In 1882, the ‘Society for Psychical Research’ (S.P.R.) was formed in London; its primary purpose being to explore and investigate paranormal and spiritualist phenomena, utilising some of the keenest scientific minds and clinical methods in Victorian Britain.  A decade later, Frederick Myers of the S.P.R. was called to an alleged haunted, Gloucestershire property, commencing one of the best-researched investigations in paranormal history.
 
Originally titled ‘Garden Reach’, the large Cheltenham house with sprawling gardens and orchard was built at Pittville Circus Road in 1860; its first owners being a retired surgeon called Henry Swinhoe and his beloved wife, Elizabeth.  
Sadly, the happiness was not to last and Elizabeth soon passed away. Heartbroken, Henry eventually remarried – this time to a lady named Imogen Swinhoe (pictured in the main photo), but this time around Henry failed to find wedded bliss and the marriage soon descended into alcohol-fuelled arguments and tensions.  
While separated, both Henry and Imogen died and ‘Garden Reach’ fell empty.
 
In 1882, the location proved ideal for new tenants Captain Despard and his family, who renamed the house, ‘Donore’.  The very cheap rent must have also been enticing, although possible reasons for this emerged just three months after moving in, when Rosina – the eldest of the six Despard children – became the first of many people to witness a frightening apparition at the house; a mysterious woman in black.
Frederick Myers scrupulously investigated every aspect of the haunting for an S.P.R. report in 1892, taking numerous witness statements.
In Rosina’s own words, ‘I heard someone at the (bedroom) door…I saw no-one, but on going a few steps along the passage, I saw the tall figure of a tall lady, dressed in black and standing at the head of the stairs…I followed, feeling curious as to what it could be.  I had only a small piece of candle and it suddenly burnt itself out.  Being unable to see more I went back to my room.’
Over the next two years, Rosina saw the same odd woman a total of six times.  Importantly, for the sake of paranormal research, the same ghostly lady was seen by at least three other witnesses, in good light.  One of these occasions involved Rosina’s younger brother and his friend, who had come over to play.  Whilst playing outside in the garden, both children were surprised to see an unknown woman standing at the drawing room window; staring mournfully out towards the garden and sobbing profusely.  
On another occasion, Rosina’s sister spied a woman while descending the main staircase.
I saw a tall figure in black cross the hall, push open the drawing room door and go in.’
On this occasion, as always, the house was searched, but nothing – and no-one – was found.
 
As the sightings mounted, the one common aspect became the apparition’s appearance.  Dressed in mourning black – known as ‘widow’s reeds’ – the woman’s face was always hidden by a handkerchief, held in her right hand.
Meanwhile, maids and servants also began to report sightings of a mysterious woman wandering the house and grounds, as well as neighbours  who spied the same woman either walking, or gliding, through the gardens.1884 saw the peak of paranormal activity with increasing numbers of people witnessing the apparition, although the woman appeared so solid that, on viewing her, she was assumed to be a visitor to the house; suspicions only being raised when the woman tended to disappear into thin air.  
On several occasions the apparition was reported to be visible for up to 30 minutes at a time.  At such times, communication with the spirit was occasionally attempted.
In Rosina’s own words, ‘she came in (the drawing room) and walked to the sofa…so I went up to her and asked if I could help her.  She moved and I thought that she was going to speak, but she only gave a slight gasp and moved towards the door…I spoke to her again but she seemed as if she was quite unable to speak.  
On several occasions, members of the family cornered the apparition and attempted to touch her.  On each occasion the figure promptly dissipated into nothingness.  As the woman remained solid (until 1885, when she became more transparent), traps were set to establish whether this spirit might be a solid person, pretending to be a ghost.  Fine strings were tied at various heights across the staircase, although the apparition glided effortlessly through all of them. 
Reports intensified, including possible communication attempts by the ghostly woman – on one occasion peering over the shoulder of a Despard daughter in the drawing room, as if interested in the song book she was singing from.  
‘I felt a cold, icy shiver…the figure bent over me, as if to turn the pages of my song book.’ 

A young visitor to ‘Donore’ – George Gooding – saw the ghostly woman on several occasions, commenting on how distressed the family dogs became whenever the apparition appeared.  

In the drawing room, George and other children held hands to form a human circle around the ghost, but she simply walked through two of the children and vanished.
Oddly, while the family dogs displayed discomfort and excitement around the spirit, the family cats remained calm and disinterested whenever she appeared.

With the landlord frightened of the property losing value, the Despards were ordered to swear all staff to the highest secrecy, concerning any paranormal activity in the house and garden.  Nonetheless, new servants soon witnessed the apparition within a short space of time and fled the house, never to return. 
One young maid even suffered a stroke as she spied the spectral form staring back at her from a mirror.
Floating, flaming lights appeared out of nowhere and drifted across rooms of the Cheltenham house.  On other occasions, the building was plagued by a series of heavy noises and some poltergeist activity.  
Some members of the family never saw the apparition, yet heard regular thumping, banging sounds that roared throughout the house.  Despite several vigils to ‘catch’ the ghost, each attempt failed and each appearance of the ‘Woman in Black’ was spontaneous.
After 1889, the ghost was never seen by the Despards, although the eerie noises continued until the family finally left ‘Donore’ in 1893.  Before leaving, Captain Despard called in a local vicar, Canon Gardener, who performed an exorcism on the property.

