Ghosts of Victorian Newcastle
Written by Icy Sedgwick, host of the Fabulous Folklore podcast
Warning, this post contains references to suicide, depression and death.
While the Laing Art Gallery contains many art treasures, two of its paintings have long caught my eye. ‘The Quayside’ and ‘Grainger Street’ by Arthur Edmund Grimshaw and Louis Hubbard Grimshaw, respectively depict familiar parts of Newcastle, yet from a bygone age. The artists were brothers, the artist sons of Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw. Arthur was born in 1864 and died in 1913. He was a composer, organist and conductor as well as an artist. Louis was born in 1870 and died in 1943. Louis swapped painting for cartography in 1905. Both artists specialised in the same atmospheric cityscapes as their father, and in capturing the ethereal nature of a city by night. This is a city of ghosts and phantoms, you see. Would you expect anything less from a city with two thousand years of history?
We begin our ghostly sojourn into the works for these brothers with ‘The Quayside,’ by Arthur Edmund Grimshaw, who painted this fog-soaked evening view of Newcastle’s Quayside in 1895. It depicts the Swing and High Level Bridges, but the Tyne Bridge is still some thirty years in the future. Light spills from the windows onto the wet streets and it’s not hard to imagine ghostly shades passing along the cobbles or peering out towards the river. Indeed, according to one Tyneside legend, King Charles I himself paces up and down on the Quayside, anxiously watching for the escape vessel that will never take him to safety. He was held prisoner in the city for eight months in 1646 and 1647 during the English Civil War, and if you believe the stories, he made an escape attempt down the Lort Burn, where we now find Dean Street.
Yet it is not the shade of a King with which we’d concern ourselves now. If you imagine yourself in this painting and turn around, you’d walk along the Quayside until you turned left into Broad Chare, now the home of the Live Theatre, the Broad Chare pub and the Head of Steam. You’ll also find Trinity House near Dog Bank. Trinity House finds its roots in the charitable guild formed by seafarers in the 15th century, set up to support both those involved in the maritime industry and their dependents. The guild became an incorporated company in 1536, when they also received a royal charter from Henry VIII.
By the 19th century, its courtyard had almshouses where mariners and their dependents could take rooms, and it was one of those rooms that a seamen’s widow named Martha Wilson called home. By all accounts, poor Martha lived a life plagued by depression known as melancholy, and she threatened to take her own life on more than one occasion. She was last seen alive on 13 April 1817, when she went out to buy tobacco. Two days later, she was found hanging in her room. In a poignant twist, her prayer book lay open on her bed, as if she’d been taking comfort in it moments before.
Since suicide was deemed an insult to God at the time, the church refused to bury suicides in consecrated ground. The common practice was to bury them at a crossroads, though the reasons for this differ. Some believe it was so that the parishes bounding the crossroads could share the burial costs. Others think the crossroads confused the deceased’s ghost and prevented it from making its way home. For whatever the reason, the parish officers buried Martha at the crossroads near Ridley Villas on New Bridge Street, which stands near the Northumbria University buildings. She has the dubious honour of being the last suicide to be buried in such a fashion in Newcastle. A crowd turned out to watch the burial, described as “a large concourse of people” by one newspaper at the time.
Soon after her burial, people began to report hearing strange sounds near Broad Chare. Apparently, it sounded like the rustle of a woman’s dress, and others heard a woman chuckle. A Keelman heading home for the night saw a woman across the road. She lifted her veil and motioned for him to come closer. The Keelman crossed the road to see who she was. When he drew close enough to peer beneath her veil, he realised he couldn’t see her face because she was headless. If we believe reports from the 1860s, excavations near Ridley Villas disturbed human remains. The coroner investigated and reported that a piece of wood was part of the remains, as though the body had been staked into place. This was also sometimes part of crossroads folklore, as they sought to prevent a suicide from rising from their grave.
