Reflections on the Cheltenham Ghost (aka the Morton Case)The…

Reflections on the Cheltenham Ghost (aka the Morton Case)

The Cheltenham Ghost was a Victorian-era haunting case involving a persistent apparition of a woman in widow’s clothing with sightings spanning over a century and from multiple witnesses.  It was one of the earliest cases investigated by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  It remains relevant today as a template for the core characteristics of a haunting.  One parapsychologist referred to it as “the most famous ghost of all.”

The History

The activity occurred in the town of Gloucestershire on an estate called Garden reach situated in Pitville Circus Road.  The home was built in 1860 and was first occupied by Henry Swinhoe and his wife Elisabeth Francis Higgins who together raised a family of five children. Elisabeth passed away in 1866 at age 35.  

Four years later, the grief-stricken Mr Swinhoe remarried Imogen Hutchins from Bristol. The two reportedly had a stormy relationship; both were afflicted with alcoholism.  The couple separated in early 1876; later that year Henry Swinhoe died.  Imogen Swinhoe passed away in 1878. Her remains were relocated from Bristol to Cheltenham.

The home remained vacant until 1879 and was purchased by Benjamin Littlewood and his wife.  However, their occupancy was short-lived as Mr Littlewood died in the summer of that year. The third occupancy was in 1882 by Captain Frederick W. Despard and family who resided in the home until 1893.

The first haunting experiences began in 1882 a few months after the Despard’s took residence.  The principal witness in the case was Rosina Clara Despard, the 19 year old daughter of Capt Despard.  She was a medical student and qualified as a physician in 1886 while the haunting was in progress.  

In 1886 the late F.W.H Myers on behalf of the SPR became involved in the case.  An account of the case was published in 1892 in the SPR journal Proceedings. To protect the privacy of her family, Rosina’s account was published under the pseudonym of R.C. Morton.

The Encounters  

From 1882 to 1889, an apparition of woman in mourning, dressed in widow’s clothing was repeatedly observed wandering through the home.  Rosina described her first encounter with the apparition as follows:

The figure was that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woollen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. This is all I noticed then; but on further occasions, when I was able to observe her more closely, I saw the upper part of the left side of the forehead, and a little of the hair above. Her left hand was nearly hidden by her sleeve and a fold of her dress. As she held it down a portion of a widow’s cuff was visible on both wrists, so that the whole impression was that of a lady in widow’s weeds.

The apparition was seen by several members of the Despard family, by their servants, and also a neighbor.  In some instances, the apparition was collectively perceived.  The apparition was often seen in daylight conditions and for extended periods of time.  Witnesses also reported occasional imitative sounds, such as footsteps, and feelings of cold or icy breezes.

The apparition followed a routinized pattern. The apparition would first proceed down the second floor hallway and down the stairwell landing to the ground floor. On the ground floor the apparition would proceed to a drawing room.  After a brief period, the apparition would exit the room, proceeding to a narrow passage leading into the garden, where it would soon thereafter vanish.

In encounters up through 1886, the apparition was described as “solid and lifelike and was often mistaken for that of a living person.”  After that time, the spectral figure was reported as faded and less distinct.  Rosina attempted to test the materiality of the apparition by placing light threads across its habitual path.  However, the threads were not displaced; nor was she able to touch it. Attempts to photograph the apparition were unsuccessful.

In the R.C. Morton case report, the identity of the apparition was believed to be the late Imogen Swinhoe.  Descriptions of the apparition comported with those who knew the late Mrs. Swinhoe.  Rosina Despard selected her portrait from a photograph album as the person most resembling the ghost.  Relatives of the late Ms Swinhoe reported that she favored spending time in the drawing room.

The Legacies

Since the Despard tenure, the residence over the years has served as a boys preparatory school; a nuns residence; the St Anne’s Nursery College (a school for nannies); and accommodations for the Diocese of Gloucester.  The building was purchased by a housing association in 1973 and converted to apartment residences, which is how it remains today.

There have been no sightings apparition within the residence since 1907 when the preparatory school was closed.  However, SPR researcher Andrew McKenzie documented reports of infrequent sightings of the Cheltenham ghost in the local area, indicating the haunting continued for another century after 1889, when the Morton case came to a close.

Skeptics of the case point out that it is understandable a haunted mythology would develop around the unattended Swinhoe residence and from their turbulent family history.  Women in widows clothing were a common sighting in the Victorian era.  In many reports, the face of the apparition was never seen; hence the identity of the apparition remains an open question.   

The conundrums concerning apparitions in the case continue to the present day. Apparitions are normally realistic in appearance.  Apparitions also do not appear to be material yet behave as if they are present in physical space.  Apparitions are believed to be telepathic idea patterns from persons they represent.  However, it has also been theorized that they could also be hyper-spatial projections of represented persons.

The apparent routinized behaviors of apparitions remain an enigma and makes their purposes difficult to discern.  Imagery evidence of apparitions remains rarer than apparitional experiences themselves.


Adams, P. (9 Feb 2015). Was the

Cheltenham Poltergeist the real ‘Woman in Black’? []

Huby, P.  M. (1970). New Evidence about ‘Rose Morton’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 45, pp. 391-2. 

Lambert, G.W.  (1958). The Cheltenham Ghost: A Reinterpretation, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 39, pp. 267-77.

MacKenzie, A. (1988).  Continuation of a Haunted House, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 55, pp. 25-32.

Morton, R.C. (1892). Record of a Haunted House, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 8, pp. 311-32. []

Society for Psychical Research. (29 Aug 2016). PSI Encyclopedia: Cheltenham Ghost. []

Williams, Bryan. (2011). Case Study Review: ‘The Morton Ghost’. [].


Garden Reach [St Anne’s in Pittville Circus Road],

Cheltenham,   Gloucestershire, UK (date unknown).  PSI Encyclopedia: Cheltenham Ghost. []

Photograph of Imogen Swinhoe (date unknown). 

Was the Cheltenham Poltergeist the real ‘Woman in Black’? []

Garden Reach, 2nd Floor [St Anne’s in Pittville Circus Road], Cheltenham,   Gloucestershire, UK

(1892). Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 8, pp. 311-32. []

Garden Reach, 1st Floor [St Anne’s in Pittville Circus Road], Cheltenham,   Gloucestershire, UK

(1892). Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 8, pp. 311-32. []

Garden Reach, Ground Floor [St Anne’s in Pittville Circus Road], Cheltenham,   Gloucestershire, UK

(1892). Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 8, pp. 311-32. []

Donore House, Lithograph [St Anne’s in Pittville Circus Road], Cheltenham,   Gloucestershire, UK (date unknown).  Unsolved Mysteries of the World: The Cheltenham Haunting. []