Harry Price at Borley
Of all the phenomena investigated by psychical researchers, those connected with alleged hauntings and poltergeists may perhaps be considered the most puzzling. For not only do they combine the physical and the non-physical but this interaction appears, if records are to be credited, to be associated with intelligent direction. Moreover, some at least of the phenomena are facts which cannot be denied by anybody who is capable of understanding the nature of evidence. Thus the fact that, through the centuries, persons have had experiences which they term 'seeing ghosts' is as certain as that other persons have had hallucinations when under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or morbid mental states. The interpretation may be erroneous: the experience is certain.
If we look back through the past it seems that these hallucinatory experiences were often recorded as occurring in certain localities or in so-called 'haunted houses'. Sometimes those experiencing them noted and preserved accounts of events of this sort which they could not explain, describing them as heavy knockings, thuds and taps, the sound of bulky objects being dragged about, resounding crashes, sighs, shrieks, and groans. Indeed, the similarity of these experiences suggests that some common factors are to be sought which may be either external to the observers or a product of their own psychological structure or, perhaps, as seems more likely, a combination of the two. The multiplicity and complexity of the material to be studied, coupled with the sporadic nature of the manifestations, make these events peculiarly difficult to investigate, and it is not surprising that in the whole of the literature there is hardly a single case which has been adequately examined in a scientific manner. Indeed, at the time of writing, we do not know of any case where proper instrumental registration has been competently employed in order to determine whether the sounds heard were objective or subjective, although it would seem that in many instances those that are objective may be normal in origin and have no relation to other sounds which appear to be subjective in character.
For the purpose of convenient differentiation it has been found useful to distinguish between the alleged phenomena of haunting and those of the so-called poltergeist. In the case of the latter, material objects are thrown about, furniture is upset and crockery smashed. Whatever may be the cause of these destructive mani-
festations, they are not often associated with the phenomena of haunting proper, which partake rather of the nature of hallucination than of clean-cut interference with the material world. Thus in the famous Ballechin case - 'the most haunted house in Scotland' (1) although Mr Harry Price maintained that poltergeist phenomena were observed this was not, we think, actually the case, unless it be urged that the reported pulling of the bedclothes was objective. Indeed the combination of alleged haunting and poltergeist phenomena at Borley Rectory tended early in the case to create in the minds of informed critics a suspicion that the story of the Borley haunt was not precisely that which Price was trying to build up. How abundantly justified these suspicions were will, we think, be clearly seen in this report.
As we have said above, there has been no carefully conducted survey either of the phenomena of haunting or of poltergeists. Although an attempt was made in the case of Ballechin House, it did not prove possible to employ instrumental aids, and thus the question as to whether the tremendous thumps, clangings, and explosions were or were not objective could not be fully resolved.
In June 1929 the Daily Mirror (London) carried a series of articles on the alleged haunting of Borley Rectory in Essex and not far from Long Melford in Suffolk. Through a series of circumstances to be discussed later, Price was asked to assist the newspaper's reporter who was at the rectory which was then occupied by the Rev. G. Eric Smith and his wife. As the reporter said in the issue of the Daily Mirror for 10 June 1929, all the ingredients of a 'first-class ghost story' were awaiting the investigation of psychic experts. Commenting on the newspaper's invitation Price in The Most Haunted House in England (2) (hence-forward called MHH) truly stated that he little dreamt that this first-class ghost story was to 'become the best authenticated case of haunting in the annals of psychical research'. It is clear that at that time he had no idea in his mind that the events at Borley might become a framework around which could be, built a dramatic and complex ghost story arrayed in scientific garb. The legend was already there. It had only to be clothed, embellished, and supported by the testimony of others to become alive again. We shall see later how subsequent events gradually persuaded Price to seize the opportunity with both hands, but it was not before 1940 that his first book on the subject (i.e. MHH) was published and created something of a sensation, converting
1 The Alleged Haunting of B- House (London, 1900), p. 70.
2 London, 1940, p. 1.
numbers of persons, including, oddly enough, jurists of reputation, to a belief in the paranormal character of the Borley phenomena.
