Supernatural Magazine

Borley Rectory: The Trial of Harry Price

On 18th February at the Arnofini Gallery in Bristol, a debate took place about possibly the most famous haunting in the history of ghost hunting. It was a quiet affair hosted by a small production company, with a few invited guests but ‘live streamed’ to the rest of the world. Four British experts were assembled to discuss the topic on this Sunday afternoon in the heart of the historic Bristol Harbour, not without its own ghosts.

The opening address and context of the case was provided by Ghost Club Chairman and Barrister, Alan Murdie. The rectory was built in 1863 by the Reverend Henry Bull and was reputedly the most haunted location, according to the Guinness Book of World records, and was the subject of much investigation until it was destroyed in a fire in 1939.

“The ghost case that put all other ghost cases to shame. Five successive Rectors and their families, over 76 years reported unparalleled numbers of paranormal ghostly phenomena”.

Henry Bull lived in the house, a land owner, squire and reverend and father to 14 children. Bull became convinced that Borley Rectory and the grounds were haunted. The first ghosts being reported at this time were a ghostly nun and a phantom coach and horses driven by a headless horseman. There are also later reports of the ghosts of Harry Bull, who succeeded Henry as reverend and owner of the rectory in 1892 and of ghostly cats and poltergeists over many years. Murdie put forward the suggestion that the poltergeist activity was more likely to be centred on the location as opposed to the normal theory, centred on an individual, as the pattern of activity spread over many years and a number of different residents. He proposed that patterns of reports suggested a certain time of day that phenomena and sightings would occur, peaking between midnight and 4am. These encounters were experienced by residents and family members including Harry Bull and four of his sisters, who in 1900 saw an apparition of a nun in the garden. One of the sisters was interviewed in 1955 on the TV show Panorama and maintained the story of what they had seen. In 1929 Rev Guy Eric Smith and his wife Mable were resident at the rectory and it is at this time that the rectory came to national attention when they contacted the Daily Mirror suggesting that the house was haunted. Mirror reporter Mr VC Wall, contacted the leading psychical investigator of the day, Harry Price, to attend the rectory. After the first meeting with the family and séance, Price would return to the rectory over 20 years investigating the phenomena.

Murdie introduced Price as the investigator who made psychical research and paranormal investigation newsworthy. He became world famous in terms of his numerous investigations, including ‘Geoff the talking Mongoose’ on the Isle of Man and the investigation in Germany, testing the tradition that if you take a goat up the Brocken Mountain it would turn into a young boy. Known as the Bloksberg Tryst, Price sought to show the futility of this legend and during an experiment, which attracted some 800 journalists, he marched them up the mountain to prove it. He insisted that he was a scientific researcher.

In 1930, Price wanted to continue his investigations at Borley Rectory with its new residents the Reverend Lionel Foyster and his wife Marianne. It was during this time that the Rectory was at its most ‘active’. But after a disagreement between Marianne and Price’s companion Kathleen Goldney, Price was banned from the Rectory for the next five years. This period was when the main poltergeist activity occurred, this being directed towards Marianne Foyster, a controversial character herself. This included wall writings and the appearance of Roman Catholic medallions. Rumours surrounded the Foysters that Lionel was hoping to write a bestselling book about the rectory before Price. After a visit of a spiritualist circle in 1931 the activity ceased for a period. The Foysters left the rectory in 1935, providing price with the opportunity to rent it from its owners, the church, for a year. He recruited a number of lay observers to monitor the activity at the rectory and produced a guide to assist their investigations know as ‘the Blue Book’. Murdie grew up in East Anglia himself and visited the site in 1976. He spoke to people who lived in the village explaining that some had experienced phenomena themselves and that some were against the notion of paranormal activity. Murdie suggested that University students from Cambridge had been known to play tricks on Price’s observers. He explained that the patterns of activity were seasonal with the majority of reports in the summertime. When the church sold the rectory in 1939 to Captain Gregson, Price remarked that bus loads of curious people would visit the village to see the rectory. It was at this time that the rectory was severely damaged by fire, as predicted eleven months earlier by Sidney Glanville and his daughter who had conducted séances at the location. The fire did not stop the ghostly reports however, which included a phantom cat and strange lights. In 1943, Price carried out an excavation of the cellar finding the bones of a woman - the ghostly nun? The rectory ruins were demolished in 1945 at which time, Price had published two books; The Most Haunted House in England and The End of Borley Rectory. Following the demolition, the haunting reports moved to the church. These included sightings of a nun, organ music, the smell of incense and the sightings of a ghostly cat.

