Harry Price at Borley
Mr and Mrs Guy Eric Smith spent the early part of their married life in India. Following a serious illness which Mrs Smith had there, Mr Smith decided that, if he could take Holy Orders and obtain a living in England, he would leave the East. They came to this country, the plan was carried out and, not long after his ordination, Mr Smith became rector of Borley on 2 October 1928.
The cottage adjoining the rectory was unoccupied during their tenancy. They had one resident maid, Mary Pearson, who was only fifteen years of age when she came to them, soon after their arrival at Borley, from her home in the nearby village of Belchamp Walter. Mary had a friend, Fred Tatum, a young man of about 16 or 17 years of age at that time, whom she later married. He was frequently at the rectory, and plays a minor part among the dramatis personae of the Borley story.
The Smiths had not seen over the rectory before their arrival and took it on trust. They found it in a shocking condition with bad sanitation, broken pipes, lack of water, leaking roof; and were able to furnish and occupy only some of its many rooms.
They had heard nothing of the legendary haunt before coming, but were soon to be made aware of the rumours and gossip connected with the place. Though they laughed at the tales of ghosts and ghostly activities, they worried over the fact that their parishioners would refuse to come to the rectory for meetings because of its reputation. Something had to be done, they felt, to put an end to this state of affairs and in June 1929 they decided to approach a psychical research society, hoping that they could obtain an authoritative verdict that there was nothing sinister about the place and naively believing that they could thereby reassure their fearful parishioners. Not knowing the address of the organisation they should approach, they wrote to the editor of their daily paper - the Daily Mirror - to ask for guidance in the matter. The result was the immediate appearance of a reporter, Mr V. C. Wall, on 10 June 1929 and in his wake Harry Price, who had been asked by the editor to investigate.
The extraordinary happenings which ensued in the next 24 hours will shortly be described in Price's own words; suffice it to say here that not only were the hopes and intentions of the well-meaning rector and his wife unfulfilled but a spate of physical
phenomena of many kinds immediately broke out around the astonished and bewildered couple.
Succeeding issues of the Daily Mirror brought the tale to the public and hordes of sightseers descended upon the country rectory, invading privacy, trampling down lawns and flower beds while they peered through the windows, and so disturbing Mr and Mrs Smith that they had on occasion to ask help from the police to disperse them. The Daily Mirror thus described the scene (17 June 1929):
Obviously, after the Smiths had taken the irretrievable step of communicating with the Daily Mirror, the situation developed rapidly and was soon out of control. Moreover, household difficulties wore them out. 'I may mention that we did not even have proper drinking water', wrote Mrs Smith (1949), 'the cisterns were foul and sometimes the well would not work; the bathroom was all broken to pieces; we reported all this to the Bishop and to the Sanitary Inspector.'
The position became intolerable and on 14 July 1929 Mr and Mrs Smith left the rectory and moved into Long Melford, from which nearby town they carried on with the parish duties at Borley until they left the living altogether in April 1930.
The time during which Mr and Mrs Smith occupied the rectory and were in contact with Price, short and undramatic though it may appear in contrast with what was to follow in the Foyster period, may well be regarded as the kernel-clue to the whole story from the investigator's point of view. Here in the long history of the Borley 'haunt' occurred a sudden, new development; here there developed the pressure of fresh factors which opened up the course - already marked by the Borley legend - for the torrent which was shortly to race ahead. With the incumbency of the Rev. Guy Eric Smith we leave behind us the period of legend, of rumour, and of tales told and re-told by word of mouth, and step across a well-marked boundary line into the domain of Harry Price. The whole picture changes and we meet an onset of physical phenomena of a type and violence hitherto unrecorded.
The incidence of trickery and possible fraud on the part of investigators and residents at the rectory introduces a disagreeable
element into our task and one which we must consider before describing the events of this period in detail. In particular we are bound to examine serious accusations which have been made against Harry Price.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum is a good rule to observe except where, as now, larger issues must over-ride it. The duty of establishing the true facts in this difficult region far outweighs personal considerations, and those who make psychical research their particular study and activity must be willing to subordinate all else to that goal. By a resolute dissection of the material, we may at least show that we have not shirked our responsibilities in this respect.
An article published by Mr Charles Sutton of the Daily Mail (1) perforce brings Harry Price's character and integrity into the forefront of our enquiry, since it contains a definite accusation of fraud.
It is true that Price himself took a very small active part in the later investigations at the rectory and that the testimonies of his numerous collaborators must be considered on their own merits. But those testimonies were selected and presented to the public by Price, and it is on his presentation of the material that Borley has become the best known 'haunt' in the world.
