Christian Jensen Romer. Reproduced with permission from Anomaly 51 (2021) p.35-91. You can join ASSAP at http://www.assap.ac.uk
In this paper the Swinhoe era of residence at St. Anne’s House is discussed with reference to contemporary documents to provide the fullest account to date of the events that underlie the famous ‘Cheltenham Ghost’ of the 1880s. These include both a precursor ‘ghost’ at the property, and a drunken assault on the composer Gustav Holst while still a baby in his pram, as well as another haunting that originally bore the name “the Cheltenham Ghost” later attributed to the Morton/Despard case.
If it is possible for a ghost to achieve a certain celebrity, the ghost of St. Anne’s House, Pittville Circus Road, Cheltenham has a better claim than most to ‘A-list’ status. She first came to the attention of psychical researchers via Frederick Myers, whose mother lived in the town and who was educated there at Cheltenham Boy’s College, and who was a frequent visitor to the town in the years when he was engaged as the indefatigable Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR was founded in 1882, and on May 1st, 1886 Myer came to hear about a haunted house in Cheltenham and began his enquiries. Those enquiries led to the publication in 1892 of an account of “The Morton Case”, credited to one Rose Morton, in Volume VIII of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. The case has subsequently been much discussed, with Peter Underwood (1977) and Andrew Mackenzie (1982, 1987, 1988) writing on the case, as well as a book dealing with the haunting, The Cheltenham Ghost by Abdy Collins (1948). As Hamilton (2009) said it is also a case which has proved controversial with rival schools of ghost-hunters championing different interpretations, most notably Underwood’s attempt to dismiss the ghost as a disguised mistress.
The author has made some efforts to establish if any earlier records exist of the haunting phenomena, in the newspapers of the period and by careful research on the primary sources casts question on a number of minor factual errors that have entered the record and been passed from author to author: these in no way imperil the narrative of the haunting, but are simply corrected to ensure the background to the case is properly presented. During the research, several stories emerged that throw light upon the supposed supernatural phenomena that were occurring in Victorian Cheltenham, and upon the family life of the individual that is believed by many to be the original of the ghost, Imogen Swinhoe, as well as a brief but dangerous encounter between Mr. Swinhoe (Imogen’s husband Henry) and the baby who would grow up to become the famous composer Gustav Holst. In this paper the author attempts to put forward the most complete examination of the background to the haunting case yet offered.
A Note of Caution
Let us start by setting aside pseudonyms; the true name of the “Morton” family was in fact Despard as revealed by Abdy Collins (1948). The Swinhoe family were the first residents of the house, and one of them, Imogen Swinhoe, has traditionally been ascribed the role of the ghost. These names were first revealed by Abdy Collins in the middle of the 20th century, and while the individuals concerned in our story have distinguished descendants, I do not believe serious offence is likely to be caused by this discussion of details long revealed in print, and indeed the newspapers. The SPR quite rightly employed pseudonyms however, not least because of continuing concern about the ghost stories in the rental value of the ‘haunted house’. Again, that house has now been known and its location published for three score and ten years and is certainly known to the residents and indeed most locals; this author falls into the latter category.
So the house is St. Anne’s House on Pittville Circus Road, Cheltenham, and is of course private property and has residents who will not appreciate anyone ringing the doorbell and asking about ghosts (just in case anyone was considering it – do not!). The ghost has not as far as I can tell be seen my decades, and if there was anything worth ‘investigating’ the author would have attempted it in the decades he has lived close by. We shall use the real names not the SPR pseudonyms through this article.
The Woman in Black
In this article I shall focus on the period predating the haunting and the events said to give rise to the ghost. Although the case is a long-established classic in the annals of psychical research, it will doubtless be new to some readers: I therefore will briefly describe some of the later appearances of the famous ‘woman in black’ who haunted this property. Let us begin by quoting Morton (1892) on her first sighting of the ghost —
“My father took the house in March 1882, none of us having then heard of anything unusual about the house. We moved in towards the end of April, and it was not until the following June that I first saw the apparition.
I had gone up to my room, but was not yet in bed, when I heard someone at the door, and went to it, thinking it might be my mother. On opening the door, 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. 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, arid it suddenly burnt itself out; and being unable to see more, I went back to my room.
The figure was that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woollen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. This is all I noticed then; but on further occasions, when I was able to observe her more closely, 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. There was no cap on the head but a general effect of blackness suggests a bonnet, with long veil or a hood.”
Some members of the family over the next six years repeatedly witnessed this apparition, both inside and outside of the house, as did reportedly servants and neighbours. As well as the apparition there were other phenomena less often discussed in association with the case,
“Other sounds were also heard in addition which seemed gradually to increase in intensity. They consisted of walking up and down on the second-floor landing of bumps against the doors of the bedrooms, and of the handles of the doors turning. The bumps against the bedroom doors were so marked as to terrify a new servant…”
Interestingly all of these noises are directly associated with the figure itself: when Rosina goes outside to look on hearing the footsteps —
“These footsteps are very characteristic and are not at all like those of any of the people in the house; they are soft and rather slow, though decided and even. My sisters would not go out. on the landing after hearing them pass, nor would the servants, but each time when I have gone out after hearing them, I have seen the figure there.”
The sounds seem to increase with time, and she hints at possibly a second ghost —
“A second set of footsteps was also heard, heavy and irregular, constantly recurring, lasting a great part of the night, often 3 or 4 times a week. On the first floor the same noises are heard, especially in the front right-hand room, formerly used by Mr. and Mrs. S. Louder sounds were also heard in the summer of 1885, heavy thuds and bumpings, especially on the upper landing.”
Generally though the most impressive phenomenon is the apparition, witnessed by many persons. There is one other phenomenon worth noting though –
“On one night in July 1886 (my father and I being away from home), my mother and her maid heard a loud noise in an unoccupied room over their heads. They went up, but seeing nothing and the noise ceasing, they went back to my mother’s room on the first storey. They then heard loud noises from the morning-room on the ground floor. They then went halfway downstairs when they saw a bright light in the hall beneath. Being alarmed, they went up to my sister E., who then came down, and they all three examined the doors, windows, &c., and found them all fastened as usual. My mother and her maid then went to bed. My sister E. went up to her room on the second storey, but as she passed the room where my two sisters L. and M. were sleeping, they opened their door to say that they had heard noises, and also seen what they described as the flame of a candle, without candle or hand visible, cross the room diagonally from corner to door. Two of the maids opened the doors of their two bedrooms, and said that they had also heard noises; they all 5 stood at their doors with their lighted candles for some little time. They all heard steps walking up. and down the landing between them; as they passed they felt a sensation which they described as “a cold wind,” though their candles were not blown about. They saw nothing. The steps then descended the stairs, re-ascended, again descended, and did not return.
The House in Pittville Circus Road
Morton’s 1892 account in PSPR VIII begins
“The house is a typical modern residence, square and commonplace in appearance. It is only separated from the road in front by railings with high gates and a short carriage-sweep. On one side, but completely detached, is another similar residence; on the other side runs a crossroad, shut out from the house by the small orchard, referred to in the account, and by the garden, which also extends some way at the rear…”
This is still true today: oddly enough a recent extension to the front left has taken up the footprint of the long-vanished servants’ quarters and stables and restored the building to almost the same shape it possessed in the 1880s. At the time the house was built the property stood upon land that has previously served as market gardens, and careful investigation of maps by ASSAP member Hannah Wright during her time with the council discovered no previous structures on the plot.
Pittville had been developed as a “second town in the Chelt valley”, designed to offer a more refined and genteel ‘gated community’ than Cheltenham itself; given the new development was less than half a mile from the centre of Cheltenham it was inevitable that the two communities would merge, a transition helped by the Reverend Frances Close a local Evangelical pastor and political opponent of the Pittville developers deliberately building a large area of working class (some might say ‘slum’ housing in the fields immediately adjacent’. The idea was not entirely new; Cheltenham had a reputation for snobbery and as a luxury resort, and previous attempt had been made to create a gated community at Battledown, on the hill overlooking the town. (Unlike Pittville where the ornate gates are the only sign of the former private nature of the streets, Battledown remains to this day an exclusive gated community).
