Harry Price at Borley
extracted from as many doors in various parts of the building. Amongst the keys was a brass Romish medallion, which the rector could not identify.' There is no mention in this article of any other medals.
Price was, or had been, an enthusiastic numismatist and possessed an important collection of rare coins and medals. It seems to us that the indications of substitution are clear beyond reasonable doubt, and it merely remains to examine the probable motive. It will have been observed from his article in the Journal of the American S.P.R. that in 1929 Price apparently believed that the rectory was built on the site of a 13th-century monastery, and he repeated the 'guilty-monk-and-nun' legend of the period, with its entirely English background. If the hypothesis of trickery is accepted, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that Price introduced into the house at the time a medal which Lord Charles Hope described as 'a medallion with Latin words on it & the head of a monk' in order to bolster up the evidence for the haunting and its supposed historical background. However, in 1937 the planchette séances took place and the more attractive 'French-Roman-Catholic-nun' story emerged in which a monk played no part. Furthermore, in 1938 Price was even forced to abandon his belief that Borley Rectory was built upon the site of a monastery. On 3 November 1938 Mr S. H. Glanville wrote to him:
I have at last received a definite reply from the Secretary of the Essex Archeological Society in which he says 'There was certainly no religious house at Borley; nor is there any record of a chapel or ecclesiastical building other than the church having existed there'. So there goes the monastery and nunnery legend. Unfortunate, but there it is.
As regards the circumstances of the appearance of the St Ignatius medal during the Smith incumbency in 1929, it is interesting to recall that no other coin or medal is mentioned in the story at that time, and that Mrs Smith told us in her written testimony: 'Our servant Mary also had the same suspicions, and after he [Price] had gone she told me openly "It was that man threw that coin - so I threw some sugar".' (cf. p. 46.)
If the theory of trickery and substitution is not accepted, it must be considered as a most extraordinary coincidence that after the events of 1937 and 1938 and the emergence of the 'French-Roman-Catholic-nun' story, the St Ignatius medal appears to have joined the monastery legend in oblivion, and that two different medals of which there is no previous record but which support the new story should be described in MHH. If, however, the reader is convinced by the facts we have assembled, he will no doubt regard
the incident as of the first importance in this investigation, in that it is an indication that Price did not scruple on occasions to 'prove' legends and theories supporting the Borley story by the production of evidence seemingly in existence beforehand, but which one is bound to suspect may have been introduced at a later date. We shall have occasion to refer to this probable procedure again later in this report when we deal with the excavations at Borley (see pp. 154-61).
The reader has now before him the separate accounts of Price and Mrs Smith in their own words, the necessary extracts from contemporary correspondence, the accusations and suspicions of witnesses and our own dissection of certain incidents.
We have already submitted that there is no evidence worthy the name for anything paranormal at Borley up to the close of the long tenancies of the Bulls, father and son. We must now express the same view regarding the testimonies concerning the Smith tenancy.
I. THE TESTIMONY OF THE REPORTER OF THE
'DAILY MIRROR', MR V. C. WALL
Mr Wall reported on Borley in six issues of the Daily Mirror: those of 10, 11, 12, 14, 15 and 17 June 1929. The later ones were written after the arrival of Price on 12 June and items recorded in these will therefore be considered later. We are here concerned with the experiences of Mr Wall alone. These are recorded in the issue of 11 June and contain one unexplained item only: the mysterious light which appeared in a window of the rectory (see p. 35). This light had been noticed on several occasions by Mrs Smith and had appeared in two rooms (MHH, pp. 8 and 37): those marked 7 and 11 on Fig. II. It continued to be seen by villagers after the Smiths had left the rectory (MHH, p. 64) and was once again reported in 1937 as seen by three or four persons on one night in two separate windows (MHH, p. 236). As already recorded (p. 45), Mrs Smith stated she eventually found that this effect was the result of reflections from passings trains. (1) Passing or parked cars might presumably provide similar reflections. We must accept Mrs Smith's explanation in the absence of any record on the matter from Price's 1937 investigators. Certainly no claim for a paranormal phenomenon can rest on an incident so reasonably explained.
