Brian Langston is a retired Assistant Chief Constable now living in Southern France where he writes on crime, mysteries and the paranormal.
To the west of Windsor lies the pretty village of Oakley Green which is dominated by Oakley Court, an extraordinary high-gothic mansion built on the banks of the Thames in 1859 by Sir Richard Hall-Say. Local legend claims that the house was built in the style of a French Chateau to comfort his homesick French wife. In fact, his wife was Edith Evans from nearby Boveney and the house, although magnificent, could not be described as French.
Nevertheless, it does have some French credentials. In 1919, it was bought by Ernest Olivier, the Turkish Consul-General in Monte Carlo. During the Second World War, through his influence, the house became the secret headquarters of the French Resistance, and Charles De Gaulle stayed in one of the bedrooms.
In 1955, Bray Studios opened next door, and the impressive tower and foreboding facade of Oakley Court became a splendidly atmospheric setting for many of their films. In 1965, after the death of Olivier, the house was left uninhabited for 14 years. During this time, Hammer and other filmmakers seized the opportunity to cast it as a creepy haunted house or Dracula’s castle in over 200 films, including the Hammer Classics like The Brides of Dracula (1962), The Reptile (1966) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). The house also featured in The Old Dark House 1963, And Now the Screaming Starts (1973), The Vampyres (1974), Murder by Death (1976) and the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore film, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978). It is perhaps best known as Dr. Frank N. Furter's castle (called ‘The Frankenstein Place’) in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Tragic Unexplained Deaths
The sinister pedigree was not, however, confined to the silver screen. From the late 1960s, the house was converted into flats, and it is during this period that the paranormal activity in and around the house intensified to the extent that it became described not only as haunted but evil. Residents reported hearing strange banging noises coming from parts of the house that were not occupied. Ghostly figures appeared at night driving away several tenants. Bad luck and tragedy befell many who lived there, and the atmosphere around the building apparently became so oppressive that it caused many people to commit suicide in the Thames. One man drowned in 1971 after falling from a pleasure steamer; his body was recovered near the house.
Another tragic case involved Penelope Gallerneault, aged 26, who moved into an apartment in the converted servants’ quarters of Oakley Court with her husband and four children.
Friends had warned the family before they moved in that the place was haunted and had a previous history of accidents involving death by drowning. Penelope and her husband dismissed the stories as fanciful and reveled in their beautiful new riverside home. Little did they know that this was to be the worst decision they ever made. Within three years, two of their children would be dead, and their lives would be in turmoil.
The horror began in the summer of 1972 when Mrs. Gallerneault first sensed that something was very wrong at Oakley Court.
“‘I started to see people walking in the grounds wearing hoods. This was accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of dread” she said. “Then one morning I found a box on the doorstep. When I opened it I was horrified to see the body of one of my cats with its neck broken”. Although this was reported to the police, it was never discovered who was responsible but added to the rumors that evil forces were at work at Oakley Court.
Catastrophe struck shortly afterward when, in December, her two-year-old son, William, drowned. Mrs. Gallerneault was running him a bath when the phone rang. When she returned a few minutes later, he was floating dead in the water.
“I realise that many people might try to blame me for being careless, but that is just not the case. In a rambling old house like that, there are so many precautions you have to take,” she told a newspaper in 1973.
Her grief was compounded when within months another almost identical tragedy struck the family. Her second son Edward, who was just two, was left in his playpen on the grounds of the house. Inexplicably, he managed to climb out, toddled down to the river, fell in and drowned. The family was devastated and left the house shortly afterward, although their marriage did not survive the trauma.
Mrs. Gallerneault told reporters, ‘The house has an aura of evil, and I could never go back there. Horror films being made there might seem like a joke. I'm sure evil has rubbed off on the place or something awful has been invoked.”
The Rev. Sebastian Jones, curate of St Michael’s Church, Bray, added; “Oakley Court is definitely “spooky” and I would not want to stay there myself. Evil can generate evil, and the grounds would be an ideal place to practice black magic.”
A senior policeman said at the time: “There have been some strange happenings at the house, which have never been fully explained. We made regular patrols after complaints about witchcraft being practiced and things seem to have quietened down now.”
The house has an aura of evil and I would never go back there...
— Penelope Gallerneault, 1972
However, things did not remain quiet for very long. During its conversion to a hotel in the late 1970s, there were a number of strange incidents which further cemented its reputation of being one of the country’s most haunted houses. On one occasion, workers fled the site when a pair of internal double doors burst open in front of them and glasses were smashed around them as if thrown by an unseen assailant.
The development was dogged with continuous electrical faults, and tools went missing and strange noises were heard coming from parts of the building they knew were unoccupied.
One contractor remarked; “From the day we started on the site we were plagued by inexplicable events. It was as though we were not welcome in the house and everything happened to delay the work or drive us away.”
Workers refused to stay at the house after dark and ghost-like figures were seen on several occasions in the grounds. In response to damage being committed in the house overnight, the developers installed resident security guards but a succession of night watchman came and went after reporting hearing mournful moaning noises coming from the upper floors and the sound of people “marching on the roof.” One of them narrowly escaped death after falling through the roof while investigating the strange noises.
A Time Slip Experienced?
In 1981, it finally opened its doors as a hotel, but the refurbishment failed to dislodge the ghostly entities. It became a regular tea spot for the Windsor police night shift, and before long, stories of eerie new phenomena began to emerge from the night porters, who welcomed the nocturnal visits by the local police.
Phantom hooded figures were still observed stalking the grounds. The sound of a ‘break shot’ was heard coming from the billiard room in the middle of the night but when reception staff investigated they found the balls still in position and nothing had been touched.
In recent years, room 117 has acquired the reputation of being the most haunted after guests have reported seeing ghostly apparitions and even a possible time slip during their stay there.
One guest awoke in the middle of the night after sensing someone was standing next to his bed. He could make out a shadowy figure in the gloom and switched on the bedside light. He then saw standing beside the bed what he described as a 19th-century gentleman in evening dress. He noticed that the room had also changed shape.
The ghost stood motionless until the guest leaped out of bed in fright and the spirit just melted away into the ether and the room reconfigured back to its correct shape. Inquiries later revealed that the configuration seen by the guest was, in fact, the original layout of the room before the refurbishment of the house although the identity of the ghost remains unknown.
The manager of Oakley Court reports that to this day some staff will not go into one of the upstairs rooms due to an oppressive atmosphere and a feeling of being continually watched.
Guests have complained about knocks on their bedroom doors in the middle of the night and, upon checking, found no one there. Visitors have also reported phantom images appearing on their camera shots. One such photograph is displayed in the hotel and shows a ghostly figure sitting at a dining table which the photographer and his companion insist was empty when the picture was taken.
Psychics investigators claim that a pervading sense of menace still shrouds Oakley Court and it is this, rather than simply the imposing architecture and gruesome gargoyles, that accounts for the shiver down the spine which many visitors experience when crossing the threshold for the first time.
© 2015 Brian Langston