Perhaps the most useful description of the house appeared in The Cheltenham Examiner on Wednesday October 18th, 1876 in the form of an Estate Agents advertisement. It reads —
Sale of an Important FREEHOLD FAMILY MANSION, with grounds of some two acres. Gardener’s Cottage, Vinery, Conservatory, Coach Houses, Stables, &c., delightfully situate in the Pittville Circus Road, close to All Saints’ Church and commanding uninterrupted Views of the Battledown and Leckhampton Hills.
ENGALL, SANDERS & CO.
Have to announce that they are favoured with instructions from the Will of the late H. Swinhoe, Esq,
TO SUBMIT TO THE PUBLIC COMPETITION
CHELTENHAM AUCTION MART
On THURSDAY, the 2nd day of NOVEMBER 1876
At Three for Four o’clock precisely
(subject to the Conditions of Sale to be then produced)
The commodious and admirably arranged FREEHOLD FAMILY RESIDENCE known as
Pleasantly and most healthily situate on dry soil in the Pittville Circus Road, and close to All Saints’ Church. It is approached by Carriage Drive (with double entrance) and by Flight of Stone Steps leading to the Portico and contains.
On the GROUND FLOOR – Spacious and Lofty Inner and Outer Halls and Passage leading to the Garden Entrance; Dining Room, 25ft by 18ft; Study 17ft 9in by 15ft; Double Drawing Room, forming an Elegant Saloon, 45ft 6in in length by 17ft 9in (and including Bay Window 22ft 6in)), these rooms are 13ft high; Lavatory and W.C.
FIRST FLOOR is reached by a Staircase of Easy Ascent, with handsome Mahogany Balustres, and contains Spacious Landing on to which Five excellent light and lofty Bed Rooms (one measuring 19ft 6in by 17ft; Two others 18ft by 15ft 9in) and Two Dressing Rooms and Store Closet; and one HALF SPACE – Landing and W.C.
On the SECOND FLOOR are Five excellent Bed Chambers and Two Dressing Rooms, Bath Room fitted for Hot and Cold Water, and Shower Bath and Store Closet.
There is a Second Staircase for Servants from Basement to Top of House.
The BASEMENT is unusually light and particularly well-arranged, comprising Kitchen 25ft by 22ft 9 in (including Bay Windows); Servants’ Hall, 19ft 2” by 17ft 9”; Butler’s Pantry, Scullery, Laundry, Wine, Beer and Coal Cellars, Store Closet, W.C., & c.
The STABLING, situate at a convenient distance from the House, and approached by folding gates from the back road, Two Stalls, Loose Box, Coach House and Saddle Room, with two Servant’s Rooms and Hay Lofts over same, and nearby the Gardener’s Cottage, and Enclosure for Poultry.
The GROUNDS comprise Croquet Lawn, gravelled Shrubbery Walks and tastefully disposed Flower Beds and Borders, which, with the very productive Fruit and Vegetable Gardens, Conservatory, Vinery, Cucumber and Melon Pits, are enclosed on three sides by lofty Brick Walls.
The Water Supply is excellent, and Gas is laid on to the Principal Apartments.
The first inhabitant of the house that was to become famous as haunted was Henry Swinhoe. It seems likely young Henry was born around 1829 and raised in West Bengal in Kolkata (then Calcutta) where the Swinhoes were a prosperous British family working as solicitors for the ruling East India Company. The Gentleman’s Quarterly and East India Register records the births and deaths of Swinhoes parents and uncles, but I have omitted the details for reasons of brevity. However it seems likely that Henry served in the East Indian Company army, in the 30th Bengal Native Infantry Regiment having applied as a cadet in 1841.
In 1849 British plans to depose the Sikh ruler Duleep Singh led to a Sikh rising, and what became known as the Second Anglo-Sikh War. The first major engagement was the Battle of Chillianwalah, where the British were badly mauled, and several British correspondents wrote admirably of the courage and ferocity of the enemy Sikh troops who inflicted fearful losses. Among those wounded was a young British lieutenant named Henry Swinhoe; it seems likely he is our man for reasons that will become clear later.
In 1851, two years after his brush with death, he married. The Bombay Times & Journal of 21st February 1851 reported “On Thursday, 6th February at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Revd A. Garstin, Henry Swinhoe, Esquire Solicitor to Elizabeth Frances widow of the late G E Higgins, Esquire”. The bride was just 18 years old and was already a widow. She had first married aged 15 on January 12th, 1848 as “Elizabeth Frances Herd, daughter of the late Charles Herd.”; within two months her husband, George Edmund Higgins was dead.
Elizabeth and Henry Swinhoe might have remained happily in Kolkata, had it not been for the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the chaos that ensued. Henry had given up the military life, probably after being wounded at the age of 20, and was now practicing law. While his brother remained in the military, Henry was lucky to have left. In 1857 the native troops of the 30th joined the general revolt, and the sepoys turned on their officers, who were forced to flee although they escaped relatively unscathed. Following the horror of massacres and reprisals, Bengal probably appeared less appealing, and by 1861 Henry Swinhoe and his wife are back in England.
The Swinhoe Residence: Garden Reach
The house was constructed on land that had previously been market gardens after the Pittville area had become part of Cheltenham proper and the house was built for sale. The first owner was the solicitor, Henry Swinhoe, and his wife Elizabeth and they named the house “Garden Reach”, after the fashionable district of Kolkata (then Calcutta), in West Bengal.
Earlier authors suggest the Swinhoes moved into the property immediately on its completion in 1860, but in fact the family were resident in Sidmouth, Devon until as late as May 1862 when they are listed in Lethaby’s Sidmouth Journal & Directory. They lived at Bedford House, a property overlooking the beach adjacent to the Bedford hotel, which still stands today. On the date of the 1861 census the young children were in Sidmouth, being looked after by friends whose names are listed in a hastily scrawled explanatory note by the census – perhaps Henry and Elizabeth were visiting Cheltenham to look for a new home?”. There appears to be some considerable error regarding when the Swinhoes moved in in the published works on the case; while most give the date as 1860 the excellent pitvillehistory.org.uk database gives it as 1865, and Henry Swinhoe’s absence from earlier street directories suggests that this may be the correct date.
Certainly in 1863 he was in Cheltenham, but then living at 17 Suffolk Square, as we can see from the baptism record of Rodway his youngest surviving son. On May 16th, 1865 The Cheltenham Looker On shows the Swinhoes had recently taken up residence, as the house is described as recently constructed in an article about whether or not the proposed new Water company was stifling the Cheltenham property market, which assertion the journalist refutes by listing all the substantial new homes built or sold in the period. Henry is stated as the first occupier of the house, something upon which there is general agreement, which suggests the property was built in 1864/5 after some other houses in the road were completed. This is a very minor point to labour over, but it does show that earlier authors have often been reliant on word-of-mouth information. One assumes F.W. Myers quite rightly concentrated on the apparition, and one imagines he would be astonished anybody would search the newspapers and records for precise construction dates in the 21st century!
On November 15th, 1865 when they were visited by Mr C.A. Swinhoe of Her Majesties 40th Regiment who is noted as arriving to visit Cheltenham and staying there in The Cheltenham Examiner of that date, and a Mrs Penny of Blackheath, London also visits and is mentioned in the Arrivals & Departures Society columns. Presumably, these individuals were relatives of Henry and Elizabeth.
A Literary Coincidence
As an aside – on December 10th, 1864, the Cheltenham & Gloucestershire Journal carried an advertisement for the new Christmas Number of All the Year round edited by Charles Dickens, but also price threepence the double Christmas special of rival Chambers Journal. The Journal extra issue was entitled –
“TENANTS AT WILL. Consisting of the following striking GHOST STORIES, the whole strong together by an amusing framework:
- The Story of the House in Garden Reach.”
There follow five more short stories about haunted houses. The Garden Reach coincidence is interesting; in fact this is a ghost story set in India; but given the Swinhoe’s residence was named after the same, it is perhaps conceivable that children might have heard the title and jumped to incorrect assumptions? Growing up within 12 miles of the site of Borley Rectory, children had little idea of where it once was, and often imparted the name to any local sinister looking house seemingly unaware it had burned down forty years before! Is it possible this was the entirely mistaken beginning of the belief the house was haunted?
The Death of Elizabeth Swinhoe in Childbirth
The Swinhoes were a large family with five children: sadly, Henry’s wife Elizabeth Frances was to die in childbirth on August 11th, 1866, aged just 35, as did their stillborn son. The death was reportedly widely with formal notices in around a dozen newspapers, this left Henry a widower with a large family.
