Weird Norfolk: Both ladies in this Felbrigg Hall photo soon met their strange deaths
PUBLISHED: 09:00 16 March 2019 | UPDATED: 09:25 18 March 2019
It’s the tale of two tragic sisters, an attic bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, ghosts caught on camera and deadly wallpaper – just what secrets does one of North Norfolk’s best-loved stately homes hide?
On the landing outside Felbrigg Hall’s library, a young woman stands, her mouth open in shock, her book and candlestick dropped in fear at the sight of the spectre by the panelled door, a shadowy figure whose face is cloaked by fabric and who appears to be pointing towards the woman on the stairs.
The women in the photograph are Gertrude and Marion Ketton, the shocked woman thought to be Gertrude, the ‘ghost’ her sister, and the carefully composed portrait is a spirit photograph popular in the late 1800s, when the women were living with their younger brother Robert at Felbrigg. Orphans, the three ran the estate and made their own entertainment.
Their father John Ketton, who altered his name from Kitton in 1853, was a self-made man whose fortune had been made in Norwich by selling oil cake and cattle feed in the 1830s and 1840s. He had married Rachel Anne Blake, whose descendents are buried in the city’s Gildencroft and the couple had lived in Ber Street and then Cathedral Close with their seven children, two sons and five daughters before moving to North Norfolk.
Youngest son John had joined the family business at a young age and his brother Robert was still young when his family bought Felbrigg Hall in 1863.
While it was relatively commonplace for a wealthy businessman to buy a country estate, it was somewhat less usual for the estate to be sold with its complete contents, but such was the ruin that William “Mad” Windham wrought on Felbrigg that this was what happened, leaving Windham to practice his eccentricity elsewhere, mainly in a mail van he’d painted scarlet and a coach which he drove with terrifying ferocity and which gives rise to another ghost story for another day. Rachel kept diaries from soon after the family moved to North Norfolk in March 1863 and although they mainly record a very brief record of the daily comings and goings at Felbrigg, the reader can get a sense of the growing discord between John Ketton and his eldest son and of her husband’s growing temper. That the family were readily accepted into society life owes much, claimed Felbrigg biographer and former owner Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, to the Ketton’s daughters.
In Felbrigg: The Story of a House, he writes: “Anna, the eldest, was the beauty of them all…Margaret, the second daughter, with less beauty, had much gaiety and vitality. Ellen, the third, was a rather negative personality. Of the two youngest girls, Marion partook of Margaret’s vivacity and Gertrude promised to rival Anna’s beauty.” He talks of an idyllic childhood for the girls “…full of riding parties, croquet parties, dinner parties, dances and the everlasting ritual of calling and being called upon. The summer brought cricket matches, bathing in the sea at Cromer, picnics on the Lighthouse Cliffs above…in the hard winters, there were long days of skating and dancing on the ice, with great bonfires blazing at the lakeside.”
The girls weren’t given first-floor bedrooms, instead they slept at night in the attic rooms. “They clambered, in their great crinolines, up the narrow stairs to the little range of rooms in the attic, giving on to the leaded balcony behind the parapet. Only one of these bedrooms had a fireplace; and on the coldest nights the sisters would all crowd into it and called it ‘the balcony hotel’,” writes descendent Ketton-Cremer.
Before his death in 1872, John Ketton had disinherited his eldest son and the new owner of Felbrigg became Robert, who at the time of his father’s death was a 16-year-old at Eton. After his mother’s death in 1885, he lived in the hall with his two youngest sisters, Marion and Gertrude.
“They were women of much personal charm and still greater force of character,” writes Ketton-Cremer, “I do not think it is unfair to suggest that they dominated their brother…they impressed their personalities strongly upon the house and gardens. There are many photographs of them in their pony carriage or among their flower beds.”
One such photograph is the one you see here, of the sisters indulging in a spot of ‘spirit photography’ which saw the long exposures of early photography carry the sisters into the realms of the supernatural in shots that make they look as if they are transparent and shadowy.
Popular from the late 1850s onwards, spirit photographs were produced as novelties and amusements and instructions on how to make them were readily available in books such as Photographic Amusements by Walter Woodbury. The Ketton sisters produced a number of ghostly photographs, many of which were once displayed in Felbrigg’s stables. It’s thought the picture was taken in the 1870s or 1880s and within years, both sisters were dead.
Some believe they had been poisoned by the toxic wallpaper which covered the attic: arsenic was a key ingredient in the shade Paris Green, a Victorian pigment which was fashionable at the time and often used in inks and textile dyes. Swedish chemist Carl Scheele first used copper arsenite to create a vivid green which quickly became highly prized by paint manufacturers and interior decorators and in turn a must-have shade for householders keen to keep up with the latest interior design fashions. While not all commercially-available paints which were green were made with arsenic, some were, including Emerald Green, Scheele’s Green and Schweinfurt Green – but although the deadly side effects of arsenic-filled paint or wallpaper was known in Europe by the time the shade arrived in Britain, manufacturers ignored the dire warnings.
William Morris stopped using arsenic in his wallpaper in the late 1870s, but remained privately convinced that it was safe to use: “As to the arsenic scare, a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever. My belief about it all is that doctors find their patients ailing, don’t know what’s the matter with them and in despair put it down to the wallpapers when they probably ought to put it down to the water closet, which I believe to be the source of all illness.”
While arsenic poisoning from wallpaper and paint did not affect everyone that came into contact with it, it could prove fatal to children, the infirm or the elderly. Katherine Getrude Ketton died on July 20 1895, her heartbroken sister Marion Emily Ketton three years later on April 5 1898.
After the deaths of his sisters, the hall fell gradually into a state of significant disrepair, as their brother Robert lost his will to care for it. “The light had gone out of Felbrigg and for the next quarter of a century it was a house of solitude and gloom,” wrote Ketton-Cremer, who inherited the estate from his father (whose aunts were Gertrude and Marion) in 1933, Robert Ketton became almost entirely a recluse. There were no financial reasons for Robert’s indifference to the estate in which he had once taken such pride; and his physical health remained good. “It was as though he had just lost heart.”
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