The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

The phantom descends the staircase

A regular entry in ‘top 10 ghost photographs’ lists, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall remains a perennial favourite among devotees of the paranormal. But, for those that aren’t altogether au fait with this particular spectral snap I shall briefly relate the story below.

Sightings of the Brown Lady have been reported at Norfolk’s Raynham Hall since the early 18th century, once even by a fearful King George IV (Prince Regent at the time). So, when on the 19th of September, 1936, Country Life magazine sent two photographers, Captain Hubert C. Provand and Mr. Indre Shira to visit the ancestral seat of the Townshends and document some of the Hall’s features, it seemed as though the veracity of the haunting might have finally been proven.

Towards the end of their photographic session, and after viewing much of the historic house and gardens, the two men set up their camera to shoot the impressive staircase. It was around 4pm – Provand had already taken an initial shot and was underneath the black cloth adjusting the camera in order to take a second frame, when suddenly Shira exclaimed that he could see an apparition descending the staircase: “a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman”. Shira told Provand to immediately take another photograph. Despite being unable to see anything unusual through the viewfinder himself, Provand did as asked. The captain thought that perhaps Shira had seen an optical illusion caused by a nearby mirror, or even the flash of the photograph he had taken shortly before had affected his eyes and told Shira that he doubted his claim of ghostly goings-on. Shira made a five pound bet with Provand that the spectral image would manifest itself on the photograph. Upon returning to their London studio and enlisting a Mr. Benjamin Jones as a witness, the two set about developing their plates. They were astounded to discover that they had caught what appeared to be the infamous Brown Lady of Raynham Hall on film: Shira had won the bet.

(Nigel Jones)

The Brown Lady’s story reaches back more than two centuries. Thirteen years after their wedding, Lord and Lady Townshend’s marriage ended when Lady Townshend (née Walpole, daughter of Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain), purportedly passed away. Before her death, a rift had opened between the couple when Lady Townshend – Dorothy began to pursue an affair with the rakish Philip Wharton – or so it was rumoured at the time. Upon learning of this supposed betrayal, the irate Lord locked his wife in her rooms at Raynham Hall, forbidding her even to see her own children. Then on the 29th of March, 1726, she expired from smallpox. Local legends hints that her death may actually have been caused by falling (or perhaps even being pushed) down the hall’s great staircase and breaking her neck. The legend goes even deeper, as some say that Dorothy’s funeral was an elaborately staged affair and that she was in fact still living, locked up in a secret room concealed somewhere in the house. Accounts of Dorothy’s spectre, dressed in brown brocade and wandering the Hall, have been reported throughout the centuries.

Portrait of Lady Dorothy Walpole

Country Life published Provand and Shira’s photograph in December, 1936 along with their account of the event. The image and story made great waves and captured the public’s collective imagination. It even crossed the Atlantic Ocean, making it into Life magazine. All this press coverage soon drew the attention of the Society for Psychical Research, and their investigator, a Mr. C.V.C. Herbert. Herbert discovered some interesting and possibly revealing details. He began by interviewing Provand and Shira about their experiences at the hall. Shira, a “nervous and superstitious Scotsman”, was not in fact a very able photographer. Instead, he was more the “business brain of the pair” and curiously he was using a pseudonym, although it is not revealed why this was so, or what his real name was. During a later interview, Lady Townshend (of the time of Provand and Shira’s visit) recalled that Mr. Shira had arrived at the hall with the stated hope of photographing a ghost.

Captain Provand talked to Herbert mainly of his camera and revealed further complications to the story. According to Provand, the bellows on it were faulty and ‘he was always afraid that light might get in’, something which Herbert marked out as being significant. Also, upon examining an un-cropped facsimile of the spectral snap, Herbert found anomalies towards the edges of the frame. A picture frame on the wall was duplicated, its ghosted image suspended in the air, the balusters didn’t connect perfectly to each other and ‘the angles suggesting that the camera had been shaken and the staircase accidentally photographed twice’. Provand stated that the camera had been placed on a slightly unsteady marble table and that he had removed the lens cap hurriedly, which could explain the shakiness of the exposure.

Alan Murdie, former chairman of the Ghost Club uncovered Herbert’s actual report. In it Herbert outlined some of the technical data:

“Film: Kodak S.S. Ortho

“Lens: “R>R> type, symmetrical doublet. Approx f/8.

“Camera: old stand camera. Provand said that the bellows were faulty, and that he was always afraid that light might get in. This is significant.

“I saw the negatives (cut films) of both exposures. The 1st (before the ‘ghost’ appeared) was much under-exposed. Exposure in each case was by daylight (high lights on stairs, etc) assisted by Sasha bulb (large size, one in each case).

“The second film (both were in one dark slide) i.e. the one with the “ghost” is obviously shaken in a vertical plane, causing doubling of all horizontal lines (or else is two exposures?). Provand said he had noticed this, which surprised me, as it is very obvious even in the process block. Provand says camera was on a marble table or pillar and was not very rigid. He uncapped in a hurry.

“It looks as if exposure due to daylight was doubled by vibration. Flash exposure single.

“Both negatives show a circular marking (not clear in block) which in the second looks like a halo round the figure. This is presumably due to reflection inside the lens mount, either from high window on stairs (blocked at bottom only) or from flash.

“Shira is uncertain about where the figure was when he first saw it. It moved, he says down the stairs. Provand says he did not know that Shira had seen anything queer. He hurriedly uncapped when Shira called out, thinking that some sightseers, who were going round the house, were coming. Both Shira and Provand seemed to me to be honest. Provand says the lens was uncapped for about 6 seconds.”

Other experts interviewed the two ghost-captors and were satisfied of their honesty. Some camera specialists even recreated the shooting conditions in attempts to reproduce the photograph to no avail. The noted Harry Price also investigated, returned a result favouring Provand and Shira, and stated: “I will say at once I was impressed. I was told a perfectly simple story: Mr Indre Shira saw the apparition descending the stairs at the precise moment when Captain Provand’s head was under the black cloth. A shout – and the cap was off and the flashbulb fired, with the results which we now see. I could not shake their story, and I had no right to disbelieve them. Only collusion between the two men would account for the ghost if it is a fake. The negative is entirely innocent of any faking”.

Despite Herbert’s sceptical report (which was itself largely ignored by the SPR and also subsequent writers on the subject), the photograph is now seemingly ubiquitous, and is thus regarded as one of the most famous of them all. Sceptics might argue that it is revealing that no spectral activity has been reported at the Hall since the photograph was taken.

This article was first published by


About MBForde

Writer. Excels at staring blankly, having bad hair and storing food in cheeks. Wrote Eerie Britain, amongst other things.
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