So much has been published about Borley Rectory that it seems inconceivable that anything new could possibly turn up. Surprisingly, this is not the case.
The original researchers of the Borley Rectory left a huge mass of documentation, letters, photographs and other material, which seems to have been ignored by the writers of the more recent books. Harry Price was an instinctive archivist. Eric Dingwall and Mollie Goldney left a treasure-trove of primary material.
Recently, the writings and interviews of Marianne Foyster have come to light, along with Caroline Bull’s diary. The full extent of Harry Price’s chicanery and duplicity, documented at the time in ‘confidential files’ is only now being exposed.
One of the more agreeable surprises was the copy of an abandoned BBC program scheduled for broadcast on 10th September 1956, and produced by Joe Burroughs. It was abandoned due to fears in the legal department that Marianne Foyster, who was almost certainly responsible for the more spectacular haunting, could easily sue the BBC for what was said about her in this broadcast. We thought that the script was lost but a copy of the proofs of the script, once owned by Mollie Goldney, turned up in the SPR Archive. It remains a good general guide to the Borley Rectory affair
In 1940 Harry Price’s first book on Borley Rectory, The Most Haunted House in England, was published. The late Sir Albion Richardson, Recorder of Nottingham, wrote of it:
“The evidence Mr, Price has collected … is as conclusive as human testimony can ever be … The manifestations are proved to the point of moral certainty.”
And the late Sir Ernest Jelf, Senior Master of the Supreme Court:
“A very strong case has undoubtedly been put forward and we are at a loss to understand what cross-examination could possibly shake it.”
There is no doubt that these opinions were shared by the vast majority of Price’s readers. He had marshalled the evidence of his own alleged experiences and those of a hundred other witnesses with no little skill. In 1946 in his second book on Borley – ‘The End of Borley Rectory’– Price wrote:
“If, six years ago, I came to the conclusion that I could find no other explanation for some of the Borley phenomena than the popular theory of survival after death, I unhesitatingly declare I am still of that same opinion … I would go so far as to state that the Borley case presents a better argument for ‘survival’ than any case with which I am familiar.”
He went on to say …
“The Borley phenomena occurred in the way they were said to occur. They were of paranormal origin. They have been scientifically proved… Fraud, mal-observation, exaggeration, natural causes and trickery, conscious, unconscious or subconscious could not have accounted for them.”
And Price cited the testimony of another hundred witnesses in support of his claim. What was the story that so strongly impressed so many? We can only briefly recapitulate its main points.
It began for Price on June 11th, 1929. He wrote;
“The News Editor of a national newspaper telephoned me saying that the Reverend G.E. Smith had appealed to him for help. The most extraordinary things were happening at his rectory. Bells were ringing of their own volition, strange lights were seen in empty and locked rooms. The nun had been seen again. Slow, dragging footsteps were heard across the floor of an unoccupied room. A young maidservant, imported from London, had left after two days work and her successor declared she saw an old-fashioned coach, drawn by two brown horses, gallop through the hedge, sweep across the lawn and vanish into thin air. She, too, saw the nun leaning over a gate near the house.”
Price went to Borley the next day. The rectory, a large, ugly, red-brick building with stabling and an adjacent farm, faced the village church, The hill it stood on overlooked Long Melford and Sudbury, each about two miles away. The village, small and scattered, lay round it on the borders of Essex and Suffolk. The Rector and his wife, says Price, confirmed the strange events and added numerous other details. That evening, in the presence of Price, a remarkable sequence of poltergeist phenomena ensued. Price wrote :
“Although I have investigated many haunted houses before and since, never have such phenomena so impressed me as they did on this historic day. Sixteen hours of thrills”
The next day, Price saw members of the family which had lived in the Rectory for years. It had been built in 1863 by the Reverend Henry Bull who had seen the famous nun. Indeed, it was said, he had bricked up a dining-room window to stop her looking in on family meals. His four daughters had seen the nun in broad daylight on July 28, 1900. Their brother, now dead, had seen a variety of apparitions. Strange noises had been heard repeatedly, Other local witnesses later recounted a variety of alarming experiences inside and outside the Rectory. Price noted down the local legend.
“The rectory was built on the site of a thirteenth century monastery. Nearby was a convent. A monk and a nun had been caught in the act of elopement and put to death. The coach was presumably their intended transport,”
Shortly after Price’s first visit the Smiths left the Rectory. It had no piped water, no gas or electricity, was uncomfortable and difficult to run. It had some thirty rooms, mostly of course unoccupied. Price went again on several occasions but had nothing to report comparable to his first visit. The Smiths kept him informed of sporadic incidents that took place in their absence. This comparative calm was shattered with the arrival of a new Rector in October 1930, An astonishing series of phenomena began, reaching their height of violence in June 1931. Their focus appeared to be the wife of the Rector, Marianne Foyster. Numerous witnesses confirmed many of them.
Price paid one visit to the Rectory while the Foysters were there, in October 1931. A variety of phenomena greeted him. He later stated that from October 1929 to January 1932 over 2,000 paranormal phenomena had occurred in the Rectory. They included, Voices. Footsteps. Apparitions, Strange odours. The production, disappearance, and transference of objects. Bell ringing. The throwing and dropping of bottles, stones and other missiles. Booby traps. The overturning of furniture. Small outbreaks of fire. The locking and unlocking of doors. Personal injuries of a mild nature.
And, of course, the famous messages written on the Rectory walls and pieces of paper addressed to Marianne Foyster and asking for help., prayers and mass. After a séance of exorcism in January 1932 the phenomena virtually ceased. In October 1935 the Foysters left Borley. The succeeding rector obtained permission to live elsewhere and the Rectory was left empty. In May 1937 Harry Price leased it for twelve months and enrolled a corps of 48 unpaid investigators. Paranormal phenomena were reported by some of them – but at their height there was no repetition of the sensations of the Smith and Foyster periods. There was one new development.
The daughter of S.H. Glanville, Price’s leading investigator, obtained information about the supposed murdered nun by means of a planchette – a device for registering automatic writing. In substance it came to this: Her name was Marie Lairre, At the age of nineteen she came to Borley from a convent at Le Havre and was murdered and buried in the vicinity of the Rectory by a member of the Waldegrave family – the local landowners – on May 17, 1667. Price warned his readers not to take this too seriously,
On February 27, 1939, the Rectory was burned down. Apparitions were seen by several witnesses. The owner – who had bought it from Queen Anne’s Bounty for £500 (it was insured for £3,500) – informed Price that he had experienced unaccountable happenings during the short time he lived there.
The earlier monk and nun elopement legend was discredited. It was proved that there had never been a monastery at Borley. Canon Phythian-Adams read Price’s Most Haunted House in England and advanced a theory, based on his interpretation of one of the cryptic wall writings, that the bones of the murdered nun might be found under the ruins of the Rectory. In 1943, Price dug up the floor of one of the cellars. Portions of the skull of a young woman were discovered. Two years later these remains were buried in a nearby churchyard and masses said for the repose of Marie Lairre. The ruins of the Rectory continued to be investigated by groups of investigators. Phenomena continued to be reported. Then when the ruins were being demolished, Price saw the levitation of a brick which was photographed in flight by a press representative. Now, while Price never said that he accepted any of the theories advanced about the nun or that the bones he dug up were hers, he did insist that his whole investigation was scientific.
When he died in 1948 he had presented one of the best ghost stories of all time. Criticism of his methods of investigation and the validity of his claims was unknown outside a small circle, and little heeded. But it did exist. Lord Charles Hope, after two visits to Borley in July 1929, wrote;
“Although I did not feel certain, I left Borley with the definite suspicion that Mr. Price might be responsible for some at least of the phenomena which had occurred when I was present.”
Charles Sutton, a. newspaper reporter, recalls his visit to Borley with Price in July 1929,
“As we stood on the lawn, Harry Price explained to me that when he’d been standing on that same spot with Lord Charles Hope a week previously, a window had broken and the glass had cascaded to the ground. Within two or three seconds of Price pointing out to me, the glassless frame of this window, its neighbour suddenly smashed and another cascade of glass tumbled down.
The three of us went round the ground floor in this order: Price’s secretary opening the doors, I examining each empty room carefully in the light of my hurricane lamp and Harry Price following, turning the key in each door after me, but before he did so there was a resounding crash in each room as if a stone had been thrown. Upon examination, I could not decide whether these stones and pebbles had just been thrown because there were already a number of stones lying around.
We went up to the first floor and entered the first bedroom at the top of the stairs and stood looking out on the lawn, waiting for the famous nun to appear or the coach and horses driven by a headless coachman. Nothing appeared and no more stones were flung anywhere in the house, neither did I hear the ringing of the bells which I had been told to expect.
As I had been concerned about the crashes in the rooms downstairs as Harry Price was about to lock them, I suggested that we should reverse the order of procedure and that Harry Price should walk in front of me and open the doors and that his secretary should follow me and lock them,
Harry Price argued against this change of order so we proceeded as before, but not more than seven or eight steps. As we crossed the landing there was a series of reverberating crashes, later I found that a half brick had rolled down the staircase. Once more I was aware of a swishing sound near me,
My suspicions now thoroughly aroused, I dropped my hurricane lamp, seized Harry Price’s coat and , said; “Now I have got you” I had, for when I plunged my hands into his coat pockets they were full of stones and pebbles.
I needed no further evidence that Harry Price was responsible for the ghostly noises I had heard and I can never forgive him for ruining the atmosphere of a house which seemed to promise so much without the aid of material assistance.”
Mr. Sutton’s newspaper suppressed his story fearing a libel action, “They were two to one” his News Editor said. In both Price’s Borley books it is clear what importance he attaches to the events which took place while the Foysters were at the Rectory. In The Most Haunted House In England he permits himself some criticism of Mrs, Foyster’s evidence. In ‘The End of Borley Rectory”, criticism is suppressed. Mrs. K.M. Goldney, who accompanied Price on the single visit he paid to Borley between 1929 and 1937, speaks of the opinion he then held of Mrs Foyster,
“Well, I and two other friends accompanied Harry Price when he revisited Borley in October 1931 to investigate the astonishing crescendo of alleged psychic phenomena which had occurred after Mr. and Mrs. Foyster came to the Rectory. We were favoured by the alleged ‘poltergeist’ with plenty of his mischiefs: bottles and other missiles came hurtling down the stairs and crashed to pieces in the hall below; Mrs. Foyster was mysteriously locked into her bedroom and couldn’t get out; wine brought for our refreshment was turned into ink. and so on. I am telling of these things from memory, for I took no notes. And the reason neither I nor my friends took any notes was because we all of us, including Mr, Price, had no doubt at all in our minds that all we had seen was produced not by any poltergeist but by Mrs. Foyster.
We told Mr. Foyster our conclusions regarding his wife. Mr Price repeated this view in writing to various friends – among them the Hon. Everard Fielding – to whom he wrote “We were convinced that the Rector’s wife was just fooling us for some reason best known to herself.” Later, in the first edition of his book, Confessions of a Ghost Hunter, he wrote of this occasion for all his readers to see: “We came to the conclusion that the supernormal played no, part in the ‘wonders’ we had witnessed.”
This sentence was deleted in further editions of the book, “in case” wrote Mr. Price “the Foysters took objection to it.” When he came to write
his first book on Borley – The Most Haunted House in England – he asked Mr, Foyster to contribute a section to it. Mr. Foyster wrote back, not unnaturally, expressing surprise at the request since Mr, Price had accused his wife of being responsible for the ‘phenomena’. You may think it is not to Mr. Price’s credit that he replied to Mr. Foyster admitting that this opinion was given in 1931 but he added that “of. course no word of this” would appear in his book.”
After this visit Price stayed away from Borley for five and a half years. In both his books Price described the Reverend L.A. Foyster in terms that left no doubt that he considered him a reliable witness. On the other hand, Mr. W. H. Salter, who also went to Borley in October 1931, records this impression of him.
“I reminded him that a mutual friend, who had seen the wall writings, had pronounced them, and all the other queer happenings, as his wife’s work. He said that was all nonsense. Asked to describe one of the recent occurrences, he said a dreadful thing had happened only the last week-end. His sermon, which he had left on the study table on Saturday night, had disappeared when he went to pick it up on Sunday morning. He spoke of this as if it were obviously the work of the powers of evil, a view I was unable to accept. He seemed to me to have little worldly wisdom and to be entirely dominated by his wife.
Mr. Peter Underwood, who has investigated the Borley story extensively over many years, but who never met either of the Foysters, reaches this conclusion.
All the score or so witnesses whose evidence I have obtained concerning the Foyster incumbency have been emphatic regarding the integrity of the Rev. L, A, Foyster. He does not appear to have been the kind of man to be hoodwinked continuously for five years.
As to suggestion that Mrs. Foyster may have wanted to leave that ugly, remote Rectory and therefore furthered its unpleasant reputation, he says
I find that she told people she loved Borley and spent some of the happiest days of her life there,
Much evidence that could have given at least the opportunity for conclusions rather different than those formulated by Harry Price was not at this time generally available. By the time Price’s tenancy of the Rectory began in May 1937 its reputation was well established. He seldom went there himself, preferring as he said to let others rather than himself report on what went on, Ellic Howe, one of Price’s observers, was one of the few people to visit the Rectory with him at this time.
“Late that afternoon we collected a few small objects, such as empty tobacco tins, cigarette cartons, and the like. We put these on various window-sills in the upstairs rooms and made chalk marks round their areas so that we could check their original positions if they were moved by any invisible agency.
When we had finished we made sure that all the windows were closed, and we also closed all the doors behind us. Then we locked up the house and went to Sudbury for a quick evening meal. We got back to Borley long before twilight and made another tour of the house.
In one of the rooms – next to the famous Blue Room – we found that two objects had ‘moved. A tobacco tin was at least six feet away from its original position and on the floor, and a cigarette carton had moved about a foot along the window-sill. Price was convinced that this was an abnormal occurrence. You might suggest that they had been blown by the wind. But there was no wind. It was a calm, sunny June day, Anyway, the windows were closed and we had blocked the fireplace with newspaper. Price did not move them, because he was never out of my sight. It is all still a mystery as far as I am concerned.”
Another observer to visit Borley with Price and a friend a few months later was Major the Hon. Henry Douglas-Home. He reached this rather different conclusion.
After dark we toured each room every hour, my friend leading, myself, and Price bringing up the rear. The first few hours we found a number of extraordinary squiggles on walls which we all swore had been unmarked on our previous hour’s visit. We each carried a torch and I was so intent on examining each new mark that I failed, at first, to realise how they were being made. The last man had a pencil up his sleeve and as he swept his torch over the wall ahead he made new squiggles in the darkness which would be found on the next inspection.
I suggested that in future I would bring up the rear as I was having all the excitement of finding new marks. I thus kept Harry Price in view. No other poltergeist scribbles appeared that night.
As we said goodbye I asked him if I could spend another night at Borley. He regretted that his list of special investigators was so full that he couldn’t promise it for months. I heard no more from him but went down on my own on several occasions. No curious incident of any kind ever happened,
To which some might reply that poltergeists and phantoms seldom appear when bidden and have no telephone numbers.
Price’s observers reported on what they saw and heard with industry and some with skill and discernment. But much that they did report strikes the careful reader as proceeding from nervous rather than supernatural sources, Indeed, many of them seemed to have gone to Borley with their minds made up in favour of ghosts and to have disregarded or very reluctantly admitted obvious natural reasons for much they saw and heard. In a large empty house with admittedly extraordinary acoustic properties -with a farm nearby and rats and mice and birds abundant, with practical jokers never far away to manufacture what was not otherwise forthcoming -lights and noises and voices and footsteps and ringing bells seemed to have impressed them more than was reasonable. Many of their reports and comments were printed verbatim by Price in ‘The Most Haunted House in England’ But some of them had experiences similar to that of Mr, Gordon Glover who spent a night in the Rectory in February 1938
“There were bumps, and there were thumps, and a shuffle and a crack. My wife, in daylight, fancied that she heard a door quietly close downstairs. The wife of my friend – an intense and highly-strung girl – said that she heard ‘light footsteps1 which were inaudible to the rest of us at the same time and place. This same young woman, while we were peering through the February twilight at the famous ‘Nun’s Walk’, claimed suddenly in a tense whisper to have seen a ‘humped shadow’ move between two fir trees,
These events, together with our observations of rat and mouse droppings, I reported at length to Mr, Price, adding observations of my own to the effect that we could not be convinced of any paranormal happenings. Particularly I doubted the ‘appearance’ of the nun. In the half-light nothing is easier, if the witness is so disposed., than to join together two solid objects (trees) by a third moving object (shadow or ‘nun’) in the last faint light before darkness,
Mr. Price in his book, ‘The Most Haunted House in England’, quoted verbatim and truthfully sections of my report. Other comments – in particular reference to rats and mice – he omitted. The ‘humped shadow’ seen by my impressionable companion, was hailed by Mr. Price as the nun indeed, who, he said, ‘put in one of her rare appearances… in February 1938’. She may have done- but 1 doubt it, and did not scruple to say so.”
Such comments were not welcomed by Harry Price. On the other hand, he did show a tendency to welcome any comment that suggested a supernatural reason for incidents his observers reported. His whole method of conducting his investigation -so written as inevitably to condition the impressionable in advance – to the general lack of critical appraisal of the evidence presented to him left him open to criticism of two main types. The first is made by a lawyer who is also a psychical researcher of experience.
“One thing stands out crystal clear, that owing to the complete lack of liaison between the various groups of observers and the absence of any properly organised plan of investigation, the reports of Price’s observers are really valueless from a scientific standpoint.
The second by Major Douglas-Home, whom you heard ¦ a moment ago.
“As happened in my case, any critical or suspicious observer incurred Price’s extreme displeasure, for he could not afford to have the whole edifice of mystery which he had created destroyed by exposure. From his mass of untrained observers who reported everything from a dog barking to a cloud of gnats, he got exactly what he wanted, All he had to do was to write up and carefully – very carefully -edit these stories for publication and gain. “For publication and gain”.
Was Price indeed building up a story on evidence that had not been subjected to cross-examination? Perhaps even manufacturing evidence when it was not available in sufficient quality for his purpose? In 1945 Mrs. Smith whose action in writing to a national newspaper for advice had set the whole story in motion, wrote again to the Church Times denying that the Rectory had ever been haunted by anything but rats and mice and local superstition. She and her husband had left the Rectory because of its broken down condition and the unwelcome publicity it had attracted. But they had certainly found nothing to fear there.
In March 1948 Harry Price died. In May 1949 Mrs. Smith repeated her disbelief in the Borley haunting in the columns of a national newspaper. The Council of the Society for Psychical Research decided to investigate the case thoroughly. The Secretary, Mr. W. H. Salter says
“It was being quoted as strong evidence for human survival of death, a problem the Society has been carefully examining for more than 70 years. It was, if the account given in Harry Price’s books could be accepted, a quite exceptional case, in which, contrary to general experience, a haunting with 4o years history of apparitions and other probably subjective phenomena suddenly, with Harry Price’s first visit, blossomed out into stone-throwing, followed by other undoubtedly objective . occurrences, like the writing on the walls.
Moreover, the evidence already in the Society’s possession, very incomplete as it was, did not point in the same direction as Harry Price’s books. Doubts therefore arose as to whether these books contained the whole truth, doubts that were freely expressed in his lifetime. It was only after his death, when Mr, Tabori, his literary executor, kindly made Price’s unpublished papers accessible to the Society, that these doubts could be put to the test.”
