Lily MacDonald – a life in the shadows of Brighton’s Preston Manor

Portrait of Lily Macdonald by John William Schofield (1865-1944) Private collection with permission
Portrait of Lily Macdonald by John William Schofield (1865-1944) Private collection used with kind  permission of the owners

One sunny day in June I met with Paula Wrightson, venue officer at Preston Manor, to talk about the darker secrets of the Edwardian manor house. Our conversation focused on the life of Christiana Blanche Ashworth MacDonald – known to everyone as Lily.

“Lily was born at Preston Manor in 1866, with her twin sister Diana,” Wrightson told me. “The twins were half-sisters to Ellen Thomas-Stanford, the last private owner of the house. We don’t know why she chose to be known as Lily but from birth she was associated with white. Her middle name Blanche translates as ‘white’ in French and is derived from the Latin blancus. Lily also refers to a white flower.”

Wrightson says Lily spent her childhood and teenage years at the house and that the centre of her life was her pet dogs. She says: “Victorian and Edwardian dachshunds were often given German names but Lily’s choice of Faust and Bushey may hint at a darker side to her character. Faust is a character from German legend, a scholar who makes a pact with Mephistopheles, gaining a short life of knowledge and pleasure in exchange for eternal damnation.”

An enduring legacy of Lily’s love for her dogs is the pet cemetery at Preston Manor, which she created with her sister.

Lily never married. But this is not to say she lacked suitors. Her first fiancé, William Frederick Forsyth Grant, was a member of the landed gentry in Scotland and Captain and Acting Adjutant of the Forfar and Kincardineshire Militia Artillery.

He met a bloody end aged 33 at his family home, Ecclesgreig Castle, on 27 January 1902. Two days before his death, Lily had broken off the engagement in favour of one Captain Jackson.

“All we know of Captain Jackson is that he painted four good amateur views of Preston Manor in watercolour,” Wrightson says. He too was dropped by Lily.

Grant’s death certificate shows the cause of death as a ‘wound in chest – haemorrhage’. Wrightson says: “He died of asphyxiation in the arms of his brother. It took him three agonising hours to die.” She pours scorn on the official version that he died as a result of tripping over a rug with a knife in his hand. Standing in her small office in the former guest bedroom in the West Wing of the house, Wrightson plucked a knife from her desk and demonstrated to me how hard it is to stab oneself in the chest while walking across a carpet.

“He was a man used to handling weapons,” she says. “This seems to me an unlikely accident for a soldier and country sportsman.”

His last will and testament reads: “I hereby leave to Miss Christiana Blanche Ashworth Macdonald (Lil) absolutely all and every fully paid share I may be possessed of at the time of my decease and any and all policies on my life i.e. any money accruing on my death and all cash etc. in any bank etc.”

He left more than £12,000 in stock, bonds and life insurance, worth in the region of £1.5 million today. It seems Lily never availed herself of the inheritance.

Wrightson says: “Was it suicide? Or murder? He was buried after a mere three days. Why the haste? Certainly a woman of Lily’s status would never be questioned over such a matter. It could be covered up.”

But this is not the only mysterious episode in Lily’s life. Both she and her sister were fascinated with the paranormal, and both claimed to see the ghost of the White Lady while growing up in Preston Manor. The house is notorious for its hauntings and Wrightson tells me that, although she is a sceptic, she has seen a ghost in the house herself and was once locked in the attic room by a paranormal presence known as “the angry man”.

For her part, Lily told her nephew, John Benett-Stanford about one vivid encounter, and his account is included in a guidebook to the Preston Manor museum: “Miss Lily Macdonald tells me that in October or November 1896, as she was trying a new lampshade in the drawing room at Preston Manor, the ghost walked in at the door and came straight to her as if to speak. Miss M recognised it as the ghost, seeing her white dress and hair hanging down. She followed the ghost through the Billiard Room to the foot of the stairs, then put her arm around her saying ‘No – you don’t go now’. Miss M’s arms went through the figure and it disappeared at once.”

In the same year, Lily and her mother invited two paranormalists to Preston Manor – Ada Goodrich Freer, a spiritualistic medium and assistant editor of Borderland, a spiritualist magazine, and Thomas Murray, a member of the “Ghost Club”. The group held a séance in the Cleves Room with the aim of contacting the ghost to find out why she wandered the house. The results were, apparently, inconclusive. In 1897 Freer he was denounced as a fraud and fled to America.

Lily died aged 81 on 15 August 1947. She was cremated and laid to rest at St. Peter’s next to her childhood home.

Some people have speculated that her “clairvoyance” was one reason she never married. One thing is certain – she was childless and unmarried and that remains sufficient for even the most aristocratic of women to become hidden from history.

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