Harry Price at Borley
Price tells us on p. 46 of EBR that one of the most convincing features of the alleged haunting of Borley Rectory is the long period covered by the manifestations, i.e. virtually from the building of the house by the Rev. Henry Dawson Ellis Bull in 1863 to the clearing away of the last of the ruins in 1944. If the life of the rectory is considered to have ended in 1939 when it was largely gutted, then of its effective existence of 76 years no less than 64 comprise the two Bull incumbencies, which ended with the death in 1927 of the Rev. Harry Foyster Bull, son of Henry Bull. It will be clear that the Bull period is of considerable importance from this point of view alone. What is of probably greater interest and significance is the fact that the local story of ghosts seen at Borley Rectory began during the Bull incumbencies.
There can be no doubt that this story of the rectory apparitions was firmly established in Borley by 1928 when the living passed to a stranger, the Rev. G. Eric Smith. The purpose of this chapter is to discover whether the stories pertaining to the Bull period had any foundation in fact.
In considering the accounts contained in Price's books of the apparitions which are alleged to have been seen by Henry and Harry Bull, it is important to bear in mind that we are offered no first-hand testimony recorded at the time by either of the percipients. All we have is a description by Price of what Miss Bull could remember of what her father and her brother had presumably told her, without dates or corroboration, and obviously in some instances after considerable periods of time. This is unsatisfactory enough in itself; what is more disturbing is the discovery of indications that Price apparently over-stated Miss Bull's narrative in his books. Miss Bull told two of us, EJD and THH, on 4 April 1953 at her home in Great Cornard, Sudbury, that to her annoyance Price never gave her the opportunity of approving the section of MHH dealing with her testimony and that in consequence he made a number of mistakes. On p. 46 of MHH it is stated, for example:
Again, on pp. 46 and 47 it is said:
These several alleged occurrences appear to have been manufactured from a single experience of Miss Bull's, some 60 odd years ago, which she described in a letter to THH dated 2 April 1953 in these words:
A further example of apparent exaggeration in Price's reporting of Miss Bull's testimony is contained on p. 45 of MHH in which the description of the alleged apparition of the 'nun' on the rectory lawn includes the following sentence: 'She had an expression of intense grief on her face.' On 11 August 1950 Mr W. H. Salter, Hon. Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research, accompanied by KMG and the Rev. S. Austin, had tea with Miss Ethel Bull at Sudbury, and recorded in his notes Miss Bull's description of the apparition:
Perhaps the most striking example of exaggeration, however, is demonstrated by an incident where we have been able to compare Price's published account with his own contemporary notes. On p. 48 of MHH Price says:
This story is substantially repeated in EBR, p. 30, with a curious variation (which may be simply carelessness) in that Price says
that the incident took place 'one night'. In the Borley file at London University are the original notes made by Price and his secretary, Miss Lucie Kaye, on their first visit to Borley in June 1929. The appropriate extract from which the above account was presumably taken reads as follows:
It will be observed that in these notes there is no mention of a 'headless man' (although Miss Bull may have mentioned one), and that there is the significant comment that Harry Bull took the 'apparition' to be a poacher (which it may well have been, or a tramp coveting the products of the rectory fruit trees). It is unfortunate that the respective addition and omission of these items 'coloured' the story towards a paranormal explanation when it was written for publication ten years later.
In MHH, p. 37, Price states that Mary Pearson, maid to the later rector, the Rev. G. Eric Smith, 'saw a man, headless, behind a tree. She chased it into the garden, where it disappeared.' Mary, however, whom EJD and THH interviewed on 21 August 1952, told us - if we can rely on her memory so long after - that this story, apparently confirming the previous narrative, was quite untrue. There is no later mention of this particular apparition in the Borley literature.
We have dealt with the story of the 'headless man' in order to demonstrate at this early stage of our report the way in which events at 'the most haunted house in England' which were readily capable of a normal explanation, or which may not have occurred at all, nevertheless found their place in what is probably the best and most successful ghost story ever written, but which was offered as a serious piece of research. Price himself apparently did not privately attach over-much importance to the evidence adduced during the incumbencies, and in a letter to one of us (EJD) dated 17 October 1946 he wrote slightingly of Mrs Foyster and added: 'If you cut out the Foysters, the Bulls, the Smiths, etc., something still remains.' The 'something' was the testimony of his own corps of observers.
