Harry Price at Borley
From the preceding pages the reader, if he has had the patience to follow us thus far, will be able to decide for himself what remains of the evidence for the haunting of Borley Rectory. Never before to our knowledge has such an examination been attempted, and rarely before has such a wealth of evidence been presented to sustain a theory of a true haunting. The story of Borley was, as Price put it, ‘the most extraordinary and best documented case' in the annals of psychical research. Were it not for the immense publicity given to the case and the continuing interest in it which still persists even to the present day, we should not have considered it our duty to undertake the heavy labour which a detailed examination of the case entailed. Partly through his earlier books, but mainly through his investigation of Borley Rectory, Price became known as a leading psychical researcher of reputation, although there were some who always distrusted him and did not care to be too closely associated with him.
The question as to whether Price presented a deliberately distorted account of the Borley affair in his books is not, we think, now in doubt, for this is a matter of simple comparison of the original reports preserved in the University of London with those reproduced in the published literature. Significant examples occur on many pages of this report. (1) The probability of positive trickery on Price's part in addition to his manipulation of the testimony is not, for obvious reasons, so readily capable of proof at this distance of time. However, it may be thought that the curious matter of the medals (pp. 6I-4), the written testimony of Lord Charles Hope, Major the Hon. H. Douglas-Home and Mr Charles Sutton (pp. 33; 71; 132-3; 31) and the odd circumstances surrounding the excavation of the bone fragments (pp. 154-6I), combine to produce a disquieting picture. Most suspicious of all perhaps is the coincidence of the first outbreak of violent objective manifestations at the rectory with the first visit by Price to Borley in June 1929 (pp. 39-4I;45). Extraordinary coincidences do occur, of course, but if this explanation is not accepted the circumstances point somewhat directly to Price himself being responsible for the throwing of stones, keys and medals (of which Price was a collector), for the transformation of liquids into ink (which occurred on one other occasion only, in Price's presence) and for the similar
1 See pp. 48-9; 67; 86-7; 131, etc.
incidents which exemplified the complete change in the pattern of the Borley ‘phenomena' which took place at this time.
The case for the haunting of Borley Rectory, however, does not depend entirely upon the testimony and dealings of Harry Price. Had it been so we should hardly have undertaken the task of the critical appraisal of the evidence. The case rests upon the testimony of many other persons, and it is clear that their opinions were coloured by the stories which had for long been circulated about the house and the paranormal events said to occur therein. The very nature of the history of Borley Rectory tended to encourage the acceptance of the theory of haunting. Indeed, the extraordinary series of circumstances attending the Bull, Smith and Foyster incumbencies all led less cautious students to the opinion that Borley really was haunted and thus created the very atmosphere that Price wanted to prevail during his own tenancy and the later observational periods. Yet when analysed, the evidence for haunting and poltergeist activity for each and every period appears to diminish in force and finally to vanish away.
It would be tedious and unprofitable to attempt here in any detail a summarised criticism of the story of the haunting, since a short history has already been given in the preceding chapters. We shall, however, say that we are of the opinion that the spiritualistic beliefs of the Rev. Harry Bull were sufficient foundation for the early accounts of apparitions, particularly in view of his position of dual authority as rector and land-owner in a small agricultural community. It is perhaps significant that some members of the family denied the validity of these stories, which seem never to have spread beyond Borley itself until 1929. If Mrs Smith's explanation of the circumstances obtaining during her husband's incumbency be accepted, nothing more need be said regarding this period except that Price's appearance on the scene with a newspaper reporter adequately accounts for the wide publicity given to the case in 1929, and that it appears probable that the sudden beginning of `poltergeist' activity at this time needs no other explanation than the presence of Price himself. It is curious that his abrupt loss of interest in the case in July 1929 coincided with the pebble-throwing incident reported by Mr Charles Sutton (pp. 31-3) and with his possible knowledge of the suspicions of Lord Charles Hope (p. 33).
