Borley Rectory, rear view, Essex, England (n.d.). Image Source: Wiki.
This month, I am joining Countdown to Halloween for its annual blogathon. My favourite Cryptkeeper last year was Gothtober: love their soundtrack! But there were other blogs that impressed me, notably Cinema Suicide and Distinctly Jamaican Sounds (horror reggae!). Please be sure to check out this year's participants listed at the Countdown to Halloween site. It's a lot of fun.
Here at Histories of Things to Come, I am contributing 31 posts on ghosts, mystics, hypnotists, poltergeists, haunted houses, unsettled locations, explorations gone wrong, sunken ships, unsolved mysteries and other strange and frightening phenomena - and attempts by investigators and researchers to debunk them or explain them in scientific terms.
Inviting the experts to debunk the unexplainable is the oldest trick in the horror screenplay book. In the movies, the skeptics always loose. All horror stories stand at the crossroads of intuition, emotion and instinct on the one hand - and empirical knowledge, investigative understanding and rationality on the other. Morality lies somewhere in the middle. I once read that Stephen King said that horror tales are actually are moral stories; they concern violations of moral order and the journey back to moral equilibrium.
That overlap of sense and sensibility is one of the main themes of this blog. Let's see how the ghosties and ghoulies fare when they go up against the experts in real life cases. Pull up a chair, my friends, turn the lights down low, and be prepared each day this month for scary stories about incredibly creepy things and the people who face them head on. Sometimes, they even get rich doing it.
Harry Price, famed British psychic and paranormal investigator, who had a taste for the theatrical. Image Souce: Wiki.
First up, Borley Rectory, near Sudbury in Essex. It was once described as the "most haunted house in England." In a country renowned for its haunts and ghosts, that's really saying something. The site is as famed for its paranormal activity and mysterious accidents as it is for establishing the reputation of one of the world's most famous ghosthunters, Harry Price (1881-1948).
The Rectory interior. Image Source: Foxeath and District Local History Society.
The Rectory was built in 1863. Four rectors from 1863 to 1935, along with their families and friends, witnessed phantoms, poltergeist activity, discovered bones, and experienced frightening phenomena. But beneath their proper exteriors, the witnesses' personal histories were not always as straightforward as they should have been. Their personal secrets add a frightening dimension to this story that was absolutely real. The Rectors' tenure also coincided with a popular rage for spirits and psychics in Britain, which intensified from the mid-Victorian period through the reign of George V.
Investigators who came in to check out witnesses' accounts at Borley were always ready to believe the place was haunted. Even now, Amazon reviewers of a recent book published on this case complain that many of the Borley incidents have a clichéed, Hammer Horror quality; they also remark that the witnesses and investigators, from the 1860s to the present, lacked rigour and were not skeptical. Why were investigators so quick to believe that Borley was, and remains, a paranormal site?
Researchers never seemed to get to the sources of the local unsettled atmosphere, even though there were plenty of red flags. Was there a strange history in the town? There could have been elements of Catholic recusancy in the locality. These may have inspired dark tales about improper medieval behaviour of monks and nuns, who returned after death, tormented by unresolved sins and star-crossed love. A monk and nun who had an affair were condemned: the monk was sent to the gallows; the nun was bricked up alive in the cellar of the monastery. The Rectory was built over the old site of the monastery.
Well past the English Reformation, in the late 19th century, the clergy in the area were still behaving badly. Once the Rectory was built, it didn't acquire a good reputation. The local region was worse: in 1871, the Rector of the parish next to Borley (Foxeath) was accused of rape; his defense was that the locals were running a brothel:
What starts as a simple accusation of rape against a priest by a sixteen-year-old girl, and counter accusations of the existence of a brothel, soon evolves into a vicious quarrel between a Borley landowner and the influential vicar of Foxearth.Haverhill Echo, December 5th 1871
'I said "let me go, let me go".
He gave me a shilling and said "don't tell your mother. Don't let your mother see your clothing tonight; wash them yourself". He kissed me again and bade me goodnight and I left.
Whilst I was down defendant put a pocket handkerchief in my mouth so that I would not make a noise'.
A sighting on the grounds of the Rectory. Image Source: Wiki.
By the time of the Foxeath rape case, the inhabitants of Borley Rectory, especially Reverend H. D. Bull's fourteen children, had already been complaining of paranormal phenomena for almost ten years. For the next sixty years, they and their successors heard unexplained footsteps, invisible bells and whispers in the halls. They saw a ghostly nun on the grounds, shadowy figures and a phantom coach, driven by a headless horseman, which pulled up the drive. Windows shattered. There were strange accidents. They found a skull wrapped in newspaper inside a cupboard. Later (skeptics say: only once poltergeists became popular), objects flew across rooms.
The Reverend Henry Foyster Bull, the second Rector. Image Source: Bad Ghosts.