Three investigators, Mrs. K. M. Goldney, Dr. Eric Dingwall and Mr. Trevor Hall worked for several years on the case, studying the documentary evidence, interviewing witnesses, checking stories presented by Price as accurate.
They had two main questions to answer
- One, could Price’s account be relied on?
- Two, apart from Price, was there any evidence to show that the Rectory ever was haunted?
The first question was much the easier to answer and their Report published under the title – HBR shows only too clearly that Price did manipulate, sub-edit and occasionally heighten the evidence not nearly so impressive in its original form. There are too many examples to be explained away by carelessness or haste. It all seems part of a careful attempt to build up a ‘good story’. They also leave little doubt that, in their view. Price himself was responsible for some of the ‘Phenomena’ he reported – particularly on the occasion of his first visit in 1929. Much turns on this first visit. Did the Smiths believe that the Rectory was haunted? Here is Mr. Peter Underwood’s view
“The late Mrs, Lucie Meeker, Harry Price’s secretary, who went with him on his first visit to Borley, gave me her impression of the Rev, G, Eric Smith. “His physical build” she said, “his character and faith inspired the sort of confidence usually associated with the Rock of Gibraltar.” Long after he left the Rectory, Mr. Smith maintained that it was haunted, that there was an evil atmosphere there and that he would never live there again. She spoke also of his “nervous, kindly wife” who in recent years has told a very different story of events in the Rectory. Mrs. Smith’s mental outlook on these matters leaves much to be desired… Her original opinions were freely given to a wide number of people without pressure of any kind and, to me, carry considerably more value than later evidence provided under pressure.”
And here is the view of Mrs. K.M, Goldney,
“When Dr. Dingwall and I saw Mrs. Smith, now widowed, she recorded without any kind of pressure that she and her husband had had no reason to think Borley Rectory was haunted, but wished to contact a trained investigator in order to dispel the rumours of a haunt which were current among their village parishioners,
Mr, Price came down, and immediately upon, his arrival there occurred a number of extraordinary happenings of a kind that had never occurred before.
Mr. Price, contrary to their expectations, assured the Smiths that Borley was indeed haunted, and urged them to tell him of any unexplained happenings, however small, that had occurred since they came there. They were bewildered, said Mrs. Smith, but did not believe in the haunt.
Now, when we later had Mr. Price’s private files in our hands and examined the letters exchanged at the time between Mr. Price and the Smiths, it was obvious to us that at the time they had leant more towards accepting a paranormal hypothesis than Mrs. Smith had admitted to us, “Borley is undoubtedly haunted” Mr. Smith had written in one of his letters. Well, we had to decide whether their apparent belief in a haunt at that time, 20 years before we met Mrs. Smith, had been a genuine, independent belief, or whether she and her husband had been swayed by Mr. Price’s constant suggestions of a haunt and by the peculiar things which happened only when he was there. We maintain that the Smiths succumbed to suggestion – though only partially; for when Mr. Price later asked the Smiths to contribute an account of their experiences for his own book on Borley, they refused, and Mr. Smith wrote: “Mrs. Smith and I would rather be left out of it… we really did not believe there were any such things as ghosts,”
You must make up your own minds, But the sudden explosion of poltergeist activity of a kind never recorded before is perhaps as unfortunate from the one point of view as it is significant from the other. Moreover, the Smiths’ maid, who still believes the Rectory was haunted, admits to having manufactured a few phenomena herself – having observed Harry Price doing likewise. As to the odd events reported by the Smiths after they left the Rectory – the evidence for a supernatural cause can at least be countered by the evidence that the house, locked up as it was, could fairly easily be entered without trace and that the villagers of Borley have more than a liking for practical jokes, frequently of rather a macabre nature
You’ve heard Harry Price’s first and subsequent opinions of the Foyster period. Here is Mr. Trevor Hall’s summary of his investigations
“The wall writings at Borley were almost unique in records of haunted houses – but not quite. The other and earlier case was at Amherst, Nova Scotia, only a few miles from Sackville, where the Foysters lived before coming to Borley, There were many similarities between the experiences of Esther Cox and Marianne Foyster, but the incidence of wall writings in both cases leads to the suspicion that Amherst may have been used as a pattern. Knowledge of the previous case is implied by Mr. Foyster’s use of the most unusual pseudonym ‘Teed’ in his manuscript about Borley, for Mr. Teed was the owner of the haunted house at Amherst,
There is little doubt that Mrs. Foyster could have faked the supposed manifestations on the basis of the previous stories about the rectory, and that she had a motive for doing so. Mrs. Wildgoose, who as a girl was employed by the Foysters, has told us that Marianne hated Borley, whilst we know from his correspondence that Mr. Foyster was determined to remain.
