Borley Bellsheet

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2003

One of the most characteristic phenomena at Borley was the bell-ringing. Most of the time, it affected the line of internal bells that were installed at the rectory in the kitchen passage. These were part of a mechanical system of sprung bells connected by wires to almost every room in the house. As there was no hot water, their chief use was to signal to the domestic staff that hot water was required for the wash-basin which was to be seen in every bedroom. They were also used in the dining room to signal that the next course of a meal was to be served. They were also used generally to ask for assistance. (Victorian Ladies' fashions meant that it was often impossible to dress without help). There were three entrance doors that required bells too.

For most of the time, it was just one or two of the bells that rang, but at the height of the trouble, it was far more spectacular, as in the night when the Marks Tey Spiritualist Circle arrived at the rectory

'As the three descended the stairs there was a loud ringing of bells from downstairs. The rector beckoned L 'Estrange to his side and leaning over they could see the thirty bells in the kitchen passage clanging wildly by themselves. The rector said that the wires of all but three of the bells had been cut in an effort to stop the ringing but it had no effect. The bell-ringing continued for some little time. As L 'Estrange stood beneath the clanging bells he looked up at them and said, 'If some invisible person is present and can hear these words, please stop the ringing for a moment.' Instantly every bell became silent.'

(Guy L'Estrange quoted in End of Borley Rectory p60)

It was strange that the poltergeist at Borley Rectory should choose such an easy thing to fake as bell-ringing. The following year, a guest stumbled on a curious arrangement which would provide a clue as to where the 'invisible person' was located.

'Marianne had sent [Ian] into the courtyard to fetch coal and to pump water. It was raining and windy, and Ian was wearing an old raincoat without buttons, which he could not keep closed in the wind. He saw a piece of string half-hidden in the ivy and thought that this would be useful to tie his raincoat around him. He gave the string a sharp tug, to pull it from the nail on which he thought it was hung. To his astonishment, the house bells began to ring. Marianne came out of the house and told him to keep quiet. Ian found that the string was attached to a group of exposed bell wires in the house.'

Ian Shaw's statement, in 'New Light on Old Ghosts' p132, Trevor Hall 1965

Ian was Marianne's son, who was brought up by her parents as a younger brother. He stayed at Borley Rectory after the 'manifestations had more or less ceased. He was a lively young chap who also discovered how easy it was for rats or cats to accidentally send the bells ringing. Marianne recalled..

'Because the wires were laid in the attic on the floor and when Ian was there, we went up there and tested this. We found out that the bells could be made to ring by tampering with them.'

Marianne: Robert Swanson Interview Gladstone Hotel - February, 1958

The string in the ivy looked as if it had been put there on purpose, to produce the effect witnessed by Guy L'Estrange. When Marianne was questioned about the string, around twenty years later she remembered the incident but put a more innocent gloss on it

'. I can't explain it except that Ian did find a string but so did I and many other people. The wires were bent and pulled down. There was a loose wire in the ceiling that caused Price to accuse Adelaide as being the responsible person for the ringing of the bell. As far as Ian stating that I instructed him not to say anything about it - I just said, "Oh, shut up," because - well, I didn't mean anything by it.

...It was a wire hanging down in what was the old - where the Bull servants used to clean knives and shoes - in the outer courtyard. It's the room marked "fuel," but it wasn't fuel. It was known by the Bulls as the "knife and boot room. … There were many wires that were up at the ceiling in the rectory. There were many wires, but in that place one of the wires had been broken and was hanging down. Ian did draw my attention to that, but that was not unusual'

Marianne: Robert Swanson Interview Gladstone Hotel - February, 1958

Actually, the string that Ian discovered was in the ivy near the door that led from the kitchen passage out into the courtyard. Marianne is thinking of yet another means of ringing bells in the house.

It would be nice to think that all this bell-ringing was accidental, particularly as there was always trouble with rats and mice at the rectory as it was so close to the adjacent farm buildings. Marianne was keen to explain how difficult it would have been to fake the bell-ringing

'The wires - the rectory ceilings were very high - very, very high and even on a step ladder I couldn't reach them and the windows - even mounted on a step ladder I couldn't put the curtains up or anything like that, and there were wires around the top, but the bell pulls had all been disconnected and that's all that I can say.'

