Harry Price at Borley
In 1945, Mrs G. E. Smith, widow of the Rev. G. E. Smith, wrote as follows to the Church Times:
(N.B. Borley Rectory is not in Sussex, but, of course, the inaccuracy might have been due to a printer's error - R.J.H.)
Mrs Smith's letter was noticed by the Rev. A. C. Henning, Rector since 1935, who sent a copy to Price with the following comment:
Price sent copies of his correspondence with the Smiths to Henning, and he also consulted Glanville, but otherwise he took no action.
After Price's death Mrs Smith wrote to the Daily Mail. Her letter was published on 26th May, 1949. Parts of this letter ran as follows:
(N.B. The Smiths actually lived in the Rectory for only nine months - i.e. from October, 1928 to July, 1929. After this, they shut it up and ran the Parish from Long Melford for another nine months, making a total of eighteen months in all at Borley - R.J.H.)
After Mrs Smith's letter had appeared, two of the authors of the S.P.R. Report, E.J.D. and K.M.G., were deputed to interview her. The account of this interview occupies several pages of the Report and will presently be discussed in detail.
Before discussing in detail the testimony of Mrs Smith as given to the authors who interviewed her, it will be possible to deal summarily with certain points which arise from her letters to the press. For this purpose, to begin with, I shall confine myself to material in the S.P.R. files which has not already been quoted in HBR.
Concerning the assertion in Mrs Smith's first letter to the effect that she had 'certainly found nothing to fear', the following item from the Report of a visit to Mr and Miss Ethel Bull at Great Cornard on 4th April, 1953, by T.H. Hall (S.P.R. files), is of interest. Mr Hall reports Miss Bull as having told him that Mrs Smith's recent attitude towards Borley was incomprehensible to her. Her recollection was that Mrs Smith had been 'scared stiff' during the short period she was at Borley, and that it was because of this that the Smiths had left the Rectory.
Lord Charles Hope was also surprised at Mrs Smith's attitude. A postcard from him to Mrs Goldney postmarked 25th June, 1949, says:
Mrs Smith's further assertion that neither she nor her husband had believed the house to be haunted requires two answers - one concerning her beliefs, and another concerning his. It cannot be assumed that their beliefs were necessarily identical, for it seems that, on occasion, incidents known to Mr Smith were concealed from his wife to avoid frightening her. I will deal with Mrs Smith's beliefs presently. In the meantime, something of Mr Smith's beliefs can be inferred from a letter to Lord Charles Hope dated 25/7/1929, now in the S.P.R. files.
In this letter Mr Smith replies to a number of questions which Lord Charles had put to him. Among other things he discusses the incident of the 'dragging footsteps' which had been heard in the Rectory two nights running, and describes how, on the second occasion he had lashed out in the darkness with a hockey stick, only to find no one there. On the first occasion, he had been alone in the house, and he states explicitly that knowledge of this incident 'was naturally kept from the female side'. Mr Smith also mentions
the disarrangement of articles in a room and the overturning of a light table. He refers to the medallion which had been thrown downstairs which no one at the Rectory could remember having seen before. He answers questions about keys removed from locks, and mentions a bell-ringing incident for which he could find no normal explanation. He refers to the 'nun' which he says had been seen by the Misses Bull both singly and two at a time, and so on. Throughout the whole of his letter there is nothing to suggest that he doubts for one moment that the events he discusses were paranormal, and he tacitly assumes that Lord Charles Hope shares these views. Mr Smith's firm belief in the paranormality of the events at Borley can be seen even more clearly in a further letter to Lord Charles, dated 26/11/ 1929, also in the S.P.R. files. In this letter, Mr Smith thanks Lord Charles for not having poured scorn as others had done, upon matters they could not under stand, and adds:
The authors mention this letter and quote half of the sentence cited above, conveniently omitting the words which imply Mr Smith's belief in the haunting. They write, HBR, p.52:
Other letters might be cited, but it must now be abundantly clear that Mrs Smith's recollection that 'neither my husband nor myself believed the house to be haunted' is unfounded in so far as it concerns her husband's beliefs in 1929 thought it might still be valid concerning hers. (1)
1 Mr Smith's belief in the phenomena is seemingly confirmed by an item in E. I. Watkin's review of HBR which appeared in The Month, August 1956. Mr Watkin wrote: 'Someone I know well and in whose integrity, balanced judgment and accuracy I have perfect confidence, has informed me that she was present when Mr Smith spoke of paranormal phenomena at Borley Rectory of which he had previously heard nothing. He mentioned sibilant whisperings he had heard, and related how he had watched a vase flung down, apprehensive that it might smash as another vase had done on a previous occasion. In fact it came safely to the ground.' Mr Watkin continued: HBR would have us believe, as indeed Mrs Smith's later statement implies, that a vase fell only once. Here is evidence from Mr Smith that it happened twice'. Further discussion of the `vase' incidents will be found in Chapter 9.
