The Nun and the Travelling Scissorman

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2003

'...she tries to make out that I believe in the legend of the nun. Well, I do not....'

letter from Harry Price to Canon G.H. Rendell, Dedham, Essex, dated 28th April 1939, referring to a letter to The Times from a Dr Fairfield

Of all the incidents at Borley, possibly the most famous was the first sighting of the nun, witnessed by four of the Bull sisters. The anniversary, July 28th, is still celebrated by enthusiasts of the legend today, and is considered important as being one of the few sightings of a ghost to be witnessed by three people simultaneously.

Ethel Bull's best account of the sighting of the 'Nun' was recorded in 1947 by the BBC, in her own words.

'I was walking round the garden with two of my sisters, and they'd been to a garden party and telling me an amusing story that had happened. And then they wondered I didn't take any notice and they looked down at me, and I said "Look there's a nun walking there". And I was terrified and so were they when they saw her - and it sent cold shivers down our backs and we simply flew up to the house. And then we saw my eldest sister who was staying with us and she said "Oh I'm not going to be frightened", so she came down, and when she saw the nun she made to go across the potato bed to meet the nun, and the nun turned and came as it were to meet her, and she was seized with panic and simply flew up to the house.

(Ethel Bull, recorded on Tuesday 17th June 1947 by the BBC)

Of course, Harry Price, in his original account adds some detail.

On July 28, 1900, the Misses Ethel, Freda, and Mabel were returning home from a garden party. It was quite light, as the sun had not set.

It was actually an hour after sunset, 'late twilight in the summer, at about 9pm' (this was before the Summer Time Act 0f 1916. It would be 10pm in modern UK 'Summer Time') when they saw the figure. (report by Lord Charles Hope in 1929 after interviewing the Bulls in 1929, confirmed in statement to KMG and Mr Salter 1950)
Price continues...

They entered their property at the postern gate at the end of the garden, in order to proceed up the lawn to the house. Immediately they had cleared the trees and shrubs and reached the open lawn, all three simultaneously saw a female figure, with bowed head.

Harry Price The Most Haunted House in England p44-45

Actually, it is clear that Ethel, who seems not to have been at the garden party, but had met her sisters to exchange gossip, was the first one to see the figure in black and to have assumed she was a nun. Harry Price goes on to put in some detail

She was dressed entirely in black, in the garb of a nun. She appeared to be telling her beads, as her hands were in front of her and appeared to be clasped. Without knowing why, the three girls felt terrified.

Well, no. Ethel, when questioned about this said she was dressed in black 'flowing black robe such as nuns wear', and she merely assumed she was telling beads. Actually, if she had been a Nun, she wouldn't have been telling beads but saying her rosary, and it wouldn't have looked anything like that. Then Price adds a detail that immediately predisposes the reader to accept a supernatural explanation

'The figure was slowly gliding-rather than walking-along the Nun's Walk in the direction of the stream.'

Ethel's recorded account is a simple one of seeing a shadowy figure in black walking along the Nun's Walk and then running to the house in panic. Price's account is far more dramatic

'Something seemed to tell them that the nun was not normal, as she neither behaved nor progressed along the path in a normal manner. They stopped near the large summerhouse and watched her. She looked intensely sad and ill. By this time they were really frightened at the strangeness of what they now took to be an apparition, and one of the girls ran into the house to fetch her sister, Miss Elsie Bull (who married shortly afterwards).'

There would seem to be a mistake here as Ethel claimed they all immediately panicked and ran back to the house. They never saw her face. Price has them lurking in the summerhouse. Harry Price's account then becomes seriously detached from Ethel's more simple and believable account

When she saw the figure, she said 'A ghost? Oh, what nonsense, I'll go and speak to it!' With that, she began to run across the lawn, but she had taken hardly two steps when the figure stopped and turned towards her. She had an expression of intense grief on her face. Miss Elsie stood on the lawn terrified- and the figure vanished.