Marianne: Robert Swanson Interview Gladstone Hotel - February, 1958

Marianne was very defensive about the cause of the bell-ringing because, whist the phenomena were going on, she had several times been accused of faking the bell ringing. Even if she had done so, it would not entirely explain matters, because it had been going on ever since the previous rector, Rev G E Smith was in residence. Harry Price reported that they had even rung in the Bulls' time; 'One one occasion Miss Ethel was in the house when all the bells-of which there were about twenty--suddenly started pealing simultaneously'. In Harry Bulls' time, around 1922, there seems to have been some ringing of the large outside bell, which was worked on a different mechanical system

One night, at about two 0' clock in the morning, the large bell in the courtyard rang loudly for several moments and the rector came bursting into his bedroom and seemed to be in a distressed state of mind. The ringing bell -which was very loud -had obviously upset him and he appeared to be trembling and muttering to himself under his breath. 'Did you hear it?' he asked. 'Did you hear it? If you did for goodness sake don't tell anybody. I hate this sort of thing being talked about. Promise me you won't tell anybody. .it was spectacular, wasn't it?'
When the boy promised the rector not to tell anybody the rector became much calmer. 'Oh good boy, good boy, I'm sure I can trust you. I don't suppose it will happen again. ..' Whereupon it did! Even louder, it seemed, and more violent than on the first occasion. 'That's strange,' the rector said, puzzled. 'I've never known it ring twice in quick succession like that before. ,
'Perhaps there is somebody there,' the boy suggested but the rector would have none of that. 'Nonsense, my boy, nonsense; who on earth would come and ring the courtyard bell like that at this time of night? No, it's the nun, she does sometimes. Tell you what, if it rings again I'll rouse the servants; meanwhile no harm done and it's quiet now so go back to sleep.' And he left the room.

J Osbourne Harley's story. in Borley Postscript Peter Underwood 2001 p 112

The ringing of the large exterior bell also happened later on in the Foyster residency

The large bell in the yard used to ring out. There was no rope attached to it and as it was high up, in an angle of the yard,l I hardly knew how anybody could have rung it in the daytime, without my seeing the person climbing in or out of a window

Edwin Whitehouse, from The Most Haunted House in England p97

The bells at the Rectory were of the old mechanical type. The internal bell itself was the size of a small hand bell, mounted on a spring and fastened to a pivot or lever that moved on a spike driven into the wall. A wire was attached to the pivot. If the wire was pulled, the bell swung backward and forward for some time, ringing the bell. It was visible from the servants' hall and one could spot which bell had been rung even after it had stopped, because the swinging kept going for some time due to the spring. At Borley Rectory, the bells were rung by a chord that hang in the room. This wire chord ran in a tube to a lever mounted in the attics. The wires ran horizontally across the attics to a point vertically above the kitchen where, via other levers, they all descended to the servants hall. Some of the wires were exposed in the bedroom passage outside the 'Blue Room'. In the pantry, there was a place where the thirty exposed bell-wires ran near the ceiling, and they then ran to the kitchen passage where the bells were sited. As this was an entirely mechanical system, it required the wires to be completely tight, and the levers free in their movement. Corrosion was avoided by making the wires from bronze, and the levers from brass.

Anyone living in an old house with this sort of arrangement will know that this works fine so long as there are no rats or nesting birds in the attics. In some installations, the entire run was encased in tubes but this caused difficulties when a wire broke. At Borley, they ran unfettered across the attics. It was often the case that vermin, or cats in pursuit occasionally triggered this sort of installation.

When Harry Price arrived at the rectory he noted that the bell-wires passed along the eaves.

'On one of the rafters, to which the bell levers were anchored, we discovered the following inscription in rough painted characters: 'Bells hung by S. Cracknell and Mercur 1863'

The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price. p35

The Smiths recounted the occasional bell-ringing. It became such a nuisance that they had some the bell-wires from the bedrooms disconnected, However, as they did not own the house there was a limit to what they could do, so only the pull-chords in some of the bedrooms were detached, and the wires were all left intact.

