Borley Rectory was once called the “Most Haunted House in England.” It was the subject of a best-selling book and became a media sensation in the 1930s.
Borley Rectory – Early History of the Building.
Borley Rectory in Eastern Essex was constructed in 1863 by the Reverend Henry Bull. By all accounts, it was not an attractive building, but it was large, with 23 rooms spread over two floors and a spacious attic and cellar.
Almost from the time when the Reverend Bull and his family first moved in, the house appears to have been haunted. The ghost seen most often by the family was that of a nun, though a ghostly horse-drawn carriage was also witnessed from time to time. Exactly who the nun might have been was not known, but local stories circulated of a nun who had attempted to elope with a monk in the Middle Ages. In one account, both were caught, the monk hanged, and the nun buried alive; in another, the monk strangled the nun after the two had a falling out.
Henry Bull died in 1892 and his son Harry succeeded him as rector. The haunting continued as before. By now, the building’s spooky reputation had spread throughout the community and, when Harry Bull died in 1927, finding a replacement rector proved to be quite difficult. In fact, the rectory was to remain unoccupied for a whole year until the Reverend Guy Eric Smith and his wife moved in.
Having previously been sceptical of the paranormal, the Reverend Smith promptly changed his mind after experiencing some of the unusual phenomena. In addition to the nun, the ghost of Harry Bull was now spotted too. Strange voices were heard and a mysterious light would occasionally glimmer in some of the windows.
Borley Rectory – the Investigations.
Bemused by all this, Reverend Smith contacted the Daily Mirror which, in turn, contacted Harry Price, founder of the National Laboratory for Psychical Research.
Price arrived and carried out a comprehensive investigation of the house, interviewing many witnesses and compiling extensive notes on all of the unusual phenomena.
When the Smith family moved out in 1930, the Foyster family moved in. It was during the 5-year tenancy of the Foyster family that the incidence of spooky activity was to reach its peak. Many bizarre events took place. Sounds and even voices were heard coming from unoccupied parts of the house. Mysterious writing was found scrawled on the walls and on pieces of paper which appeared from nowhere. Objects and people were thrown around by forces unknown.
When the Foyster family moved out in 1935, Harry Price was able to lease the building for a whole year so that he could pursue his paranormal investigations systematically. He advertised in the newspapers for volunteer researchers who would live with him in the building, conducting vigils and noting down anything unusual.
Harry Price was, in many ways, the first modern ghost hunter. Although the ghost hunters of today tend to deprecate his lack of precision, he was, in fact, far ahead of his time in the use of sophisticated equipment to conduct investigations. In Borley Rectory, he made use of cameras, including a motion picture camera, and even portable telephones to allow the researchers to communicate with one another while in different parts of the sprawling building.
Not much in the way of the paranormal was witnessed during Price’s one-year tenure of the house. The nun made no appearances. One of the researchers did hold a séance, however, in which she claimed to have been contacted by the spirit of the dead nun. Her name was Marie Lairre. She had come from France to live at the convent in Borley, but ended up being murdered by the local lord.
In 1938 the Rectory was purchased by Captain William Gregson. He lived in the property for only a short time before it burned down in 1939. While digging in the fire-scarred ruins in 1943, Harry Price came across some buried bones which he claimed were those of the murdered nun. He arranged for a proper burial to take place.
In 1939, Price wrote a popular book about the rectory, titled The Most Haunted House in England, and followed up with another, The End of Borley Rectory, in 1946.
Borley Rectory – The Modern View.
After Price died in 1948, some people critiqued the whole Borley Rectory phenomenon, calling it a fraud. They claimed that Harry Price had essentially invented the haunting on his own, because he desperately wanted to investigate a haunted house and to write books about it. One reporter, who attended a vigil with Price during which he found himself being struck by stones, suspected that Price was the culprit, confronted him and claimed to have found a number of stones in Price’s coat pocket! There were many independent witnesses to paranormal phenomena at Borley Rectory, however, so, even if he is accused of sensationalising the haunting, it is hard to credit that Price invented it out of whole cloth.
Following its destruction by fire, the building was demolished in 1944 and a number of private residences now stand in the same spot. Though the residents are said to be averse to publicity, quite a few have reported ghostly and unexplained phenomena over the years
The Borley Church in Essex, England is an interesting place. Many strange phenomena have been reported in this building. It is said that visitors have heard footsteps but when they looked around nothing was there. Besides the footsteps there are also crashing and tapping sounds and sometimes ringing bells. Objects have been seen floating through the air along with doors opening and closing when no one was there. Then there is the organ music. People have reported that the organ began to play while they were in the church. The problem is that there is no one playing it, it is playing itself. Ghosts have been seen walking through the church. There is a ghost of an unknown nun who wanders through the building along with other figures that are hard to make out. There is also the coldness in certain spots in the church even on the hottest days. This church has a well deserved reputation for being haunted just as the local area does. many claim to have witnessed a phantom horse drawn coach and a nun seen to float across the near by road.
