The most famous ghost in the UK is that of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, whose image was allegedly captured by photographers from Country Life magazine. Who is she? Is Raynham Hall really haunted by her ghost? Or is the photo a fake?
The first recorded sighting of the Brown Lady was in 1835, when two guests at the Townshend Christmas festivities saw her as they approached their bedrooms. They noted her brown dress, from which she gets her name. They also described her glowing face and – most disconcertingly – her empty eye-sockets.
Further sightings occurred, including one by King George IV, who apparently saw her standing by his bed. But the most famous sighting happened in 1936, when photographers Hubert Provand and Indre Shira were taking photographs of Raynham Hall for an article for Country Life magazine.
While Provand was under the camera cloth, Shira allegedly saw a “vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman” floating down Raynham Hall’s main staircase towards them. He asked Provand to snap a photo. Provand believed that what Shira had seen was just a trick of light, but when they developed the photo, there she was – just as Shira had described.
Who is the Brown Lady?
According to legend, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole, sister of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister. She married Charles Townshend, lord of Raynham Hall, and is said to have committed adultery with a fellow lord. Although legal records state that she died and was buried in 1726, legend has it that her funeral and burial were faked. Charles in fact locked Dorothy away in a remote corner of Raynham Hall and kept her imprisoned until her death many years later, as punishment for her infidelity.
How she eventually died is also up for debate. Some say it was smallpox. Others say she was pushed down the main staircase and broke her neck.
Is the Brown Lady photo a hoax?
Sceptics have argued that Provand and Shira’s sighting is fabricated, and that the photo is a fake – perhaps accomplished by smearing grease onto the lens of the camera. Some investigators who interviewed Provand and Shira at the time claimed they had no reason to disbelieve them. But many have argued since that there is evidence that one photo has been superimposed over the other.
Magician John Booth suggested that the photo is a composite of the stairs and an image of someone covered in a bed sheet. He demonstrated this himself and created his own faked ghost photo, which looked very similar to the Country Life picture. Others have argued that the photo was created by superimposing an image of an ordinary Virgin Mary statue over a photo of the staircase. And it’s quite telling that the Lady Townshend of the time, who lived at Raynham Hall, revealed in an interview that Shira had come to the hall hoping to photograph a ghost. Was it all just a publicity stunt for Country Life?
Of course, less cynical sceptics have argued that the photo is an accidental double exposure or film imperfection/anomaly. Provand actually admitted that his camera had faults and exposure problems.
There probably won’t ever be a definitive explanation for the photo. What’s interesting is that no sightings of the Brown Lady have been reported at Raynham Hall since the photo was taken.
Why is this? Could it be that she is trapped inside the photo? Could it be that Provand and Shira inadvertently captured and contained her when they snapped her image coming down the stairs – and now she’s frozen in time forever? The photo is still held in the offices of Country Life. What if future technology permits her escape and she exacts revenge against the makers of the magazine?
And what if my imagination starts running away with me?
Next week: a 300 million-year-old screw – more evidence of time travellers?