Harry Price at Borley


















An Examination of the 'Borley Report' by Robert J. Hastings (Reproduced from the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 55, Pt. 201, March 1969)
Chapter 10   Price's Aims and Evidence of Character

For the reasons explained in the previous chapter, it has not been practicable to deal at length with all the minor allegations which remain outstanding.  Most of them are trivial, though cumulatively their effect is considerable.  Others appear to be mistaken in that the authors do not seem to have understood what Price was intending to do, and criticize him for not having done something else.  Fortunately, there are statements in Price's own words in which his intentions are clearly indicated.

Thus, in a letter to the Rev. L. A. Foyster, dated 18/1/38 (HPL) Price wrote:

What is at the back of my mind is to issue a report comparable with An Adventure, the account of Miss Jourdian's visit to Versailles, and what she, and her friend saw - or thought they saw - there.  This book was published in 1911 and is still quoted by psychical researchers as being a classic.

The success of the 'An Adventure' story which Price hoped to emulate was due partly to the fact that it was written in narrative form in a simple, uncomplicated way; and partly to the fact that the documents which supported the narrative were seen by people of standing at the time the book was published, and were later deposited at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where they could be consulted by researchers.

Price copied this method of presentation almost to the letter.  He wrote his Borley report in narrative form, and aimed at making it readable - 'neither too scientific nor too popular', as he said in another letter to Mr Foyster; and he deposited the documents which supported the narrative at the University of London Library, and told readers in his Borley books that he had done so.  Further, at the time the first Borley book appeared, most of the witnesses whose testimony was cited were still alive and available.

This method of presentation was a source of considerable strength.  The general public was re-assured by the knowledge that documens existed which could be examined by suitably qualified researchers, and psychical researchers could be re-assurered by the knowledge that there was a means of getting fuller information about the case than it might have been possible to give to the


general public owing to difficulties with the law of libel or for other reasons.  By presenting his material in the way he did, Price was thus able to cater for the needs both of the general public and the serious researcher.  We may think that this was a very sensible arrangement.  Indeed, it is difficult to think of anything better.  For the actors in the Borley drama were real people.  Apart from the fact that they were protected by the law of libel from unfriendly criticism during their life time, such criticism would have been contrary to the long term interests of research generally which require that no one who has assisted in an investigation in good faith should afterwards have cause to regret having done so Criticism of Price's Borley books, must, therefore, be realistic.  It must take into account both what Price was able to do, and also what he was aiming to do.

The ultimate authority for the Borley phenomena is Price's files - not Price's writing.  If there are discrepancies between the two, causes other than dishonesty on Price's part should be looked for, since it is obvious that if Price had been dishonest he would not have made his files available for inspection, and still less available for inspection during his lifetirne.  The apparent failure of the authors of HBR to notice this difficulty is one of the most astonishing features of their report.

In one important respect Price's Borley writings broke new ground.  To appreciate fully what Price was attempting to do it is necessary to go back to Sir William Barrett's pioneer study of poltergeist phenomena which appeared in the Proceedings S.P.R. in 1911.  Sir William's fifth conclusion was:

(5) That the disturbances are usually, though not invariably, associated with the presence of a child or young person of either sex, and appear to be attached to a particular place as well as to a particular person. (My italics).

In rather more than half a century that has elapsed since this was published, many cases have been reported which support that part of the conclusion which concerns people, but there has been hardly any support for that part which concerns places.  It is impossible to know with certainty how to interpret this lack of evidence.  For whilst it is comparatively easy for an investigator to notice a connection, if there is one, between a poltergeist occurrence and a particular person, it would be far more difficult on practical grounds for him to detect connections, if there were any, between poltergeist phenomena and a particular place.  There might be a long interval between one occurrence and another at the same place. Different people would be involved as subjects, and there would be different investigators. Inevitably, after a lapse of time,


some of the evidence available to the investigator might not reach the highest standards, and there might have been occurrences which were never reported at all.  For these reasons, the possible influence of places upon poltergeist phenomena has remained an unsettled question.

Price wrote his Borley books from the point of view of the Rectory, which he regarded as a 'place' in the sense described above.  He hoped to find connections between occurrences at the Rectory belonging to different periods and happening under different conditions, and he had to do the best he could with the evidence that was available.  In this respect, Price's Borley books were without precedent in the history of psychical research and deserved to be criticised accordingly.  I have found no sign in HBR that the authors were even aware of this aspect of Price's work.

It is possible that Price's publicity work may at times have been responsible for some confusion.  Publicity is an aspect of psychical research which those of us who are interested in the subject at an intellectual level are prone to disparage without realising that psychical research is unique among the sciences in that it depends primarily on the interest and good-will of the general public to supply the raw material it seeks to study.  Unless public interest is created and maintained, which in practice can only be done by adopting methods of communicating with the public which are found to be effective by publicity men, people with psychic abilities, or people who have had psychic experiences, will not come forward to be investigated and will not know to whom such matters should be reported. In consequence, would-be research workers will be starved of their raw material.

In Price's privately managed organization, Price himself was, at one and the same time, both publicity man and research worker.  Such an arrangement was not ideal and could lead to misunderstanding.  For the standards of research workers are by no means identical with the standards which necessarily have to be adopted by publicity men for publicity purposes.  No worth-while criticism of Price's work is possible unless these two aspects of his work are kept separate.

A very frank appraisal of Price's character is to be found in a letter from Miss Kaye to Lord Charles Hope written in 1949 in the context of Mr Sutton's allegations. Miss Kaye wrote (S.P.R. files) :

... My one and only intention is to shew Price in the light of a GENUINE investigator as nervous of phenomena as the rest of humanity.... My own opinion is quite definitely a belief in his integrity in all questions of importance. I acknowledge his little weak


nesses.  I know he told little fibs now and again, but he did not fake phenomena. I feel so very sure [of this].