At that time, the other children were Henry G.B. Swinhoe aged 8, Francis Swinhoe a daughter aged 6, Charlotte Elizabeth Swinhoe a daughter aged 5, Alice Swinhoe a daughter aged 4, and Rodway Charles John Swinhoe a son aged just 3. (One cannot help but wonder if constant pregnancy and childbirth was not damaging her health even before the final tragedy). Immediately following his wife’s death Henry must have considered moving for in the issue dated September 29th, 1866 and then again on November 17th, 1866 The Cheltenham Looker-On offers the house to let furnished or unfurnished, though sadly no sum is mentioned. It is conceivable that Henry and the children went away for a time, and let the house to others, for Cheltenham remained a very fashionable resort and it is easy to imagine a short term let of such an attractive residence, but this must remain speculation.
Grissell versus Herd
While the first wife of Henry Swinhoe has never excited much interest, Elizabeth does make her mark in the history books, albeit in the books of law. Grissell vs. Herd (Hemmings 1869, p.291) arose because her first husband G.E. Edmunds had signed a prenuptial agreement bequeathing in event of his death the sum of 23,500 rupees to provide an annual income for his wife. After his death his father held the money and made payment to Elizabeth even after she married Henry; not just a widow, but a rich widow! When Higgins senior also died half the estate went to Elizabeth, and half to his daughter, George’s sister. The annual payments continued it seems but on her death her son claimed the Estate. Henry Swinhoe clearly felt this was an injustice, and after the death of Elizabeth (see below) he sued her nephew stating three quarters of the original sum should have now passed to Elizabeth and her children. Swinhoe was successful and Grissell was forced to pay the monies G.E. Higgins had intended to go to his wife over.
Henry marries Imogen Hutchins.
Henry however must have chosen to remain or to return, for he was resident there when he remarried three years later, on February 16th, 1870 at St. Mary’s Church, Cheltenham. The service was presided over by two vicars: one from St, Mary’s the main parish church, and one from Holy Trinity, a fashionable “chapel of ease” (overspill daughter church). The Reverends Lillington and Gantillon presided over the ceremony, and the bride is described as “Imogen Hutchins, youngest daughter of the late Major George Henry Hutchins, 36th Bengal Infantry, H.E.I.C.S” . (Once again, we discover what appears to be an error: Major Hutchins was in the 30th Bengal Native Infantry, as his tombstone attests, and that regiment was involved in fighting in both Afghanistan and the Second Anglo-Sikh War: and it was in the 30th that he would have met the young Henry Swinhoe, and where the young lieutenant was wounded in battle. Major Hutchins lived from 1792 to 1844 and died in Cheltenham, at 15 Pittville Villas.)
Imogen Hutchins, his new wife, was a 33-year-old spinster, and she joined a family with three daughters and two sons, the oldest only eleven. Henry himself was now 47. At this time there were two servants present in the house according to the 1871 census, Ellen Sparrow aged 21, and Sarah McDougall aged 17. There is a minor mystery in that early authors state that Imogen was living in Clifton, Bristol at the time of her marriage; in fact, her address appears to have been 2 Blenheim Parade, Cheltenham, a long-vanished terrace of houses that stood across from Holy Trinity Church on what is at the time of writing North Place car park. (Her sister was resident in Clifton, but I could find no evidence she moved there until after her divorce from Henry.)
 H.E.I.C.S stands for Honourable East India Company Service, and so the Major did not belong to the British army but to the private forces of that company which ruled until formally being subsumed into the British Army in 1858 by the Government of India Act, after the Indian Mutiny of 1857
An Unhappy Marriage
Their life must have been difficult with Imogen becoming stepmother to such a large family; but they may well have been happy. Soon though Henry and Imogen’s marriage was to be a deeply unhappy one. On the 17th, June 1871 after only a year of marriage Henry Swinhoe drew up a Deed of Separation, and Imogen left Garden Reach: the reason being her “gross and continual habit of drunkenness” and the fact she used “violent and indecent language” against Henry in front of the children. Henry claimed so bad were Imogen’s drunken rages that his health suffered badly. Yet on August 15th he ripped up the Deed of Separation and the couple reconciled, and she moved back into Garden Reach. (Swinhoe 1875)
The only incident to make the papers in this period is in the Cheltenham Chronicle of 29th August 1871. Eliza Blakemore alias Widgley, servant, stole from Garden Reach “one pair of boots, one pound of tea, and one pound of coffee, the whole to the value of 12s, the property of Henry Swinhoe.” He did not appear to press charges so the case was dismissed, but given the woman was in court to answer another theft charge she may have been guilty! Given the crime occurred on August 24th Henry may have been happy at his then recent reconciliation with Imogen.
While the divorce papers I drew the preceding facts from were sealed until 1976, as early as Myer’s ghost investigation local rumour attributed the issues between Swinhoe and his wife to alcoholism; the Hutchinson’s asserting Henry drank, the Swinhoes blaming Imogen for her drinking. When later Imogen was established as the most likely candidate for the ghost, the scandal and gossip regarding alcohol abuse placed Myers in an enviable position: as editor of the SPR Proceedings, publishing potentially libellous claims even protected by pseudonyms must have given him pause; of course Henry was dead, but his family were socially prominent and remain so to the present era; and Cheltenham’s polite society had doubtless enough knowledge of the alleged haunt to be able to conclude who was involved.
Imogen moved to Bristol after the couple separated a second time. The Cheltenham Mercury for Saturday 27th March 1875 gives the following notice repudiating is wife’s debts and making public another separation —
I, HENRY SWINHOE, of Garde Reach, Pittville, Cheltenham, will Not be responsible for any Debt or Debts that Mrs IMOGEN or HENRY SWINHOE may contract in her or my name, nor will I pay any Debt or Debts that may have been contracted by MRS SWINHOE, and for which I am not legally responsible.
Garden Reach, Cheltenham
25th March 1875.
On 15th May 1875 Henry Swinhoe filed a petition for divorce against Imogen and I was able to access the Divorce Court petition from the National Archives. It describes Imogen as a violent drunk who used intemperate, indecent, and vulgar language in front of the children and the servants, and hurled furniture at her husband. In particular on the 22nd of December 1874 she threw a chair at him and assaulted him, striking him. Then on April 2nd, 1875 Imogen attacked Henry with a broom, and he was only saved by the quick intervention of Celia Dolphin, the cook. “On or about” April 5th, 1875 Imogen accused Henry of sleeping with Elisabeth Townsend, the housemaid, and of having had an illegitimate child with her. She claimed she had caught them in bed together the day before in front of the children and staff and assaulted Henry; Miss Townsend then brought a case for slander against the Swinhoes, for the attack on her reputation.
These are the causes of the separation according to Henry Swinhoe’s sworn account. Morton (1892) – who was of course Rosina Despard — gives a slightly different story in her account —
“The chief subjects of dispute were the management of the children (two girls, and either one or two boys, all quite young) of the first Mrs. S., and the possession of her jewellery, to preserve which for her children, Mr. S. had some of the boards in the small front sitting-room taken up by a local carpenter and the jewels inserted in the receptacle so formed.”
There were in reality two sons and three daughters alive at the time they were living in the house, and Henry lived in the house only eleven years, not sixteen as Rosina writes elsewhere in her report. Six years passed between the Swinhoes departing the house and her moving in, and it is clear she is relying on local gossip, or at; least the reports of neighbours. Should we take her seriously about the question of the jewellery? We will return to this question later. Why would a husband going to such extreme lengths to hide jewellery from his new wife allow anyone to know anyway? And is it just he could not bear to see her dressed as Elizabeth was? Or was there some other reason why the jewels might have been important? They were brought from India, could they have included valuable gemstones? In fact Rosina had a first-hand source
“We also now heard from a carpenter who had done jobs in the house in Mrs. S.’s time, that Mrs. S. had wished to possess herself of the first Mrs. S.’s jewels. Her husband had called him in to make a receptacle under the boards in the morning-room on the ground floor, in which receptacle he placed the jewels, and then had it nailed down and the carpet replaced. The carpenter showed us the place. My father made him take up the boards; the receptacle was there, but empty.”
My father thought that there might be something hidden near the garden door, where the figure usually disappeared. The boards were taken up, and nothing was there but the original shavings and dust.”
