The Ghost of St Anne’s


St Annes

It’s mid-October and the clocks go back next week. Days are shorter, leaves are turning golden brown and the air is crisper as Autumn melds into winter. Frightmare returns to Over with scary rides and rows of bloated pumpkins and thoughts turn inevitably to Halloween.  To ghosts, witches and undead things. Like the ghost of St Anne’s, Cheltenham’s most investigated haunting. 

My new book is almost written. Set in Victorian England, it portrays the Victorian fascination with all things supernatural. And it was during Queen Victoria’s reign in 1860 that St Anne’s was constructed.  Located on the corner of Pittville Circus Road, St Anne’s was a grand family residence set in extensive grounds.  It had a sweeping carriage drive, 14 bedrooms, stabling for three horses and a gardener’s cottage.   

The first occupants were Henry Swinhoe and his wife Elizabeth. Henry, born in Calcutta, was the son of a solicitor. He purchased the property from new and named it Garden Reach. 

Rose Despard and her family moved into St Anne’s in 1882. Rose lived there with her father, her invalid mother and several siblings. Ten months after moving in, Rose saw the ghost for the first time. She described it as an apparition of a tall lady dressed in black widow’s weeds wearing a bonnet with a veil. The woman clutched a handkerchief to her face concealing her features. The ghost appeared many times over the years. Her footsteps were described as light, like ‘a person walking softly with thin boots on.’ 

Rose knew Frederick Myers, a founder member of the Society for Psychical Research. Myers investigated the haunting obtaining statements from witnesses including family, friends and servants. The report of the ghost gained serious credibility.  

Rose’s account of the haunting appeared in the 1892 journal of the SPR. She identified the ghost as that of Imogen Swinhoe, second wife of the original owner. Rose’s investigations revealed that Swinhoe had turned to alcohol after the demise of his first wife. His new wife hoped to cure him of his intemperate habits but ended up becoming a drinker herself. According to rumour, Swinhoe had a special box constructed containing his first wife’s jewellery. The box was hidden under the floorboards in the front sitting room.  Henry intended to keep the jewels until his children were of age. They would then receive them as an inheritance. Imogen disapproved and was critical of the way the children were being raised. The marriage became strained. Drunken quarrels ensued, and they separated a few months before Henry died.  

St Anne’s or Garden House as it was called in her lifetime held awful memories for Imogen. It is hard to imagine why her apparition would return. After her divorce, she fled to Bristol.  Her remains were returned to Cheltenham and she was interred at Holy Trinity with her mother.  

Newspaper reports show that the Swinhoe’s marriage had broken down irretrievably by 1875. An article in the Cheltenham Mercury in April publicly declared that Henry Swinhoe would not be responsible for any of his wife’s debts. 

Henry Swinhoe debts

Soon after, he instigated divorce proceedings. Henry’s divorce petition is available on the internet. It makes uncomfortable reading. He accused Imogen of gross and continual habits of drunkenness and violent and indecent language.  On 22nd December 1874, Imogen allegedly threw a chair at him. On other occasions, she threw different articles of furniture. Henry claimed that her behaviour enfeebled him and was injurious to his health.  A further incident occurred on the 5th of April 1875 when Imogen accused Henry of infidelity. She stated that he fathered an illegitimate child by their housemaid, Elizabeth Townsend. Henry’s children and the servants were witnesses to this accusation. Elizabeth was so distressed that she bought an action for damages. 

The account in the divorce petition implies that Imogen was violent and unstable. But were things as one-sided as the evidence suggests? Local newspapers show otherwise.  In 1874 Henry’s name appeared in the newspaper coverage of a case of slander. It involved the local milkman who had been wrongly accused of kicking a neighbour’s dog.  Swinhoe had responded to the unproven allegation by taking his custom away. The judge called this action ‘foolish’ in his summing up. The Cheltenham Chronicle of 16th November 1875 covers an assault by errand boy Frederick Crisp. The assault was on Charlotte Wittington, a servant of Henry Swinhoe. It emerged, during the trial, that Swinhoe had threatened to shoot the boy. Within a week of this article, Henry Swinhoe appeared in court.  Henry had an abhorrence of perambulators. He had pushed his stick into the side wheel of Alice’s Speechy’s pram to overturn it into the gutter. But for the prompt action of Alice Speechy’s nurse, the child could have fallen from the pram. Henry Swinhoe was found guilty and fined. 

