Harry Price at Borley
The purpose of this chapter is to examine the testimony for the alleged haunting of Borley Rectory after the expiration of Price's tenancy on 19 May 1938. After remaining empty for some months, the house was bought by Captain W. H. Gregson in October 1938, and was destroyed by fire on the night of 27 February 1939. The ruins were finally demolished in 1944· During and after the war the remains of the rectory and later the site have been visited by numbers of interested people, some of whom, by writing to Price or in other ways, have publicised experiences which they considered to be abnormal. This later testimony roughly coincides with the additional material included in EBR, and was stated by Price to be the reason for the publication of his second book on Borley (EBR, p. 14).
The period now to be discussed might be considered a sort of Borley 'silly season' of extravagant theory, unrestrained assumption, and extreme credulity which continues today, and is perhaps one of the justifications of this report. It began, appropriately enough perhaps, amongst the coconut shies, the skittles and the conducted tours of haunted rooms at the 'psychic fete' organised by Price and the Rev. A. C. Henning at Borley Rectory on 21 June 1939 (MHH, p. 180). Indeed, by 1942 speculation had reached even more romantic heights when Dr Phythian-Adams wrote to Price on 20 December to say that he would not suggest that Mr Kerr-Pearse's piece of rotted wood 3 inches square (1) necessarily formed part of the container of the Holy Grail, but did in fact say of the Grail: 'Who knows? That too may have gone down the [rectory] well and be waiting for you!' (EBR, pp.183, 194). Of two 'highlights' one is the incident, reminiscent of the 'death-ray' of one's boyhood thrillers, of the Hendon knitting needle which broke into pieces under the mere long-distance influence of Borley during a B.B.C. broadcast in 1947; (2) while the other is the anonymous letter to the editor of the Suffolk Free Press describing how the legendary phantom coach, complete with occupants in period dress, paying a call at the rectory, had actually been seen by the writer in daylight at Borley and had afterwards risen in the air like a cloud and disintegrated, limbs, wheels etc., falling in all directions!
(1) Surely not 3 feet square, as was reported by Mr Kerr-Pearse, but corrected by Mr Glanville in his Locked Book. It was found on the hearth of the sewing room at the rectory on 17 July 1937 (MHH, p. 206).
(2) See Paul Tabori. Harry Price: the Biography of a Ghost-Hunter, p. 268.
There is an aspect of the matter which is not peculiar to this later phase of the Borley story, but which nevertheless assumed its greatest importance during the period under discussion. We refer to the publicity afforded to the alleged hauntings which had by this time been sustained for a decade and was to culminate in the publication of MHH in 1940. Writing of the events in 1929 during the Smith incumbency, Mr S. H. Glanville said: `The unwelcome publicity spread far and wide to the United States, and I have seen pages of American newsprint with reports containing anything from mild distortion to exuberant fantasy.' No doubt publicity of this sort was unwelcome to some. During the period of which we write Borley had achieved literally world-wide notoriety. In Price's selected Borley Bibliography (EBR, p. 34I), no less than 116 newspaper and magazine articles are listed, many of which were of a popular, uncritical, and sensational nature. Mr J. C. Cannell in his `Rectory Tale of Terror!' (Daily Sketch, 6 February 1932) suggested that a wedding ring had been whisked mysteriously off the hand of the rector's wife. Mr Harry Loftus in his `What is the Secret of Haunted Rectory?' (Reynold's News, 30 September 1945) described `ghostly figures whispering through the bare rooms, the clanking of harness as a stage coach rumbles along the lane outside, as books, candlesticks and stones hurtle through the air, propelled by unseen hands', and reported how friends of Harry Price saw `the figure of a girl dressed in blue, flitting about the rooms'. Mr G. P. J. L'Estrange in `The Haunted Rectory' (Norwich Mercury, 24 December 1942) recounted how he and Mr Foyster watched from the landing thirty bells ringing in the kitchen passage, but refrained from mentioning, as Mr S. H. Glanville has reminded us, that the whole of the kitchen passage was quite invisible from the landing of Borley Rectory. At the other end of the scale we have articles which, by the standing of their authors and the calibre of the periodicals in which they were printed, were likely to appeal to the credulous among religious-minded people and the professional classes. Canon W. J. Phythian-Adams, D.D., in his `Plague of Darkness' (Church Quarterly Review, January-March 1946) suggested, by asking the reader what other explanation would fit the facts, that the spectral nun borrowed Mr Shaw Jeffrey's dictionary in the 1880s in order to extract English words to write on the rectory walls in 1931. Mr Martin Tindal in Time & Tide (5 October 1940) said that the publication of MHH was `among the events of 1940', a useful indication of the widespread and violent interest in the Borley manifestations, when it is recalled that 1940 was not an uneventful year in other directions. The rectory was featured
by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Price in his Borley Bibliography (EBR) lists scripts of broadcasts in 1935, 1937, 1938, 1941, and 1946, while Mr L'Estrange and Captain Gregson described their experiences in `In Town Tonight' in 1936 and 1939. There was a further broadcast in 1947. There can be no reasonable doubt that during the years of which we write in this chapter, visitors to Borley embarked on their pilgrimage to the ruins of `the most haunted house in England' with some knowledge of its previous history acquired either from MHH or from exaggerated newspaper and radio stories, and with the expectation or at least the hope that their journey would not be wasted and that they would experience something out of the ordinary. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that some of them did.
