Back in December 2003 Eddie Brazil & I made an attempt to evaluate both the reports of the lights seen in windows of Borley Rectory together with the explanations given for them, explanations which point to normally occurring events rather than supernatural ones. We especially wanted to find out whether the most popular explanation, that the ghostly lights were in fact caused by trains running on the nearby Sudbury to Long Melford railway line was a feasible one, as by using this particular explanation, critics of the haunting in the past have been able to apparently dismiss quite easily what appears to be convincing evidence for paranormal activity at Borley. In Part One of this essay we presented the results of what could be called our desktop survey of the window lights, establishing what had been seen by whom & when & combined this with our impressions following a visit to Borley where the various explanations were put into context. By carrying out these exercises both Eddie & I came to the conclusion that several of the explanations & the train lights theory in particular, were unsatisfactory & would not have been able to cause the effects which were reported by various people during the time that the Rectory building was standing. The object of this second essay is to conclude our examination of the train lights by presenting information from enquiries which were ongoing at the end of last year about the operation of the railway line itself during the period pertinent to it being an explanation of the lighted Rectory windows, as well as responding to comments made on the first article following its posting onto the Borley website.
The course of the former railway line which passes approximately half a mile (800 metres) at its closest point to Borley village is now the Valley Walk public footpath. With a little imagination it is possible to take a stroll along this path today & recreate what it must have been like during the time that the Smiths & the Foysters were resident at the Rectory & later when Harry Price’s rota of investigators were carrying out their observation periods in the rambling building & its equally extensive grounds. By comparing modern maps of the area with earlier editions, such as the 1925 Ordnance Survey map which the authors of The Haunting of Borley Rectory reproduced in their report specifically to add weight to the notion of the railway line being the source of the lighted windows, it is possible to see that the area has changed little since the early years of the twentieth century, with the divisions of the fields surrounding Borley remaining almost static (1). The view that one gets today from the Valley Walk westward towards Borley village must therefore be much the same as a traveller to Sudbury say in 1929 would have had from a railway carriage passing by the same spot. Eddie & I are indebted to Mike Stanbury of the East Anglian Railway Museum for all the technical information about the operation of the Sudbury to Long Melford railway line which we have included in this essay.
The railway infrastructure in the Stour Valley is generally little above river level, being mainly on embankments of a sufficient height to prevent the line from flooding. In our previous essay I described the old railway line as being in a partial cutting as it passed Borley for the simple reason that the line of the Valley Walk footpath at this point is at least 1.5 metres below the level of the adjacent field on the western boundary & presumably this was the level of the track at this point unless when the railway line was removed some lowering of the ground level was achieved. Andrew Clarke has commented on the issue of the railway being on an embankment in the vicinity of Borley & technically I think I was wrong to describe it as a cutting as slightly further on the levels of the road & railway were the same with a level crossing being situated at Rodbridge Corner, but if one visits the site today, equally it is difficult to use the word embankment to describe the lie of the land in this area. In January this year Eddie & I visited Borley again & walked part of the course of the old railway which overlooks the fields eastward of Borley village. Eddie’s photographs which accompany this essay show how today the level of the adjacent land is higher than the level of the footpath & presumably the line of the original railway track itself. Even if the line was suitably elevated in civil engineering terms to avoid flooding by the River Stour the railway passengers would have been virtually level with the surrounding farmland at this point.
All the trains which passed along the line during the time that the Rectory was standing were steam hauled & generally would have consisted of no more than three or four coaches. Longer through excursion trains from the Midlands would have used the route at times & the number of carriages would have been increased if a diversion from another line was in place. The speed limit for these trains would have rarely exceeded 40 mph if that. The passenger service for the period from 1900 when the Bull sisters reported seeing the apparition of the ghost nun on the Rectory lawn through to the time that the building was being demolished in the mid 1940s would have been limited to three or four trains per day, although during the war years there may have been many troop trains using the line in addition to freight trains. The line itself was closed to all traffic when Dr Beeching swung his axe on 6th March 1967.
