Littlecote House Hotel, Hungerford
Part of the Warner Leisure group, the Littlecote House Hotel is a large Elizabethan country house with a reputation for being haunted. John Ingram in his ‘The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain (1897) gives the following account.
‘Littlecot House, or Hall as it is sometimes called, the ancient seat of the Darrells, is two miles from Hungerford in Berkshire. It stands in a low and lonely situation, and is thoroughly typical in appearance of a haunted dwelling. On three sides it is surrounded by a park, which spreads over the adjacent hill, and on the fourth by meadows, through which runs the river Kennet. A thick grove of lofty trees stands on one side of the gloomy building, which is of great antiquity, and would appear to have been erected towards the close of the age of feudal warfare, when defence came to be no longer the principal object in a country mansion. The interior of the house, however, presents many objects appropriate to feudal times. The hall is very spacious, paved by stones, and lighted by large transon windows. The walls are hung with coats-of-mail and helmets, and on every side are quantities of old-fashioned pistols and guns, and other suitable ornaments for an old baronial dwelling. Below the cornice at the end of the hall, hangs a row of leathern jerkins, made in the form of shirts, and supposed to have been worn as armour by the retainers of the Darrell family, to whom the old Hall belonged. An enormous oaken table, reaching nearly from one end of the chamber to the other, might have feasted the entire neighbourhood, and an appendage to one end of it made it answer at other times for the old game of shuffleboard. The rest of the furniture is in a corresponding style, or was a few years ago; but the most noticeable article is an old chair of cumbrous workmanship, constructed of wood, curiously carved, with a high back and triangular seat; it is said to have been used by Judge Popham, in the days of Elizabeth.
The entrance into the hall of this ancient mansion is at one end by a low door, communicating with a passage that leads from the outer door in the front of the house to a quadrangle within; at the other it opens upon a gloomy staircase, by which you ascend to the first floor, and, passing the doors of some bedchambers, enter a narrow gallery which extends along the back front of the house from one end to the other of it. This gallery is hung with old family portraits, chiefly in Spanish costumes of the sixteenth century. In one of the bedchambers, which you pass in going towards the gallery, is a bedstead with blue furniture, that time has now made dingy and threadbare; and in the bottom of one of the bedcurtains you are shown a place where a small piece has been cut out and sewn in again. To account for this curious circumstance, and for the apparitions which tenant this haunted chamber, the following terrible tale is told:
“It was on a dark rainy night in the month of November, that an old midwife sat musing by her cottage fireside, when on a sudden she was startled by a loud knocking at the door. On opening it she found a horseman, who told her that her assistance was required immediately by a person of rank, and that she should be handsomely rewarded, but that there were reasons for keeping the affair a strict secret, and therefore she must submit to be blind-folded, and to be conducted in that condition to the bed-chamber of the lady. With some hesitation the midwife consented; the horseman bound her eyes, and placed her on a pillion behind him. After proceeding in silence for many miles, through rough and dirty lanes, they stopped and the midwife was led into a house which, from the length of her walk through the apartments, as well as the sounds about her, she discovered to be the seat of wealth and power.
“When the bandage was removed from her eyes, she found herself in a bedchamber, in which were the lady on whose account she had been sent for, and a man of a haughty and ferocious aspect. The lady was delivered of a fine boy. Immediately the man commanded the midwife to give him the child, and, catching it from her, he hurried across the room, and threw it on the back of the fire that was blazing in the chimney. The child, however, was strong, and by its struggles rolled itself off upon the hearth, when the ruffian again seized it with fury, and, in spite of the intercession of the midwife, and the more piteous entreaties of the mother, thrust it under the grate, and, raking the live coals upon it, soon put an end to its life.
