Monday, 12 March 2012

Macabre Events in Herrington, nr Sunderland

Now, Herrington is as nice a place as you could hope to visit. The Board Inn offers quality ales and some truly delicious food, while Herrington Country Park boasts over ten miles of footpaths and a hundred acres of woodland. All very nice. But appearances can be deceptive.

Herrington has had its fair share of horror. And if the local residents don’t talk about such things much, the ghosts remember.

I came here to try to track down a haunted house that was once the most famous in the Northeast. I pulled up at the Board Inn, where I took the opportunity to fortify myself for the task ahead with a fine grilled 8 ounce rump steak and chips, then I set out to find the much-haunted Herrington House.

The grim events that led to the haunting date back to 1815 when a Miss Jane Smith lived in Herrington House. Now Miss Smith was a good looking and extremely wealthy young lady. She had not married, however, for two reasons. The first was that she was a miser of famously eccentric habits. The second was that she suspected any man who looked at her of being more interested in her great wealth than in herself.

But then she met Sir Robert Peat, who was visiting from London. Young Jane was smitten and Sir Robert found Miss Smith attractive enough to dally in Sunderland rather longer than he intended. Soon it was announced that the couple were to marry. But there was an obstacle, at least so far as Sir Robert was concerned. Jane Smith declared that she loved Herrington House so much that she “would never leave the house so long as it stood”. She also refused to hand over the vast store of gold that she was widely believed to have stashed away in the house. Sir Robert was a Londoner who wanted to live in London. The impasse caused the wedding day to be put off.

In August 1815, Jane Smith set out on her quarterly tour of her properties to collect the rents due to her and discuss any issues with her tenants. The tour took her away from home for several days as she walked around County Durham – a horse would have cost too much to keep. The house was left in the hands of her sole servant, a maid named Isabella Young.

That night the Herrington blacksmith, John Stonehouse, was awakened at just past midnight. Looking out of his window he saw Herrington House in flames. Alerting his neighbours, Stonehouse ran to the blazing house. He found Isabella lying senseless in the hall, and dragged her out to the safety of the road while the blaze was quenched.

The house was damaged, but saved, while poor Isabella died of her wounds. The gold was missing.

Local gossip soon had it that Sir Robert had taken advantage of his fiancĂ©e’s absence to steal the gold and set fire to the house he detested. Presumably Isabella had seen him, and been beaten about the head to keep her quiet.

Miss Smith would have none of it. She blamed a local man named James Wolfe with whom she had had a long standing dispute over an unpaid bill. Wolfe was put on trial, together with his son George and neighbour John Eden. They were cleared, but only after spending some months in prison.

In due course Miss Smith married Sir Robert, but the marriage did not prove happy. Soon Lady Peat, as Miss Smith now was, came back from London. She quickly became as notorious in Herrington for her miserly ways and odd behaviour as she had been before her marriage. She was strangely able to find an excuse to visit anybody who had a stroke of good luck and always had a plausible excuse to help herself to anything on offer. “Don’t tell Lady Peat”, became a standard response to good fortune.

She died in 1842, leaving her fortune to be divided between her relatives and educational charities.

The ghost that haunts old Herrington House might be expected to be that of Isabella Young, but it is not. It is that of Lady Peat. She appears as she was shortly before her death. Dressed in a long black dress of tatty and patched fabric, she potters slowly about the house and grounds. Some have said she mumbles beneath her breath or grumbles unhappily. Perhaps she had rather more to do with the death of her maid than appeared at the time. Was there some dark secret she wished to cover up in case Sir Robert got to hear about it. We shall never know.

from HAUNTED SUNDERLAND by Rupert Matthews

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