Preston Manor is reputed to be one of the most haunted houses in Britain.
In this episode Sophie talks to Chris Drake (Development and Operations Manager at Preston Manor), Paula Wrightson (Venue Officer), Lavender Jones (long-standing volunteer) and David Beevers (former Keeper of Preston Manor), who help us to understand the cast of characters (ghoulish or otherwise) that have made Preston Manor a bewitching place to visit.
Narrator: From Brighton, on the English South Coast – these are the voices of the Royal Pavilion & Museums, with Dr. Sophie Frost.
Sophie: Hello! I’m Sophie, and I’ve spent the past 9 months wandering the corridors of the Royal Pavilion & Museums in Brighton & Hove – otherwise known as RPM – uncovering the stories of the museum people who keep Brighton’s historic buildings and collections relevant, vibrant, and accessible for the world we’re living in.
Sophie: Preston Manor has gained an eerie significance as one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. Subject of ghost tours, television programmes, and a wide range of ghostly sightings have been alleged here. In this episode, I speak to Development and Operations manager Chris Drake, along with Venue Officer and ghost expert Paula Wrightson, as well as Lavender Jones, whose been a volunteer for the museum service for many, many years. We’ll also be hearing again from David Beevers, former Keeper of Preston Manor and now Keeper of the Royal Pavilion. Together, these individuals provide an incredible overview of the different histories and stories, opportunities, and challenges, of this Grade 2 star listed building.
Paula: My name is Paula Wrightson and I’m the Venue Officer at Preston Manor. I’ve been in Royal Pavilion & Museums for nearly 30 years – been around forever – but I’ve been full-time at Preston Manor since about 2012/2013. Before that I was based down at the Royal Pavilion and I was a museum Learning Officer for the adult programmes. So I mainly organized events across Royal Pavilion & Museums – so all our museums. Before that, I worked at a little countryside centre that was run by Hove Borough Council called Foredown Tower – a Camera Obscura/Victorian weirdness – and my very first job in this department was in 1990, when I worked on the ticket desk at the Royal Pavilion. So, I’ve done all sorts of things in-between.
Sophie: I think it’s probably quite hard to summarize what Preston Manor is, within the city of Brighton, but, would you be able to sort of give us a…
Paula: Yes, I can give you an overview. Preston Manor is a house, that was a private house until 1932, and it was lived in by prominent citizens that have since been forgotten. The Mayor of Brighton and MP for Brighton, Charles Thomas-Stanford, and his wife Ellen, who was a massively rich heiress – that’s not why he married I don’t think, maybe he did. But they lived here at Preston Manor. It was one of their small houses, they had other houses, but in the period around the First World War, they were prominent citizens – really important people. It’s amazing how fast, in a hundred years, people can get so quickly forgotten. But this was their house, and, when they died they had already written a deed of gift, in 1925, giving everything to the town of Brighton and literally gave the lot away. It’s an amazing piece of philanthropy, I suppose. So, house, gardens, contents, ghosts, everything they owned – we inherited in Brighton. And it’s a museum today, so you can wander around Preston Manor and see how a fairly grand couple lived a hundred years ago. And it is a time capsule – nothing really has changed in here. And that’s what makes the house, I think, a little bit spooky sometimes, in that, when you’re wandering around the rooms – because nothing’s changed – you’re walking into somebody’s bedroom, or somebody’s sitting room, and you can imagine that they’re just through the doorway there. And I think that possibly gives rise to some of the creepy feelings that people have when they’re here – almost like you’re being watched.
Paula: I don’t know whether the husband and wife spoke to each other, but Charles’s idea was that the house was going to be turned into a museum of Sussex life, because he was a gentleman antiquarian. He collected books on Sussex, and Sussex folklore, and customs, and all sorts of interesting things. So the house was going to become a museum of Sussex life. So, he wrote that into his will, and everything. And Ellen – who died in the same year, 1932, at the end of the year – she left all the furniture, fixtures, fittings, beds, everything, she left behind. So, the idea of clearing everything out and turning it into a museum of Sussex life was stuffed – by Ellen’s leaving of all her wonderful objects and contents. So that’s why the building didn’t become a museum of Sussex but became preserved in amber – that’s what it’s like.
Sophie: Often, when this has happened, there’s been a tendency for a council official to come in and say “No, let’s clear it, let’s make the museum happen or let’s…”
Paula: Yeah. “Lets do something different with it, and a bit wild, and change things.” Well, I think the lovely thing is that that didn’t happen.
Paula: And we’re not in the centre of the city, we’re in the suburbs, so we’re near Preston Park – a sleepy backwater. And, as the decades rolled on – you know, the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s – didn’t really touch Preston Manor. It’s Sleeping Beauty’s castle – is the way I’ve sometimes described it. Locked away for a hundred years. And then you can come and find everything exactly as it was. So, I think the fact that no one came along and wanted to turn it into some kind of wizzy thing was great, because we have that legacy now – of the time capsule.
Paula: We did inherit the ghosts. I often say to people – if I’m talking to visitors about ghosts – that ghosts isn’t something we made up, because running ghost tours is going to be a nice lucrative thing for a historic house to do. So, we didn’t – that wasn’t where we were coming from – we’re on a really ancient site here.
Paula: So Domesday book, 1086, there was a Manor at Preston, here, somewhere. There’s nothing of that building left now. So Manor Houses were always built on an ancient site – so important sites strategically. There’s a church next door, 13th century church, so there was certainly a Manor here then. You could say the Manor at Preston is a thousand years old – so that’s a lot of people living, dying, existing, in this space. But Preston Manor that you see today – the oldest part you can see today – dates to the 1750s.
