The Cheltenham Haunting and the Mysterious Lady in Black

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There have through the ages been many cases of haunted houses and creepy old buildings. Sometimes it seems as if such accounts are a dime a dozen, but some of these definitely stand out from the rest. One such tale is that of a stately mansion in England, which would accrue plenty of attention, and go on to become a very documented and intriguing case that features a scary old mansion, ghostly activity, and a mysterious spectral woman in black.

The setting for this particular haunted tale is a house once known as Garden Reach, located in a quaint area of Cheltenham, in western England. Built in 1860 for a Mr. Henry Swinhoe, the house is a classy, double-fronted four story Victorian affair which at the time had extensive lawns, sprawling gardens, and an orchard, the whole of it an opulent residence by anyone’s standards. Despite being fit for a king, Swinhoe had a turbulent time there, devolving into rampant alcoholism that saw his marriage disintegrate and his life go to shambles until his death in 1876. The house would briefly be owned by a Benjamin Littlewood, before passing onto a Captain Frederick W. Despard and his family, with the name of the mansion being changed to “Donore.” It is after the affluent Despard family moved in that the tales of supernatural weirdness would begin swirling about the old estate in earnest.

The Cheltenham mansion

The strangeness seems to have begun in April of 1882, just two months after the family had moved in. On this evening, the family’s eldest daughter, Rosina, retired to her room as usual and settled down into bed, but she was soon disturbed by an odd sound outside the room. As she listened, it seemed as if someone was walking around right outside the door in the shadows, but when she called out there was no answer. Rosina believed that this was just her mother, who had perhaps not heard her, and so she got out of bed and by flickering candlelight made her way to the door and open it to an odd and frightening sight dancing in the shadows. She would explain of what happened in a letter to a friend:

I saw no one; but on going a few steps along the passage, I saw the figure of a tall lady, dressed in black, standing at the head of the stairs. The figure was dressed in black of a soft woolen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. I saw the upper part of the left side of the forehead, and a little of the hair above. Her left hand was nearly hidden by her sleeve and a fold of her dress. As she held it down a portion of a widow’s cuff was visible on both wrists, so that the whole impression was that of a lady in widow’s weeds. After a few moments she descended the stairs, and I followed for a short distance, feeling curious what it could be. I had only a small piece of candle, and it suddenly burnt itself out; and being unable to see more, I went back to my room.

Although this was the first real sighting of the “Lady in Black,” it would certainly not be the last, and over the next couple of years the mysterious figure would be seen numerous times, at first by just Rosina, but then also witnessed by her sister Freda, her younger brother Wilbur, and a house servant. Before long, a total of 17 people had seen the ghost, including visitors, servants, and neighbors, and even the family dogs apparently saw it, as they would often bark or cower away from the figure. The ghost roamed both the house and the gardens, and could also be heard as often as she was seen, with various anomalous knocks, thuds, and disembodied footsteps reported. In every case the Lady in Black looked very lifelike, often at first mistaken for an intruder and the only telltale sign that she was a ghost being her disconcerting habit of just suddenly vanishing or passing through walls or doors. In most instances the apparition seemed to be in mourning, looking very sad and seen as a rather tragic figure. Rosina was the one who saw the figure the most often, and her initial fear was replaced with curiosity as time went by. She even attempted to approach and talk to the Lady in Black, but the spectral woman would either ignore her or vanish into thin air. The ghost would often appear for very long periods of time, once observed by Rosina for a full half an hour, of which she would write in a letter:

I went into the drawing-room, where my father and sisters were sitting, about 9 in the evening, and sat down on a couch close to the bow window. A few minutes after, as I sat reading, I saw the figure come in at the open door, cross the room and take up a position close behind the couch where I was. I was astonished that no one else in the room saw her, as she was so very distinct to me. My youngest brother, who had before seen her, was not in the room. She stood behind the couch for about half an hour, and then as usual walked to the door. I went after her, on the excuse of getting a book, and saw her pass along the hall, until she came to the garden door, where she disappeared. I spoke to her as she-passed the foot of the stairs, but she did not answer, although as before she stopped and seemed as though about to speak.

It was all spooky enough that many servants could not handle it and quit altogether. Although at first Rosina had told no one but her closest friend about her paranormal experiences in the house, after so many others had seen it word got out to The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London, which is an organization that investigates such supernatural phenomena and oddities. The SPR decided to send a seasoned investigator and one of their founders by the name of Frederick W. H. Myers to go to the house and see what was going on. He arrived at the home in 1884, and the next chapter of the strange story would unfold. Meyers went about interviewing the family and anyone who claimed to have seen the apparition, finding their stories to be surprisingly similar across the board. He also mentioned that the family did not seem to be prone to believing in ghosts or to be superstitious, and indeed Rosina herself was a scientific minded sort, in the midst of studying to be a physician. An interesting detail that he learned about the spectral Lady in Black was that her appearances were often witnessed by some, but not by others in the same room. Rosina would explain some incidents in which this had happened:

