Many of our historic buildings are reputed to have ghosts, among them the Red Hall at Bourne, one of the finest in Lincolnshire.
The grey lady is believed to haunt its rooms and although no one actually knows who this might be, Catherine Digby is the main contender for the title.
Catherine was one of the longest serving tenants whose name will be forever associated with the early 17th century residence, now protected as a Grade II listed building. She went there as a young bride in 1796 and remained in occupation until her death in 1836, becoming known throughout the town as a kindly lady much given to good works although there also appears to be a touch of sadness about her life.
Her father was the Rev Humphrey Hyde, Vicar of Bourne from 1763 to 1807. He and his wife, also Catherine, had two children, a son John, who was born in 1767, and Catherine, who arrived in 1773. A growing family meant that more space was needed and so Hyde built Brook Lodge in South Street as Bourne’s first vicarage and the family moved in during 1776.
Catherine was still a young woman when she met James Digby who had come to live at the Red Hall. The Digbys had originated at North Luffenham in Rutland and James’ grandfather, Kenelm Digby and his wife Elizabeth, had subsequently acquired large land holdings in the Bourne area which laid the foundation of the family fortune.
James proposed to Catherine and they were married at the Abbey Church on 28th July 1796. He was many years her senior, having been born in 1736 and was therefore 60 years old while she was only 23, but as both her father and Digby were men of property, the union may well have been a marriage of convenience to unite their estates.
Catherine took over the running of the Red Hall and also played an active part in the life of the Abbey Church. Her father remained vicar until his death in 1807 and his wife and son John having both died, she became his sole beneficiary.
James Digby died on 7th August 1811, aged 76, by which time he had built up a considerable estate in Bourne and Dyke and had become deputy lieutenant of Lincolnshire. There is evidence that he was a man of frugal habits, spending little, and the publication of his will on September 14th that year prompted one newspaper to report that “the penurious manner in which he lived little accorded with the immense property he has left, which is supposed to be a little short of £200,000” [more than £13 million at today’s values]. In it, he left the Red Hall and a portion of his lands to his widow and so she was able to retain her home and a comfortable lifestyle with many servants and in her spare time she cultivated a large and beautiful garden around the hall which attracted many visitors.
By this time she had become known as Lady Catherine, a rich lady playing an influential part in the affairs of the town and although she had no right to any official title, she had gathered some prestige as a staunch Anglican, a thoughtful benefactress and liked to be known as Lady of the Manor.
Catherine died childless on 29th February 1836, aged 63, and was given a grand funeral to which the entire town turned out. Church officials, including senior bell ringers, were pall bearers for the service at the Abbey Church, among them Thomas Taylor who was still relating the events of that day until he died on Saturday 16th February 1889 at the age of 83, having been a ringer at the church for more than 60 years.
After Catherine’s death, the Red Hall passed to her nephew, Philip Pauncefort Duncomb who already owned property inherited from his mother, Mrs Henrietta Pauncefort, who was James Digby’s sister. Catherine was not too kindly disposed towards Philip and although she also bequeathed him the furniture, plate and linen at the Red Hall, she refused to leave him any other part of her estates “on account of his very illiberal conduct towards me respecting a parcel of land after his mother’s death”.
She was the last private resident to own and live in the Red Hall although it was rented out to various tenants by Duncomb and when he died in 1849, his son, also Philip, inherited the property but in 1860 he sold it to the Bourne and Essendine Railway Company for use as a booking office at the new railway station and it remained as such until the line closed in 1959. The building stood empty for several years until acquired by Bourne United Charities which runs it today on behalf of the town.
Catherine left a large number of bequests in her will, among them £100 to pay for a marble monument that can still be seen on the wall in the chancel of the Abbey Church. She worshipped there regularly and, as a lover of music, was also responsible for sharing her interest with the congregation. The first organ was installed in the west end gallery by John Gray in 1830 at a cost of £220 and it is quite likely that this was done at her expense because when she died six years later, she left £500 in her will to pay the annual salary of an organist.
She was buried in the chancel of the Abbey Church although there is no inscribed flagstone.
Today, the grey lady is supposed to haunt the Red Hall, flitting through the upstairs rooms and down the staircase of this 17th century mansion, a tale no doubt perpetuated, as with many country houses, because of the combination of light and shade on moonlit nights and those who tell of them invariably elaborate.
Stories of the apparition have persisted over the years although no one has suggested who it might be but as no other woman had such a long connection with the house, perhaps Catherine, our self-styled Lady of the Manor who was so reluctant to leave, would be first choice as the ghost of the Red Hall.
A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne web site at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk.