Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England

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Have you ever seen a photo of a ghost? The history of ghost photography is fascinating and incredibly controversial. With modern technology, taking a picture and adding a ghost to it is a matter of a few taps on your mobile; there are even apps for that. But what about when cameras weren't in everyone's hands? And apps or computers didn't even exist? It wasn't all that long ago compared to how long humans have been around. Today, most people would assume a photo of a ghost was just Photoshopped, but what if not all those spirit photos out there were edited? How would anyone ever know the difference?

Back in 1936, way before filters, apps, and computers, the world saw a strange and compelling photo taken in Norfolk, England. That photo became one of the most famous ghostly images ever to exist. You may even recognize it yourself.

Black and white photo of a staircase showing what seems to be a semi-transparent ghost floating on it.
Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, taken by Captain Hubert C. Provand. First published in Country Life, 1936

Depending on your culture, geography, religion, parents, local community, and personal experiences, you're very likely to fall into one of three categories on the subject of ghosts:

  1. Ghosts are undoubtedly real.
  2. Ghosts are absolutely not a thing.
  3. Ghosts? I have no idea.

Those are the big three categories, anyway. There are other, smaller ones, like "yes, ghost phenomena are real, but it's actually demons/aliens/Illuminati/etc." or possibly, "no, ghosts aren't real, they are all fakes from the deep state," among others.

As it turns out, based on rock-solid reliable science that definitely can't be biased and never, ever goes wrong, a recent survey showed that about 40% of Americans believe ghosts exist. A survey in Australia showed that 48 percent of Australians believe in ghosts. Another survey from a few years ago showed: British people more likely to believe in ghosts than a Creator.

Did You Know?

"Only 55% of self-identified Christians believe in a God.

— From "A third of British adults don't believe in a higher power"

That's a whole lot of people who believe in ghosts. But why? Ghosts don't seem to show themselves to most people, we can't go to ghost petting zoos or eat ghost beef burgers, and they don't produce any exportable ghostly goods or have a measurable GDP. So, then, why do so many people believe they exist?

To investigate where belief in ghosts comes from, let's turn to a little place called Norfolk, England, and look at the origin of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, a ghost many people believe exists, and why belief in her is so strong.

Where is Norfolk, England?

Nor-folk? Nuhfuck? Even if English is your native language, it's good to know how to pronounce things, so you can easily remember them.

Elm Hill storefronts in Norwich, Norfolk, England
Elm Hill In Norwich, Norfolk, England.

How to pronounce: Norfolk (especially if you're American).

Map showing the location of Norfolk as being to the north and east of London.
Norfolk, England, is about 2 hours by car from London—about 160 kilometers away (just over 100 miles).

Norfolk has a lengthy history, with Palaeolithic (British Spelling, thank you) settlers as far back as 950,000 years—plenty of opportunities for spirits to take root in the area if they had a compelling reason.

Norwich, Norfolk, at night. Overlooking a bridge across water and a bell tower in the distance.
Norwich, Norfolk, at night.

Since we're talking ghost photos, let's set the spooky stage for the story of Raynham Hall with a few photos of places in Norfolk. I'll also provide a few links at the bottom to learn more about Norfolk.

A creepy old stone church at sunset. In the forefront is a cemetery with old tombstones and a black metal fence. In the back is St. Andrew's Church. A small stone church with a single tall round tower like that of a medieval castle.
St. Andrew's Church in Norfolk, England.
An overcast day with lots of fog. The partial remains of a crumbling stone castle sits upon an old country road.
Baconsthorpe Castle, Norfolk, England
A somewhat dense forest with fallen leaves all over the ground.
Norfolk woodland.

The Brown Lady of Raynman Hall

17th-century England. A Whig politician named Colonel Robert Walpole served as a member of parliament representing the borough of Castle Rising, Norfolk.

In 1671, Colonel Walpole married a woman named Mary Burwell, the daughter of a local landowner. They had 19 children together, but only 15 survived to adulthood.

A Famous Family

Colonel Robert Walpole's son, Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, became what is now considered to have been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Colonel Walpole and Mary Burwell's 13th child, Dorothy Walpole, was born at the family home, Houghton Hall, in Norfolk.

Dorothy Townshend, painting circa 1803.
Dorothy Townshend, painting circa 1803. Painted well after she was gone.

Dorothy married an English Whig statesman, Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, and became Dorothy Townshend, or Viscountess Townshend.

Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount of Townshend, painting by Godfrey Kneller, circa 1715.
Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount of Townshend, painting by Godfrey Kneller, circa 1715. You can see his temper boiling just boiling under the surface.

Dorothy's husband, Charles Townshend, had a notoriously bad temper and discovered one day that Dorothy had committed adultery with Lord Wharton, who was famous for his debauchery and charm.

Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton. Painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller, circa 1715. Who could possibly resist?
Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton. Painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller, circa 1715. Who could possibly resist?

Charles flew into a rage at the discovery and locked Dorothy into a confined area of the Townshend family home, Raynham Hall.