Paula: So those earlier versions of the house have now gone and we’re in a much more recent building.
Sophie: There’s every possibility that there’s a vast array of spirits, throughout history, roaming around.
Paula: In my time here, I’ve met a lot of a para-normalists, mediums, people with Second Sight – all range of people. Fascinating, always wonderful to meet and speak to, and they will always talk about ‘residual energies’. Now, I always think we should ban the word ‘energy’ because it is too over-used. But, residual energies – people who were here – something of them remains, perhaps. Or, maybe we’re in some weird kind of ‘time slip’ here, and the past really does co-exist with the present? And there is some kind of wormhole, space and time – right here at Preston Manor – where these things can just slip out, and you can see them when you’re walking up the stairs, or walking around the kitchens. It’s a weird old place Preston Manor.
Sophie: It’s incredible.
Paula: When Ellen Thomas-Stanford and Charles left the house – by deed of gift – they left the contents, which included the ghosts. So they came along as part of the gift to Brighton. I came here when I was in the museum learning team and my remit at the time was to run lots of events. So I came here to run ghost events, and I didn’t know anything more about ghosts than the average person. I was vaguely interested about ghosts – seen a few horror films, read some ghost stories, that’s about the limit. But I then, very quickly, had to find out more about the ghosts of Preston Manor, because I’m running events, giving talks and tours. So, eventually I became quite expert in the subject of – I’d say definitely Preston Manor ghosts. I can’t explain what ghosts are – you can go and find out for yourself what ghosts are, there’s all sorts of theories. But I became an expert on the Preston Manor ghost story. And then I realized – now, I know more about Preston Manor ghosts than anybody else. So, I am a ghost expert. I sometimes say, “I am the ghost expert of Preston Manor.”
Chris: My name is Chris Drake, I am the Development and Operations manager for Preston Manor. I have been in post for a little over four years now. It does get under your skin. For me, it’s facing up to that demon of actively taking responsibility for a very significant house that contains very significant collections. Working with people who are passionate about the house, and the collections, and also passionate about the stories that are linked to this site. And it’s not just about the house at Preston Manor, it’s about how Preston Manor sits with the neighbouring village of Preston – how it relates to Preston Park and the other heritage assets around us. Working within a large organization, you very quickly realize that what you want to achieve, has to fit in with what other people’s expectations are of the site that you’re running, but also, other responsibilities. So, working with Keeper of Historic buildings, Tim Thearle – he has a number of sites to manage, and make sure are waterproof, and, you know, plan maintenance is conducted, in an appropriate way, to an appropriate standard. And I guess I, even after 15 years of seeing others work with their own properties, it was a bit of a shock to me to realize how closely I had to work with people like Tim and Louise – on security, and fire safety, health and safety, and all the rest of it. And that’s been a really positive revelation to me – appreciating the work that our conservation team do, in particular in terms of preventive conservation, in terms of pest management, but it’s integrated, not just within the house, but it’s integrated across the service.
Chris: The budget allocation for marketing needs to be higher, because without that corporate voice, we don’t get the profile, and so, allocating some of my annual budget to additional marketing is critical, because there isn’t a core marketing budget – there isn’t enough core marketing budget. And obviously we are one of the smaller sites within the portfolio. We’re an income-generating site with modest footfall. We have great offers for schools in terms of our role-play. We have really interesting activities which we both develop and put on ourselves, but increasingly, with our functions team, are developing third-party suppliers to use the house for their purposes – they effectively hire us out. Working with Conservation to manage expectations – like what could actually be achieved, in a Grade 2 star listed historic building, with the kind of collections that we’ve got. And that’s the joy about changing those rules – actually being able to see stuff through, from wild-eyed ideas – working out what’s practical, working out what the implications are, working out what the costs are to deliver something. That’s been the high point, I think – over the last four years – is developing a product, or a series of products, for Preston Manor.
Chris: I think about the long-term ambitions about what the house could be, and how our visiting public might enjoy it differently; to the last 85 years of it being a relatively standard Edwardian historic house museum, to something that’s more dynamic. That we are able to tell more and more diverse stories about the house, and its history, and the people who worked here, and died here. That’s exciting – that’s where the development side of things come in. Having said that, I’m still the person who needs to report anti-social behaviour and vandalism. I’m still the person who gets to put my hand down drains to unblock them, on occasion, if I’m having a very lucky week. Yeah, it goes from the sublime to the ridiculously mundane.
Sophie: Umm – that’s a nice way of putting it.
Chris: I think the problem has been that the local community hasn’t recognized that this is a public museum, but in fact that’s probably our biggest marketing problem. People have been aware of this large creamy white-coloured house set in its grounds, and they walk through the grounds – because we’re a thoroughfare between Preston Drove and Preston Park. We’ve got St. Peter’s Church, Preston Park, on our doorstep, we’ve got the churchyard there. And so many of local residents, when they do finally come in, say, “I never knew you were a museum” – that’s a hell of an indictment.
Chris: We’re open to the public for half the year – from the 1st of April to the 30th September. In fact, October to March is probably our busiest period because we are, thankfully, still overloaded with schools coming to do the role-plays. We’re not closed, we are very much open, we just don’t have walk-up members of the public coming here – that’s a message that is still quite difficult to get across. The gardens are open all year-round. We need a minimum of two members of staff on site to open anyway – two front of house team members. And we don’t have that bigger pool any more – we used to be three people staffing this place, now there are two.
Sophie: And why is that?
Chris: That’s, I think, a fundamental effect of reduction of local authority funding.
Sophie: Could you say something about how it sits within RPM – as one of five sites?