In any critical examination of the alleged events before 1928 when the Smiths came to Borley, we must note that the atmosphere at the rectory was evidently strongly spiritualistic due to the unusual beliefs held by the Rev. Harry Bull (see Introduction,
P.4). The beliefs and experiences of his father, the Rev. Henry Bull, are none too clear. According to the 'Analysis of Phenomena' (MHH, p. 238), he saw the phantasm of the nun; but this is at variance with a statement made by his daughter, Miss Ethel Bull, to KMG and Mr W.H. Salter, on 11 August 1950, and to EJD and THH on 4 April 1953. Miss Bull said that she knew nothing of any appearance of this apparition of a nun before 28 July 1900 when she first saw it herself: i.e. eight years after the Rev. Henry Bull's death. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, there does not appear to be any doubt that the Rev. Harry Bull stated to several people that he repeatedly saw various phantasms in the rectory garden, i.e. the nun; a spectral coach; an old family retainer, 'Old Amos'; and (possibly) a headless man.
There is, we think, reason to suppose that some of the 'apparitions' seen by Harry Bull may have been illusions or hallucinations, for which no explanation other than a morbid imagination and an evident interest in the supernatural is necessary. It is possible also that the circumstances in which they were seen may have been propitious. In EBR, p. 99, Price prints a letter received from Mr P. Shaw Jeffrey, who was at Oxford with Harry Bull and a visitor at Borley during the long vacations. 'He was', he wrote, 'an extraordinary man; he was always asleep. Nine times out of ten he never turned up to meals at the Rectory. Some one had to go and find him. He was always asleep in one or other of the arbours.'
Whatever the cause of this symptom (and narcolepsy is probably the least sensational), it would seem to be arguable that if he were in the habit of dropping off to sleep in the garden at all hours, he would experience a similar number of periods of drowsiness, producing a condition peculiarly susceptible to hallucinations arising from suggestion.
Both the Bulls were educated men, enjoying the dual authority of local land-owners and rectors in a fairly remote hamlet, and it seems self-evident that they would have considerable influence over the beliefs of their servants, parishioners, and some (but apparently not all) of their family. In these circumstances it is interesting to note that the tradition of the haunting of the rectory may have been well established in the neighbourhood as early as 1886. In the letter from a Mrs Byford reproduced (and considerably edited) in MHH, p. 47, describing her experiences in that year, she states that in her youth 'it was common talk that the Rectory was haunted'; just as Mr C. A. Boyden in his nostalgic letter in 1929 (EBR, p. 97), describes how 'the ghost story' was told to him 'over fifty years ago' before he left the Rev. Henry Bull's Bible Class and Borley at the age of nine. The Rev. L.A.
Foyster, cousin to the Bulls, writing to Mr S. H. Glanville on 2 September 1937 said:
In cases of alleged recurring manifestations it would normally be necessary to make careful enquiry into each percipient's awareness of the experiences of his predecessors; but in the case of Borley the legend was common knowledge in the immediate neighbourhood from the start, although, significantly perhaps, it was apparently not reported outside the immediate neighbourhood of Borley until 1929.
Mrs Byford's experience in 1886, described by her forty-three years after the event, scarcely establishes the actuality of the haunting of the rectory, for all she heard was 'someone walking down the passage ... and the sound they made suggested that they were wearing slippers'. She did not open her bedroom door to see who it was. (1) In MHH, p. 245, Price lists this among the first 'principal events'; and in EBR, p. 94, he describes the slippered walking as 'persistent "ghostly footsteps"', neither adjective having been used by his witness. What is of additional mild significance in Mrs Byford's letter is that as early as 1886 the other servants warned her, a young and new under-nursemaid who was presumably fair game, that her bedroom was haunted. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the beliefs of the heads of the household produced an atmosphere at Borley highly favourable for hallucinations due to suggestion on the one hand and to hoaxes and practical jokes on the other.
