The Ghostly Coach

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2004

When the story of the Haunting of Borley Rectory broke, the haunted coach with the headless coachmen featured heavily. The newspaper stories told of 'Ghostly figures of headless coachmen and a nun, an old-time coach, drawn by two bay horses, which appears and vanishes mysteriously'. (Daily Mirror 10th June 1929) This coach was supposed to have been heard by Harry Bull amongst others.

More than once, Harry Bull both saw and heard the phantasmal coach with which the Borley story is so linked. The coach was drawn by two horses, and driven by a headless coachman. The whole turn-out disappeared while still in view.
One night Mr. Bull was returning to the Rectory, and was in the road just outside the house. Suddenly, he heard a great clatter of hoofs on the roadway, and the rumbling as of heavy wheels. Wondering who could be in such a hurry in so deserted a spot, he stepped to the side of the road in order to let the vehicle pass. The sounds passed him, but that was all. There was nothing tangible to be seen, and the noise gradually diminished and could be heard dying away in the distance.

Harry Price MHHE

This seems to be two separate incidents. Harry Bull told a friend of a sighting of the coach

'One night he described what he had seen years before. Walking home from Sudbury one night, he became aware of galloping horses, then he saw lights coming toward him and he stepped off the road to let the carriage pass. He saw distinctly one man or two in the box, driving; they had no heads, only hands and the lower part of the body. As he watched, the whole thing vanished'

Mrs CC Baines. Unpublished manuscript

This appearance of the Ghostly Coach was fitted into the legend recounted by the Bull family that, 700 years ago, a monk from Borley Monastery eloped by coach with a novice from Bures Nunnery, some eight miles away. The result of this ill-fated expedition was that the elopers were caught, the would-be bridegroom hanged or beheaded, and the novice bricked up alive in her own convent. It was obvious to all but the Bulls that there was a particular problem here, and that was that the coach was a relatively modern invention, far likelier to be later than the eighteenth century. As there had never been either a Borley Monastery or a Bures Nunnery, to say nothing of the absurdity of the punishment to bride and bridegroom, one can only wonder that anyone ever retold the story with a straight face

It was not just a Bull eccentricity, as others beside Harry Bull had seen the coach. A college friend of his, Shaw Jeffery, claimed that when he stayed at the rectory, he'd heard 'the ghostly coach-and-four ...sweep down the much-too-narrow lane beside the Rectory.' Strangely, he was much more impressed by the loss of a French dictionary which later was thrown on the floor of his bedroom in the night, which he felt was a much spookier event.

The Bull's groom-gardener, Edward Cooper, "saw coach and horses with glittering harness' sweep across Rectory grounds" during the period from 1916 to 1919.

Probably the most impressive sight that Mr Cooper saw was the black coach. One bright moonlight night when he and his wife were retiring to rest, he happened to look out of the window and in the meadow by the church opposite he saw some bright moving lights Wondering why such lights should be present at such a time and place, he watched and realised that the lights were approaching. As they neared the road he saw that the lights were really the headlamps attached to a large old-fashioned black coach which was rapidly sweeping across the hedge and road toward him and the rectory. He gasped in astonishment. the whole turn-out was so clear-cut that he could see the harness of the two horses glittering in the light of the headlamps and the moon. On the top of the coach were two figures wearing high top hats. In amazement he shouted to his wife, but she was just too late to see this extraordinary spectacle. She arrived at the window as the as the coach swept into the farmyard and disappeared.

Harry Price MHHE p55

Harry Price was absolutely certain that this was the story he'd been told in two interviews with Mr Cooper. When Brigadier Brownlow and Peter Underwood interviewed him once again in 1954, it became evident that Cooper believed 'They had got it a bit muddled in the book'. In fact, the coach had started in the farmyard and went down the road. The coach was less obviously supernatural. He looked out one evening from his bedroom window at the back of the cottage and seeing a coach or square cab drawn by two horses and with two side-lamps alight and harness shining. A rather dim figure sat on the box. There was no headless coachman. Although that bedroom window affords an excellent view of the road, it does not allow one to see into the farmyard and one cannot easily see whether a coach would turn into the meadow. It is apparent that it was the black coach itself that caused Mr Cooper's astonishment.

The next incumbent, Rev Smith never saw the coach but his maid, Mary Pearson, claimed to have seen the coach.