The First “Ghost” of Garden Reach
Imogen left the house and went to Clifton, and Henry remained. And it was during this period, on November 5th, 1875 that the first masked ghost of the house made the papers – an incident that was reported in The Cheltenham Examiner of both November 16th and November 17th in the reporting from the Magistrates court under W. Skillicorne, Esq. The case was brought by Charlotte Whittington, a servant to Garden Reach, against Frederick Crisp an errand boy working for Mr. Taylor, a draper on the High Street. Mr Stroud presented the case, and Mr Boodle the defence.
The facts presented were generally agreed; that on the night of November 5th, the servants at Garden Reach had let off fireworks “in honour of Guy Fawkes”, and that the boy arrived to deliver a box as Miss Whittington was unlocking the gate for the cook Mrs. Wilson on the driveway. Charlotte approached the boy and took the box to take into the house but then followed him out of the gate with the cook as he turned to leave, at which point he turned and struck her violently four times on the head, causing her to bleed and making her flee to safety inside the house. After the first blow she asked him what he was doing, but he continued to strike till she ran off. The boy then ran to the cook as if for safety, and she told him who he had struck. He said “I am very sorry, I did not see who it was”, and then ran home to his father terribly upset at all that had occurred.
This happened after dark somewhere between nine and ten o’clock after the fireworks had ended, and the boy was probably young. The gas light was enough to see by, but the hedges mad the scene dark. Dr. Gooding testified to the severity of the wounding; a lot of blood in the hair, and a wound about the “size of a sixpence” indicating the boy used considerable violence wit is stick, which was of the kid errand boys usually carried for their protection. The case against him was discharged, because he had struck Charlotte believing her to be a ghost – she was dressed “in light clothes and had a ‘cloud’ around her neck” — as well as a mask on her face. The mask was small, “it only covered her nose and part of her face” – probably what is called today a domino or highwayman’s mask. So Charlotte was dressed in what we today would call fancy dress, as the poor boy was terrified by her “masked and ghastly garb”. The magistrates dismissed the case, saying Charlotte’s foolish behaviour had frightened the boy so badly his health was affected and was in danger of losing his job as he would no longer go out after dark. The boy’s father Mr. Crisp had visited the house to apologise for his son’s behaviour, and Mr. Swinhoe had threatened him with a summons, and at other times threatened to shoot the boy if he came to the house ever again. This rather casts doubt on the victim’s claim that “there is no household conducted better than Garden-reach”.
Why spend so long on this Bonfire night assault? It strikes the author as possible that this event, widely known through local gossip and the newspaper reports, might have served as a template for the later ghost. The similarities are: –
- A female apparition
- Seen outside the house (as well as inside in the later haunting)
- Wears a mask: the later ghost partially conceals its face with a handkerchief.
- Seen in the darkness, but physical.
- Wears all white; the later apparition is famously a woman in black.
Unfortunately, the author has been unable to ascertain what was meant by a ‘cloud’ around the neck, unless an embroidered high necked lace cloud collar which is part of some Chinese traditional clothing. However could word of mouth accounts if the ‘ghostly’ woman in white have reached the family in a garbled form, leading to the woman in black apparition by suggestion? Is there any connection between this precursor to the real haunting, and later events in the Despard residence?
The Pram Incident
On Saturday November 20th, 1875 Henry Swinhoe himself was up before the magistrate, accused with assaulting Miss Alice Speechey. on Winchcomb Street, Cheltenham on the 13th of November. The case opened with the prosecutor declaring “Mr Swinhoe is quite famous in Cheltenham, as much for his fondness for stimulants as his antipathy to perambulators”. The facts of the case were simple; Mrs van Holst went into town with her baby, named Gustav, in the pram pushed by Alice the nursemaid. As they approached the high street down Winchcomb Street she came across Mr and Mrs Swinhoe talking in the street and asked them if they might move over to allow her to pass. At this point Mrs van Holst said, “that is the man who hates prams—go slow!” but it was too late. “No I won’t: I will overturn it first” said Henry and placing his stick in the wheel of the pram he tried to tip the baby in to the road. Alice struggled to stop the baby falling out, and sprained her wrist, and Mrs. van Holst threatened Swinhoe with the police for trying to harm a baby. He replied “I don’t care. Tell who you like!”
A third person was now admitted as a witness, a Mr. Carter. He was talking to Mr & Mrs Swinhoe and claimed that the whole thing was a misunderstanding: the carless nursemaid had pushed the pram too close to Imogen, and Henry had put out his stick to defend her. Unfortunately, the stick had passed through the wheel of the pram, but that was the nursemaid’s fault, and “she had no right to be there.” Perambulators as horseless carriages on pavements were controversial it seems; it might still be an offence to push one the wrong way up one way road, but that was not the case here.
Mr Van Holst stated a simple apology from Henry Swinhoe would have sufficed, but his letter demanding an apology was met with abuse leaving him regretfully with no choice but to press the case. Mr. Skinner, greengrocer of Winchcomb Street appeared, and stated that the thing was no accident but a deliberate assault, and that he had on several previous occasions heard Mr. Swinhoe “order nursemaids” out of his way. Despite him denying it he was well known for his hatred of prams. The nursemaid was blameless, and walking steadily, not “going at a random rate”.
Unsurprisingly the case was found against Henry Swinhoe: he was fined £2, and 6s/10d costs – a sum equal to £155 today (using the National Archives converter). The baby in the pram dropped the Van affectation, and followed his father into the music business, achieving fame as the famous composer of the Planet Suite and many more orchestral works. It is strange to think his life could have ended after an encounter with the woman in lack and her violent drunken husband before she became a famous ghost! You can still visit the Holst birthplace museum in Cheltenham which is preserved as it was in his lifetime, and I have told the curator about the incident.
The Deaths of Henry and Imogen
On July 14th, 1876 Henry Swinhoe died in the Morning Room at the front of the house. Three days later his burial is recorded as occurring at St. Mary’s, the parish church in the town centre. (His first wife, Elizabeth Frances Swinhoe was buried at Cheltenham cemetery on August 16th, 1866, not at St. Mary’s. I checked in case they were buried together.)
Imogen survived him by two years, and on Monday 23rd, September 1878 Imogen succumbed to the effects of alcoholism (given as “dipsomania and gastritis” on her death certificate) at Clifton, Bristol and was returned to Cheltenham for burial in the crypt of Holy Trinity church, that was being remodelled at the time and was and remains highly fashionable. (Trinity was a chapel of ease built to accommodate the overflow of parishioners who could not fit in services at the parish church St. Mary’s as the town’s population expanded and the Rev. Frances Close attracted large crowds.) She lies there with four hundred other bodies interred in four rows of stone coffins beneath the church, interred on Thursday, September 26th, 1878 just three days after her death.
The tragic marriage and the description of the ghost led to it being identified with Imogen; and given that one of the witnesses was able to identify her from a photograph, and others had presumably seen Imogen in life, it seems entirely possible. So the first question must be, was Imogen dead? Yes, her death certificate and burial obviously preclude a mistake in this respect. She had been dead just under a decade when Myers arrived to make his first enquiries about the ghost.
A second question that arises is why given her deeply unhappy marriage to Henry Swinhoe was the Clifton resident Imogen returned to Cheltenham for burial? Were the stepchildren the reason? Some investigation quickly revealed the solution: she is buried with her parents in the vault of Holy Trinity, and they were Cheltenham residents. The memorial (Rawes 1978) reads —
“Thy will be done. To the beloved and lamented memory of Major GEORGE HENRY HUTCHINS of the Hon. East India Com’s 30th Bengal Native Infantry who died the 10th of March 1844 aged 51 years. Ever to be lamented by his afflicted widow and bereaved family. Also of CATHERINE widow of the above who died August 15th, 1871 aged 59 years. Her end was peace.
Also of IMOGEN SWINHOE daughter of the above named Major & CATHERINE HUTCHINS who died at Clifton / Sep. 23rd, 1878 aged 41.”
Imogen’s parents both predeceased her. (I was slightly puzzled by the phrase on her mother’s memorial “her end was peace” but this simply means she died contentedly perhaps after a painful illness and was a common epitaph of the time.) Imogen was at the time of her death living at 1 Clifton Hill, Clifton, Bristol, and her death was reported in the Cheltenham Looker-On newspaper for September 28th, 1876. She was living close to her sister Emma Dunn who lived with her husband Nicholas Dunn at 15, Victoria Square, Clifton, Bristol. Her sister was Executor of her estate.