The letter from Mr Shaw Jeffrey referred to above described his experiences at the rectory in 1885, and Price comments (EBR, p. 101) that Mr Jeffrey's 'important contribution to the evidence for the early haunting of Borley Rectory is of exceptional value'. It is difficult to avoid some scepticism as to the sincerity of this opinion. Mr Jeffrey was born in 1862 (he died in 1952) and was therefore 80 years old when, after reading MHH, he wrote to Price
1 It is curious to notice that when Mrs Byford was interviewed by the Saffron Walden Independent Press and Chronicle in 1951 she told an entirely different story. In the issue of that paper of 9 November 1951, Mrs Byford's account of her experience at Borley is reported as follows: 'She was accustomed to being called each morning by one of the servants. On this occasion, someone entered her room, drew back the curtains and then withdrew without speaking. A little later the servant called - but flatly denied having been in the room earlierl'
in 1942 describing events of 57 years previously. In 1950 EJD wrote to Mr Jeffrey asking if he would assist the investigation by discussing with us his experiences at Borley. In his reply dated 20 February 1950 Mr Jeffrey said: 'I am afraid I shall be no use to you. I am 88 in a few days' time; my memory is quite untrustworthy and the events at Borley now 65 years ago are so remote that they now seem quite unreal and I should not be prepared to swear to them.' Mr Jeffrey concluded his letter by saying, 'No amount of discussion would elicit any further facts from the dried-up reservoir of my memory.'
In any case, the physical 'phenomena' of 1885 were not very impressive. Mr Jeffrey had 'lots of small adventures at the Rectory. Stones falling about, my boots found on top of the wardrobe, etc.' On the other hand, it must be recorded that Mr Jeffrey stated that he had seen the nun several times and had often heard the coach go clattering by. (1) In his view, however, the most striking phenomenon was the loss of a French dictionary which later was thrown on the floor of his bedroom in the night. As an example of the ingenuity which has probably helped to give Borley some of its wide appeal, we quote the explanation offered for this incident by Dr W. J. Phythian-Adams, Canon of Carlisle, one of the principal believers in the paranormality of the rectory happenings. He says in 'Plague of Darkness' (Church Quarterly Review, January-March 1946, p. 214):
We prefer the explanation of Mr W. H. Salter who, in his review of EBR in the S.P.R. Journal for December 1946, said of Mr Jeffrey's experiences:
1 But see p. 21 where it is pointed out that Miss Ethel Bull said that she knew nothing of any appearance of the nun prior to 1900, a statement confirmed in her letter to Mr S. H. Glanville of 25 March 1942 written after reading Mr Shaw Jeffrey's letter. In the same letter in further contradiction of Mr Jeffrey's story she said that she had never heard anything about Pentlow Rectory being haunted, a mild but perhaps significant comment upon Mr Shaw Jeffrey's graphic account of how he and Harry Bull witnessed striking physical phenomena there at the home of the Rev. Felix Bull, four miles from Borley (EBR, p. 100). The same remark was made to EJD and THH on 4 April 1953.
2 By this time the nationality and name of the legendary nun had been elicited from a planchette board.
At all events, any comments Mr Jeffery may have made at the time were not sufficiently impressive to be remembered by members of the Bull family, though they remembered his visits to their home. When KMG and Mr Salter saw Miss Ethel Bull, Miss Milly Bull, and Mr Alfred Bull at their home in Sudbury on 11 August 1950, they were informed by all three that no objective phenomena of any kind had been heard of by them at the rectory during the whole of their lives there, and that the first mention of any alleged poltergeist activity had occurred during the incumbency of the Rev. G. Eric Smith, which began in 1928. Mr Alfred Bull said that he had slept in the same bedroom that Mr Shaw Jeffrey occupied, but had experienced nothing odd. This testimony was repeated to EJD and THH on 4 April 1953.
In MHH, pp. 44-5, Price describes the occasion when the four Misses Bull are said to have seen the phantom nun collectively on the rectory lawn on 28 July 1900. (1) It is unfortunate that no contemporary written account of this experience seems to have been made. Price's record of the Misses Bull's statement to him is unsatisfactory in that we are not told the time the apparition was seen: we are merely informed that it was in the evening and that it was 'sunlight'. Further information indicating the amount of light is omitted.
Fortunately we have a report prepared by Lord Charles Hope following his own visit to Borley in 1929 and his meeting with the Misses Bull who informed him that it was 'late twilight in the
1 Price says on p. 45 of MHH of the apparition seen by the Misses Bull : 'It is quite certain that this figure, seen first by four persons collectively, and then by two other persons simultaneously, was objective. It was solid, like a human being; not a subjective image, a phantasm, or figment of the imagination.'