Without a doubt Harry Price is a seminal figure in the field of modern day ghost hunting. Paranormal investigators of today, even though they may know little about Price himself are following the procedures that he used to bring the scientific study of psychical research firmly into the public eye over fifty years ago. However, several of his cases - the most famous and long lasting of which is the haunting of Borley Rectory - have been the subject of much critical study in the years since his death, as has Price’s own personal reputation. Controversial amongst his colleagues in the field of psychical research during his lifetime, this critical attention continues to this day and as an individual he continues to arouse interest and comment. Recent studies have uncovered much about Price the man that will of course be used by his critics to dismiss his work and the achievements obtained during his lifetime, but although as a person he was indeed a shrewd, complicated and at times calculating individual, his writings and adventures provide a legacy that continues to inspire to this day.
The investigation of mediumistic phenomena still took up much of his time but Price was prepared to allow all and sundry who claimed paranormal abilities to be examined including contortionists, thought readers and performance artists whose real home was undoubtedly the fairground rather than the laboratory of an organization whose aims were the scientific study of the occult. This being the case, Price’s National Laboratory attained in the eyes of mainstream science, and particularly bodies such as the SPR, a vaudeville atmosphere that consigned his work to the fringes of recognized science. Price wrote often amusing accounts of many of these experiments in several of his books but the result of all this was that by the end of the decade, Price was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the way his work was not only progressing but the response it was receiving from orthodox scientific bodies.
Price’s work shows an amazing dichotomy between the undertaking of serious scientific study and blatant publicity seeking and sensationalism. Compare his reporting of the séance room phenomena of Willi Schneider’s younger brother Rudi whom Price brought to England in 1929 with publicity episodes such as the opening of the locked box of the eighteenth century prophetess Joanna Southcott in 1927 and the Brocken Experiment of June 1932 when Price traveled to Germany to attempt the transformation a goat into a handsome young man by means of a magical formula. The former, published as a book in 1930, is a model of detailed reporting and shows the great pains that Price went in achieving scientifically acceptable conditions in which to carry out his experiments, while the latter are clearly headline generating escapades designed to keep Price and his organization firmly in the public eye. Consequently newspaper editors loved him as anything that involved Price was guaranteed to generate good copy and he soon became the most well known psychical investigator during the late 1920s and this notoriety was to continue.
During the 1930s Price’s organization underwent a period of upheaval. By 1934 Price had dissolved the National Laboratory and reformed his organization as the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation, taking advantage of the successful result of negotiations he had undertaken with the University of London to create a Department of Psychical Research. Despite the title the organization in fact had no official connection with the University although they benefited from the transfer on permanent loan of Price’s laboratory equipment and his extensive library.
Harry Price’s new organisation existed for five years until the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 when he closed his office and retired from active investigation. These could well be described as Price’s true ‘ghost hunting’ years. As well as the Brocken Experiment he investigated an alleged talking mongoose on the Isle of Man, carried out fire-walking experiments in Surrey, investigated the Indian Rope Trick and made the first live radio broadcast from a haunted house. In all these investigations he projected the role of a modern paranormal investigator. His ‘ghost hunter’s kit’, a suitcase containing cameras, measuring equipment, a thermograph and other devices reinforced the impression of the scientific study of the supernatural. The equipment of today’s investigators may be far more sophisticated but the application of Price’s gadgets was the same.
Borley Rectory was a tragedy for Harry Price in many ways. The case came to him when he had lost his critical stance as a practical and skeptical investigator. With the watering down of his own organization to little more than an honorary title he used Borley as a means to generate interest in not only himself but also the subject in which he was still passionately interested – psychical research. By playing up the sensational side of the case he in fact missed the evidence that does exist for a genuine case of haunting at Borley. A particular tragedy is that Borley has diverted attention away from his most important contribution to paranormal research, namely the studies of Stella Cranshaw and the Schneider brothers. Here, by using the stringent methods demanded by orthodox science he demonstrated the existence of paranormal forces, which at the present time this same orthodox science cannot explain.
The above is a fairly brief look at the life and career of Harry Price. He is often described today as a ‘psychic journalist’, which is partly correct in that he only reported on the phenomena he experienced and did not put forward any specific theories to explain them. One thing is for certain; all active ghost-hunters of today owe much to ‘Uncle Harry’ and his adventures over half a century ago.
Compiled by : Paul Adams & John Zaffis.