Borley Rectory and the Smell of Fear

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2002

There is a wonderful episode in the Foyster diaries where they lie in bed, late at night, smelling a strange, but not unpleasant, cooking smell coming into the bedroom through the open window. Marianne has lost some of her crockery, and expresses to Lionel her reluctance to go downstairs in dread of what she might find in the kitchen

"'They are at it again' Marianne would say on these occasions 'I would not go down to the back premises now for any money'"

One hopes she was joking, but it was all recorded deadpan by the humourless rector

"was there any connection between their disappearance and the cooking smells? These were questions we could not answer then and cannot now".

Lionel Foyster from p22 'Fifteen Moinths in a Haunted House' quoted in 'Fifteen Months in the Most Haunted House in England 2001 Vince O'Neil

It is difficult to read this account without some bewilderment. Is Lionel seriously suggesting that the poltergeist had stolen the crockery in order to do their midnight cooking?

The early part of the Foyster diaries record a strange period of time in their residence during which apparently normal events were ascribed to the supernatural by a superstitious rector; the period of the 'Phoney Haunting'. The smells of cooking or perfume were events that could be explained without invoking the supernatural, but Lionel always ascribed anything he couldn't understand to the activities of the goblins

The idea of the 'Goblins' cooking a meal downstairs was, of course, originally a little joke between the couple

Well, we used to notice strange odours of cooking and I know that we often have said, "Oh, they're at it again," but you know life wasn't all harmful and ghastly, and beastliness, and Lionel and I had a great deal of fun together over many things, and I can't recall ever having said that I wouldn't go down for a million dollars because lack of courage has never been my failing. I think had there been any occasion on which I had to go, I think, under God, I would do it, face anything if I have to.

But we did smell strange odours of cooking. After the Mitchells left, we still noticed it but it could have been explained in some way but it was rather fun to imagine goblins having a fry downstairs, and we used to laugh about it and wonder what they were cooking and Lionel would suggest, in the way that people will, oh, having a bit of fun, we weren't being scientific this all sounds so silly years afterwards, Lionel would suggest frog's legs, and grasshoppers, and all kinds of silly things like that.

Marianne Foyster, the second Swanson interview, quoted in Chapter 5 of The Ghosts that Will Not Die by Vince O'Neil

The early part of his various accounts of the Haunting mentions several times the strange smell of cooking or perfume that permeated the house.

"and first of all there were smells. But not drain smells nor rat smells nor any others kind of unpleasant odour. On the contrary, perfumes truly and wonderfully delightful. There were stories of our predecessors being troubled by bad smells but those encountered were quite otherwise. Not an unpleasant of Cooking often floated in through our open bedroom window between the hours of 11pm and midnight. And this seemed strange since there was no dwelling near us except the cottage, which was on the other side of the house to our bedroom."

This smell was recorded first in Foyster's 'diary of Occurences' which was written within three months of the events

A wonderfully delicate perfume [Mrs. Bigg called it lavender] would come into the house and especially into our bedroom and on the bed.

An odd smell of cooking would often come through our bedroom window between 11 and 12 p.m. Also, some of our crockery would disappear out of the kitchen in a wonderful way and presently appear again.

Lionel Foyster 'The Diary of Occurences', quoted in The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price

Marianne later remembered the incidents of the scents and smells and could think of no explanation.

'Well, there were often various perfumes that often came into the house, but I don't know if that's such a phenomenon. We used to remark on the beautiful perfume that floated through the house….'

'I don't know what it was; I never did discover what it was, but it was there and it was very pleasant, and a lot of people beside me had noticed that. '

Marianne Foyster, quoted in Chapter 5 of The Ghosts that Will Not Die by Vince O'Neil

In the final account, 'Fifteen Months in a Haunted House',the smells are ascribed to the good spirits and herald the quiet stages of the haunting.

 They are hard to describe exactly. A mixture of lavender, eau de cologne and roses somehow blended together almost to perfection. This arose sometimes in the hall and Mrs. Graham coming in one morning remarked about the lavender we had; yet to our knowledge there was none in the house. But as a rule it was in our bedroom and on our bed that we noticed it. Suddenly it would come, from where we did not know, but that it was there no doubt could exist - wonderful, fragrant, almost overwhelming. It was not necessarily noticeable when we first arrived in the room; oftener it would suddenly come after we had been in bed for a while. We were always glad of it - not only because it was undoubtly pleasant - but because in later and more troublesome times it meant that the good element was in the ascendant, and consequently we might expect peace

Lionel Foyster from  'Fifteen Months in a Haunted House' ibid

Later on, the smell of lavander came to symbolize peace from the various manifestations.

Bedtime came round and for this night, at all events, we were assured of a quiet time for rest
"Good" I remarked, "peace tonight,"
"Why do you say that?" came the sleepy answer,
"Hasn't the purfume reached you yet?",
"Oh yes, it has now. My word isn't it strong. That means the good spirits are in the ascendant and we needn't worry about being disturbed"
And so, as always, it proved to be.