Following the death of Price in 1948, three members of the Society for Psychical Research, including Goldney, published a book which was highly sceptical of Price’s methods. The co-authors were Eric Dingwell and Trevor Hall. This was a serious attack on Price’s reputation. Regardless of the influence of Price, Murdie concluded that there were enough eyewitnesses reporting to suggest that something strange was occurring over many years in the Borley area. The controversy continues and “this is one ghost story that will never end”.

The next speaker at the podium was Ann Winsper. An accomplished paranormal researcher and Parapsychology PhD Student at the University of Central Lancashire, Ann presented the case against Harry Price. She had been invited to the Borley site herself by a resident of a new house on the site, who was excavating a wall and she was given an actual brick from the rectory, which she produced for the assembled guests to see. Ann described the view from the perspective of the critics of Harry Price. She highlighted the book written by Goldney, Hall and Dingwell, The Haunting of Borley Rectory, as her source. Hall seemed to have a personal vendetta against Price. These three members of SPR weren’t without their own critics though. Winsper recounted a number of books and articles from other authors who were critical of Price the Investigator and the morals of Price the man. These criticisms were written following Price’s death, providing him no opportunity to counter the arguments. An analysis of his main critic’s work, Trevor Hall, showed a strong bias against Price.

Price himself embellished his own life story including his family history. Winsper cast doubt on Price’s scientific an archaeological claims, including experiments reported, that there is no written record of, and artefacts found to be fake. Price claimed to have Joanna Southcott’s sealed box of prophesies, which he had opened finding it contained inconsequential papers. Followers of Southcott disputed Price’s claims that it was the real box. Hall states that Price’s investigation of a poltergeist in a Shropshire manor house provided different conflicting accounts. He cast doubt on the claims around those involved with the manor house by checking parish records and finding no details of people referred to by Price in his accounts of the hunting. Hall also cast doubt on the photo reputedly taken on the stairs at the manor and produced in Price’s book, The Ghost That Stumbled. It was not a photo of the actual stairs of the house and was taken in daylight and not at midnight, as Price had reported. In another account, Price had claimed to have dug up some coins when in fact they had been given to him.

Price was a conjurer. He claimed to own a Burmese manuscript which included the famous ‘Burmese rope trick’. The examined manuscript was found not to contain any conjuring scripts. Price had given an account of a psychic child at his house and hearing the steps of the child but seeing no child present. In a book of the time about animals and the presence of their soul, Price wrote a forward for the author recounting the same story but substituting a dog.

Price had misrepresented results from séances conducted by Sidney Glanville about Borley Rectory’s former inhabitants quoting church records as evidence of the results when in fact the church records were discovered beforehand. An account of the death of a maid at Borley in childbirth was found to be false.

Price’s descriptions in his book, Poltergeists over England, indicated that he had collected the accounts himself, when in effect they had already been reported by other authors. In this book he again recounted the child footsteps story in his home, this time as a poltergeist. Price suggested the link between poltergeists and puberty, which had been proposed by other researchers before him. In short, Price was adept at manipulating information to help sell his own books. William Salter, a former President of the SPR remarked,

“Price gets away with his stories by ingeniously suggesting connections between occurrences, belonging to different time periods, happening under different conditions and due to different causes. Hallucinations, faulty memory and fraud.”

Price reports at Borley, the throwing of small pebbles, a shower of keys, the appearance of a small gilt medallion and another medallion. He connects these to Catholicism and mentions that the medallions were French and that this was a strong connection, in support of a theory that the nun was French. Other accounts from witnesses present only report one medallion and some suggest that the events were faked, suspicion falling upon Price, the amateur conjurer. Charles Sutton of the Daily Mail reported after Price’s death that he had ‘seized Harry and found his pockets full of bricks and pebbles’, but had been advised by his editor not to publish the account. Fellow investigator Miss Kay suggested that Price attracted poltergeists as ‘nothing similar had happened when Price wasn’t there’. Sutton maintained that he had seen Price throwing a large stone. Price denied throwing the stones and only Sutton mentions pockets full of stones.

