Ghosts are a difficult topic to write about objectively. After all, encountering a ghost or other entity is an entirely subjective experience and so the evidence we have is generally based on witness accounts. And witness accounts, as we have seen in other mysteries, are not always completely reliable. Nevertheless, it’s time to look at one of the most famous haunted house mysteries that there has ever been: the case of Borley Rectory in England.
Borley has been cited as the single most persuasive case for the existence of ghosts. However, it has also been described by others as a prime example of misconception, misreporting and even outright fraud. Fortunately, Borley Rectory featured in four books written by a prominent contemporary psychic researcher (and many other books written since) and there is even hard evidence in the form of a photograph of alleged poltergeist activity so we aren’t short source material to help us try to piece together a solution to this enduring and fascinating mystery.
A brief history of Borley Rectory and its occupants
Borley is a small village in the county of Essex in the South East of England, not far from the market town of Long Melford. A fine church was built in the village in the 12th Century on the instructions of the Waldegrave family, occupants of nearby Borley Manor. In 1862 a new Rector was appointed to the church, the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull, a local man whose wealthy family had lived in the area for more than 300 years. 1862 was a period of massive change around the world. The US Civil War was in full swing and the Battle of Antietam in that year introduced the world to the idea that modern warfare could produce slaughter on an industrial scale. Steamships were replacing sailing ships, the first ironclad warships appeared, torpedoes were used for the first time in naval warfare and a gentleman with the unlikely name of Thomas Crapper patented the very first flush toilet.
Even in rural Essex, things were changing. The widespread building of railways in the 1840s had led to comparatively rapid development in the county and ease of travel to and from London. In Borley, Henry Bull decided that it was time to build a new rectory to replace the previous building which had been partly destroyed by fire in 1841. He had an architect design a large, rambling, gothic house constructed from local red brick and stone and initial building work was completed in 1863 on a windswept ridge above the valley through which runs the River Stour. Although it looked very grand, there were none of Mr Crapper’s new-fangled flush toilets here – Borley Rectory had no running water within the house (toilets were outside, as was customary at the time, and any water required for washing or anything else had to be pumped from the deep well in the courtyard and carried into the house) and there was of course no electricity or gas – all lighting was provided by candles and oil lamps and heating was provided by open fires. The new rectory was partly built over the foundations of the older rectory and, subsequent excavations suggest, a much older building, though no-one seems to be certain just what this was. There does not however, seem to be any truth in the local belief that the new rectory was built on the site of an older monastery or priory.
Ground floor plan of Borley Rectory as it was in the 1930s. From a drawing by S. H. Glanville. The window on the north side of the dining room (highlighted in red) was originally open but at some point before 1892, the window was removed and the opening bricked up.
As initially built, the house had eighteen rooms, but as Reverend Bull’s family increased (he was father to thirteen children, twelve of whom survived) it was extended by adding another wing which resulted in twenty-three rooms in a house which enclosed a central courtyard. The house was sited around 150 yards from the church and included an enormous garden with two summerhouses and a separate stable block where a carriage and horses were kept and which provided accommodation for grooms and other outdoor servants. The house itself and the garden were surrounded by shrubs and tall trees. This, in addition to the enclosed courtyard and the dark wood used inside for floors, doors and paneling, made many of the rooms in the house seem rather gloomy. A number of the windows in the servants’ quarters on the ground floor were also covered with iron bars which added to the somewhat forbidding appearance of the house.
First floor plan of Borley Rectory as it was in the 1930s. From a drawing by S. H. Glanville.
The Reverend Henry Bull seems to have been a typical Victorian country parson in most ways, interested in hunting, shooting and fishing though perhaps more unusually he had also been a successful amateur boxer in his youth. In addition to Henry Bull, his wife and their twelve children, the Rectory was also home at this time to a number of servants including maids, cooks, housekeepers, gardeners and grooms. This wasn’t so much a house as a small but thriving community of around 25 people, all presided over by Henry Bull. Henry remained at Borley until his death in 1892. Locally, it was believed that, in addition to his own large family, Henry Bull had also fathered several illegitimate children.
Henry Bull was succeeded as Rector of Borley Church by his son, Rev. Henry Foyster Bull, though he was generally known as “Harry”. Harry Bull seems to have been more than a little eccentric. He was known in the district for his jovial, light-hearted and ebullient approach to almost everything including his duties as Rector. At one time he owned more than thirty cats which were in the habit of following him as he walked round the house and garden. The deaths of these cats and other pets led Harry to establish a well-populated pet cemetery in a corner of the garden at Borley Rectory. Harry was also in the habit of unexpectedly falling profoundly asleep almost anywhere – members of the family were occasionally sent to search for him if he failed to appear for meals. Often, he was to be found asleep in one of the summerhouses in the garden of the Rectory.
Harry Bull, his wife Ivy and his step-daughter in front of Borley Rectory, around 1920. The window above the glass porch is that of the Blue Room.
Initially, Harry Bull seems to have lived in the Rectory with several of his sisters. However, in 1911 and at the age of 48, Harry married Ivy Brackenbury and the couple moved to nearby Borley Place, the large ancestral home of the Bull family. Ivy does not seem to have been popular with some other members of the Bull family, and in particular with Harry’s sisters who continued to live in the Rectory. There were persistent rumours that Ivy was actually already married when she married Harry (though she claimed to be widowed), but it has not been possible to confirm or refute this. The couple had no children themselves, though Ivy had a young daughter from her first marriage who lived with them. In 1920, Harry’s sisters moved out of the Rectory (or possibly were asked by Harry to move out) and Harry, Ivy and her daughter moved in. Harry became increasingly frail and finally died from cancer in 1927 (some of his sisters maintained that he had been poisoned by Ivy, though there does not seem to be any real evidence to support this idea). Both Henry and Harry Bull died in the Rectory, in the room known as the Blue Room, above the study and overlooking the garden.
The house then remained empty for around a year. It has been claimed that during this time, more than a dozen clergymen were offered the house, but all declined. Some people have suggested that this was because the house had already acquired a somewhat sinister reputation, though it is equally possible that the prospect of a very large, unheated house without running water or electricity simply seemed less than appealing. However, in late 1928 the Reverend Guy Eric Smith accepted the position as Rector at Borley and moved into the house with his wife Mabel. Rev. Smith was a plump, bespectacled and affable Eurasian, born in Calcutta, and the Smiths had recently returned from a long period of missionary work in Africa. When they arrived at Borley, the Smiths had some building work done in the Rectory, including the installation of a cistern in the attic and some internal pipework for water, though this still had to be manually pumped from the well in the courtyard to the cistern.
