Nicola Kirk: Author and Collector of Paranormal Stories and Other Strange Encounters

A few days ago I received an email from Ann of North Weald, Essex.  Considering I’ve lived in the area for my entire life, I have to confess to feeling a little ashamed at never having heard of Hill Hall, Epping.  Especially as it happens to have its very own ghost.

Hill Hall boasts some of the earliest classical decoration on any surviving building in Britain as well as a series of late 16th century wall paintings including scenes from the story of Cupid, Psyche and the mother in law from hell, Venus.

The origins of Hill Hall date back from before the Norman Conquest when the site was owned by a Saxon chap called Godric. I’m sure Godric would be delighted to see what they’ve done with the place over the centuries.  The first proper house was built on the site in the early 13th century and the mostly timber framed building was then rebuilt by Sir Thomas Smith during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Smiths remained in residence at Hill Hall right up until 1923.

During World War II, Hill Hall was used as a maternity home before becoming a billet for RAF officers.  The stately pile was then abandoned in 1942.  After a while the building was converted into the most unlikeliest of things: a women’s prison which opened for business in 1952.  Things ticked on quietly at Hill Hall until one unfortunate day in 1969 when an inmate started a fire. This is where Ann’s story begins:

“When I was about seventeen, I was doing a project on Hill Hall.  The building has been converted into flats now but it was a women’s prison many years ago.  I was allowed special access to take photos and at the time the place was boarded up due to the fire that had taken place while it was a women’s prison, caused by one of the inmates setting light to herself in her room.   I had access to the grounds only as the building was unsafe to enter.  I was round the back of the house with my dad and I was looking at the back of the house when I saw a woman in a long white night dress.  I watched her for about a minute as she walked along the back of the house and then turned to my dad and asked him who he thought the woman was.  He hadn’t seen her.  When I looked again she was gone but there was nowhere for her to go.

I know it was a ghost I saw that day and I can see the image in my mind even now, as if it happened yesterday.  Hill Hall is reported to be haunted by the lady who set herself alight and caused the fire.”

English Heritage now look after Hill Hall and even though the building has been converted into some rather swanky private houses, the public are still able to view certain areas by prior arrangement.  If you’re lucky, perhaps the lady in white will join you on your tour.

Nicola

Weirdworld@hotmail.co.uk

©Nicola Kirk and http://www.nicolakirk.wordpress.com 2010

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Comments on: "The Haunting of Hill Hall – Epping, Essex" (47)

  1. Hi Nicola!

    I have just been reading your missive about Hill Hall and thought you might be interested in my tale.

    I was supposed to have been born in a hospital in the east end of London at the begining of 1940 which would have made me a Cockney. Unfortunately Hitler decided to bomb the said area at the time with the consequence that my Mother was “evacuated” to Hill Hall and I was born there on 12 Feb becoming an Essex boy! I have been under the impression that it was a womens prison at that time. The place of birth recorded on my birth certificate is Chipping Ongar. In England they do not record the actual hospital however in Scotland they do!

    Back in 1987 I was at a dentist in Edinburgh, waiting my turn, and reading an article about Hill Hall in the “Horse and Groom” or some such magazine.The author was asking for any info about the place. This person was called Jim Boutwood of Thaxted. I don’t know if he went on to write anything else about the place.

    Kind Regards,

    J.M.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for taking the time to send in your story – it will be interesting to see if I can find what Jim Boutwood wrote about Hill Hall!

    Best wishes.

    Nicola

  3. I received the attached email from Mrs M. who says that Hill Hall used to be her mother’s family home:

    “We have been over to see my mother family home , hill
    hall as my mother family home. ,, she was jean vericona bowyer smyth /
    1919 born berrigan nsw , she never got to goo annd se it so my husb and i
    did , we live in townsville , queeenland , aussie , hope you like this we
    were therwe when thay doing it up .
    Mrs M.”

