Borley Rectory is called “the most haunted house in England,” and the subject of intensive and controversial ghost haunting investigations. The investigation was conducted between 1929 and 1938 by Harry Price, founder and honorary director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research of London, and renowned ghost hunter.
Price claimed that Borley was “the best authenticated case in the annals of psychical research.” His findings were controversial, and he was posthumously accused of fraud. The truth of what happened in the Borley case may remain unknown.
Compared to other English hauntings, Borley Rectory was fairly ordinary; it was only Price’s investigation which made the case sensational. The structure, a gloomy and unattractive red brick building located about 60 miles northeast of London in Essex County, was built in 1863 by the Reverend Henry Bull, whose family occupied it for some 70 years. When Henry Bull died, he was succeeded by his son, Harry, as rector. After Harry died, there was no rector for a period of time.
According to local lore, the rectory was haunted, and villagers avoided it after dark. In 1928, it was taken over by the Reverend G.E. Smith and his wife, both professed skeptics of the paranormal. Previously, 12 clergymen had turned down the post. The house came to the attention of Price in June 1929, when articles in the Daily Mail talked of ghosts reported seen there, and revived legends about the place.
A phantom nun drifted about the grounds, especially along a path dubbed “the nun’s walk” by the Bulls. The nun was seen both in daylight and at night, but usually at dusk and always on July 28; once she was seen collectively by the four daughters of Henry Bull. There also was a phantom coach with horses; Harry Bull allegedly once had seen the coach driven by two headless horsemen.
According to legend, for which there is no historical documentation, the rectory was built on part of the site once occupied by a medieval monastery, where a tragedy had taken place. There are several variations of the story. One has it that a nun from a convent at nearby Bures tried to elope with a lay monk at Borley. They were aided by another lay brother and made their escape one night by coach. They were captured. The nun was interred alive in one of the monastery’s walls and her lover was hanged. The fate of the accomplice was unknown.
Another version has it that she was interred and both men were hanged. Another version says that the nun and her lover escaped but quarreled, and he strangled her on the monastery grounds. He was hanged. Still another version replaces the monks with grooms, with the same unlucky fates.
There also was a “screaming girl” theory, though not widely believed (and not supported by any evidence), that held that shortly after the rectory was built, a young girl was seen one night clinging to the windowsill of the Blue Room on the second floor. She fell to her death.
The newspaper articles prompted Price to invite himself out to the rectory for investigation. He and his secretary, Lucie Kaye, arrived on June 12, 1929. According to Price’s account, as given in his book, The Most Haunted House in England (1940), the Smiths told him hauntings had begun shortly after they moved in. There were strange whispers, a woman’s voice that moaned and then exclaimed, “Don’t, Carlos, don’t!,” mysterious footsteps and the phantom nun, who reportedly was seen by two maids.
There also were a strange light which appeared unaccountably in the windows of an unused wing, the ghost of Harry Bull and odd black shapes. Price said he thoroughly examined the premises. While he was there, Poltergeist phenomena occurred. He interviewed the staff and others and compiled a list of everything that had gone on in the rectory — some things allegedly for at least 50 years—including the telekinesis (spontaneous displacement) of objects; smashed pottery; voices; footsteps; banging of doors and other noises; spontaneous combustion of portions of the house; mysterious wall writings; paranormal bell rings; inexplicable and sudden thermal variations; touchings; choir singing; music; strange lights; coachlike rumblings outside the rectory; the sound of galloping horses; pleasant and un pleasant odors; fright of animals; mysterious smoke in the garden; unknown footsteps in the snow; Rappings in response to questions; and accurate predictions given through communication with a PLANCHETTE.
Price himself heard the bells and saw strange rains of objects come tumbling down the stairs. A windowpane broke and fell to the ground, and a candle was hurled. Price held a Séance in the Blue Room with no medium. He and others heard a faint tapping in response to questions. The spirit identified itself as Harry Bull, and said it wished to attract attention.
