ANN Allan died of horrific burns in the country villa on the outskirts of Darlington where she had alone lived in eccentric isolation.

She was 86, and her closest relative was the world famous Sir Henry Havelock-Allan MP, a war hero during the Indian Mutiny and a resident of Blackwell Grange.

"Her end has been as mysterious as her life," said The Northern Echo's obituary of her in 1887.

It also noted: "Her eccentricities were notorious. One of her peculiarities was the maintenance of an extraordinary antique costume which might have been fashionable when George III was king".

Miss Allan lived and died in Wilton House. It was built for her in 1867 and is now a nursing home at the top of Nunnery Lane.

Back then, it was in the countryside and far enough away for her to be out of earshot of the family seat of Blackwell Grange.

An earlier generation of the Allans had counted another Miss Ann Allan among their number, but history has applied to her the epithet "the Good Miss Allan" because of her charity work. This suggests that the later inhabitant of Wilton House was the bad Miss Allan.

The Northern Echo's obituary perhaps gives a clue. It says she "acquired some degree of notoriety by her high-handed manner in deciding disputes with agents and others which frequently brought her before the courts".

Fabulously wealthy, bizarrely eccentric, remarkably crotchety and living in a timewarp, Miss Allan was a character straight out of Dickens.

She slept with a rope and blunderbuss to hand. The rope was attached to a bell at the top of her house, and she would toll it hard whenever she felt threatened by intruders - be they those intent on robbery or those intent on revenge.

The old gun was there for those who were not scared off by the bell.

The following exchange comes from the inquest into her death: "Dr Piper: She used to sleep in her bedroom with an old blunderbuss, with a muzzle of brass, and half loaded with slugs and shot.

"Coroner Dean: And it would have been a bad job for any person who broke in? "Dr Piper: I think it would have been worse for herself, for it would have burst!"

Miss Allan had good reason to feel afraid. Just six months before her death, the 86-year-old had rung her bell in the middle of the night, alerting servants on Arthur Pease's neighbouring Hummersknott estate, who rushed over and scared off the intruders.

Felons regularly tried to invade her privacy. Sir Henry Havelock Allan told her inquest: "She had two or three times over beaten off attempts to break into her house, and, I think, in every instance she succeeded in convicting the men."

This may have been an oblique reference to the most notorious attempt on her in 1879, when a youth called John Meehan was found guilty of raping her.

For this most heinous of crimes, he was sentenced to 20 years penal servitude.

But, amazingly, in October 1883, a petition was circulating in Darlington demanding that Meehan's sentence be curtailed.

"The prevailing impression in the town is that the youth has already suffered a much longer term of imprisonment than the merits of the case appeared to demand," said the Darlington and Stockton Times.

There is more than a hint in its reports that Miss Allan had invented at least some of the horrible allegations against Meehan.

The petition was signed by 320 people, including a barrister, 20 solicitors, five doctors, seven councillors, five members of the School Board, three newspaper editors and five churchwardens. It was to be presented to the Home Secretary by no less a person than Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease, the town's MP.

Unfortunately, Echo Memories has been unable to discover whether Meehan was shown clemency, but the fact that a petition was supported by so many leading townspeople suggests the way in which Miss Allan was regarded.

No one, though, could have wished upon her the manner of her demise.

On Saturday, May 20, 1887, her charwoman, Mary Ward, of Rise Carr, had broken into Wilton House with Miss Allan's solicitor.

They had been unable to raise her for a couple of days and had spotted signs of a fire in her back room.

She habitually sat with her chairlegs inside the fender, and her hands regularly bore marks where she had burnt herself falling inside the grate.

Once inside Wilton House, Mrs Ward rushed upstairs and "found her laid on the bed, quite naked and in terrible agony from burns on the breast and the body".

It transpired that on the Thursday, Miss Allan had been "sitting over the fire before retiring for the night, her cap strings set on fire; the flames extended to her night dress, but the old lady managed to get to bed". For two days she had writhed in agony, undiscovered.

Dr Piper was called and "she was covered with flour, and stimulants and anodynes were given to her". But he knew immediately that her injuries would prove fatal.