Mr Wall, of course, also thought he had netted the nun; but this, alas, turned out to be a near Miss - Miss Mary (see p. 25)
1 Cf. the information supplied to Price by Henning (p. 139).
In view of this experience, we must also dismiss the later shadowy figure he saw with Price at the same spot (see p. 38), and give our verdict that the experiences of Mr Wall cannot be accepted as evidence for the paranormal.
II. THE TESTIMONY OF MISS MARY PEARSON,
MAID TO THE SMITHS
Here we have the report of a girl aged 15-17 over the period described, a girl for whom Mrs Smith retains much affection, who rendered her faithful service, and whose lively antics enlivened many an hour. Price says that she was 'a very intelligent girl'. She evidently was; for Mrs Smith told us that Mary used to make sightseers contribute to the rectory missionary box before satisfying their curiosity regarding her adventures, which extended, according to Price, to seeing the nun, the coach and the headless man (MHH, pp. 36-7). (1) 'Young persons (especially young girls) and adolescents,' Price commented, 'are admittedly good "percipients", (MHH, p. 37).
Mrs Smith also recorded an admission by Mary that she had thrown sugar to simulate a poltergeist in competition with what she considered Mr Price's throwing of coins (see p. 46); and there was no doubt at all in Mrs Smith's mind that Mary resorted to 'pranks' of this kind 'to add to the excitement'. In the contemporary notes drawn up by Lord Charles Hope on his first visit to Borley, he records that he formed the view that Mary was possibly responsible for some of the 'phenomena' occurring, and that he told Price this. It is noteworthy that Lord Charles in his impressions of his first evening at the rectory should suspect not only Mary but Price of trickery (cf. p. 33), and that Mrs Smith, without any knowledge of Lord Charles's report, should make precisely the same suggestions to us in her testimony twenty years later. We must also note that with three separate staircases connecting the various floors (see Figs. I and II), the production of 'pranks' was facilitated.
Although Mary, now living in Sudbury with many children, admits to a firm belief in the Borley haunt and is consulted by friends and neighbours whenever Borley once more figures in newspaper articles, we place the young adolescent girl of so long ago among those whose testimony for the paranormal cannot be taken seriously.
1 Lord Charles Hope also reported in his notes on his first visit to the rectory that Mary told him she had twice seen the phantom coach.
III. THE TESTIMONY OF THE REV. G. ERIC SMITH
AND MRS SMITH
Here again we will consider separately unexplained occurrences after the arrival of Price. Did anything occur in the first eight months of the Smiths' stay at the rectory, before the arrival of Price, which constitutes evidence for the paranormal?
We may take it that the items detailed by Price when describing his first interview with them, and which include the information Mr Wall must have obtained from them, give us all that we have to consider. These items can be summed up under the following headings:
(1) Unexplained bell-ringing.
(2) Other unexplained sounds, including the sound of dragging footsteps; 'sibilant whisperings'; and the moaning sound culminating in 'Don't Carlos don't'.
(3) The shooting of keys from their locks (as distinct from the throwing of keys after Price's arrival).
(4) The incident described by Price of a vase, that normally stood on the mantelpiece of their first floor bedroom, found smashed to pieces at the foot of the main stairs - nobody being in the house at the time.
(5) The mysterious light in the windows, which has already been dealt with.
We can dismiss the absurdity of querying the natural explanation for the dark shadowy figures in the country lane which momentarily lean over the gate to look towards the rectory windows and pass on ('disappear').
(1) Unexplained bell-ringing. 'One of the typical Poltergeist features of the haunting is the paranormal bell-ringing,' says Price (MHH, p. 45). Mrs Smith states this was due to the usual pranks of village boys and to rats and mice.
It is well known what queer noises can be produced by rats and mice, and one of the stock theories put forward by laymen is often summed up in the single word - rats. It may therefore be regarded as of some significance that Price consistently denied the presence of rats and mice in Borley rectory, although, seeing that only a few yards away from the house was a group of farm buildings, such a denial would, it might be thought, be a dangerous one to make. However, Price insists, with the vehemence of an exclamation mark, 'And as for rats or mice, during my investigation of the Rectory, on no occasion have I seen or heard the slightest indication of these rodents. And never once has any
observer, to my knowledge, mentioned rats. After all, there was little to attract a rat - or even a mouse - especially when the place was empty!' (MHH, p. 62). His language was surely ill-chosen considering that in MHH, p. 82, he quotes from the Diary of the Rev. L. A. Foyster: ' ... a terrific noise started up in the hall, which we found was due to the cat having its claw caught in the rat trap.' Price's statement that never once had an observer mentioned rats (or mice understood) is a falsehood. When he wrote he had in his Borley file letters from many observers mentioning them. We give as examples:
(a) An unpublished report by Mr Kerr-Pearse dated 26 June 1937; this observer said: 'Found many traces of mice in cupboards which contained old pieces of paper in them. This might have misled people [regarding small noises heard]. Noticed that many of the bell wires run along rafters of attics. Could mice or rats have rung bells ... ?'