Both Henry and Imogen were obstreperous. But why? Henry’s ill-temper was borne of grief. His first wife died in childbirth. A poignant acknowledgement of his still-born son’s birth in August 1866 appeared in the papers. Henry became a widower with five young children. His marriage to Imogen in 1870 was likely made to provide them with a mother.  

Imogen was the daughter of Major George Hutchins and his wife Catharine McEvoy. George died in 1844 and Imogen remained close to her mother. She was the sole executrix of Catharine’s will when she died in 1870.  Catharine left a 7-bedroom property at 2 Blenheim Parade (off The Evesham Road). Henry let it in 1871 at a rent of £30.00 for the period from April to December, a far cry from today’s prices.   

2 Blenheim Place

If not always cantankerous, Henry’s behaviour was far from gentlemanly. The incident with the pram could have resulted in serious injury, if not a loss of life. He was ill-tempered and unpleasant. The marriage was a disaster and it is likely that Imogen was unhappy from the outset. Turning to alcohol may have been the only way she could cope. There were faults on both sides. 

But what of the ghost? Was it Imogen? Rose Despard thought so. Her research revealed no other candidates. The Swinhoe’s were the first owners of St Anne’s, constructed on the site of a market garden.  Henry’s first wife died before him and never wore widow’s weeds.  The next owner was Benjamin Littlewood, a Justice of the Peace. He purchased the property, which he renamed Pittville Hall, in 1879.  Benjamin died six months later in the sitting room where Henry Swinhoe had hidden the jewels. This ruled out the possibility of Littlewood’s wife being the ghost. The house lay empty for some time before the Despard’s arrived and with them the beginnings of the haunting. 

Most hauntings occurred in 1884, but sightings have continued as late as 1985. The ghost is usually seen in the house, but also in the gardens, in Pittville Circus Road and in the grounds of the opposite property. The ghost, if one believes in such things, has ties to the property. In the absence of any other candidate, it ought to be Imogen. But there is another person with tenuous links to the house. A person who lived nearby as a widow for many years, and who cared for Imogen until the end.  Catharine Hutchins died the year after her daughter married Henry Swinhoe. She may have seen cracks in the marriage before she passed away. It is not difficult to imagine her desire to comfort her troubled youngest daughter. To visualise her lingering near the property where her daughter suffered for so long…


RMS Titanic – A Cotswold Connection

Titanic Pixabay black

Around 2.20 am on 15th April 2012 two crew members of Leyland Liner Californian unknowingly witnessed the sinking of the Titanic.  Standing on the ice-cold deck, some 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, they wondered why the unidentified vessel in the distance was firing white flares into the night sky when it was standard practice for a ship in distress to fire red.  There was something troubling about the appearance of the unknown vessel and the way it listed strangely in the water.  Despite their disquiet, they were not sufficiently concerned to react that night and by daybreak, it was too late.  The odd-looking ship was RMS Titanic and she had subsequently sunk taking 1517 people to a tragic and untimely death. 

Titanic left Southampton bound for New York City on her maiden voyage on 10 April 1912 amid excitement and celebration.  With her watertight compartments and electronic watertight doors, she was widely believed to be unsinkable. Confidence was so high there was no concern that she only carried 20 lifeboats, enough to accommodate just 52% of her passengers.  Indeed, the Board of Trade regulations only required her to carry 16 lifeboats to fulfil their safety requirements.   

