In 1882, the ‘Society for Psychical Research’ (S.P.R.) was formed in London by a prestigious group of academics. Its primary purpose was to investigate all forms of paranormal phenomena, utilizing some of the keenest scientific minds in Victorian Britain. In 1892, Frederick Myers of the S.P.R. was called to a house in Cheltenham in the English county of Gloucestershire, thus commencing one of the best-researched investigations into paranormal activity, covering the apparition of a phantom woman, accompanied by multiple witness accounts, ranging from the late 1800’s right up to 1985.
The Historical Cheltenham Ghost
Let’s start by going back to Cheltenham in 1860. In Pittville Circus Road, a large house was constructed with a large garden and orchards. The name of the house was originally ‘Garden Reach’ and its first owners were a retired surgeon, Henry Swinhoe and his wife, Elizabeth. Sadly, Elizabeth died shortly after the move.
Eventually, Henry remarried to a lady named Imogen, but any ideas of eternal, wedded bliss were not to be realized, as the marriage descended quickly into alcohol-fuelled arguments and fighting.
The couple separated and both died quite soon afterwards. ‘Garden Reach’ fell empty and abandoned. In 1882, the house and extensive gardens looked very inviting to Captain Despard and his family. Obviously spurred on by what seemed to be a ridiculously cheap rent, they wasted no time in moving in, renaming their new dwelling, ‘Donore’. Within three months, possible reasons behind the low rent became frighteningly apparent to the Despard family.
Rosina Despard, the eldest of six children, became the first to witness an apparition that would become famously known as the ‘woman in black’. From the 1892 S.P.R. investigation by Frederick Myers, Rosina stated the following.
‘'I heard someone at the (bedroom) 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 and standing at the head of the stairs…I followed, feeling curious as to what it could be. I had only a small piece of candle and it suddenly burnt itself out. Being unable to see more I went back to my room.'
By 1884, Rosina had witnessed the same apparition on six separate occasions. At this stage, skeptical minds would naturally draw conclusions of hallucinations, or mental irregularities. However, aside from the eldest child, three other witnesses had clearly observed the same woman – dressed from head to toe in black.
On one occasion, Rosina’s younger brother had invited a friend over to the house, so that they could play together. Whilst enjoying themselves in the garden, both children looked back at the house and were astonished to observe an unknown woman standing in the drawing room window. When asked what the woman was doing, both children said that she looked very sad and was sobbing. At another time, a sister of Rosina was descending the main staircase. She told Frederick Myers, 'I saw a tall figure in black cross the hall, push open the drawing room door and go in.’ Not recognizing the mysterious figure, she immediately alerted the family, but no sign of the woman could be found.
Cheltenham Ghost Described In Witness Statements
Time passed and more people began to catch sight of an unknown, tall woman . When Myers compared all witness statements, it became very clear that the physical descriptions of the spectral woman were identical; dressed in what was known as ‘widow’s reeds’, basically a long, black dress. The other common link was that the woman kept her face covered for most of the time, usually by a handkerchief held in her right hand.
1884 saw the height of witnesses reporting the sighting of a ghostly woman in black at the Cheltenham residence. Neighbors and visitors to the house added to the list of people who observed this tall, unknown lady. On most occasions each reported that the woman was solid, so therefore everything had seemed normal. When Myers asked the key question, ‘what made you think she was a ghost and not someone living?’ he received essentially the same answer, ‘when she just disappeared into thin air before my eyes’.
Usually, sightings of reported ghosts tend to be fleeting, but in this case there was a difference, as members of the Despard family stated that occasionally the woman in black was visible for up to thirty minutes. On a couple of these times, direct communication was attempted between family members and the ghost. Again, direct from the notes of Frederick Myers in 1892, Rosina stated,
‘she came in (the drawing room) and walked to the sofa…so I went up to her and asked if I could help her. She moved and I thought that she was going to speak, but she only gave a slight gasp and moved towards the door…I spoke to her again but she seemed as if she was quite unable to speak’.