The authors do not disguise the fact that things are not as simple as they seemed at first sight, but they appear nevertheless to want the support of Mrs Smith's testimony in their case against Price in fact they devote no fewer than seventeen pages of their Report to an attempt to establish its essential reliability. The difficulty is that Mrs Smith's memory of events at Borley is selective. Discrepancies came to light when the statements she made to the authors were afterwards compared with the documents in the files. It was found that, whilst she could remember some events quite accurately, there were other events, in some cases more recent ones, that she could not remember at all. Let us consider examples.
(1) Mrs Smith remembered Mr Sutton's visit to the Rectory in 1929. After a lapse of twenty years, and without any prompting, she was able to remember him by name, and that it had been said that he had been scared.
(2) But Mrs Smith could not remember the visit of Edwin Whitehouse (later Dom Richard Whitehouse) to her home at Sheringham in 1931. At this visit, according to Whitehouse, the events at Borley were discussed, and Mr and Mrs Smith gave no impression that they doubted their paranormality. Mrs Smith shewed Whitehouse the 'dressing table that became animated'. (See MHH, Chapter VIII).
(3) Mrs Smith was unable to remember the visit of S. H. Glanville to her home when the Smiths were living at Sevington in 1937. On this occasion, too, the Smiths made statements implying a belief in the phenomena, and these were recorded by Glanville in his 'Locked Book'. (1) Glanville's visit was followed by correspondence (which included one letter from Mrs Smith herself) and eventually by a trip to Borley in Glanville's car and a Planchette séance in the empty Rectory.
(4) Mrs Smith could not remember having read MHH when Price sent her a copy in 1940 at the time it was first published. She says in her testimony (HBR, p. 47):
1 Locked Book - In an unpublished MS. intended for the Borley symposium, Mr S. H. Glanville described the function of himself and his son at Borley as that of 'collecting all available information'. 'The result of this', he wrote, 'was the compilation of what has become known as the "locked book", a description derived from the fact that when bound, it was fitted with a Bramah lock and was then deposited in the Harry Price Library at the University of London and cannot be obtained without the consent of Dr Paul Tabori who was appointed literary executor to Mr Price's estate. This privacy had to be assured as certain evidence in the book, were it to be disclosed, might cause embarrassment to relatives of certain persons who are dead, and to some people who are still alive. It is not available to the public. The "locked book" contains 160 pages of drawings, plans, tracings, photographs and records directly connected with the Rectory and its inhabitants. At the conclusion of the tenancy this was handed to Mr Price and formed the foundation for his book "The Most Haunted House in England" '
And in a letter to Mrs Goldney (6/7/1949, S.P.R. files) Mrs Smith again mentions having 'burnt without reading' the books Price had sent to her. But this is not what she had said at the time. To Price she had written eulogistically (26/9/1940, HPL) extolling his 'clever brain' and congratulating him on having written a 'wonderful book'. Her only regret, she said, was that she could not see her late husband's face as he read it as he would have enjoyed it so much. And barely a week later (2/10/1940, HBR, p.55) Mrs Smith wrote again to Price, saying:
Finally, the errors in Mrs Smith's two letters to the Press quoted earlier in this Chapter must be considered. Unless these are to be explained as printers' errors, Mrs Smith has forgotten what County Borley is in, and for how long she and her husband lived there.
The authors' way of dealing with these matters is not entirely consistent. Concerning Mrs Smith's inability to remember Glanville, the authors speak rather loosely of a 'psychological mechanism of forgetting unwelcome facts' which, they say, 'is applicable to many'. This may be admitted. But it could not have been Glanville himself who was unwelcome. For the authors have been at pains to dilate upon his 'very charming personality' (HBR, p. 53), which they offer as a reason for the information the Smiths gave to him when he visited them, which was to the effect that Borley was in some sense haunted. What seems to have been retrospectively unwelcome to Mrs Smith was not Glanville's personality, but his connection with the allegedly paranormal phenomena at Borley.
Concerning Mrs Smith's letters to Price at the time MHH was published, the authors suggest a different kind of explanation. They point out that at the time those letters were written, Mrs Smith had recently been bereaved, and that she was also writing a novel - Murder at the Parsonage. They suggest that she had wanted to keep on good terms with Price in the hope that he would help her to get her novel published, and that her letters to Price at this time were written with that end in view, and did not represent what she had really thought. This explanation hardly seems compatible with Mrs Smith's undoubted sincerity, upon which the authors themselves lay stress. The errors in Mrs
Smith's letter to the Daily Mail are not made apparent in HBR because the letter itself has not been quoted verbatim.
It seems to me that if we wish to understand Mrs Smith's errors of memory, some more general kind of explanation should be sought. It is surely not difficult to find. Mrs Smith's errors of memory appear to be systematized. A common feature of all known examples is her inability to re-call anything in her past life which conflicts with her more recently acquired belief that Borley was never the scene of anything paranormal. Once this is recognized, even as a possibility, her uncorroborated testimony must obviously be valueless for the purpose of shewing that Borley was not in some sense haunted, which seems to he the purpose for which the authors of HBR seek to use it.
