Bullsheet. The Bulls at Borley Rectory

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2000

On Thursday June 13th 1929, the majority of readers of the Suffolk and Essex Free Press were surprised to read an account of a haunting at Borley Rectory. After a rather rambling paragraph of historical background, the special correspondent got to the point

Now for the ghostly part of the history of Borley.
Tradition has it and, it is generally accepted by the inhabitants, although with a certain amount of scepticism that, in the middle ages, there was a great monastery or convent where the rectory still stands.
Once upon a time, a nun became acquainted with a coachman. The acquaintance ripened into romance, and they went to meet in secret amongst the trees near the convent. Eventually, they decided to elope, and the coachman called to his aid another who prepared a coach drawn by two bay horses. This intended elopement was, however, discovered, the coachman was seized, and the nun taken back to the convent from which she never again appeared. As for the coachmen, they were tried and beheaded.
Since, at long intervals, it has been reported that the nun has been seen walking in the shadow of the trees and that two headless coachmen together with an old-time coach drawn by two bay horses have been observed riding through the parish. It is an extraordinary fact that the late H F Bull often spoke of the remarkable experience he had one night when walking along the road outside the rectory he heard the sound of horses hooves. Upon looking round, he saw an old-time coach driven by two headless men.

Suffolk and Essex Free Press Page 5, Thursday June 13th 1929

Of course, the story was also being given great exposure in the Daily Mirror, a national paper, but few who knew the place gave the story much credence. Beyond a letter in the following issue, pointing out that coaches were invented long after the dissolution of the monasteries, the story failed to ignite the interest of the locals. However, the legend was repeated in Harry Price's initial writings and the story stuck

The Daily Mirror reported an even more lurid version of the story, which involved the unfortunate nun being bricked up alive.

'It is a building erected on the part of the site of a great monastery which, in the Middle Ages, was the scene of a gruesome tragedy ...
A groom at the monastery fell in love with a nun at a nearby convent, runs the legend, and they used to hold clandestine meetings in the wood on to which the rectory now backs. Then one day they arranged to elope, and another groom had a coach waiting in the road outside the wood, so that they could escape. From this point the legend varies. Some say that the nun and her lover quarrelled, and that he strangled her in the wood, and was caught and beheaded, with the other groom, for his Villainy. The other version is that all three were caught in the act by the monks, and that the two grooms were beheaded, and the nun buried alive in the walls of the monastery.'

V.C. Wall Daily Mirror Monday 10th June

It was, of course, nonsense. We know that there never was a monastery or convent in Borley. There is no record of a trial or execution of a coachman, and there was never a time when a nun could be immolated without questions being asked. The origin of this last tale was possibly Rider Haggard's novel 'Montezuma's Daughter', or Walter Scott's Marmion (1808). The Catholic scholar Herbert Thurston said of the legend

To anyone who honestly looks into the matter, it will be clear that no statutes of any religious order have yet been brought forward which prescribe such punishment; that no contemporary records speak of its infliction; that no attempt is made to give details of persons or time; that the few traditions that speak of discovery of walled-up remains crumble away the moment they are examined; that the growth of the tradition itself can be abundantly accounted for; that the few historians or antiquaries of repute, whether Catholic or Protestant, either avowedly disbelieve the calumny, or studiously refrain from repeating it.

Catholic Apologetics. 2006. http://www.catholicapologetics.net/

There are similar stories attached to a number of different locations around about. Acton, The adjacent parish across the river in Suffolk, had a much older legend attached to it...

In the little village of Acton a legend was current not many years ago that on certain occasions the park gates would fly open at midnight without hands and a carriage drawn by four spectral horses accompanied by a headless groom and outrider and would proceed with great rapidity towards a place called "nursery corner", the corner tradition says this is the spot where a bloody engagement took place when the Romans were Governors of England. Nearby there is a haunted pool called Wimbrell Pond in which tradition says an iron chest of money is concealed, any person who throws a stone into the water will hear it ring and a small person in white will call out in distress "that's mine".
I send you these legends as I heard them from the lips of my nurse, a native of this village

Bury and Norwich Post March 10th 1852.

So here is probably the origin of the legend of the ghostly coach and headless coachmen, a century older than the Borley one. The locality abounds in such stories. One of M. R. James' more famous fictional ghost stories had its denouement, where the ghost finally caught up with the hero, in the next parish to Borley at Belchamps, after having pursued the poor fellow as he tried to flee as a passanger in a coach and horses.

