Maria Fitzherbert was born Maria Anne Smythe on 26th July, 1756. At the age of nineteen she became married to a wealthy land owner named Edward Weld, some sixteen years her senior. Sadly, Edward was killed just three months after their wedding in a riding accident. Three years later Maria married for a second time to Thomas Fitzherbert, but was again widowed in 1781.Due to her inheritance she became a woman of substance and acquired a grand house in Mayfair. It was not long before she began mixing with London high society.It was during this time that she became acquainted with George Prince of Wales.
The prince’s attraction to the young widow was instant and a long-standing relationship ensued. George actually married her in 1785. However, as he did not have his father’s consent, the marriage was not recognised under the Royal Marriages Act. Nevertheless, Maria remained his unofficial wife. In 1804 the prince instructed his architect, William Porden, to build Steine House for her.
The site, overlooking the Old Steine, was inevitably chosen for its close proximity to the Royal Pavilion. Although it may well be hearsay, it is widely believed that a tunnel was made between the two buildings to enable discreet liaisons between Maria and the prince. A bricked-up archway certainly exists in the basement of the building. Furthermore, East Street, which runs behind Steine House, is alleged to be riddled with many old blocked-up tunnels.
Maria had a great fondness for Steine House and remained there until her death in 1837. For that reason it is possible her spirit has formed a sentimental attachment to the place. The spectral figure of a woman, fitting her description, has been seen there on a number of occasions.
The building has, for many years, been occupied by the YMCA. The majority of those who pass through would probably be quite unaware of its history, which makes one particular sighting all the more interesting.
In 2008 someone claimed to have seen the apparition of a woman in the basement wearing a rather grand dress with hair resembling that of a judge’s wig. When showed a picture of Maria Fitzherbert they were convinced it had been her they had seen.
A similar incident occurred in the spring of 2009; again in the basement area. A young woman employee was startled to see a male colleague come running from the lower floor looking shocked and short of breath. When asked what was wrong he explained how he had seen a woman, in a long flowing dress, drift through the wall of the corridor. The young woman listened with interest for she knew the house had once belonged to Maria Fitzherbert. Furthermore, she was aware of similar incidents being reported down the years.
The following day she brought in a picture of Maria to show her colleague. On seeing the picture he was awestruck as the woman in the picture accurately resembled the apparition he had seen the previous day. Something then occurred to the young woman. She wondered if any evidence of her colleague’s encounter would show up on the closed circuit video recording. She therefore decided to re-run the tape. What she saw certainly added some legitimacy to her employee’s sequence of events.
On viewing the tape she witnessed him clearly entering the lower corridor before stopping dead in his tracks, as if he had been startled or confronted by something. He then turned and began running in the direction of the staircase, which led to the upper floor. Unsurprisingly, she could see no evidence of the apparition on the tape recording. This would not have been unusual as supernatural sightings are often only witnessed by individuals at the time; particularly those more attuned to the paranormal.
Around the same time a psychic, while on the Ghost Walk of the Lanes, claimed to feel intense paranormal energy emanating from the lower part of the house. Furthermore, a spiritualist, who had explored the building, also sensed extreme paranormal activity about the place. He claimed that the energy had been concentrated around the area of the bricked-up archway where the sightings had occurred. He also sensed a strong male presence in the building and was convinced that the spirits of Maria and the prince still resided in the house.
As they had shared so much happiness at Steine House, it would come as no surprise if their spirits showed a reluctance to leave.