A powerful odour, an eerie shadow, but no sight of the macabre matelot in Middlesbrough Town Hall.

OSCAR NEVIN was a drunken sailor. Whatever they may have done with him, he saved them the trouble by committing suicide in his black-stinking police cell beneath Middlesbrough Town Hall.

Since the unfortunate Oscar was almost certainly no oil painting, those who throughout this rather lengthy column suggest that the poor chap hung himself have pedantically and peremptorily been subedited.

They meant hanged.

His ghost is said still to sail the town hall corridors, his and that of a Victorian lady who may perhaps have fallen from the balcony. Some claim many more.

It’s why I spent a long Saturday night with a team of ghost hunters – Spirit Seekers – in search of old Oscar. We were joined by Richard Felix, former star of television’s Most Haunted programme and a man who readily admits to making a good living from the dead.

“We got more viewers than The Simpsons,” he insisted.

Two things should be said without further ado, however, firstly that throughout the watching, witching hours there appeared – to me – to be no sight, sound nor feel of the macabre matelot, though smell could be different.

Perhaps because of all that grog, it’s possible that Oscar remains remarkably flatulent. Either that or the feller in front persistently kept breaking wind.

The second thing is that the guys behind the evening – including Richard Felix – seem commendably honest, anxious to rule out every other possibility before declaring a return to paranormality.

“Eight out of ten things that happen can be explained,” says Richard.

“I can’t even guarantee that anything paranormal will happen. If it does, please try to stay calm.”

Middlesbrough’s night life being what it is, of course, it’s possible that Oscar and the Victorian lady have simply gone out on the razz and may in every sense have missed nothing.

A long night? Meetings of the municipal parks and cemeteries subcommittee may have been more exciting than much of this.

SPIRIT Seekers had been mentioned in the At Your Service column a few months back, at the time planning a vigil at the former Methodist church in Saltburn that is now the town’s theatre.

“You sounded sceptical,” said Karl McGahern, one of two Middlesbrough lads running Spirit Seekers commercially in the North-East.

Too true. In the insubstantial matter of spirits, I’m with old Scrooge who supposed Jacob Marley’s unseasonal reappearance to be nothing more than a bit of beef playing havoc with his digestion.

We all know what happened next, of course.

It’s coming up 7pm, a plaque outside the Gothic-grand town hall announcing that it was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1889, the posters advertising Saw Dogs, Circus of Horrors and the ghost hunt. The last two are probably not synonymous.

It’s huge and echoing, a place in which it’s very easy to get lost. I’ve been there a few times – a couple of beer festivals, one or two shows – but it’s not what you’d call an old haunt.

Oscar’s said quite regularly to have been seen hanging around – the phrase is perhaps unfortunate – though Middlesbrough is reputed to have many ghosts, including those of what are called working girls.

“Poltergeists,” says the Haunted Middlesbrough website. They’ve been called much worse.

The gathering of 50 or so is mainly young, mainly female. One woman is clearly drunk. Admission’s £40.

Richard Felix is dressed casually, like he’s had a day in the garden. He’s selling DVDs and The Big Book of Ghosts (or some such). There’s a brick on the table; I forget what for.

Karl’s joined by his mate Mark Spayne, wearing what Boro boys call a bouncer coat. Perhaps he’s expecting the night to turn chilly.

Kath Bevington worked at the town hall 20 years ago, reckons she saw something distinctly unexplained at 4pm one New Year’s Eve, the occasion of the staff party.

“It was a blue form at the end of the passage near the ladies’ toilets. It had an eerie glow and a strange shape I couldn’t make out,” she says.

“It moved in a strange way and then sort of floated off. At first I thought it might have been a man looking into the ladies’ toilets; I’ve come back to see if he’s still here.”

Karl introduces himself as might a member of Alcoholics Anonymous: “My name is Karl, I’m a paranormal investigator.”

Some have brought electro-magnetic field detectors, some thermometers, some torches. Richard has his dowsing crystal.

The wise have brought their sandwiches.

It’s not due to finish until 3am.

RICHARD’S the warm-up man, if ghosts may be so reinvigorated.

“I have no proof at all that they exist,” he says, but tells the tale – “the most famous ghost story in the world” – of 18-year-old Harry McDonald, working in 1953 at the Treasurer’s House in York when he saw a 4ft Roman solder without legs march through the wall.

The soldier was followed by 20 more, similarly truncated. How they managed to march without legs isn’t properly explained but, speaking of legless, the inebriated lady is being ignominiously outed by security.

Richard’s staying at a Travelodge, on the site of an old Middlesbrough hospital. The waitress told him she’d seen the matron sitting on a hotel bed, he says.

The upshot is that he supposes some ghosts don’t know they’re dead, and that others have died but, faced with the hellish consequences of an intemperate lifestyle, decide to stay put.

“An awful lot of ghosts are still here because they’re terrified of moving on,” he says.

The first of many breaks, coffee and crisps, comes after just 45 minutes.

It’s tempting to say that it’s dead.

WE’VE split into groups. Ours is initially on the stage trying to invoke resident spirits to play to the audience. “All theatres are haunted,” says Richard.