This is not quite clear from Harry Price's description

"We particularly examined the numerous bells in the passage, traced each wire from its respective bell right through the house up to the rafters. We tested each bell as we traced its course through the house. Some of the wires were broken or had been cut to stop the incessant ringing."

The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price. p36

On Price's first visit he witnessed the bell-ringing.

'During this eventful evening bells rang of their own volition. The wires could be seen moving, and even the pulls in some of the rooms could be seen swinging when we visited them'

The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price. p40

The fact that the pulls were swinging was odd, and implies strongly that not all the bells were disconnected. There is a further hint of this when Price said that just 'Some of the wires were broken or had been cut..'. The phrase 'their own volition' was odd in this context as that is what such bells do, even when the pulls are operated in the normal way; but it adds spice to the story.

Evidently, the 'entities' were obliging enough to 'do requests'. 'We asked one of the entities to ring one of the house bells for us, and it was rung ---under perfect control' (The End of Borley Rectory by Harry Price p33)

We had all assembled in the blue room, and someone remarked: 'if they want to impress us, let them give us a phenomenon now!'. A few minutes later one of the bells on the ground floor clanged out, the noise reverberating through the house. We rushed downstairs, but could not find even the bell that was rung

this account is odd one one point. If it had been one of the bells, then it was mounted on a spring and would have continued to oscillate for several minutes. However, the ringing of one of these bells would not have been hard to achieve by trickery.

Just before moving out of the rectory, Mary Pearson, who was becoming more friendly to the Smiths, pointed out how the bells could be rung by standing on a chair in the larder and pulling the wires. (a walking-stick is just as good and a lot quicker). They could also be rung from the bedroom passage upstairs near the 'Blue Room' door. However, it is not clear which of the participants in that 'Exciting day' had been responsible for the bell ringing. It would be charitable to point to Mrs Smiths subsequent statement 'I state emphatically that I saw enormous rats in the place, and am sure these were responsible for the bell-ringing and many noises attributed to the supernatural.' (HBR p47). In a letter to Harry Price' secretary written at the time, she recounted that the front door bell 'has taken to quietly ringing now and again [but] this may be due to small boys or rats' The phrase 'quietly ringing' implies rats or mice treading on the bellwires, as the bell tends to give just the faintest ring when this happens. Unlike a modern bell, these mechanical devices could be rung with a range of volumes, according to how one pulled the bell-pull.

Harry Price reports in his second book, that the phenomenon happened even after the Smiths left 'Once, when they visited the place, all the bells rang simultaneously-whether as a welcoming peal or as a noisy protest at their return was not clear'

When the Foysters lived at Borley Rectory, Lionel faithfully recorded the occasional ringing of the bells. He seemed to be convinced that it was caused by 'figgis' or goblins. He was under the mistaken impression that the bells had been disconnected whereas, in reality, the bell-wires sprawled around the attics near the eaves like tripwires.

Lionel Foyster remembered their first bell-ringing incident in his unpublished book of their experiences at Borley Rectory.

It was past midnight and we were both of us preparing for bed when 'Ting-a-ling' suddenly the house resounded with the ringing of s bell.
"Who on earth rang that?" I called down the stairs.
It was the first time we had been out of bed so late since coming to live here for we were models of punctuality as far as going to bed was concerned, our first few weeks. But tonight we were late and someone or something did not seem to approve of such goings-on. Therefore came this warning 'Ting-a-ling' And again 'Ting-a-ling'.
"Who rang that?" came the reply, "I certainly was not the guilty one".
It was not the front door bell and it was not the back door bell and almost all the other bell wires had been cut by the [Smiths] in the hope of thus stopping the promiscuous bell-ringing that had annoyed them so much. We had, of course, heard about it but this was the first time we had actually experienced it for ourselves. The first, but by no means the last.'