That Mrs Smith's state of mind concerning Borley was not exactly a dispassionate one is strongly suggested by, inter alia the following extract from a letter to one of the authors (KMG) dated 1/8/1949 in which she writes (HBR, p. 57):
There is indeed evidence that Mrs Smith has not merely forgotten important matters connected with Borley, but that she actually believes herself to remember events which in all probability did not occur. Two examples will suffice.
(1) Extract from Mrs Smith's testimony (HBR, pp. 48-9):
But Mrs Smith hadn't always been convinced that 'someone had been waiting outside to play this trick'. Twelve years earlier in a letter to Glanville dated 23/11/1937 (HPL) she spoke of the shutters having been pulled together seemingly by no-one, as it was nearly midnight.
(2) Extract from Mrs Smith's testimony (HBR, p. 46):
There is no contemporary support whatsoever, either in Price's copious correspondence with Mr Smith or elsewhere for the suggestion that he claimed to have seen the apparition of the Rev. Harry Bull. We seem to have here a confused memory of one of the experiences related by the Misses Bull.
Reviewing the situation as a whole, we may agree with the authors that Mrs Smith is sincere. But she had had a great deal of unhappiness and her health was not good. It is not impossible that her forgetfulness was repressive (i.e. the rejection from consciousness of something that would be emotionally upsetting). If so, neither Mrs Smith's own attempts to recall the matters she had forgotten, nor the kind of questions the authors asked her, would have been of any avail. By all accounts, Mrs Smith was a very religious woman. But, like the rest of us, she was also capable of being afraid. Her slightly pathetic assertion, made in the course of her testimony that `Ghosts would never have frightened us, as we believed in Higher Protection' (HBR, p. 47) is, alas, not in accord with the facts. There is independent evidence that at times Mrs Smith was afraid to a degree that was perhaps greater than she cared to admit. To a sensitive, religious person, the memory of such lapses, had they been recalled in consciousness, would be unbearably painful. In Mrs Smith's case, there may, in addition, have been intense disappointment at the frustration of Mr Smith's pastoral work at Borley due, directly or indirectly, to the phenomena. Borley was the Smith's first living. They would doubtless have arrived with high hopes and an intense desire, appropriate to their calling, to do good. From a psychological point of view, intense fear and intense disappointment are recognized causes of emotional blockages of recall and the creation of false memories of the kind exhibited by Mrs Smith.
Where it has been possible to compare Mrs Smith's later testimony with other records, discrepancies of the following kinds have been found, if the event concerned would otherwise have implied paranormality. Viz:
With these clues to guide us, let us now turn to that item in Mrs Smith's testimony which, if it had to be accepted as true, would make possible a further allegation against Price of fraudulently producing phenomena. Mrs Smith says (HBR, p. 46):
Commenting on this, the authors say (HBR, p. 60):
But by the time the authors arrive at the last chapter of their report they seem to have forgotten 'the reserve appropriate to a twenty-year-old memory'. Among their 'Conclusions' they say (HBR, p. 167):
Fortunately there are grounds, in addition to those of psychology, that will enable us to dismiss Mrs Smith's story of a water-into-ink transformation having occurred in her presence. The authors have overlooked the significance of an exchange of letters between Price and the Smiths written just after the Foyster incident. In a letter to Mr Smith dated 8/1/32 (HPL) Price writes:
Mr Smith replied by return of post (9/1/32, HPL) saying that both he and his wife were greatly intrigued by the latest developments, adding jocularly, that he knew how stout hearted Price was but to be splashed by ink must have aroused even his ire.
If a transformation of water or wine into ink had occurred at the Rectory during the Smiths time, Price would hardly have described the later occurrence to Mr Smith in quite these words. Nor would Mr Smith have replied in quite the way he did. One or other of them would have recalled the earlier incident involving ink and remarked on the similarity. It is also useful to know that the contents of Price's letter had been communicated to Mrs Smith. It could, therefore, have been at the bottom of the incident she thought she could re-call.
There is thus evidence in the files which makes it highly likely that the water into ink transformation described by Mrs Smith in her testimony could never have occurred in fact, and this evidence reinforces the reasons already adduced for rejecting Mrs Smith's testimony.
The authors have devoted some seventeen pages to discussing this testimony in their report. Presumably their objectives were those of shewing (a) that the phenomena at Borley in 1929 were much slighter than Price had represented in his books; and (b), which is far more serious, that even in 1929 Price had been sus
pected of producing phenomena dishonestly - a circumstance which, had it been substantiated, would have given indirect support to other allegations. The attainment of these objectives has not been advanced in the slightest degree by the testimony of Mrs Smith.
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