IT may have been two days before Halloween in 1883 – but the ghostly shenanigans had already started in Sunderland.
“The East End of town was on red alert for paranormal activities following reports in the Sunderland Echo that a ghostly apparition had been spotted,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
Indeed, once word of the ghostly-goings on started spreading, hundreds of Wearsiders turned up with bricks, sticks and flaming torches – determined to fight it out with the spirits.
“These days, the local constabulary would play down any rumours of supernatural events and urge people to lay down their weapons and go home,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.
“Back in Victorian times, however, the boys in blue took matters of a spiritual nature very seriously – even going as far as to join in the spectral hunt.
“Indeed, just as the locals tooled themselves up for a fight, so did the Hendon coppers. After arming themselves, they hit the streets ready to do battle with whatever came their way.”
Sergeant Burns and PC Reay had been pounding the beat together for a good two hours on the night of October 29, 1883 and, so far, the shift had been a quiet one.
But, after turning from Hendon Valley Road into Robinson Terrace, the pair caught sight of something that sent shivers of fear running down their spines.
“At the corner of Robinson Terrace and Linden Street, illuminated by the glow of a gas lamp, an apparition floated a few feet above the cobbles,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Cloaked in white and twisting like paper tossed in the breeze, the mysterious shape seemed to defy logic; human in shape but as transparent as the mists that rolled in from the North Sea.”
The officers drew their batons and slipped handcuffs from their belts.
Taking deep breaths, they crept silently up to the dancing spirit ready to grab it and haul it – whatever it was – into custody.
“But the spirit had different ideas. Giving out a blood curdling scream, the ghostly apparition shot into the air and evaporated before the startled bobbies’ eyes,” said Norman.
“As the bells of the Town Hall clock struck midnight, police whistles rang out. The search was on.”
It was to be another three hours before the next sighting occurred. PC Jepson was checking the door handles of the Salem Hotel when he suddenly became aware of movement under the gas lamp.
At first, he thought it was a child dressed in white, standing close to Harold Street. He stood very still and watched, too far away to apprehend the object, but close enough to see its every movement.
And it was the movements that followed which convinced him that this was no normal youngster.
“As the brave bobby crept gingerly towards the wee object, he was amazed to see it twist into the air like a wisp of smoke,” said Norman, who now works as a forensic artist.
“No sooner had it reached the crossbar on the gas lamp than it evaporated into the night air. PC Jepson made a dash for where whatever it was now wasn’t, but the wee spirit had definitely done a bunk.”
Still believing the object to be a local youngster, the officer hurried around the back lane into Harold Street and tried all of the door handles for the length of the street. All were locked.
“He then pulled out his pocket note book and jotted down his observations. As farfetched as his report may have sounded, at least his sergeant would be writing a similar one!” said Norman.
To make matters worse, a letter arrived at the police station the very next day, signed by ‘the Ghost’ and predicting where its ectoplasmic presence would be felt next – D’Arcy Terrace.
“Needless to say, the Echo added its voice to the hue and cry – wondering what style of handwriting the spirit preferred and asking if anyone had seen it slipping the letter into the post,” said Norman.
The newspaper stories and local gossip-mongers whipped up a frenzy across Wearside, with the people of Hendon and the East End gripped by ghost fever for many nights to come.
“Unfortunately, things came to a head when locals turned out onto the streets with shotguns and blasted at any mysterious shadow or bloke dressed in white,” said Norman.
“The cops did draw a line under the Great Ghost Hunt of Hendon after that – and what became of the ghost remains a mystery.”
l Look out for another ghost story in Wearside Echoes next week. Do you have a ghost story to share with Norman? Contact him via email on firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 07765 635 128.