The Dilettante Society on Sophie Hyatt

Illustrations: Lady M and F Dashwood, Christine Dilks
Thursday 12 November 2015
reading time: min, words

"It was the desire for communion with her idol which brought her to Newstead Abbey, where she is said to still walk the grounds today"


Of course, such a title lends a great enigmatic quality for a ghost, but even during her life, the White Lady (or Sophie Hyatt, as she was in fact named) was shrouded in mystery. Both due to her ambiguous origins and her singular, secluded nature. A frail figure with skin so pale it was almost translucent, she was known to have suffered a severe childhood illness which had much debilitated her. She was described as being very small of stature, quite deaf and only able to speak in a whisper, which would rise from her throat in a shriek when she attempted to be more audible. Being deaf and unable to speak in such a time made communication exceptionally difficult, although she would always carry a slate on which to write when necessary.

While her age and heritage are largely unverified, we know she came to Newstead in around 1820, seemingly without family and surviving only on the charity of a distant relative. The main indisputable fact of Hyatt’s life, however, was her adoration of the works and genius of our mad, bad and dangerous to know poet, Lord Byron. It was the desire for communion with her idol which brought her to Newstead Abbey, where she is said to still walk the grounds today.

The Abbey had been sold by Byron in 1818 to an old school friend, Thomas Wildman, and it was not long after that Sophie made her first pilgrimage to the former dwelling place of her Romantic hero. She took up rooms at the nearby Weir Mill Farm and immersed herself in Byron’s Newstead, retracing the steps of her absent poetic hero and seeking out his haunts. The Misk Hills near Annesley Hall was one such site; a trysting spot for Byron and his childhood love, Mary Chaworth, which he immortalised in the poem The Dream as Diadem Hill, owing to the vast outcrop of trees which formed a diadem shape. However, upon her visit, Sophie found the trees had been cut down to discourage the swathes of Byron fans who had also hunted out the area in hope of retreading his steps.

So taken was she with Newstead that when the Wildman family came to visit their Abbey for a few days, she arranged to meet them and rather boldly asked for their patronage. Wary of her peculiar character they, perhaps understandably, denied her, much to her disappointment. Within a few months Sophie left Newstead, possibly due to financial struggles, although it was more likely the shame of her failure to ingratiate herself with the Wildman family. However, Newstead never left her heart and two years later she returned, met again with the Wildman family whom, realising her devotion to Byron, granted her permission to roam the gardens of Newstead Abbey as she pleased.


Said to either dress in entirely black or white, always favouring white for her trips to Newstead, the servants of the Abbey nicknamed Sophie The Little White Lady, and many speculations grew as to what her true affiliation with Newstead was. Some thought her to be a cast-off mistress of Byron’s, while others believed her to be from the Byron family itself. However, both of these relationships she denied. She passed her time wandering the gardens, immersed in her solitude, dreaming of Byron and writing her own poetry. Whether by natural disposition or as a consequence of her physical limitations, Sophie was profoundly shy. Her bonnet was worn so large that she had to peek out to see or be seen and she was known to hide away from approaching strangers, at times even diving into bushes to avoid contact.

Unfortunately for Sophie, this time spent in blissful contemplation would ultimately be short-lived. Suffering from bouts of severe morbidity, in letters she spoke of the effects of such a solitary existence and her fears for her “decaying mental faculties”. Her story took a dramatic turn one September morning in 1825 when she departed her beloved Newstead for what would transpire to be the final time. Sadly, unable to hear the carrier’s warning, she was struck down by a horse and carriage outside The Maypole Inn (situated on Long Row), and died instantly.

The evening previous, Sophie had dropped a sealed package to Mrs Wildman with strict instructions that it must not be opened until the following morning. Sealed within were her private poems, written on her walks, each referring to Byron. She also enclosed a letter in which she alluded with poetic eloquence to her lamentable situation. She conveyed her deep gratitude and described how her days wandering Newstead Abbey had been the best she had ever known, that her only happiness in this world had been her privilege to wander through the domain of Newstead and trace the spots which had been consecrated by the genius of Lord Byron.

Unable to work owing to her disabilities, she had relied on a recently deceased relative for financial support. Now without her benefactor, she was forced to take leave from Newstead Abbey and travel to London to seek help from her brother's widow who resided in America. Upon reading these unexpected revelations, the Wildman’s hastily sent a messenger to find Sophie before she departed, with an offer of free accommodation in the grounds of Newstead for the rest of her days. Alas, the messenger was too late, and he returned to the Abbey only with the sad news of her passing. Colonel Wildman saw to it that her remains be interned at St Mary’s Church, Hucknall, as close to Lord Byron’s final resting place as possible.

Perhaps it was Sophie’s devotion to the Abbey, her immense desire to stay close to Byron’s home, which has kept her spirit trapped in the gardens. The most famous sighting was by Washington Irving, the author of Sleepy Hollow, who retold his experience in a manuscript entitled Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey. On visiting the Abbey in the mid-nineteenth century, he reportedly saw a white, dainty “fairy-like” figure in one of the gardens, appearing in a shimmer and then expiring instantly. The path is now known as White Lady’s Walk after further accounts of an ethereal white form drifting through the spot have been recounted since.

Several other spirits are said to haunt the grounds of the beautifully ravaged, enthrallingly historic Newstead Abbey, and the charming gardens are perfect for a contemplative winter wander, ghosts or none. Should you take a visit, spare a thought for the lonely life of Sophie Hyatt and perhaps you will see a glimpse of the figure slipping through the pathways, still trapped in her isolation and forever bound with the story of the Abbey and her cherished poet.

The Dilettante Society Meeting, Crown Inn, Beeston, Monday 16 November, 7.30pm, free. All welcome – the more the merrier. 

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