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The Cheltenham Haunting


The Cheltenham Haunting


Built in 1860 on the site of a former market garden it was a grand double-fronted four storey Victorian residence of the time laid out over four floors. It stood in a considerable plot of land with a modest carriage drive to the front and extensive lawns and an orchard. This no doubt was the origin of the name ‘Garden Reach’ by which it was first known. 
 
Today, although the house survives, these grounds have seen much change – an estate of small bungalows known as St Anne’s Close has been built in the former garden and several of the buildings in the area have been demolished and replaced by blocks of flats. 

Garden Reach’ was bought from its builder by Henry Swinhoe, a solicitor from Calcutta. He had married Elisabeth Francis Higgins on 6 February 1851 in India and they eventually raised a family of five children. However, Elisabeth died aged 35 on 11 August 1866 and four years later Henry Swinhoe married again. His second wife was Imogen Hutchins of Clifton, Bristol, but their relationship was marred by frequent quarrels, apparently over the upbringing of Swinhoe’s children as well as the possession of the former Mrs Swinhoe’s jewellery for which Henry had a secret hiding place fashioned under the drawing room floor.
 
 
The Despards were a typical large middle-class Victorian family, affluent enough to run a good-sized house such as ‘Donore’ with live-in servants, a coachman and a gardener. Frederick W. Despard, an Irishman by birth was in his early fifties at the time. Retired from Her Majesty’s Army he was a well-travelled man if the evidence of his children’s birth certificates is anything to go by. His first wife Rosina Meredith Despard died in Cheltenham in 1858, most likely in childbirth with his eldest daughter Freda, and he wasted little time in getting married again, wedding Harriet Ann Nixon the same year. By the time the family eventually settled in ‘Donore’ several years later, Freda had married a South African solicitor named Herbert Kinlock and the couple continued to visit her parents.
The Cheltenham Haunting
For more than 90 years, a house in Cheltenham called the Donore House (now St. Anne) which was built for Henry Swinhoe in 1860 was the site of a haunting by a female apparition.
 
 The house located on the corner of All Saints Road and Pitville Circus Road. The haunting known as the Morton Case or the Cheltenham Haunting, was investigated by Frederick W.H. Myers, one of the founders of the then fledgling Society for Physical Research (SPR), and is considered one of the best-documented hauntings in the SPR archives. The majority of the sightings occurred between 1882 and 1889, but the phantom was viewed independently by at least 17 persons.
The Cheltenham Haunting


Swinhoe’s first wife died in 1866. He remarried in 1869, but his new wife, Imogen Hutchins Swinhoe, left him shortly before his death in 1876, in part because instead of giving her his first wife’s jewelry, he hid it in a safe under the living room floor. Imogen, who died two years after her husband, never returned to the house while she was still alive; however, she is thought to be the one who returned to haunt the house.
 
 
After Mr. Swinhoe’s death, the house’s next lessee, a Mr. L., died six months after moving in. The Cheltenham house sat empty for the next four years. Until April 1882, retired Army captain Frederick William Despard, aged fifty-three, his forty-six-year-old wife Harriet, together with their seven children, Freda (20), Rosina (19), Edith (18), Lillian (15), Henry (16), Mable (13) and Wilfred (6), moving in. They moved from Lansdown Road in Cheltenham, the town where they had been living for the previous half dozen or so years.
 
Although paranormal phenomena had apparently occurred earlier, hauntings now began in earnest, with 19-year-old Rosina Despard (later Rosina Morton) being the one who most often saw the spectre: a tall woman, dressed in black, holding a handkerchief over part of her face (which made positive identification impossible). 
 
 
The ghost often passed down the stairs; she almost always paused in the living room before moving down the hall to the door to the garden, where she disappeared. On at least one occasion, one of the Despard daughters saw her in the garden. The phantom appeared to be solid and aware of her surroundings (moving around furniture, for example), but she never acknowledged anyone’s attempt to communicate with her.
 
 
Eventually, almost everyone in the household saw the figure, including, apparently, the family dogs, who often howled or shrank in fear even when no apparition was visible. In addition to the human apparition, the house experienced the traditional knocks and bumps in the night.
In 1885, the Despard home was investigated by Frederic W.H. Myers of the Society for Psychical Research. (Rosina had published her own experiences in the society’s journal the previous year.) At Myers’s suggestion, Rosina attempted to take photographs of the spirit, 
but none produced a recognizable image

In the autumn of 1886, Rosina became aware of stories that had circulated in the area before their arrival that a tall woman in black had apparently been seen in the grounds of the house on previous occasions but in no case was she able to collect first hand testimony. A jobbing gardener who had been employed on occasions at a house opposite apparently reported seeing a similar apparition to that seen by the Despard family moving about the grounds but when Rosina attempted to track him down she found he was dead and his wife untraceable.
 
 Other accounts from this period amount to little more than local rumour with no hard and fast evidence for what was alleged to have been seen, when and by whom. The rent for the property when the Despards took on the tenancy was substantially lower than what would normally have been charged for such a property in that area at that time so it is conceivable that its notoriety as a haunted house was quite secure. The multiple name changes also suggest that the house may have had a difficult reputation.