Harry Price The Most Haunted House in England p44-45

Ethel's account has nothing about the figure's face being visible, nor does it say that the figure vanished. Elsie strode across the potato patch, some way from the Nun's Walk, not the lawn. In fact, the sisters could see very little detail of the figure.

"She could only see a woman bent over in a flowing black robe such as nuns wear. She could not see the face, not whether she wore anything white, nor whether she carried a rosary, or wore a crucifix or medal. In November 1900, when she saw the nun again, the figure was bowed right over and no face visible."

(Miss Ethel Bull interviewed by Mr W. H. Salter, Rev S Austin and Mollie Goldney)

It was hardly surprising that the ladies could not see much detail. It was dusk: The Nun's walk was thirty yards away from the circular summerhouse at its nearest point. It is hard to be certain where the Nun was on the walk, or where the girls were, but some accounts mention them being near the summer house, and looking across the lawn. They were on the path from the postern gate to the front door. The lawn was huge by modern standards, of around an acre. It was used for tennis parties where several games had to be played concurrently.

Ethel's verbal account has an interesting detail that ties things down slightly. 'when she (Dodie) saw the nun she made to go across the potato bed to meet the nun'. It was not, it seems, across the lawn after all. The potato patch was to the south of the house, in the vegetable garden, and she would only need to go across this patch to get to the Nuns Walk if she had come round from the stables. Actually, she only 'made to go', which means she just started across the potato patch when the figure in black turned toward her. To get to the point, the only way this would make any sense is if this too was a long-distance siting. The closest it could have been was thirty-five yards away, and it could have been up to eighty yards, after sunset. No wonder she didn't actually see any 'look of intense grief' on the figure's face.

A few months later, the figure in black was seen again by Ethel Bull.

"..this time in the company of the Rectory cook, apparently leaning over a gate and, interestingly enough, a cousin, staying at the house at the time, also saw the same figure in the same place"

(Peter Underwood, ibid)

It has always puzzled me that the Bulls should be so quick to ascribe a supernatural cause to seeing trespassers in the garden, since it actually went all the way along the road, and the vegetable gardens and orchards would have been a great temptation for a trespasser. It is clear when one looks at Ethel's unembroidered account that the figure neither hovered nor vanished. Could the Bull girls have mistaken a trespasser of some description, possibly a traveller, for a nun?

We have to remember that there were a lot of travellers on foot that went along the road outside the rectory at the time. Despite all that has been written about Borley at the time of the hauntings, it was not a particularly isolated community, and never has been. There was a fine railway that was able to take you to the centre of London in a couple of hours, and the main route between London and East Anglia lay at the bottom of the valley. The road through the village was well-used as a route to the Halstead road that avoided Sudbury, and the footpaths around Borley were well-trodden by folk travelling between Long Melford and Bulmer.

Long Melford, the nearest town, had far more pubs and hotels than could support the local trade. Most of their business was with travellers. Not only did these arrive in Motorcars, but also by train, on horseback or foot. Ernest Ambrose (1878-1972) who lived in Long Melford all his life, wrote his memoirs as "Melford Memories", and records the huge number of people who travelled on the road on foot, in his youth. There were the tradesmen such as joiners and plasterers who travelled from job to job, the gypsies, the travellers (itinerant farm-workers), the traders and showmen, as well as the travelling salesmen and tourists. Long Melford grew prosperous from the trade that the travellers on the road brought to the town. Some of these travellers were still around when I first moved to East Anglia, though mostly motorised or on bicycle, and the traditional itinerant farm working families are still to be seen around.