(b) In the report by Mr C. Gordon Glover dated 26 February 1938, which by implication is quoted verbatim in MHH, p. 219, Price omitted to include, inter alia, the sentence: 'A thing we particularly noticed was the large number of mouse marks - droppings and so on - in various parts of the house.'
(c) The report of Mr Glanville and Mr H. G. Harrison dated 15 August 1937 stated: 'Heard faint "scrabbling" sounds outside which we attributed to the activities of mice.' This is allowed to reach MHH, p. 199, curtailed to ' ... while they were sitting in the Blue Room in semi-darkness, they heard faint "scrabbling" sounds outside'. The mice were not mentioned, for unexplained noises form part of the 'haunt'.
(d) Dr P. E. Ryberg, R. M. Christie, and L. G. Cooper on the night of 8 December 1937 reported to Price: 'No sounds of unexplained origin were heard .... Mice were heard ravaging in some boxes under the table. Gnawed paper was found in these boxes . . . . Mice were seen to scuttle around .. .' (This report was not quoted by Price.)
There are several other similar reports Price might have noticed. We have quoted Mrs Smith's testimony to seeing rats (p. 47-8).
Lord Charles Hope mentioned in his contemporary record that he noticed that some of the bell wires were exposed in the passage outside the Smiths' bedroom and surmised that it might have been possible for someone to ring a bell by pulling at these wires. When we remember the pranks admittedly indulged in by the young Fred (see p. 45) and Mary, and add the fact, recorded above (p 37, footnote), that Mary showed Mrs Smith a place she had
discovered in the pantry where there was a cluster of exposed bell-wires connecting with the row of bells in the kitchen passage (the bells the poltergeister so much favoured), and that by pulling these wires the bells could be rung, we do not think the unexplained bell-ringing at the rectory, which in Price's hands forms so conspicuous a part of the 'haunt', can best be explained by an hypothesis involving the paranormal.
As regards Mrs Smith's contention that village boys rang the bells out of mischief (p.66), the following quotation from the report sent to Price by J. Burden and T. Stainton on 15 December 1937 shows that the hypothesis of 'pranks' could also be applied to the later period when Price's 'Official Observers' kept their weekly watches at the rectory. These gentlemen wrote to Price as follows: 'Heard sound of women's voices outside back of house ... sound of crunching footsteps ... then front door bell rang loudly. Followed a few seconds after by sound of car driving away. (This was obviously caused by some girls from the village. We later found the saucer on the porch broken).' At other times practical jokers might have taken more care to conceal their approach.
(2) Other unexplained sounds: dragging footsteps; sibilant whisperings.
Price many times quotes evidence as to the remarkable silence of the rectory. We do not doubt it was often very silent. But it is a pity that he never noticed or never recorded the fact that, owing largely to the construction of the rectory with its high walls and enclosed courtyard, a peculiar acoustic effect resulted in sounds in the courtyard and in the nearby cottage echoing loudly inside the rectory. This was noticed by Canon Lawton and his wife when their children were playing in the courtyard and the then empty cottage. Major Douglas-Home states in his notes (not seen by Price) that the footsteps of the occupants of the cottage in 1937 as they moved across the courtyard, were clearly audible in rooms in the rectory or sounded as if they were in the rectory corridor: 'Owing to the shape of the courtyard & the position of cottage, every sound made at cottage was magnified at least 5 times in the main house - I verified this - even voices spoken outside the pantry by cottage were strongly heard in the Base [the rectory library] and other rooms' (undated, c. 1943). (1)
Moreover, another source from which noises might have arisen was from the block of piggeries and farm buildings which extended from the west end of the cottage southwards by the side of the rectory to a distance of some seventy yards, and which we have
1 It is obvious that these private impressions are not intended to be taken too literally.
described on p. 9. Such buildings must have been the source of various shuffiings, tappings, etc., and it is possible that these sounds may have been heard inside the rectory at night and have given rise to tales of unexplained sounds.
