The Grade I listed ruin of Hylton Castle, seat of the Hylton (previously Hilton) family was built by Sir William Hylton (1376–1435) shortly after 1390. This small four storey gatehouse styled castle, replaced the earlier wooden fortification of Henry de Hilton, which had been built on this site around 1072. Now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, Hylton Castle had a reputation of being haunted and was associated with the ghost of Roger (or Robert) Skelton, known locally as the ‘Cauld Lad’ of Hylton. The following account of this haunting appeared in ‘The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain’ by John Ingram (1897).
Formerly the homes of nearly every Scottish, and of many English, families of importance were haunted by domestic spirits known as “Brownies.” Hilton Castle, once one of the most magnificent dwellings in the north of England, but now hastening to decay, among other weird inhabitants was a long while, perchance still is, frequented by a Brownie, popularly known as the “Cauld Lad of Hilton.” As a rule, these domestic spectres appear to have taken up their abode in any suitable dwelling, without the usual precedent of a crime, as is the case with a ghost or apparition of the ordinary type, and to have generally employed themselves for the benefit of the household. The antiquary Surtees, in his History of Durham, assumes the being that haunted Hilton Castle to have been one of these somewhat commonplace spirits, and although there are other more eerie stories of the Cold Lad, it will be as well to give the historian’s account first.
The Cauld Lad, he says, was seldom seen, but was heard nightly by the servants, who slept in the great hall. If the kitchen were left in perfect order, they heard him amusing himself by breaking plates and dishes, hurling the pewter in all directions, and throwing everything into confusion. If, on the contrary, the apartment had been left in disarray, a practice which the servants found it most prudent to adopt, the indefatigable goblin arranged everything with the greatest precision. This poor spirit, whose pranks were never of a dangerous or hurtful character, was at length banished from his haunts by the usual and universally known expedient of presenting him with a suit of clothes. A green cloak and hood were laid before the kitchen fire, and the domestics sat up watching at a prudent distance. At twelve o’clock the sprite glided gently in, stood by the glowing embers, and surveyed the garments provided for him very attentively, tried them on, and seemed delighted with his appearance in them, frisking about for some time and cutting several somersaults, till, on hearing the first cock-crow, he twitched his mantle about him and disappeared with the malediction usually adopted on such occasions:
Although this spirit was thus summarily disposed of by the historian, the inhabitants of Hilton and its vicinity for many generations continued to believe in its frequent reappearance, and over the glowing embers told wonderful tales of its deeds. So strange were its doings at times, and so frequent its apparition, that it was difficult to retain the domestics in the castle. Among other stories told of the terror with which it contrived to imbue the minds of the servants, is one of a dairymaid who was too fond of helping herself to the richest cream the pantry afforded. One day, as this not over scrupulous young woman was taking her usual sips from the various pans, the Cauld Lad suddenly addressed her from some invisible vantage-ground, “Ye taste, and ye taste, and ye taste, but ye never gie the Cauld Lad a taste!” On hearing this appalling accusation, the affrighted maid dropped the spoon on the ground, rushed out of the place, and could never be induced to enter it again.
The local tradition of the “Cold Lad,” more closely assimilates his nature to that of any ordinary ghost or apparition, and in no way to the Brownie of our fore-fathers. The popular idea is that a lad, a domestic of the house, was cruelly ill-treated and kept confined in a cupboard, and the cupboard is, or was quite recently, pointed out by the guide who shows visitors over the house, as “the place where they used to put the Cold Lad.” He is supposed to have received the suggestively awesome name of the “Cold Lad,” from his stiff and stark form having been discovered in the cupboard.
Surtees endeavours to explain the origin of this ancient legend by reference to a murder of Roger Skelton, apparently a servant, by his master, Robert Hilton, of Hilton, on the 3rd July 1609. Hilton was found guilty of having killed Skelton, but received a pardon some few months after his conviction. According to the old tale, the lord of Hilton one day, in a fit of wrath or intemperance, enraged at the delay in bringing his horse after he had ordered it, rushed to the stable, and finding the boy, whose duty it was to have brought the horse, loitering about, he seized a hay-fork, and struck him with it. Intentionally or not, he had given the lad a mortal blow. The tale proceeds to tell how the murderer covered his victim with straw until night-time, when he took the body and flung it into the pond, where, indeed, the skeleton was discovered in the last Lord of Hilton’s time.
With such ghastly and such ghostly traditions connected with it, it is no wonder that Hilton Castle is a haunted place.
The killing of Skelton is usually attributed to Sir Robert Hylton (de jure 13th Baron Hylton) (Died 1641), brother of the ‘Mad Baron’, Henry Hylton, de jure* 12th Baron Hylton (1586 – 30 March 1641). Sir Robert inherited the title as a minor, aged 13 and was made a Royal Ward. He was placed in the care of Henry Robinson (Born1553 – Died 1616), Bishop of Carlisle, and the estate of Hylton was managed by Sir Richard Wortley, who’s daughter, Mary Wortley became Henry’s wife (though probably not by choice as they did not live together or consumate the marriage). Henry instead went to Billingshurst in Sussex to live with his cousin Nathaniel Hylton. Later he lived with Lady Shelley (who was named as his excutrix in his will) in Michaelgrove. I am not sure where Robert, his brother was brought up. Presumably though he must have been at Hylton in 1609 to committ the murder.
In 1641 the estate of Hylton was occupied by Scots as part of the Bishops Wars, which, coupled with th efact he had no children, may have been one of th ereasons he left the majority of his estate to the Corporation of London for charitable use, on a ninety nine year lease. The title passed to Robert and the estate was eventually reclaimed by John Hylton, de jure 15th Baron Hylton (1628–1670), Henry’s nephew.
The Hylton Castle known by Roger Skelton and Robert Hylton was changed significantly in the 18th century when it was gutted and remodelled by John Hylton (Died 1712), son of Henry Hylton, de jure 16th Baron Hylton (Born 1637 – Died 1712). Further additions were made by John Hylton, de jure 18th Baron Hylton (Baptised 27 April 1699 – Died 25 September 1746), Member of Parliament for Carlisle.
Hylton Castle passed to Sir Richard Musgrave following the death of John Hylton in 1746 and was sold in 1749 to Lady Bowes of Streatlam. (The mother of the ‘Mad Baron’ Henry Hylton, de jure 12th Baron Hylton had been Anne Hylton née Bowes, daughter of Sir George Bowes of Streatlam Castle).
In 1812 it was leased by Simon Temple after a long period of disuse and deteriation. By 1819 it was lived in by Mr Thomas Wade. Between 1834 and 1840 it was unoccupied and for a short time in 1841 housed the Hylton Castle Boarding School of Rev John Wood, but it was empty and partly boarded up by 1842. Whilst being lived in by Mr. Maclaren, a farmer, Hylton castle set on fire and in 1862 it was sold to William Briggs a ship builder who again set about a series of major renovations. It passed down the Briggs family until 1908 when it was sold to Wearmouth Coal Company and eventually becoming the property of the National Coal Board. Following vandalism and exetensive decay Hylton Castle was taken by the Ministry of Works in 1950 and has now been owned by English Heritage since 1984.
*The Hyltons were not technically peers as no Barons Hylton had been called to Parliament since Alexander Hylton, 2nd Baron Hylton (Died 1360).