Many of the alleged phenomena relied entirely upon Mrs. Foyster’s account, and nothing else. A close relative has told us that the elderly Mr. Foyster’s gullibility was almost unbelievable, and that he accepted implicitly everything his young wife told him. The same relative described how he discovered the twine hidden in the ivy of the courtyard wall which when pulled rang the bells in the house.
Mrs. Foyster told some remarkable stories to some of our informants. She said that she was the daughter of a Chilean diplomat and Sarah von Kiergraff, and was born in Schleswig Holstein, when she was in fact the child of a teacher of shorthand in Stockport. The curious circumstances of her life at Borley, and afterwards when she was known as Mrs, Fisher, and Mr. Foyster was believed to be her father do not encourage us to regard her as a reliable witness, or to accept as supernormal any of the incidents recorded during her occupation of the house.
In fairness to her, I must mention that in a recent letter addressed to me she has denied all responsibility for the alleged phenomena at Borley, If I understand her correctly she claims that her husband was unpopular and that this led to trickery by local children.
You’ve heard criticism of Harry Price’s own behaviour and general conduct of his investigation during his tenancy of the Rectory in 1937-38, It must be pointed out that very few of his observers doubted either his sincerity or the fact that experiences inexplicable to them had occurred while they were on duty, Ellic Howe speaks for many of them.
“Suppose for a moment that Price was quite aware that he was setting the stage for a colossal hoax. If he had that sort of thing in mind he never gave the game away – or at least not to me. His acting must have been consummate. But I don’t think he was acting. Why, if the Borley haunt was phoney, did he take the trouble to spend a tedious hour before dawn standing with me in the notorious Blue Room? Was it just to impress me? I don’t think so.”
And Mr. Peter Underwood says this of Price’s chief observer, the late Mr. Sidney Glanville, who he claims was convinced the Rectory was haunted.
“To me it is significant that in the recent report his evidence is admitted to be one of the most puzzling features of the case. It seems to me it would be a phenomenon of the highest order if Glanville and Ms party experienced paranormal happenings and were the only party to do so,”
Mr. Underwood knew Mr. Glanville personally. So did Mr. Trevor Hall,
“Sidney Glanville was the most lovable and honest of men, and nobody who knew him could imagine for one moment that any of our criticisms of Price could possibly extend in any way whatsoever to him. He was in my view grievously misled by Price, and his opinion of the case became greatly modified during the progress of our investigation, in which he took the keenest interest.”
Perhaps we may leave the period of Price’s tenancy with this comment by one accustomed to weighing evidence.
When the mass of credulity, local gossip and superstition, suggestion, mal-observation and personal motive has been cleared away, does anything remain at all remotely indicative of the paranormal? Well, what about the curious incident when Mr, Mark Kerr-Pearse, one of Price’s investigators, found himself locked in the Base Room on October 6th 1937 with the key on the inside? That needs some explaining unless we accept the suggestion that it was he himself who had unconsciously turned the key in the lock when he entered the room, I think this is a far-fetched explanation – because Mr, Kerr-Pearse had been in the room for some time before he heard the key turn. However, a protruding key could have been turned by human agency from the outside. There is no more evidence to support this theory than there is to support a supernatural explanation. And that is true of so much of the Borley evidence at large.
And we may for the moment leave Harry Price and Borley with the reflection that there is first hand evidence that the famous levitated brick – his last personal experience of the Rectory – may have been levitated by a workman, and not by a poltergeist, as Price was aware but never revealed. But apart from Harry Price’s story, is there any worthwhile evidence that the Rectory was haunted? These are the conclusions reached by Mr Trevor Hall on the period prior to 1929 and the period after Price’s active connection ended.
“Who started the ghost stories at Borley? In a recently published article, Mr. J, Harley has recalled that as a boy he was a pupil of the Rev. Harry Bull, arid was frequently present when the Rector tried to communicate with spirits in the garden. It was Mr. Harley who was assured by Harry Bull that when he died he would, if discontented, haunt the Rectory.
Harry Bull was Rector and landowner in a remote hamlet. His spiritualistic beliefs would clearly influence the views of his parishioners, and it is not surprising that stories became current that the Rectory was haunted. Some members of his family seem to have shared his views, whilst others did not. Miss Ethel Bull believes that 56 years ago she saw a figure in the twilight, whilst her late brothers Alfred, Gerald and Walter Bull were entirely sceptical and regarded ‘the ghost”’ as a product of the female imagination
I have recently obtained a copy of an article written by the late Mr. Shaw Jeffrey about his visits to Borley in 1885-6. (Price enthused over what he called the “exceptional value” of Mr. Jeffrey’s testimony for the early haunting of Borley Rectory, but omitted one fact, Mr Jeffrey said that the disconcerting; incidents he experienced were at the time attributed by him to the practical joking of the younger members of the family, In 1941,
after reading The Most Haunted House in England he evidently dallied with the idea that fifty years previously a poltergeist might have been responsible for the placing of his boots on top of the wardrobe, and so forth. If we find this testimony unconvincing, then we are entitled to say that there is no evidence for any objective phenomena at Borley as opposed to vague ghost stories, from 1863 to the 12th June 1929 when Price first visited the house.
