It’s Sunday night, I’m around four or five years old and living in Willenhall in the early 1990s. My eldest brother Ray had not long started at Whitley Abbey, the local secondary school. He came home from his first few days full of stories about the White Woman – also known as, to my then young ears, the much scarier White Witch.

Baths done and pyjamas on, me and my three older siblings were getting ready for bed with Ray assigned to tell us a bedtime story. He chose one about the witch. I don’t remember the full details of it, due to being so young, but I remember being terrified and running out of the room screaming the house down.

Mum wasn’t happy, and Ray went to bed with a flea in his ear. The next few years the tale of the White Woman became legend in our house – we all remembered the night we had the living daylights scared out of us.

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But it wasn’t just us – from talking to classmates who also had older siblings at Whitley, the story of the White Woman was well-known, an infamous local ghost story. My early memories of the tale involve being petrified of Whitley Woods and nearby Whitley Abbey Secondary, a school built in the 1950s on the grounds of a manor house of the same name.

It was said the witch roamed these two places, ghostly and malevolent all in white. I remember trying to prove my bravery by going to the woods with my older brother and his friends.

To a six or seven-year-old playing out with an older sibling felt incredibly daring and magical, but the minute we entered the woods, the sunny day would become dark and gloomy, with shadows at every turn. A rope hanging from a branch would take on a sinister air, despite only ever being used as a swing.

A small swamp with algae covering the surface became a perfect place for a murderer to hide victims. And then there was the Seven Steps.

The Seven Steps were essentially bricks or slabs of stone on a sloped part on the edge of the wood which if you tried really hard and used your imagination, you could trick yourself into believing looked look like a rudimentary staircase. According to the older kids I played with this was the pathway into the White Woman’s lair. It was basically, to our young minds, a stairway to hell – or the Devil’s Dungeon, as some called it.

Some thought she was buried beneath the Seven Steps and appeared two days a year – her birthday and the day she died. As no one knew when those dates were, she could feasibly appear at anytime.

Rumour had it, you could summon her if you said her name a certain amount of times at the top of the steps and she would come and do something ghastly. One of the grizzlier pieces of folklore was that two boys from the school had done just that some years earlier – the witch had come up and sent one of the boys crazy, driving him to stab his friend dead.

Like all good stories, the gruesome tale sadly had some truth to it. A pupil was stabbed 26 times by another just outside the woods in February 1983. Reports from the time make no mention of the White Woman, and it wasn’t mentioned at a subsequent court case which saw a 15-year-old jailed for manslaughter.

But these facts didn’t stop it from becoming part of the White Woman legend. By the time my siblings attended the school in the 1990s, enough years had passed for the truth to become muddied.

Who was the White Woman?

The legend I was told back in the 90s was this: alive, the White Woman had simply been a girl in love, desperate to get married. She lived at Whitley Abbey, a manor house dating back to the 1600s which preceded the school we now know of the same name. Despite its title, the abbey was not a monastery of any kind – just a very large house.

Large enough for a young, desperately unhappy girl to jump from after her father, the lord of the manor, refused to let her marry her lover whom he had forced to flee. Apparently distraught at her dad’s cruelty, on the day they were supposed to marry, she put on her wedding dress, climbed to the highest point of the house, and flung herself from the top to her death.

But in her distressed and delirious state, her spirit did not leave this world, but lingered still in her wedding dress in search of her lost love. According to local legend, she lingers still, trying to find him.

But this is just one version, and sounds like something from an old horror film – as stories get told and retold new bits get added and older (and perhaps truer) bits get left out leaving a completely new story with just the bare bones remaining.

Other explanations are more likely to be closer to the truth, such as one which is much less dramatic but includes some of the same details. The White Woman was the daughter of the the lord of manor and she fell down the stairs and broke her neck, her ghost remaining in the area after her death.

In the 1990s it was rumoured she could be seen floating across the bridge on the pond in the middle of Whitley Abbey school grounds or down the corridor of the art block. There were several alleged sightings from pupils in the 90s and there was something akin to hysteria among the student population – some of whom went home to tell tale to younger siblings, transferring the panic to young minds with overactive imaginations.

In recent years the hysteria is gone, and the telling and retelling of the legend has become something of the past. My niece is 15 and in Year 10 at Whitley, and she says it is no longer a point of discussion. This could be for several reasons. It used to be commonplace for secondary school pupils to leave the premises on lunch breaks, and many Whitley pupils spent time in the woods or the adjacent fields where no doubt ghost stories were spread and further embellished.

Furthermore Whitley Woods is now fenced off and much less accessible for pupils even if they were permitted to leave the grounds on lunch breaks. I would also imagine staff from the school would have been keen to stamp the legend out, year by year, and dismiss talk of a tale which would have been at the very least a distraction for hundreds of school kids through the decades.

But just because it has left the lips of local kids, it doesn’t mean the White Woman has disappeared. Whitley is known for ghost stories and is said to be one of the most haunted areas in the West Midlands.

A manor the size of Whitley Abbey is likely to have had its own church and graveyard, and if a daughter of the house died it is entirely possible she was buried close by, her remains possibly still beneath the earth to this day. But even if it is feasible her bones remain, does her spirit really still roam the area?

Do you have memories of the White Woman? Do you know who she was or know someone who ever saw her? Contact danny.thompson@reachplc.com if so.





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