Lionel Foyster from p62 'Fifteen Months in a Haunted House' ibid

This general account of the 'good smells' has been repeated in every book so far published about the haunting and has been accepted as one of the first signs of the poltergeist activity. It got woven into some of the theories devised by spiritualists to 'explain' the haunting.

Harry Price made much of these smells, describing them chillingly as 'paranormally made manifest'(MHHE p 127).

Two Flying Officers, E. Carter Jonas and Caunter reported on their last visit to the house, then permanently shut up, an 'overpowering smell of incense' Harry Price commented that this was remarkable.

Since then, many people have noticed the smells, and attached varying significance to them.

During another visit, our group of four was returning to the car at about 3 a.m., walking down the road, passing the bungalows, when there was a strong and distinctive smell of bacon cooking. The smell seemed perfectly normal, as if someone was making their breakfast and, initially, we thought nothing of it (other than “is there enough for all of us if we knock on your door?”). However, when we sought to establish which residence the aroma was emanating from, we could see no lights on; no smoke rising from a chimney; and no open window for the smell to drift out of. In fact, there was no sign of life at all. It wasn’t until I re-read one of the Borley books that I noticed the place’s original name - Borlea - was Anglo-Saxon for “Boar’s Pasture”.

Stephen D. Smith experiences at Borley

OR maybe this chap who, surprisingly could not distinguish hashish from lavender

"....a strange smell came in to the air, the first thing I said was, who is smoking hash? because at first this is what the smell reminded me of, my friend Tommy was with us, he has M S and he smokes it all the time. But he was already back at the car. Then Andrew spoke up and said, that's not hash that's lavender, the smell got stronger and we could all tell he was right. About a week later, Andrew said he had gone to Ipswich library and taken out a book on Borley. He told us the librarian said the book hadn't left the library for about 17 years, we looked at the stamp in the back of the book and she was telling the truth. In this book we found some very interesting facts about the rectory, one of which was that some strange smells had been experienced especially lavender."

Steven J Malkin experience at Borley

and even some locals were puzzled by the smells,

Neighbor Tom Gooch said, "I've lived on the doorstep for 20 years and I've seen nothing, heard nothing, and smelt nothing." His wife, on the other hand, was "awakened one night by the pervading smell of incense that filled her bedroom..."

Allsop, Kenneth. "Is This the Borley Rectory Ghost?" Quoted by Vince O'Neil in The Borley Rectory Bibliography

So the Foysters were not the last to experience the strange phenomenon. Like the light in the window of the schoolroom, it has been witnessed by many. One would think that the phenomenon of the strange smells reported by the Foysters is difficult to explain. Sceptics such as the authors of the SPR report on the haunting have attributed it to late-night cooking in the rectory cottage, but how would this account for the lavender smells? Trevor Hall suspected that the sudden arrival of a lavender bag in Lionel's clothes, also solemnly reported as a paranormal incident, were somehow linked to the smell of lavender, but he did not really make it stick. The smells seem to have come from outside, and wafted in through the upstairs windows that the Foysters always kept open. This is no open scent bottle, but a major phenomenon

A great deal is made of the nearness of the farm buildings and how that accounts for the unusual smells. But that doesn't explain the smell of violets in the cottage, the smell of wine in the Rectory garden, and incense on the road between Rectory and the church.

Mrs Henning. Wife of Rector of Lyston-cum-Borley from 1936 to 1945

So, the sceptic would have to somehow suggest that, within short walking distance of Borley Rectory, was a large factory making lavender essence, scents, and cookery flavourings. Well, actually, this is precisely the case. Bush, Boake and Allen were there, a short walk to the north, just over the brow of the hill, in full production when the Foysters were there, and still there now. At the time, it was the largest manufacturer of essences and flavourings in Britain. The farm and factory was set up in 1899 as 'Stafford Allen' to make natural pharmaceuticals, condiments and perfumes by milling herbs and spices, many of them grown on the spot. These included belladona, digitalis, lavender, liquorice and peppermint. The factory also milled imported ginger and pepper, a variety of gums and other spices, and made food flavouring essences (butter, almond, honey-cream and madeira) and naturally-based insecticides such as pyrethrum and derris.

The business flourished and a large factory nestles in the Stour valley on the site of an old watermill. Today, they no longer make so many smells, but those with long memories can remember the scents, often at night when the night-shift cleaned out the vats. The residents of Long Melford remember well the exotic scents that came to the village when the wind was in the right direction. Fields of lavender grew in the fields for miles around, along with exotic crops. Even saffron was grown. I used to live near the same firm's Witham factory in the 1960s and can remember the thick smells of vanilla, syrup, roses, geranium and lavender wafting over at odd times.

Borley Rectory only got the smell when the wind blew from the north. This only happens occasionally. When it does, the weather is cold and changeable. It is interesting that, to the Foysters, it heralded a quiet period in the haunting. Was other haunting phenomena weather-related?. The bell-ringing is a prime candidate for this, though it will take another sidelight to explore the idea

The important point to make here is that the 'smells, had a prosaic normal explanation known to all local people. Lionel Foyster was, however, disposed to fit all the things that happened around him into a crazy world of 'Figgis', Goblins and ghosts. It all just got incorporated into his crazy world.