"...to seek and to find the past, a lineage, a history, a family built on a flesh and bone foundation."

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Anne Tottenham & The Haunting of Loftus Hall

Loftus Hall...

A revisit to the story of Loftus Hall, one I first published in 2020.
On the peninsula of Hook Head, County Wexford, Loftus Hall is said to be one of the most haunted mansions in Ireland. Pummelled by sea winds and buffeted by ferocious storms in the winter, the house stands midway between the place called Portersgate and the small fishing village of Churchtown. Some form of home has stood on this site since the 12th century; however, our concern on this day is Loftus Hall as it was in the 18th century.

In 1882, a mournful tale of 18th century Loftus Hall appeared in the press, under the headline ‘Miss Tottenham’s Ghost: A true story told at Windsor Castle to Queen Victoria’. 

Pictured here on the left, together with her son John, is Lady Jane Loftus, Marchioness of Ely, resident of Loftus Hall, and Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria from 1851 to 1889. Lady Jane was the first person to share the story of Loftus Hall with Queen Victoria.

Shortly before the death of Prince Albert, Jane bent the queen's ear with a disturbing other worldly tale of the Hall. Although Victoria did not believe in such things, she nonetheless instructed Lady Jane not to share the story with Prince Albert, as he did believe in the supernatural. 

Lady Jane began with the earthly facts: In the 1770s, together with a full complement of servants and other staff, the denizens of Loftus Hall comprised Charles Tottenham the 2nd, and his second wife Jane Cliffe [his cousin], along with his youngest daughter Anne, described as tall, beautiful and unmarried. 

Charles had inherited the house upon the death of his first wife (Anne’s mother), the Honourable Anne Loftus. By the time of Charles’ inheritance, Loftus Hall was a dilapidated ugly mansion, said to be lacking in any desirable qualities. It had long passages that led nowhere, large dreary rooms, freezing cold flagstone floors, small closets and all manner of useless nooks and crannies. The only room deemed worthy of note was the Tapestry Chamber.

According to Lady Jane's version of the story, on one especially black stormy night in 1775, as the three Tottenhams settled into the large drawing room, they were shaken by loud knocking on the outer gate, a startling and rare occurrence.

A servant answered the call only to discover a young gentleman on horseback. He had lost his way in the terrible storm and was guided to Loftus Hall by the candlelight glowing in the windows of the house.

Both the gentleman and his horse were completely spent, so he requested and was given shelter within. Little did the Tottenhams realise what would be wrought by this dark-eyed, dark-haired stranger, whom fate had brought within their midst.

A brief amour...

Over the course of his stay at Loftus Hall, the young man proved himself to be of most excellent character, gallant in behaviour, pleasing in both manner and countenance, an altogether delightfully ‘finished’ gentleman. He proved such an amiable addition to the household that he was invited to stay with them for 'some days', and in turn made himself quite at home. The beautiful Anne Tottenham fell in love with him. 

At Loftus Hall with only her austere father and cruel stepmother, visitors were few, and there were no marriageable matches on the horizon, thus Anne led a life that was almost cloistered, like that of a nun. She was very lonely. Very quickly Anne formed a deep attachment to the young man. However, in the eyes of the handsome stranger Anne was only a passing fancy. His life and his friends swiftly took him away from her, a fact acknowledged in the refrain of a very old ballad, ‘He loved and rode away’.

Whilst no one knew what truly passed between them, his leaving left Anne bereft. Her melancholy over the loss of her belovéd became deep mourning and then madness, leading her parents to strictly confine Anne to a single room in house, the Tapestry Chamber.

Did Satan come to call?

Around this time a second story emerged, a wild story woven out of whole cloth. As the handsome visitor, together with the three Tottenhams made for a foursome in the house, it was proposed that evenings be spent playing whist. To Anne's delight, with the young man as her partner, the pair won every point and her parents none. However, one evening the game came to a very different end. 

Clapping with pleasure at winning yet another point, Anne felt the precious ring her late mother had given her fly off her finger and drop to the floor. When she bent to retrieve it, much to her horror Anne discovered one of the stranger’s feet was a cloven hoof, the sign of Satan. Horrified, Anne let out a blood-curdling scream, whereupon the stranger turned into a giant fireball and disappeared up the chimney to the sound of a booming thunderclap, leaving behind the distinct odour of brimstone. 