Chris: Yeah. We’re one of three charging sites, and, in that respect, it’s very helpful for us to be part of the History Pass, during our summer open period. We have benefited from that combined ticket in terms of a contribution we made towards our income figures. Even if the people who buy that ticket don’t necessarily set foot in Preston Manor and they’re buying the ticket because it gives them reduced price entry to the Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museum. We’re out of the city centre by – it’s, you know, typically about 30 minutes walk from the Pavilion, to get up to the north end of Preston Park. There are messages that could be improved upon at the point of sale of the history passes – to sell it to people a little bit more about what Preston Manor is and what they get …they get three days to use the pass. It’s been some time since there has been a dedicated curator, for Preston Manor as well – a specialist in the Fine and Decorative Art collections that are here. The last incumbent of that role is now the Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, and I think the three bowtor sites – the Booth Museum, Hove Museum & Art Gallery, and Preston Manor – suffered a little bit by the remaining capacity being more focused on the central sites.
Chris: Necessarily, because those are the sites where most of the visitors go. They’re the sites where most of the programming happens. But with Preston Manor, we’ve largely just had the schools’ learning assistants doing the role-play, under the School’s Officer, Sue. And then you’ve had Paula Wrightson here, as the Venue Officer, and Paula is both our historian, picking up on the previous Keeper’s expertise, and she also deals with the activities that happen here. So she organizes Father Christmas, and whatever other talks, tours we do, or are hired to do – she’s our liaison person.
Sophie: And we know, from having spoken to her, at length, Paula is, sort of Wonder Woman – for the history and the stories of Preston Manor. Do you see, in an everyday way, how the actual collection here suffers from not having the kind of contact-time it would have got, if it still had an embedded curator? Is it very obvious that that’s missing now?
Chris: I think, when I first got here, the overall state of cleanliness could have been improved, and it has been. Having preventive conservation capacity allocated to us more regularly – getting a cleaning week in the schedules every year has been phenomenally helpful. And in terms of, sort of, remedial conservation, if we spot a problem, there’s no question that a phone call to Andy and his team will get them up here to get that repaired swiftly. But, in terms of the interpretation of the objects, nothing very much has changed since we had our, still, excellent guidebook written by David Beevers – a classic interpretation of the house’s history and an itemized list of all the artefacts that are in each of the rooms. And we’ve relied on that, probably, until a couple of seasons ago.
Sophie: So, what I’m hearing is, even though there’s not necessarily a dedicated curator here all the time, these things are still occurring – just in a different type of negotiated way?
Chris: Yes, I think that that’s a very fair way of putting it. But the lives of the servants – the jobs they did, both in the house and the estate workers around – were never part of the story, really. That’s not to say that the Thomas-Stanfords, and their extended family weren’t fascinating – there are some fantastic characters. And one of our strongest stories here is the so-called ‘Most Haunted Building in Brighton’, if not the South East, as a challenge for somebody to come and back-at-me with. That stems from Lady Ellen’s half-sisters holding a seance here in the late 1890s. The kind of ‘Haunted Heritage’ has taken on a life of its own.
Chris: More particularly, is that there’s been a shift, from, wanting to know what the upstairs lifestyles were like, to wanting to know more about what the downstairs life/lives were like. And, therefore, if we started the house visit in the basement areas where the servants worked and, in earlier years, lived – you can then follow a route that takes you up, in a long spiral, up to the grandeur of the entrance hall, up to the master bedrooms for Sir Charles and Lady Ellen. And then, at the very top of the house, again, you have their very modest bathrooms and toilets. And beyond that, some semblance of the original servants quarter – which must have been a hellish to live in – up in the attics. Which, unfortunately, aren’t accessible to the public because they’re just not safe. But it’s kind of spinning it on its head, and being able to show, and tell more, about the breadth of life that occurred here, rather than just the lives of the owners. They had their moments; they played host to a number of literary greats during their time here, they were great friends with Rudyard Kipling and his wife, they hosted a dinner party for the Crown Prince of Sweden. But Sir Charles himself was MP, he was Mayor of the town – they played their part. Lady Ellen’s son, from her first marriage, was a character of some renown and the relationship between mother and son was difficult, I think it’s fair to say. She left the Manor to the corporation rather than her son.
Chris: And that’s as a result of her grandson dying of the effects of wounds from the First World War, in the mid-20s. There’s still those – the family-related stories – yet there’s much more to it. And so, I would like the public to enter through a different route; either through the courtyard at the front of the house, or, longer-term with a lot more investment, enter through the kitchen garden – which would involve some changes to the way the garden currently looks. It’s a huge project. I knew coming into this job, both, that, on a year-by-year basis, I would have a relatively small budget to work with. And I also understood and accepted that – in the fundraising scheme of things for the Royal Pavilion & Museums – developing Preston Manor was not a high priority. We are an income-generating site – we do quite well at that, particularly with the schools. To do better, I think we do need more investment, but I don’t think it’s our time yet. There are higher priorities, for example, at the Booth.
Sophie: Would you say that, out of all of the sites within RPM, it’s the Booth that maybe needs the first …is first port of call?
Chris: I can’t say that, directly, because it goes without saying that the Royal Pavilion itself is our service’s greatest asset. I need to know that for Preston Manor, as I’m sure my colleagues who run the Booth and Hove would like to know, is that at some point, in the foreseeable future, we do get our turn to have a bite of the cherry.
Sophie: What is it that makes museums still important and relevant for visitors?