Only a small portion of the results of our investigation of the circumstances of the Foyster incumbency is included in this report, but we have perhaps sufficiently indicated that we are of the convinced opinion that a paranormal explanation need not be sought
for the extraordinary events which took place whilst that curious household was at Borley. However, the tenancy added to the reputation of the house so that by 1937, when Price renewed his interest in the case after five and a half years, he was able over the name of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation to direct the attention of his observers to evidence for the haunting of the rectory during a period of some forty years. The barrage of suggestion directed against the almost wholly inexperienced observers through the medium of the Blue Book of Instructions, the history and somewhat sinister appearance of the house and its peculiar acoustic properties, coupled with the haphazard arrangements of the so-called investigation were, we think, sufficient to account for the very minor incidents reported during the year of Price's tenancy. The number of events was surprisingly small and, as we have shown, many of the noises and other commonplace incidents reported were qualified in the original documents as being probably attributable to natural causes, although these qualifications were omitted by Price in MHH.
Among the most important witnesses was, as we have seen, the late Mr S. H. Glanville. His opinions were much modified after he became acquainted with the new facts which have been set out in the preceding pages. This report would not be complete without our acknowledgment of the assistance given to us by Mr Glanville, who freely placed at our disposal his considerable experience as an observer in the rectory in 1937 and 1938 and his wide and detailed knowledge of the whole Borley affair. To anyone who ever met him it is quite unnecessary for us to say that none of the observations we have made regarding Harry Price's presentation of the case is applicable to him in any way whatsoever. It has, however, been stated by Dr Paul Tabori in his Biography of a Ghost Hunter (London, 1950) that Mr Glanville was in charge of the investigation, and since we regard this remark as misleading we think it desirable that we should comment upon his attitude towards the Borley mystery and the part he played in it.
Mr Glanville was the first observer to enrol in response to Price's advertisement. Far from being in control of the investigation, he informed us that he deplored the laxity of its organisation by which, in the absence of a common log book at the rectory and the transmission of all reports to Price, each observer was without knowledge of the activities of his predecessors. With this qualification, however, Mr Glanville, his son and a small circle of friends made the best possible use of the weekends they spent at Borley. It was Mr Glanville who prepared the excellent plans and photographs which illustrated the first Borley book and who collected
the factual information about the rectory and its inhabitants which is not in dispute. The results of this work were placed at Price's disposal when the latter asked for the loan of Mr Glanville's notebook at the close of the observational period. As Mr Glanville has said in a manuscript which may be published, he did not regard himself as an investigator but as an observer and an accumulator of evidence, good, bad and indifferent, to be sorted out by Price in his capacity as Hon. Secretary of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation. Thus the planchette experiments, for example, produced a mass of séance data duly recorded in Mr Glanville's notebook. He told us he placed no faith at all in this material, believing as he did that these messages merely originated in the subconscious minds of the operators. He did not believe that any such person as Marie Lairre ever existed and deplored the fantastic theories which have been built up around her. He did not accept any of the alleged apports at Borley as paranormally produced and was as critical as we are over much of the testimony for the haunting of the rectory, particularly in the later years.
On the other hand Mr Glanville was of the opinion that during the observational periods of himself, his son and a small group of friends for whose integrity and critical faculty he could personally vouch, a number of inexplicable incidents, mainly of an auditory nature, occurred under good conditions. We admit that Mr Glanville's account of these happenings, for some of which it is difficult to offer any satisfactory explanation at this distance of time, constitutes one of the most puzzling features of the whole case. There is, of course, evidence to show that the acoustic properties of the courtyard could have caused sounds in the vicinity of the cottage to be mistaken for footsteps and knocks in the house, but whilst the possibility of echoes is not disputed, Mr Glanville was convinced, as is his son also, that some of the louder sounds could not be reasonably accounted for in this way. As the rectory is not now in existence, experiments are not possible and we must be content to leave the matter at that.