We have already reported that the cottage was empty in the Smiths' time. But empty cottages adjoining the gate and main roadway would not inconceivably offer shelter to passing lovers and roadfarers; and 'sibilant whisperings' or the dramatic 'Don't, Carlos, Don't' (see pp. 36; 45) might be attributed, we suggest, without incurring the charge of adopting an extravagant theory, to human beings. Mrs Smith commented: ' ... my husband told me afterwards that he was certain it was a couple passing in the road, and it sounded like a voice in the house' (annotations to MHH).
Several of Price's 'Official Observers' also reported on the fact that outside sounds echoed within the rectory, giving the effect of occurring inside the house (J. Burden's report, December 1937; J. M. Bailey's and C. V. Wintour's report, July 1937; see p. 135).
Reference has already been made (p. 4) to the sounds likely to be produced by bushes tapping in the wind against the rectory walls and windows. It is a pity that Price omitted to record Mr Kerr-Pearse's comment in his report of 26 June 1937 (see MHH, p. 203): 'This might provide an excellent "ghost" for the imaginative.' Mrs Smith's suggestion (p. 48) that the sound of 'footsteps' heard by her husband should be attributed to rats has already been noted.
Without pursuing the matter further, it seems likely that the few unexplained sounds reported by Mr Smith can be normally explained, and that Price's suggestions to the contrary can be best attributed not to psychical research but to sales publicity.
(3) The shooting of keys from their locks (see pp. 37; 40). From the account given by Price it is now impossible to determine the reason why the keys jumped from their locks. These incidents are not uncommon, however, and are sometimes due to air pressure which, when conditions are favourable, impels the keys to jump out when these are, so to speak, 'in line' and not so turned that the webs are horizontal. Through the kindness of Mr Herbert E. Pratt (Fellow of the Faculty of Surveyors of England) we have received an account of an actual case observed by himself, (1) where keys in two doors were propelled outwards under conditions where air pressure was clearly responsible. It appears obvious from Price's account that he was not aware of this possibility or, if he were aware of it, made no experiments to confirm or reject this explanation, and did not offer it as an hypothesis to his readers.
1 Available for inspection in the S.P.R. files.
But we should note that in most of the instances at Borley where keys are concerned, these were thrown about or dropped like pebbles.
(4) The smashed vase (see p. 37). Price records this incident as having been reported to him on his first interview with the Smiths; Mr Glanville in his notes on his 1937 interview with them similarly reports the event as taking place before Price's arrival. As recorded, it appears inexplicable. But it will be noticed that precisely this episode is described by Price (see p. 39) as taking place a second time during his first day's investigation of the rectory. He erroneously alludes to a 'red glass candlestick' this second time, though Mr Wall who was with him correctly names it a vase. Mrs Smith possessed no glass candlesticks. In reply to a request for further information, Mrs Smith states (November 1952) that this event happened only when Price was there, and that if Mr Glanville reported otherwise 'the tale has somehow got twisted or misunderstood'.
Price's description can be compared with the wording of Mr Wall's report in the Daily Mirror of 14 June 1929 (not given in MHH): 'With our flash lamps we inspected the broken pieces and found them to be sections of a red vase which, with its companion, had been standing on the mantelpiece of what is known as the Blue Room [the Smiths' bedroom] and which we had just searched. Mr Price was the only person behind me and he could not have thrown the vase at such an angle to pass my head and hit the stove below.'
