Sunderland’s spookiest burglary - but was a ghost the police informant?

An old Sunderland Antiquarian Society photograph of the Hendon area.
An old Sunderland Antiquarian Society photograph of the Hendon area.

Norman Kirtlan has uncovered many a strange tale down the years.

But this may be the most quirky yet from the Sunderland Antiquarian Society member. It tells of a ghost which caused all kinds of trouble in times gone by.

An archive photograph showing the Hendon area.

An archive photograph showing the Hendon area.

When three young housebreakers embarked on their latest burglary, it seemed nothing in this world could stop the master plan from working.

What they hadn’t counted on were things from outside this world.

It was a chilly February afternoon in 1883 when the trio headed for their target in Harrogate Street, New Hendon.

The cottage had been in darkness for several weeks since the old lady who lived there had died.

When the three villains were taken back to Hendon Nick, the station sergeant asked PC Nicholson and asked him who had raised the alarm. The officer shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure sarge,” he replied. “It was just this voice. A woman’s voice.”

Norman Kirtlan

For some reason, once the body had been taken out, no relatives had been back to the house. It was still packed with valuables.

One housebreaker waited outside, keeping watch in case anyone should chance by. Within a few minutes the two felons reappeared laden with clothes and drapery. They dumped their ill gotten gains with the lookout and went inside for more.

But this was an eerie place, as if someone was watching them.

The late occupier, as Mrs Nesbitt would have turned over in her grave if she knew what was going on in her beloved home, they thought. Funny thing was, old Mrs.Nesbitt knew very well indeed what was happening and who was responsible for violating her old home.

During the last few years of her life, the recently widowed Mrs Nesbitt had been a real eccentric, living almost entirely as a hermit since her husband died. And then when her son married without asking permission, she cursed her family one and all. No one ever came to see her after that, especially when she told them that she would haunt anyone who ever set foot in her beloved house.

As the burglars left the house for the final time, laden with goodies, they thought no one was watching.

No sooner had they clambered back over the wall and into the back lane, heavy footsteps rattled along the cobbles. Three dark shapes had appeared, as if from nowhere, converging on the felons and clattering them from all angles. They were violently dragged down to the ground and slapped in handcuffs, their stolen booty lying in bags all around them.

Local constables Nicholson and Harding had been informed about the crime – but how? No one had seen the trio.

When the three villains were taken back to Hendon Nick, the station sergeant asked Pc Nicholson and asked him who had raised the alarm. The officer shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure sarge,” he replied. “It was just this voice. A woman’s voice.”

Funny thing was, Pc Nicholson hadn’t been joking.

As the three lads were remanded in custody to await their trial, the charge sheet reflected the strange course of events that cold February evening.

Complainant unknown. Informant unknown.

The council too was preoccupied by the Salem Street spirit, as council minutes taken soon after the haunting have revealed:

It showed the town council debated the Hendon Ghost, and wanted to know what the police were going to do about the great state of excitement that had prevailed on the streets ever since the initial sightings.

The Mayor, Coun Wayman denied that he offered a reward of £5 for the capture of the beast, dead or alive, while one of the other councillors, Mr Rudland, told the gathering that a council member – unnamed – had received a letter from the ghost, which read as follows: SIX WEEKS FROM TODAY I INTEND VISITING YOUR HOUSE AND FEEDING ON YOUR RIBS.

Despite the fact that the members fell about laughing, one of their number apparently sat very quietly and did not find matters at all amusing.

Whether or not a town councillor ever reported having been eaten is not known – but it is highly unlikely.