Chris: For Preston Manor, first, it’s still a hugely important building in its local community. Even if a proportion of that community don’t really understand what it is, and why it’s here, what went on here, and what still goes on here. And so, part of the mission is to change that perception. In terms of museums more generally – it sounds a little bit Henry Ford-ish. Do I mean that? – I’m trying to think what I mean.
Sophie: I’m excited.
Chris: Let’s hang on to that – let’s see if I’ve actually thought this through. Preserving things of utility, of beauty, of importance, of enquiry, uniqueness. And preserving the stories about the people who made, used, cared for, still care for, these things – where they sit in our own memories. And that doesn’t matter whether it’s Decorative Art, Archaeology, Natural Sciences, Fine Art, buildings – it doesn’t matter, because there’s always something that will trigger a strong memory. We have, if you like, the grand gestures. We have the iconic buildings like the Pavilion. We have the iconic collections like Booth. We have a re-interpreted archaeological history of Brighton – in the new Archaeology Gallery, in Brighton Museum. We have taken opportunities to re-think what we think we know about what we hold in our collections. We’ve had opportunities to ask different communities, within the city and beyond, about what they think about our collections, and what’s relevant to them. Whether it’s the BAME groups or the LGBTQ groups or the Walled Garden volunteers. I like that democratization – I think it’s not always terribly easy to manage, but that’s a good challenge to have, I think, and moving forward as a Trust, I think that is an exciting direction to be taking.
Sophie: Hi, Sophie again. Chris’s reflections on the gradual democratization of RPM reminded me of a fabulous anecdote from my previous interview with David Beevers, Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, that featured in Episode Two. David describes here the perspective of Maurice Elphick, a butler at Preston Manor, and one of the last ‘servants’ there. Let’s have a quick listen:
David: It’s interesting Janita mentioning the servants quarters of Preston because, when I arrived there, in 1979, the last generation of servants who had actually worked there were still just alive. And the first thing I did was go and interview them, because they were just going to die – the paperwork and archives could wait. The butler, Maurice Elphick – sadly I never met him – he moved to Nottingham just shortly before I arrived. He used to live in Brighton. He could not understand why I was asking him about servants. He said that, we were on no account …it’s the family that you should be interested in – why are you asking these questions about servants? And he couldn’t understand, that, for the generation born after the Second World War, the sort of life that he’d lived – you know, there were 12 indoor servants at Preston Manor – for today’s generation, it’s as distant as the Stone Age almost, you know, they can’t conceive of it. And yet he, born before the First World War, could not understand why I was interested. Eventually he softened up but it was quite a hard task to get him to talk about about his life there. I did discover that a predecessor of mine, Marjorie Roberts – who’d actually lived at Preston Manor – had secretly interviewed Maurice Elphick with a tape recorder, which she felt terribly guilty about (what’s wrong?) and that tape is the, the Holy Grail. When I was a Keeper at Preston Manor – where is this taped interview with Preston Maurice Elphick? And so, any tape one finds anywhere in this institution, for heaven’s sake play it before chucking it out! – in case it’s this lost interview that has disappeared. No one’s ever heard it but she assured me, before she died, that this tape did exist – a big reel-to-reel tape.
Sophie: Oh, that’s amazing. But presumably there has been a treasure hunt for it over the years?
David: Oh yes, well I looked for it, but of course now it’s quite difficult finding any equipment that will play a reel-to-reel tape. Technologies move so quickly, it’s quite difficult to find that. People who come after me – if you see a reel-to-reel tape – play it before you chuck it out, because it might be that missing interview!
Sophie: A valuable reminder from David here – not to throw old tapes away before you first listen to them. Next up is long-term volunteer Lavender Jones, talking about her interactions with Preston Manor. It was from speaking with Lavender that I coined the term ‘walking encyclopaedias’ to describe the staff across the museum service here in Brighton. I love hearing Lavender talk about the work she does for the museum, and particularly her insights into sorting out the ephemera at Preston Manor, and how she had to catalogue it all by hand. There’s something sort of darkly humorous about Lavender’s descriptions of her time in the museum service, and actually darkly apt, as well. Obviously, knowing me, I couldn’t resist asking Lavender about ghost sightings. Here’s what she had to say:
Lavender: I work Tuesdays and Thursdays – a full day usually. I’m there from about nine till half-past four/five. And Tuesdays I do Fine Art with a friend and we’ve been doing this now for about 20-odd years. So I’ve been through probably about three or four different Keepers of Fine Art.
Sophie: Oh gosh!
Lavender: One of them, memorably, was David Beevers, of course, who is now Keeper of the Royal Pavilion – whatever he is. Now, Jenny Lund is Keeper of Fine Art and so she gives us a pretty free hand. And we’re cataloguing all the watercolours and prints – we’re just finishing the watercolours. And we’re going on to the other side of the room – which we call the dark side, which is where the prints are, which are a bit of a nightmare.
Sophie: Why do you call them ‘the dark side’?
Lavender: Well, it’s boxes are very black, and the things that are in them are rather boring, potentially, but could be quite exciting. There are a lot of caricatures, and we’ve done those – which are lovely. On Thursdays I work on local history – with Dan Richardson (I think his name is?) – and archaeology. So, most of the time I’m doing local history; cataloguing, photographs, anything really he throws at me, sometimes doing some scanning, and things like that. I initially catalogued all the borough surveyor’s photographs, back many years ago. And so they’re coming back to me now, to be added- to – so they can be scanned as well, by somebody else.
Lavender: So I add the local information, because I worked in Town & Country Planning before I came to the museum, so I’ve got a very good knowledge of the area and I’ve done a lot of local history, and helped with a lot of local history books and that kind of thing. I worked on maps, mainly, when I was working, so I have a pretty good idea of where things are, what’s gone, and what’s still here, and, so I can write about it.
