W. Hylton Dyer Longstaffe, in his History … of Darlington (1854), says that his former residence at Thirsk had a White Lady attached to a nearby stream. This stream indeed took its name from the haunt and was known as the White-lass-beck.
Longstaffe says that, like the spirit haunting GLASSENSIKES, Co. Durham, the ‘White-lass’ was a shape-shifter:
… turning into a white dog, and an ugly animal which comes rattling into the town with a tremendous clitter-my-clatter, and is there styled a barguest. Occasionally, too, she turns into a genuine lady of flesh and blood, tumbling over a stile.
Longstaffe also gives the local explanation of the haunt, saying, ‘The Thirsk maid was murdered; and, some years ago, when a skeleton was dug up in a gravel pit near the beck, it was at once said to be that of the poor girl.’
Although in later folklore very often accounted for by traditions of murders and suicides as ordinary revenants or ghosts, neither shape-shifting bogey beasts (see BRIGG, Lincolnshire) nor White Ladies needed explanation: they appear earlier to have been independent spirits.
The ‘White-lass’ was not the only apparition haunting the neighbourhood of Thirsk. The Revd Sabine Baring-Gould, in his Yorkshire Oddities (1874), retails an eyewitness account of an apparition seen by an old farmer nicknamed ‘John Mealyface’, who died at the age of eighty-four in 1868. John told him that he was riding to Thirsk one night, when he suddenly saw a ‘radiant boy’ passing him on a white horse. As he drew near, his horse’s hooves made no sound, and John first became aware of his approach by seeing the shadow of boy and horse cast on the road ahead of him.
Thinking that a carriage with lamps might be approaching, he only became alarmed when, the shadow growing shorter, he realized the light must be close and yet he could hear no sound. At that, he turned in his saddle, just as the boy went by. ‘He was a child of about eleven, with a fresh, bright face.’ The boy continued on his way until he came to a gate leading into a field, when he stooped as if to open it, rode through, and instantly all was dark.
Baring-Gould asked if the boy was wearing clothes and, if so, what they were like, but John Mealyface had not noticed the particulars. This in itself makes his story sound like an account of a genuine experience (on seeing apparitions, people are normally too taken aback to notice details). As for the name ‘radiant boy’, it is not clear if this was what John Mealyface himself called the apparition, or if Baring-Gould applied a term borrowed from other places.
The most celebrated Radiant Boy was one seen by Lord Castlereagh before his suicide (see KNEBWORTH HOUSE, Hertfordshire). After Castlereagh’s death and the subsequent circulation of his story by Sir Walter Scott, Radiant Boys are recorded elsewhere under that name – Chillington Castle, Northumberland, had one ‘till lately’ according to Murray’s Handbook (1873), and so did CORBY CASTLE, Cumberland. However, they seem to have been a traditional form of apparition: Baring-Gould also mentions a boy with a shining face being seen in houses in Lincolnshire and elsewhere.