Renishaw is the country house of the Sitwells, the Derbyshire family to which Sir Osbert Sitwell, Dame Edith Sitwell, and Sacheverell Sitwell belonged. The original small house, built by Sir George Sitwell c.1625, survives at the heart of the present castellated mansion of around 1800.
Like many ancient houses, Renishaw had ghostly associations. Another Sir George Sitwell wrote on 17 September 1909, ‘Last Saturday two ghosts were seen at Renishaw.’ Happening to look up while speaking to a friend sitting near her, Sir George’s wife, Lady Ida, saw out in the passage a grey-haired woman in a white cap who appeared to be a servant. The upper part of her dress was blue, the skirt dark, and her arms were stretched out before her with clasped hands. ‘This figure moved with a very slow, furtive, gliding motion,’ wrote Sir George, ‘as if wishing to escape notice, straight towards the head of the old staircase, which I removed twenty years ago. On reaching it, she disappeared.’
Lady Ida called out ‘Who’s that?’ and then the name of her housekeeper. No one answered, and she asked those nearest the door to run out and see who it was. Two people hurried out but saw no one. Others joined them, but though they searched the hall and passages upstairs they found no one answering the woman’s description. Then, as they were returning to the drawing room, Miss R—, a little way behind the others, exclaimed, ‘I do believe that’s the ghost!’ No one else saw it, but she said afterwards that in full light, within twenty feet (6 m) of her, where the door of ‘the old ghost room’ used to stand until Sir George put in the new staircase, she saw a lady with dark hair and dress, seemingly lost in thought. She cast no shadow, but moving ‘with a curious gliding motion’ into the darkness, she disappeared within a yard (0.9 m) of the walled-up doorway, formerly leading into the hall.
Sir George rounds off his account by saying, ‘There is no doubt that these figures were actually seen as described.’ He had his own explanation of them, however. ‘They were not ghosts but phantasms, reversed impressions of something seen in the past, and now projected from an overtired and excited brain … Ghosts are sometimes met with, but they are not ghosts.’
Lady Ida seems not so certain, adding in a note: ‘I saw the figure with such distinctness that I had no doubt at all that I was looking at a real person, while, at the same time … I was conscious of an uneasy, creeping feeling.’ She says that the figure was that of a woman of between fifty and sixty years of age with grey hair done up in a bun under an old-fashioned cap. ‘I have never seen a ghost before, nor had I been thinking about ghosts.’
As to ‘the ghost room’, this had its own history. Sir George, born in 1860, celebrated his legal coming of age in 1885, and the large house party on that occasion included Dr Tait, the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of the archbishop’s daughters was sleeping in a room at the head of the staircase, and in the middle of the night went to the bedroom of Sir George’s sister and told her she had been woken by the sensation of being given three cold kisses. Miss Sitwell made up a bed for Miss Tait on a sofa, saying she was unwilling to exchange rooms and sleep in Miss Tait’s room herself, as she thought she had experienced the same phenomenon.
Later, Sir George met his agent, Mr Turnbull, and, thinking to amuse him, told him what Miss Tait thought had occurred. Mr Turnbull, turning pale, responded, ‘Well, Sir George, you may make a joke about it, but when you lent us the house for our honeymoon, Miss Crane … , a schoolfellow of my wife’s, came to stay with us, and she had the same room and exactly the same experience.’
Subsequently, it was decided to enlarge the staircase by incorporating both the room in which Miss Tait had slept and the one below it. When work had begun, the Clerk of the Works reported that the men had found something odd. Between the joists of the ghost room’s floor was an old coffin, held together with nails, not screws, and apparently dating from the seventeenth century. It was fastened to the joists by iron cramps, but because space was tight had no lid, this purpose being served by the floorboards of the room above. There was no sign of bones, but marks on it suggested it had once contained a body.
These stories about Renishaw were recorded by Viscount Halifax in his Ghost Book (1936). Miss Tait’s story was believed by Lord Halifax’s son to have been given to his father by Miss Tait herself, who was a friend of his. The account of ‘The Renishaw Coffin’ was given him by Sir George Sitwell, together with Lady Ida’s note.