The Bull children who had grown up in the Rectory began to feud among themselves after their father died. The first Rector's son, Henry Foyster Bull, became Rector in his turn, but when he married, his sisters turned on him and his new wife. They believed she had already been married when she wed their brother, and they suspected her of murdering him in 1927. They then claimed that their dead brother was haunting the property.
By 1929, the third Rector, Guy Smith, confronted by happenings in the house, contacted the Daily Mail and asked for Borley Rectory to be investigated. He rented it out to the investigators they hired.
Harry Price. Image Source: Bad Ghosts.Enter Harry Price.
Price, who was dedicated to exposing psychic frauds, investigated the Rectory from 1930 to 1935 after the frightened Rector left the premises; he lived there for a year with fellow ghosthunters. Price and his investigators claimed that ghostly handwriting appeared on the walls of the Rectory while they resided there. One investigator claimed he saw a pencil writing on the wall by itself.
Ghostly writing on the walls. Image Souce: Creepy Thread.
Caption for the above photograph: When writing was discovered on the walls of the Rectory, a researcher started to write replies asking for more information, and more strange scribbles and writings appeared.
In 1930, while investigations continued, a new, older Rector, Reverend Lionel Foyster, took up residence at Borley with his young wife, Marianne, who had a racy past, a vivid imagination, and became a special target of violent poltergeist activity. Accounts hint that this was a peculiar marriage. This skeptics' site claims that the tales that swirl around Marianne include bigamy and attempted insurance fraud, possibly even murder. A man by the name of Francois d'Arles – real name Frank Pearless – joined the household as a lodger so that his son could be a playmate for a Canadian orphan the Foysters had adopted. Pearless began an affair with Marianne.
Under these bizarre circumstances, with Price's investigation still ongoing through all of this, the poltergeist activity intensified. Marianne was thrown out of bed by phantoms. She also received a black eye at the hands of violent ghosts. Foyster recorded over 2,000 poltergeist incidents in the Rectory, mostly during these first two years that the couple and their guests lived there. You can read the rest of Marianne's strange story here. She later departed from the Rectory, engaged in several affairs, illegally remarried, and returned to the Rectory, with Foyster now posing as her father.
Marianne Foyster. Image Source: Bad Ghosts.
In 1940, Price published a book about Borley Rectory (The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years' Investigation of Borley Rectory, Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1940). To see info on Price's books, go here. Before the book came out, the Rectory mysteriously burned down on 27 February 1939, a suspected arson. Regarding the book:
"[The Most Haunted House in England was] Harry Price's most famous book about his most famous case. Price used the confidential report known as the 'Locked Book' compiled by Sidney H. Glanville, one of his official observers during the 1937-38 tenancy, as part of the case material when writing this, his first book on the Rectory hauntings, as well as his own observations & experiences which date back to June 1929. He covers the history of the Rectory from the days of the Bulls through to the incumbencies of the Smiths & the Foysters, his own tenancy, the fire of February 1939 and the period following the destruction of the building up until the publication of the book in October 1940."
Creepy Thread: "An image captured by a workman of a mysterious brick floating in the air." After the fire.
After the house burned, Price and some helpers excavated under the foundations and found a female skeleton. Many witnesses claimed (and still claim) that paranormal incidents then moved to nearby Borley Church across the road.
In 1956, another Borley investigation was launched by the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR investigators, Dingwall, Goldney and Trevor Hall, concluded that there was no scientific evidence for the haunting. In 1958, Hall, with the help of the Parapsychological Institute of New York and private investigator Robert Swanson, tracked down Marianne Foyster in Jamestown in the United States. At that time, she admitted to faking the Borley phenomena.
A lost BBC script from 1956 for a television special on Borley that was never produced gives an overview of these bizarre events - see here.
And yet, tales of strange occurrences at Borley continued. Andrew Clarke has a Borley report published on the Foxearth and District Historical Society website. You can read his piece here. A counter note can be found on this site, which gives a positive appraisal of Price and his work.
Borley has since been studied by parapsychologist Peter Underwood (who, with Paul Adams and Eddie Brazil, recently contributed to a new book, The Borley Rectory Companion), many other researchers, and of course, curious ghosthunters.
Below, see videos about the Rectory, including a 1975 BBC documentary that investigated nearby Borley Church, where unsettled activities and apparitions continued after the Rectory burned down. Peter Underwood appears in the BBC programme.
A digital reconstruction of the strange layout of the Rectory. Video Source: Youtube.
Video with pictures of the Rectory interiors, before and after the fire. Video Source: Youtube.
1975 BBC Documentary, part 1. Video Source: Youtube.
1975 BBC Documentary, part 2. Video Source: Youtube.
Trip to Borley and Borley Rectory. Video Source: Youtube.
