The photo of The Brown Lady of Raynham hall is not just one of Britain’s most famous spectral photographs, but is world-renowned. Since its development in 1936, the ghostly image of the Brown Lady descending the stairs of the Norfolk country house has been widely circulated irrefutable proof of ghosts’ existence.
Now, with Halloween just behind us and dark winter nights drawing ever-closer, this famous photo is doing its rounds online, nestled amongst other famous compatriots as one of ‘ten frightening photos’.
But I think our Brown lady is worth a little more explanation than internet lists permit.
The legend of the Brown Lady was not a product of the infamous photograph, but has been part of Norfolk lore for centuries; the ghost captured on film has supposedly been a constant presence at Raynham Hall, Norfolk since the 19thcentury.
The haunting figure is frequently referred to by two names online, namely Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726) or ‘Lady Townsend’. Nonetheless, the women are one and the same. The Lady suffered an unfortunate existence in life – her husband was cruel and ill-tempered and, when learning of her adultery, punished her disloyalty by locking her in her chambers, refusing to let her leave Raynham hall (even to visit her children) until her death in old age from smallpox. Since her death, she is said to roam the Hall in a brown satin dress, carrying a lantern.
There are numerous reported sightings of the brown lady, including one from King George IV who saw the lady standing beside his bed at night.
However, one of the more elaborate claims originates in 1835 and was recorded at a Christmas gathering by Lucia C Stone. Visiting guests Colonel Loftus and Hawkins claimed to have seen a spectral woman in a brown dress as they retired to their bedrooms for the night. The next day, Colonel Loftus saw the lady again, but this time, closer. He reported that the woman had empty eye sockets that stood out darkly against her ghostly glowing face.
The next year in 1836, Captain Frederick Marryat (Navy officer and father of Florence Marryat, author of the classic Spiritualist work ‘There is no Death) specifically asked to spend the night in the supposed haunted room. Apparently, he aimed to prove that any such hauntings were in fact the work of local smugglers who aimed to frighten people away from the area. In fact, Captain Marryat’s experience was anything but mundane. His daughter, Florence recounted his experience in 1891;
…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London.
…The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father.
…I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham”.
Firstly, late-night gun comparisons with visiting youths doesn’t seem to be an idea way to spend ones time. Secondly, Captain Marryat shot a ghost in the FACE. There’s being sceptical, then there’s trying to execute the undead.
There have been several other reported sightings since Marryat’s gun-toting days, but none are as dramatic or violent.
The photograph that gives us the lasting image of the Brown Lady was not taken by an investigator hunting for the woman’s apparition, but was the work of Captain Hubert C Provand, a photographer working for Country Life magazine. He and his assistant, Indre Shira were photographing the Hall for a general article and seemingly had no intent to cover the spectral legend.
After taking an initial photography of the Halls grand staircase, they were making preparations for a second when Shira saw the gradual formation of a “vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman”.
Upon Shira’s instruction, Provand quickly took another photograph and, upon development, the infamous image of the ‘Brown Lady’ was revealed.
Instead of the supposed planned article on Raynham Hall, Provand and Shira’s experience, complete with photographs, was printed in Country Life on December 26th1936.
Since the Country Life photograph, sightings of Raynham Hall’s ghost have been sparse to say the least. Many believe she now haunts Houghton Hall and Sandringham House in a more youthful form of herself. Therefore, our lasting image of the Raynham haunting remains frozen in time. This spectre is a busy one.
Ever since publication, the image has been used as proof of ghost existence and visitation and has been subject to investigation by several high-profile paranormal sceptics. Generally, accounts of the images’ legitimacy are far more prolific in print, as they grab our imaginations far stronger than explanations by sceptics.
Nonetheless, there are many available explanations for the ghostly image; many cite a double exposure or smear of grease on the lens. Generally, consensus between critics is that the image is not of a spectre, but of either a living figure concealed beneath a sheet, or a simple superimposition of a draped Madonna statue. Many critics have said that the image of the ghost appears to have its hands raised in prayer and the square stand or mount beneath it is more than visible when one examines the shadows! In short, the 1936 image is generally regarded to be little more than a composite of two images.
Real ghost, planned hoax, or spur of the moment mischief, the ghostly image certainly afforded Provand and Shira their infamy in the paranormal history books. And a ghostly article in a country living magazine is certainly a pleasant break from the day-to-day photography of the wealthy and well-to-do.
And, most importantly, at least they weren’t armed. Marryat, you’re on your own with that one.