Typescript- 'Fifteen Months in a Haunted House' Rev Lionel Foyster)

The trouble with Lionel Foyster's record of his experiences is that he did not note every experience; just the ones he felt were the salient ones. We therefore do not know how often the bells rang, and the phenomenon was only noted in passing when he was describing other events. Typical of this was the mention of the charlady who witnessed nothing unusual except for the bell-ringing. There was also the day the Rev Sellwood, the Rector of nearby Great Cornard, came to see the haunting. He first popped up into the attics to see if a lunatic was hiding there. As he re-emerged,

'Hallo" he broke off as a tinkle sounded in the kitchen passage
"Only a bell ringing; would you like to come and have a look at it? And I led the way.
"Now where is that bell rung from?"
"Originally it was rung from a bedroom But you know our predecessors cut almost all the bell-wires, so I could not say where it is rung from now"
"Extraordinary! It is the sort of thing one has to see oneself to believe"

Typescript- 'Fifteen Months in a Haunted House' Rev Lionel Foyster p48)

Rev Sellwood must have been easily impressed, though it is only fair to say that Lionel had inadvertently misled him about the wires having been cut. The bell would have still been connected with the bedroom and the location was actually written on the bell board below the bell. If anything had been disconnected it was only the pull.

So instead of putting rat poison in the attics, the good rector returned with a censor and incense. For these two men of the cloth, reality had somehow become suspended.

The reference to looking at the bell will puzzle anyone used to the modern electric bell. With these bells, they were deliberately constructed so that they swung from side to side long after they stopped ringing, so that one could see which of the many bells had been rung, minutes later. This feature delayed the onset of the electric bell for some time until a similar feature could be devised.

The bell-ringing was also witnessed by Edwin Whitehouse, who visited the rectory on several occasions at this time

More than once I have stood in the kitchen passage and watched the bells moving to and fro, the only people in the house often standing alongside of me, witnessing the same performance

Edwin Whitehouse, from The Most Haunted House in England p97

Sometimes, Lionel Foyster described a 'peal of bells' (p61)

On Price's second visit, covered in detail by another sidelight, the denouement happens when Lionel Foyster, having seen his wife being accused by Price and his 'council' of having caused the phenomena, pleads to be allowed to show that it wasn't her. Why not put everybody in one room and see if any phenomena happen?

As they await the arrival of the Council for the experiment, a bell starts to ring

'"I wish they would hurry up and come."
[Marianne] and I were standing in the passage leading to the kitchen under a bell that was ringing away merrily at intervals, waiting for our visitors.
"Now how, I would like to know, do they imaging I am ringing that bell?" said my wife as she regarded it critically and with some hostility. "But as soon as they come the wretched thing will stop. You see if it doesn't"
And of course it did'

Typescript- 'Fifteen Months in a Haunted House' Rev Lionel Foyster) P134

All is quiet, and the atmosphere gets increasingly strained until suddenly…

" ...a bell in the hall passage suddenly rang furiously. I ran out to see if I could identify it, and found it was a bell connected with one of the upstairs rooms. From the hall I could not tell which room so, with our torches, we at once went to the first floor and explored. I opened up room after room and when I entered Adelaide's room, I saw the remnant of the bell wire slowly swinging. This then, was the room in which the bell-ringing had originated. Adelaide was in bed, but awake. In any case, our entry into the room, and the flashes from our torches, would have awakened her. On a previous visit to the room I had noticed that the wire of the bell-pull had been broken off close to the ceiling, and it would have been a physical impossibility, I think, for a 3+-year old child to have pulled the wire, even if standing on a chair. And certainly I had no right to suppose that an infant so immature in both body and mind would play such a trick on us. But no other mortal person could have entered the room without disturbing our seals. The ringing of the bell was the sum total of phenomena we heard, saw, or felt that evening

(The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price., p. 73).

In his excitement, Price would seem to have forgotten that, once the bell was swinging, the bell wire at the other end would have swung too, by simple physics. Interference anywhere in the wire link between Adelaide's room and the bell would have caused the effect. Frank Peerless, the lodger who was having an affair with Marianne, appeared soon afterwards to vouch for her innocence. As with the incident involving Guy L'Estrange, Frank Peerless was the likeliest suspect, and is said to have admitted to Marianne's son Ian that he was responsible for some of the phenomena.