In Mr Glanville the late Harry Price had a loyal friend and helper, but whether that loyalty was fully appreciated and reciprocated is a matter of opinion. Mr Glanville's integrity and standing in his profession were virtues of which Price made use; he liked to have Mr Glanville with him on public occasions involving Borley, often to the latter's embarrassment when exaggerated claims were made. It is, however, a remarkable fact that, although in constant touch with Mr Glanville at the time and living only some two miles away, Price should have refrained from mention
ing to him his proposed excavations at Borley in 1943, and should have given Mr Glanville no opportunity to be present (see p. I6I). We have suggested that the fog of mystery and confusion in which Price seems to have enveloped the rectory wells and the discovery of the bone fragments may have concealed something more than mere inexact reporting. If this happens to be true, then clearly he could have paid Mr Glanville, of whose absolute honesty he was fully aware, no more sincere compliment than the curious omission to invite him to be present at Borley on that occasion.
At this point it may perhaps be relevant to make a few remarks on the reasons for the serious treatment that the Borley story received from responsible reviewers and persons with established reputations. In this connection it will be convenient to discuss rather more fully than hitherto the opinions of the two late eminent jurists, Sir Albion Richardson, K.C., C.B.E., and Sir Ernest Jelf, Senior Master of the Supreme Court, whose views we have already mentioned (see p. 8), and whose opinions were used by the publishers of The End of Borley Rectory to embellish the intriguing blurb printed on the wrapper of that volume.
Thus Sir Albion Richardson, writing to Price on 22 May 1945 and sending him a statement regarding the evidence which Price could use in his book, said :
It may well be asked how it was that such opinions could be expressed when it was clear that neither of the two distinguished lawyers had made any real attempt to examine the evidence on which they relied. Part of the answer was provided by Sir Ernest Jelf himself in his article in the Law Times of q August 1941. There he points out that, from the point of view of a legal trial, there was no `evidence'. Readers were not in the position of a jury who had heard the witnesses give their story upon which they had been cross-examined. The story in the box might well differ from that told in the proofs. Their position was, therefore, rather that of a counsel who, having read the proofs, was asked if a good case existed for substantiating them. And Sir Ernest's opinion
was that they did present a very strong case, stronger indeed `than most of us could ever have believed possible before we had read the book', and that, on the face of it, it was difficult `to understand what cross-examination could possibly shake it'.
These opinions are weighty and cannot be ignored. In order to understand them more fully it is necessary to discuss very briefly the nature of legal evidence and to show how its standards fall below what is required for scientific purposes.
In law, evidence may be regarded as the means (apart from argument) which `tend to prove or disprove any matter of fact the truth of which is submitted to judicial investigation' (Taylor). Now, one of the most important weaknesses in legal procedure relates to what are called `facts'. Although evidence is almost wholly concerned with them, it is rare indeed that we find any lengthy discussion or definition of them, and it is precisely here that we can see most clearly the division which separates the `facts' of law from the `facts' of science.
The expression of a fact must be clothed in words, and thus it has been said that, in one sense, a fact is the subject matter of a proposition, e.g. `a dog has four legs.' Generally speaking, many assertions about facts can be verified here and now; other assertions relate to events in the past which were formerly verified or, as is more usually the case, can only be established through various kinds of oral and written testimony.
In science, we deal generally not with particular facts but with facts of a particular kind. The facts or data of science are liable to be checked by further observation and experiment before they are accepted as the basis of scientific theories and laws. In law, however, and especially in criminal law, the `facts in issue' are not usually amenable to experimental proof. The evidence relating to them may be direct, i.e. the evidence of a fact actually in dispute or one actually perceived by a witness, or circumstantial, where evidence of facts not actually in issue is examined since it may be possible to infer from it facts which are in issue. The evidence presented may be the verbal testimony of a witness, the evidence embodied in documents, or the direct, real evidence of some material object such as the medallions alleged to have mysteriously appeared in Borley Rectory.