As a revealing example of the extreme lengths to which the mechanism of suggestion was going in these later days, we may mention the experience of a correspondent who, whilst exploring the overgrown site of the rectory, discovered that a twig had attached itself to his clothing, and apparently considered the possibility of this occurrence being a `phenomenon' of some kind. `Then it dawned upon us,' he wrote, `of course this is Borley! Everything that happens here is haywire!’ Mr S. L. Croft wrote to Price to say that on 27 April 1947 he lost a pencil, which he was unable to find despite a search of the several acres comprising the rectory site, the churchyard, and a wood at Borley Green, a failure that seems to us to be readily understandable. Mr Croft, however, thought it worth while to send a precise description of the pencil to Price `in case it is involved in any phenomena'. Mr A. G. Smith wrote to say that in June 1947 he had left his mackintosh by the churchyard wall, and that during his absence it had been sat on, with his solemn assurance that `no living thing sat on it'. Mr W. F. W. Southwood, who in the report of the 1939-44 `Cambridge Commission' (see pp. 150 ff) is said to have seen nothing of interest at Borley, evidently considered that this account did him rather less than justice. In his letter to Price of 16 November 1946 he said that in the small hours of the night of 7 June 1944 he saw in an upstairs room of the burnt out rectory what appeared to him to be the skeleton of a horse, which he could not approach because of the partially destroyed floor. And so on. The later Borley files are full of this sort of extraordinary testimony. It may be suggested that but for the human frailty of credulity, the protracted, nation-wide, and unrestrained publicity afforded to the story of the rectory, and the psychological mechanisms of suggestion and expectancy, none of these `phenomena' would have been reported. Certainly none of them strikes us as being accept-
able evidence of paranormal activity. Much of the testimony for the alleged haunting of later Borley needs no further comment, but there are one or two incidents which have been given special prominence in the Borley literature and which therefore require separate treatment.
Captain W. H. Gregson was interviewed in the B.B.C. programme `In Town Tonight' on 15 April 1939, and a copy of the script has been preserved in the Borley files at London University. During the talk, Captain Gregson made some remarks which might have led his listeners to believe that his experiences at the rectory had convinced him that it was haunted. He said, inter alia: `You have only to stand in the old courtyard for a minute to sense it. It's so dark and cold, and the oppressive atmosphere everywhere never fails to make your flesh creep. We're determined to solve the mystery in spite of the ridicule of the locals.' This comment on the effect of the darkness, coldness and flesh-creeping eeriness of the rectory appears to be at variance with his letter to Price of 23 January 1940 in which he said: `We shall, then, no doubt go back to live there, as we need a lot of room, and definitely like the atmosphere at Borley (both physical and otherwise).' Captain Gregson also told the story (which is given in MHH, p.172) of how his spaniel went mad in the courtyard of the rectory, tore away shrieking, and was never seen again. This incident can be accounted for very simply. Hysteria, due either to worms or feeding on white bread, might produce these symptoms and, according to the lecture on `Haunted Borley Rectory' given by the Rev. and Mrs A. C. Henning to the Marylebone Spiritualist Association on 23 July 1952, the dog was in fact seen again. It was shot the following day by the villagers at Borley. In MHH, p. 174, Price records the fact that in his broadcast Captain Gregson said that, after the loss of his first dog a second was bought and behaved in exactly the same way, disappeared and was not seen again.
Four days before his broadcast, on 11 April 1939, Captain Gregson wrote to Price and said : `I am wanting to try to get some of the Coach companies to run coach trips to Borley during the Summer (naturally, at some small profit to myself) and, before I put the proposition to them, I am going to have a folder printed, with a brief introduction to the mysteries of the place. In it, I want to refer to your Broadcast of last Autumn, as well as to my own forthcoming Broadcast. These facts will tend to assist in impressing the Coach companies, and in convincing them that there is, "prima facie", something interesting, and outside the ordinary. I am sending full reports to the chief American papers,
as well as to the Australian ones.' If, as this letter would lead one inevitably to conclude, Captain Gregson hoped to publicise Borley for the purpose of commercial profit, some might think that no criticism can be levelled at him: he had suffered a loss by the burning down of the rectory and presumably wished to recoup himself. But we are reasonably entitled to assume that his broadcast four days later was made in the same spirit as his letter. Price discussed Captain Gregson's radio talk in MHH, p.174, but made no mention of the proposed printed brochures or the hoped for charabanc loads of sight-seers.
In MHH (pp. 176-8) and EBR (pp. 43-4), Price describes how Miss Rosemary M. Williams of Borley Lodge saw the apparition of a woman at the window of the Blue Room on the night of 26 March 1939, shortly after the fire. Frankly, we do not know whether this incident merits serious treatment or not. Price first heard of the episode from Mr A. C. Henning and wrote to Miss Williams on 3 April 1939. In a brief, undated but otherwise business-like reply Miss Williams said that she would tell her story for the sum of one guinea. Presumably this modest payment was made, for her account is on the Borley file and differs in some details from that given in MHH, p.177. The comments made by Miss Williams which Price omitted in his book would in each case tend to diminish the possibility of the paranormality of the experience. Miss Williams said, for example, that she had spent many hours watching and listening at Borley Rectory on previous visits, always terrified and always in the company of others in case anything should happen. She said that one member of the party was particularly anxious to venture inside the rectory, but was persuaded not to do so. Nevertheless, Miss Williams said that when for an instant she saw what she took to be a figure at the Blue Room window, her first thought was that her friend had, after all, gone into the building. These and other comments are, as we have said, omitted from the published account, but Price appeared to be anxious to convince his readers that there was no possibility of a human being entering the Blue Room. He says that he was at Borley thirty-six hours after the incident, found that the entire first floor and attics had been consumed, and that the landing and main staircase no longer existed (MHH, p.178). We think this may have been substantially true, for the photographs certainly document the statement. We are in any event of the opinion that the apparition seen by Miss Williams may have been a simple illusion, and the result of expectant imagination and a trick of the bright moonlight shining on the window aperture and the ruined room behind it. We have, however, quoted Price's description of
the condition of the first floor of the rectory in 1939, because of its possible significance in connection with the next incident which we propose to discuss.
In EBR (pp.68-70 ) is an account (together with what are alleged to be copies of their original reports) of how Lieut. G. B. Nawrocki and a party of other Polish officers temporarily stationed in England spent the nights of 28-9 June and 28-9 July 1943 at the rectory. On the second of these visits the party included, it is said, `two English boys' whose names for some reason are not given. During the first night's vigil, the Poles experienced inter alia the following phenomena, which commenced immediately they entered the ruins: (1) Four examples of stone-throwing. (2) A noise of door-shutting. (3) A black shadow seen moving slowly on the Nun's Walk by Lieut. Nawrocki. (4) A `scratching ghost' heard for fifty minutes in the dining room. (5) Lieut. Nawrocki heard `many whisperings' in the kitchen passage.
