Said to have haunted Raynham Hall in Norfolk since the early 18th Century, the so-called ‘Brown Lady’ became one of the most famous ghosts in history after a photographer from Country Life magazine claimed to have taken a photograph depicting the apparition in 1936.
Referred to as the Brown Lady due to the brown dress she is generally said to wear, most accounts agree that the ghost is that of Lady Dorothy Walpole, the younger sister of the UK’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole. Dorothy was the long-suffering wife of Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, a close political ally of her brother. Townshend had a notoriously volatile temper, which perhaps played a role in Dorothy eventually entering into an adulterous relationship with the Marquess of Wharton. When her husband discovered the relationship, he locked her away within Raynham Hall. She would eventually pass away in her confinement at the age of 39, with the official cause of death listed as smallpox.
The first reported sighting of Dorothy’s ghost came in 1835. Guest Lucia Stone, attending Raynham Hall for a Christmas gathering, later reported that a number of guests told her that they had seen a spectre in a dated, brown dress as they approached their bedrooms. One man, a Colonel Loftus, also claimed to have seen the ghost again the following night, describing a glowing face and dark, empty eye sockets. Several staff are said to have resigned their positions following accounts of the sightings.
The following year, writer and former Royal Navy captain Frederick Marryat requested an overnight stay in one of the bedrooms associated with previous sightings. His daughter, Florence, wrote in 1891 about her father’s experiences that night. After settling into his quarters, he was approached by two young members of the Townshend family, who wanted his opinion on a newly-purchased revolver. Despite being only partially dressed he accompanied the two young men, jokingly strapping on his own revolver ‘in case they met the Brown Lady’.
On the way back to the room, Marryat saw what he took to be a maid approaching down the corridor, holding a lamp. Embarrassed by his state of undress he ducked into a side room, followed by his two hosts. Watching the woman approach through a crack in the door he saw he stop outside, where he noted her identical appearance to paintings of Dorothy Walpole. Before he could challenge the figure she raised the lamp to her face, lighting it up to show a ‘malicious and diabolical’ grin. Marryat burst from behind the door and fired his revolver directly at the figure’s face, at which point it vanished, the bullet lodging in the door opposite.
In 1926 the then Lady Townshend said that her son and his friend has seen the ghost on the main staircase, recognising it as that of Lady Dorothy from the portrait that still hung in the house. Ten years later Captain Hubert Provand, a photographer for Country Life magazine, and his assistant, Indre Shira, were sent to photograph Raynham Hall for an article. Setting up a shot of the main staircase, the pair saw a ‘vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman’ approaching them down the stairs. They quickly took a shot, which when developed was found to show the now-famous image of the Brown Lady. The photo, along with the account of the two photographers, was published in Country Life in December 1936, as well as in Life magazine the following January.
Noted paranormal researcher and author Harry Price, who had gained a reputation for exposing fraudulent mediums and investigating claims of paranormal phenomenon, found Provand and Shira’s account compelling after interviewing them. Price stated that he had no right to disbelieve them and in his opinion the negative was ‘entirely innocent of any faking’.
The photograph has been examined in minute detail in the years since, with skeptics believing that the image is an accidental double exposure, or that Shira deliberately faked the photo by smearing grease or liquid on the lens in the shape of a figure. Other researchers believe the clothing and pose of the figure suggest that it is a superimposition of a statue of the Virgin Mary onto the empty staircase.