Harry Price at Borley
This is a summary of a paper read by Mr. Robertson at a Private Meeting of the Society for Psychical Research on 4th November 1944. The findings of the 'Cambridge Commission' into the Borley case were used by Price as part of his second book on Borley which was published in 1946. The authors of the 1956 'Borley Report' also drew on this material when writing their appraisal of the hauntings.
BORLEY Rectory, near Sudbury, Suffolk, is one of the more important examples in recent times of a building said to be associated with certain phenomena usually described by the term " haunting ". Mr Harry Price has directed much attention to the case, his earlier findings being published in a book entitled The Most Haunted House in England : Ten Years Investigation of Borley Rectory. The material presented in this book carries on the story to 1939: in February of that year the building caught fire and was reduced to a ruin. Since then, various further investigations have been carried out, including a number of nocturnal visits by students, mostly from St John's College, Cambridge. These form the subject of this report, and I am greatly indebted to my colleagues, without whose collaboration such attention as we have been able to direct to this case would not have been possible.
The number of persons who have spent one or more nights at the remains of the Rectory during this investigation is fifty-eight, the total number of visits amounting to twenty-five. In nearly all cases the approach of these observers to the question of haunting in general was one of some scepticism. About one-third of the investigators reported nothing at all out of the ordinary, about another third described incidents which they thought might not be expected to occur in the normal way, and the remaining third described events which seemed to them to be definitely rather unusual. It seemed to us desirable to record those happenings which were not obviously explicable in normal terms, even though it might have been possible, with the help of a sufficiency of hypotheses, to suggest a normal explanation for the various incidents. An examination of the reports prepared by the various parties of investigators reveals that noises, and in particular sounds of knockings and footsteps, are the most common of the curious incidents. They have in fact been described by so many of the investigators that it does not seem necessary to doubt the fact of their occurrence, although the question of whether it is necessary to advance any explanation for these noises, other than purely normal events, as for example doors banging and beams creaking, is a matter on which it is perhaps desirable to express, more cautious views. Apart from the auditory phenomena, no other effects of relatively frequent occurrence have been observed by us. On a few occasions, however, certain events of a non-auditory nature were noted: in particular, a few visual impressions, some peculiar temperature effects, two uncertain cases of markings appearing in pencil on paper, and one doubtful case of the displacement of an object. It is convenient, before discussing the auditory phenomena, to consider briefly some points concerning these other happenings.
Only six cases of interesting visual phenomena have been reported during our investigations: they consist of two occasions when one of the observers present thought he saw a luminous patch of light appearing on the walls for a few seconds, another occasion when an observer who was proceeding to investigate some definite noises resembling footsteps thought he saw a black shape which moved from the moonlight into the shadows and was not visible on subsequent illumination, and another time when an observer thought he saw a white object crossing the law» in front of the Rectory. In these four instances only one person witnessed the effect, and since it is so easy to be mistaken with fleeting impressions of this kind, it seems desirable to attach little weight to these observations. It is, however, more difficult to dismiss the two remaining accounts of visual phenomena, since the appearances were of much longer duration and were both seen by two observers at the same time. In one case, in June 1943, two investigators on the first floor of the Rectory saw a white shape at the base of a tree just outside the building. The shape was somewhat globular in outline, and about six feet high. On shining a torch on it they could see nothing unusual, but on switching off the torch the shape was again visible. The observers then departed to take some temperature readings, and on their return they could not see the shape. They suggested that the effect might have been due to the bark of the tree fluorescing. In the other case, in April 1944, an investigator watching the ruins from the garden reported a white, pale and indistinct light, which he saw hovering over the ruins three times at different places during a period of half an hour. On the third occasion he woke up a colleague with him, who also saw the light. Three other observers sleeping in the ruins in the region of this light were not affected in any way.
Mention is made in many accounts of haunting of cold feelings and breezes which are said to accompany the appearance of apparitions, and in some cases to arise spontaneously. If these are of an objective nature, they raise problems of some interest from a physical and thermodynamical viewpoint. During our visits to the Rectory, we have made altogether about one thousand observations of temperature, mostly at a particular point in the Rectory known as the "cold spot", where strong and disagreeable sensations of cold have sometimes been noted by people who stand there. On only one occasion, in June 1943, was any unusual effect reported from readings at this place. Two similar mercury thermometers were placed a few inches apart on the " cold spot ", one being inserted into a· glass test-tube through a closely fitting rubber stopper, whereas the other was freely exposed to the atmosphere. According to the readings taken by the investigators, the enclosed thermometer cooled to 11° F. below the exposed one. This effect, if not due to an error of some kind, could arise from the operation of a process of heat removal in the neighbourhood of the enclosed thermometer. On another occasion, some rather large fluctuations in temperature were noted at another part of the Rectory away from the "cold spot". On repeating the experiments on subsequent occasions nothing significant was found, so that it would be unwise to regard the experimental data as in any way established. It is in fact generally true to say that during our investigations at Borley the non-auditory phenomena have been so sparse that it does not seem desirable to draw any special conclusions from them, except perhaps in a speculative manner.