My own researches have not disclosed anything to suggest that Miss Kaye's assessment was essentially wrong.  As, however, my researches have been confined for the most part to matters directly concerned with Borley Rectory, I cannot claim any wider application for my defence of Price than that of shewing generally how easy it is for seemingly convincing allegations to be made posthumously.  Throughout his life Price was a controversial figure.  He was not academic (though at times it seemed he would like to have been thought so) and his actions were often unpredictable.  More than one of his friends have commented on the fact that he was inclined to be secretive.  Apart from this, he seems to have dealt with people (including members of the S.P.R.) according to the way they dealt with him, and when he considered he had been the victim of sharp practice, he had no compunction in giving as good as he got.  In this way he made many enemies - a circumstance which itself adds greatly to the difficulty of seeing posthumous allegations in a true perspective and assessing them impartially whilst some of his old enemies are still alive and capable of exerting influence.  It is beyond the scope of the present paper to attempt anything like a general assessment of Price's work.  The most that can be said here is that, whatever his shortcomings, and whatever other allegations may be made, the allegations made against him in HBR were very grossly exaggerated.


Price has been described by one who knew him well as a man of `upright character and regular habits'.  Celtainly, in his private life, he was an active churchman, taking as much trouble to avoid publicity for this side of his life as he seems to have taken to gain publicity for psychical research.  There is evidence that he could be a generous friend to people in trouble.

After the publication of HBR Canon Phythian-Adams wrote privately to the Rector of Pulborough to ask for a testimonial as to Price's character as a Christian.  The Rector replied that in his opinion Price was a man of 'complete integrity'.  He had valued him as a good friend and churchman, but knew little of his work in connection with psychical research.

When this testimonial is considered in conjunction with the views of others who knew Price well - e.g. the two secretaries and S. H. Glanville - it is evident that when Price was alive he was regarded as a man of principle, not entirely without foibles, but trustworthy in regard to things that mattered.  When the allegations against Price's character and actions made in HBR are critically


examined they give, I feel, little ground for departing from this estimate.  Whether or not the reader agrees with me on this, it can hardly be denied that the material I have brought forward in Price's defence ought - and I use this word in its strongest possible sense - to have been made public at the time the allegations were made.

Price's worst fault seems to have been carelessness as a writer, especially in his later work.  He seems occasionally to have written from memory, and where he is re-telling matters which he has already described, he is liable to go astray in matters of detail.  How seriously this fault is to be regarded depends on what we conceive Price was setting out to do.  If we were to try him according to the standards of the strictest scientific research, his later Borley writings would clearly fall short, though whether his Borley files would do so is a different matter.  But Price's Borley books were not intended as scientific writing in the strictest sense.  It is clear from the statement of aims contained in his letter to the Rev. L. A. Foyster quoted above that he intended his Borley books to be readable - neither too scientific nor too popular, as he put it.  In other words, the Borley books were intended as scientific journalism in which the ultimate authority for the writing was the contents of the files deposited by Price in the University of London library.  These are the standards against which Price's work must be judged.

Regrettable though it may be, it can hardly be denied that publicity has an essential place in psychical research.  Even our founders wrote popular articles to attract cases.  No one has been more successful at the publicity side of psychical research than Harry Price, and to condemn him too severely for his lapses in the field of scientific journalism would be short-sighted as well as uncharitable.  If, now, it has seemed that harm has been done to the subject, this is due more to the publicity which HBR has received than to Price's own lapses, which are neither as serious nor as extensive as the authors of HBR suggest, and which might in all cases have been corrected without much damage either to Price's reputation, or to psychical research as a whole.

In presenting work of this kind it would be unrealistic to expect that there would be no mistakes at all.  No one who has not actually seen and worked with Price's material can fully appreciate the difficulties.  It was not only that there were masses of letters and reports, containing masses of details, not all of them concerning Borley.  There was the further difficulty that the Borley investigation extended over a number of years.  As new facts were discovered, details and documents that had earlier seemed unimportant became significant, and vice versa. Some of the earlier documents


may have got lost, and it can be imagined that others might not have been easy to find when they were wanted.  It must also be remembered that two secretaries, at different times, had had a hand in sorting Price's papers, and that during some of the critical time when he was actually engaged in writing his Borley books he had no secretary at all!  Also, at that time, he was a sick man.  In these circumstances it is not unreasonable to take a charitable view of the comparatively few mistakes he made especially as his Borley books did not pretend to be scientific writing in the strictest sense of the term.

A memorandum recently submitted by the British section of the International Commission of Jurists to the Royal Commission of Tribunals of Inquiry might appropriately be considered in relation to the Borley Inquiry.  The memorandum said: 'When the tribunal is pursuing what may turn out to be an unfounded though serious allegation against someone, it is very hard on that individual to be, as it were, prosecuted and even persecuted in public if it later turns out that he has done nothing wrong.  Owing to the absence of a prosecutor or a defendant, the issues are blurred and injustice can be caused by a random though hurtful inquiry, which may turn out to be irrelevant as well as baseless. The tribunal could sit in closed session and reopen on the same issue if need be'. (The Times, 16/6/66.)

It would be unfeeling to conclude the present paper without expressing sympathy for Mrs Price who is known to have been very deeply hurt by the attacks made publicly upon her late husband's reputation.


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Contents  .  Chronology  .  Introduction  .  Chapter 1  .  Chapter 2  .  Chapter 3  .  Chapter 4  .  Chapter 5  .  Chapter 6  .  Chapter 7  .  Chapter 8  .  Chapter 9  .  Chapter 10  .  Appendix A  .  Appendix B  .  Appendix C

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