It is on this volume and that subsequently published in London in 1946, (1) together with other printed material on Borley, that the present report is based. In addition, however, we have had access to an immense mass of unpublished documents, correspondence, and notes, to which have been added the results of our own enquiries and personal interviews with persons who were involved in the case. As enquiry after enquiry was pursued, it gradually became clear that in the alleged haunting of Borley Rectory we had a case of surpassing interest, not only for the psychical researcher, but also for the student of psychology generally and above all the psychology of testimony and its value under certain unusual conditions. The tale of the Borley haunting developed into a really good ghost story because the legendary skeleton became clothed with a body of material which passed for reality and anything that weakened the flimsy structure was glossed over or treated as of no importance. Normal causes were discounted, critics silenced or their objections overruled, and commonplace happenings were magnified into mysterious and incredible phenomena. 'Everything is incredible connected with Borley Rectory', wrote Price (MHH, p. 152), and even a queer insect seen in the grounds was 'Impossible ... just one of the many "impossible" things that have happened in this "enchanted" Rectory.' (2)
Price had, it seemed, found at last the repeatable experiment, 'laid on' as it were. 'As a scientist', he wrote, 'I can guarantee you a ghost'. (3)
Few reviewers, as far as we can ascertain, were bold enough to look behind the facçade of suggestion and direct statement put out by Price in MHH. But Mr V. S. Pritchett, in the Bystander for 23 October 1940, ventured to mention how a Mrs Mansbridge, according to her husband's report of 5 September 1937, 'felt the end of the belt of her coat lifted and dropped again' (MHH, p. 233). In Price's version of the incident (p. 128) the belt was 'lifted and dropped again by an unseen hand'. How did Price know that it was a hand, asked Mr Pritchett, adding that no hand had been mentioned by the lady concerned. He forgot that when ghosts are guaranteed, unseen hands must surely be about.
1 The End of Borley Rectory (henceforward called EBR).
2 MHH, p. 136. The only other case known to us of insects said to playa part in a haunt are the queer moths in the very curious Cape Cod case (see Harpers Magazine, November 1934, clxix, 733-41).
3 Listener, 10 November 1937, p. 1014.
Before passing to a detailed account of the various stages of the investigation of Borley Rectory, we propose giving the reader a few examples of the materials and methods used in building up the legend.
In cases of this kind it is, of course, useful to maintain that dwellers in the house have had nothing to do with Spiritualism or things psychic. Had they been thus interested it might have been plausibly suggested that their observations and conclusions had possibly been influenced or biased by their beliefs. Thus, in dealing with the life of the Bulls since the rectory was built in 1863, Price states (MHH, p. 74) that 'not one of the Bull family, including the Foysters, is concerned with psychical research or spiritualism or knows anything about the subject'. The use of the present tense in this passage is to be especially noted. But even as it stands, the alleged ignorance of those of the Bull family not at that time living in Borley Rectory is somewhat doubtful, considering the interest that their close relations and former rectors of Borley had in the spirits. For example, Price reports that the small summer-house in the garden was often used by the Rev. Henry Bull to commune with the spirits (although this has been denied by a son and daughter in conversation and in writing); and that his son, the Rev. Harry Bull, assured a Mr J. Harley that on many occasions he had himself had personal communications from spirits and that when he died he would, if discontented, adopt devices causing violent physical reactions, such as breaking glass, in order to try to communicate with the inhabitants of the rectory (MHH, pp. 25, 50).
