The story of Borley Rectory is as much a story of alleged ghost sightings as it is about modern Britain. A Victorian house that gained fame as the most haunted in England, Borley’s saga includes sensationalist tabloid headlines, a scandalous affair and an eccentric raconteur whose motives are questioned to this day.
With the long-awaited release of Ashely Thorpe’s film Borley Rectory, starring Reece Shearsmith as journalist V.C. Wall and Jonathon Rigby as the controversial investigator Harry Price, Vampire Squid brings you the facts behind one of Britain’s most enduring mysteries.
The History of The Rectory
Borley Rectory was constructed in 1862 to house the rector of the parish of Borley – a small village in Suffolk that would probably have been forgotten by history, had the following events not occurred. The home was built for the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull and his family of fourteen children in return for offering his services to the relatively small Borley community.
In quintessential English fashion, there was already a grim legend associated with Borley. In the 14th century, a monk at a Benedictine monastery started a relationship with a nun from a nearby convent. For this ‘crime’ the monk was executed whilst the nun was immured – that is to say, bricked up alive in the convent walls. That hardly seems like an equal punishment, but that’s medieval England for you.
Against this backdrop of quirky and suspicious rural life, it’s hardly surprising that paranormal events were reported shortly after Bull and his family set up shop. Locals would hear unexplained footsteps within the rectory. One of Bull’s children claimed to have been inexplicably woken in the night with a sharp slap to her face. Four of his daughters claimed to see the ghost of a nun at twilight. A phantom coach driven by two headless horsemen was repeatedly sighted. Interesting claims, but not that uncommon to find in such communities at the time.
Things really kicked-off when a new rector – the Reverend Guy Eric Smith – moved into the property in 1928.
Strange lights appeared in windows, disconnected servant bells rang and the unexplained footsteps returned, as did the phantom carriage. One day, Smith reported hearing an unknown voice say “Don’t Carlos, don’t!” on his way to the church. In a move he would later come to regret, Smith wrote to the Daily Mirror, asking to be put in touch in with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). The Mirror did put Smith in touch with an investigator but they also sent their own reporter to the property – the first of many – to write colourful headlines about the matter. Such publicity would later drive the Smiths to leave their home for quieter pastures. Harry Price was the investigator that took on the case and from that moment on, both Price and the rectory found their destinies entwined.
Price had already found a reasonable degree of fame as a stage magician; his knowledge of conjuring had brought him to attention of the SPR who wished to debunk fraudulent mediums that utilised such methods. Famously, Price had led the SPR team that had discredited the ‘spirit photographer’ William Hope. That Price did this with so much gusto and zeal wasn’t unusual; stage magicians at the time often publicly denounced psychics, mediums and the larger spiritualist movement. Harry Houdini was particularly active in this regard; he felt the tricks of his trade were too often employed by charlatans with nefarious intentions.
All the stories that were reported at the rectory up to Price’s involvement are just that – stories. Without any evidence to the contrary, we have to assume the earliest tales were largely made up by Bull’s inventive children looking for entertainment in an otherwise pedestrian environment. Price’s testimony, however, makes Borley’s story complicated.
What Price Saw
Price arrived at the rectory in the summer of 1929 and immediately began to identify a new kind of phenomena; stones and vases were thrown across rooms and so-called ‘spirit messages’ were tapped out from the frame of a mirror. As soon as Price left, however, these incidents ceased. Smith’s wife would later claim she suspected Price of falsifying the phenomena using his stage magic.
The Smiths left the rectory shortly after Price’s initial investigations and the parish found it difficult to find a replacement. Meanwhile, Britain’s fascination with hauntings peaked; we must remember this happened at the tail end of a wider spiritualist movement, when the likes of Alastair Crowley had massive followings and notions of the occult had found their way into periodicals with mainstream readerships. There was an appetite for tales of the supernatural like never before.
The Reverend Lionel Foyster took over the parish with his wife Marianne in 1930. They claimed to have witnessed some horrible activity, including violent poltergeist attacks, which they reported to Price in the years that followed. Lionel went as far to attempt an exorcism – curious that none of these men of faith had tried so before – to no avail. The Foyster’s left the property after suffering from ill health. In 1937, Price leased it for a year and wrote a book of his experiences – creating its infamous title in the process.