Aerial shot of Raynham Hall. A three story squared building with dozens of windows and what looks to be at least 6 fire places. Red brick and grey stonework surrounded by a well-manicured green lawn.
Photo of Raynham Hall by John Fielding from Norwich, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The house had been in the Townshend family for generations. Charles kept Dorothy locked away until she died in 1726 from either smallpox, suicide, or murder. No one knows for sure.

That was the last anyone ever heard of Dorothy Townshend until, over a century later, at a Christmas party in 1835 at Raynham Hall, two guests told of a chilling experience they recently had in the home. Colonel Loftus and a man known only as "Hawkins" claimed they were approaching their bedrooms one night and saw a "Brown Lady" with dark, empty eye sockets visible against her glowing face. Both men called her "Brown Lady" because of the color of dress she wore. Their brief story scared some staff into permanently leaving Raynham Hall.

A year later, in 1836, Captain Frederick Marryat, a Royal Navy officer and friend of Charles Dickens, made a special request to spend the night at the supposedly haunted room of Raynham Hall to prove that it wasn't haunted at all. Marryat believed the ghost story was created by local smugglers to keep people away from the area. What did Captain Frederick Marryat say after his stay? Not much, except to his daughter Florence Marryat, who wrote about it in her 1917 work "There Is No Death."

[Father] took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. My father was in his shirt and trousers, but as the hour was late, and everybody had retired to rest except themselves, he prepared to accompany them as he was. As they were leaving the room, he caught up his revolver, "in case you meet the Brown Lady," he said, laughing. When the inspection of the gun was over, the young men in the same spirit declared they would accompany my father back again, "in case you meet the Brown Lady," they repeated, laughing also. The three gentlemen therefore returned in company.

The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. "One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries," whispered the young Townshends to my father. Now the bedroom doors in that corridor faced each other, and each room had a double door with a space between, as is the case in many old-fashioned houses. My father, as I have said, was in shirt and trousers only, and his native modesty made him feel uncomfortable, so he slipped within one of the outer doors (his friends following his example), in order to conceal himself until the lady should have passed by.

I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of "The Brown Lady". He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared - the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with "The Brown Lady of Raynham".

— Marryat, Florence. There Is No Death. First published in 1917 by David McKay. New edition published by Cosimo, Inc (2004) pg. 10-11

Nearly a century later, in 1926, Lady Townshend said her son and his friend saw the "Brown Lady" on a staircase, claiming that the ghost they saw was the woman in a painting hanging in the haunted room—Lady Dorothy.

Ten years later, on September 19, 1936, the most famous sighting of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall occurred. Captain Hubert C. Provand and his assistant, Indre Shira, were in Raynham Hall taking photos for an upcoming article in Country Life magazine. They had just finished taking a picture of Raynham Hall's grand staircase and were setting up for a second one when they saw "a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman" moving toward them down the stairs. Provand rushed to remove the lens cap while Shira pressed the trigger for the camera's flash. Provand and Shira's photo is below, the same one you saw at the beginning of reading this. It is now one of the most famous ghost photos in existence.

Original article and photograph from Country Life magazine, published on December 26, 1936. Article is titled "The Ghost of Raynham Hall. An astonishing photograph." The photograph takes up 2/3rds of the page, and the rest of the article's text is too small and blurry to read.
Original article and photograph from Country Life magazine, published on December 26, 1936.

Take a close look at the photo. What do you think? Real or fake?

In the 1960s, the 7th Marquess Townshend, George John Patrick Dominick Townshend, reported multiple sightings of the Brown Lady apparition but were largely missed or ignored by the media.

Photo of Raynham Hall from 1937.
Photo of Raynham Hall from 1937.

One thing that's very unusual about the photo from Captain Hubert C. Provand and Indre Shira is that it was initially published in a magazine that really never had anything to do with ghosts or the paranormal at all.

Country Life Magazine

In 1897, Country Life launched—it was mostly golf and racing but covered topics related to the joys of living a rural life, such as estates, gardening, farming, equestrian news, hunting, and shooting, as well as reviews of art and architecture, food and wine, and books. It was precisely the type of magazine you'd never suspect would publish an article about a ghost, which is why it caused such a shockwave when the photograph was published in 1936. Over the years, rumors have come up that the photo was a publicity stunt, a hoax, or a mundane accident of equipment malfunction.

Was the Photo a Hoax?

Shortly after the photo was released, a renowned skeptic and paranormal investigator named Harry Price interviewed Provand and Shira about their photo. Here's what he said:

"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."

— Harry Price

In the early 1900s, ghost photography was quite popular, and much of it was debunked as camera tricks. A man named William H. Mumler, a jeweler's engraver, accidentally invented spirit photography one day in March of 1861, and two years later, he was working as a medium. Mumler even photographed Abraham Lincoln's ghost, though Mumler eventually ended up in court, accused of fraud for his spirit photos, a crime of which he was acquitted.