Price returned several times to the rectory and got phenomena “on demand” by asking for them; he was answered, he said, by paranormal bellringing. The former gardener and his wife told him they had been haunted, as did three of Harry Bull’s sisters. On July 15, 1929 the Smiths moved out. They said they did not believe in spirits, but decided to leave because the rectory was an uncomfortable house with bad sanitation and water available only through a well. Price maintained his interest in the hauntings.
On October 16, 1930 the Reverend Lionel Algernon Foyster (a cousin of the Misses Bull) and his wife, Marianne, moved into Borley Rectory. Nearly a year later, two of the Misses Bull notified Price that the poltergeist activity had increased and the Foysters were much troubled, especially Marianne. Price secured an invitation to return and resume his investigations.
Upon his arrival, he said, he found the phenomena far more violent. Foyster was keeping a diary of the almost daily occurrences. The Foysters’ daughter, Adelaide, age three and one-half, was once locked in a room with no key. Marianne, who had a bad heart, seemed particularly molested, and once received a severe blow to the eye from some invisible presence.
Objects were broken. Many objects mysteriously disappeared. Some reappeared, but others seemed gone forever. At dinner the night of Price’s arrival, wine that was poured into a glass turned to ink. The phenomena considered most significant by Price were the “Marianne messages,” strange, barely legible notes to Marianne found scrawled on the rectory walls. Marianne admitted hating the rectory and wanting to move. Since the poltergeist activity almost always occurred when Marianne was alone or absent, Price said later he suspected her of being the agent.
The Foysters left Borley Rectory in 1935. In 1937, Price leased it for a year. On June 2, he and an Oxford graduate friend, Ellic Howe, moved in and spent a couple of nights there. They drew chalk circles around some moveable objects. During their stay, they heard thumps and found objects moved out of their outlines. Price then advertised in the newspaper for assistants. He received more than 200 replies and enrolled 40 persons, mostly men, and all amateurs, to assist him in his investigations.
He drew up a “Blue Book” of procedures using equipment that included remote-control movie cameras, still cameras, fi ngerprinting paraphernalia, felt overshoes for quiet movement, steel tape measures to check the thicknesses of walls, and planchettes for communicating with spirits. Price documented haunting phenomena and discovered human remains buried in the cellar, which medical experts said might be those of a young woman.
The assistants were dispatched throughout the house and told to draw chalk rings around every moveable object, note markings and messages on walls and record all paranormal phenomena. Initially, all assistants were enthusiastic, but some dropped out after obtaining no results. Other results were less than conclusive, and some were highly speculative.
A dark object taken to be the nun manifested in February 1938, but Price’s description of the incident reveals a great deal of speculation about a nondescript shape. There were alleged apports, but again these were inconclusive. Some of the enrolled assistants were mediums: S.H. Glanville and his son, Roger, and daughter, Helen, for example, produced some interesting but probably fabulous theories. In Séances, a spirit claiming to be Harry Bull said the bodies of a nun and a monk named “Fadenoch” (perhaps Father Enoch) were buried in the garden.
In planchette communications with Roger and Helen Glanville beginning in October 1937, another spirit claimed to be the dead nun, named “Marie Lairre.” Supposedly, she had been a French Catholic nun who was enticed by one of the Waldengraves, an influential Roman Catholic family connected with Borley Church for about 300 years, to leave her convent at Le Havre, France, and come to Borley to marry him. He strangled her in a building on the site on May 17, 1667, and her body was buried beneath the cellar floor that existed at that time.
She wanted Mass and proper burial to be put to rest. On March 27, 1938, Helen Glanville received a planchette communiqué stating that “Sunex Amures and one of his men” would burn down the rectory that night at 9:00 to end the haunting, and that proof of the murder responsible for the haunting would be revealed. The fire would start over the hall. Nothing happened. Price left the rectory on May 19, 1938. He concluded that no single theory could explain all the phenomena.
He believed a poltergeist was present, but a poltergeist could not explain the apparitions of the nun. He claimed there were at least 100 witnesses to various phenomena, of which the “Marianne messages” were the most striking. No new messages had appeared since the Foysters’ departure, however. Price continued to believe in the existence of a medieval monastery on the site, despite the fact that in 1938 it was proved that no ecclesiastical building other than a 12th-century church had ever existed on the site.