A further brief instance may suffice to show how, by omissions from the original reports provided by his observers, Price did not allow readers of his books the opportunity of considering normal causes as an explanation for many of the phenomena. One of Price's principal observers, Mr Mark Kerr-Pearse, in his report dated 26 June 1937 mentioned a rose tree which was repeatedly blown backwards and forwards against the wall causing knocks which 'might provide an excellent "ghost" for the imaginative'. This observation may also have been made by another observer, Mr M. Knox, of University College, Oxford, who, writing to Price on 19 February 1938, stated that he noticed 'several bushes near the house which might produce a rapping noise against the walls or windows if the wind blew', and further remarked that during the night he and his friends heard 'repeated and distinct thuds or raps, one every ten or twenty seconds', which they attributed, not to the ghosts, but to the bushes outside the house. Price did not print the observations of either Mr Kerr-Pearse or
Mr Knox, although he mentions bushes as possible causes of sounds in the 'Blue Book' of instructions issued to his corps of observers.
From the above examples, which have been selected from a much more damaging mass of material to be discussed later, it will be seen how Price built up the case for the Borley haunting. But before closing this brief introduction to our report on Borley, a word must be said on Price's scheme, formulated in 1937, by which independent observers should visit Borley and report their findings. (1)
In any scientific investigation of an alleged haunted house, it might be thought that the assistance of persons who had already had at least some experience in psychical research would have been sought. After all, the ordinary person, however intelligent, careful, and acute he may be, cannot be expected to know of or appreciate fully the very many pitfalls into which even the most experienced psychical researcher occasionally falls. In the majority of cases the layman knows little of the scope and range of hallucinatory phenomena, and is often unable to recognise that kind of abnormal occurrence which the expert knows at once should receive special attention. If, on the other hand, what was wanted was bricks to build a good story, at least two points were to be favoured, (a) that the observers should know little about psychical research or the investigation of the alleged phenomena and (b) that they should receive every kind of suggestion as to what they might see, hear, or feel. This was, then, the plan which Price in May 1937 began to put into operation. He inserted an advertisement in The Times of 25 May 1937 in which he asked for the assistance of 'responsible persons of leisure and intelligence, intrepid, critical and unbiassed'. 'Scientific training' was, the advertisement stated, 'an advantage', and a private car was essential.
In discussing this plan Price stated that if these observers 'knew nothing about psychical research, so much the better' (MHH, p. 106). To each of the observers who was chosen, certain conditions were indicated. Each had to be interviewed by Price; each had to sign a Declaration Form and receive a copy of the Blue Book of instructions, (2) in which was printed an account of the phenomena which, it was asserted, had been seen or heard in Borley Rectory for over forty years. Thus it was suggested to the visitors that the bells mysteriously rang; objects moved from previously determined positions; footsteps, heavy or soft, pattering
1 See MHH, pp. 116 ff.
2 See MHH, pp. 193 ff.
or shuffling, were heard; knockings, lights, perfumes, apports, apparitions, and other phenomena might be experienced. On the other hand, the observers were told to make 'the greatest effort' to ascertain whether the phenomena were due to normal causes, among which were included rats and farm animals nosing at doors, a factor which must have been inserted by Price for some good reason, although we have neither found any such occurrence reported by any observer nor any reference to its possibility.
The influence of suggestion on the investigation of haunted houses cannot be exaggerated. In every ordinary house sounds are heard and trivial incidents occur which are unexplained or treated as of no importance. But once the suggestion of the abnormal is put forward - and tentatively accepted - then these incidents become imbued with sinister significance: in fact, they become part of the 'haunt'.
Borley Rectory was absolutely ideal for such psychological mechanisms to operate, and we shall see in the following pages what effect they had on numerous observers. Here was a great rabbit-warren of a house, cold, draughty, and littered with rubbish, the walls covered with scrawls and squiggles. The very construction of the property, with its peculiar acoustics (see p. 68), favoured the manifestations. And Price took few steps to clear up the muddle and the mess. Indeed, his instructions added to the confusion instead of modifying it. No systematic record or log-book was kept, so that each batch of observers virtually started afresh in total ignorance of what their predecessors had done or what arrangements they had made. Again, it might be thought, in view of the prominence given to the supposed paranormal wall-markings, that Price would have taken the precaution of having at least a couple of walls re-whitewashed. No such thing was done. It was considered sufficient to ring round observed pencil markings and to presume that others found later without a ring were, ipso facto, freshly (and paranormally) produced. How faulty any such presumption was is well exemplified by notes written by Major the Hon. Henry Douglas-Home, who visited Borley and recorded as follows after reading MHH: 'To show how easy it is, in torchlight - or even daylight - to miss pencil marks on a distemper wall - which has been covered with scribbles, circles and dates - one night - a most observant parson friend of mine, my brother & myself, spent the night there. It was amazing [twice underlined] the number of small squiggles which the first person omitted to see - (we took it in turn each room & the other two followed shoulder to shoulder) ... No. I missed things that Nos. 2 & 3 could see the whole time!!' The more objects
left about the greater the confusion, and the greater the confusion the more chance of 'phenomena' being reported.