Obviously what is the most critical thing in connection with the operation of the railway is whether or not the locomotive & its carriages were lit sufficiently or possessed lighting of a particular intensity to have illuminated the Rectory windows on the several occasions which we have described in our first article. It is important to note that what isn’t being debated is whether or not the lighted carriages could be seen from the upper rooms of Borley Rectory, rather the notion that the carriage lights could have caused the specific lighting effects as has already been described at the times they were said to have occurred. The railway coaches would have been gas-lit until the 1920’s when electric lighting began to be introduced. On a clear night someone walking along Hall Road near Borley probably would have been able to see the line of lights of the train as it passed along the valley, although as has already been mentioned, Borley Rectory itself was surrounded by high trees for most of the time it was standing so whether someone in the building itself would have had the same view is open to question. From the train itself there would have been no more than a glow from the carriage lights which would have illuminated the passing trackside & nothing further. However, the firebox of a locomotive could produce a considerable glow in the sky when opened by the fireman for stoking the fire & this light could be reflected from the clouds on a suitably overcast night. At first this seems a promising solution but what has to be remembered is that although this would have been an intense light source, it would have been directed vertically upwards from the train & not horizontally westwards across the fields towards Borley. There is also the probability factor of there not only being a train running past Borley on every occasion that the ghostly light was reported as having been seen in one of the windows, but also the added probability of the fireman deciding at that particular moment that the fire needed stoking & whipping open the lid of his firebox to carry it out. When all the factors associated with the train lights theory are put together – the quality of the light source itself, the distances involved & the topography of the land – even at this distance in time it seems to both Eddie & I that the particular window effects reported as having taken place when they did could not have been the result of the Sudbury to Long Melford railway.
A possible explanation which to my knowledge does not appear in any of the major Borley books published since Harry Price’s first outing in 1940 is the idea that the window lights were caused by the luminescence associated with rotten wood. Andrew Clarke brought this to my attention back in February of this year in an e-mail in which he mentions a conversation he himself had with a plumber who maintained the hand pump in the Rectory courtyard during the time of the Bulls & also later after Harry Bull’s death. The plumber spoke of visiting the Rectory with a mate to check & oil the pump & seeing a light in a window showing in the courtyard which upon investigation was glowing with a phosphorescent effect that he put down to wood rot. Andrew estimates that this puzzling incident occurred some time during either the Smith incumbency or more likely, as will become apparent, when the Foysters were in residence, as the plumber, a local man born around 1910 & a subsequent member of the church choir, was working as a junior at the time & the Foysters were still using the hand pump during the 1930s. As the two men noticed the glowing effect in the courtyard while working it does not appear to be either of the two windows of Room No. 11 in the 1877 extension that the plumber examined. The ‘Schoolroom’ of Mabel Smith in which the mysterious light was seen in November 1937 during the period of Harry Price’s tenancy do not overlook the courtyard , although as has been noted in our previous article, a light was seen on the same occasion in the window over the main stairwell which does face the central courtyard. Apparently the plumber examined the window close up & found that the bottom half of the frame was considerably rotten & glowing with a phosphorescent light. What needs to be established is whether the domestic wood-rooting fungi commonly associated with timber decay in buildings can cause wood to glow & to determine the condition of the windows in the Rectory at the time the lights were seen.
As with most buildings of its time, Borley Rectory had double-hung sliding sash windows with quite prominent stone sub-cills as the photograph of Captain Gregson posing in front of the bricked up dining room window clearly shows (2). Assuming that the windows of the rooms in which the light was seen were original & had not been replaced since the building of the house, this would mean at the time that Mr V.C. Wall visited Borley & described the ghostly light to the general public at large for the first time, the window of Room No. 7 that he reported seeing the phenomenon at were in the region of being over sixty years old. The possibility that the box frame of the window or the sashes themselves were rotted or in a poor state is quite high depending on how well the Rectory had been maintained in the preceding years. It is well known that the Smiths were appalled by the dilapidated state of the building when they viewed it for the first time & several rooms in the building were closed up & not used by them during the nine months that they actually lived there including Room No. 7. When the Rev. Smith & his wife moved into the Rectory in October 1928 it had lain empty for over a year following Harry Bull’s death. Without specific evidence & at this distance of time it is impossible to say whether these windows were in fact affected by decay or rotted enough to allow the wood to glow, but what can be established is the type of illumination that rotten wood produces & whether it can cause the particular effects which were reported at Borley.
Certain species of fungi do have luminous properties although when decayed wood gives off some form of luminescence it is the fungal mycelium itself which is glowing rather than the timber & any infected timber would have to be heavily rotted in order to produce the similar effect which is seen on decaying tree stumps. A common British species Armillaria mellea, the Honey Fungus falls into this category but although it grows widespread in deciduous woodland I can find no reference for it infecting domestic worked timber such as external doors & window frames. The window that the plumber examined was most likely to have been infected with Wet Rot (Coniophora puteana), also known as Cellar Fungus as it grows on the walls of damp underground rooms as well as external joinery & from what I can establish this particular species does not produce luminous mycelium (3). What it interesting is that the plumber would have inspected the window during the day as part of his routine work & for him & his companion to notice a prominent glow in daylight seems to make the fungi idea doubtful as the glow from a species such as Armillaria, termed ‘foxfire’ is a low-intensity low-energy light likened to a soft fluorescent effect which would only be visible at night time (4) & this does not appear to correspond with the bright light which Mr. V.C. Wall & his companion saw ‘shining through the trees’ during their vigil in 1929.