After the burning of the Rectory, the publication of ‘The Most Haunted House in England’ and the astonishing newspaper publicity which followed, it is not surprising that visitors to the ruins reported further phenomena. So influenced were people by the stories about the place that the simplest events, such as losing a pencil, the failure of a motor cycle to start or getting a twig attached to one’s clothing, were hailed as examples of supernormal forces still active at Borley. It was during this period that two bone fragments, supposedly the remains of the nun, were unearthed by Price from a trough in the cellar floor which had been mysteriously bricked over by persons unknown.
Mrs. Henning, the widow of the Rector of Lyston-cum-Borley from 1936 to 1945 believes from personal experience that the Rectory was haunted. This belief was shared by her husband. She also thinks that the recent Report is inaccurate and biased.
“I lived at Borley near the Rectory and the Church from March to December 1936 and in the adjacent village for 19 years.
I maintain there is a great deal of evidence that the Rectory was haunted before Mr. Price ever visited it and certainly after Mrs, Foyster had left.
The authors of the recent report suggest that Harry Price was misleading the reader by suppressing information. But they do the same thing. No mention is made of Mr. Edward Cooper and his wife who, as tenants of the cottage in 1916, had experiences of poltergeist activity, saw the nun, and Mr, Cooper saw the coach. They also ruthlessly set aside Mr. Shaw Jeffrey’s evidence about such things in 1885 and 1886. Yet Mr Shaw Jeffrey, as many of his old pupils can, testify, was quite firm about the stones thrown, the nun, the coach, and a French dictionary which had disappeared and was returned into his bedroom when the door was locked. If this evidence is rejected on score of his age, then we must set aside the contributions of Miss Ethel Bull and her brother for the same reason. Miss Ethel Bulls cousin, Lionel Fisher saw the nun before she did. He one day was sent by his mother from Long Melford with a letter to her sister, Mrs. Henry Bull. Entering by the lower wicket gate, he saw a nun in the garden. He continued to the front door, was taken to his aunt and asked her about the nun. She said there was no nun. Friends of the family say that was the official attitude. Such matters were not freely discussed with the younger members. On his return to Long Melford, Mr. Fisher questioned an elderly friend of his who knew the district and its history. This gentleman said that when he was a boy – early in Queen Victoria’s reign – the nun was talked about.
A great deal is made of the nearness of the farm buildings and how that accounts for the unusual smells. But that doesn’t explain the smell of violets in the cottage, the smell of wine in the Rectory garden, and incense on the road between Rectory and the church.
I find it ludicrous that the light in the window is explained as a reflection from a passing train. Let the writers visit Borley again. I live five minutes from a railway line and there is no glimmer in our house from trains. Borley Rectory is ten to fifteen minutes walk up the hill. Do serious researchers accept one Borley villager’s dictum about a light from a car? He might be putting off an inconvenient questioner as has happened in the past.
In 1937 when Mr. Price leased the Rectory, two members of the Society for Psychical Research visited us at Lyston. At the time I considered their visit of no importance and made no note of their names or status. They did remark, “we do not approve of Harry Price and his methods.”
As to my own experiences, In the summer of 1937 when Mr, Mark Kerr-Pearse – an excellent investigator – was in the house with my husband and myself the outer doors were locked and the windows sealed. We heard footsteps approaching along the passage from the kitchen and the swish of garments. When we could no longer restrain ourselves we rose to edge our way to the open door of the room in which we were. But nothing was to be seen or heard. This sound was not of people walking in the courtyard, nor of a rosebush, nor of rats.. Nor could it have been a practical joker entering by the cellars, for he could not have got away in time without our seeing or hearing him.
After the alter stone was lifted in the Church, footsteps, knocks and bumps were heard there. Shortly after this when Mr. Price, my husband and I were in the church, we were interrupted by a wild prolonged calling from the birds, as though in warning, followed by the sound of footsteps coming into the porch. My husband hurried down to see what was the matter. But there was no one there.
In the cottage, after the Rectory was burnt, there was the sound of footsteps, of crockery being smashed; the scent of violets which lasted for nearly a minute at a time when there was no lady in the house. The churchwarden was typing the manuscript of my husband’s book which was later privately published as “Haunted Borley”. My husband had written “I, myself, place no reliance on séances”. As this was being typed, the small hand lamp near the typist that had stood there night by night as he was typing his own poems and novels was suddenly swept from the table.
May I ask for fair play for the villagers of Borley? Anyone who really knows Borley will know that they were not the players of practical jokes – the investigator was nearer the mark who recorded that the knockers at the door ran laughing away and got into a car – mere visitors! May they be spared disturbance in their village and their privacy respected? Above all the church is for worship and not a laboratory for Psychical Research.”
