In September 1936, Lady Townshend commissioned professional photographer Mr Indre Shira to take a series of pictures of Raynham Hall. On the afternoon of September 19, his assistant Mr Provand was wielding the camera while Mr Shira was standing behind him, looking at the splendid staircase. Provand took a picture and was resetting the camera and flash equipment when Shira saw on the stairs “a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman”. She was draped and veiled in some diaphanous material and glided down the staircase with floating steps.
Shira told his assistant to aim his camera and get a shot quickly. Mr Provand had not seen the apparition and wondered what got his companion so excited, but he aimed at the spot and took the picture. After the flash the spectre disappeared and Provand asked Shira what all the fuss was about. “I saw a ghost descending the staircase,” Shira said. Provand thought it must have been an optical illusion, maybe the effect of the flash that came with the first picture, or someone playing a mirror trick from the gallery above.
Shira bet five pounds that the phantom would appear on the plate… and he won his bet.
A Countrylife Controversy
The picture was reproduced in the magazine Countrylife (December 16, 1936) and immediately aroused considerable controversy. Although the spectre appeared only in outline, as a bride in white, enveloped in a veil, the apparition became world famous as The Brown Lady of Raynham. Experts examined the plate and agreed there was no fake about it. Some suggested the spirit photograph had been caused by a freaky light or a flaw in the negative.
The photograph has been reproduced in numerous books and articles, on television and websites, as photographic proof of the existence of ghosts. But, as Alan Murdie pointed out in his ForteanTimes article The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, there also could be a more mundane explanation for it. A record of the Society for Psychical Research, for instance, raised some questions about the picture. The file consisted of notes and documents compiled by the SPR researcher Mr C.V.C. Herbert, his colleague of the International Institute for Psychical Research Harry Price and the American psychoanalyst Dr Nandor Fodor.
Alerted by the mass press coverage, Herbert interviewed both Shira and Provand in January 1937. He described them as truthful witnesses, although Shira was “of a superstitious nature” and his name was a pseudonym. Herbert believed that Shira, a Scotsman, had “a business brain” and possessed only little knowledge of photography. According to Herbert, who examined the camera, the image might have been a result of equipment failure. He noted that Provand said the bellows were faulty, so the light could get in. It also could be a case of double exposure.
Examining an uncropped copy of the Brown Lady photograph, Herbert clearly detected some anomalies that didn’t appear around the figure, but in the fore- and background. Immediately beneath a framed picture on the wall was a duplicate image, hovering in the air. The banisters didn’t connect, the angles suggesting that the camera had been shaken and the staircase accidentally photographed twice. Harry Price however, declared that the negative was “entirely innocent of any faking”.
Dr Fodor photographed a living person on the stairs and compared it with the image on the plate, the size of the latter being “about right for a shorter female figure”. He didn’t think the picture was fake, but he did wonder about Mr. Provand placing a plate in the camera and being under the black cloth at the same time. Fodor interviewed Lady Townshend and found out she cooperated on the Raynham Hall chapter of a ghost book that was published six weeks before the Brown Lady picture had been taken. He asked himself if the picture was a publicity stunt for the book. On the other hand, Lady Townshend didn’t believe the spirit to be the already famous ghost of the Brown Lady and she didn’t want Raynham Hall to be “ridiculed”.
The Brown Lady of Raynham
The portrait of the Brown Lady used to hang in a room at Raynham Hall, the seat of the Marquesses of Townshend. It was sold at Christies in 1904, identifying the lady as Dorothy Walpole, daughter of Robert Walpole, Member of Parliament, and sister of Sir Robert Walpole, England’s first – but unofficial – Prime Minister. Once she had been dressed in brown with yellow trimmings and a ruff around her throat. With her large and shining eyes, she looked harmless enough… except when seen by candlelight, as a strange and evil expression appeared upon her face and her flesh seemed to shrink and her eyes to disappear, giving her head the semblance of a skull.
In the early 18th century, Lady Townshend was married to Charles Townshend, a rising young statesman known for his fiery temper, his mind fully occupied with, for example, the Treaty of Utrecht. So Dorothy became the mistress of Lord Wharton who some time later fled the country and his creditors. When Charles learned of his wife’s infidelity, he locked her up in her apartments at Raynham Hall and treated her so badly that in 1726 she died of smallpox, a broken heart or even a broken neck, tumbling down the grand Raynham staircase.
Over the next two centuries the ghost of Lady Townshend became the terror of the servants and visitors of Raynham Hall. King George IV awoke Raynham in the middle of the night, screaming that a lady dressed in brown “with dishevelled hair and a face of ashy paleness” had appeared at his bedside. He would not stay another hour in this haunted house, where he had seen something “I hope to God I may never see again”.
Some gentlemen of the household sat up for three nights in the corridors where the Brown Lady had been seen. On the third night, she appeared to be coming through the wall. One gentleman was petrified, the other stood resolutely in the path of the spirit as she approached. Lady Dorothy passed right through him in a puff of icy smoke and disappeared through the wall beyond.
In 1835 Colonel Loftus was visiting the house for Christmas holidays. He and another guest lingered late one night over a game of chess, but when they finally went upstairs, they saw the Brown Lady standing outside the door of Lady Townshend’s room. The apparition turned and walked along the corridor, pursued by Loftus, but then the spectre melted from his sight. The following night, he stood suddenly face to face with her on the grand staircase: a stately lady in rich brocade, her features clearly defined, with dark hollows where once her eyes had been shining.
A few years later Captain Frederick Marryat came to Raynham Hall. Marryat had spent years at sea and he was now famous for his sea stories and books for boys. He was by no means a superstitious sailor. In fact, he thought some sort of trick was being played upon the Townshend family. He had a theory about smugglers and poachers who were using old ruined buildings near the Hall for their hiding places. They would have much to gain by frightening the Townshend family away…
The story was later told in Marryat’s biography, written by his daughter Florence, herself a renowned novelist and spiritist. Her father went to sleep in the splendid bedroom with the portrait of the Brown Lady. Ghost hunting was fun, he enjoyed himself. Lord Townshend’s two young nephews knocked on his door and asked him if he would go into their room and give his opinion about a new gun. The Captain inspected the gun and the two young men, in a joking mood, offered to escort him safely back to his room, “in case you are kidnapped by the Brown Lady”.
It was a long, dark corridor, and the lights had been extinguished. As the three men walked along it they saw a woman approaching them, carrying a lamp. They were in the part of the house reserved for the men and Captain Marryat was in his vest and trousers, so they stepped quickly into the open doorway of an empty room and stood there in the darkness waiting for the lady to pass by. Maybe she had lost her way in the labyrinthine corridors of Raynham…
But the lady didn’t pass by. She stopped at the doorway, held the lamp before her face, looked straight into the eyes of the Captain and smiled at him… Her resemblance to the portrait in his bedroom was unmistakable: the waxy flesh, the large shining eyes… Her diabolic smile made Captain Marryat discharge his pistol point blank at her… and the bullet passed through her, and still wickedly smiling she disappeared, leaving nothing but some smoke and a bullet hole in the door behind her…