Wearside Echoes: Chalking up ghostly sightings

OLD SCENE: The Queen's Hotel can be seen in this old photograph of Sunderland, which is one of the many images stored in the Antiquarian archives.
OLD SCENE: The Queen's Hotel can be seen in this old photograph of Sunderland, which is one of the many images stored in the Antiquarian archives.
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A WEARSIDE ghost was a real class act in Victorian times.

“St Patrick’s RC School played host to thousands of East Enders over the decades and photos of it are often sought by visitors to Sunderland Antiquarian Society,” said map archivist Norman Kirtlan.

“But of all the classroom memories shared by ex-pupils, there is one episode in the school’s history that is well beyond the memory of any living Wearsider – and perhaps that is just as well!”

Indeed, according to details uncovered by Norman, the building bore more of a resemblance to a battlefield than a place of learning in 1891 – for this was the year of St Pat’s mysterious ghoulies.

“A pitched battle twixt East End bairns and the forces of evil was to ensue,” he said.

The day of September 11, 1891, dawned fine and extremely warm. Youngsters struggled to stay awake during lessons until, at last, the bell sounded and they spilled out into Coronation Street.

“It was a Friday and the last thing any of them wanted as they ran home for their tea was to see the dreaded halls of St Patrick’s before 9am the next Monday morning,” said Norman.

“But by 9pm that night, just as darkness was falling, a cry went up that there was ‘a ghost at St Pat’s’. Dozens of kids swarmed down Sussex and Coronation streets to gather around the school.

“If the idea of a restless spirit joining their lessons wasn’t enough to bring the entire juvenile population of Hendon and surrounding areas to join the throng, then nothing was!”

Without doubt, something uncanny was lurking behind the ground floor windows. Something quite eerie: Two tiny human forms that seemed almost luminous as they peered from behind the glass.

The smaller urchins were soon joined by larger ones and, while the little ‘uns remained respectfully silent, the teenagers obviously weren’t aware of the required etiquette in the presence of ghosts.

“What’s more, they had brought the latest in ghost-hunting paraphernalia with them!” said Norman, a retired police officer who now works as a forensic artist.

“These days Derek Acorah and his crew would sport all manner of ectoplasm detectors, devices and electronic gadgetry but, back then, ghost-hunting implements consisted of half bricks.

“Those so armed pushed their way to the front of the crowd to get a better shot at their ghostly quarry. The sound of breaking glass brought a couple of bobbies running to the scene.”

Despite the best efforts of the officers, however, nothing would shift the angry mob of hundreds. Indeed, it was several hours before officials were able to investigate the cause of the near riot.

“Picking their way through the broken glass and debris that littered the school yard, the officers soon got to the bottom of the ghostly goings on,” said Norman, author of several history books.

“Two white statues had been placed a windowsill. Across the road, the gas lights in a butcher shop had been burning brightly, illuminating the school and bathing the statues in an ungodly glow.”

Newspaper reports revealed several windows were broken during the ghost hunt, although the extensive damage was simply added to the long list of other broken windows at St Pat’s.

“Once the windows had been replaced and the bricks and stones cleared from the yard, the holy statues were removed and confined thereafter to some shadowy corner of the school,” said Norman.

“There were to be no more riots at St Patrick’s School, but it is likely that fingers and backsides burned for a while after, as teaching staff exorcised a few demons of their own.”

In a strange twist, it was the Sunderland Echo which took the brunt of the blame for the juvenile riot.

“Having earlier reported on a ghostly apparition in a nearby factory, public imagination had been fired to such an extent that all it took was a brightly-lit butcher shop and a couple of plaster of Paris saints to send people into a frenzy of destruction,” said Norman.

“Well, we have to blame someone, don’t we?”

** Photos of any of Sunderland’s old schools are eagerly sought by the Antiquarian Society. Contact the Society at 6 Douro Terrace, or phone 07765 635128. Look out for more ghost stories soon.