Ann Winsper suggests that even the sceptics of Price’s accounts are biased heavily against him, but he is criticised for not having many witness reports but a lot of second hand accounts. He had a tendency to embellish the accounts of the witnesses and number of accounts which could be explained was left out of his books.

In conclusion, she stated that it was almost impossible to determine the truth, as both Price and his critics had sought to exaggerate and change the truth.

“Believe something happened but take it with a very large pinch of salt”.

The case for the accused was presented by veteran Ghost Hunter and author, Steve Parsons. Steve was fortunate enough to have visited Borley a number of times. He too had a brick from the original house obtained from a resident whose house sits on the site. This brick was thought to come from the area of the Drawing room, where the window had been bricked up to prevent the ghostly nun looking in through the window when the Bull family had their dinner. He put forward the argument that we owe Price thanks as some of the investigation techniques that he put forward, we use to this day. Price had written the first set of instructions for investigation in ‘The Blue Book’. This book was printed for lay investigators that Price recruited to investigate Borley, when he rented it between 1937-1938. Parsons described Price’s reputation as the failed psychic who turned to ghost hunting, creating fraudulent ghosts to take money from the gullible. He invited the audience to look beyond the reputation that he acquired posthumously.

Price had been captivated by magic and illusion as a young man and later he became fascinated by the tricks that psychics used to conjure ghostly phenomena. He had been high ranking in ‘The Magic Circle’. In 1925 he founded the National Laboratory for Psychical Research. He had set this up to scientifically study all forms of paranormal claims including psychic mediums. Price had tested many famous mediums. He devised many controls and advanced techniques including infra-red film and adapted Zena cards, because he realised that the patterns could be seen through the cards, so he introduced a dazzle background pattern to better test the precognitive abilities of psychics. It was no surprise that the Daily Mirror called upon Price when the Reverend Smith invited them to Borley. He was the country’s leading paranormal expert. But Price did not carry out many haunting investigations himself because of his well documented heart condition. He had also realised that if his investigations were to have credibility, he would have to call upon independent researchers. Sydney Glanville, was recruited as the lead investigator for Borley Rectory and Glanville has never been criticised for his investigation methods.

Glanville documented his findings in ‘The Locked Book’. Unfortunately, this document being missing does not help Price’s case. Price was doing exactly the same thing as modern investigators to promote his products and raise awareness. He knew how to play the media. Despite his best efforts, the academic community failed to take seriously the investigation of psychic phenomena. He left us two legacies in his two books about Borley Rectory.

Judgement of the works of Price at Borley is based solely on his two books and not the Locked Book that existed when Trevor Hall wrote his scathing attack of Price. Hall was a sceptic of paranormal phenomena who made controversial claims about earlier members of the SPR. He had been a student of psychical research between 1954-56 and subsequently wrote a number of books which were critical of psychical researchers. Hall was one of three people commissioned by the Society of Psychical Research to re-examine the Borley Rectory claims. Goldney, Dingwell and Hall based their criticism of Price on his two books, written for public consumption. The report from the ‘Locked Book’ would never have been a best seller and Price realised this and needed to get people interested in ghost hunting by writing an interesting account. He wrote edited highlights of the report. A further review commissioned by SPR about the work conducted by Hall and others showed that it too was flawed.

Hall seemed to be deeply critical of Harry Price and wrote a subsequent book, Four Modern Ghosts, in which he spent a whole chapter criticising his work. He was critical of Price not publishing his experiences of the Rosalie case (in his book Fifty Years of Psychical Research), in which he thought he saw the apparition of a young girl. In 1965 Hall wrote, A New Light on Old Ghosts, in which he criticises Price yet again. In 1978 Hall produced Search for Harry Price, in which he laid bare all of his charges against Price. The book was described by a contemporary as,

“The most vitriolic, vile, ill thought out attack on one person, that they have had the misfortune to read”.

People consulted by Hall on the book distanced themselves from anything to do with it. Price’s biographer indeed accused Hall of stealing the ‘Locked Book’ (which remains missing to this day) and selling it to an American. Some extracts of the book, written by Sidney Glanville, whose integrity is not in question, remain intact. Price did not start the phenomena at Borley, they predated his arrival. He heard about the rectory being the ‘most haunted building in the country’, from a taxi driver who took him to village.