After the Despards left it was to be another five years before the building was again put to use. With yet another name change, this time to ‘Inholmes’, the building became a boy’s preparatory school, opening its doors in 1898 and lasting as such for nine years.
 
 
 There followed another brief period of closure after which from 1910 to 1912 the house was used for religious purposes by a group of nuns when a small chapel (now demolished) was added to the side. 
 
Together with another name change, from 1912 to 1935 the St Anne’s Nursery College, an organisation for training nannies, operated from the address and from then until 1970 it was used as accommodation by the Diocese of Gloucester. In 1973, the empty house was bought by a housing association and converted into flats and this is how it remains today.
 
 
After the Despards left it was to be another five years before the building was again put to use. With yet another name change, this time to ‘Inholmes’, the building became a boy’s preparatory school, opening its doors in 1898 and lasting as such for nine years. 
 
 
There followed another brief period of closure after which from 1910 to 1912 the house was used for religious purposes by a group of nuns when a small chapel (now demolished) was added to the side. Together with another name change, from 1912 to 1935 the St Anne’s Nursery College, an organisation for training nannies, operated from the address and from then until 1970 it was used as accommodation by the Diocese of Gloucester. In 1973, the empty house was bought by a housing association and converted into flats and this is how it remains today. 
 
The late Andrew Mackenzie was a past member of the Council for the Society for Psychical Research and authored a number of books on the supernatural. MacKenzie made a lengthy study of the haunting and came to the conclusion that as well as the experiences of the Despards in the 1880s, there was evidence for the reappearance of the woman in black in the Pitville neighbourhood up until relatively recent times
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In 1958, Percy Wilson, a prominent Spiritualist, interviewed a Mrs Maisley who lived in Cheltenham, and who claimed to have seen an apparition in the garden of ‘St Anne’s’ in the early 1920s. Another resident interviewed by Wilson claimed he had often seen the ghost when living as a boy in Cheltenham. 
 
 
Another interesting experience came to light in 1944 when a solicitor, George Gooding, wrote to the SPR to say that as a young boy he had known the Despard family and had two clear recollections of seeing the woman in black. 
 
Once was in the garden in bright sunlight walking around, and the second was in the drawing room when he and the Despards tried to make a ring around the figure. Gooding said: ‘…she appeared merely to walk out between two people and then disappeared.’
 
 
MacKenzie discovered that a figure similar to the woman in black had been seen in a house opposite (now demolished) on two occasions in 1958 and 1961. Another incident took place in January 1970 when Cheltenham resident Mrs Jackson was having a lunchtime driving lesson that took her past the gates of St. Anne’s. Her instructor was understandably surprised when, with a clear road ahead, she suddenly changed gear and began breaking sharply. He was unable to see the figure of a tall woman wearing a long black dress reaching to the ground who Mrs Jackson said had stepped off the pavement about twenty yards ahead into the path of the oncoming car. The figure was visible to Mrs Jackson for between five or six seconds before disappearing. 
 
 
 Another reported incident occurred fifteen years later in July 1985 when two witnesses, an Oxford University music graduate in his sixties and a friend, walking along Pitville Circus Road around 10.00 in the evening saw a tall woman dressed in black wearing a crinoline moving along the footpath of St. Anne’s Close towards its junction with the main road. Struck by the strangeness of the person’s old-fashioned appearance they walked back to St. Anne’s Close but by this time the figure was nowhere to be seen. MacKenzie also collected accounts of apparent poltergeist phenomena reported inside the house during the 1970s.
Is it possible to explain the Cheltenham Ghost? One major hurdle that has to be overcome is that the bulk of the testimony upon which the haunting is built up is presented by one person and that person also happens to be the major witness for much of the principle phenomena. We are totally reliant on Rosina Despard’s honesty in the reporting of her alleged experiences. Was she telling the truth or spinning a fantasy?
 
 
What does add confidence is the presence of Frederick Myers, particularly as his involvement was during the period when phenomena were still occurring, albeit at a reduced level. He had the opportunity to interview not only the Despard family but also their staff and was impressed with them as witnesses. 
 
Myers observed that the phenomena as seen and heard by all of the witnesses were very uniform in character, especially as in the case of former servants where the percipients had not been able to swap notes as to their experiences prior to being interviewed.
The Cheltenham Haunting
So who in fact was the woman in black? If Rosina Despard is correct we have already met her briefly – the unfortunate Imogen Swinhoe who died three and a half years before the Despards moved to ‘Donore’. 
 
Her arguments for the identification are given in the 1892 report as follows: 
 
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.
The widow’s garb excludes the first Mrs. S[winhoe].
 
All of this sounds very convincing as long as one accepts that a phenomenon such as this is evidence of the survival in some way of a human personality after physical death. Rosina Despard felt sure that this was the classic interpretation of the ghost as the unhappy soul of the former mistress of the house who for an extended period returned to the home she had known in life, evidently mourning for the loss of her husband 
 
 
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