We notice that the smashed vase is one of an existing pair, which corroborates Mrs Smith's statement that the other one had not been broken before Price's arrival. We notice that Price and Mr Wall had just left the room in which the vases stood; that, from the reference to flash lamps, the place must have been in darkness; that Price was the only person in the rear. It is obvious one can place no reliance on testimony regarding details of exact direction when an unexpected event occurs in the dark. But Mr Wall's comment on Price's position in the rear, and his allusion to whether he could or could not have thrown it, brings to mind the scene which gave rise to suspicions in the mind of Lord Charles Hope (see p. 33). On that occasion, following upon the throwing of pebbles, a loose piece of linoleum, seen lying in the bathroom they had just visited, was shortly after found deposited on the main stairs they had descended. Price argued that Lord Charles had left the bathroom last, but Miss Kaye corroborated Lord Charles's reply that, in fact, Price was in the rear. 'H.P. appeared
displeased’, said Lord Charles, and perhaps attribution of this occurrence to a poltergeist was not thereafter unduly pressed.
Similarly, Major Douglas-Home in a letter to Lord Charles Hope, August 1949, reports that pencil marks appeared on the walls (in the dark except for torches) during three tours in the rectory in 1937 when Price was in the rear. Major Douglas-Home's suspicions being aroused, 'on all our other tours I manoeuvred myself to the rear directly we entered a room. He [Price] was, therefore, in the beam of my torch. We never found another mark.'
Similarly, Mr Sutton in his testimony (June 1949) records that on their tour of inspection the order was Miss Kaye, himself, Price in the rear. Pebble throwing occurred in all the rooms on the ground floor and another pebble hit Sutton's hat with some force. Sutton's suspicions grew. ' ... I was convinced by this time that the stones thrown into the rooms and the pebble that hit me on the hat, the breaking of the window and the disappearance of Harry Price immediately upon our arrival were all in some way connected .... [I] proposed that we reversed the order so that Harry Price walked in front of me. Harry Price argued against this, and we continued in the same order.' There then followed the incident which formed the material for Sutton's published accusation, quoted on p. 31.
We regret the necessity to record these several impressions regarding Price, but it has seemed to us necessary to do so, and the reader is at liberty to reject them if he feels they are unjust. In each case we have permission to quote the reports, and they seem to us pertinent to the case of the smashed vase which we think, in spite of Price's description, demonstrably belongs to the period after Price's arrival and not to the Smiths' experiences before his advent.
As regards the continued 'phenomena' occurring at the rectory after the Smiths had moved their residence to Long Melford, we must note Mrs Smith's testimony (p. 45): 'I myself feel sure local villagers "played tricks"; and after we left, they would have been able to climb in if they wanted to "play tricks".' With this comment of Mrs Smith's we can compare the more detailed statements of some of Price's later official observers. Colonel Westland reported on 11 July 1937: 'Whilst prowling round ... I discovered that the cellar trapdoor [in the courtyard] is not secured and can be easily opened so that anyone can get into the house that way provided the cellar staircase door is left unlocked.' Observer Ryberg and his companion made precisely the same observation to Price in their report of 8 December 1937: and it
was repeated yet again by observer M. G. Knox in his report of 19 February 1938. These observations are nowhere quoted by Price.
The very meagre happenings reported to Price by the Smiths would not, in themselves, justify this lengthy treatment. But what we have to deal with is Price's exposition of the whole - an exposition which has reached all parts of the world - and the point at which his chronicle of the 'facts' begins is therefore of crucial importance.
At this stage we claim to have shown that, as with the Bull period, there is no evidence for the paranormal worthy the name in the experiences of Mr and Mrs Smith prior to 12 June 1929 when Price arrived on the scene.
IV. THE TESTIMONY OF HARRY PRICE
We must defer to the end of this report our final assessment of Harry Price and the part he played at Borley. Here we must note again that, relating to the first 2-3 weeks alone of Price's contact with Borley, suspicions were entertained or definite accusations were made against him by Mr Sutton, Lord Charles Hope, Mrs Smith and Mary - accusations or suspicions that he himself, the investigator, was producing fake phenomena; and at a later date there were, in particular, the suspicions and accusations of Major Douglas-Home and Miss Ledsham (cf. pp.33; 163-4).
It might truly seem incredible, when we look at some of the childish and crude effects, such as the wine-into-ink transformation for example, that any experienced investigator could be responsible for them. But the considerations weighing against such a notion must have been as present to the minds of Price's accusers as they are to us. The fact remains the suspicions were held, the accusations made.
