With the nights drawing in and a distinct chill in the autumnal air, our thoughts turn towards all things ghoulish, ghostly and spectral. If you’re looking for a spine-chilling tale to tell by the fireside on a dark winter’s evening, look no further…
Our story begins in Victorian England, where there was a national hunger for the supernatural. The tradition of the winter ghost story was gaining popularity, and gothic literature surged forth as anathema to the rigid social and religious structures of the day.
Dr. Augustus Jessopp (1823-1914) made his name as a clergyman and headteacher in Norfolk in the latter half of the 19th century. Although ordained in the Christian church, he was not averse to the rise of the popular new religious movement of Spiritualism.
It came to pass that in October 1879, the combination of a ghostly tale recounted by Jessopp, a trusted ‘man of the cloth’, and the nationwide thirst for all things beyond the grave caused quite a stir both within Norfolk and the wider world.
An Eerie Evening at Mannington Hall
Our tale unfolds at Mannington Hall in Norfolk, a medieval country house and seat of the Walpole family. The head of the family Lord Orford had invited Jessopp to attend a dinner party on 10 October 1879. Jessop was keen to attend, as he knew that Mannington Hall possessed an extensive library with a notable collection of rare books. Lord Orford had given prior permission for the clergyman to study the collection during his visit.
As the guests gathered for dinner, a convivial atmosphere prevailed. The entire party were blissfully unaware that later that night, one of them would encounter a guest that had not been invited. Jessopp’s description of the evening is detailed, as can be seen in a 20th century typed manuscript of an earlier 19th century statement (NRO, WLP 17/13/30, 1047X7) made by Jessop himself:
“We dined at seven, our party numbered six persons. The conversation was generalised, and in no instance turned upon the supernatural, or anything connected with it. We broke up at half past ten. The main object of my going over to Mannington was to see and take notes upon some very rare books in Lord Orford’s library…I asked Lord Orford’s permission to sit up and make those transcripts.”
At this point we must take mental note of the valet; for he is at the very heart of a more modern and controversial interpretation of events which we will examine later – a turn of events that can be found in the archives of the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, WLP 17/13/30, 1047X7) that is not reported widely.
“His Lordship at first wished me to allow his valet to sit up for me and see all the lights put out, but as this would have compelled me to go to bed earlier than I wished…I begged that the valet might go to bed, and promised to see all things safe before I retired and this was agreed to.
At eleven o’clock I was the only person in the house downstairs, and I was busily engaged reading and taking notes.”
Spirits both Earthly and Ethereal
Within the archives is a carefully drawn floor plan of Jessop’s location in the house:
He settled by the fire in the library, as he was ‘a chilly person’. He describes selecting six books from the shelves, laying his chosen book upon the library table illuminated by four candles in sparkling silver candlesticks with the cheerful fire ‘burning brightly’. He states:
“I continued writing til nearly one o’clock…I rose and mixed myself some whisky and water and was beginning to feel that my work was drawing to a close, when as I was actually writing I saw a large white hand within six inches of my own…I paused in my writing, looked and saw a figure at my elbow within a foot of me. It was the figure of a somewhat large man, apparently examining the pile of books I had been making notes upon.
The man’s face was turned away from me. I saw his closely cut reddish hair, his ear and shaved cheek, with the eyebrows, the corner of his right eye, side of the forehead and somewhat high cheekbone.”
Seemingly unperturbed by the apparition, he describes the figure ‘dressed in ecclesiastical habit…up to the throat, and a stand-up collar rising to the chin.’ Closer examination of his hands revealed them to be ‘in perfect repose, the large blue veins of the right hand were conspicuous.’
Jessop now confirms in his mind that he was not dealing with a being of earthly realm,
“I looked at him for a moment, and was perfectly sure that this was not a reality.”
He recounts his complete composure, until the figure suddenly vanishes when he stretches out his hand. Within minutes, the ghostly visitor returned – but by this time Jessop had lost his nerve:
“I was framing a sentence to address him, when I discovered that I did not dare to speak. I was not afraid of the phantom but of the sound of my own voice.”
He finished ‘two or three words’ and closed his book – the sound of the volume dropping onto the table prompted the ghost to vanish once more. With courage and logic, Jessop ‘blew out the four candles and went to bed, and slept very soundly indeed.”
This statement was originally written at The School House in Norwich just a month after his supernatural experience, on the 19th November 1879 and signed Augustus Jessop D.D. Interestingly, despite being a more modern typed copy (NRO, WLP 17/13/30, 1047X7) of the original statement, it differs to the more widely known version published by Dr. Jessopp in The Library Magazine and The Athenaeum just two months later in January 1880.
One of the most notable differences between this earlier private document and the public statement is that the tot of “whisky and water” that Jessopp mixed for himself later becomes purely “seltzer water.”
The articles became a public sensation, and both The Library Magazine, The Athenaeum and Dr. Jessopp himself were overwhelmed with correspondence from the curious and the critical.
The Norfolk Record Office holds many of these letters (NRO, WLP 20/3/47, 1048X7), which are fascinating to read and give a detailed view of contemporary attitudes toward the supernatural, which differ little from today. The correspondents range from hardened sceptics to wholehearted believers; the one common thread being that they are particularly taken with the account, coming as it does from a clergyman.