  4. I found your account from Hill Hall (former WW2 RAF Officers accomodation from RAF North Weald) because of the RAF connection…interesting account from a place that I didn’t know existed. you might be interested to know that not only is RAF North Weald haunted, but also that the former WW2 airfields in your area of Matching Green, Chipping Ongar, Sawbridgeworth and Hunsdon and indeed Stansted have accounts of paranormal outbursts….am sorry to say that at present only Chipping Ongar amongst the group is online… if you are interested http://rafg.moonfruit.com/

    Christopher J Huff M.A.

  5. Joy Farrow said:

    This is just an enquiry really, directed at somebody with local knowledge. My mother had a daughter, Irene, at Hill Hall when it was an evacuee mother’s hospital in 1939. Irene was born on 6 November 1939 and only lived for 10 hours. Family folk lore says that she was buried under a tree in a nearby cemetery. Not knowing the area at all, is there anybody who can tell me if there is a nearby cemetery and, if so, the name of it. If I had this information I could write and hopefully find out if Irene – my older sister – is buried there. Many thanks. Joy Farrow.

  6. Hello there,loved reading this!……..my mother Ellen Price was a prisoner at hill hall in the early 60s,her job whist there was a painter and the ghost you spoke about was seen by her and many inmates…. i remember her telling me the stories. if you have any of the old photos id love to see them,Many thanks Janet

  7. Pamela Hooper said:

    About 25 years ago, I was a Police Officer at Ongar and would frequently visit Hill Hall during the night (the property was being renovated at this time). There was a security guard permanently sited there (sadly I cant recall his name). He had an Eagle Owl that he had rescued and I had my photograph taken holding the owl). There were often ghost spotters found camping out in the area. I was told that when the property was a womens prison, the prisoners kept rabbits and when the place caught fire the rabbits stayed in the area. There were still many brown rabbits in the area when I used to visit Hill Hall. I remember the security guard, a big, i’m scared of nothing type of man, once told me that he had never seen anything there but sometimes felt a presence. Not much to tell really, but I think the security guard was convinced that there was something there.

    • Hi Pamela,

      Thanks a lot for adding your comments to this post, it’s much appreciated. It’s always good to hear from people who have direct links and experiences with these places.

      Regards.

      Nicola

  8. There are two local church yards the nearest one to Hill Hall is St Michaels which i believe was built by Sir Thomas Smyth.It is about 1/2 a mile south bound from the entrance to the Hall. Built opposite to the land that the original Mount hall was built.The other church is St Marys church built in Stapleford Tawney on the other side of the valley. The security guards you mention was probably a man i knew as Bob . I grew up next to the Hall and have worked there for about 8 years now,ive heard lots of storys but not seen anything myself. John

  9. mr stephen stephen said:

    hi everyone as i was just showing my girlfriend hill hall and telling her i worked on the hall some years ago now lol and got to say never seen a ghost although would have liked to at the time i was working there was working for a firm sorry cant remember the name now but had fun working and read on a board that was just inside the main enterance that said it had a new roof in 1965 and i thought it funny at the time as it was the year i was born and wil go back to see the art work as it was out of bounds at the time i was there

  10. andrew stafford northcote said:

    Hi
    2 years late i know!I’ m a Stafford Northcote ,related to the BoyerSmyths of Hill Hall,my father John and aunt Anna are buried in the cemetry of the family churchyard,if you could pass this on to Mrs M,i would be interested to hear from her as we would be related somewhere along the line,all very interesting stuff
    Cheers
    Andy

    • Hi Andy,

      Thanks a lot for dropping by and commenting. I’ll see if I can get a message through to Mrs M to get in touch with you.

      Regards.

      Nicola

    • maurice Trueman said:

      I think I know Mrs M , she is my Aunty Irene, she is on my facebook , look up Maurice Trueman, oh and Veronica Jean Bowyer Smythe is my late grandmother, so that makes us family

    • Phillippa Leslie-Benson said:

      Hi, My sister Janet Stafford Northcote was married to the late Cyril Stafford Northcote, nephew of the Earl of Iddesleigh. His mother’s home was Hill Hall!