One puzzle in the account is that Price was unable to work out from the bells which room it was connected to. Originally, each bell would have been clearly marked with a room, normally painted onto the board below the bell. I've never seen an installation where this is missing. Either, the name of the room was meaningless to him (e.g. "Constance's room". Or "Bedroom 4") or else the labels had been painted out. Other accounts suggest the same.

The Foysters' account ends with the arrival of the Marks Tey Spiritualist Circle, which was accompanied by spectacular bouts of bell-ringing involving the entire set of thirty bells. The medium Guy L'Estrange immediately assumed it was a spirit attempting to communicate and, to Lionel's disquiet, identified Lionel's father trying to communicate from beyond the grave. Almost certainly, it was Frank Peerless yanking the string in the ivy outside in the courtyard, and not even Lionel was inclined to allow Guy to open a dialog. After the session of the Marks Tey Spiritualist Circle, all went quiet, with just the occasional ring of a bell to remind them of the cacophony that they had witnessed

Even after the Foysters left, there were one or two bell-ringing incidents

'Heard sound of women's voices outside back of house. ..sound of crunching footsteps. ..then front door bell rang loudly. Followed a few seconds after by sound of car driving away. (This was obviously caused by some girls from the village. We later found the saucer on the porch broken).'

I Burden and T. Stainton report to Harry Price, 15 December 1937

Rev Henning reported that, during the war, an army officer attempted to sleep in the ruins and was awakened several times in the night by all the bells ringing, so it would seem that, even after the fire, the bells still rang.(The End of Borley Rectory by Harry Price p 79)

There are only six incidents of bell-ringing in Lionel's book about the first fifteen months of the Foyster residency. We have to assume that it was much more frequent but that he felt it too trivial to record. However, it is clear that to call it 'incessant paranormal bell-ringing' (The End of Borley Rectory by Harry Price, p33) or 'continuous', as some authors have claimed, is ridiculous. Many of the readers of Harry Prices accounts of the haunting will assume that the bells were entirely disconnected and swinging too and fro entirely freely. This would have been very difficult to explain. Unfortunately this was not the case; the wires were all in place as far as their assigned bell-pull.

Harry Price was mistaken in saying that the bellringing was unique to Borley. The classic case of 'poltergeist' bellringing was described by Major Moor in Bealings House, Great Bealings in Essex in the 1830s. This book was in Harry Price's library. As in Borley, The bells hung near the kitchen of the house and were used to summon the servants to various rooms. On Sunday, 2nd February, 1834, The ringing started sporadically for three days. Then, just before 5 o’clock, all the bells in the kitchen rang violently twice in succession. There were nine bells in a row in the kitchen and the five bells on the right were the ones that rang the most. On 5th February, the same five bells started ringing violently twice in quick succession. From that time onwards the bells rang many times, always when there was no-one in the rooms concerned. and sometimes when the members of the household were in the kitchen and the rest of the house was empty. Then, on the 27th March, 1834, the bell-ringing ceased until July, 1836. In a final burst of tintinnabulation, all nine bells rang, either singly or in groups.and one rang cntinuously for nearly an hour. Then the mysterious pealing stopped and was never heard again.

The system of mechanical bell-pulls was by no means perfect and Bealings House and Borley Rectory were not the only places to suffer from 'phantom' bell-ringing. It is one of the inherent faults of the mechanical system that it suffers from being triggered by vermin, cats or nesting birds. Even though the Foysters had at least two pet cats, they suffered continual problems with mice and rats, some of which was documented in Lionel's book. However, hoaxing and 'practical joking' topped up this background nuisance. Over the years, there were probably several people who discovered the trick of pulling the wires in the larder or the bedroom passage upstairs. One thing is certain, though. There is no need to fall back on a supernatural explanation for the Borley bell-ringing through any lack of a more prosaic causation.

Manuscript 'Fifteen Months in a Haunted House' by Lionel foyster quoted from FIFTEEN MONTHS IN The Most Haunted House in England by Vincent O'Neil

BORLEY POSTSCRIPT Peter Underwood 2001 White House Publications

Material from THE GHOSTS THAT WILL NOT DIE by Vincent O'Neil. 2001. ISBN 0-9644938-4-5.

The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price. Longmans, 1940

THE END OF BORLEY RECTORY by Harry Price. London: Harrap.