On the second visit the party were just as fortunate, and the manifestations included: (1) Two examples of throwing, including twenty or thirty stones on the second occasion. (2) Sundry scratchings and thumps. (3) Lieut. Nawrocki saw the black shadow again moving between the trees of the Nun's Walk. (4) Lieut. Nawrocki saw a black shape or shadow of a man silhouetted on the wall of the chapel which stood there for ten or twenty seconds and then vanished very slowly. According to Price's account, Lieut. Nawrocki said in a covering letter: `I am quite sure that I twice saw the shadow on the Nun's Walk, and once a shadow of a man in Room No. 3.' It is stated that Lieut. Nawrocki asked Price whether these apparitions were the phantasms of the Nun and the Rev. Harry Bull respectively (EBR, p. 71).
Frankly, we cannot take this account seriously and we can only imagine it to have been based upon an elaborate hoax of some sort. It seems to us unlikely that, during a prolonged period when merely faint and occasional `manifestations', if any, were being reported, and when visits of the `Cambridge Commission' on 22 June and 16-17 July 1943 produced no results of any kind at all (EBR, p. 163), the Polish party obtained on 28 June and 28 July a cross-section of virtually the whole of the more sensational traditional phenomena, Lieut. Nawrocki even apparently suggesting that he saw the nun on both occasions! As we have previously shown, this apparition had not been claimed to have been seen by anybody since the Bull incumbencies with the exceptions of the very dubious experiences of Mrs Lloyd Williams in 1938 (see p. 126), and Miss Rosemary Williams in 1939 (see p. 147), whose
stories imply that they saw the nun. Further, despite Mr S. H. Glanville's statement to one of us (THH) that no voices were heard at all during the official observer period, Lieut. Nawrocki heard whisperings in the kitchen passage. This gentleman even saw what he imagined might be the ghost of Harry Bull, previously seen by nobody but Mrs Foyster of whose experience Price said (EBR, p.48) : `The phantasm was, I think, a subjective one, as no one else saw it,' and added (EBR, p. 71) : `Personally, I doubt whether the ghost of Harry Bull has ever been seen at the Rectory.' Finally, stone-throwing was experienced which had never previously occurred except an those occasions when either Marianne Foyster or Harry Price was at Borley.
Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the report, however, is the statement that on the night of 28 July it was decided to spend the night in the ruins and for this purpose the floor of the Blue Room was rebuilt in the space of an hour (EBR, p. 70). Even Price seems to have been mildly unhappy about this, for he says that the party `showed considerable skill in improvisation when they "rebuilt" the floor of the Blue Room, erected seats and a table, etc. In order to examine the upper floor of the house, they must have laid planks across the rafters on which to walk' (EBR,p. 71). Perhaps he was thinking a little uneasily of what he had said about the Blue Room when discussing Miss Rosemary Williams's ghost story in 1939 and the impossibility of a human being reaching the Blue Room window. For he then said (MHH, p. 177): `No human being could have climbed up to that window, under the existing conditions. When I visited Borley on March 28, 29 and 30, 1939, I tried to reach the burnt-through rafters by climbing over the debris, but I could not reach the Blue Room window aperture, because, as Miss Williams emphasizes, there was nothing to stand on, and with every step I took I was afraid of being precipitated into the rooms below.' Four years later, by August 1943, the state of the rectory had greatly deteriorated. Price says (EBR, p. 233): `I again photographed the ruins during our visit in August 1943 ... and the havoc caused by four years' gales is very noticeable. If the reader will compare the two pictures he will see that all the brick gables at the back and sides of the house have fallen to the ground, having been blown down. What remained of the iron and glass verandah has disappeared ; and the framework of the pinnacled "tower" at the right of the building has also vanished. In addition, some of the half-burnt rafters supporting the first floor fell into the rooms below ; and, as can be seen, shrubs and undergrowth are blocking the lower windows. The only things that – literally - weathered the storms were the
chimney stacks. The cellars too suffered. Burnt flooring and rafters from the hall floor and kitchen passage, and most of the wooden stairs, tumbled into the cellars, which later received some tons of bricks, when the gables collapsed.' It was in these conditions a few days previously, on 28 July 1943, that it is suggested that Lieut. Kujawa of the Polish party was able to watch for the nun from the window of the Blue Room: 'The watch for the "nun" begins. The English boys remain in the summer house; Lieut. Kujawa in the window of the Blue Room; and Lieut. Nawrocki in the window of Room No. 5 (dressing-room of the Blue Room)' (EBR, p. 70).
We have already indicated that in our view this account is so open to suspicion that it is difficult to resist the impression that it was a hoax of some kind. We have not been able to discover the document of this story, but we have ascertained that there is some supporting evidence to show that the Poles did at least visit the rectory in July 1943. Mr Robert Fordyce Aickman, who visited Borley on 24 and 31 July 1943, was interviewed by two of us (KMG and EJD) at the S.P.R. on 14 January 1953. Mr Aickman said that whilst at Borley Rectory he was approached by someone unknown to him, asking for payment for the privilege of spending a night in the haunted ruins. Mr Aickman demurred, but was told that substantial fees were being paid and reference was made to a group of Polish officers who had paid £5. Another piece of information given by Mr Aickman, which may have some bearing upon the obviously unsatisfactory and suspicious circumstances obtaining at Borley at this time, was the fact that during one of the nights that he was in the ruins with his party, a noisy group of people approached the rectory and entered the cottage at 1.30 a.m. Mr Aickman said that these people were hilarious and gave the impression that they might have had a good deal to drink. He understood that Captain Gregson was at this time leasing or lending the cottage to friends for weekends. This information, and especially the suggestion of fees, makes one wonder whether any of the alleged phenomena of this period merit serious investigation.