In law, evidence is divided into various classes according to its supposed value. Thus what is termed `best evidence' is that provided by a witness in the box giving his own observations. In the case of documentary evidence it is, of course, the document itself. Legal text-books often fail to stress the important point that many of the facts in dispute are really events which are terminated
at the time that it is sought to establish them by evidence. There is, however, more in it than this. Since the evidence to be discussed cannot be recalled into active existence, we must depend upon human testimony where instrumental aid is not forthcoming. Human observation is fallible and is affected by many defects of sight, hearing, emotional states of mind and physiological conditions of body together with a nexus of preconceived ideas and prejudices. It has, indeed, been said that witnesses, even if honest and free from glaring preconceptions, cannot be expected to be more than 50 per cent correct in their statements in the box. The data, therefore, on which the judge often has to form his findings, are confused memories and feelings relating to what the witness thought that he observed at the time. Moreover, since the jury have to observe the witness, take stock of his demeanour and note his mannerisms, a second set of subjective elements enters into the question and still further obscures the issue. Thus, the `facts' as found in law can often never be known to be identical with the actual past events to which they are supposed to refer. To what extent the jury's picture of the facts approximates to the actual past events, no one can be sure. It is not therefore surprising that Oliver Wendell Holmes once said of lawyers: `we have been cocksure of many things that were not so." (1)
From the above brief discussion of the nature of `facts' in law and science it will, perhaps, be understood how lawyers and many other educated people accepted the evidence for the haunting of Borley Rectory. Treating the witnesses' accounts as `facts' instead of distorted memories and guesses, derived partly from notes and partly from recollections of what they thought they saw, felt and heard, and having at the same time little appreciation of the kind of material with which they were dealing, they were influenced by the barrage of suggestion put up by Price and became not only the victims of his propaganda but active supporters of his case to the detriment of truth and historical accuracy. Hours of patient analytical work, such as that by Canon Phythian-Adams, have been wasted because those undertaking it believed in the tales put out by Price and in the reliability of the material submitted to them. Fantastic theories were devised to cover points in the
1 Quoted by H. W. R. Wade in the Modern Law Review (1940-1i, iv, p. 192). To those interested in the psychology of errors in legal fact-finding we recommend E. M. Borchard's Convicting the Innocent (New Haven, 1932) where 65 cases are described and analyzed. In a somewhat biting criticism of `legal science', Loevinger in his paper on jurimetrics (Minn. Law Rev., Ap. 1949, xxxiii, p. 475) goes so far as to say that amongst lawyers there seems to be 'complete failure to understand the nature of scientific method - or for that matter of philosophy'.
narrative which, had the true facts been known, would never have been considered at all. Some of these `pointers' and `clues' were ingeniously worked out; and in EBR two chapters are devoted to those propounded by the Canon of Carlisle. He argues his case with lucidity, and his selection and interpretation of his `apport clues' demonstrate at least a lively imagination. With respect, however, we think that in the case of some of his `indicators' he could have made his story even more compelling. For example, he suggests that the dead and dry frog found by Mr Kerr-Pearse points to the well-tank in that it represents a 'place-once-wet-but-now-filled-in' (EBR, p. i87). Oddly enough he does not suggest the obvious additional clue to the nationality of the nun. French soldiers have from time immemorial been referred to by the British Army as `Froggies', and we think that in this example the piling of Pelion upon Ossa would have been additionally compelling.
Such methods of reasoning are common throughout the whole field of psychical research and examples of it can easily be found scattered up and down the literature. It was the immense advertisement given to Borley that persuaded so many otherwise sensible people that the `phenomena' taking place there were truly paranormal, and that this was the kind of thing that serious psychical researchers were inclined to credit.
To some people Price seemed to possess a complex personality whilst to others the motives which inspired him were simple and clear-cut. One of us (EJD) knew him well for nearly thirty years, while KMG knew him for over twenty years and was associated with him in many of his later activities and investigations. He was a man of abounding energy and had a wide range of interests and a practical acquaintance with a good many technical matters from numismatics to radio communication and conjuring. Trained as an engineer, he ran his own amateur workshop and some of his apparatus and gadgets were of first class workmanship.
