Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Haunting of Willington Mill - A review

Review of The Haunting of Willington Mill: The Truth Behind England’s Most Enigmatic Ghost Story, by Michael J Hallowell and Darren W Ritson, The History Press, 2011.

Michael Hallowell and Darren Ritson (hereafter for convenience H&R) are well known for their regional paranormal books, and most famously for their collaboration on The South Shields Poltergeist. Now they have turned their attention to an older mystery to try to uncover what really happened at Willington Mill (actually most reports concern the separate mill house) in the mid-nineteenth century. Willington Mill was the first steam-driven flour mill in North Tyneside, built at Willington Quay in about 1800, and recorded (as opposed to hearsay) unexplained occurrences began in late 1834, though the authors posit a provenance for paranormal happenings on the site extending back to the seventeenth century.

They do a sterling job unravelling the complicated history of the business’s ownership. There were three original partners, including Joseph Procter. One partner was bought out in 1807, Procter died in 1813 and his son, confusingly also called Joseph, joined the partnership (presumably not straight away as he was only born in 1800). The last of the original partners died in 1842, and the younger Joseph Procter bought out the deceased partner’s son to become sole proprietor, though his residence was not to last much longer.

Procter kept a diary covering the years 1835-42 which was published in Volume 5 of the Society for Psychical Research‘s Journal (1892), edited with a commentary by his son Edmund (1839-95). H&R have analysed the text, pointing out that it is not a straightforward complete description of events as they occurred day by day. Rather it is a series of notes in which the order is muddled, the narrative frustratingly unclear and incomplete. H&R have done as good a job as the material will allow in sorting out the chronology, and they fill in from other sources events not recorded by Procter himself.

The diary is analysed over two chapters, and is broken down into separate occurrences, seventy-four in total, each with a gloss by the authors. H&R address problems of its authorship and history, but whilst acknowledging a number of issues, they believe that it is an essentially accurate account of events at the house. The family, including the servants, experienced an astonishing range of phenomena during their occupancy. These included numerous instances of heavy footsteps, thumping, droning, knocking, clattering, chirruping, clashing and tapping sounds, coughing, moaning, whistling, the movement of household objects, the sound of a clock being wound, the sound of a small bell ringing, voices, breathing, rustlings, miscellaneous noises, etc etc. One of the strangest occurrences, among many contenders, was when something that looked like a white towel waltzed around the room, before sliding under the door and descending the stairs with a heavy tread (audible to several people in the house) like something out of Fantasia.

People in bed were particularly likely to be disturbed. For example, Mrs Procter was in hers when it lifted up, as if someone were underneath pushing it, and on another occasion her sister Jane felt her bed lifted on one side. The children heard a shriek close to theirs, another time the bed of one moved backwards and forwards and a voice said “chuck” twice close by. One night one of the children saw the face of an old woman through the bed curtains (the girl seems to have been afflicted by heads – on another occasion she saw one on the landing at dusk). In a “night of horror”, as Edmund called it, Jane and the cook were sharing a room and they heard the handle turn and someone enter the room. The cook saw a shadow on the curtains of the bed and felt the counterpane pressed down. Eventually they heard the interloper exit the room, apparently leaving the door open, but when they checked in the morning they found the door still bolted as it had been when they retired the night before.

There were enough weird animals sighted to start a menagerie. These included a peculiar large ‘cat’ with a snout which walked into a furnace. Another ‘cat’ vanished into thin air, then reappeared – hopping – and the witness’s foot passed through it when he aimed a kick at it. It then grew to the size of a sheep, but a luminous one. A monkey was seen by the children jumping around, it tickled a child’s foot (no mean achievement as he was wearing boots) and vanished. Two employees saw what they described as a donkey which made no sound as it moved.

One of the best-known events associated with Willington is the vigil kept by Edward Drury and Thomas Hudson in July 1840. H&R go into this in some detail. Drury and Hudson had a pretty lively night, culminating in Drury seeing a woman dressed in grey appear from a closet, one of a number of figures seen by various witnesses. She had a hand pressed to her breast and with the other pointed at Dr Hudson, who was, shall we say, resting his eyes at the time. Drury rushed at the vision, collapsed in a faint, and could not be roused for several hours. As a consequence of this unnerving experience he shed his previous scepticism, though Hudson seemed inclined to dismiss Drury’s experience as an hallucination.

A woman in a grey mantle floating about three feet above the floor was seen independently by Mrs Hargrave, one of Mrs Procter’s sisters. Mrs Hargrave was interviewed in 1884 by Henry Sidgwick (H&R’s reference for this is incorrect: the notes of the interview are not in Volume 7 of the SPR’s Proceedings but Volume 5 of its Journal, pp.351-2). Other commentators who looked into the mysteries of Willington were Catherine Crowe, William Howitt and W T Stead. The Procters left the house in 1847, and Joseph died in 1875, but phenomena apparently continued, such as the appearance of Kitty, the supposed ghost of one Catherine Devore, who died in about 1902 in the mill, by then a rope factory.