This remark is contradicted, or so it seems to us, by a passage on the next page of the same book: 'When the Misses Bull were young girls, they were leaning over the fence of their garden, looking across the fields. They were with one of the maids. They saw some young friends a few yards away, crossing the field in front of them, evidently taking a short cut to Long Melford Station, or going to the river Stour. Just a little ahead of their friends was a girl or young woman in white whom the sisters failed to recognize as one of the villagers. The Bull sisters happened to meet their friends in the evening and asked the name of the girl whom they took to the river. The young people denied that anyone had been with them; nor did they see any stranger present' (MHH, p. 46).
Thus, Price's insistence that collective perception may be regarded as a test of objectivity is followed by an account of an alleged experience of the same persons which, if true, would prove the precise opposite, i.e. that the Misses Bull saw a figure invisible to others. It is well known that collective hallucinations need not occur to all people present on any occasion.
summer, about 9 p.m.' (of course before the advent of Summer Time). The statement made to KMG and Mr Salter in 1950 confirms this precisely. On 28 July 1900 the sun set at 7.53 p.m.
We have every reason to think that the Misses Bull were sincere in believing that they saw someone or something moving on the path under the trees as they looked across the lawn in the twilight over fifty years ago. But so were Mr V. C. Wall (Daily Mirror reporter) and his photographer on the evening of 10 June 1929 when they 'had a terrible shock' and 'distinctly saw a white figure flitting about in the gloom', but later discovered that the 'apparition' was the Smiths' maid - as Mr Wall stated in that part of his report in the Daily Mirror of 11 June 1929 which Price omitted in MHH, p. 4, despite the clear implication that the whole of Mr Wall's original article (minus the heading) is printed verbatim. The article is headed 'Midnight Apparition that Proved to be a Maid'.
A consistent feature of the early Borley 'apparitions' is the fact that almost without exception they were seen out of doors, where the possibility of the misinterpretation of natural objects seen in poor light is much greater than inside a room. In his original notes made at Borley in 1929, for example, Price commented that the Rev. G. Eric Smith had seen what looked like a spectre of a white-clad monk in the rectory garden, afterwards discovering that it was the smoke from a bonfire! This event is not included in either of the Borley books.
There is some evidence to show that possibly Price himself may have been misled over the story of the apparition of the nun. Canon Lawton knew the Misses Bull very well indeed and Miss Ethel Bull is godmother to one of his children. He tells us that while he gained the impression that the Misses Bull were mildly proud of the tradition of the family ghost and publicly told the tale of the phantasm in the garden with understandable gusto, they never spoke to him privately of the matter with any degree of seriousness. Canon Lawton was especially friendly with Mr Gerald Bull, a brother of the Misses Bull, who lived at the rectory with his sisters until 1920. He told Canon Lawton that he had never seen anything of an abnormal nature during all his years at Borley, that he was entirely sceptical, and held the view that the nun was a product of feminine imagination. Another brother, Mr Walter Bull, whom the Rev. L. A. Foyster somewhat ruefully describes as entirely unbelieving on pp. 63-4 of his manuscript Fifteen Months in a Haunted House, is quoted by Mr Foyster as saying that nothing abnormal ever happened in the rectory when the Bulls lived there, though Price quotes him (MHH, p. 51) as
hearing unaccountable footsteps following him in the lane near the rectory at least fifty times. (1)
In MHH, pp. 56-7, Price describes the experiences of Mr Fred Cartwright, the journeyman carpenter who stated that he saw the phantom nun on four separate occasions in 1927 as he passed the rectory in the early hours of the morning. Again we have no first-hand account by the percipient. All we have is 'a most interesting story' (without dates or corroboration) told to Price in 1930 by Mr Cartwright 'over a pint of ale at the "White Horse" [Inn]'. The only first-hand evidence in Price's account would appear to be the fact that Mr Cartwright drank a pint of ale whilst he told his story. One is inclined to wonder a little how many such pints Mr Cartwright had consumed on the strength of it between 1929, when the original articles on Borley appeared in the national and local press, and 1930 when Price sought him out in Sudbury.