Sophie: It sounds like you’re a hugely valuable resource?
Lavender: Well I do feel a bit like a resource.
Sophie: Are you kind of like a walking A-Z of Brighton?
Lavender: Well I do feel a bit like that sometimes.
Sophie: I’m sure you’re much more than that, as well.
Lavender: Well, I enjoy it because it keeps me going and I meet young people and it’s very interesting. So I don’t mind – I’m very happy to do anything. I’m quite happy, I do boring very easily, as long as I know what I’m doing. I went to Preston Manor.
Lavender: Because David Beevers was there then – and he was running the Manor. But I was working with somebody called Mark Neethy, who was, sort of, Dan’s predecessor. They had all the boxes down there in the cellar, or down in the basement, of the Manor. Full of all local history stuff in a sort of room at the back, which wasn’t a very good place for it. So we spent, I say we – Katie Ann Gibson (?) and I – spent a whole day there (we used to walk all the way over there) sorting out all the ephemera, basically – which is material on paper – and cataloguing it by hand, because there weren’t any places that we could use computers then. No computers, well, hardly any, in the museum as a whole. But there were no things where you could plug things in, or anything, and they were all ancient. And so we had to do everything on paper. So there are masses and masses of bits of paper in a folder now, which some poor person has put online, I think, of what we did. And probably somebody’s doing it all over again, as usually happens in the museum! But it was great fun and I really enjoyed it because we had all sorts of things, from Valentine cards to, you know, books on buses, or all manner-of things.
Sophie: And they’d all been left behind?
Lavender: They’d just been left in boxes – they’d never been catalogued properly.
Sophie: But did they belong to the inhabitants of Preston Manor, before it will go to the council?
Lavender: No, no – nothing to do with the Manor.
Sophie: Oh, right.
Lavender: They were …there’s a store, still there – where it was being used to store. So we had to go to Preston Manor in order to do it and we were in a room, sort of almost adjoining David’s office, so, quite a lot of it was in there – which is great fun. I loved being there – it was very nice, it’s a lovely place to be.
Sophie: It’s a beautiful building.
Lavender: Yes. So we spent several years there, doing that.
Sophie: Did you see any ghosts there?
Lavender: No. I have seen ghosts, but not there, and my father was a great ghost-buster in his time.
Sophie: Oh really?
Lavender: So, yes – he was a church architect, so he was always coming across them. So, I have seen ghosts, but not …I never saw one there. But I do remember being down in the basement once, when one of the people that do tours and things there – with the children, you know, when they dress up. She’d been up in the place where they have the children’s nursery. She was up there, right at the top of the building, and she’d come down the stairs, and as she was coming down the stairs, there was somebody knocking on the wall as she came down – following her – making this banging noise on the wall. So she came down, all the way down – because we were the only people there – very white-faced and shaken. But David said, in his entire time there, he’d never seen one. That doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any.
Sophie: Okay, I like your open-mindedness there.
Sophie: And now back to Paula. Is there a particular ghost story that you found most intriguing?
Paula: We have a lot …I mean, people always. Because I’m sceptic I don’t believe in ghosts. So when I came to work here, because I’ve been saying for years I don’t believe in ghosts, I thought – oh no, they’re going to come and get me now – because I’m going to actually be in the building full-time. So, I come with my sceptics head on. So, if someone shows me a picture I think isn’t a ghost, I’m not going to believe that it is. But, the question people always ask me is “Have you seen a ghost? Have you had a ghostly experience?”, and the answer is Yes, I have. Ghosts are odd – if you see them, you immediately – with your sceptics head – say ‘well I didn’t see that’. Because there must be a logical explanation for it, and it probably is. I have ghost stories that have happened to me, and I have ghost stories that have happened to other members of staff. Because everyone who works here, sooner or later, they will come and get you. And I have ghost stories that have happened to visitors. So, yeah – it is a well-haunted house.
Paula: I say to people, if you come here you will see a ghost. The ghost we inherited – the most famous ghost – was a ghost of ‘The White Lady’. To my mind she’s probably the least exciting ghost, perhaps because the story’s been told so many times – she’s worn thin, she’s worn translucent with telling. But she was the ghost that was seen by the family members. And the two family members that saw The White Lady were two women, who I am interested in actually. Twin sisters, Lily and Diana McDonald, who lived here, and they were born here, so they were some mid-Victorian girls, living in this house, just as you see it today, and not going out to school, so taught at home. Having a very quiet, respectable life locked in this madhouse, and they started seeing ghosts – which possibly said something about where their minds were going. But they did see, they did see her. The most interesting thing they did was hold séances, and these were a for-real thing to do in the Victorian times. And fortunately the séances were partly conducted by a family member called Thomas Douglas Murray and he was a member of the famous Ghost Club, who set up in London in the 1860s. So they had really good connections in the world of the Victorian paranormal.
Paula: So, Thomas Douglas Murray was here. It was Lily – the more interesting twin – who took part in séances. Diana had a conventional life – she got married and she left home. Lily stayed home and took part in séances. And the transcript of probably the most famous séance is up in the British Library, so it’s in the public domain – so you can see it, and I’ve read it – so I know what happened here. On the 11th of November 1896, in a little room that you can go into today, it hasn’t changed.
Sophie: That’s the very cold room, is that right?
Paula: They’re all cold rooms. I’m mean, not today – we’re talking in the middle of a hot heat wave – but historic houses have many cold spots, quite naturally, because they are cold places.
Sophie: I’m just getting into it too much, sorry.