The Secrets of the Will
I have long known the executors of Henry’s Will but had until recently not been able to find any details of the contents. While researching this piece I joined several genealogical websites, and researched the ancestors of Henry, Elizabeth, and Imogen. One of the most telling discoveries was when I looked at Imogen’s sister; unlike Imogen she married young, to the Deputy Lieutenant of Pembrokeshire, and went on to own a large house in Clifton and have several highly successful children. There is a marked contrast between her life and that of poor Imogen, but then this whole story is rather sad.
I was pleased to note several other people had been engaged in the same research, and I have subsequently identified one of them as Cheltonian authoress Jacqueline Beard. She found the assault on poor Charlotte, but not the ghost element, and reported the pram incident, but did not make the Holst connection in her article (https://jacquelinebeardwriter.com/) and deserves full credit for her excellent work on the case. Another user who goes by the name FenTiger on Ancestry.com I was unable to identify (it may well be Jacqueline Beard), but I must acknowledge them too as they have clearly worked very hard on the documents surrounding the case. However, suddenly I was astonished to find in the user’s notes a summary of Henry Swinhoe’s Will: sadly lacking a reference to the source. This is such a valuable find that I desired to reproduce it here, and though I am unable to ascertain how they located it, and my messages appear to be going unanswered. I hope to be able to credit them properly by name in a future publication. Nonetheless I will not publish their finding, but briefly summarise them – Henry Swinhoe was in considerable debt, debt that the sale of Garden Reach some years later almost cancelled out, but not quite. The children’s only inheritance came from £500 worth of silver plate and jewellery, that presumably could not be reached by the Henry’s creditors any more than it could by Imogen. The Will holds other fascinating insights, and despite their notes being public it is not my place to share them, and I encourage the author of the note to contact this journal to publish in their own name their findings and receive credit for their research.
The important things I that there probably were valuable jewels as the story claimed, and that they were used to provide for the children.
Why is the Ghost Identified as Imogen?
Morton (1892) gives us the best reasons for considering the identity of the apparition as being Imogen. She claims to have met an early witness to the ghost –
“I met a lady at a friend’s house, who told me that, when living in the town 7 or 8 years before, she had frequently been told that the house and garden were haunted by Mrs. S. After the lapse of time she could not remember the names of any people who were reported to have seen anything, and we could not trace anyone.” (Morton 1892)
By this point Imogen seems to have been established as the identity of the ghost –
“My father went to Bristol, and there found the register of Mrs. S.’s death, which had taken place on September 23rd, 1878, from dipsomania and intervening sub-gastritis. He called on the doctor who had attended her and asked him if there had been any disfigurement of the face which would account for its persistent concealment. He remembered the case, and said that there had not been, though the face had become more full and round.” (Morton 1892)
Just to be clear she gives a selection of reasons for believing the ghost to be Imogen –
“The figure has been connected with the second Mrs. S.; the grounds for which are:
1. The complete history of the house is known, and if we are to
connect the figure with any of the previous occupants, she is the only
person who in any way resembled the figure.
2. The widow’s garb excludes the first Mrs. S.
3. Although none of us had ever seen the second Mrs. S., several
people who had known her identified her from our description. On
being shown a photo-album containing a number of portraits, I picked
out one of her sister as being most like that of the figure, and was
afterwards told that the sisters were much alike.
4. Her stepdaughter and others told us that she especially used the
front drawing-room in which she continually appeared, and that her
habitual seat was on a couch placed in a similar position to ours.
5. The figure is undoubtedly connected with the house, none
of the percipients having seen it anywhere else, nor had any other
hallucination.” (Morton 1892)
The term “The Cheltenham Ghost” has become synonymous with the ghost of Imogen Swinhoe. Yet in fact it may not have done; the whole story, as the nature of these things possibly being rather more complex. In this paper I have made no attempt to explain the haunting, in the manner of Underwood or Lambert, but have instead focussed on what the earliest sources can reveal about the events underlying the haunt.
To understand the true “Cheltenham Ghost” of Summer 1886 let us begin by assessing what the situation was at that point with the ‘Morton’ (actually the Despard family) and how F.W. Myers came to become aware of the case. In this ‘Prefatory Note’ to Morton (1892) he writes
“The first intimation which I received of the series of phenomena described below was in a letter received in December, 1884, from Mr. J. W. Graham, now Principal of Dalton Hall, Manchester. Mr. Graham had heard an account from the gentleman mentioned below as Captain Morton; had written this account out from memory, and had got it revised by Captain and Miss Morton. This account, and Miss Morton’s letters to Miss Campbell, which begin with the first appearance of the figure, are the earliest written records.
Captain Morton was for a time unwilling to give further accounts, lest the house, which belonged to a friend of his, should again become depreciated in value; as it appears from Miss Morton’s record that it has previously been. But on May 1st, 1886, he permitted me to call upon him; and from that date onwards I visited him at intervals and took notes of what he told me. I also saw Miss Morton and Miss E. Morton, and I interviewed at their own homes Mrs. Twining, a charwoman, and Mrs. Brown, a former parlourmaid. In this case it is observable that the phenomena as seen or heard by all the witnesses were very uniform in character even in the numerous instances where there had been no previous communication between the percipients. I have found no discrepancy in the independent testimonies, when collected, with the unimportant exception of General A.’s inability or unwillingness to recall one incident, which was already included in Mr. Graham’s first account, soon after its occurrence, and six years before General A., an old man, was asked to repeat it.
Captain Morton’s reluctance to allow the evidence to be collected until the haunting had ceased through a reluctance based on consideration for the owner of the house has thus done less harm than might have been feared. It must be added that Captain M. and the members of his family in general, while feeling little scientific interest in the apparition, were unusually free from superstitious fears. Miss Morton, whose account is given below, is a lady of scientific training, now preparing to be a physician; and her narrative has received no accretions since I first heard it. The name Morton is substituted for the real family name. With that exception the names and initials are the true ones. F.W.H.M.]
If this seems of little interest, please bear with the author a short while: it may have more significance than one might expect. In the Summer of 1886 ghosts were very much in the mind of Cheltonians; in fact not only were ghosts drawing crowds night after night, but the newspapers make repeated references to special excursion trains laid on by the railway company to bring ghost hunters from first Gloucester, and later Bristol and Birmingham! (for example, The Burnley Express of 11th August 1886) Now throughout history supposedly haunted houses have often drawn crowds of idle sightseers, who stand outside watching at the hope of seeing something, and on occasion throw stones and vandalise the property. Something of this nature occurred near Cheltenham chapel off the Lower High Street in the 1820’s, and the crowds that resulted were dispersed only by an explanation that the strange lights seen in the windows of the empty building were just reflections of streetlights through imperfections in the glass. In the 1850s the visit of a pair of American mediums caused a large and disorderly crowd to gather outside their lodgings in Grosvenor Street, and they were removed only when the Borough decided to ‘water the street’, soaking the public and sending them home to dry.
By 1881 the tide of public opinion may have moved against ghosts; one of the great sceptics and debunkers of the 19th century was John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917) had started his career exposing mediums here. John was a Cheltenham, England watchmaker who became interested in magic after watching a séance by the Davenport Brothers, purported American mediums. In 1865 he debunked the Davenport Brothers by recreating all they did and more, and soon after became a professional magician. Maskelyne clashed repeatedly with Spiritualists and joined the SPR participating in the 1895 sittings with Eusapia Palladino at Cambridge and revealing her clumsy fraud there. Maskelyne was a prime mover in the creation of the magician’s society The Magic Circle in London in 1905, and 1914 also set up The Occult Committee, a group dedicated to exposing fake mediums. Strongly associated with The Egyptian Hall in London, Maskelyne and his sons after him led the British magic scene.
Maskelyne lived on Montpellier Street, but I am unable to ascertain if this is the house is the one, he referred to in his talk at the Egyptian Hall on October 21st, 1881. Maskelyne talks about what we would term Crisis Apparitions in his family, his belief in thought transference (telepathy) and his contempt for Spiritualism. Then he gives a ghost story, though whether referring to his childhood home on Swindon Road, or another house I cannot say. (His later home on Montpellier Street has no bay window) The account follows, as given in The Cheltenham Mercury for October 27th, 1881.