      Phillippa

  11. Maurice Trueman said:

    just been reading a post from a lady who called her self Mrs M, i dont know that person but my Grandmother was the late Jean Veronica Bowyer Smythe, her 2 daughters are Joy ( my mother ) and Irene, my Grandfather is Maurice Fletcher, i have a photo of my Grandmother on facebook if you want to take a look, just look up Maurice Trueman, i have only recently found information about Hill Hall, and would like to know how it became lost to the family and taken away.’
    Who is Mrs M ?

  12. john fradd said:

    There is a local historian called Anne Padfield that holds guided tours for English heritage. They are every Wednesday fortnight. I thought the house was lost the family after one of the Smyths (a man) was killed in London during a bomb raid. Im sorry i dont know his name. After this terrible incident i understand the family fell into financial trouble but Anne Padfield would know the full circumstances. I mentioned some of the names mentioned in this blog to my father who recognised them straight away as people connected to the house and burred at St Michaels. My father has lived opposite Hill Hall and in the village of Theydon Mount longer than any other residents so knows a little about its history.

    • Maurice Trueman said:

      i have found some interesting facts about the house and this may change things, it seems a tenant called Mrs Charles Hunter sold the mansion to Sir Robert and Lady Hudson who died in world war II , then the widow sold the mansion to the government , my question to them is how was a tenant able to get away with selling such a house that obviously didn’t belong to her, this changes things , and may become something to be dealt with by the courts.

  13. Hi Maurice,

    Thanks very much for posting this additional information. We have had some very interesting comments left on this post by people who have links with the house and family – I hope this will be of further assistance to them.

    Regards.

    Nicola

    • john Fradd said:

      Hello Maurice the person you need to talk to is s local woman called Anne Padfield she would be able to answer any questions you have regarding Hill Hall she holds the guided tours fortnighly if you would like me to put you in touch email me your details and i will pass them on to her for you. regards John … Caretakere At Hill Hall

      • maurice Trueman said:

        My email is mauricetrueman@yahoo.com I have also been intouch with the Essex council office for information about Mrs Charles Hunter, they should have the information about the property has and how she came to sell it, if the documents do mot exist than something went wrong.

  14. Maurice Trueman said:

    I have my reply from the local council in Essex, they have no information, they have advised me to contact the national archives for the records under the freedom of information act, they have the same response, so now the last resort is the Land Registry.

  15. Maurice Trueman said:

    i have my reply , and again no record. I contacted my aunt and my grandfather and no one had any idea that it was sold, even though my aunt did visit Hill Hall she had no idea.
    what to do next ?
    solicitor mabey?

  16. Anne Padfield said:

    I’m the tour guide at Hill Hall, and John Fradd told me about this website. Interesting comments! I’ve replied to Maurice about how the Bowyer-Smyths lost ownership of Hill Hall – quite legitimately. Charles and Mary Hunter started as tenants in 1908 but in 1923 Mrs Hunter (a widow by then) purchased it from the family.

    If anyone wants to visit Hill Hall, they can book a tour through English Heritage at Audley End, 01799 522842, option 0. Tours are only on Wednesdays between April and September and you have to book. There’s quite a lot to see, so it takes about an hour and a half.

    Like John, I’ve heard lots of ghostly stories but never seen or felt anything. The fire in 1969 was accidental – a pipe close to a timber overheated in a roof space and eventually ignited the wood. All the prisoners and warders escaped without injury.

    Hill Hall is a fascinating place and I’m always keen to collect more information about the house and the people who lived there or knew it in the past.

    Anne

    • Hi Anne,

      Thank you so much for dropping by my blog and also for the invaluable information about Hill Hall! I’ve been delighted by the interest in this particular post and I sincerely hope people will book tours to go and have a look around this amazing building.

      Wishing you all the best!

      Nicola

    • Do you have the documents that show the transfer of title. This would settle everything.

