The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, Norfolk

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The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, Norfolk

The following story is reproduced from the book Supernatural England

In the realm of stately home hauntings, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is one of the most famous, with a host of dramatic sightings since her death in 1726.

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

The lady in question is believed to be Dorothy Walpole, sister of Britain's first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole of Houghton Hall, and although those who have encountered her ghost describe its appearance as frightening and even 'malevolent', in life she was a beautiful and charming woman, but whose fondness for pretty clothes verged on the extravagant. This may have led to her serious differences with her husband, the 2nd Marquess Townshend, known as 'Turnip' Townshend, who introduced the vegetable to England and revolutionised crop rotation.

There are different versions of Dorothy's story. Her grandfather was made guardian of Charles Townshend, then 13 years old, and when in due course Dorothy was 15, and Charles 12 years older, he fell deeply in love and wanted to marry her. But Dorothy's father refused to allow it, as he thought he would be accused of having his eye on the Townshend fortune and property.

One version of the story says Dorothy did not share Charles's feelings, in fact she found him repulsive. But the more romantic version has her plunging into a frivolous life of parties and scandalous behaviour to forget her broken heart, ultimately becoming the mistress of a well known roué, Lord Wharton.

Meanwhile, Charles Townshend had married, but his wife died in 1713, and he and Dorothy were united at last. There seems little doubt that after a time the marriage was unhappy, and whatever caused Charles's change of heart towards her, he deprived Dorothy of the care of her children who were put in charge of his mother. Miserable without them and unkindly treated by her husband, Dorothy is said to have been confined to her rooms at Raynham Hall, and within a short time died at the age of 40.

One tradition says that Dorothy was starved to death, and another that she fell, or was pushed, down the grand staircase and was killed. But the contemporary announcement of her death, on 29th March 1726, gives the cause as smallpox.

Many hauntings have a tragic background, and whatever the truth about the manner of Dolly Townshend's death, she did not rest in peace and her ghost was soon seen by servants, family and visitors.

Supernatural England

A right royal haunting

One important visitor was George IV, when Prince Regent, who was, of course, put in the State Bedroom - with unfortunate results. He roused the whole household, reporting furiously that he had been disturbed by a little lady all dressed in brown, with dishevelled hair and a face of ashy paleness', who stood by his bedside. 'I will not pass another hour in this accursed house,' cried his Highness, for I have seen that what I hope to God I may never see again.'

The Brown Lady's sighting in 1849 was reported in 'Rifts in the Veil' by Lucia Stone, a member of a large houseparty at Raynham, Major Loftus, a relative of the hosts Lord and Lady Charles Townshend, had stayed up late with another guest playing chess, and as they went up to bed, his attention was called to a lady in a brown dress standing on the landing. He did not recognise her as one of the guests, but when he went to speak to her, she vanished.

Determined to waylay the mysterious lady, he waited up the following night, and managed to come face to face with her. In the light of his lamp he could see her clearly and described her wearing a richly brocaded brown dress with a coif on her head, but to his horror instead of eyes she had two dark, hollow sockets. He made a sketch of what he had seen and showed it next morning to the other guests, which inspired some of them to do some ghost-hunting on their own account, but the Brown Lady was not tempted to make another appearance.

But the effect on the servants was unfortunate; the entire staff gave notice and left! Although Lord Charles declared that he had seen the family ghost several times, he was suspicious that this time some annoying practical joker might be responsible, and in lieu of the missing staff, he brought in a number of police, but no trickster or the Brown Lady herself rewarded their vigil.

The ghost received an unexpected reception when Captain Marryat, the famous author of 'Mr Midshipman Easy', was staying at Raynham Hall. The Captain briskly dismissed the notion of ghosts and insisted on sleeping in the haunted bedroom, which contained a portrait of the Brown Lady. A lesser man might have felt uneasy as in the flickering candlelight the eyes in the picture appeared unnaturally alive, and the expression on the face seemed the embodiment of evil. But not Marryat; he was getting ready for bed when two other guests arrived at his room to ask his advice about a gun for the shooting party the next day.

Ghosts & gunfire

Captain Marryat went with them to see the gun and was returning along the shadowy corridor when he saw a woman coming towards him. Her feet made no sound, and the lamp she was holding illuminated a figure unmistakably the image of the portrait in his room. According to Marryat, the apparition looked at him 'in such a diabolical manner that even he was frightened and, gun in hand, he fired point-blank, full in her face. The bullets went straight through her and lodged in the door behind, and the figure vanished.

It's said that the brave Captain slept with his loaded pistols under his pillow for the rest of his visit.

Gwladys, Marchioness Townshend, in True Ghost Stories (1936), says that her son George and a friend, when they were small boys, met a lady on the staircase, who frightened and puzzled them because they could see the stairs through her!

And in the 1920s Sir Henry ('Tim') Birkin sat up one night hoping to encounter the Brown Lady, but although he waited in vain, his dog showed signs of acute terror in the small hours.

Marchioness Townshend also mentions other spectres at Raynham such as two ghost children, a phantom spaniel whose paws patter on the staircase although he is not seen, and the charming Red Cavalier. This is the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's ill-fated son, who once stayed at Raynham Hall with his royal father. He haunts the bedroom he once used, now known as the Monmouth Room, and the Marchioness tells the story of a lovely 'deb of the year' who insisted on sleeping there, hoping for a visit from the notorious charmer.

But despite the Duke's well-known eye for a pretty woman, she was unlucky. The next occupant of the room a few days later was a 'spinster of uncertain age' who, according to her hostess, was sadly destined to live a drab life devoid of romance. However, she woke that night to find the dashing Red Cavalier standing at the end of her bed, 'smiling in a most encouraging manner'. As he went he gave her a charming courtly bow and faded away through the wall, leaving her with a cherished memory of her glamorous visitor.

The famous photograph of the Brown Lady has been frequently reproduced in books about ghosts and hauntings. It happened in the 30s that two photographers from Country Life magazine were taking a series of photographs of Raynham Hall. Captain Provand was photographing the staircase when his assistant, Indra Shira, suddenly noticed a misty figure approaching down the stairs. He quickly urged Captain Provand to take an exposure, which he did, although he himself had seen nothing. He protested that Indra Shira must have imagined it, and declared that even if there was something there, nothing would appear when the negative was developed.

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

But Indra Shira insisted he had seen a figure so ethereal that the steps were visible through it, and later when they were developing the negatives the Captain could see that there was definitely something on the staircase negative. Indra Shira hurried downstairs to the chemist below their studio and brought Benjamin Jones back to be a witness that the negative had not been tampered with. Later a number of experts examined it and were satisfied that the picture had not been faked in any way.

There seems no doubt that Raynham Hall is haunted by echoes of its past. In True Ghost Stories the Marchioness Townshend says that at times the sound of whispers and the swish of silken skirts testify that the picture gallery is alive with the "Quality" who ruffled it in the days when the splendour of the Great House was undiminished'. And sometimes in one room the heavy chairs which are usually set against the walls are found in the morning companionably grouped around a large card table! Are the Brown Lady and the Red Cavalier among the players I wonder? 

This story is reproduced from the book, Supernatural England, by Countryside Books, which contains dozens of spooky tales featuring ghosts, poltergeists and hauntings from across the country. To find out more, click here

Supernatural England - Ghost Stories

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  • Alex Batho
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