Mr. Peter Underwood has collected a mass of material which he claims offers positive proof Harry Price regardless, of the haunt. Voices, footsteps, curious odours, loud and distinct thumps, crashing crockery, a phantom cat, are all vouched for, he says, by reliable witnesses. So are the Borley Phantoms.
“Early in August 1949 a Lancashire Rector, previously sceptical of the haunting, saw the figure of a veiled girl in Borley churchyard. He told me he was in the church porch at the time. She passed from behind one shrub to another, close by and then vanished. The rector immediately went to the spot but could find no explanation for the appearance or disappearance of the figure. In answer to my questions he added; “She appeared to be a frail girl, I should say between eighteen and twenty-three. She had the shape of a nun’s hood on her head. I couldn’t see her features,”
A figure in black was reported to have been seen in the churchyard in October 1949, it walked quickly and silently towards the little priest’s door and vanished. This report is signed by two witnesses.
A local doctor saw a stooping, nun-like figure in the roadway between the Rectory site and the church in 1949. One of the present occupiers of the cottage (a boy of fourteen) claims to have seen the ghost nun on three occasions, while his uncle has reported seeing the same figure on the famous Nun’s Walk one day in August 1953.
To which Mrs, Goldney gives this reply.
We obviously cannot discuss items we have not investigated. But we do claim that in our report we have shown that the things which Mr. Price described in his two books on Borley – the story of a haunt from before 1900 until 1945- we claim that we have shown these things to be valueless as evidence for a genuine haunt.
Nothing that has happened recently can compare with the ‘phenomena’ claimed by Mr. Price. If, then, after our prolonged investigations we have been able to demolish all the main so-called phenomena’ and to show their worthlessness, is it likely that the far feebler claims in recent times are going to be valid evidence for the paranormal?
To sum up. It is quite clear that for the good of psychical research at large the whole Borley story should have been investigated. It is equally clear that Harry Price’s version of it, however consciously or unconsciously misleading, leaves much to be desired. Indeed, to some people, its unreliability is in itself sufficient to discredit everything connected with Borley. To others the authors of the recent report have shown, a bias against the haunting of the Rectory as strong as Price’s bias in favour of the haunting, and to have been more concerned in attacking him than in anything else. Two of them speak from long acquaintance with him. Mrs. Goldney.
“The Society for Psychical Research never favoured Mr Price’s work because they had confidential information which led to certain doubts about him.
I worked with him for many years and personally never had cause to doubt his own part in his investigations, or I shouldn’t have been working with him. But since his private files have been at my disposal I have, alas, been forced to form an adverse, view of his own activities. I have done so very reluctantly and if anybody can show me a way out which I can accept, I shall be greatly relieved. Nobody would like exposing a one-time colleague; but the duty of establishing the true facts far outweighs personal considerations, and we have in our report set forth what we feel to be the true facts without fear or favour.
Dr. Eric Dingwall:
“It must always be borne in mind that Price was a first-rate journalist and not a scientist trying patiently to ascertain what the facts were and how best to interpret them. He was content to tell the tale in the most interesting and convincing way he could and leave others to pick holes in it if they felt so inclined.
In essence, Price wanted quick and sensational results which he could easily publicise and so earn fame and an enviable notoriety. . It always astonished me that anyone really took him seriously. Yet there were many who believed in him and his work, and he even got support for some of his more spectacular stunts such as those with Joanna. Southcott’s box and the mysterious Brocken manuscript, both of which 1 believed at the time to be fakes. The Borley story was merely another of Price’s sensational cases, and it was certainly the most successful and attracted more attention than any of the others. I think that it deserved it. It is one of the best of all ghost stories and few people could have told it more convincingly than Harry Price.”
Whether or not Borley Rectory was haunted is now virtually impossible to determine. If you want to believe it was, nothing can stop you. Many still do believe. If you want to dismiss the whole affair with contempt or amusement or surrender belief with reluctance, you’ll find plenty to support you whichever course you decide on.
There is no doubt that much that could be said about Borley will never be published, It concerns the private lives of individuals and is only indirectly concerned with the supernatural. There is equally no doubt that during its lifetime a series of highly unusual characters inhabited the Rectory or were in one way or another connected with it. The combination of local reputation and eccentric behaviour was too good an opportunity for a lover of publicity such as Harry Price to miss, Whether he believed in the story or not is an intriguing speculation but hardly relevant. So much of the important evidence depends not on scientific fact and hard logic but on those much more obviously exciting human fallibilities of observation, supposition, lively imagination and self-persuasion – however sincere.
It’s hard to prove or disprove emotional conviction. If you think truth frequently lies between extremes, then you may agree with Dr. Andrew Robertson that the haunting of Borley Rectory remains ‘non proven’ but affords a moral worth consideration; The history of Borley Rectory reveals the great care with which one must proceed in these matters. We must consider not only the most dubious evidence for so-called paranormal agency, but also the evidence most difficult to explain away. What we need is not so much discussion of events of so many years ago, as more research into these apparently preternatural manifestations, without publicity and without practical jokers and without fraudulent psychical researchers.