I remember the first time I picked up a book about ghosts from the children’s non-fiction section of my local library. The stories enthralled me, and my curiosity about the supernatural and paranormal began right then and there. However, one image stood out and has been burned into my mind ever since: the 1936 photo of The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.
Could this be an actual ghost in this photo? Or is it a fake? And who is The Brown Lady, anyways? I was so drawn in by the photo as a child that I don’t quite remember if I had the answers to these questions at the time. It has come to mind several times over the years, but I never dug deeper. So let’s explore the topic together and determine whether we are dealing with fact or fiction.
The History of Raynham Hall
Raynham Hall is located in Norfolk, England, and is the family estate of the Townshends. Yes, the Townshends of The Townshends Acts of 1772. You know, one of the things that caused the American Revolution. This family tree is full of people who were a part of major historical events. The 1st Viscount Townshend designed Raynham Hall, and construction began in 1621; the land it sits on has belonged to the family’s ancestors since the 12th century.
It was the 2nd Viscount, Charles “Turnip” Townsend, who is said to be the husband of the infamous Brown Lady. Charles Townsend was often called “Turnip” due to his introduction of the vegetable to England, as well as his establishing crop rotations as part of the British Agricultural Revolution.
Charles’ first wife died in 1711; they had 5 children together. In 1713, Charles Townsend married again, this time to Dorothy Walpole. Dorothy’s family was powerful; her brother Robert was the first Prime Minister of Britain. Dorothy never wanted anything and was known for her beauty and charm but also her love of extravagance.
There are conflicting stories about when Charles and Dorothy met. Charles became the ward of Dorothy’s father when he was just 13. Later, when Charles was 27 and Dorothy was 15, he declared his love for her and requested they be allowed to marry. Walpole did not allow his daughter to marry Charles as he did not want people to think he was after the Townsend estate. Some tales say that Dorothy was just as in love, and when she was not allowed to marry him, she began living a life filled with partying and scandalous affairs. Others say she was indifferent to him and it was glad to be rid of his attention. However, this story is contested, as there is no proof that they knew each other as young people.
Charles and Dorothy would go on to have 7 children of their own. Again we have conflicting reports of how happy their marriage was. Many stories state that Charles started by being deeply in love with Dorothy, but that love soon soured after he realized the depth of Dorothy’s vanity and desire for opulence. Rumors swirled that Dorothy continued many scandalous affairs into her marriage. Charles reportedly denied his wife the ability to raise their children, putting them under the charge of his mother instead. He confined his wife to her room, where she mourned that she was not allowed to see her children.
Dorothy died at the age of 40. The official death notice was posted in the papers on March 29, 1726, with the official cause listed as smallpox. However, more salacious rumors exist concerning the death of Dorothy Walpole Townsend. Some say she had been pushed down the grand staircase; others say she was starved to death in her rooms. Still, others claimed that due to her affairs and extravagant spending, Charles walled Dorothy up alive in the house, and at the funeral, the coffin was filled with bricks.
The Brown Lady sightings
The current Townsend of Raynham Hall says this is all nonsense and that Charles truly loved his wife and did all he could to save her from smallpox that killed her. Whether her death was due to cruelty or a tragic sickness, there is one thing that many do agree on: Dorothy still haunts Raynham Hall as the infamous Brown Lady.
There are many stories of the sightings of The Brown Lady over the centuries since Dorothy’s death, but there are some notable examples.
It is said that Prince Regent George IV was awoken in the middle of the night during a visit to see a small, disheveled woman in brown standing at his bedside. Alarmed, he yelled for help with some versions of the story, saying he refused to stay the rest of the night in the house. Other versions say he requested another room to sleep in.
Another example involves another house guest, Major Loftus, who was staying with a group of people at Raynham Hall in 1849. He had stayed up late into the night, and when he went to retire to his room, he encountered a woman in brown on the staircase. He did not recognize her as another guest, but before he could greet her, she vanished.
The next night, he decided to wait and see if he saw the woman again. Sure enough, she reappeared. He could get close enough to see that her dress was exquisite and her hair coifed perfectly. However, instead of two eyes, she had deep, dark, black hollow sockets. He drew a sketch and began showing it to the other guests. This sparked a ghost hunt by everyone visiting Raynham Hall, as well as a mass quitting of the servants who did not want to work in a haunted mansion. The Townsend of the time was sure this was all a prank and tried to call the police to investigate, but no prankster or brown lady was discovered.
On another occasion, Captain Frederick Marryat insisted on sleeping in the haunted bedroom where there hung a portrait of The Brown Lady herself. Marryat was there with others for a hunt and had gone to look over the weaponry when he returned, gun in hand, to his room for the night. He was a woman in the hallway walking towards him who looked identical to the woman in the portrait. He said she looked menacing and became so unnerved that he raised his gun to shoot the woman. She vanished, and the bullet Marryat shot is still embedded in the doorframe of the infamous bedroom. He kept his pistols under his pillows that night.
It is also said that The Brown Lady isn’t the only ghost to haunt Raynham Hall. Members of the Townshend family have reported the presence of two child ghosts, as well as the ghost of a beloved spaniel. The son of Charles II, The Duke of Monmouth, is also said to haunt the room he once stayed in. Phantom whispers and the rustling of gowns are often heard. Some say one room often has its chairs rearranged about a card table as if a party of ghosts had started a game during the night.
Photo of the Brown Lady
The infamous photo in question today was taken on September 19, 1936, by two Country Life employees. One was a photographer who was more no-nonsense and was not interested in the ghost tales of Raynham Hall. The other wasn’t a photographer but was interested in The Brown Lady and all of the stories of Raynham Hall.
A year or two before, the Dowager Marchioness Gwlady Townshend had written a book of ghost stories from Raynham Hall and other prominent estates. Raynham Hall had fallen on harder times as one of its previous caretakers had nearly filed for bankruptcy. Many old estates had lost their luster, and many felt that to restore the image of their homes, they needed to connect to a time when things were more opulent. Ghost stories were a perfect way to connect these old estates to their more majestic pasts. Gwlady wrote her book hoping to restore some of Raynham Hall’s reputation.
This book is part of what led these two Country Life men to the hall to take photos. As they went about the house taking photos, Silva, the more open-minded of the two men, claimed that he said the misty appearance of a woman descending the stairs in front of them. The other man saw nothing while working with the camera and took a photo. Excitedly, Silva waited for the results of the photo and was shocked and delighted to see that The Brown Lady had been caught on camera. A perfect image to lead their article with.
While this image made shockwaves, many believed that a ghost had been captured. However, others doubted the legitimacy of the photo and felt it was nothing but a hoax to help promote the book. The photo was examined carefully, and while there was no obvious evidence of double exposure, some did think that the misty apparition was where the light had entered and overexposed part of the photo. The original photographer was not pleased with the attention of the photo and did not feel that he could say without a shadow of a doubt that it was real or not, as he saw nothing in the house at the time. However, his colleague remained steadfast that the image was real and that The Brown Lady did appear to him in the house.
And that is where this story rests. Many believe the photo is a hoax. Others believe it is proof that ghosts exist. However, more modern methods of paranormal research have not been allowed by the Townshends. They do not take a strong stance either way on the issue. Some say they have seen The Brown Lady in recent decades. Others choose not to comment. After centuries of intrigue, I could imagine I would also be hesitant to have people traipsing all over my house hunting for ghosts I was them.
So there we are the story of The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. What do you think? Hoax or haunting?