Reverend Guy Eric Smith
During their short tenure at Borley Rectory, the Smith’s became so concerned about the strange phenomena they experienced there that, sometime around May 1929, Reverend Smith wrote to the editor of the Daily Mirror to describe what the couple had been through and to ask for advice. This seems a very strange thing to do – if you want discreet advice, then surely the Editor of a National Newspaper is the very last person to approach? And as a rector, one would assume that there would be people associated with the church whom the Rector might more sensibly have asked for help?
As you might guess, instead of providing advice, the editor of the Daily Mirror dispatched a reporter, V.C. Wall, who spent an evening at the Rectory and then wrote a lurid and sensational article which was published on June 10th under the headline “Ghost Visits to a Rectory”. A series of front-page articles followed and for the first time, the name of Borley Rectory became publically associated with stories of ghosts and hauntings. The Smiths then had to endure, in addition to claimed paranormal events, the presence of large numbers of sightseers, sometimes arriving by the coachload and all hoping to catch a glimpse of a ghost. Although Reverend Smith remained the Rector of Borley for almost one year after this, the couple left the Rectory in July 1929 and moved to live in another house in the area.
The final long-term occupants of the house were the Reverend Lionel Algernon Foyster (a distant relation of the Bull family), his much younger wife Marianne (in 1930, Lionel was 52 and Marianne was 30) and their three year old adopted daughter Adelaide. The Foysters had previously been engaged in church work in Canada before Lionel’s ill-health forced them to consider returning to the UK. Both had lived in Canada for some years though they had both spent a few weeks at Borley Rectory in 1924 when they visited Lionel’s cousin Harry Bull during a holiday in Britain. Lionel was contacted in Canada by the Bull family who suggested that he might take up the position of Rector at Borley following the departure of Reverend Smith. The presence of gawking visitors combined with the stories of supernatural events at the Rectory had dissuaded anyone else from taking the position, but perhaps the Bulls’ hoped that, safely distant in Canada, Lionel might not have heard anything sinister about Borley?
Whether he knew anything about the house or not, Lionel accepted the position and the Foysters arrived in England in September 1930 and took up residence in Borley Rectory in October. Like the Smiths before them, the Foysters attempted to modernize the Rectory by improving the internal water pipework and cistern and even adding a hot water system, though they made no attempt to install electricity or gas and the house was still lit only by oil lamps and candles. Also like the Smiths, the Foysters were plagued by a great many strange and disturbing events. These were so pronounced that Lionel began to keep a detailed journal in which he noted everything that happened. Despite this, the Foysters remained at Borley until October 1935 when Lionel’s continuing ill-health finally forced them to leave. After the Foysters left Borley Rectory, the ecclesiastical authorities decided that the house was no longer suitable as a residence and the building was permanently closed as a rectory.
Borley Rectory remained empty until May 1937 when it was rented to paranormal investigator Harry Price for one year. Price organized a group of volunteer investigators who spent time in Borley and conducted a number of experiments and séances there.
In December 1938 the house (including the separate stable house) was purchased from the church by Captain W. H. Gregson, a retired member of the Royal Engineers. Gregson paid £500 for the house, the garden and all outbuildings including the stable house. It seems that Gregson had been attracted to Borley in the hope that he could make money out of its reputation – there was initially some discussion about turning the house into some sort of Psychic Research Centre, though this didn’t happen. However, almost immediately after buying Borely, Gregson insured the property for the unlikely sum of £10,000. He and his two sons moved into the stable house in January 1939. In early February 1939 and just six weeks after taking out the very large insurance policy, Gregson was alone and unpacking some of his possessions in the Rectory when he claimed to have accidentally knocked over an oil lamp and started a fire which destroyed most of the interior of the house, though the external walls were left standing. A subsequent investigation by the insurance company concluded that the fire had been deliberately started and that Gregson’s insurance claim was fraudulent. In 1943, Gregson sold the remains of the house for demolition to a local company. In 1944 the remains of the house were completely demolished and all useable bricks and other building materials were re-used (bricks in particular were in short supply in wartime Britain). The site was completely levelled and nothing now remains of Borley Rectory.
Borley Rectory after the fire
A history of the Borley Rectory haunting
There seem to have been stories about supernatural events at Borley Rectory almost from the period when it was first built in 1863. These came from not just the various members of the Bull family who lived there, but also from several visitors and servants. Many of these people gave detailed accounts of the things that they claimed to have experienced, but it should be noted that none of these were provided until after Borley Rectory came to public attention following newspaper reports in 1929. I have not been able to find any documentary evidence of any supernatural events being reported in the area prior to 1929. As some of these later accounts refer to events which had occurred anything up to fifty years previously, we do have to be a little careful in taking them absolutely literally. I don’t intend to provide details of every supernatural event claimed to have occurred at Borley here (there are links at the end of this article which will provide much more detail if you are interested), but rather to provide an overview of what is claimed to have happened.
A tennis match at Borley Rectory in the late 1890s
It would appear that claimed supernatural events at Borley Rectory can be broadly divided into two parts: Those before and those after the death of Henry Bull. From 1863 (when building work was completed) to the death of Henry Bull in 1892, the Rectory seems to have been mainly famous for what we might regard now as conventional ghost stories. The most common concerned the figure of a woman wearing dark clothing and some sort of covering over her head. This figure, generally referred to as “The Nun”, was claimed to have been seen by a number of people in and around the garden of Borley Rectory. This figure was seen so often on a path which ran along the length of one side of the nine acre garden that this area became known as the “Nun’s Walk”. The Bull family claimed that Henry Bull was fascinated by this figure, and that he had the large, octagonal summerhouse built at the end of the garden mainly so that he could watch from there for appearances of the Nun. It certainly seems to be true that Henry and his son Harry spent long periods, both together and individually, sitting in this summerhouse watching the Nun’s Walk.
