In the Bedroom with Harry Price

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2002

"Fools are my theme. Let satire be my song"

Lord Byron, quoted by Harry Price in his lectures 1931

On the famous night of June 12th 1929, when the Daily Mirror dispatched Harry Price to Borley Rectory to assist their reporter Mr Wall, there were all manner of odd events, duly reported to the readers of the newspaper. We have several accounts of that night, most famously from Harry Price in The ‘Most Haunted House in England’, but also from Mr Wall, Mrs Smith (the rector’s wife), and from Harry Price’s 'secretary', Lucie Meeker (Miss Lucie Kaye). The two youngest Bull sisters were there, and told of their experiences too.

The accounts are oddly different, and neatly illustrate the fact that several well-intentioned, educated people who share a common experience seem to have great difficulty in recalling events consistently.

Harry Price covers the events of that night in some detail in a chapter in ‘The Most Haunted House in England’ entitled ‘ A Midnight séance in the Blue Room’.

He says that ‘After our supper-or dinner-it was suggested that we should hold a séance in the Blue Room’ ‘During the latter part of the evening, two of the Misses Bull (sisters of Harry Bull) had come over from Sudbury to see me. So these ladies, Mr and Mrs Smith, Mr Wall, my secretary and I adjourned to the Blue room (No. 6) and deposited ourselves on chairs and bedsteads.’

It would seem to have been the ‘Misses Bulls’ that suggested such a curious after-dinner entertainment. We now know, from Glanville’s assiduous research in ‘The Locked Book’, that their grief over their brother’s death seems to have pitched them into some crazy thinking, all subsequently proved false, over their brothers’ will and cause of death, and wanted the world to share their theories via a séance attended by a ‘Daily Mirror’ reporter.

What the party did between 9pm and 1am is unrecorded by everybody.

Lucy Meeker, who was introduced as Harry Price's secretary  but who was also having an affair with him,  writes that only she and Harry Price were in the Blue room when the events that ‘our special correspondent’, Mr Wall, called ‘the most astonishing event of the night’ happened.

‘There was only one armchair, into which I dropped, with the intention of putting my notes in order; Mr Price sat on the end of the bed and lit his pipe. Rev Smith, the rector, had previously produced sandwiches and a thermos flask of coffee against our night’s vigil and we thanked him, bade him ‘goodnight’

Lucie Meeker, ’The Ghost that kept Harry Price awake’ .

Mrs Smith gave an account, which is rather different from both. She and the Rector retired to bed, and it was only much later that ‘We could not sleep and I suggested to my husband that I should make some tea and take some along to the others in the Blue Room’.

Mr Wall’s account in the paper seems to support that of Harry Price.‘From 1 o’clock until nearly four this morning, all of us, including the rector and his wife, actually questioned the spirit or whoever it was and received at times the most emphatic answers….
Our questions, which were asked out loud, were answered by raps apparently made on the back of a mirror in the room….’

Is it possible to work out who was there? Mr Wall’s account was written the next day, and therefore would not suffer from tricks of memory. Unfortunately, his newspaper account lists all the people except the Misses Bull. They get no mention. When on the next day, Mr Wall added more details of the séance to his eager readers he explicitly listed the attendees. No Misses Bulls. Even Harry Price left them out of his account in ‘The End of Borley Rectory’ Every account has a different attendance list. At least, his account is compatible with the story that the Smiths only turned up towards the end of the séance.

Mrs Smith says that she and the Rector appeared only to give refreshments, when the Séance was well underway. In fact, the content of the questions so horrified the Rector that he then put a stop to the proceedings. ‘Mr Harry Price, who had arranged the Séance, asked Mr and Mrs Smith if they would join the circle and invited them to ask questions…… Mr and Mrs Smith were so upset that they asked that the séance be stopped at once. This was done immediately and they refused to allow any further sittings in the house.’

The picture is no clearer at the point at which the séance starts. In Harry Price’s account, he opens the proceedings by ‘speaking to the four corners of the room’ –‘if any entity is present here tonight, will it please make itself known?. I repeated this request two or three times. Just as we were wondering whether we were wasting our time, a faint-though sharp and decisive-tap was heard coming from, apparently, the window’

Mrs Meeker, on the other hand, says most definitely that the taps came out of the blue.
‘We left the door open, the window was shut, and the light (there was of course no electricity) was fitful and depressing. It was very quiet.
After some twenty minutes we heard a distinct knock from near the window. Hushed and tense we waited-and it came again, a clear definite knock as of a knuckle on wood. I forget which of us reached the window first-we waited there with ears cocked for the next knock.

It was only at this point that the two of them decide to hold a spontaneous sťance. Note that the light was described as ‘fitful and depressing’. Harry Price, on the contrary, says ‘A powerful duplex paraffin oil lamp was burning’. And in another version ‘the room was everywhere perfectly illuminated’. Naturally, Mrs Smith remembers clearly that, when she arrived, ‘In the Blue Room was darkness’. Can they agree on anything?

Mr Wall said that the séance lasted nearly three hours, whereas Mrs Meeker said it lasted ninety minutes. Mrs Meeker said it ended when ‘the knocks became faint and unintelligible and both Price and I were exhausted’ whereas both Mr and Mrs Smith were under the impression that they’d stopped the séance due to the nature of the questioning.