If the events in his life be examined, it seems that it was only after his introduction to the serious study of physical mediumship, through his visit with E J D to Munich in 1922, that his thoughts turned towards making himself in England what he thought Schrenck-Notzing was in Germany. From that moment his course was set, but he went far beyond the aims of the German investigator, for not only did he become the head of a so-called National Laboratory but he gradually established himself as the leading British journalist on psychic matters and exposer of fraudulent mediums.
As Price's fame grew, so did the desire of others to share in observing the marvels he described increase. With the founding of his National Laboratory, he gathered around himself a number of scientific men who were interested in parapsychology. These were permitted to attend some of the séances and so provide publicity for Price and for the newspapermen with whom he was deservedly popular. The same course was followed when, after the demise of the National Laboratory, the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation was set up in 1934, an institution which actually had no official connection whatever with the University of London.
We cannot now determine with certainty the extent of Price's belief, if any, in the paranormality of the events he described so graphically. It is certain, we think, that he did not believe in many of the phenomena. His scepticism is sufficiently indicated by his privately expressed opinion of Mrs Foyster and his entire lack of interest, apart from one visit, in the case between July 1929 and the spring of 1937. As was said in the obituary in Nature (29 March 1948), `Through the death of Mr Harry Price, psychical research has lost its most distinguished journalist and writer of popular descriptive accounts of adventures with the unknown.' A critic once quoted one of his sayings that `so many people preferred bunk to de-bunk' - adding `and that was what he gave them'. (1) It is possible to regard Price as a brilliant if cynical journalist who used the material gathered either in his laboratory or in the field in such a way that its publicity value was highest. As we have seen, if the material lacked sensational elements it would seem that he was prepared at times to provide these himself. On the other hand, his motives may have been more complex; he may have thought that there was some genuine basis on which to build his stories, and that, by supplying what he thought to be the proper psychological milieu, the genuine elements could more easily emerge.
To state, as we have done, that his work is wanting from the point of view of serious research and that, by his love of publicity and his temperamental deficiencies, he failed to achieve lasting results such as few can have had the luck and responsibility of approaching - leaves unsaid those things for which he deserves credit. With all that can be said against him, it must be admitted that it was he who, since Lodge, put psychical research on the map for the man-in-the-English-street. But was it the right map? And one of us (KMG) cannot omit a personal acknowledgment
1 See J. R. Sturge-Whiting, The Mystery of Versailles (London, 1938), p. vii and cf. Psychic News, 17 September 1949.
of gratitude, for she (and many others) owed to him and the hospitality offered at his Laboratory an active experience of the problems and investigation of mediumship which was unobtainable anywhere else in England at that time.
Were this report merely another attempt to expose a badly conducted and fraudulent case, we should not have attempted it. It is, however, much more than that, for here we have tried to show how this kind of evidence is to be appraised, how important it is to understand the psychology of testimony, and how fatally easy it is to be led astray in this field, when those who should exhibit the most absolute integrity in their work are themselves in the plot to deceive their followers and the public who believe in their good faith. Finally, the report illustrates the influence of suggestion in this work, and shows how, once the mind has been affected, belief can be strengthened and simple events misinterpreted in order to
fit them into the desired pattern. Sir Albion Richardson stated that `Borley Rectory stands by itself in the literature of psychical research' (EBR, p. 324). Perhaps we may say that, fairly well acquainted as we are with that literature, we are inclined to doubt it. It is certainly, as Sir Albion said, a `fascinating chapter in the history of psychical research', but its fascination is hardly the kind to which Sir Albion was alluding.
Contents . Note & Preface . Diary of Events . I. Introduction . II. Topography & Legends . III. The Bull Incumbencies . IV. The Smith Incumbency & Harry Price . V. The Foyster Incumbency . VI. The Price Tenancy . VII. Later Borley . VII. Conclusions
The Base Room .
Séance Room .
Famous Cases .
Borley Rectory .
Books By Price .
Writings By Price .
Books About Price .
About This Site
All original text, photographs & graphics used throughout this website are © copyright 2004-2005 by Paul G. Adams. All other material reproduced here is the copyright of the respective authors.