Borley Rectory from the road. The bricked-up window can be seen lower centre, partly obscured by the tree
Some members of the Bull family also claimed that the nun was the reason for the bricked-up window in the dining room. They claimed that Henry became so incensed and frightened by the frequent appearances of the nun at this window while he was eating that he had it removed and the opening bricked up. Other people have put forward more prosaic reasons, for example, it has been claimed that the window was bricked up in order to reduce window tax. It’s certainly true that for a time in England, householders paid taxes which were based on the number of windows in their house and that some people had windows removed in order to reduce their tax bills. However, the window tax was repealed in 1851 and the Rectory was built in 1863, so this can’t have been the reason. It has also been suggested that Henry ordered the window bricked up to avoid passers-by on the nearby road watching the family while they ate. However, in the late 1800s, the road outside the Rectory was very quiet indeed (less than 100 people lived in the village of Borley) and anyway, the road was some distance from the house and screened by a hedge and shrubs. And finally, if for some reason Henry did want to screen the family from the gaze of outsiders as they ate, closing the wooden shutter with which all lower floor windows were equipped in the house or simply closing a curtain would seem to be a simpler, cheaper and more flexible way of blocking the view from this window. Bricking up one of the windows in a room which was in constant use certainly seems a very odd thing to do, but none of the suggested reasons really explain this.
After the death of Henry Bull in 1892 and the succession of his son Harry as Rector at Borley, the character of claimed supernatural events seemed to change. The nun was still periodically seen (though always in the garden or surrounding area and never in the house) as was a phantom carriage, but the house also seemed to be plagued by what would now be called poltergeist phenomena. Household objects were said to disappear and reappear, the bells used to summon servants would ring with any obvious cause, pebbles and small stones would be thrown around (and occasionally at occupants) by invisible entities and footsteps and whispering were regularly heard on the upper floors where there was no apparent cause. In addition, visitors and those who lived in the house occasionally saw mysterious dark male figures inside the house which faded away or abruptly disappeared when approached. In addition, after dark, lights were sometimes seen in the windows of the house (though most notably in the Blue Room) when there was no-one in the room. On more than one occasion, these lights were seen by small groups of people outside in the garden, and on at least two occasions someone was sent into the house to investigate the room in question while the watchers remained outside. On both occasions, the person dispatched to investigate reported that the room was in complete darkness, while those watching from outside could still clearly see a light.
One of the two summerhouses in the garden at Borley Rectory
It appears that both Henry and Harry Bull were intrigued rather than frightened by these events – Harry seems to have been particularly unperturbed and when he retired to the summerhouse for one of his frequent naps, he would jokingly tell his sisters that he was “going to commune with the spirits”. Henry’s children do seem to have been occasionally frightened, but for the most part simply accepted the odd happenings, as children are inclined to do, as an ordinary part of life at Borley. The villagers appear to have been less sanguine, and by the time of the arrival of the Smiths in 1928, Borley Rectory became a place to be avoided if possible at all times, but most especially after dark.
After June 1929, when the story of the haunting of Borley Rectory was first publicized in newspapers, we have contemporary and much more detailed descriptions of alleged events there. The Smith’s brief tenancy was marked by sightings of the nun and various poltergeist events which were extensively reported in local and national newspapers. The haunting of Borley rectory seemed to reach its peak during the period from 1930 – 1935 when Lionel and Marianne Foyster were in residence. During this period there were extreme poltergeist events (Marianne Foyster claimed to have been physically attacked by invisible entities in the house on more than one occasion), the appearance of writing on the walls that was attributed to ghosts, ringing of bells, the sound of footsteps and whispering and the appearance of shadowy figures in the house.
After the Foysters left Borley, the house lay empty until it was rented for one year by Harry Price in order to investigate the claimed haunting. The quirky, irascible and unpredictable Price is so central to the story of Borley Rectory that it’s worth a short digression to describe this unique man.
Harry Price was born in London in 1881. He claimed that, from a very early age, he had become interested in psychic topics though he was also fascinated by photography, electrical engineering, coin collecting, archeology and chemistry. Price wanted to become an engineer, but when he left school he began work as a commercial traveler in the paper business. He continued in this role until 1908 when he married Constance Mary Knight. Constance had a small private income and this allowed price to spend more time on research into psychic subjects. He became particularly interested in spiritualism, the contacting of the dead using mediums and séances. Interest in spiritualism increased rapidly in Britain in the years following World War One and gained a number of famous and influential adherents including author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Harry Price in his Laboratory
Price was disgusted by what he saw as the exploitation of those bereaved by the war by fake spiritualists and mediums. In 1920 he joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), a group set up to investigate claims of the paranormal in general and the activities of spiritualists in particular. Most members of the society were ardent believers in life after death, but Price took a different view – he wanted to use modern scientific techniques to investigate seemingly paranormal events in order to either conclusively prove or discredit them. To further this aim, in 1923 he founded the National Laboratory of Psychical Research (NLPR). Although this started out as a very small operation, by the time that Price became involved with Borley Rectory, the NLPR had a ruling council composed of scientists and investigators from a number of countries and a large laboratory with advanced scientific equipment which was used to investigate paranormal events. In many ways, Price was the prototype of the modern ghost hunter, using cameras, thermometers and microphones in an attempt to gather verifiable, repeatable and objective data which could be used to support generally subjective experiences.
Price’s insistence on using rigorous methods to investigate alleged hauntings and mediums led to an uneasy relationship with the SPR. Some of the members of that group felt that Price was too harsh in his mockery of some claimed paranormal events and many were suspicious of his talent for attracting publicity when debunking paranormal claims. Price was also well-known for his mercurial and occasionally violent outbursts of bad temper when challenged. For these reasons, some members of the SPR were unhappy when the editor of the Daily Mirror asked Price if he would accompany reporter V.C. Hall during a return visit to Borley Rectory in June 1929. Price visited Borley on several occasions during the Smith tenancy and returned in October 1931 while the Foysters were living there. Harry Price did not visit Borley for several years after October 1931, partly because another member of the SPR had approached the Foysters and advised them not to have any further contact with Price and to work directly with the SPR instead. This led to the SPR despatching a small team to investigate events at the Rectory, but their finding was that there was nothing of interest there.
