In the eighteenth century, Building or Beyldon Hill had an eerie reputation. In 1767, during a lawsuit against a man called John Thornhill, a woman deposed ‘that her father went to the hill one night … and saw a “waugh”’. More phonetically spelled ‘waff’, this was the wraith of a living person, which would appear shortly before his or her death.
John Wesley (1703–91), the founder of Methodism, left in his journal an account of another appearance on Building Hill. He was told of it by a young woman named Elizabeth Hobson, born in Sunderland in 1744. From conversations with her in May 1768, he learned that, from her childhood, she had seen the waffs of neighbours shortly before they died, and in April the previous year had seen that of her brother John who had died in Jamaica. By his death she became entitled to a house left them by her grandfather, John Hobson, ‘an exceeding wicked man’. Though she had employed an attorney to recover it from her aunts, they resolutely clung on, so that in December she had given it up. Three or four nights afterwards, her grandfather appeared to her and said if she gave the house up, he would never rest, and she must get an attorney from Durham who would recover it for her. ‘His voice was loud, and so hollow and deep that every word went through me. His lips did not move at all (nor did his eyes), but the sound seemed to rise out of the floor.’
Despite this, she did nothing, and one midnight in January he came again, and kept up regular appearances for about three weeks. ‘All this time he seemed angry, and sometimes his look was quite horrid and furious.’ Sometimes he would pull off the bedclothes, and eventually, worn out by his visits and ‘having taken much cold’, she went to Durham and hired another attorney. Still nothing happened and the ghost continued appearing. Elizabeth’s conversations with Wesley ended with her saying that, one Friday, she saw the waff of an aunt against whom her grandfather had warned her, and on the Saturday heard she was dead.
This seemed to resolve the matter, for now a friend of Wesley’s takes up the story. Having already told Wesley that Elizabeth had got the house, he wrote to him in July to say that, on the very same night that she got possession, her grandfather appeared again and said she must meet him on Beyldon Hill the next Thursday just before midnight. ‘You will see many appearances, who will call you to come to them; but do not stir, neither give them any answer,’ he warned. She asked if friends might come with her. He answered, ‘They may; but they must not be present when I come.’
Wesley’s friend was one of a group of twelve who met at a house about a quarter of a mile (400 m) from the hill and spent some time in prayer. Then six of them, including himself, went on with Elizabeth to the hill, leaving the rest to pray for them.
We came thither a little before twelve, and then stood at a small distance from her. It being a fine night we kept her in sight, and spent the time in prayer. She stood there till a few minutes after one. When we saw her move, we went to meet her. She said, ‘Thank God, it is all over and done.’
She had followed her grandfather’s instructions regarding the apparitions, and when he himself appeared he remarked, ‘You are come well fortified.’ He explained to her why he could take his leave on the hill, and not in the house, without ‘taking something from her’. But, he said, if she told this to anyone, he would trouble her as long as she lived. ‘He then bid her farewell, waved his hand, and disappeared.’
Presumably Elizabeth kept his secret, as Wesley does not explain either.
‘Vulgar tradition has it,’ says William Brockie, writing in 1886, ‘that Mr Wesley went out himself to Beyldon Hill, and laid the Ghost’, but Wesley makes it plain that he was not present. Whereas some writers refer to what happened as an exorcism, it is also clear that, while Elizabeth was protected by the prayers of the twelve (‘You are come well fortified’), the ghost was not dismissed.
In the nineteenth century, people believed the ghost still ‘walked’. Brockie reports that ‘an intelligent middle-aged lady tells me that she remembers quite well how, when she was a young girl, the people used to go out to the hill at midnight to see the ghost’.