Chapter IX of EBR (pp. 146-78) written for Price by Mr Andrew J. B. Robertson, describes the results of an investigation of Borley Rectory made by 58 persons, mainly Cambridge undergraduates, in 25 separate visits to the ruins during the years I939-44 under the leadership of himself.' What these young men hoped
1 Mr Robertson read a paper `Some Recent Investigations into the Borley Rectory Case' to the Society for Psychical Research on 4 November 1944 and a summary was printed in the Journal of the S.P.R. for January-February 1945,
to do and what they actually achieved was described by Mr Robertson when he said: `It therefore seemed to a number of us at Cambridge that it would be of interest to investigate the remains of the Rectory for ourselves, and we were even optimistically hoping that it might be possible to try and throw some light on the mechanism of supposed supernatural happenings. These hopes have not been realised, and after several years our contribution seems small; but it is perhaps not without interest to other students of the subject' (EBR, p. 148). Mr Robertson further stated : `Many of these observers have reported various events which did not appear to them to be obviously explicable in normal terms.' These events consisted of distinct and heavy footsteps ; a dark outline among the shadows ; knockings ; a rumbling noise ; the unexplained ticking of a clock ; sounds of a horse's hoofs ; a light seen in the vicinity of various rooms ; intelligible knockings in code-reply to questions. Mr Robertson went on to say in his summary of the investigation: `It is clear that any argument for the operation at the Rectory of some paranormal factor would, if based on this work alone [i.e. the work of the "Cambridge Commission"], have to proceed mainly from the auditory phenomena - that is, precisely those events most likely to result from normal causes. Nevertheless, it must be noted that although noises may occur naturally in many ways, the probability that they would so accidentally happen as to render valid all the points already discussed would seem to be distinctly small. There appears, in fact, to be something at the Rectory which cannot be at all easily explained away. It must be remembered that the investigations described here form only part of a much wider survey which has brought to light very many mysterious phenomena' (EBR, p. 174). In our view the last sentence quoted is of considerable significance. There is a parallel between Mr Robertson's submission that the history of the alleged hauntings as read by him in MHH (EBR, p.146) was a factor properly to be taken into account in judging the possible paranormality of the phenomena experienced by his party, and the effect upon other visitors to the ruins of the wide publicity given to the Borley story which was discussed earlier in this chapter. Mr Robertson indeed admitted, with the admirable restraint which characterises
pp. 107-10 (Vol. XXXII I, No. 610-11). Mr Robertson recorded that about one thousand observations of temperature were taken during the investigation and that on two occasions some unusual variations were noted. A discussion of the circumstances in which the readings were taken, together with an account of an attempt to recreate the conditions in the laboratory and a reasoned conclusion that the fluctuations were due to normal causes, was contained in Mr A. J. Sharp's article `The Alleged Thermal Variations at Borley' in the Journal of the S.P.R. for February 1948, pp. 180-2 (Vol. XXXIV, No. 643).
his summary and those reports for which he was responsible (he was present at only eight of the twenty-five visits), that his experiences may not have been uninfluenced by suggestion and expectancy when he said of a visual 'phenomenon': 'It is, however, probably not difficult to be mistaken with such fleeting impressions, especially when observed in a supposedly haunted ruin' (EBR, p. 151, italics ours).
It must be pointed out also that whilst Mr Robertson himself was keenly interested in psychical research and endeavoured to organise a worth-while investigation, the observers were undergraduates and on occasions the proceedings were evidently not conducted very seriously. They appear in fact on 22 July 1944, for example, to have developed into an enjoyable farce. Four undergraduates possessed of a sense of humour travelled secretly to Borley on this occasion with the object of producing some faked `phenomena' for the benefit of the five investigators who were there as members of Mr Robertson's `Commission', and a performance of `poltergeist' manifestations plus an 'apparition' on the lawn was staged with some success. The report reads: `The investigators, on arriving and finding the Rectory non-existent, retired to the summer-house to sleep: they therefore completely failed to notice several traverses of the lawn by an "apparition". However, by some Poltergeist "manifestations", the attention of the investigators was drawn to the "apparition", consisting actually of P. H. Lord with appropriate disguises. The silent movements of the apparition and its sudden disappearance (it was illuminated with a torch) led the investigators to think it was genuine' (EBR, p.167). Whilst this sort of incident is pleasantly amusing, and provides in itself abundant proof of Mr Robertson's honesty of purpose in that he included it in his report, it is not easy to disregard it when considering the remainder of the story of the `Cambridge Commission'. If practical jokers were in operation during one visit of investigation, is it not possible that similar pranks were being played on other occasions and without detection? It is surprising to discover, for example, that in a supposedly possible paranormal phenomenon of a light appearing twice in windows of the rectory on 30 April 1944, distinguished by a sub-title in the text `The Light in the Bedroom', one of the three investigators supposedly asleep inside the rectory whilst the light was observed from outside was P. H. Lord, the undergraduate who impersonated the `nun' during the practical joking three months later! (EBR. p.167). Mr Robertson appears to have overlooked this somewhat significant coincidence, for in his summary in EBR he says of this incident and another: `The last two
visual appearances, being of longer duration and perceived by two observers, are more difficult to explain away. However, it is difficult to draw any conclusions from these shapes and lights' (EBR, p. I70). We agree with the qualification.
So far as the auditory phenomena reported by the `Cambridge Commission' were concerned, upon which Mr Robertson himself said that any argument for paranormality must mainly rest, it seems reasonable to point out that the conditions were similar to those obtaining during the observational period of 1937-8, during which time there were ready explanations at hand for many of the noises heard by the investigators, as we have endeavoured to show in a previous section of this report. A good many of the traditional courtyard and cottage phenomena were experienced, including footsteps in the yard (EBR, p.164), and whistling which appeared to come from `the direction of the neighbouring cottage' (EBR, p. 165); whilst even the pump, which it will be remembered Major Douglas-Home said in his evidence (see p. 134), was frequently worked very late at night by the occupants of the cottage, seems to have been in evidence. The report of the events of the night of 20 December 1941 says that the investigators heard regular knocking, upon which they commented: `It sounded as though it might have been a person operating a small hand-pump for water, but it seemed rather a peculiar time for this (12.35 a.m.)' (EBR, p.152).