The first time that Price wrote about Borley Rectory was in his book Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, published in 1936. This was his second popular book about his activities for the NLPR and covered several cases. Chapter 2 of this book described his initial visits to Borley in 1929 while the Smiths were in residence and a later visit in October 1931 after the Foysters had moved in. For some reason, he referred to the Rectory as “K__ Manor” and changed the names of the Bull family as well as the Smiths and the Foysters in this account. Given that Borley Rectory was already well-known through the series of newspaper articles, this doesn’t seem to make sense though this chapter was otherwise a fairly accurate account of what he experienced during his early visits to Borley. What he claimed he had seen was sensational – he described witnessing a number of poltergeist events including large objects including wine bottles and a candelabra being hurled around and a séance where a dead previous occupant of the house was contacted and gave information that could have been known only by a family member.
Harry Price (left) with Marianne and Lionel Foyster and Price’s secretary, Lucie Kaye at Borley Rectory in October 1931
Although he maintained an interest in events there, Price did not visit Borley again until 1936, after the Foysters had moved out and the building was empty. In May 1937 Price rented Borley Rectory for a period of one year in order to undertake a detailed investigation. Aware that he could not do this without assistance, on 25th May 1937, Price placed a wonderful advertisement in the personal column of The Times:
“Haunted House. Responsible persons of leisure and intelligence, intrepid, critical and unbiased, are invited to join rota of observers in a year’s night and day investigation of alleged haunted house in Home Counties. Printed instructions supplied. Scientific training or ability to operate simple instruments an advantage. House situated in lonely hamlet, so own car is essential. Write Box H.989, The Times, E.C.4.”
The response to the advertisement was overwhelming and Price was able to choose a group of people willing to spend extended periods at Borley Rectory. Price himself spent relatively little time at Borley in this period – partly because he claimed that he did not want to bias his observers but also because the heart condition from which he suffered from many years was worsening, limiting the amount of travel he was able to safely undertake.
One of a large number of photographs of Borley Rectory taken by Harry Price’s team of investigators in 1937/1938. This shows the view from the Dining Room to the kitchen passage with the stairs to the servant’s quarters in the background. The entry to the kitchen passage shown in this photograph is the same area where the “levitating brick” would be photographed in 1944.
Price’s team of intrepid observers spent long periods at the now dilapidated, damp and crumbling rectory from May 1937 – May 1938 making meticulous notes on what they experienced there. In 1940, Price published The Most Haunted House in England – Ten Years’ Investigation of Borley Rectory, a book in which he provided a history of the claimed paranormal events at Borley Rectory over the years (incorporating large parts of the journal kept by Lionel Foyster) and described the outcome of his team’s investigations there in 1937/1938. The book was a sensation, and despite wartime paper shortages, it propelled Borley Rectory to national and international fame. Price also included a description of events at Borley in his 1944 book Poltergeist Over England and followed this up in 1946 with another book specifically about Borley, The End of Borley Rectory which described the destruction of the house by fire in 1939 and subsequent excavations on the site which took place in 1943 – 1944. This book included a photograph taken in 1944 during the demolition of the Rectory which appeared to show a brick mysteriously levitating in front of a doorway on one of the remaining walls.
When he died in 1948, Price was working on another book about Borley Rectory, this time principally a compendium of writing by other people who had been directly involved or who could provide some form of expert commentary on events there. This final book about Borley was never completed or published. Both books published by Price about Borley make it clear that he believed that there was some genuine paranormal activity there. Given that Price was generally known as a debunker, his attitude towards Borley helped to convince many people that this was a genuine instance of a haunted house.
There are just two theories here: either Borley was indeed the most haunted house in England, or this is a series of fakes and hoaxes perpetrated by several groups of people and supported by continuing misperception and misreporting of mundane events.
Most newspaper articles in the 1930s and both books written by Harry Price broadly supported some version of the first theory. However, just months after Price’s death, an article by Daily Mail journalist Charles Sutton appeared in the Inky Way annual (an annual compendium of writing by and about journalists) in December 1948 which described how he had accompanied Price to Borley Rectory and had caught Price faking poltergeist phenomena. The piece described the lessons Sutton had learned from various people in a long journalistic career. The part about Price began ”From Harry Price, self-styled Director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, I learned that in a haunted house you need have no fear of the ghost but you must beware of the ghost’s earthly publicity agents.”
This was a shock for Price’s supporters, but things got worse in 1956 when the SPR published a lengthy paper titled: The Haunting of Borley Rectory – A Critical Survey of the Evidence, written by SPR members Eric J. Dingwall, Kathleen M. Goldney and Trevor H. Hall. This paper undercut almost every piece of evidence put forward by Price to support the reality of paranormal events at Borley and even accused Prices of deliberately faking certain events.
Part of the problem was that Price, in the two Borley books, seemed to spend as much time discussing the possible causes of the haunting as actually verifying that it was real. For example, a great deal of time was spent trying to establish who the phantom nun could have been. There was a whole mythos in the Bull family about a nun from an abbey on what became the site of Borley rectory who fell in love with a monk from a nearby monastery. The pair attempted to elope (in a carriage, thus explaining the ghostly carriage several witnesses reported) but were caught. The monk was executed immediately and the nun was walled up alive in the walls of the Abbey. This romantic story was often repeated in connection with Borley as an explanation for some of the strange events there, but sadly it contains no truth whatever. There never was an Abbey on this site, neither monks nor nuns were ever executed for breaking their vows of chastity and no nun was ever punished for anything in England by being walled up alive. And finally, any Abbey in England could only have existed prior to the reformation in the 1530s, but the first carriage in England didn’t appear until the early 1600s.
Several séances were held at Borley Rectory in the years 1928 – 1938, some involving Harry Price and these were also described in some detail in his books. Many of these séances attempted to find information about the nun and other possible entities haunting Borley. Several entities were said to have made contact including the spirits of both Henry and Harry Bull, a French woman named Marie Lairre (who claimed to be the nun), Katie Boreham (who claimed to be a maid who died at the rectory) and something called Sunex Amures. However, neither of the spirits claiming to be the Bulls gave information which could only have come from these people and assiduous research has failed to identify Marie Lairre or Sunex Amures. The only Katie Boreham who died at around the right time had no association with the Rectory and died of natural causes some distance away.
So, there was no real evidence to support the ghost theory other than the reports of several witnesses. Against that, we have later confessions by some participants that they faked some of the phenomena and reasons to suspect that other fakery and hoaxing may have taken place. When Price’s books were first published, there seemed to be a general feeling that these represented a genuine and scientific attempt to investigate a real haunting. However, as the years passed, this changed to a view that many of the supposed witnesses were less than honest and even Harry Price himself failed to apply his usual intellectual rigour to this investigation.