On several occasions, members of the family saw the ghost materialize and attempted to surround her in a corner of the room. Instead of trapping the ghost, the apparition simply looked at them, before dissipating away into nothingness before a group of startled eyes. During this time, despite the ghost vanishing frequently, the family still worked on a rational theory that, as the woman appeared so solid, she must be a living, breathing person. To this end, various traps were set up around the house, such as strings tied at various heights across the staircase. The woman in black dutifully appeared and glided effortlessly through them all, continuing to appear before more witnesses.
Still in 1884, the ghost appeared in the drawing room, showing definite signs of interaction with one of the Despard daughters, as the apparition peered over her shoulder whilst she was singing from a music book. Again, a direct quote taken from Myers’ notes in 1892 read,
‘'I felt a cold, icy shiver…the figure bent over me, as if to turn the pages of my songbook.'
A young visitor to ‘Donore’, George Gooding, saw the woman in black on many occasions during this period with an interesting observation that whenever the ghost appeared, the family dogs became very upset and frightened (oddly enough, it was also noticed that while the dogs became agitated, every cat in the house remained perfectly calm). One day, in the drawing room, several youngsters – including George – were playing, when the spectre suddenly appeared in the room.
Bravely, the children immediately rushed towards her and, linking hands, formed a human chain around the woman. She merely smiled at them, passed neatly through two of the children and vanished. Naturally, this mass of paranormal activity did little to keep domestic staff within ‘Donore’ and the Despards regularly had to recruit new staff from further afield. The landlord was also terrified that continued gossip and rumours about the house would lower the value of the property even more. Thus, all servants and staff were sworn to secrecy over any ‘oddness’ they might witness in the house and grounds. Nonetheless, domestic staff continued to leave regularly, while one maid was reportedly so petrified that she suffered a stroke, after glancing into a mirror and seeing a tall woman who was dressed in black and glaring back at her.
In 1885, the nature of the paranormal activity altered slightly. Visible sightings of the ghost became fewer, while witnesses declared that the spectral woman in black was no longer completely solid in form, but appeared more transparent. Added to this, aspects of the haunting changed too. There were less sightings, but more activity within the house, suggesting a form of poltergeist activity. Flaming lights appeared from nowhere inside rooms and moved around, before disappearing. Heavy bumps and other loud noises could be heard throughout the house.
So, whilst some members of the Despard family never caught sight of the ghostly woman, all of them heard at least some noises, or saw moving objects, which could not be rationally explained. After 1885, visible sightings of the ghost became rarer, but odd, loud noises within the house remained. From 1889, the Despards never again saw the apparition, but mysterious sounds reverberated throughout 'Donore' until the family finally moved out in 1893.
So, two questions scream out: namely who was the ghostly 'woman in black' and have there been any further sightings since the Despards moved out? Firstly, the chief suspect is Imogen Swinhoe, the second wife of Henry Swinhoe, who died in 1878. Multiple witnesses, who both saw the ghost and knew Imogen, state that the apparition was very similar in height and build to her. Naturally this leads on to a further question, regrettably & probably unanswerable…why would Imogen return from the grave and haunt her former abode?
As for the second question relating to paranormal activity beyond 1893, the house remained empty and reportedly quiet for some years. In time, the building became a school named 'Inholmes', a nursery and a nursing college called 'St Anne's'; its current title to this day, although the property is currently a series of private apartments and out of bounds for any paranormal investigators. All seemed tranquil until the early years of the twentieth century, when a few reports of 'odd occurrences' began to emerge. As the events were largely kept quiet, details are few in number, although there was an exorcism performed there in 1903. After this, events within the building became secretive, although there is some evidence to suggest that the ghost merely moved a little further afield, to surrounding dwellings.
A further investigation in the 1980's by Andrew MacKenzie for the S.P.R. uncovered new witness reports going back to the 1920's and stretching up as far as 1985 – mostly within the original grounds but also alarmingly reported from within neighboring houses.