“Our family occupied a house that had that reputation. It stood, and I believe still stands, in the outskirts of the town of Cheltenham. A rich lady of miserly habits resided there for many years, and after her death strange stories were rife respecting it. Noises were heard within, and a spectre, with a green light, was often seen flitting about the empty rooms. The first night of our residence in the house we retired to bed shortly before midnight. I occupied a room at the top of the house, and two or three of my sisters an adjacent one. Scarcely had one candle been extinguished, than we were startled by a curious tapping noise, like someone walking upstairs, but came no nearer, though the tapping continued some minutes. I began to feel alarmed, and fancied I saw a shadow of a female flit across my room. I called out “Who’s there?”, and my sisters, who had been listening to the ghostly footsteps, uttered a scream of terror, and in a few moments the whole household was in a state of commotion. The tappings ceased, but fortunately they immediately commenced again, and after a few minutes search I discovered the ghost to be nothing more than a shower of rain, and from a leakage in the gutter over my window the water dropped upon the lead covering of a bay window beneath.”
The Editor of the Cheltenham Mercury seems to think Maskelyne made it all up to in his words “gammon the Cockneys”, but the story sounds entirely reasonable, and Maskelyne ideas of what Myers would soon term telepathy sound sincere. He after all joined the Society for Psychical Research and the two men were probably on very good terms despite the class difference. Again though we have a female ghost, concerned with money, who makes a noise of footfall and is associated with a strange light. These features are found in Rose Morton’s report, but also in “The Cheltenham Ghost” case of 1886.
If the house was indeed one in Swindon Road, then it would be intriguing to know which. In 1927 there was an outbreak of ‘rapping’ in a house on Swindon Road, in the Maud’s Elm area of Cheltenham, and while that must await a future paper it will certainly be a connection worth investigating. Quite by chance as this paper was about to go to print Jan Bondeson has an article on the ‘Legend of Maud’s Elm’ in the latest Fortean Times — nothing on the poltergeist though!)
“The Cheltenham Ghost”; August 1886.
So what was the ghost case in Cheltenham in August 1886 that was sufficiently important to reach the newspapers in Toronto and all over the United Kingdom., yet is utterly absent from the narrative of F.W. Myers and Rose Morton/Rosina Despard? Unfortunately whereas modern newspaper journalists tend to be wildly enthusiastic and sensationalistic in reporting every ludicrous ghost photo, the press of 1886 were made of sterner stuff, and tended to dismiss all such stories as utter nonsense. Given the previously noted association of haunted houses and public rowdiness and unrest perhaps that is understandable.
I have therefore tried to piece together events from a number of sources, some clearly exaggerated. An example of the latter is this piece that was widely reported in British newspapers, and even reached as far as the Toronto papers! Here is the text from the Burnley Express for the 11th, September 1886.
“There is something quaintly weird in the idea of a special “ghost train”, but there is one now running to Cheltenham from a neighbouring town, and the tourists go with the idea of seeing the ghost of an old lady who wants to show where she buried £500 before she died. Of course there is some humbug in the business, but it is so impenetrable that the Cheltenham authorities have offered a reward of £50 to anyone who will expose the deception and lay the unquiet spirit. People have trouble enough to get money and keep it in this world; it is very hard if in the next world a poor ghost is to be in despair because the gold cannot be got rid of.”
Now while this is clearly exaggerated and unreliable, and it seems highly unlikely that Cheltenham home to famed magician and debunker John Maskelyne (his reputation was probably similar to that of James Randi) would need to offer money to find someone to debunk a ghost! Nonetheless we have a hidden treasure of £500 – the exact value of the hidden jewels – and a female ghost in Cheltenham. Now ghosts trying to reveal hidden treasure are a well-known folklore motif, but this seems rather a coincidence.
Where Was the Ghost?
So what was the truth? Some articles are satirical and mocking those who congregated to look for the ghost, but even they provide useful geographical information. Whereas Garden Reach/ St. Anne’s stands in the Pittville district of Cheltenham, the ghost excitement of 1886 was centred on the parish of Leckhampton. Now Leckhampton is an ancient manor and covers a considerable area; Leckhampton village church is over a mile from the northern edge of the old parish, and references to still extant pubs in a jokey article where the narrator gets more and more inebriated before thinking he has seen a ghost and collapsing in a heap suggest the opposite Bath Road end, as otherwise our drunken hero would be weaving a very long way!
Another article mentions the Suffolks; the area around Suffolk Square that still bears that name today and includes F.W. Myer’s family home on Lypiatt Road. Finally the author found a reference to Great Norwood Street, his home for many years, which lies on the edge of the Suffolks and Leckhampton. After careful research it seems that the location in question was a derelict woodyard with a workshop to the front on Suffolk Street (Cheltenham News August 27th, 1886), which is an area of smaller terraced house and scattered cottages just beyond the grander villas of Great Norwood Street, The Suffolks and The Park. The confusion of Suffolk Road and Suffolk Street as well as the other locations given in the local press suggest that the journalists did not trouble to visit the scene or went to some lengths to obfuscate it. The area having suffered somewhat in the Luftwaffe bombing raid of November 1940 the author consulted period maps to try and locate the wood yard. The 1884 OS map is particularly useful, though curiously it shows Suffolk Street backs on to St. Phillip’s Street, and the alley between the two, often referred to as “have you seen my dog?” alley from the ghost story set there is well known as haunted (Cox & Meredith, 1982). That apparition seems to date from the Second World War, but years of new Student Parapsychology Society students from the nearby University of Gloucestershire would walk the alley and on occasion report anomalous experiences. It is a curious coincidence that it appears to have been the site of a much earlier haunting.
The Ghost Appears
The Cheltenham News for the 27th of August 1886 gives the story as follows —
“For some evenings past the weak minded and superstitious of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Suffolk-Street have been growing agitated and scared by the appearance of what they termed to be a “spirit” from the unseen, returned to this world to claim some money left behind. Hundreds have congregated around an old workshop which the “ghost” has condescended to visit. The report originated by three boys observing an uncerta9in light in the workshop in question – now flashing, now flickering, and fading away. The mystery appears to be no more than the distorted light from the house on the side of the workshop, shining through the two glass panes of the workshop, which are probably constructed of common glass, thus causing the effect that has caused such a scare among the inhabitants. It does not say much for the enlightenment of the age of education that such a number of persons congregated in fear are of the impression that a reflected light is nothing less than an unearthly visitant from the other world.”
The article is typical of the period; the mystery is presented as being simply something superstitious people are prone to believing, and a simple explanation is given. Once again, the spirit is alleged to have a financial motive: this may tell us more about Victorian England than the desires of the dead!
The ghost did not last long. The mystery was apparently resolved in the Cheltenham Chronicle of 4th September 1886 —
“Solution of the Suffolk Street Ghost Mystery
To the Editors of THECHELTENHAM CHRONICLE
Sir, — I am happy to be able to inform you that the occasion of the gathering together for more than a week past in this street of several hundreds of people, to the almost intolerable annoyance of the householders in this vicinity (barring the public houses), has by the ‘intelligent department’ of our police authorities, been altogether removed. It having been suggested that probably the appearance of lights in the building where the ‘ghost’ was supposed to frequent night be caused by ‘ignis fatuus’ either by exhalations form an old sewer, or from decayed wood on the premises, I ventured to mention on Monday last this theory to the Superintendent of the Police, Mr. McRae, and he arranged to meet me the same evening on the spot to enquire respecting the old sewer, &c. We soon, however, when there, discovered that the old disused sewer alluded to was a considerable distance from the timber yard, and that theory was at once discarded. Mr. McRae had made his own enquiries, and, at his invitation, I accompanied him to the rear of the building, in the front windows of which the mysterious lights nightly appeared.
We there found that the back windows of the ground floor and the upper part of the upper part of the building been thickly whitened over to prevent any reflection through them to the front, but there were numerous panes of glass throughout both rows of the back windows broken, leaving holes of different shaped and sizes. About fifteen yards distant from these windows in the rear is a row of small houses, and whenever the inhabitants of these had a lamp or other light in their bedroom windows, the light from them passed through and was reflected on to the front of the building here and there – (the ‘illusion’ therefore, coming from the rear of the building, and not from the front, as was stated in last Wednesday’s issue of the Cheltenham Examiner).