"People still remembered last year at Belchamp St. Paul how a strange gentleman came one evening in August years back; and how the next morning but one he was found dead, and there was an inquest; and the jury that viewed the body fainted, seven of 'em did, and none of 'em wouldn't speak to what they see, and the verdict was visitation of God ; and how the people as kep' the 'ouse moved out that same week, and went away from that part."

M.R. James: The Complete Ghost Stories p118 (Count Magnus) 1905

The story of a monastery was actually in the next parish, Glemsford. In 1850, two skeletons, one male and the other female, were discovered bear Glemsford bridge on the borders between Foxearth and Glemsford, just two miles away

the skeletons were a male and young female, they ranged side by side, the male on the right side with no vestige of a coffin.
Many think there must have been foul work but from their position east to west which implies it was a Christian burial which is confirmed by two sticks laid across them. It might have been a " strangers corner" on a former burial ground as tradition says there was an ancient site of a monastery in that field.

Old men say when ploughing within a half century or not much more they have felt the plough jump over foundations.

There is also a spring, a 100 yards away from the spring there is strong and unfailing sweet water and cold as well known in this locality as " Holy Water" and frequently the thirsty labourer will go half way across the field for draughts of this cold sweet water from this spring.

There is more evidence that the men struck the foundations of a wall 6-7 feet high from the surface, the stones appear about 4lbs in weight and of regular size.

Bury and Norwich Post January 8th 1851

It is reasonably certain that these foundations were of the former Glemsford watermill rather than a monastery. (the watermill that survived was known as Glemsford Mill but it was actually Foxearth Watermill) It is fairly clear that the story of the monk and the nun were woven round speculation about how these two skeletons came to be there. (suicides were buried at the crossroads before the 19th century, and earlier, some criminals were disposed of after execution similarly). Glemsford is probably the source of the legends of tunnels and ghostly monks, so popular they were taught in the school as part of their local history lessons.

The real 'Nun's Walk' is a road in nearby Great Yeldham. It is near the church and is the driveway to the Hall. The Bulls used to preach at the church there occasionally, and took their impressionable and inventive children with them. The rectory there is famous in Great Yeldham for being haunted. There are ancient cellars, wells, bells that ring without human intervention, servants who complained of lights that went on and off without human aid, of a rector's dog that refused to enter a particular room (under which were later found human remains) and of a bachelor clergyman who declined to live in the rectory because of the noises he heard at night. The front door bell, which was of the old-fashioned pull-down variety, was prone to ring without visible cause. It all sounds very familiar.

The family had a taste for romantic legend and seem to have borrowed old stories from all around them to place them in the strange context of a newly-built rectory. They seem to have wanted to apply on this gaunt new building the patina of ancient legend.

The Bull household when Harry Bull was rector seemed to have been fascinated by ghosts. Ernest Ambrose, who visited regularly when he was the organist at the church, recalled this clearly.

The Rev. Harry Bull was rector at that period and I got to know the family well. I began to hear about their ghost which the family spoke about in quite matter of fact terms. The rector's sisters seemed mostly concerned in this apparition and when I asked them about it they told me in quite casual terms what they had seen. They pointed out to me the path and lawn where they had seen the ghost walking, and when I asked what they felt about it, they said "Oh, we are quite used to it. It doesn't bother us at all." They also showed me a bedroom window where it appeared during the last week in July. That made me think it could be due in some way to the special position of the sun at that time. They were all very down to earth women, not given to exaggeration or emotionalism; nor were they inclined to search for the supernatural. But they were very convinced that they had seen an apparition on several occasions, and they just accepted this as a plain fact. They were very practical women, and if, as happened occasionally, I got a puncture in my bike, one of them would mend it for me and enjoy doing it.
A young housemaid, who had only been at the rectory a short time and had heard no talk of ghosts, told me she came home one evening and in the semi-darkness saw a person dressed as a nun or nurse standing at the lower garden gate. She approached it and it vanished. She was so terrified she fainted. One summer's evening the Rev. Bull, who also was a pragmatic type of man, told me he was standing in the church talking to a friend (I had just left after the service) when they both distinctly heard knocking outside starting from the south side and continuing the whole way round the church. On investigation they found nothing.