The tale became internationally known, as exemplified by a letter written by a governess, Mary A. Sperling from Nice, France (NRO, WLP 20/3/47, 1048X7), dated January 1880. She lays out various questions that her young charges would like to pose to Jessopp following much discussion during their country walks.
Remarkably these young minds have encapsulated the majority of queries raised in the entirety of the documented correspondence in just seven questions; one can clearly see that they have discussed the account at length:
“1) We are curious to know – which books were you studying?
2) What did Lord Orford understand by the apparition?
3) Were you opposite a mirror when you saw it?
4) Did the servant really go to bed after your use of his services?
5) What did you eat for dinner?
6) Did you find in the morning that you had transcribed as much as you might have fairly expected in the time?
7) Did the ghost utter any sound or make any rustling?
Whether Dr Jessopp satisfied the curiosity of the youngsters – or indeed any of his correspondents – one does not know.
A Scientific Explanation?
A letter from a Lucy E. Haig of Stirling, dated 14th January 1880, (NRO, WLP 20/3/47, 1048X7) reflects the growing interest in science during the Victorian era, and offers a theory based on logic:
“Perhaps your health was not good at that time and the whole thing was possibly an optical illusion produced by the persistent stooping of your head over your books – the effect of candlelight and the many shadows produced thereof.”
She also gives us a flavour of forensic techniques of the day that were coming to the fore following the invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1850. The emerging science of ophthalmology was used in an effort to capture the image of Jack the Ripper, just nine years after Jessopp’s ghost encounter. It was thought that the last image seen before a person died was imprinted on the retina. Police took close range photographs of the eyes of his final victim, but to no avail.
“Did the figure bear any resemblance to anyone whom you know, and might have lately seen, and whose appearance was, unconsciously, imprinted upon the retina, and some shadow thrown on or object being upon the table, assumed the form of that person?”
The Mystery is Revived
Going through the Norfolk Record Office archives, we find a second-hand account of the evening in question written 73 years later in 1952, entitled ‘The Mannington Ghost – The Explanation’ (NRO, WLP 17/13/30, 1047X7)
It was provided by Lt. Col Thomas Purdy, whose father Robert John Woods Purdy, was a guest at Lord Orford’s dinner party on the night of 10th October 1879, and in fact offers more than one ‘explanation.’ It seems that Woods Purdy was a detractor of Jessopp’s, and his son wished to record for posterity his father’s version of what happened that fateful evening. He told his son the following:
“When the guests were leaving the dining room…Lord Orford picked up a candlestick and held it up to a portrait of Henry Walpole and said’ “There Jessopp, there is your hero.”
Woods Purdy describes the portrait as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the vision later seen in the library by Dr Jessopp, whom he describes later lingering in the hall, ‘gazing at the portrait.’
Conflicting accounts suggest that at one point Dr. Jessopp himself told Lord Orford that he believed the ghost to be that of Henry Walpole (although he does not mention this in his own statements, perhaps as this would suggest a hypnogogic dream state, ruining the credibility of a ‘ghost’ sighting). This theory was dashed when it was revealed that there was no connection between the Henry Walpole of the portrait and Mannington Hall, and both Woods Purdy and Lord Orford decided that Jessopp had fallen asleep over his books and dreamt that he had seen the figure of Walpole he had been gazing at earlier.
A Spirit from a Bottle
A first-hand account was provided by George Davison, who was Lord Orford’s steward on the night of the dinner party (NRO, WLP 20/3/47, 1048X7). His theory focusses on the mysterious valet. He recalled the servant as being a large Italian gentlemen, known only as ‘Carlo’, and stated that he was the only other male servant in the house that night other than himself.
Davison claimed that Carlo had a penchant for an alternative form of spirit and was in the habit of ‘taking a cup of brandy every night.’ He suggests that as the night drew in, the Italian valet did not go to bed as requested by Jessopp:
“After the guests had gone, Carlo had crept into the morning room in the hope of taking the brandy decanter out, and finding Dr. Jessopp asleep, went to the table and stretched out his hand to the decanter, but the Doctor woke up and Carlo retired.”
Once Jessopp had fallen asleep again, Carlo tried once more and “advanced to the table and tried to abstract the decanter, and again the Doctor woke up and this time tried to stab Carlo’s hand with his pen.”
The Doctor was by now wide awake, and the servant had to go to bed without his night cap.
Purdy emphatically states:
“Such was George Davison’s version of the ghost and I have no doubt that it was the true explanation.”
It seems that 173 years later, we are still no closer to solving the Mannington Hall mystery. Documents from the Norfolk Record Office provide us with primary and secondary conflicting accounts that suit both the believer and the sceptic. Was Dr. Jessopp’s apparition a dream-like vision of a portrait, an Italian valet prowling the house at night for a tot of brandy or a genuine phantom?
The debate continues to rage on a topic that may never reach a satisfactory conclusion. Let’s hope that in centuries to come we will be maintaining Victorian gothic traditions, taking delight in discussing the intriguing world of the supernatural around a roaring fire on a dark winter’s evening.
L Spirit, NRO Blogger