To make it evident this was the actual cause of the appearance of the lights in the front windows of the building, Mr. McRae later on, when there were, as usual, several hundreds of people in the road, took a small lamp and waved it in front of the cottage windows in the rear of the building, and immediately the people in the road, seeing the reflection of the lights in the front window, “boo-ooed” and shouted “There she is again,” to my great astonishment, knowing what Mr. McRae was doing. The intelligent portion of the crowd, on the ‘modus operandi’ being explained to them, readily comprehended and it, and soon left, but the ‘gamius’ and ‘gammers’ and girls, and those who did not wish to be ‘enlightened’, were not disposed of without strong threats from the police.
Living in the vicinity of the scene of action of these nightly visitations, I am sure the inhabitants of the neighbourhood will be grateful to Mr. McRae and his officers for solving the mystery of the ‘ghost’.
I am Sir, your obedient servant,
The London Globe, The Pall Mall Gazette and many other papers chimed in on the ghost, and many of the articles are genuinely funny, and possibly reflect a wry amusement that Cheltenham, a fashionable and pretentious resort renowned for its schools and colleges had somehow become the centre for a ghost craze. Many of the articles were (presumably) wildly inaccurate: here as an example is the Weekly Freeman’s Journal’s account from Dublin on 18th September 1886.
Those who remember the ghost in Shieldfield will smile at the story which comes from Cheltenham. During the past week that pleasant watering place, beloved by King George III, has been terribly exercised by the presence of a spectre. It was first seen at the dead of night at the window of a cottage, and as the cottage had a gruesome history of crime and the mysterious disappearance of a large sum of money attached to it, a raison d’etre for the ghost was at once established. The multitude would seem to have believed in it and so far did the reputation of this unearthly visitor spread that people rushed to view it from Gloucester, Birmingham, and Bristol, special night ghost trains being put on by the railway company for their convenience. Moreover Cheltenham as a learned place boasting of great schools and colleges and not of the sort to tolerate the intrusion of an airy disembodiment vanishing ‘like a guilty thing’ at the crow of the matutinal chanticleer its Corporation offered £50 to anyone who could detect the fraud and put a stop to the farce. Yet it turned out to be neither one or the other but simply an illusion. There was a lamp at the back of the cottage and the light reflected on the window of a room, in which shielded as she thought by darkness an old woman had undressed herself before going to bed. It seems rather hard on the Psychical Society that so splendid a chance should end in the prosaic fact of an ancient dame imprudently neglecting to pull down the window blinds.
Cheltenham was also a town deeply divided politically between the Tories (chiefly represented by the Agg family) and the Whigs (the party of the Berkeley family), and this deep divide may well explain the need of rival newspapers to provide their own explanations. The Cheltenham Chronicle catered to the Whigs; the Cheltenham Mercury to the Conservatives, and we might spy something of local politics in their attitudes to the police as presented here. While many of the national paper’s articles are more literary, for reasons of space the author presents here only the rival Cheltenham Mercury article published on the same day as the Cheltenham Chronicle explanation, 4th September 1886.
The Leckhampton ghost has still continued to excite the attention of the public, notwithstanding the fact that the police have declared it all nonsense, and crowds of people have assembled night after night to watch a light occasionally sparkle upon the glass windows of the workshop. I do not mean to include among the superstitious one quarter of the highly respectable people who have swelled the ghost hunting throng; hundreds went simply to see what this wonderful manifestation really looked like, without having one thought of there being ought supernatural attached thereto; but there were scores who really and truly believed that they were looking at something caused by no mortal hand, and some fevered imaginations went as far as to depict the figure of an elderly figure in the yard. In the face of this nonsense the sound and practical solution of this ‘mystery’ which Mr. Wethered has published will be read with interest, and I make no apology to my readers for producing it entire, Mr. Wethered says :–
“I was first informed of these curious lights on Thursday evening, and at 9.30 I set out for the locality in which they were reported to appear. On my way I overtook numbers of people all bent on the same errand, and not knowing the exact location and wishing to gather some details as to the phenomena, I got into conversation with a lad, whose belief in the reality of ghosts was as firm as a rock. He told me that it appeared about half-past nine in the evening, and gradually disappeared between two and three in the morning, and that the police had been in the building and could discern nothing, which fact my informant regarded as conclusive evidence of the reality of the apparition. He urged that if the police could discover nothing, why what else could it be but the ghost of a woman who had died in an adjoining house? Another gentleman of easy credence, gave me to understand that a woman with a child in her arms had been seen, while other people had been favoured with remarkable visions on the windows of the aforesaid premises.
Being thus duly primed with the ideas of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, I reached the scene – a workshop near Great Norwood -street – and there I saw a crowd of some five hundred people, all straining their eyes at the windows of the building. Of course I did the same – but saw nothing. Where was the ghost? I demanded, and was told it had already been seen, but had now disappeared, probably to be soon visible again. Shortly after that I did distinctly see a luminous appearance in one of the windows; but when I moved to left or right I lost sight of it. Keeping my eye on the spot, I came to the conclusion there was a particular pane of glass that had different reflective properties to other panes in the window. Suddenly there was a murmur in the crowds that gradually developed into a cheer. The cause of this enthusiasm was the appearance of certain peculiar lights on one of the windows – and this was the ghost! I looked around to see whether there was any lights from the neighbouring houses to which the cause could be attributed, but, as it seemed to me, there was none. Then as the moon – where was she? She had not risen, but there were bright stars and there were clouds moving overhead. Could the light, OI pondered, be due to the light of the moon when visible, and to the stars whose light struck the glass at certain angles, and was at times cut off by passing clouds?
I went home about eleven o’ clock and at seven next morning went up to examine the workshop. I had marked the spot where I first observed the luminous appearance and now I discovered a pane of ribbed glass in the window. Further examination showed the windows be constructed of small panes of many kinds set up at various angles and many of them smeared with paint. The investigation supported my belief that the glass in the window had much to do with the “ghost”. I now sought the assistance of Mr. Matthews, of the Science School, Cambray, and it was arranged with the permission of the owner of the premises that we should meet the spectre in a friendly way at 9:15 that evening. At the appointed time we duly arrived at the scene, our investigation force strengthened by Mr. Rothery. The crowd outside was larger than ever, and it took the energies of several men to prevent the rougher element from doing considerable damage to the property; as it was the gate was broken in. It is bad enough certainly for the owner to know that his premises are supposed to be haunted without having damage done to them by the roughs.
We now preceded to look over the building, with the aid of lights. I should say the night was dark and not a star to be seen, and the ghost had only been dimly visible once or twice, not nearly so vividly as the night before. The windows were carefully examined and we all arrived at the opinion that the considering the nature of the glass and the angles at which the pains were set the only wonder was that the light had not attracted notice long before. The lights were now put out and Mr Matthews, Mr Rothery and myself stationed ourselves in various parts of the building where the window panes were most likely to reflect light. Men were also placed in the yard at short distances so that word could quickly be passed when the ghost appeared. We were not in our posts long when a man in the crowd lit his pipe and strange to say but the light was reflected by the very pane of ribbed glass through which I was looking. Instantly up came word that the ghost had been dimly visible where I was standing. In that case clearly the ghost was produced by the man lighting his pipe! The window of the workshop are made up of many different kinds of glass sets at various angles. On these panes lights from several houses are constantly; reflected the moon and star lights are also reflected, and this I believe to be the main cause of the supposed ‘ghost’. The light strikes the panes of glass at different angles and passing clouds constantly intercept it first causing the appearance and disappearance of the apparition. I do hope that this will be the end of the ghost alarm and the people of the neighbourhood and the owner of the premises will not be further inconvenienced. I may also say that the lights on the window of the workshop are not of recent origin. A man who worked there eight years ago says he noticed them during that and never thought anything of them before. It seems that the thing was first noticed by the public about fortnight since when the moon was nearly full which facts supports the view I have taken.”
After this explanation I hope to hear no more any ghosts and trust that people will abstain from making themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the sober and thinking portion of the community by giving currency to such superstitious nonsense. The owner of the property must feel awfully annoyed at the proceedings which have taken place for stupid as they are, they must unquestionably have had a damaging effect which will require some time to efface.
