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The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

It’s probably the most famous ghost photograph in the world: The Brown Lady of Raynham

Hall in Norfolk, captured for Country Life in 1936. In September of that year, Captain Hubert Provand, a London-based photographer, and his assistant Indre Shira were taking photographs of the West Norfolk hall for an article. They claimed that, having taken one photograph of the Hall’s main staircase, they were setting up a second when Shira saw “…a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman” drifting down the stairs towards them.

‘The Brown Lady of Raynham photo, taken by Country Life photographers

As Shira described what he saw, Provand – already under the black cloth – quickly removed

the lens cap on his camera, the flashbulb fired, a photograph was taken and a legend was

born. There, gliding down the hall’s majestic wooden staircase you can plainly see an ethereal,

veiled form dubbed ‘The Brown Lady of Raynham’ and named as the ghost of Lady Dorothy

Walpole, an 18th century mistress of the manor.


Originally built in the early 1600s, Raynham was expanded 100 years later by architect

William Kent under the direction of the then leader of the House of Lords, Charles, 2nd

Viscount Townshend. Over the following years, the house fell on hard times and by 1899, John, 6th Marquess Townshend found that he had inherited a bankrupt estate, forcing his hand into selling off the family’s art collection, renting sections of the hall and, ahem, marrying well.


After his death in 1921, the Townshend family returned to its seat and the Dowager

Marchioness began to restore the faded glamour of this glorious hall. In addition to inheriting the estate, she also discovered she had inherited the former lady of the house who, it was said, still drifted through the red-brick hall. Passed down through generations, the story of Lady Dorothy Walpole had haunted the Townshend family for centuries.


Born at nearby Houghton Hall in September 1686, Dorothy was thirteenth child of Robert

Walpole and Mary Burwell and the sister of Sir Robert Walpole, widely considered to be the

first man to hold the office of Prime Minister of Britain. Lady Dorothy’s story has been blurred at the edges by the passing of time.


Some say that Charles Townshend, who her father acted as a guardian to, fell in love with

Dorothy when she was 15 and he was 27, but that the marriage was forbidden in case there

were accusations of the Walpoles having an eye on the Townshend fortunes. Depending on what you believe, Dorothy was either relieved to escape the clutches of Charles, having found him repulsive, or she was devastated and plunged herself into a life of extravagance, parties and scandal to heal her broken heart.


Raynham Hall, pictured in 2015. CREDIT: Philip Halling/Geograph

Either way, it seems, Dorothy may have become mistress to Whig grandee Lord Wharton,

while Charles married Elizabeth Pelham, daughter of the 1st Baron Thomas Pelham of

Laughton. Elizabeth died in 1711, leaving Charles a widower with five surviving children.

Two years later, Dorothy and Charles married in a lavish ceremony at Raynham Hall and

during their 13 years of marriage, had seven children, six of whom survived into adulthood.


There is a common belief that the marriage was unhappy and that Charles locked his wife

away in an upstairs room at Raynham, furious when he discovered her prior relationship

with Wharton or by her extravagant spending, but there is little evidence to support this. In an interview given in 2009, Lord Raynham dispelled the idea that Dorothy had been badly treated: “People said that Dorothy was locked away and badly treated, but in the 1960s, we uncovered paperwork and medical reports suggesting she had a happy life and was much loved.”


Whether she was locked in a room by a violent and jealous husband or lived a happy life with her children, whether she died of smallpox or was pushed down the stairs and suffered a broken neck, one thing is for certain: in 1726, Dorothy Walpole died, aged 39 (Or is it for certain? Other stories claim that her April 1726 funeral was a sham, and that the mother-of-seven remained locked in a chamber at Raynham for years to come). Buried in St Mary’s churchyard at East Raynham, Dorothy’s body was laid to rest, but her spirit remained in the house where she died.


One of the first sightings of the Brown Lady – who was said to drift along corridors, stairs

and into rooms wearing a brown satin dress and carrying a lantern – was by Royalty.

When King George IV was a young Prince Regent, he stayed a night at Raynham, sleeping in

State Bedroom and woke to see “a little lady all dressed in brown, with dishevelled hair and

a face of ashy paleness.”


He roused the whole household, reporting furiously that he had been disturbed by the

woman 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 first written account of the Brown Lady was at Christmas in 1835, when Raynham Hall

held a grand gathering hosted by Lord Charles Townshend.


One night, after playing chess, the menfolk decided to call it a night and were making their

way to their respective bedrooms when they noticed the outline of a woman in one of the

doorways. Dressed in an old-fashioned brown gown, no sooner had they laid eyes on her than she disappeared, vanishing into the night to the astonishment of the men.

Lady Dorothy Walpole. Portrait by Charles Jervas.

The next night, one of the guests – Colonel Loftus – saw the woman again, but this time was

given a greater opportunity to study her. He described her as a well-to-do lady with aristocratic bearing but added a chilling detail: the spectre had empty eye-sockets which looked “dark in the glowing face”. The fear in the household was such that some housekeepers refused to stay at Raynham, preferring to hand in their notice than meet the eyeless ghost in the corridors.


A year later, author and Royal Navy Captain Frederick Marryat visited Raynham on a hunting

trip and requested that he stay in “the most haunted room” so that he could debunk the

myth and lay the ghost to rest. Writing in 1891, Florence Marryat, daughter of Frederick, said that her father lodged in the room said to contain a portrait of the apparition and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow.


For two nights, he slept soundly. On the third, two young men – nephews of the baronet –

knocked at his door as he got ready for bed and asked them to give his opinion on their new

gun, which had recently arrived from London. As they returned from their mission, accompanying Frederick and joking they were protecting him from the Brown Lady, the trio saw something strange moving towards them in the corridor.


She wrote: “The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as

they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from

the other end.


