Weird Norfolk: The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
Could that slight chill in an upstairs corridor, that shimmer of shifting light on the staircase, those footsteps fading into silence be one of our county's most intriguing apparitions?
Dorothy Walpole died almost 300 years ago, and yet her story lives on. For centuries there were unsettling suggestions of a shadowy figure in a brown dress drifting through magnificent Raynham Hall, near Fakenham. And then, in December 1936, the Brown Lady was revealed to the world. A photographer from Country Life magazine had been taking pictures at the hall when his assistant was astonished to glimpse a figure gliding down the grand oak staircase. Later he described 'a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman. A transparent figure so that the steps were visible through the ethereal form.' He shouted for the photographer to take another picture and as the flash bulb fired the figure vanished. However, when the film was developed the men were shaken to discover that the ghost had stayed long enough to be captured on a single frame.
Beautiful Dorothy Walpole grew up at Mannington and Wolterton halls, near Aylsham. Her brother Robert became Britain's first Prime Minister and amassed a huge fortune which he lavished on his palatial new Norfolk home, Houghton Hall. Charles Townshend lived at nearby Raynham, and he and Dorothy fell in love as children. But the romance was doomed because Dorothy's father forbade the match. Instead Charles married Elizabeth Pelham and the couple had 10 children before Elizabeth died. The widowed aristocrat once again wooed his childhood sweetheart and Charles and Dorothy wed in July 1713 – and went on to have 11 children together, the last born while Dorothy was staying at Windsor Castle, where she had to borrow a royal cradle for her baby.
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Then tragedy struck. Back in Norfolk, Dorothy fell ill with smallpox and although her devoted husband sent for the best doctors in Europe, she died. She was buried in the family crypt of the church just across the Raynham parkland. But rumours began to circulate that she was not resting peacefully. There were stories that she had been walled up in a wing of the hall for having an affair, that her funeral had been staged, with bricks instead of a body in the coffin. They are dismissed by the current Lord Charles Townshend, the eighth Marquess of Raynham, who has access to the crypt and the extensive family archives and is convinced that his namesake did everything he could to save the love of his life.
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But is her spirit still drifting through the mansion, searching for the babies she left motherless? It was more than a century later, during a Christmas house party in 1835, that two guests claimed to have glimpsed a ghostly figure gliding along a corridor in her distinctive brown dress. The following evening a Colonel Loftus saw her again. This time he upped the ante with a bloodcurdling description of a spectre with empty eye sockets and luminescent skin – sparking an exodus of terrified servants. The following year a friend of novelist Charles Dickens, asked to sleep in a haunted room at Raynham. Frederick Marryat just happened to be holding a loaded revolver when he thought he saw the ghost. His bullet passed straight through the shadowy figure and is still lodged in a bedroom door.
The Brown Lady is even said to have scared the future George IV when he stayed at Raynham Hall in the early 19th century. One version of the story has him rushing from the hall declaring: 'I will not pass another hour in this accursed house.' However, another suggests he simply asked for another room. There were more unsettling experiences in the 1920s when members of the Swaffham Amateur Players staying overnight. And the Marchioness of the era reported that her son and a friend had seen the ghost.
Today's Lord Raynham dismisses the more fanciful stories and is protective of the hall's most elusive resident. Requests from ghost hunters are met with a polite refusal and whoever, or whatever, blazed into history with that brief, shocking appearance on film almost a century ago, is being allowed to remain a mystery and rest in peace.
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