The Bones of Borley

An introduction

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2003 2004

To the contents page...

'The Bones of Borley' is a collection of essays about Borley Rectory. They are currently scheduled for publication in a printed form in June 2006, and what you see here is a working draft which needs your criticism. It grows whenever I notice something whilst doing research into Borley Rectory, or have an idea. Existing chapters change as I discover new material, do corrections, or have second thoughts. Each Chapter follows a particular idea and is designed to be self-contained. It is an attempt to take a new, historians, look at what really happened in those years when the Borley ghost stories took root and Borley Rectory gained its reputation as 'The Most Haunted House in England'.

Recent additions or amendments


Dramatis Personae

It is impossible to disentangle many of the threads of this complex story without a list of who was responsible for what in the whole saga. A great deal more information is suddenly coming to light, little of it to Harry Price's credit. To make sense of it all is proving a huge challenge. This chapter lists some of the individuals that got caught up in the affair.

Harry Price and the Flying Brick

Anyone who is having to research Harry Price's contribution to the Borley Rectory story must come to terms with his silliness in publishing, in his book 'The End of Borley Rectory', a tongue-in-cheek account of the 'Life Magazine' photographer's capture of the shot of the 'flying Brick'. The trouble was that he tried to dress it up as a serious occurrence of levitation.

Where was Borley Rectory?

This may seem an obvious question, since we know where the monstrous brick building was. Fine, but where was the splendid Georgian rectory built for the Herringhams? and what about the previous rectory that must have been on the site? How did it link with the cellars? And how old is the Rectory Cottage?

No Hand was Visible-The Wall Writings

The wall writings are one of the most fascinating parts of the Borley saga, even though it is generally accepted that Marianne wrote them. It is probably the repeated calling of Marianne's name, their chilling pleas for 'Rest', exhortations for 'Light Mass Prayers', and pathetic scribbling, redolent of a tortured soul desperate to communicate.
The wall writings are also mysterious because they were scrubbed off the walls soon after being done, yet were somehow described and photographed years later

The Well-Tank Bothers Me

This sidelight covers the events behind the climax of Harry Price's second book, when a party of people, including a priest, barrister, pathologist, and army officer, excavate the ruins of the rectory and discover the bones of the nun, Marie Lairre, beneath the Well Tank, exactly as predicted. As usual, all is not as it seems when one examines the evidence.

Lawless, The Lodger

This is about Frank Pearless, the self-styled Francois D'Arles. He was the lodger at Borley Rectory whilst the Foysters lived there and he was a small-time conman. He was a cockney opportunist who was an inveterate liar, and who managed to insinuate himself into the household. Marianne had a rather physical and loveless affair with him. It is quite likely that he is responsible for some of the more spectacular manifestations that happened over the period,

Borley Bellsheet

The 'paranormal' ringing of bells was a striking feature of the haunting. Whereas there is a normal and perfectly natural explanation for the occasional bell ringing, the simultaneous ringing of all thirty bells at once requires us to suspect mischief on a fairly large scale. It was Marianne's son who accidentally discovered how it was done…


October 2005

Alterations, and the incorporation of more materials from Alan Roper and Richard Morris.

July 2005

A number of amendments made after looking through the SPR archives ,and getting a copy of Harry Price's early articles about Borley Rectory.

27th September 2004

Altered the 'Borley Rectory and the Travelling Scissorman' chapter, on discovering that the closest the Bull girls could possibly have been to the Nun's Walk was thirty yards when they saw the Nun.

20th September 2004

Corrected several mistakes, and changed the formatting to make it consistent. Added to some of the sidelights with various facts that came up in research. Added 'Harry Price and the Flying Brick'

22 March 2004

Added Additions to 'Tunnels'. and to 'Bullsheet' required by the investigation into the Monks Hall ghost and tunnel at nearby Glemsford. Slight alteration to 'Bells, Black Ink and bird-cages.' in the light of the discovery of Lord Charles Hope's 1943 testimony that he visited with HP in 1932 

18 December 2003

Added to "Where was Borley Rectory" an illustration of a contemporary rectory plan that fits the ground-plan of Rev. Herringham's Rectory demolished by H Bull to build his more famous rectory.

17 December 2003

Some Additions to the BullSheet sidelight as more of the stories about Borley Rectory are traced to their original sources in the neighbouring parishes.

18th September 2003

'The Demented Female' updated with the evidence from two of the official observers that there was a second entrance into the cellars which led from the courtyard via a trapdoor. This would have allowed Frank Pearless, or whoever the accomplice was, to get into the cellar in order to 'spook' the members of the Marks Tey Spiritualist Circle with bottle-throwing stunts.

8th September 2003

'Bullsheet' again updated as more and more of the antecedents and probable inspiration for the Borley Rectory legends come to light, including the supposed monastery, just two miles away at Glemsford Bridge.

23rd July 2003

'Tunnels' updated with extra material and also evidence that the tunnel discovered in the 1950s did not go near the rectory. The tunnel seen by Ian Shaw and Guy Smith has yet to be rediscovered.

22nd July 2003

Sidelight on the Bulls (Bullsheet) has been expanded with new materials, in the light of continuing research.

21st July 2003

'Borley Bellsheet' amended to put in some material about the outside bell in the courtyard.