  17. I was recently contacted by email and have been given permission to share the following message with you:

    It was with interest that I happened to read Nicola Kirks experience whilst visiting Hill Hall in Essex. (Note: Just to clarify, it wasn’t my experience, sadly, I was just lucky to have someone write in and tell me about their experience.)
    Whether the apparition she stated to have seen was, in fact, the person
    responsible for the destruction of the Hall makes me wonder.My
    Grandmother, Sarah was born in October 1857 and was cook at the Hall.
    Her maiden name was Withers. She later married my Grandfather Herbert
    West, born 1852 in Stanford Rivers who was also employed at the Hall in
    charge of the “Retorts” which concerned the lighting within the Hall.
    As a young child I often listened to her relate tales of her days at
    the Hall. The most eerie was that as she had access to most parts of
    the Hall she, on occasion, heard music being played in a certain room
    but, upon entering found no body there. The story went that this was
    “Susan”. She also said that if the music stopped she felt a rustling as
    if something had pushed by her. If she said “ Play up Susan” the
    playing would continue.These events must have occurred prior to 1883 as
    she had left the Hall by then, married and moved to Leicestershire.I am
    now 85 years old and was told of these events in the early 1930s. I
    wonder who occupies that certain room now? Interesting.”

  18. I have been sent the following information by Catherine Baran from Little Rock, Arkansas. I’ve tried to get in touch with Catherine to give her information on where to send the postcards but for some reason she doesn’t seem to be getting my emails, which is unfortunate – so, Catherine, if you happen to read this, please get in touch again (I think my emails to you may have got caught up in your junk email box):

    “I have old post-cards showing the inside and outside of Hill Hall.They were sent by my Aunt Jessie Johnson to my mother who thankfully saved almost every thing. My aunt worked for Sir Robert and the Lady Mary Hudson for many years as did my mother for a short while. Of course they are no longer living so can’t get more info, but what I have should prove interesting.

    The earliest card is postmarked May 27, 1927. It shows the Great Hall and was mailed from Epping as were all of them. August 31 1927 shows The Music Room. Nov 1927 shows The Chinese Room with some great wall paintings.One of the courtyard. One of the Crimson Courtyard. One of the East Front, and the last one showing the drive and through a wide gate to what may have been the North front. (I cropped that one to put in an album).

    Does the the English Heritage organization have a collection of artefacts from the Hall? If so I may donate the postcards.

    I have to close now but hope I have a reply from you, in which case I I will send more info.

    Sincerely Catherine Baran from Little Rock, Arkansas”

    Catherine wrote again a short while later with this additional information:

    “Two of my Aunts and my mother worked for Sir Robert and Lady Mary Hudson at Hill Hall. I have picture post cards of Hill Hall sent to my mother in the years 1927 and 1928. She spoke of packing up and leaving the house when the military took over during WWll . They took a residence in Mayfair until finding a proper home in Huntersdale, Virginia Waters. My Aunt was with Lady Hudson for many years. I met the Lady in 1954 while on a visit to England.

    Sir Robert died in November 1927 having retired earlier that same year . He died in London and his ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.

    But you are interested in the paranormal, aren’t you,Nicola. All I can add is that my mother spoke of the haunting, She never saw the spirit but some of the other servants did, wearing not a night gown but a wedding gown and there was a white veil hanging in the rafters.

    Note: It was my Aunt who helped with the move, my mother had married and gone to The United Stated in 1928.”

    Many thanks for this great information, Catherine.

    Regards.

    Nicola

    • Anne Padfield said:

      Thank you for passing this on, Nicola. I’m always interested to hear of people who had a direct connection with Hill Hall. I am familiar with the photos in the set of postcards mentioned, and I have some rather small and poor copies of them. There is a small Exhibition Room at Hill Hall containing pictures and other related material, including a large binder with pages featuring Hill Hall copied from Country Life 1906 and 1917. They are in plastic pockets, suitable to display both sides of the postcards. I think it would be very interesting for visitors to see the postcards as an illustration of Hill Hall in the 20s.

      If Catherine would like to consider this, I’m sure English Heritage would be grateful.

