pulled apart, workmen discovered a tombstone some two feet in height, and upon which the house had been built.”
Workmen rubbed at the stone’s surface, to see if it bore a name, but only the numbers two and nine could be discerned. When it was lifted from the ground, the skeleton of a man was discovered.
“And just like every Dracula film ever made, the bones disintegrated into dust within a short time of their discovery,” said Norman.
No. 9 Silver Street was not alone in its visitations by malevolent spirits. Just a few houses further down the street another once-grand dwelling played host to an unearthly visitor.
Here the ghost of an old lady in a long-trained silk gown was often seen floating up and down the elegant staircase; a perambulation that filled occupants young and old with terror.
“During demolition, a vault was found under the house,” said Norman. “Rumour had it this was a smuggler’s subterranean thoroughfare, linking Pemberton’s Hall in Burleigh Street with the quayside.
“The passage, which gave off the most offensive musty smell when opened, was filled in soon after, so that new dwellings could be built there.
“Once the old houses were demolished and the grave destroyed, the area around old Hat Case was no longer troubled by floating ladies or violent spirits. Where they went, no one knows – do you?”
A PET shop owner is hoping Wearside Echoes readers will give her plea for help paws for thought.
Pauline Sirrell, of Northolm Pet Supplies, in Houghton, is trying to trace her store’s history.
“I am looking for information relating to 18a Nesham Place, Houghton for use as part of a heritage project,” said Pauline.
She believes the shop was first built in the 1930s, when it was used as a chemist. It later became Edward Owsnett Butchers and Pie Shop before trading as W. Woods Electrical.
l Pauline can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone on 584 0618 or by visiting the shop in Nesham Place.