“The midwife (Note: usually identified as Mother Barnes from Great Shefford), after spending some time in affording all the relief in her power to the wretched mother, was told that she must be gone. Her former conductor appeared, who again bound her eyes, and conveyed her behind him to her own home; he then paid her handsomely and departed. The midwife was strongly agitated by the horrors of the preceding night, and she immediately made a deposition of the facts before a magistrate. Two circumstances afforded hopes of detecting the house in which the crime had been committed; one was, that the midwife, as she sat by the bed-side, had, with a view to discover the place, cut out a piece of the bed-curtain, and sewn it in again; the other was, that as she had descended the staircase she had counted the steps. Some suspicion fell upon one Darrell, at that time the proprietor of Littlecot House and the domain around it. The house was examined, and identified by the midwife, and Darrell was tried at Salisbury for the murder. By corrupting his judge, he escaped the sentence of the law, but broke his neck by a fall from his horse in hunting, a few months afterwards. The place where this happened is still known by the name of Darrell’s Stile, a spot to be dreaded by the peasant whom the shades of evening have overtaken on his way.”
This is the fearsome legend connected with Littlecot House, the circumstances related are declared to be true, and to have happened in the reign of Elizabeth. With such a tale attached to its guilty wails, no wonder that the apparition of a woman with dishevelled hair, in white garments, and bearing a babe in her arms, haunts that gloomy chamber.’
The original Littlecote House dated from the 13th century and was home to the de Calstone family. The Darell family became involved with Littlecote when Laurence de Calstone died (sometime between 1412 and 1419) and the estate passed to his daughter Elizabeth Darrell (died 1464), wife of William Darell (died before 1453). Elizabeth’s heir was her son, Sir George Darell (Died 1474). The Darell accused of infanticide in the above story is William Darell.
According to ‘A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 12: Ramsbury and Selkley hundreds; the borough of Marlborough’ (1983) by D. A. Crowley (editor), A. P. Baggs, Jane Freeman and Janet H. Stevenson; Sir George Darell ‘was succeeded by his son Sir Edward (d. 1530). Sir Edward’s heir was his grandson Sir Edward Darell (d. 1549), much of whose estate was devised for life to his mistress Mary Daniel. Littlecote manor, however, passed to his son William, then aged nine. As a result of a dispute with Sir Henry Knyvet, William Darell was imprisoned in the Fleet in 1579 for slandering the queen. He had been the co-respondent in Sir Walter Hungerford’s action for divorce against his wife Anne 1568–70, and was or had been at law with many of his neighbours including Henry and Edward Manners, earls of Rutland, over Chilton Foliat 1563–5, William Hyde over Uffington (Berks., later Oxon.) 1573–4, Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, over manors in Great Bedwyn and Burbage, and Hugh Stukeley over Axford, litigation arising partly from his father’s will and his own minority. Accusations, almost certainly groundless, of infanticide and murder were made against him. The expenses incurred by his imprisonment, incessant litigation, building, and attendance at court led him to sell the reversion, for a term of years if he had male issue, of Littlecote to Sir Thomas Bromley (d. 1587), Lord Chancellor, apparently in the early 1580s. About 1586 the reversion seems to have been transferred on similar terms to Darell’s lawyer and adviser John Popham. Darell was indicted at Marlborough assizes in 1588, again for slandering the sovereign. The survival of many documents illuminating his affairs has led to much speculation about his life and motives. He died without male issue in 1589 and Popham entered on Littlecote manor.’
On 1 October 1589, ‘Wild’ William Darell (or Darrell) is said to have died in a riding accident whilst hunting close to Littlecote and is thought to haunt both “Darrell’s Stile” where he died and Ramsbury Church. He was buried 3 Oct 1589 at St Lawrence’s Church, Hungerford. Sir John Popham (Born 1531 – Died 10 June 1607) (Speaker of the House of Commons, Attorney General and Lord Chief Justice of England) took Littlecote in 1589 and is responsible for building the current Elizabethan house.
Crowley, Baggs, Freeman and Stevenson describe the estates following descent through the Popham family. ‘The manor descended from father to son in the Popham family, from John (d. 1607), Lord Chief Justice and a knight from 1592, to Sir Francis, Alexander (d. 1669), Sir Francis (d. 1674), and another Alexander. At that Alexander’s death in 1705 Littlecote passed to his uncle Alexander Popham (d. 1705), and the manor again passed from father to son to Francis (d. 1735), Edward (d. 1772), and Francis (d. 1780), whose relict Dorothy Popham held it until her death c. 1797 and devised it to her husband’s reputed son Francis Popham. At that Francis’s death without issue in 1804 the manor passed to the nephew of Francis (d. 1780), Edward William Leyborne-Popham (d. 1843), who devised it to his son Francis (d. 1880). Littlecote passed in turn to that Francis’s sons Francis William Leyborne-Popham (d.s.p. 1907) and Hugh Francis Arthur Leyborne-Popham, who sold it in 1929 to Sir Ernest Salter Wills, Bt. (d. 1958).