You can read even more about the extensive history surrounding the attempts to prove or disprove the legitimacy of the photo right here, but be prepared to fall into a deep hole:

Supposedly, magicians John Booth and Ron Wilson easily duplicated the photo at the grand staircase of The Magic Castle in Hollywood by having Ron toss a bed sheet over himself, and supposedly their faked image looked very similar to the Raynham Hall photograph. Strangely, I couldn't find an actual copy of the photo anywhere, so I tracked down the rare, original book (Psychic Paradoxes by John Booth) from 1986 that claims they did this and ordered a copy. Luckily, it arrived quickly. Below are photos of the three pages in question that some people claim as irrefutable proof that the Provand and Shira photo was a hoax because John Booth and Ron Wilson made such a convincing version with just a bed sheet and double exposure.

My hand holding the book "Psychic Paradoxes" by John Booth
I'm ready for some debunking!
Photo of pages 106 and 107 of the Psychic Paradoxes book that shows the original Raynham Hall Brown Lady ghost photo
Much to my surprise, the book had photos! My anticipation grew as I turned the page, ready for a super solid debunk and duplicate photo by magicians!
Ridiculously poor recreation of the original ghost photo of Raynham Hall
Wait...what? 🤨 That looks like a pretty standard double exposure of a person in a bed sheet. 🤔 Hang on...let's zoom in...
Ridiculously poor recreation of the original ghost photo of Raynham Hall
What the hell? This is the great and wonderful recreation? 🧐

I thought this was supposed to be definitive proof that the original photo could be easily duplicated with a bed sheet and a double exposure. Well, you can see for yourself that the Magic Castle photograph really isn't anything at all like the original photo from Provand and Shira. If it was so easy to duplicate, why didn't they do a better job? There are heavy shadows from the camera flash, the outline of the bed sheet is crisp and clear, and you can see precisely where the fake bed sheet ghost is standing—you can even see the wrinkles in the bed sheet.

I reject this as definitive proof that the original photo was a hoax. It looks exactly like what it was—a double exposure and a person in a bed sheet. This double exposure technique was widely known and used, and the photographs using this method produced what you see here with clean lines and consistent translucency. The original photo simply doesn't have the same qualities.

It's interesting, but it certainly isn't proof of anything aside from the fact that people will believe whatever it is they want to believe.

By the way, if you'd like to see how much I like good debunking, check out these: The Oklahoma Octopus and Tracking Tahoe Tessie Down.

Other hoaxing theories say the Raynham Hall photo looks suspiciously like the standard Virgin Mary statue and that Lady Townshend of the time was in cahoots—yes, cahoots—with Provand and Shira.

So, what's the truth? Was it a hoax? Yes, yes, it was. Grease on the lens. Wait—no. No, it wasn't a hoax at all. Probably double exposure. No, it's a photo of a real-live...dead ghost. The truth is that no one really knows.

The topic comes up every few decades or so, with someone "proving" one way or another that it was a hoax, an accident, or 100% legit, but inevitably someone else comes along and provides a pretty good argument in the opposite direction, then the cycle continues. Each time, everyone believes the photo's legitimacy has been definitively proven or disproven.

All of this debunking (and...bunking?) over nearly a hundred years does bring up an interesting question, though. Why weren't any of the earlier debunks good enough? Why keep setting forth new theories to debunk a photo? Unless, of course, all those debunkings weren't entirely believable.

On Believability of Ghosts, the Unseen, the Untouched

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, we can all agree that the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall photo is real—you've seen it, after all. Does the image show an actual ghost? That's up to you to decide, just like every other photo or video you see online or elsewhere. What do you believe? Where do you draw the line of believability? And, what would convince you beyond any doubt that something is real?

On the topic of belief, why do you believe in things you've never seen in person, touched, or photographed for yourself? Suppose you don't believe in ghosts because you've never seen one. In that case, we could apply that same logic to many things: aliens, healthy convenience food, the Illuminati, Mark Zuckerberg, Bigfoot, deities, actual everyday people who win the lottery, and, of course, politicians who don't lie. Belief is a funny thing. Why do you believe in some things but not others?

A Brief History of Raynham Hall

Raynham Hall isn't all ghosts and has a fascinating history even without spirit photos. You can learn a bit more about it with the links below:

And, there's another "Raynham Hall" in Oyster Bay, New York, called Raynham Hall Museum—a completely different topic with its own supposed ghost.

Relevant & Related

I also can't help but recommend a book here that I randomly picked up at a library years ago and really enjoyed it. Check it out and if you give it a read, let me know what you think!

"In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she's forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time."

Here's a link to Goodreads: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. Cat Winters has other great books as well.

And, for a bit more about Norfolk, England, check out a few videos:

Visiting Raynham Hall

If you're interested in visiting Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England, then you're in luck. Take a look at Raynham Hall's website page Open Days, for the latest information. You can also visit Raynham Hall for recitals and talks; see here for more details. And check out this page for official tours of Raynham Hall.

While you're in the area, you won't want to miss the stunning Creake Abbey, which is only about a twenty-minute drive away from Raynham Hall.

If you visit Raynham Hall, take plenty of photos because you never know what you might catch.