Borley Rectory: the World's Most Haunted House?
Were the events at Borley Rectory a real haunting, or the product of a hoaxster?
by Brian Dunning
July 5, 2007
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Gather now as we throw another log on the fire, pour some milk in our tea, and close the shutters against the mist as we tell stories of Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England, and probably in the world.
A rectory is the residence provided by a church to its rector, vicar, or minister. This particular rectory was built on the same site as a Cistercian priory perhaps several hundred years older in what is now Borley, Essex, United Kingdom. There are two stories of ancient love affairs gone wrong from Borley Rectory. In one account, a monk from a nearby 14th century monastery had a relationship with a novice from the local nunnery at Bures. When the illegal affair was discovered, the monk was hanged and the nun was bricked up alive inside the basement of the priory, which later became Borley Rectory. Later, in the 17th century, a French nun named Marie Lairre left her order in Le Havre and came to England, staying for some time at the same nunnery in Bures. Soon she met and married Henry Waldengrave, owner of a manor home that stood on the site of Borley Rectory. In an evening of rage, Waldengrave strangled his wife, and buried her in the basement.
Eventually, in 1862, Borley Rectory was constructed for the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull. Almost from the beginning, the Bull family was plagued by frightening apparitions. A ghostly nun was frequently reported in the twilight near the home, walking through the gardens. Once Bull's daughters tried to talk to the nun, only to see her fade away and disappear as they got closer. The family was shocked to learn that the nun's path through the garden was already well known to the local villagers, and was called the "Nun's Walk". Sometimes the nun was seen watching people from an upstairs window. Even more terrifying was the appearance of a phantom coach driven by two headless coachmen, which was sometimes seen and often heard at night in front of the rectory. The sounds of mysterious footsteps and strange creaks and crashes were commonly heard inside the house. Reverend Bull's son, Harry Bull, succeeded his father and stayed in the home until his death in 1927. It was said that Harry Bull enjoyed the ghostly disturbances as entertainment, and built a summer house overlooking the Nun's Walk where he could enjoy cigars and watch the spectacle.
The new rector, Guy Smith, moved in with his family in 1928. While cleaning, Mrs. Smith found a strange package wrapped in brown paper, and inside was the skull of a young woman. The same strange incidents plagued the Smith family, and after Mrs. Smith saw the phantom coach, they called in The Daily Mirror newspaper for help. The Daily Mirror sent paranormal researcher Harry Price to investigate. Price had stones and a vase thrown at him from unseen hands. After the Smith's daughter was inexplicably locked in a room with no key, they had enough, and moved out after only one year.
The next victims were Reverend Lionel Foyster and his wife Marianne, and it was during their stay that Borley Rectory's most famous haunting occurred: the appearance of automatic writing on the walls of the house. The writings contained pleas for help from Marie Lairre, often addressed specifically to Marianne. The writings said things like "Marianne, please help get" and "Marianne, light mass prayers" and "Pleas for help and prayers". The writings sometimes even appeared in real time while people watched! The Foysters tried to erase and even paint over the writing but it persisted.
Marianne was often victimized by violence. She was thrown from her bed on many occasions, was attacked and slapped by unseen assailants, and was struck by flying rocks. Windows shattered spontaneously. Reverend Foyster tried many times to exorcise the house, without result, and kept logs of the incidents which he mailed to Harry Price. Price said that the Foysters reported as many as 2,000 events.
The Foysters finally gave up and moved out, and Harry Price himself rented Borley Rectory. Price advertised for 48 volunteer researchers to come and stay in the house with him and help record the supernatural episodes. Along with his best friends and fellow researchers Sidney and Helen Glanville, Price conducted seances using a planchette, a writing implement held by the seance participants similar to a Ouija Board. Two spirits most often manifested themselves during these seances. Marie Lairre, the most vocal of the spirits, told her woeful story and explained that she was condemned to wander until her bones could receive a proper Christian burial. The second spirit, named Sunex Amures, warned that he would burn down the rectory that very night, and that the bones of a murder victim would be revealed in the wreckage.
The rectory did burn down, but it was eleven months after the ghostly threat. The home's new owner, Captain W. H. Gregson, was unpacking and accidentally overturned an oil lamp, starting a fire that destroyed the building. During the inferno, onlookers spotted a nun in one of the windows. Afterward the rubble was demolished, and the bricks were re-used for the war effort, leaving a bare hole in the ground.
Harry Price took advantage of the unfortunate opportunity and excavated the basement. The bones of a young woman were found, certified by a pathologist, and reburied in the nearby cemetery at Liston in 1943. After nearly a century of haunting, Marie Lairre was finally at rest, the Nun's Walk found peace, and the legend of the most haunted house in England came to an end.