The law of libel is a potent deterrent, and it was not therefore until after Harry Price's death that the accusation of fraud was publicly made against him by Mr Charles Sutton. (2) In an article entitled 'The Meditations of Charles Sutton' describing incidents that had taken place at Borley 19 years earlier, he wrote as follows: (3)
Mr Price's secretary, Miss Lucie Kaye (now Mrs Meeker), was the other person present on the occasion, and her testimony was sought and obtained by us. She had no recollection, she said, of
1 Inky Way Annual, Book 2; World's Press News. London, .
2 Mr Sutton has seen and approved all references to himself in this report.
3 Op. cit., p. 126.
any such incident, though she remembered visiting Borley with Mr Sutton. KMG's notes of the interview with her record: 'We next asked her bluntly whether, in her long association with H.P., she had ever had cause to doubt his integrity or suspect him in any way. She replied most emphatically in the negative. In her opinion he was absolutely and completely straight.'
In another section of these notes comes: 'Lord Charles [Hope] then reminded her of his visit to [Mr Price's Laboratory] and that she herself had referred him to Sutton; but she didn't remember this either, she said.' Mrs Meeker also sent us her own signed testimony for filing, denying Mr Sutton's story. 'I have no memory whatever of a stone, brick, or pebble episode that evening, and had there been anything drastic or sensational like an "exposure", surely it would have made some impression', she wrote.
Lord Charles Hope's recollection is backed by his contemporary hand-written notes, now in the S.P.R. files, made after a couple of isolated visits to Borley on 5 July and 29 July 1929. An extract concerning the second visit reads:
Additional information (undated), apparently compiled by Lord Charles from memory at a considerably later date but based on his contemporary notes, (1) refers to yet another occasion when Miss Kaye alluded to this incident.
1 'Visit to Borley Rectory July 5th 1929. Abbreviated from notes compiled next day.'
After the publication of the Inky Way Annual accusation, KMG was invited by Lord Charles Hope to meet Mr Sutton at luncheon (January 1949). 'I feel very shocked,' she wrote to Lord Charles 'at what I heard in so great detail.' Immediate notes were made of all Mr Sutton said. Mr Sutton also furnished us, for the S.P.R. files, with his own signed statement in far greater detail than the short published paragraphs.
Although this constitutes the only openly published accusation of fraud against Price, the S.P.R. files also contain the signed testimony of those whose observations resulted in very strong suspicions against him. Lord Charles Hope wrote: 'Although I did not feel certain, I left Borley with the definite suspicion that Mr Price might be responsible for some at least of the phenomena which had occurred while I was present. The incident of the piece of linoleum on the stairs [described in detail earlier in his notes] struck me as especially unfavourable.' On 1 April 1932 Lord Charles wrote to Price:
Lord Charles's further attendance at the rectory was not sought when Price's later and fuller investigations began (1937)·
Also in the files is correspondence (undated, c. 1943, 1949, and 1953) and a signed statement by Major the Hon. Henry Douglas-Home, who visited Borley with Price in 1937 (see p. 71, and pp. 132 ff.), in which he gives his view that 'phenomena' were produced by Price. In giving us permission to quote his testimony he writes (2 August 1953): 'I have no objection to any of my observations on Borley Rectory being used ... in fact I would welcome such action as I have always felt that Harry Price by his complete disregard for the truth in this matter did psychical research a grave disservice.'
Again, there is a serious accusation against Price and his 'barefaced hocus pocus' brought by Miss Cynthia Ledsham, on the staff of Time, which will be dealt with in detail later (see pp. 162 ff).
There is little doubt, we think, that the majority of those who shared in the investigations at Borley at no time suspected the bona fides of Price; that there are some who will be outraged at the accusations against him and who will not entertain them for an instant; and yet again others who entertained no suspicions at an earlier stage but who will not be able to escape them now in the face of what has since come to light.
With this lowering of an unpleasant dropscene as a background to our enquiry, we must now proceed to describe in detail the happenings attendant upon Price's arrival at the rectory. MHH is now (1955) out of print. Since, therefore, most readers will be unable to obtain a copy, and since the happenings at this period are of crucial importance to our final judgment on Borley, we propose to quote extensively from it.
PRICE'S VERSION: EXTRACTS :FROM MHH,
(pp. 1-10, 35-43, 59-62)
and his wife, made the Rectory their residence in the face of warnings by previous occupiers. Since their arrival they have been puzzled and startled by a series of peculiar happenings which cannot be explained, and which confirm the rumours they heard before moving in.
1 Price's account in MHH, p. 9, states: 'Another maid, the one they brought from London, saw a figure dressed in black leaning over the gate. It so frightened her that she stayed only two days.' On p. 36 he alters this to: 'Of the two maids employed by the Rev. G. E. Smith, the first, brought from London, stayed for two days only. She was frightened by a nun, wearing a hood, that she had seen at the gate at the bottom of the garden.'
1 For Price's very important omission here, see p. 25.
2 Lord Charles Hope, in the notes of his visit three weeks later on 5 July 1929, mentions the wireless in the Smiths' drawing room.
the girl told her mistress that she had not been upstairs at all. They therefore went up together, and found the room in darkness. The same thing happened on a later occasion, when the choir had just finished their evening practice. Mrs Smith took all the members of the choir and showed them the lighted window. Then they all went up to the room, but it was again in darkness.
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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