If the available evidence doesn’t support the notion of a genuine haunting at Borley Rectory, why on earth would so many people over such an extended period of time report seeing ghosts, apparitions and experiencing poltergeist activity? To understand this, we need to look in detail at some of the occupants of the house.
The Reverend Henry Bull certainly seems to have believed in the apparition of the nun. He claimed to have seen this on more than one occasion. However some (but not all) of Henry Bull’s children later claimed that they had invented the whole story of the phantom nun and her supposed history. When you realize that the nun’s backstory bears a very strong resemblance to events in the very popular poem Marion (1808) by Sir Walter Scott and with stories by other popular Victorian writers including Poe, there does seem to be some basis for regarding this as nothing more than a fantasy. But why on earth would a respected clergyman and member of a wealthy local family have supported this invented story by claiming to have seen a phantom nun? To understand a possible reason, we need to look at Henry Bull’s death certificate.
The Drawing Room at Borley Rectory, around 1890
When Henry Bull died on 7th May 1892, his death certificate gave the cause of death as “Locomotor Ataxia”. This is a manifestation of the tertiary phase of syphilis. Syphilis is a particularly nasty sexually transmitted infection which has four clearly defined stages. The Primary and secondary phases occur within 2 – 4 months of initial infection and cause a number of minor but irritating symptoms. The infection then enters the dormant phase. For some people the infection continues to be dormant for the rest of their lives, showing no symptoms. For around 40% of those infected, the infection erupts into its final (Tertiary) phase anything up to 25 years after the initial infection. The Tertiary phase can take a number of forms, but particularly nasty manifestation is called neurosyphilis. This involves the infection attacking the brain and central nervous system and may cause Locomotor Ataxia which causes loss of balance, unsteady gait, severe headaches and incontinence. Even now, syphilis which is not diagnosed until the tertiary phase is often fatal. In the late 1800s, before the advent of antibiotics, tertiary syphilis meant a certain, protracted and unpleasant death.
Neurosyphillis also causes degeneration within the brain which leads to hallucination and dementia. All of which rather undercuts the popular image of the Bull family at Borley in the period 1863 – 1892. Rather than the bucolic and idyllic existence generally assumed, what we actually must have had was a house in which the father, in the latter years at least, was watched by his wife and children as he died a lingering and painful death and was increasingly plagued by advancing dementia and hallucination. In these circumstances, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Henry Bull saw phantom figures nor that his children found it necessary to invent ghost stories which would account for these. This probably also explains why it’s difficult to find a rational reason for the bricking-up of the dining room window – by the time this was done, Henry Bull was far from rational.
Reverend Harry Bull
What then of Harry Bull, who also claimed to have seen the nun on more than one occasion? First of all, there is no doubt that Harry must have been influenced by his father, who believed that he had seen the nun. We also know that Harry suffered from narcolepsy, a brain condition that causes the sufferer to fall asleep suddenly and without warning. Many people who suffer from narcolepsy also have vivid, dream-like hallucinations just before they fall asleep. So, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that Harry, conditioned by his father’s beliefs, might also have hallucinated seeing the nun.
What of the next occupants of the Rectory, Eric and Mabel Smith? The Smith’s arrived at Borley Rectory in October 1928. One can only imagine arriving in a large, remote, unheated house where the only lighting came from guttering oil lamps and candles at the beginning of an English winter. Borley Rectory, which had previously housed up to 25 people, was now just the home of the Smiths and the occasional maid. It must have seemed a vast, echoing, empty place and we know that the majority of rooms were permanently closed and never used. We also know that some of the Bull sisters (the Bull family was still influential in the area and closely associated with the church) were gleefully fond of telling people that the rectory was haunted. Add to this the sounds of an unheated building as it expands during the day and contracts at night, and you certainly have the basis for an imagined haunting. Particularly given that wooden flooring in unheated houses is known to be a cause of phantom footsteps – as tongue-in-groove floorboards contract, those in contact with external walls cool the most quickly. These often release from the board next to them with an audible “crack”. When the pressure is thus released on the adjacent board, it too releases with a crack, and this effect can advance across an area of flooring, sounding uncannily like footsteps moving across a room. And we know that all the first floor rooms at Borley Rectory and most of the ground floor rooms were floored in this style. If you are told that the large, gloomy and forbidding house in which you are living is haunted, and you then hear odd sounds, it’s very easy to assume that these have a supernatural origin.
It’s also notable that Mabel Smith wrote a somewhat lurid novel, Murder at the Parsonage, partly based on her experiences at Borley but also influenced by stories told to her by some of the Bull sisters about the claimed poisoning of Harry Bull by his wife Ivy. Mabel had high hopes of finding a publisher for this novel, and it’s clear that she cultivated Harry Price in the hope that he could help with this and it is possible that she encouraged him by embellishing her accounts of supernatural experiences. However, despite the fact that Price mentioned Murder at the Parsonage in The Most Haunted House in England, Mabel never found a publisher for her novel and when she was interviewed in the 1940s (Guy Eric Smith died in 1940), she vehemently denied experiencing any paranormal phenomena while living at Borley.
Which brings us to the Foysters, during whose tenancy the haunting of Borley Rectory reached its climax and many strange events were described including wall-writing, extreme poltergeist phenomena and phantom figures. To understand more about this, we need to look at the personalities involved and especially that of Marianne Foyster. Marianne was 22 years younger than her husband Lionel. By the time that they moved to Borley, Lionel was in very poor health, suffering from rheumatic arthritis, which can’t have been helped by his moving to the damp and unheated Rectory. Lionel and Marianne had been married in Brunswick, Nova Scotia in August 1922 when Marianne was 23 and Lionel 45.
However, it appears that Marianne had failed to mention at the time that she was already married. Marianne had married an Irishman, Mr Greenwood, in 1914 and had a son, Ian, with him. The marriage had taken place when Marianne was just 15, but she had lied about her age (claiming that she was 17). Marianne and Greenwood had been separated for some time when she met Lionel, but there is no record of a divorce. Lionel was aware of Ian (he paid for the boy’s schooling in Canada) but was apparently not aware that he was Marianne’s son or that she had been married before. When they came to Borley, the Foysters also brought with them an adopted daughter, Adelaide Tower, whose Canadian parents were both dead. Marianne would adopt several children during her life, but appeared to lose interest in all of them after a time (Adelaide was sent to an orphanage in the late 1930s).