If the effects of decaying wood can be ruled out then the only other explanation for the window lights that requires discussion is that of conscious fraud or trickery. We have to consider whether every occurrence of the mysterious light was the result of someone playing games or, following the knowledge that a strange light had been seen, subsequent appearances were helped along, either by people living in the house or locals with access to the building to perpetuate the story or idea that the Rectory was haunted. The idea of someone ‘ghosting for a giggle’ as Peter Underwood has described it (5) could have happened at any time down through the years when the windows of the Rectory were reported to have been mysteriously illuminated, in the time of the Bulls as reported by Harry Price in his first Borley book, during the period that Mrs Smith saw a light several times in the late 1920s & later when it was reported during Price’s own tenancy of the building. The occurrence of the light during the first period up to the death of Harry Bull is given such scant mention by Price in The Most Haunted House in England that absolutely nothing can be learnt about it other than the fact that the light was apparently seen at times by members of the Bull household (6). Whether someone was fooling around we shall never know. When considering the Smith incumbency it is interesting to note that despite being resolutely adamant after she had left Borley that the Rectory was not haunted, Mabel Smith did not consider when being asked for her views by the SPR trio on various aspects of the case the possibility of trickery as having produced the light which she saw & pointed out to local people on several occasions. If there had been some trace or slight evidence which pointed to a spurious cause of the alleged phenomenon then I feel sure Mrs Smith would have seized upon it & the accusations would have been a part of Dingwall, Goldney & Hall’s report. As for the occasion when the light was seen in 1937 at a time when none of Harry Price’s rota of observers were on duty at the Rectory which for all intents & purposes was locked & empty, we have to consider the possibility that someone had gained access to the building with the intention of either shining a light on purpose or perhaps was looking round quite innocently & by accident caused the illumination which was reported by the Rev. Henning’s chauffeur. In The Haunting of Borley Rectory the authors make reference to a statement which indicates that the Arbons who lived in the Rectory Cottage & to whom Harry Price gave custody of the Rectory keys apparently did not follow his instructions quite as well as they should have & were in the habit of letting people into the building other than those officially notified to have access (7), which makes a case for a normal cause of this particular sighting of the light a possibility.
The plumber who spoke to Andrew Clarke quite adamantly described the wood in the window frame as glowing & Andrew has suggested that luminous paint could be the answer. Once quite readily available this is a mixture of pigment, oil & a phosphorescent sulphide, either calcium or barium. As it requires exposure to light before it will glow in the dark it seems unlikely to be capable of causing the luminous effect seen under these particular circumstances. However, a self-priming substance which would not require prior exposure to a light source is radium & Andrew has commented that a quantity of radium bromide mixed with zinc sulphide, materials which at that time could be purchased from a conjuror’s suppliers would give the desired effect. What is also common knowledge is that Ian Shaw, Marianne Foyster’s son by her first marriage is known to have played practical jokes on Frank Peerless during the time that he stayed at the Rectory in January 1933, a period of three months during which time the incident that the plumber spoke about could well have happened.
The illumination of certain windows in the Rectory building over the course of several years appears to be convincing evidence of the reality of paranormal activity at Borley, in the same way that there is a consistency with the reported appearances of a nun-like apparition during the same period of time & in the case of the nun beyond it by several decades after the fire of February 1939. However what appears to be convincing evidence that the Rectory was haunted to one person is to another simply a testament to the length of time this particular haunting has been allowed to grow out of all proportion. As has been seen, there have been attempts to explain the window lights away with a wide variety of natural incidents which include reflections from trains & passing vehicles, internal & external lamps & lights, glowing fungi & pranks & jolly japes & with the Rectory gone there is now no way that any of these theories can be put to the test. What is lacking with all of these theories however is the ability to convince today that they could have caused the same effects at the times & the ways in which they were said to have occurred, which means that the window lights will remain one of the enigmas of this continually fascinating case.
(This article was first published on Vincent O'Neil's BorleyRectory.com website which is currently off-line -18/XII/2004)
1. The Haunting of Borley Rectory by Eric J. Dingwall, Kathleen M. Goldney & Trevor H. Hall, Duckworth, 1956, Opposite p.99.
2. The Enigma of Borley Rectory by Ivan Banks, Foulsham, 1996, Opposite p. 142.
3. Surveying Buildings by Malcolm Hollis, Surveyors Publications, 1983.
4. Foxfire: Bioluminescence in the Forest by Prof. Kim D. Coder, Warnell School of Forest Resources, University of Georgia, 1999, Web Article.
5. The Ghost Hunter’s Guide by Peter Underwood, Blandford Press, 1986.
6. The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price, Longmans, 1940, p.51.
7. The Haunting of Borley Rectory by Eric J. Dingwall, Kathleen M. Goldney & Trevor H. Hall, Duckworth, 1956, p.124.
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