At the turn of the century, travel was still largely segregated by class and RMS Titanic catered for three divisions of travel.  Steerage or third class contained very basic accommodation, second class was more comfortable, but first class was an extravaganza of luxury, from the opulence of the sweeping grand staircase to the charm of the Café Parisien with its wide, open windows looking out to sea.   Along with the glamorous furnishings, Titanic also contained the latest in technology.  She was equipped with a Marconi wireless set with a nominal range of 250 miles and, after the iceberg hit, the radio was used to transmit one of the first ever SOS calls.   

The passenger list was no less impressive than the ship.  First class was populated with many well-known, wealthy Edwardians including John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim.  But, there were people from all walks of life on board and on that fateful day in April, there were three men on Titanic who had connections to the Cotswolds, each travelling in a different accommodation class and each united by the events of that night. 

Sitting in the splendour of the first-class dining room on 14th April 1912, Mr Frank Millett would have had no conception that it would be the last night of his life.  Born in Massachusetts on 3 November 1844, he was a talented artist best known for his painting “between two fires”, a detailed depiction of a family of Puritans, now hanging in the Tate gallery. Millett created the work at Abbots Grange in Broadway where he led an American art colony which settled in England in the early 1880’s.  Millett is believed to have rescued Abbots Grange from falling into a state of disrepair through his programme of restoration. 

Millett ordinarily visited the Cotswolds with his wife and family but this time he travelled alone and would have been looking forward to their impending reunion as he dined from the ten-course menu containing, amongst other items, poached salmon, oysters and peaches in Chartreuse jelly.  

When the iceberg hit the ship, Frank Millett probably approached the ensuing drama with dignity and calm.  He was familiar with crises having served in the Civil War and was also a war correspondent in the Russian Turkish war of 1877 – 1878. He was last sighted helping women and children into lifeboats with little thought for his own safety. 

Meanwhile, in the second-class restaurant, Henry Price Hodges dined on a less sumptuous menu choosing between baked haddock, curried chicken, spring lamb or roast turkey.  At 50 years old, Hodges was a wealthy music shop owner who lived in Southampton with his wife and five of his eight children at the time of his death. 

Like Frank Millett, he was travelling without his family and had purchased his ticket for just £13.  Ironically, he had been due to travel to America several weeks earlier but his voyage had been delayed by the coal strike. 

Born in 1862, Henry, a former pupil of Tewkesbury Grammar school was raised in Gloucestershire.  He was also the elder brother of Robert Hodges (born 1874), a teacher at Hatherley Road Council School.   

Another former resident of Hatherley, Mr Francis William Somerton of Greatfield, Up Hatherley, was travelling back from Cheltenham to his home in Canastota, New York state, having returned to Gloucestershire to visit relatives.  Travelling in third class, it is only possible to speculate on how he would have dined as no third-class menus survive from the night of 14th April 1912.  We know that he was born in Cheltenham and census records from 1891 show him living at 108 Gloucester Road with his father William, (a weigh clerk at the gas works), mother Hannah and three siblings. 

National probate records show that Francis William Somerton of Greatfield, Up Hatherley, Cheltenham died 15 Apr 1912 at sea. Poignantly, he left effects of just £5 which went to Mae Fryer Somerton, widow. 

All three of these men had one sad fate in common.  None of them survived.  They all lost their lives on that terrible night. 

The body of Frank Millett was recovered, and he was buried at East Bridgwater Central Cemetery in Boston.  He was 65-years old when he died.   His pocket watch and chain were found with him.  Henry Price Hodges was also located and laid to rest at Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia.  He too was found with a pocket watch and money amounting to £45 7s on his person.  He was 50 when he died. Francis William Somerton died aged 30.  His body was never found.


A Writer’s Life – My Almost Summer Holiday

IMG_0376I’m not a full time writer. Like many others, I have a day job; to be completely accurate, I have two. So holiday time is valuable and self, husband, son and aged border terrier were looking forward to a fortnight off in the splendid scenery of Northumberland.

My husband has a thing about castles. Something to do with his love of Bernard Cornwell novels, I think. He was desperate to visit the Holy Island and couldn’t wait to get inside a castle or two. It was going to be a fabulous week with plenty of time to develop the plot for my next novel. Even my son was resigned to the lack of Wi-Fi and happy to be reading and writing instead.