The relationship between Lionel and Marianne seems to have been more than a little peculiar. Lionel clearly worshipped his vivacious and attractive young wife. Marianne seems to have been rather more ambivalent about the relationship. Up to around 1934, there was also a frequent lodger at Borley Rectory, a man named Francois d’Arles whose young son also stayed as a playmate for Adelaide. But, Francois d’Arles wasn’t French as he sometimes claimed, nor was he really Francois d’Arles: he was really Frank Peerless from Bermondsey in London. Peerless was also married, but it seems that he and Marianne were engaged in a fairly torrid affair in the early 1930s, both at Borley and in London where, for a period he and Marianne ran a flower shop called Jonquille et Cie in Wimbledon. While this business was in operation, Marianne and Peerless lived in London during the week and only returned to Borley at weekends. People they met in London were under the impression that Marianne and Peerless were man and wife.
Marianne much later claimed that Peerless had blackmailed her into having an affair by threatening to reveal to Lionel that Ian (who was now an adult and occasionally visited the Foysters at the Rectory) was actually her son from a previous marriage. She also noted that she and Peerless fought constantly and occasionally violently. On at least one occasion, Marianne explained to Harry Price that the black eye she was sporting was caused by the Borley ghost, but it seems much more likely that this was a result of her constantly feuding with Peerless. Then, in early 1933, an advertisement appeared in the local press looking for a live-in maternity nurse to assist with looking after a new-born baby. The post was taken by a Miss Dystor who later reported that, although Lionel and Marianne claimed that John, the baby boy, was adopted, she believed that Marianne had given birth to the little boy and that Lionel was the father. Ian, who visited the Rectory at this time, later said that he felt certain that Peerless was the father.
Marianne with John
Tragically, aged less than five months, John died in the summer of 1933. In 1934 the flower shop went out of business and things briefly became very complicated when Peerless attempted to blackmail Lionel by threatening to reveal details of his affair with Marianne to the church authorities. This was resolved when Peerless ran off with (and later married) a sixteen year-old girl who had worked in the shop. By now, the Foysters were in some financial difficulty. It was clear that Lionel’s ill health meant that he would not be able to work for much longer and he had lost the bulk of his savings in the financial crash of 1929. What little money the couple had left disappeared when the flower shop business failed. In late 1934, Marianne moved to a flat in Ipswich where she lived as Miss Foyster while Lionel stayed in Borley. In February 1935, Marianne married Henry Fisher, despite the fact that she was still married to Lionel (the only accurate fact about Marianne on the marriage certificate was her Christian name – everything else was a lie). Fisher was a man troubled by mental health problems, though he was a person of independent means thanks to his wealthy family. Incredibly, Mr and Mrs Fisher then returned to live briefly at Borley Rectory with Marianne’s “father” Lionel. One can only imagine how complicated this must have been – it would have been necessary for Lionel and Marianne to collude to persuade Fisher that he really was married to Marianne while presumably leaving parishioners to believe that Lionel and Marianne were still man and wife.
In October 1935, Marianne, Lionel and Fisher left Borley Rectory and moved to a cottage near Ipswich. Lionel was by now so ill that he was unable to work and he lived in converted loft space above the cottage, posing as Marianne’s devoted but bed-ridden father. This marks the end of the Foyster’s association with Borley, but I do want to continue Marianne’s story a little further. Sometime in the late 1930s, Marianne adopted yet another child and somehow persuaded Fisher that it was his. Then, in 1940, disaster struck! The publication of The Most Haunted House in England made it clear that Marianne was actually Lionel’s wife and even the credulous Fisher seems to have realised that something was amiss. Marianne and Fisher became estranged at this point (though they never divorced) and Lionel and Marianne moved to an isolated house near Aldeburgh where they began living once again as man and wife.
Sometime in the early 1940s, Marianne was introduced to Dr Davis, a retired GP, by Harry Price. Davis seems to have believed that, due to her involvement with Borley, Marianne was some form of natural medium. Davis had become obsessed with spiritualism since the death of his wife Mabel. Marianne seems to have convinced Davis that she was somehow a reincarnation of Mabel and the two embarked on some form of relationship which involved Marianne dressing in the dead Mabel’s clothes and Dr Davis giving her presents and cash. Marianne’s interest in Davis lasted only until his savings ran out at which point she dumped him and returned Mabel’s clothes.
Lionel Foyster died in April 1945 and in August of that year Marianne, showing her usual facility for converting male interest into matrimony, married Robert O’Neil, a 25 year-old American GI. It appears that Marianne told O’Neil that she was pregnant (she wasn’t) and 32 years old (she was 42). Marianne adopted yet another child and moved to America with O’Neil in 1946. She divorced O’Neil in 1958 and went on to become a successful and respected social worker. Marianne outlived almost everybody else involved in the Borley story, dying in Wisconsin in 1993 at the age of 94.
Now, the story of Lionel and Marianne is certainly fascinating, but does it have any direct relationship to events at Borley? I think that it does. Marianne was clearly an enterprising young woman who, aided and abetted by Lionel, was entirely prepared to set aside the truth in order to find excitement and money. Almost all the claimed paranormal events that took place at Borley in this period were either witnessed by Marianne alone or happened when she was out of sight of witnesses (and could therefore have faked the events herself). I believe that she faked the paranormal events at Borley partly because she wanted to be the centre of attention, partly because they could be used to explain things like the bruises she carried from her fights with Peerless and perhaps also because she and Lionel hoped to make money from the story of the haunted Rectory.
An example of some of the wall writing which appeared during the Foyster tenancy of Borley. This example shows what is claimed to be supernatural writing and Marianne’s responses. However, a graphologist claimed that all the writing had been done by the same person.
When the Foysters moved to Borley, Lionel had already lost the bulk of his life savings and the two were in straightened circumstances. This was bearable as long as Lionel continued to work, but his ill-health meant that this wasn’t likely to continue for long. Lionel wrote several versions of an account of the haunting of Borley and it is entirely possible that he may have hoped to publish these as a book. Having lived in Canada, both Lionel and Marianne would have been familiar with what became known as the Great Amherst Mystery, a case in the 1870s where an alleged haunting in a house in a small town in Nova Scotia focussed on a young woman named Esther Cox. Many of the events claimed to have taken place in that haunting, including wall writing, physical attacks on Cox and other poltergeist events were very similar to events in Borley. It is also notable that a young actor called Walter Hubbell kept a diary of events at Amherst and later released these as a best-selling book about the case, perhaps inspiring Lionel to believe that he could do the same for Borley.