There were many travelling tradesmen around, many of them Gypsies. It was the knife-sharpener, called Moses, and his wife who stuck in my mind. It was as if they had suddenly been propelled into post-war England from a time-machine. Every summer they would appear and offer to sharpen knives and scissors. They dressed in black, the custom for the travelling folk who did seasonal work on the farms, such as strawberry-picking and hoeing sugar-beet. Their clothing was neat, and almost looked like Sunday best. Their skin was dark bronze and wrinkled from the sun. They had pushbikes. Even though we were perfectly capable of sharpening our own knives, we always found a few for these old folk. I would have liked to merely press money into their hand for nothing but they were fiercely proud. So we gave them any old knives we could find and they set to work. The old 'bor didn't say much, but at the sight of knives being borne toward him by his wife, he would put the bike on a stand and engage the sharpening stone that was mounted on the front of the bike taking power via a band from the pedals. He would pedal away, with the bike remaining stationery whilst the stone whirred round and sparks would fly out over the front wheel.

They came no more after around 1975. I hope they settled down into a quiet and restful old age somewhere in high Suffolk, though they then seemed as old as the land around them. The itinerant life must have been very hard, and they, like their predecessors, had to rely on whatever shelter they could find at night, and often slept under hedges by the side of the road in summer. It would be nice to think that they put away the pushbikes for the last time and slept in a feather bed for the rest of their lives. Certainly, life was always hard for the itinerant knife-sharpeners

Inquest at Hadleigh on Elizabeth Piggot a travelling knife grinder's wife who died in her tent, her one dwelling place for 40 years.

Bury and Norwich Post November 2nd 1841.

Working in a field on a hot summers day was not a pleasant task. Hoeing Beet meant having to stoop slightly, and one had to watch the blade closely to make sure that the weeds rather than the beet got hoed. To guard against the sun, the women used to wear large black scarves around their head, rather like one sees in Hollywood pirate films, but larger, making a team of hoers look for all the world like nuns at a distance. The Knife-sharpening lady was no exception, dressed all in black, with hair covered, with her inscrutable sad smile.

At the time of the famous sighting of the nun at Borley Rectory on 28th July 1900, the Knife-sharpeners would hardly have been born, but they were the last of a trade that was once common, and there were many other itinerant workers who led similar lives. The Melford Road, which was part of the great highway between London and east Anglia, could be seen from the rectory snaking along the side of the Stour Valley. The Borley road, with its wide verges and thick hedges, was once a popular stopping place for travellers. For instance, the local paper records ...

A gang of 12 vagabonds consisting of 3 males and 9 females are strolling about the county as Gypsies, they have been apprehended at Borley near Sudbury, the head of this gang is Joseph and Hannah Lovel, the former at the late Sessions at Chelmsford were adjudged incorrigible rogues and vagrants and were committed to the house of correction at Chelmsford for 6 months.

Bury Post, February 22nd 1815.

The garden and road was once part of a mediaeval drift way, which had two spurs, one to the Stour valley and one to the meadowland along the Belchamps Brook. Originally, it would have allowed the driving of cattle and sheep between the high common land around Borley and Borley green, and this fertile meadowland. The Rectory garden occupies what was once common land. The 'Nun's walk' actually runs along the edge of the drift road and would have been the natural short-cut route taken by anyone going by foot from Rodbridge or the Watermill, over the brook, to Bulmer. The nun's walk would seem to have been a very suitable short cut, specially as it allowed the walker to go behind the farm and down to Belchamp Brook, cutting out about a mile from the journey. Both the routes 'traditionally' walked by the nun would have been surprisingly suitable.

I have discovered two main versions of the route that the nun is alleged to take. One, is that she is seen to leave the path by the side of the Rectory nearest the drawing-room, where the' walk' begins. Keeping an almost perfectly straight line the figure walks along the path for the full length of the lawn, and disappears amongst the trees that overhang a small stream that traverses the garden.

A second version of how and where the nun walks is that she is said to step over the low boundary wall that runs parallel with the 'walk,' on the far side of the lawn and near the house. Having traversed the' walk' for half of its length, she turns left, crosses the lawn at right angles to the .walk,' enters the clump of old trees near the large summer-house, passes through the hedge into the road-and disappears.

Harry Price The Most Haunted House in England p44-45

Of course, it is idle speculation to wonder if the Bull girls actually saw one of the forebears of the itinerant trades people I knew, but less idle than it would be to ascribe it to a ghost.