Ernest Ambrose. Melford Memories

We can be sure that any stories about haunting in the Bulls' childhood before they saw the famous apparition were nonsense; even Ethel Bull, the chief source of the stories, was adamant

"We lived there for many years, we were a large family, twelve of us in fact. And we were happy, and nothing happened, we never knew anything about the nun, and the noises in the house - there were a few noises, but they never disturbed us, and we never thought anything of it".

Ethel Bull interviewed 17 June 1947 by Peter Eton for the BBC

Harry Bull himself believed strongly in hauntings, and much of the Borley Rectory myth, of monasteries, romances between nuns and monks, cavaliers and so on, seems to have originated from him. (History was not his strong subject)

One of the fifteen-year-olds who were supposed to be having Latin lessons from the rector in 1922 recalled later on...

there was no doubt that the rector appeared to be much happier in the presence of the purported ghosts than he was in the company of his parishioners. They bored him, or most of them did, whereas the ghosts stimulated him

J Osbourne Harley, quoted in Borley Postscript Peter Underwood 2001 p 112

So we can be certain that Harry and some of the sisters who remained at the rectory believed that they had seen ghosts. However, as always, it is the detail that provides difficulties. Such remarkable manifestations as were described by Harry Bull and some of his sisters, would, one might expect, cause quite a stir in the village and be widely seen and reported.

The Foxearth Historical Society spent fifteen years looking through all the local papers back to the year 1760 for any reference to Borley, and were keenly on the lookout for any incidents that might require a paranormal explanation. Whereas there is a wealth of interesting detail, and a couple of incidents involving the Bull family, there is absolutely no mention of any haunting whatsoever. We know a great deal of Mr. Gardiner's views on the harvest, and of farm machinery accidents, we read of arson attacks and poaching, and even the accidental death of one of the labourers building the new rectory. Disappointingly, there is nothing which one could remotely relate to the great story of 1929. It seems to have been conjured out of thin air

So, whatever it was that went on never entered the public domain at the time. Even worse, very few people who lived in the rectory, and even fewer of the people who worked there, ever saw or heard anything unusual. One would imagine that Harry Bull's wife, Ivy would have noticed, and indeed remembered, any paranormal experiences that took place on his return to the rectory in 1920, but she was, on the contrary, certain that nothing at all unusual had taken place,. His stepdaughter Constance, likewise experienced nothing whilst she lived there that required a paranormal 'explanation'. Margaret Finch worked at the rectory as a residential maid at the time, and was adamant that nothing unusual occurred there. More interestingly, she heard no talk of ghosts at all from Rev Bull, and was not even aware at the time that the Rectory was supposed to be haunted.

If the Church had also been a focus of any paranormal activity, the choir at the time might have known about it but they neither experienced anything first-hand, nor were confided in at all by Harry Bull about anything that had happened to him.

I was organist at Borley for 17 years and often left after choir practice on dark nights but I saw nothing at all. I am by no means psychic and if I encounter an unusual situation I always seek, and usually find, a natural explanation. Ghosts and house haunts were, however, often talked of and believed in when I was a boy. People believed explicitly in evil spirits and in apparitions and most certainly in the devil. Children were often threatened with the devil; "You marn't do that do the dev'l get ya." Spirits of good and evil were considered a natural part of everyday life; and heaven and hell were very real places in the minds of ordinary people.

Ernest Ambrose. Melford Memories

We also have no contemporary letters or other documentary evidence to support the idea that Harry was seeing Nuns, or headless men around the garden. His brothers were very sceptical. Gerald Bull told Canon Lawton that he had never seen anything abnormal in all his years living there. He held the view that the whole matter was the product of 'feminine imagination' on the part of the younger of his seven sisters. We have Lionel Foyster's account that Walter Bull maintained that nothing abnormal happened at the rectory whilst the Bulls lived there. Walter Bull, it must be remembered, left the rectory for Canada in 1885, and returned to serve in the first World War, only to die in the trenches. Alfred too, who spent much of his life living away from Borley as a schoolteacher, was adamant that there was no haunting.

After the first Harry Price book was published, Canon Lawton, who had stayed at Borley Rectory in 1933, wrote to the press to say that they had seen or heard precisely nothing

During the whole of the time we lived in the house neither I nor my family saw or heard anything out of the ordinary.

The Spectator November 29th 1940

He was not the first tenant of the rectory. We know of a Rev Somerset Pennefather who stayed there for six weeks with his family in 1895 and encountered nothing strange or unusual about the place.