H&R suggest that while Joseph Procter was ready to admit that strange things were occurring on the site, which given the volume of phenomena and the number of witnesses it would have been pointless to deny, he was keen to damp down publicity, to the extent of being less than candid in his diary (ie he was prone to lie), not only on his own behalf, but also his predecessors’ at the house. This is to support H&R's contention that phenomena extended earlier than 1834. Pursuing this line of argument contradicts their claim elsewhere that “we have no reason to think that the events described in [the diary] are anything but truthful”, a discrepancy symptomatic of a tendency to cherry-pick to suit the argument.

One of the most debatable chapters is the discussion of the alleged slab in the alleged cellar under the house, and it is indicative of the selective way evidence is used to bolster their theories. The idea that there was a cellar was based on mediumistic communications, a slender support for the weight of argument placed on it by H&R, given that a number of early commentators clearly state that the house had no cellaring, while its proximity to water – “Willington Quay” is something of a giveaway – would make the addition of a cellar unlikely.

H&R concede that Procter never challenged the claim that there was no cellar, which he might be expected to do if it existed, but even so they are confident that there was one. Naturally they make much of Stead’s anecdote in his 1897 Real Ghost Stories that Procter engaged a group of labourers to excavate this cellar but found nothing. Stead adds that “Local gossip, however, always asserted that when the men dug down to a certain depth they came upon a huge stone or slab, beneath which they believed the mystery lay”, gossip H&R take at face value.

Further, they suggest that Procter, who in any case denied the story according to Stead’s recollection (but must have been lying, of course), knew what was under the slab and did not want anyone else to know: it was the body of someone – of whom H&R cannot say – murdered in around 1800 while the mill was being built, one of possibly two or even three victims of a serial killer around the place. As they depict it, having made the slab accessible, Procter was in a position to lift it, somehow, and dispose of the body quietly himself.

H&R‘s answer to the obvious question (apart from how did Procter know about it in the first place), if the body was buried so thoroughly why should he want to remove it, is that he may have been concerned that it would be found at some future date, and he wanted to avoid a murder investigation that would involve his family. Yet if the slab had been buried so thoroughly that it took a gang of labourers to uncover it, the most discreet course of action would have been to let it lie, on the assumption that nobody would ever have cause to dig up the cellar floor. Uncovering it could only set tongues wagging, especially when Procter told the men to stop just as things got interesting.

Procter’s supposed reason for ordering a cessation of the work at the time – that the building was suffering from structural defects – sounds like a cover story, but H&R state that there may actually have been deficiencies which would have led to excavation, and hence discovery of the slab, at a later date. One wonders what sort of structural repairs would involve extensive digging in the cellar, assuming it existed. Even if it did, Procter would have had to balance the relative merits of uncovering the slab now to prevent future discovery, creating gossip in the process and with the added necessity of having to dispose of whatever was underneath with many potential witnesses in the vicinity, against the possibility that structural repairs would never happen, not involve the cellar if they did, or would happen in the far distant future. Leaving well alone would surely have been the more likely outcome of a dispassionate analysis of the pros and cons.

There is too the matter of Procter’s Quaker background in all this. H&R make much of it, even though he seems to have been somewhat flexible in his adherence to its principles according to their scenario. Perhaps he did want to ensure that the body was given a decent burial in consecrated soil, but it would be more in keeping with his beliefs to uncover a body immediately and report it, whatever the consequences, rather than remove it himself and bury it elsewhere.

As the elaborate cellar conjecture implies, this is a book of two rather odd halves. One is a sober reconstruction of a complex narrative using primary sources and dissecting the accounts to tease out ambiguities and highlight discrepancies in painstaking detail. The authors acknowledge that many of the details are unverifiable, and make some reasonable inferences. They go further, however, and while criticising earlier commentators for making assumptions, themselves make a few which are unsupported by firm evidence, despite which they conclude that they have uncovered “the truth“ and solved most of the mysteries. Some of those readers sympathetic to such speculations may still baulk at the use of mediums Tony Stockwell and Philip Solomon for information, not to mention reliance on the transcripts of mesmeric sessions with the clairvoyant ‘Jane’, held in 1853 (by which time of course the Procters were no longer living there) and included in Eleanor Sidgwick’s article in Volume 7 of the SPR’s Proceedings, ‘On the Evidence for Clairvoyance’ (1891).

H&R consider various possibilities, such as haunting, poltergeist, witchcraft (the “Witch of Willington”), timeslips, even cryptozoology, and plump for survival, as might be inferred from the title. They argue that it is a case “that seriously challenges the sceptic”. It is doubtful though whether many sceptics give these historical accounts much credence, as the passage of time makes it easier to attribute alleged phenomena to misperception, hysteria, fraud, exaggeration, misinterpretation of garbled transmission and all the other problems we now know that eyewitness testimony is heir to and which make it easy to dismiss.

We are unlikely now to be able to make a definitive assessment of the goings-on at Willington Mill, not being able to recreate the personal, and possibly sexual, dynamics that existed between a close-knit group during a period of dramatic and stressful social change in the north of England. But it is a fascinating story, and H&R have done a useful job assembling and comparing documents and, used judiciously, forming the basis for the further discussion the mystery of Willington Mill so richly deserves.