On the evening of August 11th we were sitting in the drawing-room, with the gas lit but the shutters not shut, the light outside getting dusk, my brothers and a friend having just given up tennis, finding it too dark; my eldest sister, Mrs. K., and myself both saw the figure on the balcony outside, looking in at the window. She stood there some minutes, then walked to the end and back again, after which she seemed to disappear. She, soon after, came into the drawing-room, when I saw her, but my sister did not. The same evening my sister E. saw her on the stairs as she came out of a room on the upper landing. The following evening, August 12th, while coming up the garden, I walked towards the orchard, when I saw the figure cross the orchard, go along the carriage drive in front of the house, and in at the open side door, across the hall and into the drawing-room, I following. She crossed the drawing-room, and took up her usual position behind the couch in the bow window. My father came in soon after, and I told him she was there. He could not see the figure, but went up to where I showed him she was. She then went swiftly round behind him, across the room, out of the door, and along the hall, disappearing as usual near the garden door, we both following her. We looked out into the garden, having first to unlock the garden door, which my father had locked as he came through, but saw nothing of her.

Meyers did a good amount of research on the history of the house, and found that the original owner of the estate, Mr. Swinhoe, had a second wife who had died not long after he did, regretful that their relationship had dissolved and lamenting that she had not ever been able to reconcile. On a hunch, Meyers acquired photographs of the woman and showed them to Rosina and other witnesses, who all agreed that she was the one they were seeing. Meyers was certainly intrigued, and supplied Rosina with a camera to take photographs of the entity. He also encouraged her to keep trying to communicate with it in the hopes of getting some sort of response. She wrote of her subsequent failed attempts to do this:

During this year, at Mr. Myers’s suggestion, I kept a photographic camera constantly ready to try to photograph the figure, but on the few occasions I was able to do so, I got no result; at night, usually only by candle-light, a long exposure would be necessary for so dark a figure, and this I could not obtain. I also tried to communicate with the figure, constantly speaking to it and asking it to make signs, if not able to speak, but with no result. I also tried especially to touch her, but did not succeed. On cornering her, as I did once or twice, she disappeared.

The ghostly phenomena would continue for years as Meyers compiled an increasing number of sightings reports. Interestingly, although at first the haunting seemed to get more intense, with multiple people seeing the ghost at the same time and the bumps, thuds, and physical disturbances becoming louder and more demanding, beginning from around 1886 the Lady in Black, who once had seemed so life-like, began to fade somewhat, becoming more indistinct and more in keeping what most would expect a ghost to look like and becoming less active as well. Meyers would compile a thorough report on all of this, which would later appear in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research as a report entitled “Record of a Haunted House,” and he hid the true identities of the family secret by calling them the “Morton” family. Through all of this, although Meyers never did see the apparition with his own eyes, he certainly had some rather odd experiences in the mansion that he was unable to adequately explain. He would say in his report on the matter:

Although I have never seen the figure, I have heard the footsteps, and that they certainly are unlike those of any member of the M. family, and could not possibly be attributed to them. The servants are excluded by the fact that they were all changed during the time that the footsteps continued, and were unaltered in character. I may add as a curious circumstance that on the night on which Miss Morton first spoke to the figure, as stated in her account, I myself saw her telepathically. I was in my room (I was then residing in the North of England, quite 100 miles away from Miss Morton’s home), preparing for bed, between 12 and half-past, when I seemed suddenly to be standing close by the door of the housemaid’s cupboard, so facing the short flight of stairs leading to the top landing. Coming down these stairs, I saw the figure, exactly as described, and about two steps behind Miss Morton herself, with a dressing-gown thrown loosely round her, and carrying a candle in her hand. A loud noise in the room overhead recalled me to my surroundings, and although I tried for some time I could not resume the impression. The black dress, dark head-gear, widow’s cuffs and handkerchief were plainly visible, though the details of them were not given me by Miss Morton till afterwards, when I asked her whether she had not seen the apparition on that night.

The paranormal phenomena gradually wound down, until by 1889 it seemed that the Lady in Black had seemed to have largely disappear altogether, although there were supposedly occasional sightings that went on all the way up into the 1980s. When the Despards moved out the house went through alternating periods of ownership and abandonment before finally being bought by a housing association and converted into flats in 1973. For many years the real identities of the family being besieged by the haunting were unknown, with the name “Morton” used in reports all the way up to 1948. The Society for Psychical Research long continued to keep tabs on the case, and it has remained one of their most famous and most thoroughly documented investigations.

It has become a rather well-known case of a historical haunting, and seems to have a lot going for it. For one is that Meyers was one of the best paranormal researchers out there at the time, fully immersing himself in the case for quite some time and not easily swayed by the fakes and charlatans that were all the rage back in this era of the Spiritualist movement. There is also the fact that so many disparate witnesses saw the same thing, on many occasions servants who had quit before new ones had arrives and so had never met each other. We also have the fact that Meyers himself had strange experiences at the house, and it all makes for a rather robust and well-documented case that is really hard to fully write off as mere delusions and ramblings. What are we to make of it all? was any of this real, and if so who was the Lady in Black really? Why was she here and what caused her to seemingly be so firmly anchored in the realm of the living? What was she so mournful about? We will probably never know the answers to these questions, and the haunting at Cheltenham remains a very intriguing haunting and historical oddity, indeed.

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