In MHH, pp. 17-18, Price discusses the mystery of the bricked-up dining-room window at the rectory which, it is suggested, was blocked by the Rev. Henry Bull (and therefore prior to 1892) to prevent the nun peering through the window from the drive. No testimony is available other than the mute evidence of the window itself, or if it is, none is offered by Price. The rectory was built rather close to the road and was separated from it by a narrow drive only, and there would probably have been some lack of privacy if this window facing the road had not been bricked up. The room was adequately lighted by another very large window facing the lawn and had indeed the same amount of natural light from this one window as the drawing-room, which was identically illuminated (see Fig. I). The other principal rooms on the ground floor, the drawing-room and the library, had complete privacy from passers-by (facing on to the lawn as they did), and the bricking-up of the small dining-room window merely made this room uniform with the other two in this respect. Indeed, Price admitted in MHH, p. 18, that when pursuing his enquiries in Borley he was told that the window was bricked up 'because people passing along the road could see the Bull family having their meals'; but adds that he does 'not believe that this was the reason at all'. It is curious that he does not disclose that
1 Miss Ethel Bull indicated in her letter of 25 March 1942 to Mr S. H. Glanville that Price had confused the names of her brothers, having mistakenly substituted Walter Bull (whom presumably Price had not met) for Gerald Bull in MHH. This would appear to dispose of the footsteps heard by Walter Bull, but is nevertheless puzzling to us for it was with the 'entirely sceptical' Gerald Bull who died in 1940 that Canon Lawton was particularly friendly. The task of the luckless investigators of a many-years-old mystery is sometimes complex, as may be noted elsewhere in this report!
this explanation was made by Mr Walter Bull, who, as a son of Henry Bull, was presumably entitled to speak with some authority. Price's objections to this natural explanation are not very convincing. The 'hedge and belt of trees' forming 'an impenetrable screen' opposite the bricked-up window, through which Price endeavoured unsuccessfully to peer, would probably have been but partly grown and not impenetrable at all in Henry Bull's time. Price's suggestion that the road was unfrequented is equally unconvincing. It led to the most important building in the district, Borley church with its graveyard, which was immediately opposite the rectory. It was Canon Lawton who suggested to us with some shrewdness that it would have been more logical to brick up the other window facing the lawn and the 'Nun's Walk' which the ghost was supposed to haunt, if it were necessary seriously to consider the explanation offered by Price.
In this analysis of the Borley 'phenomena' up to 1927, no attempt has been made to deal with every incident assiduously collected by Price. But an effort has been made critically to examine at least one typical example of each sort. Thus there is that class of incident for which there is a reasonably obvious and normal explanation, such as Mrs Byford's 'footsteps' and the 'phenomena' exemplified by the probable practical joking of the younger Bulls resulting in the changed position of Mr Jeffrey's boots and the disappearance of his dictionary. There are the hallucinations due to suggestion typified by the visions of Harry Bull, who saw - as mentioned earlier - the nun, 'Old Amos', a spectral coach with two horses driven by a headless coachman, and possibly a headless man in the garden: altogether too interesting a collection to be capable of any other explanation. Finally there is, we think, the imaginary or exaggerated incident, motivated perhaps by mild personal advantage in one form or another, exemplified by Fred Cartwright's ghost story. All these types are repeated many times in the later stages of the Borley story.
The evidence of the Bull period is unimportant, and if nothing more had occurred after the death of Harry Bull in 1927, the outside world would probably never have heard of the alleged haunting of Borley Rectory. Practically the whole of the testimony is uncorroborated, and much of it was related to Price after very long periods of time. Much of it, too, was obviously stimulated to a greater or lesser degree by the series of Daily Mirror articles which began on 10 June 1929. Thus, Mrs Byford's letter was received on 11 June, and the testimony of the Misses Bull was collected in Sudbury by Price on 13 June, after three
Daily Mirror articles had appeared. It was on 13 June that we have what appears to be the first local account of the alleged hauntings: an article appearing, at considerable length, in the Suffolk and Essex Free Press. Lastly, as we have seen, Price himself displayed a tendency to over-tell his story in his books.
The period of the Bull incumbencies is important, however, in that it demonstrates how the stage was set for what was to follow. As we have seen, the eccentricities and beliefs of Harry Bull, coupled with what was probably the almost absolute authority of his position and that of his father in Barley and its neighbourhood, were sufficient foundation for the belief in the story of the nun and for the village tales of the haunting of the rectory. Until 1929 these stories never spread (so far as we know) beyond Borley and its immediate vicinity. Until 1929 Borley was no different from the many English country houses which possess a local ghost story.
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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
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Famous Cases .
Borley Rectory .
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