There is also suspicion that Frank Peerless may have been involved in faking phenomena at Borley. One of the most persistently reported happenings during the Foyster’s occupancy was the mysterious ringing of the servants bells in the kitchen area. This was witnessed by Harry Price and by other visitors to the house. One possible explanation was provided in the book New Light on Old Ghosts, published by Trevor Hall in 1965. In this book there was an account by a friend of the Foysters who had been in the house on one occasion when Marianne’s son Ian was visiting. He described how:
“Marianne had sent [Ian] into the courtyard to fetch coal and to pump water. It was raining and windy, and Ian was wearing an old raincoat without buttons, which he could not keep closed in the wind. He saw a piece of string half-hidden in the ivy and thought that this would be useful to tie his raincoat around him. He gave the string a sharp tug, to pull it from the nail on which he thought it was hung. To his astonishment, the house bells began to ring. Marianne came out of the house and told him to keep quiet. Ian found that the string was attached to a group of exposed bell wires in the house.”
It seems entirely possible that Marianne (or Peerless, at Marianne’s instigation) could have used this convenient string to fake the paranormal ringing of the bells. Marianne’s occasional injury which she ascribed to ghosts seems much more likely to be as a result of her tempestuous relationship with Peerless and when a graphologist was later asked to examine photographs of the supposed ghostly wall writing at the Rectory, he confidently asserted that all had been written by Marianne.
Lionel and Marianne’s account of their bizarre supernatural experiences in the haunted Rectory are at the very heart of the Borley mystery. If these were faked, then the whole paranormal story begins to crumble. But surely Harry Price, a seasoned investigator, would not have been fooled by any of this? After all, Price was experienced at exposing fake mediums and he would surely have seen through any attempt at deception? This certainly seems to have been true as in his book Confessions of a Ghost Hunter (1936), Price devoted a whole chapter to Borley and described a visit to Borley Rectory in October 1931, during the Foyster tenancy. Price described a number of seemingly supernatural events, but concluded the chapter with these words:
“We saw even stranger things; so strange, in fact, that for the moment – my lips are sealed concerning them. But we came to the conclusion that the supernormal played no part in the ‘wonders’ we had witnessed”
That seems pretty clear. Price obviously didn’t believe that any of the events he witnessed with the Foysters at Borley in 1931 had a supernatural origin. This was confirmed in a letter Price sent to Dr D. F. Frazer-Harris the day after his visit to Borley in 1931:
“Well, we went to Borley as arranged on Tuesday last, and have had two nights on the premises. It is the most amazing case, but amazing only in so far that we were convinced that the many phenomena that we saw were fraudulent because we took steps to control various persons and rooms, [and] the manifestations ceased. We think that the rector’s wife is responsible for the trouble, though it is possible that her actions may be the result of hysteria. Of course we did not wire you because although, psychologically, the case is of great value, psychically speaking there is nothing in it”
In March 1935 Price repeated essentially the same thing in a letter to the Hon. Everard Fielding:
“Re my Listener story of ‘The Most Haunted House’. This of course is Borley Rectory – but this is in confidence. The present incumbent, a Mr Foyster, has seen far more amazing things than ever we did, and has kept a diary of the ‘phenomena’ … But the last time I visited the place (with Mrs Goldney, etc.,) when we saw the wine turn into ink, etc., we were convinced that the Rector’s wife (a young woman of about twenty-five) was just fooling us – for some reason best known to herself. But we had an exciting evening, and eventually helped to carry Mrs Foyster up to bed! Of course, we told Foyster we thought that his wife was cheating, and that made him very cross. I am afraid that I am not now in his good books.”
So, at least up to March 1935, Price seemed to be confident that the events he had witnessed at Borley in 1931 were being deliberately faked by Marianne. But, here’s an odd thing: by May 1937 when he rented the rectory for a year, Price seemed to have completely changed his mind. By then, Price was claiming that Borley was the scene of important supernatural events, including the events which happened during the Foyster occupancy. It’s also notable that the sentence in Confessions of a Ghost Hunter which seemed to confirm that the events were faked (“But we came to the conclusion that the supernormal played no part in the ‘wonders’ we had witnessed”) appeared only in the first edition of this book. In all subsequent editions, this sentence was removed.
When he provided examples of supernatural events at Borley in The Most Haunted House in England, these included events he had witnessed during his visit in October 1931. But he gave these as examples of genuine supernatural events with no suggestion that they might have been faked by Marianne. He also included in this book lengthy quotes from Lionel Foyster’s account of events at Borley, but again failed to question their reliability. What could have changed his mind and why did he seem to uncritically accept in 1937 things that he had dismissed as obvious fakes as late as 1935?
Harry Price with Lucie Kaye
I’m afraid that the answer seems to be depressingly simple: By the mid-1930s, interest in spiritualism was declining and Harry Price and the NLPR were running out of money (not helped by the fact that Price was supporting at least one illegitimate child fathered with his glamorous “secretary” Lucie Kaye). Price attempted to sell his library of occult literature to raise funds, but without success (including, apparently, trying to sell the books to the Nazis, some of whom were very interested in occult subjects). The newspaper reporting on Borley Rectory however, had sparked notable interest in this case and Harry was often asked about it during lectures and talks. In contrast, people just didn’t seem interested in his unmasking of fraudulent mediums – he angrily wrote to a friend that “so many people prefer the “bunk” to the “debunk”. In the late 1930s, broke and desperate for a commercial success, it seems that Price decided to give the public just what it wanted – a book based on what he knew to be complete bunk.
One of the photographs taken by the investigative team at Borely in 1937/1938 showing what might be a supernatural apport. Or, then again, it may just be an old coat hanging on the back of a door.