Saturday dawned and we set off for Northumberland via Kendall, arriving in Beautiful Belford late Saturday afternoon. We duly unpacked, scoped out the local area and found a very nice hotel which served mini bottles of prosecco; all seemed right with the world.

Sadly, there was a lot less of the world by Sunday, according to my husband’s left eye. We decided to drive up the coast to the historic town of Berwick on Tweed and spent a pleasant morning meandering around the ruins. As we drove further north to the Scottish town of Eyemouth, hubby began to complain about his vision. It felt like there was a contact lens stuck in his eye, he said, and his vision was a little blurry. He inspected the eye in the mirror, saw nothing to concern himself and decided to sleep on it hoping it would improve by morning. So we went back to our holiday let, cooked a meal & settled down for the evening.

By the next morning, my husband’s left eye was behaving very badly indeed. He could only see a small semi-circle of light and was sufficiently concerned to visit the local chemist and ask for directions to the nearest optician. There were two within a 15-mile radius, so he chose Specsavers in Berwick. It turned out to be a wise choice. They were extremely accommodating, took his problem seriously and rearranged their diary so he could attend that morning. So off we trekked to Berwick again, hubby in attendance at Specsavers while my son and I walked the dog around the ruins for the second time in 24 hours.

Long story short, hubby was diagnosed with a detached retina and macular. He returned to the car, ashen, clutching a referral note to Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary for that afternoon. Despite the diagnosis, he insisted on driving as he doesn’t like me driving his car and I don’t like it much either as it doesn’t have a real handbrake. Two hours later the four of us were at the top of a multi-storey at the hospital. Son and dog remained in the car while hubby and I booked him into the eye clinic where there was a 2 hour wait. I spent the next 2 hours flitting between husband, son and dog and taking son and dog to find a car charger as all the phones were getting low and we had no idea whether husband would be admitted or not.

In the end, it was not. The operation was urgent and could have been carried out at Newcastle but with the follow up care, it was deemed better to return to Cheltenham and have the operation there. This came as something of a relief as all I could think about during the wait was how on earth I was going to get his car down nine car parking ramps when I couldn’t use the brake. It was clearly on his mind too as he point-blank refused to let me try.

Going back to Cheltenham was a no-brainer. The operation was urgent and we decided to drive through the night and take his referral letter to Cheltenham General hospital first thing the next day. And when I say we, I mean me. Husband finally, and reluctantly, agreed I should drive as the eye drops were disturbing his remaining vision and he knew he wouldn’t be able to see when it got dark.

It’s fair to say that Hubby does not make a good passenger. Having driven straight back to Belford, packed and departed, I might have been concerned about staying awake, were it not for the fact that he shouted at me almost the entire way home. The conversations, of which there were many, went along these lines.

Him – “You should get into the left lane here.”

Me – “But the satnav says stay in the middle lane.”

Him – “No, the sign says go left.”

Me – “The satnav definitely wants me to stay in this lane.”

Him – “GO LEFT NOW!”

Me – “We’re on the wrong road.”

Him – “Well don’t listen to me. You know I can’t see properly!

And so on, ad nauseam, all the way home.

Fortunately, we arrived home in one piece, slept for a few hours and reported to the hospital the next day. The staff at Cheltenham General were fantastic, took it all very seriously and he was operated on the following day. Three weeks later and things are going well. He can already see colours and shapes and his vision improves daily.

On the minus side, we only spent two days in Northumberland of which one of those was taken up dealing with medical matters. The closest we got to a castle was driving past glorious Bamburgh Castle & we were compelled to cancel our boat trip to the Holy Island (they would have taken the dog too). But it’s a small price to pay to ensure the restoration of hubby’s sight and we appreciate how lucky he was to be seen by such professional medical staff in Berwick, Newcastle & Cheltenham. We will return to Northumberland again one day and the trip to Holy Island will take place before anything else!