|Image by Richard Webb|
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many major cities had assembly rooms to provide an elegant location for their high society to gather and enjoy genteel forms of entertainment, such as balls and concerts. They were one of the few public places to which women could gain admittance, although unmarried women would require a chaperone. The assembly rooms of towns such as Bath were immortalised in the fiction of writers such as Jane Austen, where the buildings also hosted "marriage markets" as rich parents sought to marry off their offspring.
Newcastle upon Tyne was no different, and the city's Assembly Rooms are located in a fabulous Georgian building on Westgate Road. Designed by William Newton, they opened in June 1776, on Midsummer's night (surely a magical night, if ever there was one). The inscription on its foundation stone, laid in 1774, reads "Rooms dedicated to the most elegant recreation". Indeed, in the past, the assembly rooms have played host to concerts by Strauss, Liszt and Rachmaninov, and Charles Dickens' amateur theatre group staged three playlets here. Royal visitors have included Edward VII, George VI, and Elizabeth II.
Of course, few buildings of such an age escape having ghost stories, and the Assembly Rooms are no exception. Legend has it that on December 31, 1777, a rowdy group of wealthy patrons were celebrating the New Year. The drink flowed and the behaviour became increasingly bawdy, until one of the young men ordered his wife to dance naked for his boorish friends. This being the eighteenth century, a wife was little more than her husband's property, and she did as he demanded. Sadly the shame and humiliation was too much for her, and she threw herself from the musician's gallery in the ballroom. This might sound a little melodramatic to us, but social standing was everything to the upper classes.
Staff at the Assembly Rooms have heard the rustle of a taffeta ball gown, and the Grey Lady often announces her presence with the scent of lavender. The double doors open and close on their own, but are too heavy to be blown open by a draft. On Halloween in 2000, a radio crew were terrorised by unexplained noises and knockings while trying to record a special on the haunting. Another group of investigators experienced changes in temperature, balls of light that moved on their own, and electronic equipment that turned itself on and off. Research into the identity of the lady has proved fruitless, and there is no way to substantiate the legend, but it would certainly seem that there is a sad lady haunting such an elegant building.