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Lily MacDonald: a ghost-seeing enigma at Preston Manor

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This month marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Christiana ‘Lily’ Blanche Ashworth Macdonald. One of Preston Manor’s more enigmatic residents, Lily’s outwardly quiet life touched upon the supernatural, the mysterious death of a fiancé, and the Aesthetic movement popularised by Oscar Wilde.

B&W photo of two young twin sisters

Diana and Christiana (Lily) Macdonald 1887

Lily was born at Preston Manor in 1866, alongisde her twin sister Diana.The twins were younger half-sisters to Ellen Thomas-Stanford, who would become the last private owner of Preston Manor.

We know rather more about Diana, who outlived Lily by nine years. This is possibly because she married and led a conventional life, but also because she corresponded with Henry Roberts, Preston Manor’s first curator, and letters exist in her decorative, looping handwriting which reveal some of her character. Lily, however, remains an enigma: the puzzling silent twin.

A ghostly ‘White Lady’

Lily and Diana are best remembered for their brush with the paranormal, as they both saw the famous ghost of the White Lady whilst growing up in the house.

Lily related a vivid encounter to her nephew, John Benett-Stanford, who passed the report to Henry Roberts in the hope he might include the sighting in a guidebook to the new Preston Manor museum.

‘Miss Lily Macdonald tells me that in October or November 1896 as she was trying a new lampshade in the Drawing Room at Preston Manor, the ghost walked in at the door and came straight to her as if to speak. Miss M recognised it as the ghost, seeing her white dress and hair hanging down. She followed the ghost through the Billiard Room to the foot of the stairs, then put her arm around her saying ‘No – you don’t go now’. Miss M’s arms went through the figure and it disappeared at once.’

The Cleves Room c.1896 with vase of white lilies

Later that year Lily and her mother invited two renowned paranormalists to Preston Manor: Ada Goodrich Freer, a spiritualistic medium and Assistant Editor of Borderland, the leading spiritualist magazine of the day; and Thomas Douglas Murray, a member of the illustrious Ghost Club. Together in the Cleves Room the group held a séance with the aim of contacting the ghost to find out why she wandered the house. The dramatic results of the séance remain inconclusive.

The ghost of the White Lady at Preston Manor was described in detail by Lily and Diana. They say she was dressed in flowing white robes and wore her golden hair loose. Although spoken to, clearly she did not reply. Interpretation to date has relied on Ada Goodrich Freer’s suggestion that the ghost was a nun called Sister Agnes. However, descriptions of the White Lady do not mention a nun’s habit, and what nun has long blonde hair?

Further doubt must be cast on Freer’s identification because in 1897 she was denounced as a fraudulent medium and thereafter fled in disgrace to America. Perhaps the White Lady should have been addressed in Latin, as Diana’s description fits that of a high-born Roman woman of the classical period. Preston Manor sits in a part of Brighton known to be Romano-British archaeologically, so perhaps the sisters saw a Roman ghost?

From Goddesses to Mephistopheles

Christiana Macdonald styled herself ‘Lily’, rejecting her birth name for reasons unknown. A carte-de-visité photograph taken in about 1886 shows a fragile young woman photographed from the back, her head turned to make the most of her slender neck and heart-shaped face in three-quarter profile. With her abundant curled hair piled high she wears a ruffle-backed white dress, corseted at the waist with huge gauzy puffed sleeves.

Photograph of Lily by society photographer Alfred D Kissack, 130 High Street Eton, Windsor

Whiteness and purity surround Lily Macdonald. Even from birth she is associated with white. Her middle name Blanche translates as ‘white’ in French, derived from the Latin blancus. Her chosen name of Lily also refers to a white flower.

Had Lily married she may have chosen lilies for her bridal bouquet. According to the Victorian Language of Flowers the lily spoke of virginity and even divinity, for in Christianity the lily is the emblem of the Virgin Mary. For the ancient Greeks the lily was associated with the powerful goddess Hera, Queen of Heaven and wife of Zeus.

Lily sitting on the lawn outside Preston Manor with dachshunds, Bushey and Faust, c1890

Lily would have spent her girlhood at Preston Manor becoming skilled in ladylike accomplishments considered essential to attracting a prestigious suitor, yet she did not marry. This was unusual for a woman of her era and social standing. Instead Lily poured her heart into her pets. Keeping little dogs was a popular pastime in Lily’s day, equal to the modern trend for miniature lap-dogs.

