Tuesday, 1 June 2010
The village of Urchfont lies along the northern edge of Salisbury Plain, approximately 7 miles south of Devizes. Urchfont Manor dates from about 1680. It was built on the site of an earlier house from which a fireplace and some other fittings have survived and are now incorporated in the current building. It was Sir William Pynsent, who came to Urchfont village in 1678 who was responsible for the construction of the new house.
Sir William Pynsent died in 1719 and the estate passed to his son and heir – William Pynsent Jnr, who on his death in 1765 left the house (there was no heir) and its entire estate to the then Prime Minister - William Pitt the Elder. William Pitt later sold the property to the Duke of Queensberry, who already owned lands in the parish.
The Manor had several owners before it was purchased in 1928 by Hamilton Rivers-Pollock. A distinguished lawyer who lived there with his family until his untimely death in 1940. Hamilton Rivers-Pollock’s life, it is said, was to be overshadowed by periods of depression following the crash of his fortune during the Second World War. It was on the 11th June 1940, during one of these desperate bouts of depression, that Hamilton Rivers-Pollock, after giving all his staff the day off, took a loaded pistol, approached his wife, who was seated at her piano and shot her once through the head. From there, he walked to the stable block and shot dead his horses, after which he returned to the house and shot his dog, before returning to his wife where he turned the weapon on himself.
A column in the Devizes Gazette of 11th June 1940 makes it clear that this was a very distressing case, as the couple were much respected in the community and a great deal of sympathy was felt for their children. Half the article talks about the couple's lives and their achievements. The second half goes into some detail concerning the inquest. 'Mrs RP was found with a bullet wound to the head and the conclusion was that suicide was not possible. Her husband, who had been in a distressed state, was found next to her and had shot himself through the mouth'.
The Manor passed to Rivers-Pollock’s son - Martin, who leased the property in 1941 to London County Council, who converted it into a hospital for the care and convalescents of children evacuated from London suffering from TB. The Manor was eventually bought in 1945 by Wiltshire County Council who established a residential centre for adult education. The college was officially opened in June 1947. Wiltshire County Council closed Urchfont Manor College on 3rd October 2012. It has since been purchased privately.
The ghost of a woman dressed in black, thought possibly to be that of Mrs Rivers-Pollock is said to haunt the Manor. One such encounter with the Lady in Black took place one Christmas several years ago. The staff had just finished locking the Manor’s many guest bedrooms in preparation for the Christmas holiday. They had gathered in the dinning room to enjoying a drink before leaving for their Christmas break. Suddenly, two members of staff became aware of a figure of a woman passing the entrance to the dining room from the direction of the kitchen. Mystified and just a little concerned (bearing in mind that the Manor was closed and empty to all residents for Christmas) they immediately went to investigate. Several minutes passed, when on their return they had to admit that there was nobody else in the building.
The kitchen is said to be haunted by a shadowy figure which is most often seen peripherally. Staff have been working at counter tops when they have been acutely aware of being watched.
A course tutor staying overnight took a room in the main building. The following morning he described an eerie episode with his duvet cover. He had woken in the dead of night feeling cold and noticed that his duvet was bunched up at the foot of his bed. Thinking nothing of it and assuming he’d kicked it off in his sleep, he hauled the cover back over himself only for it to be pulled away moments later.
A resident staying in the Coach House (an outbuilding) questioned staff the following morning as to who might have been walking about in the dead of night and furthermore, who might want to try her bedroom door handle at that late hour.
Some of the housekeeping staff find servicing the top floor bedrooms can often be an 'uncomfortable experience', many claiming they have often felt like they are being watched. An electrician recently carrying out some work in one of these bedrooms, refused to work alone as he felt a presence was in the room with him.
The eighteenth century Fiddlers Cottage situated in the grounds doubled as the village police station in the early 1900s. Before the college was sold it used to offer accommodation to course attendees. Some of the housekeeping staff would not work in this quaint little cottage unless the doors were left wide-open, regardless of the weather, this is to allow for a quick getaway one would assume. Reports of hearing footsteps padding across the ceiling above where they have been working when nobody but themselves have been in the cottage are not unusual, as is a strong feeling that they are being watched by someone or something sitting on the stairs.
Urchfont Manor has a dark history, of that there is no dispute but having visited the house several times and strolled through its pretty tranquil gardens, I have to say, I have felt nothing but peace in an environment seemingly untouched by time. Having said that, I still think there maybe something that wanders the corridors of this grand old Manor in the dead of night.