Cheltenham Haunting Sometimes called the “Morton Case,” after the family in whose home it occurred, this case is distinguished by an apparition of a woman that was seen over a period of years by at least 17 people, many of whom were not aware of the earlier sightings at the time. It is among the best-attested cases of a haunting.
The house at Cheltenham, England, was built in 1860. It is a frame house of three stories, with a large yard that included an orchard. It was purchased from the builders by Henry Swinhoe, its first owner and occupant.
Swinhoe’s first wife died in 1866, and three years later he married a woman named Imogen Hutchins. This second marriage was unhappy, marred in part by Hutchins’ insistence that she be given the first Mrs. Swinhoe’s jewels, which her husband steadfastly refused to do. Instead, he hid them in a vault he had built below the floor in the living room. Shortly before Swinhoe’s death in 1876, Hutchins left him, and she did not return to the house for his funeral or at any time thereafter. She died in 1878.
After Swinhoe’s death, the house was leased by Mr. L., an elderly man who died suddenly six months after moving in. The house then remained vacant for about four years, before being taken, in March 1882, by a Captain Despard and his wife, their two sons, and three unmarried daughters. A fourth, married daughter visited occasionally, sometimes in the company of her husband.
It was during the Despards’ stay in the house that the apparition made its most frequent appearances although upon inquiry it was learned that there had been earlier appearances as well. The Despards’ 19-year-old daughter Rosina (who became Rosina Morton) was the most frequent percipient, and it was she who eventually wrote an account for the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)based on letters she wrote to a friend at the time.
Rosina’s first experience occurred a few months after the Despards’ arrival. She had gone up to her room one night, but was not yet in bed, when she heard a knock on the door. When she answered it, there was no one there. When she advanced a few steps along the hall, she could see a tall woman dressed in black, standing at the head of the stairs. After a few minutes the woman descended the stairs, and Rosina followed until her candle burned out. She noticed that the woman’s dress made a swishing sound as she moved, as if it were made of a soft woolen material.
Over the next three years, Rosina saw the woman a half dozen times, at first at long intervals, then shorter ones. She invariably followed the same route. She would descend the stairs and go into the living room, where she would remain for a while, generally standing to the righthand side of the bay window. Then she would leave the living room and walk along the hall to the door to the garden, before which she disappeared. Rosina tried to speak to the woman, but she seemed unable to utter a word. She also tried, without success, to use sign language with her. The woman seemed aware of her surroundings and would move around persons and objects in her way. When she was cornered, however, she simply disappeared.
Although Rosina saw the woman more often than did other members of her family, she was not the only one to do so. One night her sister Edith was playing the piano in the living room when the woman appeared. She called Rosina. The sisters followed the woman along the hall until she disappeared in her usual place by the garden door. Another sister came in from the garden soon after, saying she had seen the figure there, and the married sister later reported that she had seen her from the window of her room. The sisters and one of their brothers, along with the Despards’ cook and housemaid, who lived with them in the house, also heard footsteps and knocks at night and from time to time saw the woman. The Despards’ dogs behaved oddly. Rosina’s terrier once wagged his tail vigorously as if he expected to be petted, then suddenly shrank back, cowering in fear.
The haunting was brought to the attention of Frederic W.H. Myers of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in December 1884. Myers visited the Despards early in 1885. At his suggestion, Rosina thereafter kept a camera ready to photograph the figure, but on the few occasions she tried, she got no results.
Sightings of the woman dropped off after 1887; she was not seen at all by members of the Despard household after 1889. Up until 1886 the figure appeared so solid that it was often mistaken for a real person, but in the later appearances it was much less substantial. The Despards were never able to determine whether it cast a shadow, although they noticed that it always blocked the light.
The apparition was thought to be that of Imogen Hutchins, the second Mrs. Swinhoe, on the basis of its stature and its mourning clothes, and the fact that when she was alive, she had often used the living room. However, because the woman habitually held a handkerchief over part of her face, the identification was never certain.
The Despards left the house in Cheltenham in 1893. It was vacant until 1898, when it became a preparatory school for boys. During this time, the apparition of a woman was repeatedly encountered on stairs, always leaving the house in broad daylight from the garden door and walking down the short drive. The school was soon closed, and the building again stood vacant until 1910, when it was converted into a nunnery. The nuns in turn stayed only two years. The history of occupancy of the house continued, empty for long periods between tenants who never stayed more than a few years. In 1973, the building was bought by a housing association for conversion into apartments.
Andrew MacKenzie, who investigated the later history of the house, learned of several other apparitions in Cheltenham, two of which were very similar in description to the figure seen by the Despards. significantly, both of these appearances were in buildings that were in existence at the time the Despards lived in Cheltenham, and not in any of the newer structures that have gone up since. There have been no reported appearances at the Despards’ old house since it was turned into apartments.
- Collins, B. Abdy. The Cheltenham Ghost. London: Psychic Press, 1948.
- MacKenzie, Andrew. Hauntings and Apparitions. London: Heinemann, 1982.
- Morton, R. C. “Record of a Haunted House.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)8 (1892): 311–329.
- Myers, Frederic W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death Vols. I & II. New ed. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1954. First published 1903.