There never was a Borley monastery. Interestingly, the rectory did burn down, but not until February 27, 1939 at midnight. The house had been occupied since December 1938 by Captain William H. Gregson, who renamed it Borley Priory. He was sorting books in the hall when a stack fell over and upset a paraffin lamp. The first part of the house to burn was the Blue Room upstairs over the hall. The rectory was never rebuilt.
Price’s book, The Most Haunted House in England, was both hailed as extraordinary psychical research and criticized as fabulous. Psychical researchers tended to be skeptical, noting that Price had a reputation for showmanship. After Price’s death in 1948, allegations of fraud were made concerning Borley, and his research was reexamined by Eric Dingwall, Kathleen M. Goldney and Trevor H. Hall, all of whom were critics of Price.
Dingwall and Goldney, both psychical researchers, had known Price for 30 and 20 years, respectively. Hall was a skeptic of the paranormal in general. Charles Sutton, a reporter for the Daily Mail, said he had caught or suspected Price of faking phenomena on several occasions. One night at the rectory with Price and another colleague, a large pebble had hit Sutton on the head. After much noisy “phenomena,” Sutton had seized Price and found his pockets full of bricks and pebbles. Sutton had telephoned the newspaper, but after a conference with a lawyer the story had been killed.
The editor had said it was Sutton’s “bad luck,” for it was his word against that of Price and another witness. The other witness was Lucie Kaye, who told Dingwall and the other researchers that she had no recollection of the incident. It was Kaye’s theory that Price attracted poltergeist activity, as it did not happen in his absence. Borley Rectory 69 Cynthia Ledsham, on the staff of Time, also accused Price posthumously of “hocus pocus.”
Perhaps the most persuasive evidence came from Mrs. Smith, who in 1949 signed a statement stating her suspicions, shared by her maid and others at the time, that Price himself had caused the poltergeist phenomena. Nothing had occurred in the house that she would consider paranormal, she stated. The strange light in the windows of the unused wing had been discovered to be the reflection of passing trains. “Don’t, Carlos, don’t” could have been the voices of passersby.
The Smiths had reason to believe that tricks were played on them by the locals, many of whom did not want a new rector after having been without one for years. The Smiths had never sought help for hauntings, she said. They knew that many locals believed the rectory to be haunted and thus might avoid going there. So, they had written to the Daily Mail to ask for referral to a psychic research society which could help them dispel fears.
The unfortunate result was a revival of the ghost legends and the unwanted publicity that attracted Price. Mrs. Smith further stated that after Price arrived, she, her husband and others were “astonished” at the onset of poltergeist phenomena. They immediately suspected Price as the perpetrator. Concerning the wine-to-ink incident, Mrs. Smith said that it occurred during dinner when a guest remarked that the phenomena could be caused by a clever man. Her wine then turned to ink in the glass.
Price blamed a poltergeist, but others suspected him of sleight of hand. S. H. Glanville, the first assistant to be enrolled by Price in 1937, told Dingwall, Goldney and Hall he “deplored the laxity” of Price’s organization. There was no common logbook, and each observer was unaware of the work of others, most of whom, like Glanville himself, were not qualifi ed investigators.
Glanville had no faith in the planchette material, believing that the messages came from the subconscious of the operators. He did not believe in the existence of Marie Lairre, nor in the paranormal nature of the apports. He did experience auditory phenomena which could not be explained, but which may have been due to the acoustics of the courtyard. Dingwall, Goldney, and Hall concluded in their book, The Haunting of Borley Rectory (1956), that nothing much out of the ordinary had happened at Borley Rectory during Price’s stay.
They said that Price’s data were vague and subjective, and he gave unsubstantiated accounts and theories. He magnifi ed incidents which probably were commonplace into events of great paranormal import. He dismissed critics and the accounts of persons who had lived at the rectory and experienced nothing. He omitted information from his reports which considered normal causes of phenomena. For example, he did not include in his own accounts incidents which would throw doubt upon the phenomena, such as the time Mr. Smith mistook a column of smoke for a white clad apparition.