Word spread that Anne was driven completely mad by this visitation of the devil, thus her family was forced to confine her. She was carried away to the Tapestry Chamber, once her favourite room in the house, from whence she would never again emerge. Anne remained there for the rest of her life, dying in the Tapestry Chamber at the age of 31, less than a year after the visitation. 

The ghost in silk brocade...

After Anne’s death, it is said the Tottenhams were daily plagued by innumerable disturbances, noises and apparitions, heard and felt in the Tapestry Chamber, leaving them and their servants in a perpetual state of consternation. The Tottenhams summoned the local Catholic parish priest, one Father Broders (also Broaders), to Loftus Hall to perform an exorcism. He used all the powers of his office to exorcise the demons of the house, entirely focussing his ministrations on the Tapestry Chamber. 

For the rest of his life the Tottenhams looked kindly upon both Fr. Broders and his family. Legend held that his tombstone in nearby Horetown Cemetery was inscribed with these words: "Here lies Father Broders, greatest of them all / Who banished the devil from Loftus Hall"; however, there is no evidence that such a verse was ever inscribed upon it.

The first account by a guest of a supernatural encounter came near the end of 1790. A gentleman invited to Loftus Hall for a hunting party arrived late, so was put up in the Tapestry Room because the rest of the house was full. Moments after he extinguished his candle and settled into bed, something heavy leapt onto the bed growling like a wild dog, the curtains were torn back and the bedclothes stripped entirely from beneath him. Thinking he was the victim of a vicious prank, he struck a light and searched the room complete, shocked to find nothing and no one within it, save himself. The lock on his door was fully engaged, as he had set it upon retiring.

Years later one Mr. Shannon, the valet of the Marquis of Ely, was put up in the Tapestry Room for the course of their stay in the house. On the very first night the entire house was awakened by the roars and screams of Mr. Shannon. He had escaped the room and was found cowering in a most indecorous position, tearing at his night shirt and wild with fear.

Upon being settled, Shannon told his tale. Shortly after he extinguished his candle, the curtains rattled and were torn from the window, whereon a tall ghostly lady, dressed in stiff brocaded silk stood immediately by his bedside. Shannon was so terrified by the encounter that he insisted he would leave the employ of the Marquis should his lordship ever again expect him to occupy that room.

Numerous others are said to have been terrorised in the Tapestry Chamber by the ghost of a tall woman dressed in silk brocade, who would move through the room, stop before them, then enter the powder closet, including a Mr. Dale, the 'sober-minded man of reason' who served as tutor of the young Marquis of Ely, as well as a ‘decent clergyman’ named Reade, and a newspaper man who claimed to have seen the ghost of Anne Tottenham on at least three occasions, whilst he was a guest in the Tapestry Chamber.

Why cannot Anne find rest?

Although Lady Jane Loftus would not speak to the very particular facts of the matter, she claimed the Tottenhams preferred the story of a satanic visit be bandied abroad, rather than have the story of what really happened to Anne Tottenham come to light. In the 18th and early 19th century, attempts to trace Anne's history came to naught. 

In 1872, Jane Loftus, who was then Dowager Marchioness of Ely, came to the conclusion that a visit to Loftus Hall by her good friend and Royal Highness, Queen Victoria, would raise both the stature and esteem of the Loftus family. To that end the dowager convinced her son, the 4th Marquis John Henry Wellington Graham Loftus, that the house had to be renovated. 

It is here the story takes on its most tragic dimension. ‘Tis likely the love story between Anne Tottenham and the young man was true, but the handsome stranger left Anne with more than madness. According to local legend, during those renovations at Loftus Hall, the skeleton of a tiny infant was found within the walls of the Tapestry Chamber.

It has been surmised by some that Anne was confined to the chamber because she fell pregnant through her amour with the young gentleman. Anne's family likely concocted the story of the satanic visitation to keep the curious at bay, thus saving the family’s reputation. With no doctor or midwife to attend her, Anne Tottenham may have died a horribly painful death during childbirth in the Tapestry Chamber. 

The renovation of the house saw the chamber converted to a billiards room; however, it did not stop the hauntings. It is alleged the ghost of Anne would enter in the night ‘making a horrid noise’ whilst knocking about the billiard balls. 

Does Anne continue to haunt Loftus Hall, perhaps in search of her infant? Some say the dead haunt those places where they knew happiness, however brief. Perhaps this is the case with Anne Tottenham.

The end of Loftus Hall, as it once was...