It was Glanville that gave an account of his interview with the Bull sisters about the nun seen on the rectory lawns. He went on to say that the sisters had seen the nun many times at dusk but only once during the day. All four sisters watched the nun walk across the grounds. During the past 50 years, more than 20 people have reported the apparition of the nun in this location. Parsons described a number of accounts given by many witnesses about the phenomena at the rectory and this had shown that Harry Price was not responsible for the reported activity. Glanville recorded more than 2000 incidents, many of which were recorded when Price was not at the rectory. Parsons also points out, with examples, that Hall was just as guilty of exaggerating his lineage and qualifications as Price was. Something that Hall had been publically critical of.

In conclusion, Parsons exclaimed that Hall had,

“Damaged irreparably, the reputation of probably the greatest ghost hunter that ever lived… Price was a man to which every ghost hunter can pay a debt of thanks”.

Finally, Chris Jensen Romer, parapsychologist and Secretary for the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, gave insight into the geographical location of where this historical controversy played out. Romer questioned,

“How do you decide which is the most haunted house in England?”

He reminisced how as a 16 year old, he came across the works of Harry Price. Growing up in Suffolk, a county with 300 churches, he described the hamlet of Borley, no more than a handful of houses a farm and a church. His grandmother knew Borley and delivered lemonade to the Rectory but she told him she did not see any ghosts. All she remembered was that the ‘drains smelt bad’. What she did witness one day, with a friend, was a strange brown mass, like a cloud travelling across fields from the direction of Borley. He recalled that as a result of the revelations at Borley, the police had to stop the inquisitive and the thrill seekers from harassing the local residents, setting up road blocks, particularly at Halloween. Borley today has very little to see but the church. This too became incredibly famous in the 1970s when ‘Look East’, the News programme, recorded strange sounds in the church.

Romer put the location into context with its surroundings,

“A landscape where a number of strange things had been witnessed over the years”.

Like the brothers, who when motorcycling along the road in 1919 saw what they thought was a barn fire. They returned home to raise the alarm only to see an extremely bright light emanating from inside their drawing room. They entered the room to find it in darkness. On searching for the barn fire they found nothing. Burning barns within Suffolk folklore are a symbol of evil.

He recited the story of the nun of Borley, who had eloped with a monk and when caught, the monk was beheaded and nun was ‘walled up’ for her sins. After much research of ecclesiastical records he had found no corroboration for the story other than the fact that the Waldegraves, who owned the land at Borley, were staunch Catholics at the time of Elizabeth 1st. He proposed that, contextually all of these incidents can be drawn together.

He recounted the history of his own uncle Ted, a 55 stone, ‘stout’ man. When he was at school, he was delivering for Auburn Davis of Bury St. Edmunds and saw a Queen Ann style house, which then suddenly completely vanished. Romer collected stories and found over 20 local accounts of this house and a cottage being seen and then suddenly disappearing. The witnesses report that the sighting of the ghost house is associated with a ‘whoosh’ sound. Romer had tried to track down this house by researching historical maps. He had physically discovered an overgrown avenue with yellow brick walls (described by the witnesses),

“It’s called Kingshall Street, where Bradfield St.George and Rougham take a sharp turn.”

There are, however, no historical records of the existence of this house.

CJ Romer tried to ‘put Borley in the context of a teenager who grew up surrounded by these stories, surrounded by the history of psychical researchers. But there is more to Suffolk and more to ghosts than Borley’. He urged the assembled guests and viewers to find something new, rather than rehashing the old controversy. With that, he took questions and concluded the proceedings.

I believe that the jury is still out on whether Price studied or he actively contributed to the haunting phenomena at Borley Rectory. Without the ‘Locked Book’, of which Steve Parsons made a public appeal to locate, there is little unbiased evidence that can come to Price’s defence. Whatever you believe, there is no denying that he put the place firmly on the paranormal map and contributed to what is undoubtedly, the most reported haunting story of all time.

Mark Davey

Mark Davey

Mark Davey is a sceptical inquirer, writer and blogger. A member of the ASSAP and The Ghost Club he has a background in crime investigation over 32 years