A letter from Percy Wilson included in a 1958 edition of 'Light', (a parapsychological magazine from the 'College of Psychic Studies') gave sworn testament to a series of sightings around 1923 of a 'tall woman in black wandering around the neighborhood'. Mr Wilson's father also swore that he had seen the ghost several times when he was a child, stating:
'We used to see the ghost 'dancing' across the lawn on several occasions…it was just a lady who walked…danced, if not floated, across the lawn.'
Meanwhile, in nearby 'Cotswold Lodge', a woman dressed all in black was seen between 1958 and 1961 by William Thorne who was staying with his brother. John William, from Maidenhead in Kent, awoke at midnight in 1961 upon the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside his bedroom. On looking up, William Thorne was bemused to find the figure of a woman in a long, black dress. The woman appeared solid, although he stated that the upper half of her torso was more defined than the lower half. In her right hand, the woman held a handkerchief, shielding her facial features.
William's son, in the same room as his father, described the apparition as 'a woman in a long, black dress, completely outlined in phosphorescence'. On telling his brother, John confessed that he had also clearly seen the woman three years earlier, but no-one would believe his story. In 1962, other members of the Thorne family reportedly witnessed further paranormal activity at the location and fled the property.
Cheltenham Ghost Apparition Seen Again
During 1970, a lady on her driving test in Cheltenham performed an impromptu 'emergency stop' on Pittville Circus Road, almost placing her examiner through the car window. When asked to explain her actions the woman appeared incredulous and wondered of her examiner how on Earth he had not seen the woman in the long, black Victorian-style dress appear in the middle of the road?
Andrew MacKenzie also collected witness statements of various 'poltergeist activity' within St. Anne's, which had occurred at various stages during the 1970's. In total, MacKenzie estimated that a minimum of seventeen separate people had witnessed the apparition and more than twenty others had experienced sounds and noises associated with paranormal, or poltergeist phenomena within the house and grounds. As recently as 1985, two witnesses reported the sighting of an unusual woman, attired in a 'black, old-fashioned dress', strolling along Pittville Circus Road late at night. Alarmed by the strangeness of their sighting, the couple quickly retraced their steps and searched the road. True to form, there was no sign of the woman.
Could there be a natural cause for all of these sightings and activity? Two theories for fraud and deception remain active. Firstly, that the 'ghost' was merely a mistress of Captain Despard who was in the house from 1882 until 1893. One reason for this line of thought is the reported solidity of the apparition, leading to the subsequent conclusion that she must have been flesh and blood, rather than some form of ethereal spirit. The second most common theory is that the claimed apparition was nothing more than a conspiracy by the twenty-year old Rosina Despard, perhaps desperate to gain some form of attention or notoriety.
While some prominent investigators have historically chosen to remain with the 'mistress theory', this raises some interesting questions – such as how was the apparition able to pass through solid cords on the stairs?
Her ability to disappear into thin air, sometimes around multiple witnesses, must surely also be analyzed, especially when the range of witnesses extend not only to the Despard family, but also to their staff and neighbors. Also, if this were the sole work of a bored – yet clearly inspirational talent within the world of magic & illusion – it doesn't explain how Myers' initial S.P.R. investigation included several sightings of the 'woman in black' prior to 1882, when the Despards first inhabited the house. Nor how the sightings appear to continue after the Despards had not only left their Pittville Circus Road home, but also concerning reports that continued to be made after the last member of the family had died during the mid-20th century.
Overall, the case of the Cheltenham 'woman in black' remains one of the most intriguing and (for many) evidential sources for the existence of ghosts and the continuation of the human soul, beyond physical demise.
'Spooky Isles Paranormal' – https://www.spookyisles.com/2015/02/was-the-chelthenham-poltergeist-the-real-woman-in-black/
'Rational Wiki' – https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/File:Frederick_William_Henry_Myers.002.gif