The investigation undertaken by Price’s observers at Borley in 1937/38 had produced virtually nothing of interest. Just how little can be deduced from the fact that, in The Most Haunted House in England, the section devoted to describing events in this period include detailed (but completely unfounded) discussion of how an old coat found hanging on the back of a door in one of the rooms in the Rectory might somehow be of supernatural origin. As opposed to, for example, a mouldy old coat left behind in an empty house. Without the dramatic happenings during the Foyster tenancy, the book would have been much less dramatic and, presumably, less commercially successful. So, Price swallowed his pride, put aside his doubts and wrote about events at Borley in a curious, deadpan style, simply recounting what he had been told without ever stating whether he believed this to be true. If Price lies in the two Borley books, it is only by omission. Everything he states in these books is true in as much as that stories are recounted as told to Price. But he makes no attempt to discredit events that he clearly knew to be hoaxed.
Photograph from The End of Borley Rectory
Perhaps the most telling example occurs in the second book about Borley, The End of Borley Rectory. In this book there is a chapter titled The Last Phenomenon? This describes Price’s final visit to Borley Rectory in April 1944, as the house was being demolished. He was accompanied by Cynthia Ledsham (researcher) and David Scherman (photographer) from the American magazine Life. As the three stood around 100 feet from the partially demolished building so that Scherman could take a photograph, Price describes how a brick “A brick shot up about four feet into the air in front of what remained of the kitchen passage and all three saw it.” The book includes both the original photograph of this event and an enlargement apparently showing a brick floating in the air. The caption to this enlargement reads in part:
“If, indeed, this was a genuine paranormal phenomenon, then we have the first photograph ever taken of a Poltergeist projectile in flight.”
Now that qualification ”If, indeed, this was a genuine paranormal phenomenon…” seems odd at first glance. Price appears to be describing a scene where three people witness a levitating brick and a photographer takes a picture confirming this. If this happened as described, surely there is no need to qualify this with “if…” or to include a question mark in the title of the chapter?
Enlarged version of the levitating brick photograph, also from The End of Borley Rectory
The reason for Price’s extreme caution in describing this event became apparent when Cynthia Ledsham was interviewed in 1950 about this event:
“As I told you at our first meeting about a year ago, I had first hand experience of the most bare-faced hocus pocus on the part of the late Harry Price. In April 1944 Mr David Scherman and I were escorted down to Borley by Harry Price. Mr Price’s version of what occurred appears on page 284 of `The End of Borley Rectory’. He refers to a mysterious ‘flying brick’, photographed by Mr Scherman. As Mr Price pointed out, there were no strings, no wire attached, but what he failed to mention is that there was a brawny workman still at work behind the wall. All three of us saw him as we passed the house towards the spot where the photograph was taken. There is no doubt at all that the flying bricks, several of which came out at regular intervals, were propelled by this workman as part of his demolition work.”
So it seems that in the case of the levitating brick, as so often in the two Borley books, Price was being more than a little disingenuous. The photograph that happened to catch a tossed brick in mid-air was just too good an opportunity to miss. He never actually claimed that he or the other two witnesses saw the brick levitate, but the text is written in such a way that an unwary reader may assume that to be the case, especially when confronted by the photograph. Price can’t quite bring himself to lie about what happened, but he seems happy to write in such as way that some readers will believe that the photograph actually shows a mysterious floating brick.
If Harry Price hadn’t written his two books about Borley Rectory, I doubt that many people today would have heard of this case. Most contemporary readers (and many later readers) assumed that Price would bring the same skeptical, scientific approach to investigating Borley as he had to looking at many other phenomena. But this just wasn’t the case. Price badly needed a successful book and he knew that people were keen to learn more about Borley. But to produce anything interesting, he had to be willing to repeat unsubstantiated tall tales as if he believed them and to ignore his own knowledge that many of the events he described as supernatural were faked. The result was two massively popular and influential books that provided no real evidence of ghosts or a haunting.
Borley Rectory is a wonderful, romantic and exciting ghost story peopled by fascinating characters. But I’m afraid that’s all it is: a story. There is no basis whatever for believing that there were ever any ghosts or poltergeists at Borley. All the supposed supernatural events were caused by hallucination due to illness, invented, faked or experienced by people who already believed that Borley Rectory was haunted and interpreted every creak and groan of the old building as evidence for this. All the entities which haunted Borley were human and living. Even the one piece of alleged hard evidence, the photograph of the “levitating” brick, is not what it seems. In the last ten years of its existence, the sinister reputation that Borley Rectory had acquired was exploited by a number of people who hoped to make money out of it and it seems entirely fitting that the final owner and occupier of the house was yet another hopeful con-man. This is one mystery that I think we can safely assign to the “solved” pile.
The Foxearth and District Local History Society website. Fascinating website which contains (amongst lots of other local history) a large number of well-written articles and original photographs covering Borley Rectory and its occupants. Not always easy to find material, so use the “search archive” facility and enter “Borley” as the keyword.
Harry Price Website, an excellent website devoted to the life and works of Harry Price. Contains a fair amount of information about Borley Rectory including the full text of the 1956 SPR paper on this case.
The Most Haunted House in England, 1940, by Harry Price
This is a 2003 reprint of the original book about Borley Rectory by Harry Price.
The End of Borley Rectory, 1944, by Harry Price.
This is a 2014 reprint of the second book about Borley Rectory by Harry Price.
The Enigma of Borley Rectory, 1996, by Ivan Banks
A book which provides some good background to the Borley Rectory mystery, but seems to spend rather too much time trying to discover who or what was causing the haunting rather than asking whether any form of haunting actually took place. Generally well researched, but doesn’t always use this evidence objectively – for example, the death of Henry Bull due to Locomotor Ataxia is noted, but not the obvious inference that due to this, in the last years of his life, Henry Bull was most probably as crazy as a coot.
The Borley Rectory Companion: The Complete Guide to the Most Haunted House in England, 2009, by Paul Adams, Peter Underwood and Eddie Brazil
Not so much a book about Borley as an encyclopedia of everything associated with this case. Obviously the result of a vast amount of research but not, for me at least, skeptical enough when analyzing the “evidence.”
We Faked the Ghosts of Borley, 2000, by Louis Mayerling
A book in which the author claims to have assisted various occupants of Borley Rectory to fake supernatural events. Which sounds as if it should be interesting, but it quickly becomes apparent that the author is even more of a fantasist than the people who reported ghosts at Borley. There may even be a grain of truth in this book, but it’s so full of internal contradictions and inconsistencies that it’s very difficult to be certain.