Sir Frederick Myers (1843 - 1901)

Sir Frederick Myers (1843 – 1901)

So, who was the mysterious ‘Woman in Black’?  The chief suspect is Imogen Swinhoe, who died in 1878.  Several contemporary witnesses described the woman as being very similar in height and build to Imogen, although the reason(s) for her return from the grave remains a mystery.
After 1892, the house remained quiet for some years – ultimately becoming a school named ‘Inholmes’, a nunnery and a nursing college named ‘St Anne’s'; it’s title to this day, although the property is currently a series of private apartments.
During the early years of the 20th century, reports continued to grow of odd occurrences and mysterious appearances within the building, especially around 1903.  
After the exorcism, it’s fair to say that events within the house became more secretive, although there is evidence to suggest that the ghostly woman merely moved on to surrounding locations.Two theories for fraud and deception remain active. Firstly, that the ‘ghost’ was merely a mistress of Captain Despard who was in the house from 1882 until 1893.  One reason for this line of thought is the reported solidity of the apparition, leading to the subsequent belief that if she looked that real then surely she must have been flesh and blood, rather than some form of etheric spirit.  The second most common theory is that the claimed apparition was nothing more than a conspiracy by the twenty-year old Rosina Despard, perhaps desperate to gain some form of attention or notoriety.
While some prominent investigators have chosen to remain with the ‘mistress theory’, this raised some interesting questions – such as how was the apparition able to pass through solid cords on the stairs.  Her ability to disappear into thin air, sometimes around multiple witnesses, must surely also be explored, especially when the range of witnesses extend not only to the Despard family, but also to their staff and neighbours.   
Also, if this were the sole work of a bored – yet clearly inspirational talent within the world of magic & illusion – it doesn’t explain how Myers’ initial S.P.R. investigation included several sightings of the ‘woman in Black’ prior to 1882, when the Despards inhabited the house.  
Nor how the sightings appear to continue after the Despards had not only left their Pittville Circus Road home, but also reports that continued to be made after the last member of the family had died off during the mid-20th century.

 

A further investigation in the 1980′s by Andrew MacKenzie for the S.P.R. uncovered new witness reports going back to the 1920′s and stretching up as far as 1985 – mostly within the original grounds but also alarmingly reported from within neighbouring houses.
A letter from Percy Wilson included in a 1958 edition of ‘Light‘, (a magazine from the ‘College of Psychic Studies’) gave sworn testament to a series of sightings around 1923 of a ‘tall woman in black wandering around the neighbourhood’.  Mr Wilson’s father also swore that he had seen the ghost several times when he was a child.  
‘We used to see the ghost dancing across the lawn on several occasions…it was just a lady who walked…danced, if not floated, across the lawn.’

In nearby ‘Cotswold Lodge’, a woman dressed all in black was seen between 1958 and 1961 by William Thorne who was staying with his brother, John. 

William, from Maidenhead in Kent, claimed no prior knowledge of anything paranormal yet awoke at midnight in 1961 upon the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside his bedroom.  On looking up, William Thorne was bemused to find the figure of a woman in a long, black dress.  The woman appeared solid, although he stated that the upper half of her torso was more defined than the lower half.  In her right hand, the woman held a handkerchief, shielding her facial features.  
William’s son, in the same room as his father, described the apparition as ‘a woman in a long, black dress, completely outlined in phosphorescence’.
On telling his brother, John confessed that he had also clearly seen the woman three years earlier, but no-one would believe his story.
In 1962, other members of the Thorne family reportedly witnessed further paranormal activity at the location and fled the property.

During 1970, a lady on her driving test in Cheltenham performed an impromptu ‘emergency stop’ on Pittville Circus Road, almost placing her examiner through the car window.  When asked to explain her actions the woman appeared incredulous and wondered of her examiner how on Earth he had not seen the woman in the long, black Victorian-style dress appear in the middle of the road? 
Andrew MacKenzie also collected witness statements of various ‘poltergeist activity’ within St. Anne’s, which had occurred at various stages during the 1970′s.  In total, MacKenzie estimated that a minimum of seventeen separate people had witnessed had viewed the apparition and more than twenty had experienced sounds and noises associated with paranormal, or poltergeist phenomena within the house and grounds.
As recently as 1985, two witnesses reported the sighting of an unusual woman, attired in a ‘black, old-fashioned dress’, strolling along Pittville Circus Road late at night.  Alarmed by the strangeness of their sighting, the couple quickly retraced their steps and searched the road.  
True to form, there was no sign of the woman.