In conclusion, we suggest that the circumstances during this later period would appear to have been even more favourable than previously to the hypothesis that noises originated from natural causes. The ruins of the rectory were gradually disintegrating and were later in process of demolition. 'The floors were freely strewn with bricks, pieces of broken glass, plaster and other materials' (EBR, p.149), and it seems natural enough that sounds were heard as if of 'plaster falling to the ground' (EBR, p.161), or of `a brick being dropped from a height' (EBR, p.159); indeed, it is mildly surprising to find that these and many other similar noises should have been included in the reports with the implication that they may have been of paranormal origin. The ruins of the rectory were open to the weather and there was the new factor of `general activity of birds in the building' (EBR, p.161), which may readily have accounted for a variety of squeaks, rustlings, scratchings and even `a sound as of someone travelling round the room flicking the walls with a duster' (EBR, p.161).
On p. 79 of EBR is reproduced part of a letter from the Rev. A. C. Henning describing at fourth-hand a report that in 1941 a
tired officer and `his men' had arrived in Borley one evening and had decided to use the rectory for sleeping purposes. 'The men would not go in as they did not like the look of the place. The officer was awakened several times in the night by all the bells ringing.' Apart from the fact that so far as we are aware no evidence of bell-ringing was reported after Mrs Foyster left the rectory in 1935, there are other reasons for regarding this story as apocryphal. We find it difficult to accept, for example, that military discipline in East Anglia had deteriorated to the point where `the men would not go in as they did not like the look of the place'.
We must now discuss the results of the excavations in the rectory cellars under Price's supervision in August 1943. According to Chapter XIV of EBR ‘"Truth" at the Bottom of a Well?', the emptying of the round well, with its well-head in the courtyard, produced inter alia bits of pottery, 'the eternal empty wine bottles', a broken brass preserving pan, a portion of a brass candlestick, part of a rusty iron box, sundry broken knives and a Sheffield plate cream jug (EBR, p.239). These prosaic discoveries do not appear to call for any comment. However, further excavations were made elsewhere - under the floor of the cellar passage - on the precise spot where Price believed that in 1929 there had been 'a shallow stone or cement oblong, rectangular trough or tank which was filled with water' (EBR, p.236), but which by 1943 `had completely disappeared' (EBR, p.237). At a depth of 3 ft. were discovered a human jaw bone (female?) and a fragment of a skull (EBR, p.241) which were assumed to be the remains of the Borley Nun and were ultimately buried in Liston churchyard on 29 May 1945 (EBR, Pl. XXIV and p. 289).
It seems to us that Price has been successful in enveloping the Borley wells in an almost impenetrable fog of mystery and confusion. According to him there were four wells (EBR, p.255), although Mr S. H. Glanville said that there were only two. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, Price claimed that the rectangular trough was in the cellar passage in 1929, but explained in EBR that when he described the well as being in this position on pp. 19-20 of MHH in 1940, he must have confused it with the round well in another part of the cellar. He said : `My excuse for the confusion about the two wells is that I was writing from my notes (which I misread) ten years after the incident . . .' (EBR, p. 237). Regarding its disappearance by 1943 he said:
There were of course no `occupants' of the rectory during the period mentioned, for it was destroyed by fire on 27 February 1939. We have no means of knowing upon what facts or suspicions Price based his belief that for some purpose clearly not domestic the cellar floor underneath the uninhabited ruins of the rectory was disturbed between 1939 and the discoveries in 1943; nor is it easy to understand how, in view of his previous confusion in 1940, Price 'was quite positive as to the exact position of the old well' in the cellar passage in 1943, especially when `a minute scrutiny of the ground where the well had been revealed not the slightest sign that the flooring had been disturbed' (EBR, p.241). We do not know whether there is any parallel between the digging up of bones beneath the cellar floor after the discovery of suspected interference on the same spot, and the curious incident of the cats' cemetery which Mr S. H. Glanville found had been dug up and afterwards filled in by some unknown intruder in August 1937 (see p. 131). Excavations by Mr Glanville and his son `turned up a lot of large bones that certainly never formed part of the anatomy of a cat' (MHH, p. 199). Price's curiously inexact methods of reporting these minor mysteries of Borley (or possibly major ones, if we knew more about them) render any prolonged speculation upon them of doubtful value.
It seems to us not unreasonable to suggest that whether the two bone fragments were placed under the cellar floor at the time when, according to Price, it was disturbed between 1939 and 1943, or whether they had been there for many years, their discovery need not be regarded as extraordinary. In his first Borley book, before the remarkable speculations of Dr Phythian-Adams regarding the `nun' were available, Price said:
It may very well be that some of these remains were actually relics of a former plague pit. By the time he came to write EBR, Price evidently foresaw the possibility of this observation being made by readers to whom MHH was available, for he said of the extract from his first book which we have quoted: `This information was
given to me in good faith, but I now believe the story to be little more than a tradition' (EBR, p.249).
The alleged connection between one of the wall-writings and the finding of the bone fragments has recently been given renewed publicity by the appearance of Mr Philip Paul in the B.B.C. Television programme `What's My Line' on 12 April 1953. Mr Paul is a journalist specialising in occult matters who claims to be continuing Price's work at Borley. He displayed before the television camera a page of tracings of the Borley wall-writings, and alleged that one of these messages had led directly to excavations and the discovery of human remains, thus proving the existence of ghosts. The argument had been previously set forth in Mr Paul's article `Ghosts Still Walk at Borley' in the Star of 25 March 1953:
This statement requires some comment.
A photograph of the wall-message was reproduced by Price (see Plate V) and described by him on p. 146 of MHH as follows:
`MARIANNE AT GET HELP - ENTANT BOTTOM ME.'