'Finally comes the remarkable story of an old-fashioned coach, seen twice on the lawn by a servant, which remained in sight long enough for the girl to distinguish the brown colour of the horses

Daily Mirror 10th June 1929

From Harry Price's notes

'Mary has seen a coach on the lawn, with two bay horses. The first time she saw it, it was going down the garden ; the second time, up the garden. When she stopped to look, the coach disappeared. First time she saw the coach was at 12.30 p.m., three weeks ago. The second time, two days later, from the road. Coach went through the trees. It was "like a big cab". On both occasions it was the same coach, with two brown horses. She saw no coachman

Mrs Smith was adamant that this was incorrect

'Mary told me she had only seen the coach once, and as she was laughing when she made this statement, I think she knew it was not quite accurate.'

However, Mabel Smith herself certainly had a curious experience

'On one occasion I was sitting in the late evening alone in the house. I heard our gate open and hoped no one was coming to call at that late hour. I was a little nervous, being alone in such a lonely area, and therefore did not like to go to the hall door to see what it was, and instead took a lantern and went to look out of a window to the rear. I saw two 'headlamps' as I lifted my lantern to look out, but as I looked these went out—by the light of these lamps I saw the outline of some sort of vehicle. I did NOT hear any vehicle or car leave. This is the main puzzling feature of my experiences. I do not consider it sufficient to consider it was something supernormal or uncanny. But I can't explain it... When my husband came in, he said there was nothing in the drive.'

Mabel Smith's signed statement, published in HBR

It is clear that the vehicle was in the drive, and not on the lawn. When she says she 'went to look out of a window to the rear', this would have been one of the windows in the servants' wing overlooking the driveway.

Fred Tatum, who was Mary's boyfriend at the time, was unemployed and often visited the rectory to see Mary, He remembered...

One evening all four of them were in the library of which the shutters were drawn. Mrs Smith went towards the french windows evidently to close them, when she recoiled in horror, saying the coach was outside and telling Mary to close the shutters. Mary flatly refused to do so, and it was one of the men who performed this office.

Mrs CC Baines. Interview with Fred Tatum Unpublished manuscript

if they were in the library, then Mabel Smith must have thought that the coach was on the lawn. As she remained steadfast and consistent in her disbelief of ghosts, one can only assume that, on that evening, the tales and gossip had caused a brief episode of nerves and panic.

The sound of a phantom coach was by no means confined to Borley Rectory, and, in fact, whole books have been written on the subject. The next parish, Acton, had a wonderful tale about headless coachmen and a phantom coach. Possibly one of the most impressive outbreaks of such phenomena were at Chale Rectory in the Isle of Wight. The Reverend C. Sinclair, Rector of Chale, arrived at Chale Rectory in 1940. They were soon being told stories of a carriage and pair driving into the yard at midnight, said to have been heard, but not seen, on many occasions. They were amazed to hear jingling as of harness, creaks, clangings, grinding and jarring sounds and a 'rather stagey horses-hooves noise' of a somewhat 'coconutty' quality. On closer investigation, they discovered that these effects were caused by rats, and the administration of rat poison caused the phenomena to cease immediately. Despite Harry Prices's opinion to the contrary, rats were always a problem at Borley Rectory due to its close proximity to a farm.

It is curious that anyone seeing a coach at or near Borley rectory was so quick to assume it was ghostly. Many local families held on to their coaches long after the appearance of the motor car. They were kept for formal occasions. Foxearth Hall, for example was just two miles away, and had a splendid coach. Bower Hall's residents insisted that they should attend church at nearby Pentlow in a coach rather than a car. Even in the 1950s, elderly gentry in Suffolk would have a black horse-drawn coach kept running for special occasions. We know that Henry Bull had a carriage in 1877 as it is mentioned in his will, and he probably kept it until his death.

The Bulls themselves had a very old fashioned coach which a very old lady cousin used occasionally to go airing in - Miss "Yellery" - and sometimes we would get very high balled and call it "Napolean's Coach," and sometimes we would call it "The Headless Coach," and the man who drove it was "The Headless Coachman," but that was only - well, the way families talk when they're at home - all kinds of family jokes. But I certainly never saw the Headless Coach. I never heard of anyone who did except the Smiths.

Marianne Foyster: The Swanson Interviews

This cousin was Miss Yelloly, of Cavendish Hall. She was, by the 1930s, extremely old. In one old newspaper article she was described as step-daughter of Harry Bull, but was the daughter of a cousin who married one of the Yelloly family of Cavendish Hall. If it was dear old Miss Yelloly who paid a visit on the new rector, Rev and Mrs Guy Smith one evening in 1929, she must have been extremely perplexed at her reception by the household., with Mrs Smith's pale face gazing in terror at her through the half-shuttered window. One suspects that, like her Bull cousins, she would have shrugged and set off on her way.