And now, decades later, we turn a skeptical eye upon Borley Rectory and see how much of it we can verify, and how much of it is complete bunk. One of the keys to understanding the events at Borley Rectory is to understand who Harry Price was. By no means was he a scientist or an unbiased researcher. He was an expert magician, a member of the British organization The Magic Circle, and proven hoaxer. He was a close friend of Charles Dawson, the man behind the infamous Piltdown Man hoax. He and photographer William Hope staged an elaborate photograph depicting a ghost looking over the shoulder of Price as he sat for a portrait. Harry Price went on the road with a fake statue of Hercules. He exhibited a fake silver ingot from the reign of Roman emperor Honorious. He showed gold coins from the kings of Sussex and a bone carved with hieroglyphics, all proven to be fakes. By every account, Harry Price was a practiced hoaxster and very much of the P. T. Barnum mold. Harry Price did not investigate Borley rectory for his own health. He achieved a great deal of notoriety from it, including the publication of three books, The Most Haunted House in England, Poltergeist Over England, and The End of Borley Rectory.
It's important to note that prior to the 1929 article in The Daily Mirror, when Harry Price was first called in, no written account exists of any unusual incidents at Borley Rectory. A closer look at the facts reveals a long string of inconsistencies and contradictions between Price's published accounts and the reports of the families themselves. Let's go through a few of these.
The legend of the nun bricked up in the cellar, that so frightened the Bull family, came from a novel that they owned by Rider Haggard. Reverend Bull used to read this chilling tale to his children.
Reverend and Mrs. Smith said that they left the house due to its horrible condition and prehistoric plumbing, not due to any hauntings. The skull that Mrs. Smith found was attributed to a victim of the 1654 plague, many victims of which were crudely buried in the ground that later became part of the garden of Borley Rectory. It was not uncommon for skulls and other bones to be found on the property, and they were routinely reburied in the churchyard.
Marianne Foyster stated that she believed many of the strange incidents were being staged by her husband working in league with Harry Price. Harry Price countered that he believed Marianne herself was, consciously or unconsciously, causing some of the incidents, stating that events only seem to occur when she was present.
There is much confusion over the automatic writing. Most significantly, accounts of the Glanville's seances show that they used rolls of wallpaper on which to capture the writings of their planchette. Why they used wallpaper rolls is not clear, but it could be as simple as wallpaper being the largest rolls of paper that were handy. The story of automatic writing appearing on the walls of Borley Rectory while people watched appears to be nothing more than a misinterpretation of the reports of the planchette seances, in which writing was captured on wallpaper while seance attendees watched and participated. As for the contents of the writings, most are almost completely illegible, and the popular interpretations are dubious at best. In particular, the writing interpreted as the name Marie Lairre appears to many skeptics to say no such thing.
When Borley Rectory burned down, the insurance company determined the fire to be arson, and Captain Gregson's claim to be fraudulent. What connection this has to Harry Price is not certain, but Gregson was instrumental in organizing Price's excavation, and was present when the bones were found in the cellar. You decide.
Price's discovery of the bones has also been the subject of debate. Critics have questioned the likelihood of Price turning up bones in a single search in only a few hours, when other searches, both before and after Price's excavation, came up empty handed despite far more extensive digging. They also question the fortuitous presence of a pathologist and a barrister to certify the remains. And to make it even more confusing, the two gardeners who did the actual digging, Johnnie Palmer and Mr. Jackson, identified the only bone recovered as a pig's jawbone. What was actually recovered, and how did Price happen to have a pathologist and a barrister on hand? It's unlikely that we'll ever know either answer for sure, but there's enough uncertainty to put Price's own claim on thin ice.
Harry Price died only a few years later, and some of his former associates from the English Society for Psychical Research published their own findings and analysis. A similar report was made by the London Society for Psychical Research. Both reports concluded that (1) there were no verifiable events that could not have had natural explanations, (2) that Harry Price's duplicity made it hopeless to determine the validity of his findings, and (3) that the most popularized events were caused by Harry Price himself. They even debunked specific episodes, such as a light often seen in one of the rectory's upper windows happened to coincide with the reflected headlight of a regularly scheduled train nearby.
The conclusion I draw from all of this is that to enjoy a good ghost story, you'd better not look at it too closely. If the events at the world's most haunted house can be total fabrications, then what about all those other lesser hauntings around the world? Maybe it's time for one of them to step up and take over the crown. All it takes is some creativity and a book with a great title.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Borley Rectory: the World's Most Haunted House?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
5 Jul 2007. Web.
25 Oct 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4053>
References & Further Reading
Adams, P., Underwood, P., Brazil, E. The Borley Rectory Companion: The Complete Guide to 'The Most Haunted House in England'. London: The History Press, 2009.
Daily Mirror Staff. "Haunted Room in a Rectory." The Daily Mirror. 12 Jun. 1929, Newspaper: Page 4.
Floyd, E. 100 of the World's Greatest Mysteries. Augusta: Harbor House, 2000. 182-183.
Haggard, Rider. She: Gateway Movie Classic. Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1999.
Morris, Richard. Harry Price: The Psychic Detective. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2006.
Price, H. The Most Haunted House in England. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1940.
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