Price recruited a total of 48 ‘official observers’ to live in the house with him. A séance revealed the home to be haunted by two spirits; a nun that had been murdered on the site and one called Sunex Amures, who claimed that he would set the rectory on fire at 9:00 PM on March 27 1938, revealing the bones of a murdered person. That fire never occurred, however, one did occur on February 27 1939 when the rectory’s new owner knocked over an oil lamp, destroying much of the home.
In 1943, Price returned to the site to dig in the cellar of the rectory. He found bones that he thought belonged to a young woman. The bones were given a Christian burial in a neighbouring churchyard since Borley Church refused to do so, believing them to be pig bones. Price died shortly after the war and the SPR launched an investigation into his findings. They concluded that Price had fraudulently produced some of the phenomena – some being the operative word. Borley remained a contentious subject in the decades that followed for both believers and sceptics.
Did Price Believe in The Supernatural?
Price made a career out of debunking supernatural claims. Logically, this would imply that he wasn’t a believer. If Price wasn’t a believer, then surely that means he faked the events at Borley for fame, fortune and publicity? Well, let’s first explore Price’s character and see if he actually believed.
It is helpful to look at the SPR and their motivations. The Society has long claimed that their research is based on scientific rationalism and the pursuit of the truth. If we take this as gospel, it would imply that Price was a true sceptic. However, throughout the 20th century, the society was often attacked by the larger sceptic community, accused of having motives that impeded their scientific objectivity. The famous physicist Victor J. Stenger went as far as to say:
“Their journals have never succeeded in achieving a high level of credibility in the eyes of the rest of the scientific community. … most articles usually begin with the assumption that psychic phenomena are demonstrated realities.”
Ex member Eric Dingwall resigned because he felt members “wanted the phenomena into which they were inquiring to serve some purpose in supporting preconceived theories of their own.” It would seem that you don’t have to be a sceptic to be a member of the SPR. As a result, their investigations run the risk of being compromised by the biases of those that perform them.
It is conceivable, then, that Price considered real paranormal occurrences to be a possibility and he at least thought that he was witnessing unexplainable things at Borley.
Was Price a Fraud?
Personal details about the Foysters that harmed Price’s credibility later found their way into the public domain. It was said that the Reverend found it hard to survive on his church stipend of £6 a week and had encouraged Marianne to spread tales of hauntings at the rectory, knowing full well that money could be made from press interest. For her part, Marianne later admitted that she was having an affair with a lodger, Frank Pearless, and that she had made up stories to divert attention away from their relationship.
There is also the damming evidence of one Louis Mayerling, who had lived in the house with both the Bull’s and the Foysters. In his old age, he recounted how the Bull’s had encouraged their children to utilise the rectory’s many hidden doors and passageways to play tricks on guests that were later blamed on spirits. As for the Foysters; Mayerling said they knew exactly what they were doing, pointing out how the couple installed a new water heater which emitted heavy knocking sounds and proclaimed themselves horrified by the noises, and pitted the skirting boards with phosphorus powder which catches fire when exposed to the air.
This does seem to be the nitty-gritty question: was Price a fraud, a hustler, a conman or simply an innocent dupe? The evidence against him is compelling; he was a trained magician and an expert conjurer, so faking the events would have been easy. Unlike the Smiths he relished being in the limelight and made the most out of the site’s popularity to promote his own personal brand. Between this and the statements of those that were there at the time, the whole things seem like the equivalent of Most Haunted in the 1930s.
It is worth pointing out that, despite the controversy, Price had his believers. Among them were the preeminent minds of George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence, Sir Montagu Norman (Governor of the Bank of England), and Bernard Spilsbury, the Home Office criminal forensic scientist. They were all firm believers in the hauntings and attended séances at Borley. Price’s legacy has not entirely been tarnished; psychologists, scientists and biographers have often been sympathetic when recounting his overall life’s achievements. Maybe, then, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge him based on the events at Borley alone.