Links and Documents:
- The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, Senate House, University of London
- Harry Price, Private Papers (88 boxes), Senate House, University of London (see also here)
- Other Harry Price correspondence (1931-46) with Society of Authors is held at the British Library, Manuscript Collections. Reference: Add MSS 63317
- National Register of Archives record on UK records on Harry Price
See all my posts on Horror themes.Harry Price was born in January 1881 and educated in London and Shropshire. Between 1896 and 1898, Price founded the Carlton Dramatic Society and wrote small plays, and showed early interest in the unusual by experimenting with space-telegraphy between Telegraph Hill, Hatcham and Brockley. He also became interested in numismatics at an early age and was involved with archaeological excavations in Greenwich Park, London and Shropshire between 1902 and 1904 and in Pulborough, Sussex in 1909, culminating with his appointment as honorary curator of numismatics at Ripon Museum in 1904. He married Constance Mary Knight in August 1908.Price's first major success in psychical research came in 1922 when he exposed the fraudulence of 'spirit' photographs taken by William Hope. During the same year, Price investigated his first séance with Willi Schneider at the home of Baron von Schrenck-Notzing in Munich and published The Revelations of a Spirit Medium. In 1923, the National Laboratory of Psychical Research was established in Bloomsbury and Price had his first sittings with mediums Stella C, Jean Guzik and Anna Pilch. Shortly after, he outlined a scheme for broadcasting experiments in telepathy for the BBC and, in 1925, was appointed foreign research officer to the American Society for Psychical Research, apposition he was to hold until 1931. In 1926, the National Laboratory of Psychical Research moved to new premises in Queensbury Place, South Kensington, and Price was to experience his first sittings with Rudi Schneider in Braunau-am-Inn, Austria, and to conduct his first experiments with Eleanore Zugun in Vienna. One year later, Price publically opened the 'box' of prophetess, Joanna Southcott at a Church Hall in Westminster.In 1929, Rudi Schneider was brought to London for experiments into his mediumship and Price began his 10 year investigation of hauntings at Borley Rectory in Suffolk. Shortly after, the National Laboratory moved again to Roland Gardens in South Kensington. In 1932, Price, along with C.E.M.Joad, travelled to Mount Brocken in Germany to conduct a 'black magic' experiment in connection with the centenary of Goethe, involving the transformation of a goat into a young man. The following year, Price made a formal offer to the University of London to quip and endow a Department of Psychical Research, and to loan the equipment of the National Laboratory and its Library. The University of London Board of Studies in Psychology responded positively to this proposal and, in 1934, the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation was formed with Price as Honorary Secretary and Editor. Price's psychical research continued with investigations into Karachi's Indian rope trick and the fire-walking abilities of Kuda Bux in 1935. He was also involved in the formation of the National Film Library (British Film Institute) becoming its first chairman (until 1941) and was a founding member of the Shakespeare Film Society. In 1936, Price broadcast from a haunted manor house in Meopham, Kent for the BBC and published The Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter and The Haunting of Cashen's Gap. This year also saw the transfer of Price's library on permanent loan to the University of London, followed shortly by the laboratory and investigative equipment. In 1937, he conducted further televised experiments into fire-walking with Ahmed Hussain at Carshalton and Alexandra Palace, and also rented Borley Rectory for one year. The following year, Price re-established the Ghost Club, with himself as chairman, conducted experiments with Rahman Bey who was 'buried alive' in Carshalton and drafted a Bill for the regulation of psychic practitioners. In 1939, he organised a national telepathic test in the periodical John O'London's Weekly. During the 1940s, Price concentrated on writing and the works The Most Haunted House in England, Poltergeist Over England and The End of Borley Rectory were all published. He died in March 1948.Publications: The Sceptic (psychic play), 1898; Coins of Kent and Kentish Tokens, 1902; Shropshire Tokens and Mints, 1902; Joint Editor, Revelations of a Spirit Medium, 1922; Cold Light on Spiritualistic Phenomena, 1922; Stella C.; An Account of Some Original Experiments in Psychical Research, 1925; Short-Title Catalogue of Works on Psychical Research, Spiritualism, Magic, etc. 1929; Rudi Schneider: A Scientific Examination of His Mediumship, 1930; Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship, 1931; An Account of Some Further Experiments with Rudi Schneider, 1933; Leaves from a Psychist's Case-book, 1933; Psychical Research (talking film), 1935; Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, 1936; Faith and Fire-Walking, article in Encyclopædia Britannica, 1936; A Report on Two Experimental Fire-Walks, 1936; The Haunting of Cashen's Gap (with R. S. Lambert), 1936; Fifty Years of Psychical Research, 1939; The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years' Investigation of Borley Rectory, 1940; Search for Truth: My Life for Psychical Research, 1942; Poltergeist over England, 1945; The End of Borley Rectory, 1946; film scenario of Borley hauntings (with Upton Sinclair), 1948; Works translated into eight languages; numerous pamphlets and contributions to British and foreign periodical literature.
See all my posts on Ghosts.
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