After MHH was published in the autumn of 1940, Dr Phythian-Adams read it during the Christmas holiday and sent Price a lengthy analysis of the Borley story on 8 January 1941 (EBR, p.179), which included a new reading of this message (elaborately argued in EBR, pp.185-6) as `Marianne, Get Help ... Well ... Tank ... Bottom me'. Price accepted this new translation with enthusiasm, saying in his introduction to the Canon's analysis which he printed as Chapter X of EBR in 1946, `Dr Phythian-Adams was the first person correctly to interpret the wall-writings (the Marianne appeals) at Borley Rectory - an interpretation that led us eventually to excavate there' (EBR, p.179). As we have
seen on pp. 154-5, the `well tank' in the cellar passage was found to have been mysteriously bricked up when Price and his fellow excavators looked for it in August 1943, but Price remembered exactly where it had been (EBR, p.241), and the floor was duly dug up and the bone fragments found.
It is unfortunate that on investigation this superficially convincing story appears to lose some of its effect. In the first place, if the message is examined it seems possible that it is in fact two messages, one superimposed upon the other. One is simply `MARIANNE GET HELP', which, while slightly more grammatical, does not otherwise differ in theme from the rest of the writings, and need not be considered further here. The other, which from the curious upward strokes at the end of the last three words and the backward slope of the writing appears to us possibly to be written by a different hand than that of the `Marianne appeals', reads, we suggest, `AT WELL TANK BOTTOM ME'.
Now, there were a number of writings at Borley which Price does not mention in his books at all. Major Douglas-Home in his statement to Lord Charles Hope in about 1943 wrote :
Mr Mark Kerr-Pearse wondered in his report of 25 July 1937 (omitted by Price) whether some writings found by him might not possibly have been done by a servant. He found in a cupboard a `pencil message dated 1932 and also piece of paper containing message apparently in code and marked "IMPORTANT Do NOT MOVE THIS PAPER”’.
It is clear that activities were going on behind the scenes and messages were being written and found which we cannot evaluate because we have not sufficient information about them; and that Price on many occasions suppressed information which would have led his readers to a truer perspective of the picture as a whole. We have indicated many such instances throughout this report; how many other examples there may have been which have not come our way is a matter for conjecture.
We do not consider it would be of much profit if, with our insufficient data, we were to put forward speculations regarding the
production of the `Well-Tank-Bottom- Me' wall-writing which so stirred the imagination of Dr Phythian-Adams and others, but we think there may be others besides ourselves who conclude, as a result of the further details brought to light by our labours, that there may be normal explanations for these wall-writings which deserve priority over the paranormal hypothesis put forward by Price. It is not disputed that `Well-Tank- Bottom- Me' is probably as reasonable an interpretation as any of the two lower lines of the entangled wall message as they appear in the photographic plates in MHH and EBR, but whether this is equally true of the original writing on the wall we have now no means of ascertaining. A photograph of the message taken by Mr Glanville is mounted on p. 36 of the Locked Book, from which it is clear that at least five of the words, including those now under discussion, have been rewritten in heavy black pencil. Price himself asked Mr Glanville to do this in his letter of 29 October 1937 in which he said: `As it is of vital importance for the book that we should have good photographs of the writings, I think it will be as well if you were to strengthen carefully the marks, etc., so that they are photographable. May I count on you to do this?'
As we have said elsewhere in this report, we have no doubts whatever regarding Mr Glanville's complete integrity and we consider that this task would have been carried out as conscientiously as all the other work done by him at the rectory. It seems not unreasonable to postulate, however, that in `bringing up' the possible words in the entangled and faintly pencilled scrawl on the wall, Mr Glanville could not but be influenced by the fact that Mr Kerr-Pearse was of the opinion that the message might be `Get help, well tank bottom me' and had expressed this possibility to Price in his report of 19 July 1937, i.e. nearly four years before Dr Phythian-Adams produced his `new' interpretation and analysis (EBR, p.186). Price did not mention in MHH Mr Kerr-Pearse's anticipation of Dr Phythian-Adams' discovery, but that he read and understood the account is proved by his letter to Mr Glanville of 20 July 1937 in which he describes Mr Kerr-Pearse's rendering of the wall-messages, one of which, he says, `appears to direct investigators to look in the well'. Kerr-Pearse did `look in the well' and in his report to Price re 3 August 1937 described how he partially emptied the well tank in the cellar but found nothing but old tins, a broken glass, and pieces of brick (MHH, p 207). Mr Glanville could scarcely dismiss all this from his mind when he was re-pencilling the message before taking the photograph, and it would seem therefore that the only interpretation of the original message as `Well Tank Bottom Me' uninfluenced by suggestion was
Mr Kerr-Pearse's opinion. Against this must be considered the one other available reading of the message before it was retouched, i.e. that of the Rev. L. A. Foyster who in his Diary of Occurrences records (pp. 25-6, c. May 1931): Later still further along the passage was written "Marianne get help (something undecipherable) bother me" (or bothers me). Marianne wrote underneath "I cannot understand, tell me more. Marianne".'
Since Mr Foyster was living in the rectory and had ample opportunity to examine and discuss the wall-writings with others who saw them at the time (e.g. Sir George and Lady Whitehouse, Sir John and Miss Mary Braithwaite), and since the interpretation `Well Tank Bottom Me' evidently did not occur to anyone until Mr Kerr-Pearse suggested it in 1937, it seems possible that these words were by no means so apparent in the untouched wall-writing as they are in the plates in the Borley books, for a reason which is now understandable. Mr Foyster's interpretation may have been the correct one. Another point which should be borne in mind is that it was Mr Kerr-Pearse who christened the concrete-lined trough at the foot of the cellar steps the `well tank', Price saying that he believed that `at one time it was a deep well, and was filled in for safety's sake' (MHH, p. 207). This was found afterwards to be unfounded and therefore the expression `well tank' is meaningless in any event, whether written by a ghostly or a human hand.