“‘One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,’ whispered the young Townshends to my

father. Now the bedroom doors in that corridor faced each other, and each room had a

double door with a space between, as is the case in many old-fashioned houses.


“My father, as I have said, was in shirt and trousers only, and his native modesty made him

feel uncomfortable, so he slipped within one of the outer doors (his friends following his

example), in order to conceal himself until the lady should have passed by.


“I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through

the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colours and

style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of ‘The Brown

Lady’.


“He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop

and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before

the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features,

grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him.


“This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he

sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The

figure instantly disappeared - the figure at which for several minutes three men had been

looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the

opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never

attempted again to interfere with ‘The Brown Lady of Raynham’.”


Although Lord Charles admitted that he had seen the family ghost on numerous occasions,

he had always been suspicious that a joker was to blame and he later brought in the police,

but no trickster or the Brown Lady rewarded them as they staked out the house. Sightings continued over the next century, including one in 1926 when Lady Townshend and her son saw the ghost on the staircase.


In a newspaper report of October 1901, the story of the Brown Lady was linked to a different Norfolk manor house: Houghton Hall.

The West Front of Houghton Hall by Isaac Ware, 1735

“The apparition is stated to be that of a little lady dressed in brown satin and supposed to

be the spirit of Lady Dorothy Walpole, who became…the second wife of Viscount Townsend.

“It is said that the union was an unhappy one, and eventually she, becoming deranged, was

confined in the upper storey at Raynham Hall, where the small rooms are inhabited, and in

which she died.


“It is believed she appears either at her birthplace, Houghton, or at Raynham, just before a

death in either the Walpole or Townshend families.


“The late Lady Anne Sherson, by birth a Townshend, used to relate that many years ago she

was at Raynham on the occasion of a ball.


“She herself, as well as many other guests, were surprised to see a small lady, dressed in an

antique costume, passing through the throng without apparently knowing anybody.


“One the following morning, the news came of the unexpected death of Lord George

Townshend, which had occurred during the previous night.”


At the time the photograph of the Brown Lady was taken, paranormal investigator Harry

Price interviewed Provand and Shira and concluded the photograph was genuine. However, many sceptics have claimed the photograph is a fake and that it is the result of grease on the lens, trickery or an accidental double exposure.


But Lord Raynham has said on record that he believes Dorothy’s spirit remains at Raynham,

saying: “She isn’t there to haunt the house, but she is still there, I know she’s there and I’m

glad she’s around.”

 

What the photographers said…


“On September 19th, I936, Captain Provand, the Art Director of Indre Shira, Limited, Court

photographers, of 49, Dover Street, Piccadilly, London, W.1, and I were taking photographs

of Raynham Hall. We commenced shortly after eight o’clock in the morning and had taken a

large number of pictures of the house and grounds when, about four o’clock in the

afternoon, we came to the oak staircase.


“Captain Provand took one photograph of it while I flashed the light. He was focusing again

for another exposure; I was standing by his side just behind the camera with the flashlight

pistol in my hand, looking directly up the staircase. All at once, I detected an ethereal, veiled

form coming slowly down the stairs.


“Rather excitedly I called out sharply: ‘Quick! Quick! There’s something! Are you ready?’



‘Yes,’ the photographer replied, and removed the cap from the lens. I pressed the trigger of

the flashlight pistol. After the flash, and on closing the shutter, Captain Provand removed

the focusing cloth from his head and, turning to me, said: ‘What’s all the excitement about?’


“I directed his attention to the staircase and explained that I had distinctly seen a figure

there - transparent so that the steps were visible through the ethereal form, but

nevertheless very definite and to me perfectly real. He laughed and said I must have

imagined I had seen a ghost - for there was nothing now to be seen. It may be of interest to

record that the flash from the Sasha bulb, which in this instance was used, is equivalent, I

understand, to a speed of one-fiftieth part of a second.



“After securing several other pictures, we decided to pack up and return to Town. Nearly all

the way back we were arguing about the possibility of obtaining a genuine ghost

photograph. Captain Provand laid down the law most emphatically by assuring me that as a

Court photographer of thirty years’ standing, it was quite impossible to obtain an authentic

ghost photograph - unless, possibly, in a séance room - and in that connection he had had

no experience.


“I have neither his technical skill nor long years of practical experience as a portraitist,

neither am I interested in psychic phenomena; but I maintained that the form of a very

refined influence was so real to my eyes that it must have been caught at that psychological

moment by the lens of the camera.



“’I’ll bet you £5,’ said Captain Provand, with the air of settling the question once and for all

time, ‘that there’s nothing unusual on the negative when it is developed.’


“’And I accept your bet,’ I replied, shaking hands on the bargain.


“When the negatives of Raynham Hall were being developed, I stood beside Captain

Provand in the dark-room. One after the other they were placed in the developer. Suddenly

Captain Provand exclaimed: ‘Good Lord! There’s something on the staircase negative, after

all!’ I took one glance, called to him ‘hold it, boy!’ and dashed downstairs to the chemist,

Mr. Benjamin Jones, manager of Blake, Sandford and Blake, whose premises are

immediately underneath our studio. I asked Mr Jones to come upstairs to our dark-room. He

came and saw the negative just as it had been taken from developer and placed in the

adjoining hypo bath.


“Afterwards he said that, had he not seen for himself the negative being fixed he would not

have believed in the genuineness of the photograph. Incidentally, Mr. Jones has had

considerable experience as an amateur photographer in developing his own plates and

fixing them.


“Mr. Jones, Captain Provand and I vouch for the fact that the negative has not been

retouched in any way. It has been examined critically by a number of experts. No one can

account for the appearance of the ghostly figure. But it is there sure enough - and I am still

waiting for payment of that £5. Indre Shira”.






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