Without these suggestions in favour of the paranormal little sensational might have been reported, and as it was, some observers experienced nothing out of the ordinary: a fact which, when reported to Price and occasionally coupled with some mild criticism, was received with but little appreciation. The stock reply to all such objections was that one had to wait for phenomena to occur and stay in the house day by day in perfect quietness, watching and waiting. Moreover, Price added, the phenomena at Borley were 'stronger and more frequent' when the place was occupied by a family. But even these conditions were sometimes met and yet nothing happened. The Rev. Somerset E. Pennefather rented the house towards 1895 for six weeks in the summer. So far as was known by his son, Mr W. S. Pennefather, nothing strange or abnormal occurred. This statement is brushed aside by Price, since, he said, it would be difficult to remember trivial but unusual happenings after forty-five years. Had anything been remembered which would have supported the legend, we may be sure that it would have found a place in MHH.
Similarly, Canon H. Lawton (1) wrote to the Spectator in 1940 (p. 396) saying that in 1933 he and his family lived in the rectory for a month during the summer and never saw or heard anything out of the ordinary. Canon Lawton, whom we have interviewed and whose testimony will be discussed later (see pp. 108-10), actually found and read the MS. written by the Rev. L. A. Foyster (see p. 82) in which he described the amazing phenomena said to occur during his incumbency. Canon Lawton, however, who struck us as an extremely reliable and level-headed person and not at all suggestible, said nothing to his wife and during their stay they heard none of the bangs, thuds, or footsteps, or if they did, ascribed them to the normal accompaniments of life in a big country house with the doors and windows open. The Canon's experiences were treated by Price just as he had treated those of Mr Pennefather. To him these gentlemen were merely unlucky, inasmuch as either they proved immune to the psychic influences which permeated the very air of the most haunted house in England or those same influences remained in abeyance during their sojourn there.
From the few examples given above, the reader may get some idea of how the ground was laid for what was to follow and how
1 Hon. Canon of Manchester Cathedral (1950-53) and now (1954) Hon. Canon and Sub-Dean of the Pro-Cathedral at Buenos Aires.
the minds of the observers were prepared for the reception of just those ideas which Price wanted to plant therein. In the succeeding chapters we shall trace the story of the rectory in detail and show how, owing to the flimsy nature of the early evidence, it was some time before Price himself realised what could be made of what in 1929 was already a first-class ghost story.
When it was over and the connected story printed and published, its reception must have surprised even Price himself. Sir Albion Richardson, K.C., C.B.E., the eminent jurist, declared that the manifestations were proved by the evidence to the point of moral certainty (see EBR, p. 325) and Sir Ernest Jelf, then Senior Master of the Supreme Court, in discussing the case in the Law Times of 9 August 1941, stated that he was at a 'loss to understand what cross-examination could possibly shake it' (EBR, p. 323). Sir Ernest's article reveals a strange inability to understand what constitutes valid evidence in cases of this kind. It will be part of our task in this report to try to indicate how material of this sort is to be appraised, to show how one fact is to be weighed against another, and how the whole of the evidence must be considered against a background of wilful deception, incompetent investigation, and a barrage of suggestion directed against the observers, many of whom seem to have been chosen with at least one qualification: that is to say, a lack of acquaintance with the technical methods to be used in the enquiry with which they were expected to deal.
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 .
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