We have rather more knowledge about the childhood of the Bull family than Harry Price ever had. Some years ago, a handwritten diary turned up that had been kept by the young Caroline Bull. This diary listed daily events that happened in the family, and is a charming, historically fascinating, chronicle of a rather mundane existence. It fits with what we know about the family, and the details check out. Even though it chronicles all sorts of details of everyday life, It contains no mention of any haunting or unusual experiences at the rectory. There is a tantalizing mention of Caroline (Dodie) trying a 'chair-walking' experiment (which seems to be using the chair like the planchette or OuiJa board) as part of a sťance with two of her sisters and a Swiss governess, but it confirms the statement that the Bull sisters made late in life that no physical manifestations had occurred in the Bull era. It casts further doubt on the reliability of Mr. Jeffery's statement, written after the publication of Price's book and all the newspaper publicity, which mentions 'stone-throwing' etc., As luck would have it, Mr. Jeffery featured in the diary, as an object of a girlish crush by Caroline. Surely, anything as startling as a poltergeist would have had an entry in the diary, along with the weather, and the health of various farm animals.

Ethel, Millie and Alfred Bull were all insistent that no objective phenomena at all had ever occurred whilst they lived there, and it only started when Price first visited the rectory during the Smith incumbency. Harry Price relied heavily on Mr. Jeffery's statement, which was written as an article for the Cape Times in 1941, after he had read the first book, over fifty years after the events he related. When the SPR wrote to Mr. Jeffery as part of their investigation, he pleaded old age as a reason for being unable to confirm his original statement. When the SPR investigated Price's account of the hauntings, they spoke to Ethel Bull in April 1953. She told them that she had been irritated by Price 's habit of 'gingering up' her testimony. A single apparition seen at twilight, for example, was recounted as having been seen 'many times'. In 1950, she also pointed out that the famous sighting in 1900, where Price described the nun as having an expression of 'intense grief on her face', was actually in poor light and it was not possible to see her face at all. We have accounts by various people who knew Harry Bull, that he told them that he had seen phantasms in the garden of the rectory before 1900. Ethel Bull told several investigators that she had been the first to see the Nun, in 1900. She was always definite that she knew nothing of the apparition of the nun before 1900. However, it seems that the Bull daughters told ghost stories to various people.

Harry Price recounted a version of the sighting of the Nun by the Bull sisters, cheerfully assuring the reader that it happened in full sunlight. The sighting actually happened in twilight, at 9pm in July, an hour after sunset. (this would be 10pm with 'daylight saving'). Several other mistaken sightings were recorded in twilight, as when the Daily Mirror reporter saw an apparition that turned out to be the maid, and when the Rev. Smith saw a nun that turned out to be smoke from a bonfire.

Canon Lambert, who was a family friend of the Bulls maintained that the Bull sisters used to talk to him of the hauntings, but never in a serious vein. It was as if it were an extended family joke, to be related with pride, but with a slight air of mischief. It would seem that the legend grew in one of the cliques of this vast family, growing as sibling scored off sibling until the point at which the entire imaginative edifice panicked the new incumbents, the Smiths, into their precipitate action in contacting the papers.

It was possible to read Harry Price's books without realizing that Harry Bull spent nine years of his incumbency whilst living, not at the rectory, but across the road at Borley Place. He had moved to Borley Place, which he rented from the Payne family, after his marriage. in 1911. His mother died at the rectory in 1914. The 'Misses Bull' are listed as living at the rectory in Kelly's directory of Essex 1917. Harry was slow to claim the rectory as his own residence. This was because Borley Rectory was the lifelong home for some of the Bull children so, even without the ill feeling in the family towards Harry's wife, it would have been a tricky business for Harry and his bride to oust all his unmarried sisters with all their possessions. Harry and his wife Ivy moved across the road into the rectory in 1920 and lived there only seven years until his untimely death. Before he took over the Borley parish from his father, he had been serving in three other parishes, far away from Borley, so for a considerable part of his life, Harry Bull was not living at the rectory .

We end up with a rector, Harry Bull, who confided in several people some rather odd spiritualist beliefs, and, according to his surviving sisters, claimed to have seen three apparitions. We also have the two sisters, Ethel and Millie, who insisted on some apparitions. To set against this, we have Gerald, Dodie, Ivy, Alfred, and Walter who were all resident at the Rectory yet were emphatic that they'd seen nothing in all the time they'd lived there. In the circumstances, it is rather optimistic for Harry Price, Peter Underwood, and Ivan Banks to have claimed such definite evidence for paranormal phenomena during the Bull era.