Why Price, having had suggested to him that the message was `Well Tank Bottom Me' as early as July 1937, coupled with the additional knowledge acquired in August of the same year that an examination of the well tank revealed nothing of interest, should have omitted to mention this reading in MHH and have suggested instead that the words `Well Tank' were part of the word `Repentant', is perhaps not difficult to understand. It was probably merely another example of his manipulation of the evidence. The word `Repentant' bolstered up the 'guilty-monk-and-nun' legend with which Price was still dallying at the time, whilst `Well Tank' had been reported by Mr Kerr-Pearse merely to lead to an anticlimax of old tins and broken glass.
What followed was of much greater interest. Out of the blue in January 1941 came Dr Phythian-Adams's lengthy analysis (without which, on Price's own admission on p. 5 of EBR, his second Borley book would almost certainly not have been written) which depended on the theory that the body of `Marie Lairre' had been dropped into a deep well by one of the Waldegraves in 1667, who had then filled it up nearly flush with the cellar floor to conceal his guilt, thus forming the 'well-tank' (EBR, p. 187). This of
course is absurd on the face of it: there was no deep well under the `well tank', which latter was simply a shallow rectangular trough lined with concrete and therefore of fairly modern construction (EBR, p.260). The fact that the bone fragments were found only three feet down, that is to say a matter of inches below the bottom of the original trough, makes nonsense of the idea that they were the remains of a body dropped into a well which was afterwards filled in. If the proximity to the surface suggests anything, it might be thought that it leads to a suspicion that the fragments were placed there deliberately by someone who was anxious to do the work necessary to `prove' the theory in as short a time and with as little trouble as possible.
Dr Phythian-Adams suggested in 1941 in the most positive fashion that Price should test his theory by excavating the well-tank, and said that it would be `a striking triumph for psychical research' if the project was successful (BBR, p.180). That Dr Phythian-Adams held decided views upon the necessity of practical investigation is shown by his somewhat acid comment in his letter to Price of 26 February 1945 upon the failure to follow up some of the Glanville planchette scripts: `After all, if nothing is done when such "messages" are received, what is the use of bothering with the thing at all?' It does not require much imagination to visualise the dilemma in which Price found himself. Failure to excavate would alienate the flattering interest of the Canon of Carlisle, and would mean that he could not publish the analysis without laying himself open to the criticism that he did not believe it worth pursuing, whilst an excavation without the discovery of remains would show the analysis to be valueless. Either of these eventualities would mean no second profitable and best-selling Borley book and would indeed be literally `The End of Borley Rectory'. As he himself said (EBR, p.212), Dr Phythian-Adams had told him to dig, and where to dig. After an interval of two and a half years, surrounded by witnesses including Captain Gregson and the Rev. A. C. Henning, Price bowed to the inevitable and digging took place.
The results we have seen. Price tells us that during the period I939-43 (when the rectory was ruined and uninhabited), he believed that some person or persons unknown had, for no readily apparent reason, bricked up the well-tank in the cellar. Price fortunately recalled with precision where it had been, though, on his own showing, he did not remember having seen it since 1929 (EBR, pp.236, 238, 240). It was dug up, and there were the bone fragments! Again it is for the reader to decide whether this remarkable sequence of events is `a striking triumph for psychical
research' and whether, in the words of Price's disciple, Mr Philip Paul, it proves the existence of ghosts; or alternatively whether it is merely another extremely dubious episode in the Borley story. If the reader reaches the latter conclusion, he may incline to the view that there is considerable similarity in both apparent objective and method between this incident and the curious affair of the substituted French medals (see pp. 6I-4), i.e. an attempt to `prove' legends and theories by the production of evidence seemingly in existence beforehand but which one is bound to suspect may in fact have been introduced at a later date.
In a letter from the Rev. A. C. Henning to Price dated 2 January 1945, he said that he had asked Mr Woods, who was apparently the contractor who had bought the rectory ruins for demolition, if he had seen anything strange. Woods had told Mr Henning that he had been `mystified by some wires and electric switches he found in the cellar'. Since the rectory had no electric light, this suggests that a battery lighting set had been installed in the cellar since 1938 at earliest, for Mr Glanville told us that nothing of the sort was in the cellars during his visits and continued scrutiny of the rectory. Those who wish are at liberty to connect the electrical installation with some mysterious activity in the cellar. Mr S. H. Glanville told us that it was a considerable surprise and disappointment to him that Price told him nothing of the proposed excavations until the bone fragments had been discovered and therefore gave him no opportunity to be present. (1) When it is recalled that Mr Glanville had been Price's principal observer, had drawn all the plans of the rectory and was Price's friend and near neighbour, the omission to take him to Borley on this occasion seems extraordinary.
The famous `trompée' message may be dealt with in a few words. On the lower half of Plate VI of MHH (see Plate V of this report) it will be noticed that below the `Well Tank Bottom Me' message is a reply from Mrs Foyster: `I CANNOT UNDERSTAND. TELL ME MORE.' Below this reply is a further message from the alleged communicating entity to which reference is made in detail by Dr Phythian-Adams on pp. 187-90 of EBR. It is not necessary in the confines of this report to reproduce Dr Phythian-
1 Confirmation of Price's somewhat suspicious secrecy over the matter of the excavations is available from Mr R. F. Aickman, who was one of the official observers and who contributed an essay `Postscript to Harry Price' to Mystery. An Anthology of the Mysterious in Fact and Fiction (London, 1952). He says (p. 272), `Price's secretiveness could try the patience. Although I was in full communication with him when my friends and I made the visits to Borley recorded in The End of Borley Rectory, Price never informed me that he himself was visiting the place almost immediately before and after my visits, and in order to carry out the vital excavations in the cellars and well.'