On the Monday, Sir Henry, her second cousin and MP for Sunderland, was summoned from London, but by the time he arrived she was unable to recognise him. She died at 5.30am the following morning.

The inquest was held on the Wednesday, in her dining room.

Sir Henry told the Coroner that he had repeatedly advised her to get some live-in help and warned her - just as Mary Ward had warned her of the dangers of sitting so close to the fire - that she would wind up being found dead.

She always replied to him: "I think it is quite possible that will be so; but I don't choose to have the nuisance of servants about me."

Sir Henry concluded: "In fact, the truth is that she was of such a determined and courageous disposition, and had such self-reliance, that she thought nothing could happen to her."

Naturally, a woman who had caused so much controversy while alive could not go peacefully to the grave, and the inquest was interrupted by an extraordinary family fall-out.

Thomas Grey, whose late wife had been Miss Allan's niece, repeatedly demanded that the Coroner should take evidence from him.

After brushing him aside, the Coroner eventually relented, but as Mr Grey was speaking Sir Henry, the war hero who died in 1897 fighting on the Khyber Pass, fired an extraordinary broadside at him.

"Miss Allan told me that the last time Mr Grey was here," thundered Sir Henry, "he forced his way into the house against her will - this is what she told me - and that she had requested him not to come here again."

Mr Grey countered: "I will treat Sir Henry's remarks with the contempt they deserve."

But the rest of his evidence was never heard, and it was decided that "accidental death" had ended the life of Miss Ann Allan.

The next day, four horses drew her body from Wilton House to Holy Trinity Church. She was placed in the vault built by her late brother, Robert. The Northern Echo noted: "A few yards below lies the body of the late George T Allan who died in 1885 and upon whose memorial stone are cut the words: 'The last scion of the Allan family'."

It was as if, even while she was still alive, the rest of the Allans had written off the black sheep of their family.

In her will, she left most of her possessions to Sir Henry. She was valued at £20,000 - equivalent to just over £1m today.

THE reason Miss Allan features in this week's Echo Memories is that she cropped up in the column last week when, in 1873, she loaned £800 to builder Matthew Armitage, of Bondgate.

The loan was secured on the properties in Cliffe Terrace, in Woodland Road, which he had just built.

Happily, Mr Armitage paid back his loan to Miss Allan in 1875, when he sold No 4 Cliffe Terrace.

TALKING of Woodland Road, one of the great debates among Darlington journalists is whether it should have an s at the end of it.

Until 1869, it was known as Cockerton Lane, but William Cudworth, who lived in the newly-built Upper Thorpe mansion (today on the corner of the Darlington Memorial Hospital site), decided it needed a proper name to signify its new suburban status.

He suggested Woodland Road, even though the nearby mansion was called Woodlands. By the 1890s, an s had crept on to the end of the road name and now, more than a century later, it is still creeping on.

A GAS main was laid down Woodland Road in 1860, and the inhabitants of the area were so concerned about the ghostly characters that they encountered in the road that they demanded that the maximum number of gas lamps be installed to scare the spectres away.

Perhaps they had good reason. For in 1242, a traveller named Thomas Broadhead was brutally murdered by a pauper called Allan Halkerbain in the road.

For centuries afterwards, Thomas was said to haunt the area.

Then, to compound the stories of lurid lurkings in the lane, a young soldier, tired of his unhappy life in the Army, hanged himself from a tree near where Holy Trinity Church was built in 1836.

The soldier's ghost was added to a catalogue of half-seen shapes and semi-heard noises said to emanate from the unlit depths of Woodland Road. But these mysterious movements were dispelled by the advent of the gas lamp.

THANKS to everyone who has been in touch regarding Newton Cap, the subject of Echo Memories three weeks ago.

Next week, we will be returning to the two bridges on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland - and adding a third.

In the meantime, if you can add anything to the above - or have been subject to a haunting in Woodland Road, please write to: Echo Memories, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington DL1 1NF, e-mail or telephone (01325)505062.

Published: 13/02/2002