Friday, October 31, 2014

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

By Catherine Curzon

It was quite by accident that I scheduled myself for the Halloween slot here on the blog but, given my love of all things ghostly, most fortuitous too. With one eye on the date and one on my beloved glorious Georgians, there could really only be one topic for me today and that is the sad fate of Dorothy Townshend, aka the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.

The unfortunate Dorothy Townshend (pictured below) was born Dorothy Walpole on 18th September 1686 at Houghton Hall, Norfolk. As a daughter of Robert Walpole and Mary Burwell, she was the sister of the legendary Sir Robert Walpole, now widely considered to be the first man to hold the office of Prime Minister of Great Britain. For Dorothy, though, life was not destined to be quite so illustrious as that particular sibling. 

In her youth Dorothy took something of a fancy to Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend (pictured bottom left), who had been left under Walpole's guardianship by his father. Though the young couple were devoted to one another Walpole forbade the marriage, preferring that Townshend make his own way in the world, sure that there would be allegations of nepotism, undue influence and possibly worse should he permit the union.

Townshend and Dorothy gave up on their dreams of marriage and the Viscount married another, leaving the woman who adored him utterly alone. Of course, no intelligent, beautiful, rich young woman is left alone for long and soon Dorothy fell under the influence of Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton and later founder of the notorious Hellfire Club. Dorothy's affair with Wharton was passionate and heated and though it was over quickly, it was to cast a long shadow even after Wharton fled his creditors and Dorothy was left, once again, alone.

Lady Dorothy Walpole
For once though, Cupid seemed to be smiling on the young lady and Townshend, now widowed, returned to claim her hand. The couple were finally married and together had seven children which should be the happy conclusion to this tale but of course, that wouldn't be much of a story for Halloween.

Instead, things eventually began to go downhill in the Townshend household at Raynham Hall and inevitably, word of the earlier affair eventually reached the Viscount's ears. He was furious at his wife's youthful indiscretion and ordered that she be locked up in her rooms, never to know freedom again. Here Dorothy remained for more than a year until her sad incarceration was ended by a dose of smallpox aged just forty. The official explanation struck some commentators as a little too convenient and there was gossip that the unhappy woman, despairing at what her life had become, had thrown herself down the stairs at Raynham Hall or, worse still, had been cast down them by her enraged husband, though suspicions were to remain unfounded.

Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Dorothy's story doesn't end there though and it seems that, according to some, her incarceration at Raynham Hall continues to this day. Many guests at the house have made reports of a ghostly apparition and our very own Prinny, better known as the future George IV, stayed at the house during the Regency and left in quite a hurry after being surprised by "a little lady all dressed in brown, with dishevelled hair and a face of ashy paleness" who stood beside his bed. Some of those who encountered the vision remarked upon its similarity to portraits of Dorothy Townshend and so the legend grew, helped in no small part by a now famous photograph taken in 1936 by Captain Hubert C. Provand. The photograph  purports to show the spirit who has become known as the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.

Is the Brown Lady really the unfortunate Lady Townshend? Indeed, is the Brown Lady really anything at all beyond a legend? We cannot know for sure but as Halloween celebrations start across the country, let us spare a thought for the tragic fate of Dorothy Townshend, wherever she now walks.


Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

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