Paula: You are, you’re getting really carrried away! There’s a little room called the Cleves Room. It’s a room that has leather wallpaper – it’s quite creepy wallpaper as well – it’s very Gothic, so, perfect room for holding a séance. It was just a little cozy side room or sitting room and that’s where they chose to have the séances. Actually, it’s quite a creepy room – if you go in it in the dark and close all the …and stand there, you can get the creeps quite easily. So they held séances there, and, being good Victorians, what they wanted to do, was to contact the spirit and find out who she was. And – really important for the Victorians, very philanthropic – ‘How can we help this poor wandering soul who’s wandering around our house?’; we’ve met her, the girls tried to speak to her, other people saw her, she’s obviously is in need of help in her after-life, and we’re going to sort it out. The Victorians were like – we’ll sort this out! So they held the séances, and kind of unfortunately, the medium who they chose – Thomas Douglas Murrray’s friend – was a lady called Ada Goodrich Freya, who was working as a spiritualist medium. She was an extraordinary character. It’s amazing that she came here – very, sort of high-placed in the world of Victorian spiritualism. But she was, in later life, sort of de-frocked, if you like. She was found to be a fraud, so, the séance that she conducted here was something that…
Sophie: Freya made up?
Paula: If you’re going to conduct a séance and you sit there and say, “Is there anybody there?” and nothing happens – that’s not going to be much fun is it? So, she made this amazing story around speaking to The White Lady. So, they put their hands on the table – “Is there anybody there?” you know, the classic line, “Is there anybody there?”. Oh she was using a talking board, which is an ouija board, which a lot of people are quite scared by. People sometimes say to us, oh we’ve run events, “Oh you’re not going to run a Ouija board are you?”, and we say “No, we don’t use those.” A lot of people have watched ’70s horror films – or I think they feature in quite a lot. People have a great fear of them. But Ada used one, to spell out the words, so when they did, “Is there anybody there?” the first words she spelled out were “Go Away” – which was quite scary.
Paula: But she persevered, and eventually managed to speak to a nun – it’s always a nun isn’t it? – Sister Agnes, who came through. Then, then, there was a story concocted around …concocted, I’ll say she made it up. Maybe, maybe I’m doing poor Miss Goodrich Freya a disservice? Maybe it’s all true, and she really did commune with the spirits, but I think there’s a lot of hoodwinking going on there. Not just with Ada, but with skeletons, because, skeletons are another thing we have in the cupboard here.
Paula: Skeletons in the closet. Ellen’s son John, who was about 26 at that time. He was a great trickster, and he liked mucking about with skeletons. So November 1896, the family has a séance – they apparently contact a nun. She said she’s been ex-communicated, she’s been buried without a Christian burial, she’s a wandering soul, she needs to be found and she needs to have a Christian burial – and if they can do that, that will be wonderful and everything will be solved. I’m imagining the household over Christmas – when John comes along and he’s speaking to his family and the women who were there – “Oh John, we had the most amazing séance, we spoke to this lady!” Oh, incredible. And John, being a 26 year old young man – I’m going to wind up of these ladies – this will be fun. Because he did have form around skeletons. So, January 1897, they’re having some work done on the front of the house to do with the drains – they had a drains problem. So they’re digging away, the workmen are digging away, and they find a skeleton.
Paula: Hastily-buried skeleton down a hole. And, you know, today, if you find human remains, in your house, you know what you must do. You must contact the police and the appropriate authorities. Do you know what, in 1897, it was exactly the same. Well, they didn’t do that, because John came along and his hands were all over it. He called in a doctor, who was his friend, I think – another young fellow. He said, “Oh, she’s 300 years old – these bones – she’s a woman, she’s 300 years old. Well, that must be Sister Agnes! – this is wonderful, she’s been found!” And, you can imagine the uproar in the house – how exciting; you’ve had a séance, you’ve got this buried nun, now she’s been found. It’s all too good to be true, isn’t it? So John comes along and he said, “I’ll give her a proper burial” so he gathers all the bones up and he trots over to the church next door and he says to the vicar, “I’m going to have her buried a good Christian burial, she’s 300 years old, don’t you know.” And the vicar says, “No, I’m not going to bury her – because she’s Catholic. I’m not going to have a Catholic nun in my not-Catholic churchyard.”
Sophie: Oh wow!
Paula: So John then says, “I’m going to bury her anyway”, so he goes up. So, for me, John is all over that story, because he immediately takes charge, he immediately takes hold of the skeleton. In later life he bought an anatomical skeleton, and he used to dangle it out of the windows and frighten lady guests. So when you open your curtain in the morning, the grinning skull is looking at you. They had a lot of time on their hands! – the wealthy Victorians – mucking around with skeletons and séances is all part of the fun.
Sophie: But The White Lady – everyone thinks she was a nun.