All of the ghosts in his early investigation were seen out of doors, where it is easy to mistake natural phenomena for something paranormal. The Daily Mail articles helped to fuel speculation and brought hordes of curiosity seekers to the grounds.
The poltergeist phenomena did not begin until after Price appeared on the scene. The authors concluded that:
The influence of suggestion on the investigation of haunted houses cannot be exaggerated. In every ordinary house sounds are heard and trivial incidents occur which are unexplained or treated as of no importance. But once the suggestion of the abnormal is put forward—and tentatively accepted—then these incidents become imbued with sinister significance: in fact, they become part of the “haunt.”
Borley Rectory, they said, was “absolutely ideal” for these psychological mechanisms to take hold and operate. However, these arguments may explain some but not all of the phenomena. The possibility that at least some of the phenomena may have been paranormal cannot be discounted.
The haunting of the rectory refused to go away in the public mind. In 1953 and 1954, newspaper accounts reported ghosts still appearing at the site and stated that bricks taken from the Borley ruins and buried under a school playing yard at Wellingborough were connected with the alleged appearance of a ghost, as reported by one of the boys. The burning of a Borley village chicken house also was connected to the rectory’s haunted history.
In 1956, it was admitted that a photograph published in Life magazine in 1947 purportedly showing a mysterious “floating brick” at the Borley ruins was a photographer’s trick. The photograph was taken in 1944 when workers were clearing away the rubble from the fire. According to the caption, when the picture was snapped, a brick mysteriously rose up into the air. The photograph, however, was a trick of the camera lens angle. The photographer said that the brick was tossed down from an upper story window by a workman, and the photo was shot at such an angle that he could not be seen.
The caption was intended to imply, humorously, that this was the sort of thing poltergeists might do. Price reportedly had been in on the joke but passed off the photo as genuine evidence of poltergeists. Over the years, the controversy over Borley Rectory has not abated. In 1992, Robert Wood published The Widow of Borley, a critical look at both Marianne Foyster and Price.
In all, the Borley case has generated more attention than any other haunting of record: hundreds and hundreds of articles, books, lectures, movies and a play have been written, produced, presented and published. In 1998, Vincent O’Neil, the adopted son of Marianne Foyster and her second husband, Robert O’Neil, created the BORLEY Ghost SOCIETY as a repository of information about the case.
The O’Neil family moved to the United States in 1946. Marianne told Vincent nothing about Borley—he learned of it in 1994, two years after her death—but did exhibit psychic sensitivity. Vincent O’Neil is of the opinion that some authentic phenomena happened at Borley and that his mother, being young, sympathetic and sensitive, became a focus for them.
In 2000, a book titled We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory, by Louis Mayerling, was published. Mayerling, also known as George Carter, acknowledged embellishing his account of the supposed fabrication of haunting phenomena.
Mayerling, who was 27 when the rectory burned down, said he had spent a great deal of time at the rectory— as well as in the company of numerous celebrities. He said the haunting was an ingenious and elaborate hoax perpetrated by the rectory’s various inhabitants, beginning with the eccentric Bulls. He said the Foysters encouraged him to walk around the garden at dusk in a black cape with a turned-up collar, thus giving rise to the “haunting” of a headless monk. Critics found inconsistencies in his story and dismissed the book.
- Dingwall, E. J., Kathleen M. Goldney, and Trevor H. Hall. Haunting of Borley Rectory. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1956.
- Hill, Amelia. “Hoaxer’s confession lays the famed ghosts of Borley.” The Guardian, December 31, 2000. Available online. URL: https://www.observer.co.uk/uk_news/ story/0,6903,416556,00.html. Downloaded January 3, 2001.
- Mayerling, Louis. We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory. London: Penn Press Publishers, 2000.
- Price, Harry. The Most Haunted House in England. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1940.
- Price, Harry. The End of Borley Rectory. London: George G. Harrapp & Co., Ltd., 1946.
- Underwood, Peter. Borley Postscript. Haslemere, England: White House Publications, 2001.
- Underwood, Peter, and Paul Tabori. The Ghosts of Borley. London: David and Charles, 1973.