With my usual contrariness the author suggests that explaining apparitions as reflections in glass may be about as culturally conditioned a response as say the development of Stone Tape Theory and the recording hypothesis in the 1960s and 70s when home tape recording became popular. Pepper’s Ghost was a popular stage show in Cheltenham throughout the 1860’s, and the ‘projection’ of convincing spooks on to glass was an extremely obvious explanation, but not necessarily the correct one, for the mystery lights. We must be cautious when rival explanations are offered as here. What is clear however is that Cheltenham ghosts like most Victorian hauntings were often understood as superstition, ignorance, and a threat to public order; a cause of civic unrest. Rioting was not unknown in Cheltenham in preceding decades (though usually associated with the preaching of the Rev, Frances Close, the popular evangelical and strident demagogue pastor of St. Mary’s) and ghosts are construed as a police matter. When a completely harmless story of a father seen appearing by his children at the door of a Cheltenham house a few days before his actual arrival in the form of what we would term a ‘phantasm of the living’ was repeated by a Scottish bishop, the reaction included some extremely sharp criticisms. 1880’s Cheltenham was in that fortunate coinage of our age, a “hostile environment” for ghosts.
The Morton Ghost First Appearance?
The following piece, published in the Cheltenham Chronicle on the 4th of September brings us full circle however, for in it we find what I believe to be the first allusion in print to the Morton/Despard case, and possibly an oblique hint of F.W.Myers and the Society for Psychical Research’s involvement. If this does refer to this case, it is the earliest reference to such in print, but has seemingly not been noticed by earlier historians of the case. The article reads:–
Of all the silly stupidities which have ever become the theme of general conversation, we reckon the so called ghost scare at Leckhampton to have been the most so. It has served as an excuse for the gathering of a band of rowdies, but otherwise the so-called appearance was hardly worth attention. This miserable sham of a miracle had not the merit of possessing a single one of the awe-inspiring qualities usually attributed to things of its kind. We could have excused the absence of the usual pomp and circumstance of spiritual life- the antecedent murder, the unrestful dead, the sheeted, gibbering ghost, its appearance and disappearance and the other concomitants of a visit from the other world if there had been one uncommon point in the affair; but this fraud of a miracle at Leckhampton possesses none of the usual features of the disembodied spirit. It is scarcely phenomenal, far less supernatural. Any small boy in the fourth standard of an elementary school might explain it in five minutes how it all arises. This being so, the best advice we can give is for the police to interfere very vigorously in the affair. They should take strong steps towards obviating the assembly of any more crowds in the neighbourhood. We are the more anxious to have this Leckhampton twopenny- halfpenny mystery settled in as much as a rumour is afloat that in another part of the town a highly-respectable family is troubled by a nightly visitor from the invisible regions. The latter case is one decidedly calling for attention of psychical research people. One feature about ghost- scares is that one always begets another. Now that the long nights are coming on there are plenty of ingenious young men who will devote their valuable attention to the production of ghosts. Last year their craze was for burglary this year is for spirits.
The term “The Cheltenham Ghost” originally referred to the strange lights seen at Suffolk Street off the Bath Road in the summer of 1886; at exactly the same time as this was being reported nationally and internationally, Myers whose family home was in Lypiatt Road close by became involved with the Morton/Despard case, that was to come to adopt the name in years to come. For some reason Myer’s never refers at any point to this earlier Cheltenham Ghost, but even before Rosina Despard and family moved to the house now known as Garden Reach in 1882 there was already a story involving a ghostly woman, a strange light and the sound of footsteps: the one described by Maskelyne in his public lecture on October 27th, 1881.
In fact ghostly women, strange lights, and a financial motive imparted to the spirit appear in all three of the stories. Was this some folkloric haunting well known in the area and simply ascribed to different houses by the gossip of servants? Why does Myer’s make no mention of the more famous Cheltenham ghost? When he went to visit the former servant who lived in Chapel Lane off Great Norwood Street that May he was just round the corner from where the crowds would gather to watch for the ghost in August. I am by no means imparting any dishonesty or wrongdoing to Myers – he may well have felt the other affair was a nonsense, easily explained away, and distracted from the more serious business occurring a mile to the north in Pittville. He may have been affected by the general spirit of hostility to ‘Cheltenham ghosts’; and indeed it was not until Abdy Collins (1948) that the house and its location in Cheltenham was finally revealed. Not least this may have been necessitated by the cases brought for slander of title against those who imputed a haunted reputation to a house, where the courts often awarded substantial damages to the owner.
As we have seen on historical fact there are several minor errors in Morton (1892) but no more than one would expect given the limited information that Rosina Despard might be able to glean from neighbours and local gossip, and in the issue of the jewels it seems likely she was in fact correct. Henry Swinhoe’s behaviour can be understood in terms of his attempting to save something of an inheritance for his children, and in terms of attempting to save money, leading him to pursue the Grissell’s for Elizabeth’s moiety, and try to curb Imogen’s excessive spending. Yet clearly both sets of relatives were correct: both Henry and Imogen succumbed to alcoholism, and the bizarre incident with the baby Gustav Holst in the pram suggests that he was quite unhinged before his death, but still associating with Imogen despite the pending divorce! It is also notable that contrary to Lambert’s (1958) underground water hypothesis the estate agent’s advertisement specifically references the dry soil on which the house stands.
The “Woman in White” incident which cause the serious assault on the maidservant is also curious. Did this give rise to a story of the house being haunted, or did the cook and maid dress up as ghosts because of some pre-existing story of a haunting? If there was not already a ghost story somehow attached to the then very new house, why did the errand boy act in such a strange manner and attack the maid?
Clearly, we have some way to go before we understand the mystery of the Cheltenham ghost, and the next phase must discuss the Littlewoods and the Despard residence, as well as the contested issue as to whether Inholmes, the Sussex preparatory school that relocated to the house was also troubled by the apparition. While this paper may raise more questions than it provides answers, I hope it has cast a little new light on this old ghost and might spark debate on this fascinating haunting.
CJ, May 2021.
I have given most references in the text in the form of the location where the newspaper stories were carried to the details of where to locate the documents for the purpose of clarity. Other sources referenced are given below.
Abdy Collins, B. (1948) The Cheltenham Ghost, Psychic Press, London.
Adams, P. (2015). Was the Cheltenham Poltergeist the real ‘Woman in Black’? https://www.spookyisles.com/cheltenham-poltergeist/
Beard, Jacqueline The Ghost of St. Anne’s https://jacquelinebeardwriter.com/2018/10/22/the-ghost-of-st-annes/
Cox, W.L; Meredith R.D. (1982) Haunted Cheltenham, Gloucestershire Library Service, Gloucester.
Elizabeth Swinhoe burial record (1866) Gloucestershire Archives; Gloucester, Gloucestershire; Gloucestershire Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: Gdr/V1/490
Fairholm, Rebsie (2008) Her Cheltonia blog is a wonderful source of information on the history of the town. I made us of this page several times. https://cheltonia.wordpress.com/old-names/
Hamilton, T. (2009) Immortal Longings: F.W.H Myers and the Victorian Search for Life After Death, Imprint Academic, Exeter
Hemmings, GW (1869) The Law Reports Volume VIII: Chancery Appeal Cases, Council of Law Reporting, London.
Lambert, G.W. (1958). The Cheltenham Ghost: A Reinterpretation, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 39, pp. 267-77.
Mackenzie, Andrew. (1982), Hauntings and Apparitions, Heinemann, London.
Mackenzie, Andrew. (1987), The Seen and The Unseen, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London
Mackenzie, Andrew. (1988), Continuation of a Haunted House, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 55, pp. 25-32.
Morton, R.C. (1892) “Record of A Haunted House” in the Proceeding of the Society for Psychical Research, VIII, p.311-329.
Pittville History Works at http://pitvillehistory.org.uk St. Anne’s House listing all residents until 1945 is at http://pittvillehistory.org.uk/service6h.php?orderby=year&field1=houseid&query1=324&operator1=eq&showsql
Rawes, Julian (1978) Memorials of Holy Trinity Church, Cheltenham at http://pittvillehistory.org.uk/bios/Trinity%20memorials/HOLYTRIN.001.pdf
Society for Psychical Research. (2019). PSI Encyclopedia: Cheltenham Ghost https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/cheltenham-ghost
Swinhoe vs. Swinhoe divorce papers (1876) The National Archives; Kew, Surrey, England; Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, later Supreme Court of Judicature: Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Files, J 77; Reference Number: J 77/159/3803Hauntings: New Light on Famous Cases (1977)
Underwood, Peter (1977) Hauntings: New Light on Famous Cases, Duckworth, London