‘Call in the local exorcist’: Ghosts & the Gaselees at Preston Manor, Christmas 1920

In this month’s blog post from Preston Manor, Paula Wrightson tells a Christmas tale of a ghostly apparition, royal tragedies, and Edwardian class divisions, as seen through the eyes of two distinguished guests to the house.

Sir Stephen Gaselee, photograph by Bassano Ltd half-plate glass negative, 17 August 1939 (National Portrait Gallery)

Sir Stephen Gaselee was a first class Cambridge Classics scholar and a man of extraordinary intellect and achievement. His equally brilliant wife, Lady May ‘Mollie’ Gaselee, saw the famous Preston Manor ghost while the couple were staying as guests in the house. Stephen’s suggestion to exorcise the phantom was never acted upon as the Stanfords were proud of their ghostly White Lady.

High Society in late Edwardian Brighton

Sir Stephen and Lady Mollie’s names appear regularly from 1913 to 1929 in the Preston Manor visitors’ book. In 1907 Stephen visited the Thomas-Stanfords’ house in Madeira, as the visitor book from Quinta Stanford at Funchal attests.

It was customary for grand houses to keep a record of guests and two volumes of signatures exist at Preston Manor, providing us today with a peep into Brighton high society in the interwar years.

Signatures of Sir Stephen and Lady Mollie, Christmas 1920

As ghost stories are traditionally told on Christmas Eve it is to Christmas 1920 that I will turn first. That year Christmas Day fell on a Saturday so Stephen and Mollie were probably already established by Friday afternoon in the guest quarters in the newly built west wing. The sumptuous weekend house parties so beloved of the pre-war Edwardians were resumed though perhaps somewhat sobered by the recent devastation of the First World War.

‘We didn’t want to alarm you’

View from guest bedroom in winter

Stephen and Mollie would have been given the principal south-facing guest bedroom which overlooks the croquet lawn and Preston Park. One morning on her way to breakfast Mollie saw a figure on the staircase. Curious, she asked her hostess, ‘who is the lady I saw coming down the stairs? Are there more rooms above?’ Ellen replied, ‘we didn’t want to tell you because we didn’t want to alarm you – we have a ghost but she doesn’t do any harm.’

West wing staircase where Mollie saw the ghost

There are no rooms above the guest bedroom. The figure seen by Mollie descended from some other dimension. It is unlikely the Gaselees were daunted by the prospect of sharing their quarters with a ghost. In fact, such were their intellects they would have had theories of their own on matters paranormal and perhaps these were discussed over the Christmas dinner table.

A troubled royal wedding in Spain

Stephen Gaselee was born in 1882. After Eton he studied Classics at King’s College, Cambridge. In 1905, aged 23, he was appointed tutor to Prince Leopold of Battenberg, the 16 year old son of Ellen Thomas-Stanford’s dear friend, Princess Beatrice, daughter of Queen Victoria.

Princes Leopold and Maurice Battenberg (private collection with permission)

In May 1906 Stephen accompanied Leopold and his 15 year old brother, Maurice, to Madrid for the wedding of their 19 year old sister, Princess Victoria Eugenie, to King Alfonso XIII of Spain.

The journey by sea and rail was recorded by Stephen in his diary and by camera. A particularly poignant shot shows the Princess ‘looking out of the train at me’ in elaborate dress and hat. Victoria, carrying her grandmother’s name, had cause to look apprehensive for there was a 50% probability she was carrying Queen Victoria’s infamous gene for haemophilia that so blighted the royal bloodline. Feared and not fully understood, the blood disorder tainted Victoria’s marriageability. In Spain the match was not favoured by Alfonso’s family for religious as well as dynastic reasons.

Photo of well dresseed woman looking out of a train window
Princess Victoria Eugenie, photo and note by Stephen Gaselee

Stephen’s care of Leopold and Maurice would have included concern for their health as the brothers suffered from haemophilia. This meant that the slightest knock or bump could cause painful life threatening internal bleeding.

Victoria and Alfonso’s marriage began with an inauspicious act of violence. An anarchist made an assassination attempt on the king and his new queen by throwing a bomb at the wedding procession. The bomb only narrowly missied Victoria, and succeeded in killing a horse. Stephen’s photograph album contains a postcard of the near-catastrophe and his note on the carnage: ‘the dead white horse.’

The dead white horse (private collection with permission)
Photograph of portrait of May Gaselee by Sir John Collier (private collection with permission)

Sadly the new Spanish queen proved to be a carrier of the haemophilia gene: her two sons also suffered from the condition, including the eldest and heir to the Spanish throne. This would go on to cause irreparable damage to the relationship between Victoria and her husband.

In spite of his haemophilia, Prince Maurice went on to take up a career in the military. He died on active duty at Ypres in 1914 during the First World War. Stephen’s brother, Alec Mansel Gaselee, was also killed in action in Flanders a year later, aged 21. Stephen took up a civilian role: by then a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, he worked in the Foreign Office. In happy respite from the demands of the war, on 26 July 1917 he married the beautiful May Evelyn Hulme.

