What better subject for a Halloween post than tales of ghostly happenings in Lydiard House. Like any self-respecting ancient property Lydiard House boasts a spectral presence or two. But like a thing of beauty, could the Lydiard House phantoms be just an imaginative figment in the eye of the beholder?
There have been the occasional sighting of a 17th century gentleman roaming the grounds and giving directions to lost visitors, supposedly Sir John St John, first baronet, who died in 1648. Sir John is depicted in portraits in the house, and in St Mary’s Church he can be seen recumbent on the magnificent bedstead monument and portrayed in the St John polyptych he commissioned in memory of his parents.
Now I’m not saying that Sir John wasn’t a thoroughly nice man, but my feelings are that he would be more likely to point a musket at visitors wandering about his estate rather than give them a guided tour.
In 1996 Margaret North contributed an article to The Friends of Lydiard Tregoz annual report recalling her time living at the Rectory on Hay Lane when her father Rev William Henry Willetts was Rector at St Mary’s. In February 1940 Lady Bolingbroke lay close to death in the crumbling mansion. Margaret was a young student nurse training at the Victoria Hospital, Swindon and visiting her parents when Lady Bolingbroke’s condition deteriorated.
“I was at home for a few days and Doctor Oakley Brown who was the Bolingbroke’s doctor, called at the Rectory to see if I would spend a night at the mansion as Lady Bolingbroke had had a stroke. I agreed to do so and went to see Lady Bolingbroke with Doctor Oakley Brown. He told Lord Bolingbroke and Mr Hiscock that I would be there all night and as I was young and would need feeding in the night. I did what I could for Lady Bolingbroke; at midnight Lord Bolingbroke came to tell me some supper was ready. I joined the two men in the sitting room. The house was lit by oil lamps and candles and somehow the conversation got around to hauntings and queer happenings. I was so scared I did not know how to get up from the table and return to Lady Bolingbroke’s room. At last I forced myself to get up and walk up the eerie staircase. Half way up the staircase was a model of a knight in armour and I was supposed to see a hand covered in blood on the wall quite near him, where a murdered man fell and his hand struck the wall. From that day the imprint of the blood-stained hand is supposed to be seen. My heart was beating with fear by the time I reached Lady Bolingbroke’s room, I closed the door behind me and remained in that room until morning. Lady Bolingbroke died during the following day. I do not think Lord Bolingbroke and Mr Hiscock realised how frightened I really was.”
By the 1950s the house and parkland had been purchased by Swindon Corporation and the St John family long departed – or had they?
Joyce Vincent formerly Gough, the daughter of the first caretaker at Lydiard House, recalled how – “On another occasion, my sister and I were taking a small party of ten around a tour of the house. It was a late summer’s evening and the light was just beginning to fade. Two members of the party were Americans, one was most inquisitive and had to open every door and drawer that he saw, particularly in the library. In the meantime, my mother had come in through the back way, with two other people who wanted to join the party. As the nosy American opened the next door in the library, what should he see but the unexpected figure of my mother framed in the doorway, with her snowy white hair and clothed in a pale grey dress! His hands flew up into the air, he gave forth an almighty yell, then collapsed in a heap on the floor, in a deep faint. To add insult to injury, our terrier dog did not take kindly to anyone dancing or running or falling about and proceeded to bite the poor fellow on the rear. I often wonder if this cured him of his nosiness.”
But stories of a ghostly presence continued and Joyce adds – “I did not ever see the ghost – but my mother did on many occasions, but only my mother. She said he was very small, dressed in what appeared to be a dark brown cloak. She saw him entering the gun room, sometimes half way up the back staircase in the room that was our kitchen. She said he always seemed to be mischievous.”
According to the book Haunted Wiltshire, Sir John St John has also been seen in the library, where staff and visitors have reported seeing him casually leaning against the fireplace. His presence is frequently preceded by a strong, sweet smell of tobacco and a sharp drop in temperature. Other phantoms include the spectre of a woman dressed in white, who is seen on the stair, and a drummer boy seen silently tapping out the beat on a drum slung over his shoulder. And if you are crossing the drive that leads to the house, be sure to watch out for the phantom carriage!
My Memories of Lydiard Tregoz by Margaret North published in Friends of Lydiard Tregoz Report No. 30 1996
Life in Lydiard Mansion by Joyce Vincent published in Lydiard Life
Haunted Wiltshire, Keith Wills