Ghosts can be fairly unnerving things to encounter. Not many are actually frightening as such, but they can give you a start. So I have much sympathy for an 18 year old Sunderland seaman by the name of John Cairns who got mixed up in one of the most dramatic hauntings in the city’s history.
It was back in February 1848 when the haunting began. Young Cairns was at sea on the brig Myrtle. The ship plied the coastal trade and Cairns had been working for some years, lads began young back then, and had gained a reputation as a reliable and hard working young man. That evening, however, he was in for a shock.
As the brig slipped along the coast before a fresh wind, Cairns was on deck. Suddenly, the boy was shocked to see the phantom of his elder sister appear in front of him. The spray seemed not to bother the phantom one bit as she slowly materialised. As the shocked Cairns stared the ghostly apparition informed him that time was short, but that she had an important message for him. Then it seemed as if some invisible companion was calling the girl away. She told her brother to be at her graveside on the evening of the following Thursday, 23rd February.
Understandably shocked, Cairns hurried home as soon as the Myrtle docked and refused to join the next voyage declaring he had to be in Holy Trinity Churchyard on the evening of the 23rd February. Inevitably, word leaked out from the Cairns family about what was going on. Come the appointed evening and young Cairns arrived at the churchyard to find a crowd of several hundred people gathered around to see what would happen.
Cairns made his way to the grave of his sister, while members of the family kept the crowd back at a respectful distance. Dusk fell. The chill of a February evening settled over the churchyard. Time passed. Finally midnight came.
As the final note of the twelve bell chimes boomed out from Holy Trinity Church, the sound of strange music drifted over the churchyard. Those who heard it, described it as being something like an organ, but fainter and more eerie. Suddenly there was a blinding flash that bathed the whole churchyard in a searing white light. The light lasted several seconds then, just as abruptly, it was gone.
Silence and darkness returned to the churchyard.
For a few seconds everything was still. Then young Cairns slowly stood up. He turned round and called for his brother in law, husband to the dead sister. “I need to talk to you,” said Cairns. He glared round at the crowd. “Alone.” Together the two men pushed their way past the crowd and went home. Apparently the ghost had appeared again to give her brother a message for her husband. What that message was, neither man ever revealed.
Gradually the crowd dispersed. Over the following few days, the events in Holy Trinity churchyard were the talk of Sunderland. Some people thought they had seen a visitation from ‘the other side’. Some people thought it had all been a gigantic hoax, carried out by a hidden accordionist and some special fireworks.
I came to Holy Trinity Churchyard, just north of the modern bridge that carries the A1231 across the Wear, on a warm afternoon. Despite the weather, the whole area was deserted. Nobody was walking their dogs, nobody was on their way anywhere. There was just the hum of traffic passing along the A1231 into and out of Sunderland. Even the neighbouring North Star pub was closed. Whatever had happened here so long ago, there were no clues to be found that day.
This is an extract from Haunted Sunderland by Rupert Matthews