      • Hi Anne,

        Thanks for that – I’m delighed at the amount of interest this article has had and that so many people have come forward with information about the history of Hill Hall. I hope Catherine gets in touch again too.

        Best wishes.

        Nicola

  19. I’m actually considering purchasing a flat there and was doing research on Hill Hall and found this blog. I had no idea about it being “haunted”. What stuff!! 🙂

    Even though this post was made wayyyy back in 2010, the last comment was submitted one month ago so I decided to comment.

    Quite honestly, I think knowing the “haunted history” of Hill Hall makes me want to live here more.

    Hearing about the tours was a bit of a turn off, but the Realtor reassured me that it wasn’t at all intrusive to the residents.

    Something more to consider.

    • Hi Cameron,

      Thanks for your comments – just think, if you do decide to move there that means we’ll have someome on the ‘inside’ and we can ghostbust from your apartment! What do you mean ‘no!’?

      Best of luck with the house hunting.

      Nicola

  20. Just found this by chance. I lived in a cottage on the estate as my parents worked for the prison service. My family and friends had numerous ghostly experiences in the grounds, at the hall and in the cottage. I’ve often wondered if the people who moved into our old house experienced anything. it’s all very interesting.

    • Hi Rosey,

      Thanks for leaving a comment. If you have time, I’d love to hear about some of the experiences you had at Hill Hall. I hope you drop by again!

      Nicola

  21. Hilary Dore said:

    My sister and I have tried to find out more about our great-great-grandfather William Barker who was a coachman in Theydon Mount (presumably at Hill Hall) Two of his daughters were baptised there in 1836 and 1838, the next child was baptised in 1841 in Marylebone, London. There don’t seem to be any records of estate workers available to enable us to confirm that he worked at Hill Hall. We went on a tour of the Hall a few years ago – really interesting!

  22. Morning All,

    I have received the following email from someone who has requested to remain anonymous, however if you would like to get in touch with them please let me know and I will forward your email details on accordingly:

    l see that this thread is still running, not bad! I found it when l was looking to see, if there ever was an excavation report published about Hill Hall.
    I worked there as an archaeologist during one season in the early 80’s.
    Excavations were carried out prior to the Hall being renovated and put back into use. A roof was just being put on to the burnt-out ruins.
    We heard stories from the permanent staff looking after the site, about a Grey Lady and a black dog haunting the house and the site, but as far as I know, none of us experienced anything supernatural.
    And it was pitch dark when we were walking home from the pub in Theydon Bois after closing time. There were no lights at all in the park, just our torches, and maybe a lit cottage windows.
    We stayed in one, or two, of the terraced cottages in the very front of your picture, or maybe in the small house to the right of them. Some people also had pitched tents in the grounds.
    We were shown an old black/white photograph, from the time the family still lived in the house, said to show the Gray Lady.
    It was a long time ago, but I seem to remember some ladies in old fashioned clothes, sitting on a sofa. Behind them was a grey blob, shaped like a featureless silhouette of a woman, which could be interpreted as a ghost.
    It was kept with other mementos from the Hall, incl. the original visitors book from the turn of the last century, containing, among other notable names the signatures of J M Barrie, Kipling and Queen Mary (Geo V), if I remember right. The photo and the visitors book should still be in existence! I do not know if the photo ever has been published.
    I have during my career never seen or heard anything ghostly on any site, in spite of camping among the graves on an ancient cemetery, on prehistoric and Roman burial sites, and worked extensively with human remains from most historic periods.
    I did have a strange experience once though.
    My husband and l was staying overnight with friends who owned a grade ll* listed house, part C13th, in Glouchestershire. We slept in the bedroom normally belonging to a family member. She had experienced that her things frequently disappeared or were moved. I was not told anything about this beforehand, in case I’d freak out or something.
    I was not able to find my shoes the next morning. l had left them by the bed the previous night, ready to step into when getting up.
    In the end , after searching the whole room, I finally found them under the double bed which was placed in a corner. They were put as neatly together as they were left, but in the very far corner where the two walls met. I retrieved them with great difficulty!
    My husband who slept by the wall could not have got up and put them there during the night, without me knowing. When he told me about the strange goings on in that room the next day, I told him the weird story of the missing shoes. He then swore he had had nothing to do with it, an as far as l know, he could not have had the opportunity.