Sir Ernest Salter Wills, 3rd Baronet (Born 30 November 1869 – Died 14 January 1958) was Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire between 1930 to 1942. In 1943 Littlecote became the regimental headquarters company staff of the 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, US 101st Airborne Division.
Seton Wills sold the house to Peter Savary in 1985 and it was subsequently sold to the Warner group of hotels in 1996.
The following article entitled ‘PSI Ghostwatch Report: Littlecote House Hotel’ was published on the BBC website 22 January 2007.
Littlecote House Hotel just over the Wiltshire border near Hungerford is a Grade I listed Tudor mansion situated in an estate of 24 hectares of parkland, and its dozens of stories of ghostly activity, which stretch back decades, attracted the attention of Swindon-based PSI.
A 10-strong team of researchers from Paranormal Site Investigators explored a ‘haunted hotel’ recently, where the ghosts allegedly outnumbered them.
Among the traditional sightings described by staff is that of a black dog seen on the Jerusalem staircase: when you go to stroke it, your hand goes straight through.
The same location was the scene of a bizarre incident where a man’s collarbone and some ribs were allegedly broken when a ball of white light pushed him against the wall.
Another of the most unusual stories is told by a woman who lived in a flat above the Orangery. She awoke in the small hours of a November night to see a figure crossing the lawn toward ‘Mother Barnes’ (a 16th century midwife associated with the site).
The weird thing was that the witness felt herself to be floating in mid air throughout the experience, and only later realised that her accommodation was built long after the time of Mother Barnes.
Mother Barnes figures in the most famous tale Littlecote House, that of ‘Wild’ William Darrell who, it is said, murderously cast his newborn child on a blazing fire. The child was illegitimate, and Mother Barnes was supposedly brought in to deliver the unfortunate baby.
Despite some circumstantial evidence, there is no proof that this appalling event actually happened, but the room where the babe was reputedly born and slain – in November 1575 – is known as the ‘haunted bedroom’, and featured in PSI’s vigil.
Of the five locations investigated, the haunted bedroom was the scene of the most reported activity (with the chapel a close second).
During a séance there, one of the team saw a woman rocking a baby and talking to a man, and during the evening several other investigators independently saw dark shapes moving around the room.
At one point, four members of the team inexplicably felt cold, yet the group’s technical equipment registered no change in the ambient temperature. Was this an instance where one person’s suggestion inspired others to feel cold (primed expectation), or was this a supernatural chill that machinery can’t detect?
The Long Gallery was the scene of an immensely frustrating equipment failure that defies explanation. A video camera had been set there to monitor a trigger object (a coin placed on white paper, and drawn around).
This experiment invites spirits to use psychokinesis (PK) to move the object, and the camera was there to record any activity. The investigation team had been alerted to the experiment, and were kept away from it.
When the coin was checked it was indeed found to have moved – but the camera had broken down. Its new battery was completely drained, which is known to happen in particularly cold environments, but the temperature here was perfectly normal.
Was the camera malfunction a symptom of real PK activity, or was it simply a coincidence that allowed human error to go undetected?
The team took hundreds of photographs, nearly a hundred of which showed interesting anomalies, but natural explanations can be advanced for each, so no satisfactory evidence of paranormal phenomena has been claimed (when assessing evidence for paranormal activity, PSI prefers to err on the side of caution).
The same high standard of analysis was given to the ten hours of video recordings, as well as the audio recordings and environmental data collected, such as ultrasound and electromagnetism.
PSI is aware that a single investigation can be a rather hit-or-miss affair, and therefore often conducts ‘longitudinal’ investigations that take place over a period of months.
There were so many interesting features revealed in the details of this investigation, that PSI is considering a return to Littlecote House Hotel, to discover more secrets of its permanent residents.