Turning finally to a consideration of the auditory phenomena, it is apparent that these are on the whole rather attenuated in comparison with similar phenomena which have been described in connection with other cases, including the Borley case itself before the fire in 1939. The frequency with which curious noises have been reported (slightly less than half the total number of nights) is sufficiently high to enable several general features to be discerned. It is, of course, important to note that of the effects we have experienced, noises are probably the most likely to arise from quite normal causes. The noises are variously described by the investigators as footsteps, knockings, tappings, hammerings, thuds, bangs, cracks, rumblings, the padding of feet, the stamping of horse's hooves, and whistlings. They usually consist of a regular repetition of the same sound, or a sequence of similar noises. The duration of the sounds is usually only some seconds, but more rarely it may be a considerable number of minutes. The definite noises have nearly all been Experienced in the ruins of the building, the chief exception being the sound of horse's hooves which, according to five investigators, arose in the lane outside the building. The footsteps appear to be distinguished from the other noises by the manner in which they seem to traverse part of the building, proceeding for example round a room or along a corridor. Thus three investigators in September 1942 heard footsteps crossing the room above that in which they were sitting for several minutes. Again in June 1943 two investigators heard many noises, there being at one time a sound as of someone .travelling round the room in which they were in, and flicking the walls with a duster. Nothing, however, was visible. In general there appears to be no special reason why the footsteps should arise when they do, whereas the knockings and thuds are most frequently noted some five or ten minutes after an investigator has called on any "entity" to demonstrate its presence by knocking. For example, two observers in December 1941 made this request, suggesting a code of one knock for " Yes ", two for " No ", and three for " I don't know " : five minutes later they heard nine double knocks, which according to the code might have replied " No " nine times. Somewhat similar effects were noted on other nights, and on one occasion (July 1944) the knockings continued for three quarters of an hour, answering by the code over fifty questions put by the investigators.
The situation was rendered rather more complex than usual on this night by the presence of persons endeavouring to fake ghostly phenomena. The five investigators on arriving at Borley found that the Rectory had been almost completely pulled down and removed. They therefore retired to a small wooden summer house in the garden to sleep. Meanwhile four more students arrived and prepared a faked apparition which, following the general path of a traditional spectral nun, walked several times across the lawn without being observed. This lack of attention on the part of the investigators was rectified by some "poltergeist" phenomena, whereupon they observed the apparition and were duly impressed, thinking it genuine. At about three a.m. the fakers retired to a haystack for the night, and about fifteen minutes later the investigators heard a considerable number of faint knockings coming from somewhere amongst them. After some minutes they asked questions, using the code already mentioned. The knockings proclaimed their origin to be a nun who had died about 1250, and also claimed to have been responsible for the faked apparition and poltergeist effects. It is interesting to note that this erroneous claim corresponds to the ideas which the investigators had at the time, a fact suggesting that the knockings were associated with the investigators in some way, and not with any objective "entity".
The auditory phenomena we have experienced at Borley have been perceived by all the observers in a suitable position to do so (with one minor exception): this makes more difficult any hypothesis based on the assumption of the subjective nature of these noises. Another generalisation becomes apparent on examining the distribution of the noises with respect to the position of the observers. In nearly every case in which the location of the noises is described, they are separated from the observers by a wall or ceiling: in a very few cases more than one wall intervened, and in only one case were the noises produced in the same room as the observers. It is also apparent from our experiences that the noises are heard more especially when the observers are in or near a particular room (the sewing room). It is very unusual for any noises to be noted when the observers are moving about in the ruins.
Such in brief outline are the main facts emerging from our investigations. It is clear that any argument for the intervention of some paranormal factor in these experiences would have to be based essentially on the auditory phenomena, and it is precisely these which are most likely to arise in a normal manner. The nature of the noises in some cases, and the apparent manifestation of a certain modicum of intelligence in others, together with the various generalisations already mentioned, render somewhat difficult an explanation in terms of the usual fortuitous happenings which might be expected to arise in ruined buildings. There is also, of course, much independent work bearing on the Borley Rectory case. Bearing these points in mind, I am myself inclined at present to refrain from expressing very definite views as to the true meaning of our observations, but it seems that further investigations into other cases of haunting might yield results of an interesting nature from a physical as well as a psychological viewpoint: and possibly some of the indications we have obtained may be of some use to future investigators.
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