    A few additional remarks to previous comments in the thread.
    During WW2, (presumably after 1942) it was a prisoner of war camp. In one of the outbuildings in the park, there was graffiti left by them.
    The rabbits in the park were all possible colours. The story went, that the women in the prison were allowed to keep pet rabbits, and when the fire broke out, they were let loose by their owners, to escape the flames.
    The bunnies run into the woods and interbred with the wild brown ones, and thus the variation of colours. I wonder if they are still multicoloured after all this time?
    At the time, I took some photos of the dig, people, the house and the surroundings.
    They are ordinary paper colour pics, and I do not have the opportunity to digitalize them at the moment, but maybe I could share later if I can, subject to copyright, should somebody ask.

    • Anne Padfield said:

      I think I can help Anon with one or two of her questions and comments. The official archaeological report must be archived somewhere in the vaults of English Heritage. The lead archaeologist, Paul Drury, published an enormous volume in 2009, called ‘Hill Hall: A Singular House Devised by a Tudor Intellectual’, which contains lots and lots of archaeological and historical information and illustrations. It’s available – at a price – from Amazon.
      I have seen a small photo of the ‘Grey Lady’, standing in the distance behind a billiard table, but it doesn’t look very convincing to me. I will see if I still have it somewhere. I think it came from a collection of Hill Hall memorabilia passed to me by the widow of Robert Vernon-Harcourt, grandson of Sir Robert Hudson who lived at Hill Hall in the 1920s. I also have photocopies of the guest book signatures you mention, but I’ve never seen the original.
      You mentioned the PoW camp, which I think was mainly at the end of and after the war. Some of the Germans worked on the local farms, including ours. I have a letter from one of the prisoners sent to my husband’s grandfather, thanking him for his kindness and for giving him extra food and cigarettes. And you’re right about the graffiti, they’re still there.
      I’ve seen black rabbits running about Hill Hall, but no other colours.

      • Phillippa Leslie-Benson said:

        My brother-in-law was Jack (Cyril I think!) Stafford Northcote, nephew of the Earl of Iddesleigh and at some time the family were occupants of Hill Hall. Anything further that anyone might have on the subject would be interesting!

  23. Craig Smyth said:

    Hi Nicola,
    I have a ghost story of Hill Hall dating from the late 1870s early 1880s. Apparently it was a woman dressed all in white who they recognised as one of the old servants there. If you want more information please email me,
    regards,
    Craig Smyth

  24. Hello Everyone,

    The attached ghost story from Hill Hall has been sent to me by someone with historical connections to the property – many thanks to them for sending the story through:

    “Here is the story written by Mary the daughter of Sir William Bowyer-Smijth. The family were living there in the 1870s and 1880s, and this was written in 1944 before she died.

    ‘I was sleeping in the Queen Elizabeth bed when I was suddenly wakened up and saw a figure all in white of an old servant of ours, saying “Miss Jolly, Miss Jolly”. I got a fright, covered up my head, when I got a bang on the back, looked up again and saw the figure again with blood flowing from her – I was so frightened I called out to Kitty to come in and sleep the rest of the night with me. I could not think of anything else but this figure for days – so at last wrote to the servant and later heard that she had died of consumption!’ ”

    Nicola

  25. Hi All,

    Following on from above, the following link to an old American newspaper from 1950 has been forwarded to me that mentions the ghost at Hill Hall and how the British tourist board was thinking of using the Hall as a tourist attraction.
    The article was on page 50 of the newspaper – hopefully this link will take you straight to it.

    https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1955&dat=19501207&id=_RgrAAAAIBAJ&sjid=bp0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=5289%2c2936380&hl=en

    Nicola

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