Women motorcar enthusiasts

May married direct from Cambridge where she graduated with a first class degree in French. In the early 20th century married women of the Gaslees’ social position were not expected to take on employment. Husband, children and home were the required priorities for a woman, even for one so intellectually gifted.

Catherine, one of Stephen and May’s granddaughters, has provided me with unique family insights allowing a glimpse into May ‘Mollie’ Gaselee’s vibrant personality. Regarding the Preston Manor ghost Catherine writes of her grandmother,

‘She was not one to go around seeing ghosts everywhere…she had a strong Church of England faith, high intelligence and a no-nonsense unsentimental approach to life.’

Catherine tells me that Mollie was ‘extremely intelligent and independent’. Unsurprisingly she took to motoring in the 1920s, a time when women drivers were a rare sight. By this time she’d given birth to two daughters, Ursula and Julitta (Judy). A third daughter, Stephana, was to follow. Stephana’s name suggests she wasn’t the son Stephen was probably hoping for.

The Snip (private collection with permission)

A desire for freedom took Mollie on a search for a car. Catherine writes:

‘So she went to a second-hand dealer and he showed her this car, a Palladium. “It’s a snip, Madam!” he said. Meaning it was a bargain. Ever after, Mollie called it the Snip.’

Early cars were notoriously unreliable as Catherine reveals of the Snip.

‘She used to drive Ursula and Judy around in it. My mother vividly recalled an occasion when they were driving down to Preston Manor but broke down. Apparently they sent their chauffeur to meet them and fix it, but he was not at all happy with his mission! I believe they got there safely in the end!’

Mollie’s grandson, Andrew, tells me that Mollie loved speed and thrilled on car journeys when top speed was reached. Known to her family as ‘Gigi’ she ‘had a few speeding tickets’ but he goes on to remark:

‘I always thought it was one way a woman of her age and class could break out of well-behaved norms.’

Two couples divided by class

Mr & Mrs Watson, Preston manor, c1929

The Preston Manor chauffeur in question was James Watson, whose grandson Graham has provided me with some fascinating insights into the lives of the people whose labours made the Thomas-Stanford’s hospitality possible. His grandmother, Ethel Hannah Watson, sounds as spirited as Mollie Gaselee:

‘…she was a tough old girl. She played football in Preston Park with us boys. She loved gardening and was bad at cooking.’

Graham showed me an extraordinary photograph of Ethel as a young woman in the late 1920s dressed audaciously in her husband’s livery posed against the Thomas-Stanford’s Rolls Royce car (surely on a day when their employers were away from home). Perhaps she too longed to be behind the wheel but Ethel did not have Mollie’s freedoms or finances, so daringly dressing in breeches, jacket and cap was as close to driving as she was going to get.

Mrs Watson in her husband’s livery c.1929 (private collection with permission)

I shared Graham’s anecdote with Catherine, who states;

‘This is a real Upstairs Downstairs Story. How interesting that the servants were so cheeky – as perceived then. But my mother was adamant that it was simply not done for one class to mix with the other so there was doubtless scope for envy that couldn’t be openly expressed.’

Indeed, Mrs Watson and Lady Gaselee would never have spoken even though they must have seen each other in passing at Preston Manor.

Mollie’s title came bestowed via her husband’s appointments, C.B.E (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) awarded in the 1918 New Year Honours for his services to the Foreign Office during the First World War and K.C.M.G, (Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George) 1935.

Lady May ‘Mollie’ and Sir Stephen Gaselee (private collection with permission)

Miss Ursula’s nanny

Ursula and Judy Gaselee (private collection with permission)

In keeping with the custom of the day Mollie and Stephen employed nannies to care for their children. Thereafter the girls attended boarding school. Children frequently became attached to their nannies, especially if their mothers travelled abroad. In the days before air travel much time would elapse before parents and children were reunited. Affection between nannies and their charges could cause emotional struggles as Catherine explains:

‘She (nanny) was dismissed for being too fond of Ursula who was aged about 4. Mum ran after her as the carriage left and Stephen told the footman to bring Miss Ursula back. She was heartbroken. Subsequent nannies were chosen for their strictness. Nanny Perrin was nanny about the time of staying at Preston.’

Unrestricted by day to day childcare the Gaselees had much freedom. Mollie’s diary speaks of a dazzling world unimaginable to ordinary working people like the Watsons.

‘They led an amazing life, travelling round the Med and further abroad, often in the company of other academics and society friends such as the Courthaulds. My grandfather helped Marie, Queen of Romania, with publishing her autobiography, and he knew TS Elliott and Housman.’

Even tales of childhood illness came linked to great personages:

‘Wonderful mix of high society and childhood diseases. My mother gave whooping cough to Lord Tennyson’s grandchild when she stayed with them at Shiplake.’