So what is the explanation for all this confusion? I would like to suggest something based on my own experience. I grew up in East Anglia in the Sixties. People were always asking me what it was like living in such a large old house in Witham - and were there ghosts. Almost every visitor to the house would ask this, an even express surprise that we should live so complacently in such as large old house. We got so fed up with denying any ghost, that the children of the family invented the ghost of Simon, an old retainer in early Victorian times who died by falling down the back stairs etc. We embroidered the legend as time went on, adding any details that caused wide-eyed horror in our visitors. It got too much for my sister, who refused to sleep in the wing that contained the stairs where Simon had met his end. I recently returned to Witham after a gap of twenty years and was amazed to find a booklet in the public library about Essex Ghosts, to find the ghost of Simon mentioned as a genuine haunting!

My parents generation seemed to be obsessed with ghosts, mystery, passion and murder, and it is amazing how much of this got focused in on Borley. Every old house had its' ghost. It seemed as important as a moat or machicolations. I suppose there was a bit of snobbery in what we did too. I can imagine the Bulls, sitting round the drawing room fire in the winter evenings, looking a their glorious fireplace, with its carvings of grotesque monks, and weaving out a legend of monks and nuns that seems to have been borrowed piecemeal from visits to the stately homes of England, and the stories of the tour guides. Boring evensongs, staring at the Waldegrave memorial, must have triggered off more of the legend. Garden paths got named as 'The nun's walk', and innocuous summerhouses were cast in the plot as observation posts. It is hardly surprising that the legend was never recounted to their friends in a serious vein.

We tend to forget that it was not just ghosts that fuelled the legends of Borley Rectory. Mrs. Smith, the subsequent Rector's wife wrote a fictionalized account of what she heard from the younger Bull sisters and called it 'Murder at the Parsonage'; for she was told stories of rape and murder, whispered secrets of the Bull family. These too were picked up from the surrounding parishes, like the ghostly legends. There was the famous rape case against the vicar of the neighbouring parish, Rev John Foster, M.A., Rector of Foxearth, (Haverhill Echo, December 5th 1871.). The Bull family were particularly close to the Fosters, and featured amongst the mourners when  they eventually died. The ridiculous story of 'Katie Boreham' seems to have derived from the gossip about him. There was also the murder by poisoning committed by Catherine Foster in the next parish, Acton. She was a simple-minded woman who poisoned her husband with arsenic in November 1846. Her trial and public execution was a local sensation. There were also shades of Maria Marten and the Red Barn Murder, in the nearby parish of Polsted. All was processed into a fantastic soup by the inventive Bull girls and poor Mrs. Smith fell for it all, as did the subsequent paranormal investigators, the Glanvilles

By the time that Price and the SPR had got involved, the product of what Gerald Bull referred to as 'feminine imagination' had turned sour. The Smiths had walked straight into a desperate family row where Ivy, Harry Bull's wife, was being accused by the Bull sisters of marrying Harry Bull for his money and even of murdering him. (note that Eric Smith's book was called 'Murder at the Rectory', not 'Haunting at the Rectory'). The relationship between the younger Bull girls and Ivy was poisonous. Ivy had hastily left the rectory with her daughter, the beneficiary of Harry's estate so long as she did not remarry, and settled in Chilton. When Harry's mother had died, she had left her money to the four surviving boys on the understanding that they should provide an allowance for the Bull sisters, and they had pressured Harry into promising to alter his will to provide for them. On his death, they discovered that he had not done so. Ivy had everything. On the arrival of the Daily Mirror, they were determined to provide a sensational sťance to provide publicity for the suggestion that Harry had been murdered, and had wanted to change his will in their favour. The sťance, with its' lurid details, horrified Mrs. Smith and she angrily terminated it. Harry Price must have been aware of the ulterior motive on the part of the Bulls. Even with the publicity that resulted from the Daily Mirror's stories, Price was not keen on pursuing the idea of real hauntings at this time, and avoided the rectory, preferring to keep up a civil correspondence with the rector instead. He was only persuaded back by a visit to his London office by the Bull sisters, who were keen to entice him back to investigate the sensational events surrounding the arrival at the rectory of Marianne Foyster.