Paula: Oh, I’ve gone back to all the source documents – all the original documents we had – because these stories can grow arms and legs over telling, so I’ve gone back to the original. Let’s say she really was seen by Lily, and Diana, and their mother, and other members of the household. So, the description of her is a young woman, with loose flowing, golden-blond hair, and a long white robe. Now that’s not any nun I’ve ever known. I think – without my sceptics head on – this part of Brighton is extremely rich in prehistory. So I think she’s a Romano-British woman. I think she’s a Roman ghost and she’s that old, she’s been around a long time, because the descriptions of her fit very well into the description of a high-class Romano-British woman, when there was a Rome Villa very near here down Springfield Road, possibly the one very near the site of Preston Manor as well – so she’s a much older ghost. That’s as much as I can say on The White Lady, but she disappeared from history – she gradually faded away. But, interestingly, I was talking to my husband about this, some years ago, and he said “Oh, I’ve got a friend of mine, who grew up near Preston Manor, and he used to see The White Lady, as a child.” Any story from someone’s childhood – it’s very hard to say that really happened. But he said “No, no, no, my friend …his mother saw her, as well, in the 1970s” – so we’re going more into modern times. He said “Oh, yes, we lived in a house near Preston Manor and we could see the grounds of Preston Manor from my house.” And, he said, “I was in my bedroom and I could see this white, woman in white, drifting through the trees” and he said he called his mother – she saw her as well. So, we’ve got an adult, who’s going to sort of ‘second’ that story. And the mother spoke to the milkman – in the days when you had a milkman – and she said to the milkman, “Oh, I’ve seen the white…”. “Oh, said the milkman, I see her all the time. She drifts around the ground at Preston Manor.” She’s not been seen since – because she has been surpassed by The Lady in Black. The Lady in Black is our main ghost now.
Sophie: The Lady in Black.
Paula: So, The Lady in Black – now she’s our most commonly-seen apparition of modern times – and I’ve seen her.
Sophie: Can you tell us about that?
Paula: Actually, it was during the exhibition of witchcraft – the Doreen Valiente exhibition – so I know it was 2016. I don’t think it was connected. But, I was down in a basement room we have here, called the Boot Hall, and I was talking to some visitors. And peripheral vision is interesting, because I’m sitting facing you interviewing me, but, in my peripheral vision, there’s another person in here. And, although I’m looking directly into your eyes (we’re sitting opposite each other, over a table) the person in my peripheral vision – I can see him, really clearly. So, he’s sitting there, he actually exists, so I’m not looking at him.
Sophie: This isn’t a ghost.
Paula: This isn’t a ghost – No, he’s a real person – a member of this recording team. I can describe him really well (because I met him earlier) but, I can see him quite clearly, and I’m talking to you. So we all understand about peripheral vision because we all have it ourselves. So, I was talking to the visitors down in the Boot Hall, and in my peripheral vision, a woman came down, behind me, I have to explain – I’m on the underside of the staircase. So, there’s a wooden stairs – a servants’ staircase hidden away – and when members of staff come down the servant staircase, or any person, (Paula makes noise of footsteps) you can hear their feet, right underneath it. So imagine you’re in your cupboard under the stairs – you can hear them. No sound of footsteps, and there’s a door that opens – no sound of the door opening. But through, came The Woman in Black. So this figure, like this (Paula blows a low whistle noise), almost like silence, but, you can hear it. And she moved very fast, and very swiftly, into another room, which was the servants’ hall. So, I was so shocked – I quickly said to the two people I was speaking to, “Excuse me one minute, would you…” and I dashed into the servants hall and she wasn’t, she wasn’t there and I thought, “I’ve just seen The Lady in Black!” Exactly a year later, the following summer, I was called down from my office, “Paula, you must speak to a visitor! – he’s had an experience and seen something at the Manor.” So I went out, into the entrance hall and spoke to a very respectable older gentleman. I said “Explain what you’ve seen” and he said, “I was down in the servants hall” and he said “I was looking at – there’s a particular object – it was a knife polisher” and he was looking at it. And he said “I was looking at this object, and a woman, wearing black, appeared, just next to me.” And he took me down to show me where – and it was exactly where I’d seen her walking towards. And there’s a door, which goes into what was originally a housekeeper’s private sitting room…
Paula: So, if you believe in ghosts – let’s say we do – she’s the ghost of a housekeeper, and she exists somewhere at the bottom of the servant staircase. Somewhere, where she would go every day, down the staircase, into her private sitting room. And perhaps, in that weird wormhole – that ‘gap in time-space’ thing that exists at Preston Manor – she’s there, and if you go “Come and visit Preston Manor! Sit in that room! Come and see her – come and see a ghost!” But she’s always seen around there – she’s sometimes seen on the landing, in the main part of the house, going from room to room. And we have one of our security officers – who’s actually since retired, but years ago, a couple of years ago – he said, “You know, it’s, it’s not so much, I’m not really scared of her, I’d just rather not see her.” So, when he goes to open up in the morning, he always shields his eyes, as he walks upstairs, so that he doesn’t see her. He doesn’t mind her – he just doesn’t want to see her.
Sophie: So you’re working with the ghosts?
Paula: Yeah, everyone, everyone here works with ghosts – we just, we’re a bit blasé aren’t we? A haunted house? – we are used to it.
Sophie: I can’t, I mean, I can’t really imagine it – so it’s very interesting to hear about it.
Paula: As I said, it’s an intriguing house, because we have ghosts in it. So, I’d say to anyone who comes here – just …you will see them at some point or another – even if you’re a sceptic. And you will say – like I will say – “That didn’t really happen!” I got locked in the attic as well – don’t want to hear that do you? I’ve probably got a hundred stories I can tell you about ghosts. You see, what I like about Preston Manor is the inter-connectedness of the stories. I thought, when I came here; look, we’ve got a family that lived here – they’re interesting, we’ve got some ghosts – they’re very interesting, we’ve got some really interesting people – these characters, we’ve got some dogs – well they’re a bit separate aren’t they? (because their pets). And as soon as I started researching deeper, I realized every single part of the story is complete. There’s nothing here that’s not weirdly – I mean, not just interestingly, but like weirdly – connected.
Sophie: And tell me about the missing hand and the Titanic.
