Things that go bump in the castle
Country Life UK|October 27, 2021
A century ago, with a pall of loss and decay hanging over once splendid houses, a haunted history was one way for struggling estate owners to stay connected to a more illustrious past
Caitlin Blackwell Baines

ON September 19, 1936, COUNTRY LIFE photographers on assignment at Raynham Hall in Norfolk took what is probably history’s most famous example of ‘spirit photography’. The ethereal, veiled form they captured gliding down the hall’s main staircase is widely believed to be the fabled ‘Brown Lady’ of Raynham—the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole, an 18th-century mistress of the manor.

Readers may be familiar with this image, but most will not know that, less than a year before it was taken, the incumbent lady of the house, Gwladys, Dowager Marchioness Townshend published a book of ‘true’ ghost stories. She wrote: ‘I must confess I believe in ghosts and I have for many years lived in a definitely haunted house.’ She was neither the first aristocratic homeowner to hold such beliefs, nor the first to write about them.

Two hundred miles north of Raynham is Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, the former home of American-born Countess Leonora Tankerville. Lady Leonora began documenting spectral sightings at her 13thcentury home as early as 1895. In fact, her first supernatural experience of the aptly named Chillingham came in a dream, months before she took up residence. In the dream, Lady Leonora’s deceased brother-in-law (whom she had never met, but recognised from photographs) greeted her at the gates of her soon-to-be home. When she finally visited the place in the flesh, she mused: ‘This is the second time I find myself approaching the gates of Chillingham Castle but strangely, it’s the first time I have actually been here.’ By 1925, she had amassed enough material to fill an entire guidebook.

For both women, an interest in the supernatural was in keeping with the contemporary fashion for spiritualism. Yet, they had a special investment in ghosts, particularly the ones associated with their own homes. This was an age in which a pall of loss and decay hung over many formerly splendid residences and, for struggling owners, a haunted history was one way to stay connected to an illustrious past.

At its apogee in the 18th century, redbrick Raynham Hall was renowned for its innovative architecture, lavish art collection and powerful owner. Originally constructed in the early 1600s, the house was expanded a century later by the famed Palladian architect William Kent under the direction of Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, then leader of the House of Lords. By the end of the 19th century, however, Raynham had fallen on hard times. A major agricultural depression, combined with the spendthrift habits of its owners, led to Raynham’s finde-siecle downfall.

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