Under the guidance of his mother, The Dowager Marchioness of Ely, the 4th Marquis had spared no expense, given that the queen was going to visit, and in doing so accumulated weighty debts. Queen Victoria never set foot on the estate. The renovations of Loftus Hall spelled the end of the mansion writ large. 

The marquis died without issue in April of 1889. The Hall was bequeathed to a cousin, who recognising the prohibitive cost of keeping Loftus, put the bankrupt estate up for sale. Since then it has reopened in various incarnations, from a convent through to a hotel. Eventually it came under private ownership.

Loftus Hall continues to excite interest, and the tales associated with it are ever evolving. In some versions of the story, the gentleman on horseback has become a seafarer, and the devil is said to have exploded through the ceiling, rather than disappear up the chimney (a rather more interesting story than saying 'dry rot' caused the hole in the ceiling). 

A 1930 rendition of the story describes Anne as "having many suitors to hand, but none [who] found favour with her, other than the dark-eyed stranger". In 1936 a newspaper report of the story had the stranger propose marriage, only to have the 'cold-hearted' Charles Tottenham refuse consent, leaving the offended young man to entirely quit Loftus Hall.

What is often missing in accounts is the likelihood that the Tottenhams chose to circulate a wild story about a satanic visitation in order to save their reputation, rather than reveal Charles Tottenham's betrayal of his own flesh and blood, by not having provided proper medical care for his youngest daughter, Anne, in her time of greatest need.



1] My image of Loftus Hall, with light overlays ©Éire_Historian 

2] ©The National Gallery, London

3] Brocaded dress ©Victoria & Albert Museum; I added the light overlay.

4] Loftus Hall ©National Library of Ireland.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A Loop-the-loop life: Sophie Peirce-Evans, Irish Aviatrix’

No doubt you’ve heard of Amelia Earhart, but what about the woman who inspired Ms. Earhart?

Aviatrix* Sophia ‘Sophie’ Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans, known at the height of her fame as ‘Mary, Lady Heath’, was once the most famous Irish woman in the world, celebrated for her extraordinary exploits as a pilot, and for her determination to live by her own rules. It is important to note that throughout her life Sophia would use several different forenames, all mined from her birth name. 

Born 17 November 1896 at Knockaderry House, on her father’s estate in County Limerick, thirteen months after her birth Sophia’s life took a shocking turn.

Her father John Peirce-Evans, brutally bludgeoned to death his wife, Sophia’s mother Kate Theresa Smyth, a former servant of the house. Baby Sophia was found sitting in a pool of blood on the floor next to her mother’s battered lifeless body.

John had a history of violence toward Kate and others, and it was suspected he was mentally ill. Deemed insane at the time of the murder, he was interned in the Limerick Lunatic Asylum, ‘at the leisure of the Lord Lieutenant’. There is no evidence he ever served time for the brutal slaying of his wife.

A new family for Catherine Sophia:

Sophia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents George and Henrietta Georgina Peirce, and her father's sisters Anna Maria Peirce and Sophia Louisa Peirce. The family would call her Catherine Sophia Peirce. Her spinster aunties would actively dissuade her from any ‘unfeminine pursuits’.

Catherine Sophia proved a disappointment to them by growing into an accomplished young woman who pursued studies in agriculture at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. She was one of the very few women accepted into the school.

Formerly the Royal College of Science, now part of the Government Buildings complex.

Further discomfiting her relatives, Catherine became a sports aficionado. At nearly 6ft tall Catherine developed a taste for high jump, long jump, javelin and the pentathlon, and these 'unfeminine pursuits' proved a good fit for her.

Catherine would go on to co-found the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association in 1922, compete at the 1926 Women’s International Games and lobby for women’s athletics to be included in the Olympic games. In fact, her address to the 1925 Olympic Congress at Prague resulted in the inclusion of women’s track and field events in the 1928 Olympics. 

During her studies at the Royal College of Science Catherine met her first husband, William Davis Elliott-Lynn. They were married 26 November 1916. She signed the marriage register Catherine Sophia Peirce-Evans. The marriage was dissolved in 1925. William died in 1927.

Up into the wild blue yonder:

Following the dissolution of her marriage, Catherine Sophia became Sophie, decided to learn how to fly, joined the London Aeroplane Club, took flight training and earned her pilot’s license 4 November 1925.

Sophie briefly abandoned flying in 1926, in protest of “the jealous and malicious treatment of women pilots by club officials and men pilots”. Women were banned from holding commercial pilot licenses, as menstruation was deemed a prohibitive disability.