We know from Harry Price’s other writings that he disapproved of séances and found them valueless as a research tool. This was a strange about-turn for someone who had been an active member of the London Spiritualist Association for ten years. It may be that he took the lead in the séance, but the Misses Bull would have been keen to start things off, as they were keen spiritualists too. However Mr Wall reports that, once the tapping was well started, ‘Then I suggested to Mr Price that he should ask whether it were the Rev H Bull, the late rector.’ So Harry Price must have been in full charge at this point, despite repeating to Mr Wall the surprising an puzzling claim that he was not a spiritualist.

Everyone agreed that the tapping came from the back of the Smith’s mahogany bedroom-mirror .They started to ask questions out loud, which were answered in the time-honoured way. ‘One tap for no, two for doubtful, and three for yes’. The Smiths must have found this hard to follow, if they were present, as they thought it was ‘Is that Harry Bull?‘ Yes. (three taps) Are you happy No. (two taps)

Is the reader confused? Tap tap.

Then we come to the climax. ‘Finally came the most astonishing event of the night. A cake of soap on the washstand was lifted and thrown heavily on to a china jug standing on the floor with such force that the soap was deeply marked.’ This story is confirmed by Harry Price who added ‘everybody saw the phenomenon’. However, Ethel Bull recounted

'We were none of us in the room when the piece of soap jumped out of its washstand'

Ethel Bull, quoted in Borley Postscript by Peter Underwood

the incident is not mentioned in Mrs Meeker’s account at all, even though she was definitely present the entire time. The Smiths did not witness it either as they had not, at that stage, joined the séance.

'It is not correct that the soap jumped out of the dish when we were all present. We could not sleep and I suggested to my husband that I should make tea and take some along to the others in the Blue Room. . . in the Blue Room was darkness. We went in and they told us they had heard tappings and that the.most extraordinary thing had happened viz., the soap had jumped out of the washstand.'

Mabel Smith, the Rector's wife in annotations of MHHE p48 HBR

Jump? Even Harry Price claimed only that the party were on the other side of the room from the washstand. Why then were they all staring fixedly at it when the soap did its jump? They, weren't, of course, and they surely only conjectured that it had been lifted and thrown heavily. If they were actually in the room at the time, which the evidence contradicts, they must have turned around to look at it after it had fallen.

Mrs Smith was the only one to notice a curious phenomenon

'Little lights appeared, like little sparks in the darkness, when Mr Price was conducting this séance. [Asked whether they were yellow or blue lights, the answer was 'bluish'.] Such things never occurred before or after—apart from this one time.'

Mrs Smith's Signed Statement 1949; printed in HBR p43

The séance itself was not very satisfactory, as whoever was producing the taps could not spell. ‘but great difficulty was experienced in obtaining the names or messages by spelling out the alphabet. At the best of times, this method is laborious, slow and cumbersome, and whatever it was tapping, it did not appear to grasp the technique of this system of communication’. (Harry Price, MHHE p42-43)

However, Mrs Meeker gave a different story. ‘names were spelt out- dates given- the intelligence purporting to be the late rector himself, begging us to help him with regard to his will which in some way was being misinterpreted.’

And who would be the beneficiaries of this change in will, that the spirit was so eager to communicate? Why, none other than the Misses Bull, who suggested the séance in the first place and would seem to have dominated the subject matter until the proceedings were finally brought to a halt by the current rector.

Mr Wall the reporter completely contradicts this account, saying ‘Here followed a series of questions dealing with the late Mr Bull’s private affairs, to which no answer at all was received’

The reticence of the spirits was unsurprising as they were talking to an inanimate piece of wooden furniture, clicking as it contracted with changes in humidity caused by the paraffin lamp. One notices that the clicks sounded soon after they entered the room carrying the duplex lamp. According to Harry Price's account, the raps stopped and they decided to turn the duplex paraffin lamp off. 'Someone then suggested that the light should be extinguished'. No 'taps' then happened, but 'We relit it. Then came a series of short quick taps or raps' (MHHE p42). The warm moist air from the lamp was causing the wood to expand. These 'raps' would only happen if the air was constantly changing its humidity, and one might therefore have assumed that the seance would have been rather short. However, they discovered that, by constantly switching the duplex lamp on and off they were able to keep in touch with the 'entity'. Mr Wall, the journalist started his account of the dialog with the spirit by saying 'The following dialog then took place, sometimes with the lamp lit, sometimes in darkness'
. It would seem that, by trial and error,they had found a way of keeping the changes in humidity, and the consequent dialogue, going for the four hours of the seance.

Of course Harry Price must have the last word. ‘And so ended this very eventful June 12th 1929. A day to be remembered’. Not very well, it turned out.

Lucie Meeker, ’The Ghost that kept Harry Price awake’ 1951 quoted in Borley Postscript by Peter Underwood

Ethel Bull (1954), in the chapter 'Visits to Chilton Lodge', Borley Postscript by Peter Underwood

Sydney Glanville’s interview of the Smiths in The Locked Book, quoted from ‘The Widow of Borley’ by Robert Wood.

The Most Haunted house in England, Harry Price 1940 Longmans Green

The End of Borley Rectory Harry Price 1946 Harrap

V C Wall’ two relevant articles in The Daily Mirror, as reproduced by Vince O’Neil in

Mrs Smith quoted in ‘The Haunting of Borley Rectory’ Dingwall, Goldney and Hall Duckworth 1956