Catherine’s mother Ursula was born to Stephen and Mollie in April 1919 and died in 2015. It is through the reminiscences of her long life that we know private family details about the Gaselee’s visits to Preston Manor — including the ghost sighting.

Ursula remembered Nanny Perrin’s peeved reaction to the quarters given to guests and their staff whilst staying at Preston Manor. Perhaps Miss Perrin considered the 1905 wing uninterestingly modern compared to the stately antique bedrooms of the main house.

Seen and not heard

The Victorian principle of ‘seen and not heard’ was still applied to children in the 1920s, as Ursula recalled in a 2011 interview:

‘As small children we were expected to keep very quiet and not be any bother since the couple (Charles and Ellen Thomas-Stanford) were already quite elderly. We were instructed not to run. “If she calls you, just walk”…grown-ups had their world and my sister and I had ours and we were expected to keep to it!’

However the Preston Manor dogs proved perilously irresistible.

‘I have fond memories of their dog, Sturdy. He was just a puppy and he loved running around with us two girls. However, we were told off because we were “making him over-excited” and when he got very muddy in the flowerbeds the maids were not pleased to be told they had to bath him!’

Despite muddy frolics with Sturdy the dog, the girls’ best behaviour was amply rewarded: ‘…at Preston I had the best ice-cream I have ever tasted in my life, made with real fruit and cream. I’ve never forgotten it!’

By 25 August 1928 Ursula and Judy, now aged nine and seven, were deemed mature enough to sign the Preston Manor visitors’ book for the first time. Ursula signs with a flourish in imitation of her mother, clearly proud of her skills at joined-up writing. Judy’s signature betrays her tender years but her tremulous effort took some dexterity with a dip-and-ink pen.

Signatures of Ursula and Judy Gaselee, 1928

Such Edwardian childhoods can sound idyllic and charmed but damaged emotional connectivity between mother and children was not always repaired. Mollie suffered the trauma of losing her own mother to tuberculosis when she was nine, perhaps setting the seed for her distant mothering style.

Catherine writes of Mollie’s ‘inability to mother Ursula and Judy.’

‘My mother and Judy were very close as sisters, comforting each other during a succession of strict nannies and a rather loveless childhood. Privileged in some ways but not all.’

Fathers of Stephen’s class and generation were not expected to enter the world of the nursery. ‘Ursula was very fond of her father but he certainly wasn’t the sort to get involved in childcare.’

Good wine and fine living

Charles Thomas-Stanford made his last will and testament on 29 January 1932, five weeks before his death. He appointed Stephen Gaselee, ‘Librarian of the Foreign Office’, his executor and trustee. In recompense for this task Charles gave the sum of £300 adding:

‘I give to the said Stephen Gaselee all the contents of my wine cellar and any wine of mine which may be in the care of wine merchants at the time of my death.’

The Preston Manor wine cellars are enormous, begging the question of how many bottles were stored within. We can never know because the contents have long gone. £300 was a fair sum of money — in 1932 the average house price was £540. However, the Gaselee residence 24 Ashburn Place near the Natural History and Science Museums in South Kensington was an imposing mansion far grander in scale than the average home.

Stephen undoubtedly enjoyed the contents of Charles’s cellar for he was a recognised bon viveur with impeccable tastes. His Foreign Office friend, Ronald Storrs (who was chief pallbearer at the funeral of T. E Lawrence in 1935), described his erudite friend thus whilst he was still a Cambridge undergraduate of twenty:

‘…(he) had a fire every day in the year because England has a cold climate; who founded the Deipnosophists’ dining club, where the members, robed in purple dinner-jackets lined with lilac silk and preluding dashingly on Vodka, would launch forth into an uncharted ocean of good food and even better talk; Gaselee, who read, wrote and spoke Ancient Coptic (which the Copts themselves had not done for 300 years); Gaselee, nightly puffing his long churchwarden* whilst he expatiated on Petronius, vestments, Shark’s Fin and cooking problems; a lay Prince of the Church, Ecclesiastic Militant and Gastronomer Royal.’

(* A churchwarden was a long-stemmed tobacco pipe popular with scholars as smoke was kept distant from the eyes which enabled uninterrupted reading.)

Sir Stephen Gaselee died aged 61 on 15 June 1943 in the middle of the Second World War. Mollie lived a long life, and passed away in 1990 at the age of 96.

I am indebted to Catherine, Sarah and Andrew who have provided me with material for this article and unique access to their grandparent’s photograph albums and diaries. Sir Stephen and Lady May ‘Mollie’ Gaselee were remarkable characters about whom much more could be written. The couple rank high as honoured guests of Charles and Ellen Thomas-Stanford and will always be remembered as important contributors to Preston Manor’s fascinating story.

West wing of Preston Manor

Parts of the west wing of Preston Manor, including the rooms inhabited by the Gaselees and the children’s nanny can be seen on special Behind the Scenes tours. Next programmed public tour is on Saturday 14 April 2018. Private tours can be made by arrangement.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer, Preston Manor