The Ghosts of Renishaw Hall

by MJ Wayland

Is Renishaw Hall Derbyshire haunted by a fearsome ghost? Renishaw Hall, about which the following stories are related, is the country house of the Sitwells, the well-known Derbyshire family, to which Sir Osbert, Mr Sacheverell and Miss Edith Sitwell belong. It is an old house dating from 1625 and has many ghostly associations.

The first story was probably given to Lord Halifax by his friend, Miss Tait, the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The second story was supplied by Sir George Sitwell himself, with the addition of a note by his wife, Lady Ida Sitwell.

Miss Tait’s Ghost Story

In 1885, Sir George Sitwell, who was born in 1860, celebrated his legal coming of age. There was a large party in the house for the occasion, the guests including the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Tait), and one or two of his daughters. Miss Tait was sleeping in a room at the head of the staircase. In the middle of the night, she came into the room of Miss Sitwell, Sir George’s sister, and declared that she had been awakened by the sensation of someone having given her three cold kisses. Miss Sitwell said she would make a bed for Miss Tait on the sofa in her own room. She added that she was not willing to go back and sleep in Miss Tait’s room, as once she had fancied she had the same experience when she slept there.

After the party had broken up, Mr. Turnball, Sir George’s agent, came to talk to him about some business and in the course of their conversation Sir George mentioned Miss Tait’s account of what she believed had occurred in the room she occupied. Sir George thought Mr. Turnball would be amused, but contrary to his expectations Mr. Turnball turned very pale and said:

“Well, Sir George, you may make a joke about it, but when you lent us the house for our honeymoon, Miss Crane (sister of Walter Crane, the artist), a schoolfellow of my wife’s, came to stay with us, and she had the same room and exactly the same experience.”

The Coffin of Renishaw Hall

Some time afterwards there was a question of altering and enlarging the staircase. Sir George Sitwell consulted his cousin, Mr F. I. Thomas, as to how this should best be done and Mr Thomas recommended throwing the room in question, with the one below it, into the staircase. It was eventually decided that this should be done. When the alterations began, Sir George being anxious to learn anything that was to be ascertained about the ancient plan of the house, left orders with the steward and Clerk of the Works to take note of anything of interest that might be discovered and let him and Mr Thomas know about it. The work was begun, and one day Mr Thomas, on opening his letters, found one from the Clerk of the Works. He reported that in removing the floor of one of the bedrooms the workmen had come across something which he thought would interest him. He, therefore, begged Mr Thomas to come down and see what they had found.

Mr. Thomas went down and learned that they had discovered a coffin between the joists of the floor of the room in which Miss Tait had slept. From its appearance and the fact that it had no screws but only nails, the coffin appeared to date from the seventeenth century. It was firmly fastened to the joists by iron cramps, but owing to the shallowness of the space between the joists and the floor, there was no lid, the floorboards serving the purpose. There was no trace of any bones in the coffin, but it carried certain marks which suggested that it had once contained a body.

Sir George Sitwell’s Ghost Story

Last Saturday two ghosts were seen at Renishaw. Lady Ida had been to Scarborough to attend the Life Boat Ball, at which she sat up until four o’clock in the morning, returning home in the afternoon. After dinner, the party of six (I was absent for a few hours) sat in the drawing-room upstairs, Lady Ida lying on a sofa facing the open door.

She had been speaking to a friend who was sitting on her left when she looked up and saw in the passage outside the figure of a woman, apparently a servant, with grey hair and a white cap, the upper part of her dress being blue and the skirt dark. Her arms were stretched out at full length and the hands clasped. This figure moved with a very slow, furtive, gliding motion as if wishing to escape notice, straight towards the head of the old staircase, which I removed twenty years ago. On reaching it she disappeared.

Unwilling to think that there was anything supernatural in the appearance, Lady Ida called out, “Who’s that?” and then the name of the housekeeper. When no one answered she cried to those who were nearest the door, “Run out and see who it is; run out at once.”

Two people rushed out, but no one was to be seen, nor, when the others joined them and searched the hall and passages upstairs, could they find anyone resembling the woman described to them by Lady Ida.

They had given up the search and were returning to the drawing-room, when one of the party. Miss R____, who was a little behind the others, exclaimed, “I do believe that’s the ghost!” No one else saw anything, but afterwards she described what she had seen. In the full light of the archway below, within twenty feet of her, and just where the door of the old ghost room used to stand, until I removed it and put the present staircase in its place, she saw the figure of a lady, with dark hair and dress, apparently lost in painful thought and oblivious to everything about her. Her dress was fuller than is the modern fashion and the figure, through opaque, cast no shadow. It moved with a curious gliding motion into the darkness and melted away at the spot within a yard of the place where a doorway, now walled up, led from the staircase to the hall.

There is no doubt that these figures were actually seen as described. They were not ghosts but phantasms reversed impressions of something in the past, and now projected from an overtired and excited brain. In both cases the curious gliding movement, the absence of shadow and the absolute stillness of the figures, which moved neither hand nor head and hardly seemed to breathe, point to that conclusion. Such an experience goes far towards solving the ghost problem. Ghosts are sometimes met with, but they are not ghosts.

Lady Ida Sitwell’s Ghost Story

September 17th, 1909: I saw the figure with such distinctness that I had no doubt at all that I was looking at a real person, while, at the same time, although seated in a well-lighted room and chatting with friends, I was conscious of an uneasy, creepy feeling. I tried to see the features, but could not. Even before I called out, my friends noticed that I appeared to be following something with my eyes. The light in the passage was good and I could see so well that I could distinguish the exact shade of the dress. The figure was that of a woman between fifty and sixty years of age and her grey hair was done up into a “bun,” under an old-fashioned cap. I have never seen a ghost, nor had I been thinking about ghosts.

Photo © Andy Stephenson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

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