Victorian and Edwardian dachshunds were often given German names but Lily’s choice of Faust and Bushey may hint at a darker side to her character. Faust is a character from German legend, a scholar who makes a pact with a demon, Mephistopheles, gaining a short life of knowledge and pleasure in exchange for eternal damnation.

One remaining sign of Lily’s affection for her pets is the pet cemetery at Preston Manor, which she created with Diana.

A mystery worthy of Agatha Christie

The darkest known episode in Lily’s life was the untimely death of her first fiancé, William Frederick Forsyth Grant.

William of Clan Grant was a member of the landed gentry in Scotland, passing his time as Captain and Acting Adjutant of the Forfar and Kincardineshire Militia Artillery. He was a man accustomed to handling weapons, a fact that puts a question mark over the events leading up to his death.

Grant died at his family home, Ecclesgreig Castle, on 27 January 1902. According to local newspaper reports William died as a result of tripping over a rug with a knife in his hand. This seems to me a spectacularly clumsy accident for a soldier and country sportsman. Was his death suicide, or even murder? Curiously William was buried after a mere three days. Why the haste?

William’s death certificate has been recently acquired from The Highland Archive, Inverness. This shows the cause of death as a ‘wound in chest – haemorrhage’. William died of asphyxiation in the arms of his brother, Maurice, after three agonising hours. He was 33 years old.

William’s last will and testament dated 1 May 1901 speaks of his devotion and intentions towards Lily.

‘I hereby leave to Miss Christiana Blanche Ashworth Macdonald (Lil) absolutely all and every fully paid share I may be possessed of at the time of my decease and any and all policies on my life i.e. any money accruing on my death and all cash etc. in any bank etc.’

William left just over £12,000 in stock, bonds and life insurance (worth in the region of £1.5 million today). Decorum of the age suggests Lily never availed herself of this blood-soaked inheritance, not least because she had disengaged herself from William days before his death in favour of Captain Jackson, fiancé number two. Little is now known of this man except that he painted four interior views of Preston Manor in watercolour.

The Dining Room at Preston Manor, c1896


Secrets to the grave

Following her mother’s death at Preston Manor in 1903, Lily spent her adult life in London. The 1911 census shows 45 year old Lily living at 28 Chapel Street in London’s exclusive Belgravia. She lived alone looked after by Alice Good, a parlour maid aged 21. When Diana was widowed in the early 1930s the twins set up home together at Cumberland Mansions, a grand apartment block near Hyde Park.

We don’t know why Lily never married although she didn’t need a husband for financial support. In 1947 Lily’s worth at probate was £6,738, 6s 2d at a time when two thousand pounds would buy a good sized family house.

I recently applied for access to Lily Macdonald’s will and the document reveals some interesting facts. Lily bequeathed most of her possessions to her twin, Diana, and nieces Phyllis Porteous and Lilas Campion (née Porteous), daughters of the twins’ older sister, Flora. A charming collection of miniature family portraits were left to Preston Manor and can be seen on display today.

It seems common practice for families associated with Preston Manor to make provision for favoured servants in their wills. Lily was no exception. She bequeathed £500 to her maid, Kate Good (perhaps a relation of her parlour maid Alice), ‘in recognition of many years faithful service’. In 1947 this amount was a substantial sum equalling two years wages for Kate.

Whatever secrets Lily held, she took them to her grave. I believe Lily had many secrets, not least, perhaps, the full story behind William Grant’s death. Frustratingly Lily left the following clause in her will:

‘I also give free of duty to the said Lilas Campion all my dispatch boxes and their contents and all my other private papers with the request that she will burn unread all my private letters at once.’

St Peter’s Church, Preston

Lily died aged 81 on 15 August 1947. She was cremated so she might be laid to rest at the church of St. Peter’s next to her childhood home — burials had ceased in the churchyard from 1870. Curator Henry Roberts closed Preston Manor for the afternoon of 20 August 1947 so he might play a key role in the ceremony and host the wake in the house.

He wrote a poignant letter to the family solicitor, F Bentham Stevens of Marlborough Place, describing Lily’s funeral and internment of ashes.

