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Whitby and Wilkie Collins: Part 3 of Psychic Investigator Paul Fitz-George’s Series

In Part 1, Psychic Investigator Paul Fitz-George introduced us to haunted Whitby. In Part 2, he described its influence on Dracula author Bram Stoker. In Part 3 he continues his tour of  “Whitby’s Fascination for the Literati or How Dracula Met the Jabberwockywith how Whitby inspired author Wilkie Collins.

A depiction of The White Wraith - Photo: Paul Fitz-George
A depiction of The White Wraith – Photo: Paul Fitz-George

Wilkie Collins’ (of The Woman in White fame) illustrious footsteps echoed on Whitby’s cobbled streets when he arrived there in August 1861 and it was at Whitby he began to write his novel Armadale.

He did not seek a solitary stay of literary contemplation however and brought with him his lover Caroline Graves, the woman that was his inspiration for the tortured, asylum-bound character Anne Catherick, in the ‘Woman in White’.

Whilst he and Graves stayed at Whitby’s Royal Hotel, the most prestigious there at that time, he wrote to his mother on the 22nd of August about Whitby saying, ‘…this is one of the most magnificent places in England’.  Not for long however, as Whitby was (and still is) a popular seaside resort.  It was with a heavy but not surprising heart then that three weeks later we find him writing to his friend Charles Ward saying, “The noises indoors and out, of this otherwise delightful place (comprising children by hundreds under the windows, and a Brass band hired by the proprietors to play regularly for hours a day for the benefit of his visitors) are keeping me back so seriously with my work that I must either leave Whitby or lose time…”.  Exeunt right (or in this case to the railway station) Willkie Collins and lover from Whitby’s stage.

That might be all we could say about Collins and his association with Whitby, ‘not a ghost in sight!’ I hear you say, save for his fictional white lady.

However, as a result of the research I carried out for my book The Whitby Ghost Book (yes, it’s plug time), I was told by local people about two instances of white, wraith-like apparitions that appeared on the cliff across the road from the Royal Hotel and in the area between the cliff top and the beach below.

The first of these stories was told to me by a nice old chap who as a boy scout in 1905, was enjoying a campfire on the beach below the hotel with his fellow scouts.  He recounted his experience to me in the following words.

‘It was in the evening and suddenly as we looked up to the cliff top, we saw a white misty figure – you couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman – floating down the face of the cliff.  We ran over to the spot where we thought it would land, but it disappeared the instant before it reached the sand.  There was no fog or mist about and to this day we just don’t know what it was’.

Extraordinary?  Yes, but this was not a sighting by one person, it was a mass sighting by several scouts, and no explanation was ever found for what they actually saw.

The next sighting was in the early eighties, this time it was a couple out walking their dog at night in the same spot and they saw more-or-less the same white wraith slowly descend the cliff and vanish before it touched the beach below.  As the wraith vanished the woman turned to her husband to discuss the apparition, only to find that he had vanished also!  Well not vanished actually, she could see him doing an Olympic sprint down the far end of the beach, too scared to stay with her and doggie (brave fellow) and also too scared to ever talk about it again.

The long and sweeping view down Sandsend Beach, the Spa Pavilion lying far off in the distance - Photo: Paul Fitz-George
The long and sweeping view down Sandsend Beach, the Spa Pavilion lying far off in the distance – Photo: Paul Fitz-George

Last but not least as far as Collins is concerned, we have an even-stranger manifestation of this wraith at which I was fortunate enough to be present.

In the late 1980s, I was a member of the local amateur pantomime company called the Apollo Players and we were doing our Christmas pantomime ‘Aladdin’, at the local Whitby Spa Pavilion Theatre.  This was built in the 1870’s and coincidentally, it lies on the west cliff and just below the Royal Hotel.

Well there I was on stage left about to go on as the devastatingly funny (well I thought so) Wishi McWashi, when one of the young girls in the chorus asked me to come with her to look at something strange she had just witnessed and which had given her quite a fright.  We went behind some props in the area where the incident had taken place and she told to me the following story.

‘I was standing here watching the performance, when suddenly a woman all dressed in white came towards me from back stage. I couldn’t make out her face but she was dressed in old-fashioned clothes, like the ones you see in Sutcliffe (a local Victorian photographer that practiced in Whitby) photos.  I thought she was going to say something to me and for some reason I felt a bit frightened when suddenly, she just turned towards that bit of prop against the wall (it was a painted prop panel made of light wood and painted canvas) and vanished into it!’

I saw that she was a bit shaken and reassured her.  Eventually she asked me if I could move the prop aside to see what was behind it, just in case it might give some sort of explanation as to what had just happened.  I was happy to do this and moved the relatively light piece further along the wall.  Well believe you me I was just as surprised as her as when I moved the panel, as when I slid the panel to the side a doorway was revealed behind it, which by the look of it had been bricked up for a very long time.  Anyway, being the troupers we both were, we took the attitude that the show must go on despite this strange event and carried on with our performance.  I did however start using the white wraith’s latest manifestation in my ghost walk from that time on and as I recall it went down very well, especially on particularly dark and misty (these are called a ‘fret’ in Whitby) nights.

Is there a connection with these strange events to Wilkie and Caroline?  Or is it just sheer coincidence, as all the apparitions occurred well after the story’s published date of 1859?  Did he leave some imprint of his genius there that continues to perform over the years (a recoding ghost)?  Or could this be a totally different local apparition of some unfortunate woman (an actress perhaps?) from the area’s Victorian past, who leapt or was pushed to her death off the high cliff and is doomed to go through the same fatal event again and again?

I know not, but feel free to stay at the Royal Hotel and attend a performance in the Spa Pavilion to see if she graces you with an appearance.  Do please let me know however if she does, so that I can update her spectral visitor’s card.

Let us now move from leaping wraiths to rabbit holes as we discuss a writer beloved of children old and young, Lewis Carroll and his sojourn at this supernatural watering hole.

This series will continue in Part 4 with Whitby’s Influence on Lewis Carroll. Stay tuned. If you dare…

The Royal Hotel The Royal Hotel

Situated in Whitby, this hotel is within 1 mi (2 km) of Whitby Pavilion and Whitby Abbey. Whitby Lifeboat Museum and Whitby Beach are also within 5 minutes. Courtesy breakfast. High-speed Internet

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