Yet it provides a sad end for Martha Wilson, already tormented enough in life. Due to the rustling sounds people attribute to fabric, she’s sometimes known as the Broad Chare Silky. So, if you find yourself in the area at night and you hear rustling behind you, then you would do well to keep walking, for who knows who you might encounter should you turn around?
We move now from the Quayside to the bright lights of the city centre, and the view of Grainger Street painted by Louis Hubbard Grimshaw in 1902. The Grainger Street view is little changed and modern viewers will have no trouble recognising the architecture. Only the low smog, streetlamps, and horse-drawn transportation give the game away that this is a view of an earlier Newcastle. Much as we find in his brother’s painting of the Quayside, the view of Grainger Street captures the wet pavements that glisten beneath the warm lamplight, and they also capture the eerie glow of the smog-bound sky.
Perhaps the most recognisable features of the painting are Grey’s Monument and the dome of the Central Exchange building. Built by Richard Grainger, the Exchange was finished in 1838. Grainger originally intended the building to be a corn exchange, but due to ongoing debates with the city authorities, it never came to pass.
After being gutted by a fire, it became a newsroom, exhibition space and art gallery in 1870. By 1892, the Central Exchange Hotel and the Central Exchange Newsroom occupied the building, offering leisure space for wealthy ladies and gentlemen who could afford a private club. It even featured a concert hall that could sit 1000 people, which seems difficult to believe now. Another fire gutted the newsroom portion of the building, though the hotel survived. Its current ceramic tiles and mosaic floor date to its last refurbishment, and it opened again in 1906.
J.G. Windows now occupies the old hotel site, and it is within the store that many ghost stories seem to occur. Staff have reported feeling a presence when they otherwise appear to be alone, particularly in the basement and the staff rooms directly above. Items move around the room of their own accord, with CDs even thrown from the shelves, while a mystery person taps customers on the shoulder while they browse. Elsewhere, staff have seen shadowy figures and a spectre dressed as a female servant that walks through the wall. They’ve also even heard disembodied voices in empty rooms and phantom footsteps on the stairs to the basement — so-called phantom footsteps since they run past those using the stairs, though witnesses cannot see anyone in the stairwell. Other people have reported hearing footsteps on a staircase that no longer exists, having been removed during remodelling work.
Some of these sound like residual hauntings, where ghosts continue to play out their lives completely oblivious to to the fact that time has moved on without them. Yet others involve interactions with the living and the store environment. The most popular theory for the disturbances relates to the specific part of the shop in which most encounters happen. When the hotel occupied the site, the lift was in the area that now sees the most activity. According to the story, a young unmarried woman worked at the hotel as a waitress. She realised she was pregnant, but having no husband, realised that she would lose her job and, in all likelihood, her friends and family. Facing a future as an outcast in poverty she threw herself down the lift shaft. If true, it is sad that her end has passed into history, but not her name.
Yet perhaps the most chilling of the Central Arcade ghosts is the spectral man that passed through the Arcade in the 1980s, apparently bleeding from his eyes, mouth and head. He would gesture with his outstretched arms, before vanishing at the Grey Street exit. Some people theorise that the bleeding man may be a bank worker who was brutally beaten to death for the bank’s takings. He hasn’t been seen for many years, and legends are at a loss to explain where ghosts go when they disappear.
It is a testament to the talent of the Grimshaw brothers that they could capture so much atmosphere in their work, and it is easy to imagine the shade of Martha Wilson patrolling the Quayside, or a lonely waitress pondering her future in the Central Exchange building. Perhaps one day these sad spirits will find solace in the warm lights in their paintings, instead of feeling cast adrift on the rain-slicked streets beneath a sky bound by smog.
If you would like to get to know more about the spectres of the Quayside, Grainger Street and other famous sites around this ancient city of ours and find out exactly why we have such a fascination with ghost stories at Christmas, Icy is hosting The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present: The Spectres Haunting Newcastle’s Streets at Discovery Museum on Tuesday 20 December 2022. Buy tickets here.