Paula: Yeah, Thomas Douglas Murray, as a young man, went out with some friends ‘on a gap year’. It wasn’t a gap year – young men used to go travelling, in those days. So they went out to Egypt, to do some sort of poking around, and he had a hunting accident. Shot himself in the arm, and by the time he got to Cairo, to medical help, he had to have an amputation. But, while out in Egypt, he bought a sarcophagus lid, of a mummy, of a woman called Amen-Ra (because you could do that in those days). He packaged it all up, sent it back to London to his house. And when he got home, many months later, when he unwrapped the sarcophagus lid of Amen-Ra, he saw – instead of the beautiful woman – she had transformed into this sort of hideous, frightening object. And when he looked upon her face he was filled with fear. So, long-story, it ends up in the British Museum, because they give it to the British Museum. But Thomas Douglas Murray and his friend William Thomas Stead – who was the owner of the Pall Mall Gazette, but a really rich newspaper magnate – he was interested in Spiritualism, and Thomas Douglas Murray was, so they thought “Hey, why don’t we hold a séance, and then we can find out all about this Amen-Ra and why she’s a malevolent.” Because there were all sorts of stories coming around; the cleaners in the gallery wouldn’t go anywhere near the sarcophagus lid, and all sorts of disasters started happening. So they said “We must do a séance.” – but the British Museum wouldn’t allow that.
Paula: No, it’s not very proper is it? – ‘Go away, you foolish men!’ Anyway, William Thomas Stead – actually William Thomas Stead’s assistant – on a little magazine he ran called ‘Borderland’ – was Ada Goodrich Freya, who was the medium who came here to conduct the séances. There’s a nice connection …another connection!
Paula: So W. T. Stead – which William Thomas Stead was known as – he was interested in Thomas Douglas Murray’s stories of Egypt, and he used to talk about them. William Thomas Stead was a passenger on board the Titanic. Over the dinner table, he told stories; about this sarcophagus lid, and his friend out in Egypt, …lost an arm, and maybe he even told stories about Preston Manor – on the Titanic – he might have done. Anyway, when the Titanic sunk, almost immediately rumours started going around – sort of fake news stuff of the day – of a sarcophagus, that was down in the hold of Titanic, and that the Titanic was sunk through the mummy’s curse. So the curse of the Mummy, which comes directly from Thomas Douglas Murray losing his arm, and some of his companions. It’s a little bit like the story around Tutankhamun’s tomb, you know, when you get various people who died, and these things happened. So these stories of terror, and unpleasantness, stick to a particular object, or person. So W. T. Stead was on Titanic, telling these stories, and he was the most famous British man who died on Titanic. He went down with the ship. This is a house – we tell the Edwardian life – and Titanic is a one of the biggest Edwardian stories there is. The sarcophagus lid of Amen-Ra was said to be on Titanic on its way from Britain, to a collector in New York because we wanted to get rid of it, because of the curse of the mummy. In fact, the sarcophagus lid is still in the British Museum. It wasn’t in Titanic, on the Titanic. I should go and have a look, shouldn’t I? But Thomas Douglas Murray, who came here – that was his.
Sophie: That’s incredible! So, from Preston Manor to Titanic, and back again.
Paula: Yeah, and back again – and it would have been a big subject here. This was, in 1912, this was a private house, so, when news eventually filtered through – roundabout the 15th of April 1912, when everyone knew what had happened – this house would have just been absolutely full of that story. Charles Thomas Stanford – he had a letter from his publisher – a perfectly standard business letter, written on the 22nd of April – in which his publisher, John Lane, says “Oh, by the by – I was almost on Titanic. Fortunately, I got on the Lusitania instead” – which, as we know now, with history, sunk in 1915. So, there’s a very slight connection there. Everybody, from up here in the drawing room, to down in the servants, I mean, we don’t know huge amount about the servant stories, but they make …we’re not far from Southampton. So, there may well have been people working here, who have family in Southampton, who were on the Titanic, we don’t …it’s an area of research that I would really like to do some more on, to see if we can find more connections with Titanic.
Sophie: Well it seems like the connections are endless here.
Paula: Do you know, I’ve only scratched the surface of these stories. We have so many more to unravel here, so many more.
Sophie: I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this episode as much as I did making it. My sincere thanks to Chris Drake, Paula Wrightson, David Beevers, and Lavender Jones for providing such rich and incongruous details on the history of Preston Manor. It rang so true to me when Chris described his work as veering from the sublime to the ridiculously-mundane. But doesn’t that describe museum work in general, for most people? And when Paula talks about Preston Manor as a “weird old worm-hole of space and time” – one evocative description of the layers of people, and of stories, and of ideas, that make up a site such as this! What remains most in my mind from these interviews about Preston Manor though – alongside the ghost stories, of course – is how its interpretation has altered over the past century. From beginning with an intention to celebrate the wealthy Edwardian life of Sussex, it became a meditation on the complicated relationship, between servants and masters living in such close quarters. In other words – a kind of breakdown of the class system in the UK, I guess, and an intention to understand it better. This theme of, sort of, steady democratization, plays out at so many levels across the museum service in Brighton and Hove, and will be returned to time and again throughout this series. Join me, next time, when I’ll be speaking with Robert Hill-Snook, Head Gardener of the Royal Pavilion Gardens.
Sophie: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode hit ‘like’, and subscribe, and please leave us a very nice five star review. Find out more about the Royal Pavilion museums at brightonmuseums.org.uk and more about this project at onebyone.uk. On Twitter I’m @soph_frosty and RPM is @BrightonMuseums. I really hope you can join me next time. Till soon, Goodbye.
Narrator: The Voices of the Royal Pavilion & Museums are supported by the onebyone research project, the School of Museum studies at the University of Leicester, The Keep, Arts Council England, and produced by Lo Fi Arts.