Following a groundswell of public support, Sophie was soon not only flying her Avro Avian, a small open-cockpit plane, but working as a flight instructor as well. The years leading up to 1929 would prove stellar for her. 

Sophie flies into the record books:

  • First woman to fly solo from London to Glasgow.

  • July 1926: flew all around England to promote light aircraft flight, landing at as many aerodromes as possible in a single day, managing more than 50. Successfully landed in an additional 17 fields. 

  • First woman to perform a loop-the-loop in a light aircraft.

  • Established world altitude records, flying at 16,000 feet in 1926, and 19,000 ft and 23,000 feet in 1927.

  • Only woman entered in 2nd International Aviation Meet at Zurich, Sophie came away with two prize cups.

  • July 1928: Sophie, now known as Mary, Lady Heath, finally won the right to possess a ‘B’ pilot’s license, allowing her to fly commercial aircraft.
  • Hired by Royal Dutch Airlines, Mary was the first woman to pilot a passenger plane.

  • 1929: First person of any gender to fly solo over Africa, from Capetown to Cairo, and then on to Croydon Aerodrome, England. This harrowing journey of over 9,600 kilometres took months rather than weeks, from 5 January to 18 May 1929, due to a minor crash and numerous stops.

Amelia Earhart was so impressed by Mary’s flight over Africa that Amelia was in England to welcome Mary home. Amelia bought the Avro Avian Mary had used for the flight, and shipped it back to America. Earhart used it for training flights.

Mary’s personal life: inevitable bumps along the way:

On 11 October 1927 Sophie married Sir James Heath, becoming Mary, Lady Heath. He was 75; she was 30. In the press of the day rumour had it Mary needed a husband with deep pockets who could finance her desire to fly throughout the world. However, the truth is by 1927 Mary was already earning a tidy sum.

In 1930 in Reno, Nevada, U.S.A. Mary filed to have the marriage dissolved, on the grounds of extreme cruelty. The British courts did not recognise the divorce until 4 July 1932, granting Lord Heath a ‘decree nisi’, making him the injured party, based on his claim that Mary had already married her third husband.

It didn’t help Mary that the American papers reported she’d married her lover in Kentucky. Damned press! It was looking like polygamy until it was revealed the marriage took place in Dublin on 21 September 1932. This third husband was George Athenry Reginald ‘Jack’ Williams. Mary would go by the name Sophie Mary Heath Williams.

Mary’s extraordinary flying career and her personal style delighted fans the world over. At the acme of her career she was reportedly earning as much as £10,000 a year. Often upon landing, she would emerge from the cockpit fashionably attired, including fur stole, silk stockings and heels. 

A crashing halt to a life's work:

The flying career of this brilliant aviatrix came to an horrific end on 29 August 1929 at an airshow in Cleveland, USA. Over the course of her career, Mary had had three previous but minor crashes with her plane; however, this crash left her badly injured, with a fractured skull, broken nose and internal injuries. She would never again pilot a plane.

Undaunted Mary returned to Ireland and founded her own aviation company, training the first generation of pilots who would fly for the newly minted Aer Lingus, the National Airline of Ireland.

Despite all of her achievements, unhappiness plagued this brilliant woman. Perhaps she never really got over the tragic beginning of her life.

Once the most famous Irish woman in the world, Sophia ‘Sophie’ Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans (Elliott-Lynn/Heath/Williams) met a sad end, dying 9 May 1939, after suffering a head injury in a fall on a tram. She was only 42 years old.

Her detractors in the press took a post-mortem swipe at her, saying Sophie had fallen because she was drunk. The coroner’s report revealed the truth. Sophie had no alcohol in her blood. He concluded Sophie likely lost her balance and fell because of a brain injury caused by the skull fracture she had suffered in the 1929 crash that ended her flying career. 


The asterix I've placed to next to the word 'Aviatrix' is to mark it out as an arcane term. It was used to describe Sophie during her lifetime; that is the only reason it appears. It is entirely appropriate to refer to Sophie as an aviator.

If you mine newspapers for Sophie, you'll come across some interesting stories. Use all forms of her name in your search. 

There has been at least one book written about Sophie, but I cannot speak to its accuracy.


1] Of Sophie: my colourised versions of what I understand are public domain images.

2] The Former Royal College of Science ©Éire_Historian



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