It’s a bit like Can You Hear Me, Mother – only without Sandy Powell.

None responds. “Can you touch one of us?” asks Mark.

“Sod that for a lark,” someone whispers.

“We don’t mean you any harm.

We’re only here to help you,” says Mark.

The temperature rises, however, when unexplained noises are heard backstage and a door is mysteriously opened.

“Oh my God,” someone screams – so much for trying to stay calm – though the mercury falls again when it’s revealed to be another group, manifestly corporeal but temporarily disoriented.

Another lady uses a word that shouldn’t be addressed to anyone, much less a ghost.

“As I told you,” says Richard, cheerfully, “eight out of ten can be explained.”

There’s an invitation to the spirits to join us on stage – it’s getting like Crackerjack, or possibly Hi-de-hi – while someone else says he can see a mystic orb up near the ceiling, said to be a manifestation of paranormal presence.

Richard’s again the sceptic. Dust to dust, he says, or probably would have done if he’d thought of it first.

We’re next down to the cells, still intact but used by a costume company.

The lights are out; we’re cheek by jowl in the cell where Oscar may have cast off into the unknown. “I can feel a tightening round my neck,” a man insists.

Richard appears to be growing anxious, nonetheless. “Oscar, you must be really bored down here, really fed up. I only want to help you.”

After a few moments he’s trying again. “I feel we know one another now,” says Richard, a view withwhich Oscar’s ghost may not entirely agree.

Mark says that his group is getting the smell of toffee apples – they talk like that at real ale tastings – someone else discerns the sound of running water.

“Is that Oscar urinating in the corner?”

wonders a voice in the darkness.

He may or may not have been joking.

Richard’s entertaining his audience.

“I’m only here because I’m getting paid,” he says. “If Oscar appears I’m out of it.”

We’re moving off to the Spooky Corridor when something really does go bump in the night. It’s Richard, falling over a step.

“S**t,” he says, and continues.

THE Spooky Corridor isn’t even the Corridor of Uncertainty. I volunteer to sit alone at the end. Nothing happens. Anyone who says they’re seeing things is seeing things.

None does, to be fair, though there’s a lady who reckons she once saw the ghost of a rat. Most of us have smelled a few.

“We’re not going until we’ve heard something,” says Mark, and on that basis may be sitting down there still.

Next we’re somewhere else in the basement, where Mark sits behind a solitary candle. He’s finally taken off his coat. “I’m going to put myself in a bit of a trance,” he announces.

It’s something to do with ectoplasm, apparently, the candlelight said to transfigure the features like a first form pinhole camera. Others take a turn.

“Sue’s face is changing, she looks 80,” says someone, excitedly.

It’s hard to know what to say – to ghost write – about something like that, but Mr Felix’s reaction when falling up the stairs comes quite forcibly to mind.

AT midnight we’re in a small room much higher in the town hall for what properly is called divination, and more colloquially is a ouija board.

Below the window there’s a strong counter-attraction: Middlesbrough’s own night life is scantily unfolding.

“Look at her with the bra on her head,” someone says.

“What’s he going to do with that umbrella?” asks another.

Whatever else they’re in danger of turning into, it isn’t a pumpkin. (The pumpkin, incidentally, appears still to be at it.) The ouija boarders are again trying to make contact with Oscar – not much of a lie-in for that poor chap, not even now it’s Sunday morning – or, failing that, any other spirit which might be on the back shift.

When my own finger’s on the glass it’s as still as the grave. When it’s left to others’ devices it starts dashing about like a bluebottle in a jam jar.

The spirits are endlessly being invoked, but since tumblers can’t speak, it’s become a sort of Yes-No Interlude from the early television quiz Take Your Pick, save that there’s no bald bloke with glasses and a gong.

The ghost’s response may (or may not) be convincing. The electro-magnetic thingery’s woken up a bit, the estimate’s that there are between 15 and 20 spirits in the room. Mark’s urging them on.

“You’re doing well, keep it going…That was absolutely brilliant, can you do it again for us… That’s it, well done, just a little bit more.”

It sounds for all the world like a proud dad trying to teach his nipper how to ride a bike, and finally getting shot of the stabilisers.

The glass is spinning like a Beatles LP. Someone says they heard a lady singing earlier. “Can you do it again for us?” asks Mark.

It’s all about shared energy, apparently, like one of those party lines on Sixties telephones. The electro thingery’s stirring again, but that could be vibes from the Hairy Lemon down below. It’s also divined that Oscar did the deed in cell three, thus at odds with Richard’s dowsing crystal which plumped for cell one.

Personally, I’m inclined to ask Oscar to declaim Henry V’s soliloquy before the Battle of Agincourt; Mark says that any aural evidence of his presence will suffice.

Oscar’s still saying nowt.

Richard Felix is due to leave at 2am, the rest at three. Still sceptical, I bale out at 1am, the lady of the house as ever waiting patiently outside.

If she says I look like I’ve seen a ghost, I’ll scream.

■ Spirit Seekers operate ghost hunts throughout the North- East. More information on spiritseekers.info