Adams's attempted translation in full; it is sufficient to say that he advanced as fact that the right hand word of the top line was the French word ` trompée' (i.e. deceived) and argued from this assumption that the message was written by the spirit of a French woman who had been subjected to a cruel deception. Mr Lewis T. Ackermann, a professional graphologist, subjected the Borley wall-writings, as we have seen, to an intensive scrutiny. In a letter to the S.P.R. of 8 June 1949, Mr Ackermann said that he totally disagreed with Dr Phythian-Adams on his interpretation, with the added statement that the Canon did not understand the mechanics of handwriting. The graphologist produced an entirely different interpretation of this message including the word `tombs', with the suggestion that the body of `Marie Lairre' was not dropped down any well, but was concealed in the Waldegrave tomb. To us, quite frankly, the message appears to be an entangled scrawl which might mean anything or more probably nothing, but we think it sufficient to have pointed out that a professional graphologist, presumably entitled to speak with some authority, disagreed with the French ‘trompée’ interpretation, and that the elaborate deductions which have been made from it (EBR, pp. 187-8) must therefore be treated with reserve. (1)
We conclude this chapter, perhaps not inappropriately, with our comments upon an incident which Price described on p. 284 of EBR as `The Last Phenomenon?'. We have here a final accusation of flagrant misrepresentation against Price, and a further example of that conflict of evidence which, as we have seen in the case of the Smith incumbency in particular, is repeated many times in the Borley story. Price says that on 5 April 1944 he visited Borley with Miss Cynthia Ledsham and Mr David Scherman, respectively a researcher and a photographer on the staff of the American pictorial magazine Life. Demolition of the remains of the rectory was proceeding rapidly, and photographs of what was left of the ruins were taken for the purpose of illustrating a proposed article. Price says that in order to obtain a picture embracing the whole of the ruins, Mr Scherman had to stand at least 100 feet away from the house and that Miss Ledsham and he stood by his side. As Mr Scherrnan released the shutter of his camera, a brick shot up about four feet into the air in front of what remained of the kitchen
1 It is curious that nowhere in the Borley books is there any comment made upon the many points of similarity in the scrawled name "Marianne' and in the `Marie Lairre' of the scripts. Both are unusual. If the reader will refer to the top left-hand photograph of Plate V, for example, he will notice that with a minimum of imagination the `Marianne' could be interpreted as `Marie Lairre'.
passage and all three saw it although at least 100 feet away. When the photograph was developed the brick was visible as a white dot, and this is reproduced as Plate XXII opposite p. 282 of EBR. At Price's request Mr Scherman prepared an enlargement of this photograph showing the brick at close quarters, reproduced as Plate XXIII opposite p. 286 of EBR. Price's final comment on the incident, which the reader may consider has some claim to being possibly the most disingenuous paragraph in the Borley books, reads:
That the implications of this paragraph were not mere lighthearted journalism is, we think, clearly shown by Price's letter to EJD of 17 October 1946 in which he wrote:
Price was of course safe enough in making this challenge, for the movement of the brick was not faked; but the explanation was a simple and natural one. An interesting feature of Pl. XXIII of EBR is that it shows in the lower right-hand corner a number of bricks of similar appearance to the one in mid-air which, it would seem, appear to have been thrown from the same source during the active demolition of the rectory which was in progress that day. Any doubts about the matter are removed by the first-hand testimony of Mrs Cynthia Thompson (formerly Miss Cynthia Ledsham) who had lunch with KMG on 17 October 1950. KMG prepared an account of the interview which Mrs Thompson signed as a true statement, and which is now in the Borley file at the Society for Psychical Research. The meeting was the result of a
letter previously written by Mrs Thompson to Dr D. J. West, who was then Research Officer to the S. P. R. In her (undated) letter Mrs Thompson wrote:
The accusation that Price deliberately misrepresented this incident in EBR was repeated in the evidence given to KMG on 17 October 1950. The only substantial amplification of the testimony previously given in Mrs Thompson's letter is contained in the following sentences of the later signed account
It is unfortunate and, as we have said, typical of the several aspects of human frailty covered by this investigation that, when the story came to be written in Life by Mr Noel Busch, the caption to the photograph of the `levitated brick' was: `Borley Rectory, most haunted house in England, provided the photographer who took this picture in 1944 with a puzzling bit of ghost-craft. At instant shutter was snapped, a brick rose from the floor, apparently nudged [sic] by unseen hands.' When the article was sent to the S.P.R. by Mrs Thompson, KMG at once wrote to ask how this caption was justified, in view of her testimony. Mrs Thompson telephoned to her on 21 February 1951 to say that the caption was written `as good copy' from a journalist's point of view, not to be taken seriously, and that no doubt the writer was having a dig at the British who believe in ghosts, and had his tongue in his cheek.
To those who might say that the incident provides a pretty example of the pot calling the kettle black, we would offer the two
mild reminders that Mrs Thompson, who witnessed the occurrence, was not responsible for the caption, and secondly that it is not the ethics of the editorial board of Life which are under scrutiny. The explanation seems to us acceptable. Life is a fairly sensational American pictorial magazine, and the supernatural is a controversial subject. Presumably, in the view of its editor (if indeed he gave it any thought at all), there would be nothing unethical in the semi-humorous offering of an incident known to be normal as if there were a possibility of its being otherwise. The alternative would probably have been no article on `A Who's Who of English Ghosts'.
Whatever the reader's opinion may be of the moral aspect of the treatment of the matter by Life, it is manifest that a tolerant view cannot be taken of The End of Borley Rectory and its author. Price offered EBR as a serious book of psychical research, and within its covers he included contributions by eminent representatives of the Church, the law and orthodox science. He himself said:
Equally without qualification he wrote:
It is against the background of these comments, which in conjunction with the general contents and theme of the Borley books
1 The published views of the late Sir Ernest Jelf, then Senior Master of the Supreme Court (EBR, p. 321) and the late Sir Albion Richardson, K.C., C.B.E., the Recorder of Nottingham (EBR, p. 324). Both these distinguished jurists appear to have accepted MHH at its face value and to have believed in the Borley hauntings.
have converted large numbers of intelligent and educated people to belief in the paranormality of the rectory manifestations, that the reader must judge the ethics of Price's treatment of the `levitated brick' and the other examples of cynical misrepresentation to which we have drawn attention in this report.
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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