On the surface Price presented the picture of a man absorbed in psychical research and prepared to spend considerable sums of money in a determination to track down and expose fraud, yet glad to proclaim rare instances of paranormal faculty when, characteristically, he would 'guarantee' the genuineness of the medium (e.g. Stella C., Rudi Schneider). It might be argued that it is absurd to suggest that he would approach a fresh investigation, about which he had heard for the first time only the day previously, prepared himself to produce fraudulent phenomena immediately upon his arrival. Granted that his besetting sin lay in his passionate desire for publicity and that all was grist to his mill for this purpose, here in 1929 he had no particular
temptation to steal the limelight at all costs, for his spectacular investigation of Rudi Schneider (April 1929) was bringing him considerable Press publicity and arrangements had been made for renewed sittings in the forthcoming winter. These are weighty arguments to which we have given considerable attention. But those who refuse to credit Price with such a performance as took place at Borley within only a few hours of his contacting the Smiths, must ask themselves how they explain why suddenly, and only after his arrival, we get pebbles and keys thrown in profusion, bricks breaking glass roofs, 'spirit lights', intelligent loud raps on a mirror in alleged spirit response to leading questions, etc. (1) Do they really credit Miss Kaye's view expressed to Lord Charles Hope (see p. 32): 'Miss Kaye has a theory that H.P. attracts poltergeist disturbances as nothing has ever occurred at Borley of that kind in his absence'? We note that Mrs Smith, unaware of Lord Charles's notes, reports exactly the same remark from Miss Kaye to herself (see p. 46). If Price were himself a focus for poltergeist activity, how was it this showed itself only when investigating 'haunted' houses?
Recently one of us (KMG) discussed Borley with Dr V. J. Woolley, a former Hon. Research Officer of the Society for Psychical Research. He referred us to the notes of the 'Battersea Poltergeist Case' in the S.P .R. files, an investigation made by himself and his assistant, Mrs Brackenbury, in 1928. The occurrences at Battersea had received considerable publicity and Price also visited the house at which the disturbances were occurring. The following extracts are from the detailed notes drawn up at the time by Mrs Brackenbury, based on the statements of the family concerned:
And again, from notes dealing with a later occasion:
1 Cf. Mrs Smith's testimony, p. 45.
Price's visit to Battersea took place sixteen months before his first visit to Borley.
In considering the happenings at the rectory during the Smith incumbency, the reader must make his judgment from the following hypotheses:
(1) Price is indicated as a fraudulent trickster aided and abetted by the credulity and pranks of others.
(2) The accusations against Price are untrue and the sudden crescendo of 'phenomena' after his arrival - phenomena of a fresh type which occur only whilst he is present on the scene were due to tricks played by the inhabitants of the rectory - the Smiths, Mary, Fred - undetected by Price. (1)
(3) These happenings constitute in the main genuine paranormal activity, and all such incursions into our physical world are possible by discarnate souls (the nun, the Rev. Harry Bull), and/or unknown forces (poltergeists), and took place at Borley: breaking out, however, in a new and violent form only upon the arrival of Harry Price and the main phenomena during this period taking place only on the few occasions when Price was present.
Price's own view is given as follows: 'In particular,' he writes on 28 February 1938 to Mr C. Gordon Glover of the B.B.C., 'the manifestations witnessed by the Rev. Eric Smith and me in 1929, definitely establish the abnormality of the place.'
But tucked away in his files are the original notes taken down by his secretary on the occasion of Price's first visit to the Smiths on 12 June 1929, and there we read: 'Smiths took the rectory living in September 1928, finding the place in terribly bad repair. There are rats in the house, and toads, frogs, newts etc. in the cellars. They themselves refuse to believe in ghosts and know nothing about them.'
1 On the lively fifth of July 1929, to complete the possibilities, we must include among the hypothetical and possible suspects Price's visitor, Lord Charles Hope.
Contents . Note & Preface . Diary of Events . I. Introduction . II. Topography & Legends . III. The Bull Incumbencies . IV. The Smith Incumbency & Harry Price . V. The Foyster Incumbency . VI. The Price Tenancy . VII. Later Borley . VII. Conclusions
The Base Room .
Séance Room .
Famous Cases .
Borley Rectory .
Books By Price .
Writings By Price .
Books About Price .
About This Site
All original text, photographs & graphics used throughout this website are © copyright 2004-2005 by Paul G. Adams. All other material reproduced here is the copyright of the respective authors.