Forget past ghosts, the spirit of John and Josephine lives on
In the latest of her regular columns, Dorothy Blundell takes a sideways look behind the scenes at The Bowes Museum where she is a volunteer
REGARDLESS of whether you believe in things that go bump in the night, the stories of a family’s long dead ancestors can make for entertaining reading.
If nothing else, they breathe life into the dusty pages of history.
Like the story from 300 years before museum founder John Bowes was born, when Janet Douglas, wife of John Lyon, the 6th Lord Glamis, was burnt at the stake after being accused of witchcraft by King James V of Scotland. Although clear that the accusations were false, the king had Janet, along with her family and servants, tortured until she “confessed”.
Legend has it that she haunts the small chapel within Glamis Castle. Dubbed The Grey Lady (White Lady, in some reports), she can sometimes be seen kneeling at the altar. People who visit have reported feeling an atmosphere of immense sadness and desolation.
Down the centuries, one seat in the chapel was reserved for her and although the chapel is still used regularly for family functions, no one is allowed to sit in that seat.
It was Patrick Lyon, the 9th Lord Glamis who became the 1st Earl of Kinghorne, in 1606. In 1677 the designation became Strathmore and Kinghorne. This, eventually, brings us to the 10th Earl and father of our John Bowes.
Also called John Bowes, he was born April 14, 1769, the eldest son of the 9th Earl, John Lyon, and Mary Eleanor Bowes, whose father had insisted that any husband had to adopt the Bowes name in order to access her vast inheritance.
Aged 21, the 10th Earl fell deeply in love with a beautiful – but married – woman, six years his elder. Her name was Sarah Hussey Delaval; she was the wife of Lord Tyrconnel, and former mistress of the Duke of York (second son of George III) – perhaps a case of Hussey by name, hussy by nature?
Lady Tyrconnel captivated the 10th Earl with her daring spirit and “fair hair of such luxuriance that when she rode it floated on the saddle”. The couple were lovers and the relationship lasted ten years until her death from tuberculosis in 1800. This was nine years before the Earl met Mary Millner and 11 years before they had John.
In later years, Augustus Hare, a writer and raconteur, said that Gibside, one of the homes owned by the Bowes family, was haunted by two ghosts, including Lady Tyrconnel wearing a silk dress.
He wrote: “She died in the house while living there on somewhat too intimate terms with the Earl of Strathmore. He gave her a funeral which almost ruined the estate. Her face was painted... and then, having decked her out in all her jewels, and covered her with Brussels lace from head to foot, he sent her up to London causing her to lie in state at every town upon the road and finally to be buried in Westminster Abbey.”
According to Bowes’ biographer, Charles Hardy, this reference to near-ruinous expense was considered unlikely and that, traditionally, Delaval funerals were conducted with great pomp and with little regard to cost, for Lord Delaval was an exceedingly rich man who had built a family vault at Westminster Abbey.
Hare visited Streatlam Castle in 1861. He wrote many books, mainly biographies and travel, and his autobiography included a number of accounts of encounters with ghosts, prompting one reviewer to comment: “Mr Hare’s ghosts are rather more interesting than his people.”
At Streatlam Castle, the home of John Bowes, Hare recorded having survived the first night in “the ghost room, looking most grim and weird from its black oak with red hangings and containing a tall bed with a red canopy”. This might have been the State Room which John Bowes himself revealed was supposedly slept in by Mary Queen of Scots and which, according to a 300-year-old legend, was haunted by his ancestor Sir George Bowes.
Bowes, writing in September 1885 to Lord and Lady Strathmore about preparations for their intended visit to Streatlam, explained that when Sir George was escorting Mary from Carlisle to Bolton Castle in 1568, they stopped off at Streatlam.
He added that Sir George had the reputation for cruelty in carrying out his orders against the rebels who took part in the Rising of the North in 1569, whereas, said Bowes, “he was scolded by old Queen Bess for not being severe enough”. The Strathmores’ visit never happened. Days after writing, Bowes’ failing health deteriorated further and he died on October 9.
As for The Bowes Museum, the first curator, Robert Harley, died there suddenly on July 28, 1884. He had been living and working there for five years and, though his health had been ailing, the suddenness of his death took everyone by surprise. Might his restless soul stalk the attic corridors? Unlikely.
Mind you, a couple of years ago, there was some staff room chatter about one of the museum employees having seen an apparition on the third floor (an area off limits to the public).
“I came around the corner and saw a woman and a swirl of her old fashioned clothes as she moved towards the stairs near the door that was the entrance to the curator’s flat,” said the unnamed worker.
“I remember feeling suddenly very cold. When I looked again, she was gone. Not a good experience and I know it does sound a bit crazy.”
The mortal remains of John and Joséphine Bowes lie just a few hundred yards from the museum’s main gates, but their presence inside their château of dreams is strong. From the bed they slept in, the teacups they might have drunk from and the loving gifts they exchanged, to the scores of paintings and thousands of various items acquired purely for the museum, their spirit lives on. Forever.