‘We left the Manor by the old private way into the churchyard just before 3.30. I carried the casket, followed by Mrs Magniac and Lady Galway, Mrs Campion and Miss Philcox, the nurse and maid. In the churchyard we were met by the verger and Mr. Tomkinson. The latter took the service.’

Through Henry Roberts’s description of Lily’s funeral we know that Diana placed a sheaf of white carnations on her sister’s grave. The Roberts family cut white and mauve asters from the Manor gardens and these were placed in two vases on the altar.

Henry ends his letter by clarifying ‘what sort of tip’ one pays the verger ‘for verging’ and for ‘digging a small grave…on a very hot day.’ He thought twenty shillings (one pound) would be adequate and asked for Mr Bentham Stevens to send a cheque to A. J. Latta of 6 Bates Road.


Henry’s sharp-eyed daughter, Margery, then aged 39, added further detail in her memoir, A Time Remembered, published in 1998. She describes providing sandwiches for tea in the drawing room but was irked by Diana’s request for luxury eatables at a time of post-war shortages: ‘we had Fuller’s iced cake, chocolate madeira cake, it meant going to many places to buy the food because of rationing.’ Margery goes on to observe:

‘I don’t think Mrs Magniac, Miss Macdonald’s twin sister, really understood. They were beautiful women, but always rather aloof from everyday life and reminded me of Marie Antoinette’s famous saying about the peasants. If they can’t get bread, let them eat cake!’

An enchanting portrait: Lily the Aesthete

In the spring of 2017 a large oil painting of Lily Macdonald came up for auction in London.

Unseen outside private ownership the portrait is a rare discovery and is reproduced here by kind permission of its new owners who visited Preston Manor in June to see Lily’s childhood home and last resting place.

Portrait of Lily Macdonald by John William Schofield (1865-1944) Private collection with permission

Painted by the British artist John William Schofield, Lily is depicted seated at a small circular highly polished mahogany table in soulful profile. Her characteristic heavy head of dressed chestnut coloured hair accentuates the delicacy of her slim neck and pale arms.

Lily’s choice of costume and setting for her portrait shows she may have been influenced by Aestheticism, an approach to life opposed to the brash consumerism and ugly industrialism of the late Victorian age in favour of ‘art for art’s sake’ and the pleasure to be found in beautiful things. The poet and writer Oscar Wilde, at the height of his fame in Lily’s youth, was a leading personality of the Aesthetic Movement and acted as something of a style guru. Wilde was a supporter of dress reform and encouraged the rejection of mainstream fashion in favour of ‘artistic dress’. Embracing Wilde’s advice to discard constricting whalebone corsets and brightly dyed over-ornamented costumes, female followers wore loose flowing garments in subtle muted colours. In accordance Lily wears a diaphanous silvery-grey shawl decorated with dun-gold tassels over an unstructured black velvet gown with a low-cut white satin underdress. A soft poesy of mauve flowers pinned to her breast drops faded decorous petals onto her lap. In lieu of showy jewellery Lily wears a simple gold band on the little finger of her left hand.

Aesthetes delighted in Japanese art and indeed a Cult of Japan hit the Aesthetic home, which became filled with trays, fans, screens and teapots – and was promptly satirised by Punch magazine in cartoons depicting wilting Aesthetes swooning with delight over oriental ceramics. European trade with Japan and the influx of picturesque goods inspired librettist Gilbert and composer Sullivan to create The Mikado, their hugely successful 1885 Japanese fantasy operetta. Theatre-going crowds were enthralled and inspired by the dazzling sets and costumes made from Japanese silks purchased at the Aesthete’s emporium, Liberty & Co.

Voguishly in trend Lily is portrayed gazing upon a glass dome containing a Japanese doll figurine with shimada hairstyle wearing an embroidered silk kimono with paper parasol.

There is no indication of where or when Lily’s portrait was painted, but it may have been Preston Manor, her home in the 1890s. Could the ‘five-fold leather screen’ mentioned in her mother’s will dated 1899 be the backdrop to this picture?

Cleves Room at Preston Manor

If you visit the Cleves Room at Preston Manor you too can revel in the taste for all things oriental. Here you will find a small collection of ceramics dating to the late 19th century and originating from Japan and China, including examples of the blue and white china so beloved of Wilde and his followers. The ceramics are displayed in the approved Aesthetic manner on the mantelpiece and on plain wooden shelves.

I like to think Lily would approve.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer, Preston Manor