21st July 2003

The Smell of Fear' has been expanded to give more examples of people noticing the 'paranormal smells', and also Marianne's heartfelt expanation that the idea of the goblins cooking in the kitchen was originally supposed to be a joke

21st July 2003

Sidelight on the Thump Ghosts expanded, including extract from Mrs Bain's interview with Mary Pearson's husband, Fred Tatum, where he expresses the view that Harry Price was faking some of the 'Phenomena', and that Mary Pearson confessed that she pretended to be the Nun by putting her apron over her head!

17th July 2003

Things that go creak in the night' has been expanded with a thoughtful quote from Marianne Foyster about the way old houses occasionally give wierd creaks

17th July 2003

'The High Watermark' changed slightly to include Edwin's later remark that Price had lost his critical faculty when writing 'The End of Borley Rectory'



Goo' mornin', sir, you minter say you bought them housen there,
An' you're a-go'n ter live in one ? Well, that 'l1 make 'em stare.
Them housen. sir, is harnted, an' was when I's a lad,
An' anyone as sleep there, sir, is sartin to be had.

I wouldn't tell yer, but surlie, I knaow as you'll repent.
Tek my advice, sir, don't you gao, y'll on'y wish yer hent,
Tha's no good you a-larfin don't you sleep 'ithin that plaice.
Do to-night you'll be a-larfin on the wrong side o! yer faice.

There's jes one thing about it, you 'ont want to be there long
Afore you say my wahrd is right, though now you think tha's wrong
The rets ? Nao, sir, that ent the rets, n'r yet the moice,
I guess, But tha's the Owd un, I believe, an' nothin' more n'r less.

Las' night I passed them housen by, along o! Tom an' Jack.
"There'll be a tempest, booy," 1 say, "the moon lay on her back."
The wind were flanny, an' the clouds come up as black as slaites,
An' soon that lightened crost the sky, an' thundered jes to rights.

You oughter sin them winders, sir, all lit o' fire-good luck !
And rattled-1 sh'd think th'did-my stars, them winders shuk !
We didn't stop, I tell yer why, we felt that drefful bad,
Afear the Owd un sh'd rome out, an' we sh'd a bin had

Ah, you can larf, but don't you lay your head 'ithin that plaice,
Do to-morrer you'll be larfln on the wrong side o' yer faice.
Them housen, sir, is harnted, an' was since I's a lad
Tek my adwice, sir, don't you gao--yer sartin to be had.

a ballad written in the Essex dialect by Charles Benham in 1890.

I will never forget the excitement of reading Harry Price’s books on Borley Rectory for the first time, forty years ago. The books, borrowed from the public library, felt and smelt ancient, even then, describing a pre-war world that seemed as remote as the Victorians. They revealed a wild, nutty plot redolent of pre-war paperback fiction, but here presented as fact. It was a world populated with bizarre inventions such as haunted rectory built on the foundations of a ruined monastery, bells that rang themselves, a ‘Spiritualist Circle’, the Relic of the Curé D’ars which opened locked doors like some automatic swipe-card, an arsonist spirit called Sunex Amures’, together with a legend so corny that no publisher would ever have accepted it in a short story, involving, as it did, nuns, headless coachmen, and secret tunnels. It all felt so fantastic that it took considerable effort to relate the location to the real North Essex.

It was Harry Price’s deadpan narrative that made the books compulsive reading. It represented a masterly manipulation of the materials. He was a fine writer. He adapted his natural, rather pompous, pseudo-academic style so as to present the thinnest of materials as if carved in stone, and which highlighted the supernatural material most splendidly. Ornaments did not fall over, they flew across the room. ‘as if by an unseen hand’; Bottles do not drop but are ‘hurled’; Bells did not just ring, but they rang paranormally; People whose head could not be clearly distinguished in poor light, or at a distance, were described as ‘headless’.

Harry Price was not a scientist. Truly scientific thought seemed alien to him. He thought intuitively and impulsively. One can understand his difficulties; The scientific method cannot be picked up, it is instilled by training, and Price’s background and education could not prepare him to take a scientific approach to the investigation of apparently paranormal phenomena. He used scientific apparatus, and the trappings of the scientific method merely to try to bolster his ideas, and convince others that he was right. He did not set out to disprove his theories, but to try to prove them. His laboratory was more like a film-set. Conflict with those who were trying to bring the paranormal under scientific scrutiny within the SPR was inevitable, and he must have found this conflict difficult to understand or appreciate. When the SPR report on the Borley Rectory phenomena was published, it proved convincingly that Harry Price had ‘gingered up’ the evidence, and played fast-and-loose with the facts. It may not have been able to prove every point, but it did not have to. Either one adheres to scientific methods consistently or one does not. Price didn’t. It may not have been deliberate, but that is beside the point; The opportunity for a thorough investigation of the Borley Rectory phenomena were lost because, by the time the second book was published, the waters were hopelessly muddied.

When I met Trevor Hall, in the 1970s, he seemed amazed that anyone still remembered the Borley affair. The SPR report, which he co-authored, was long out-of-print, and he was delighted to find someone who knew about the Borley affair. He had his draft book on Marianne, which he told me he did not want to publish before Marianne’s death (she outlasted him, ironically). Trevor Hall was a surveyor by training, and the requirement for precision and objectivity was ‘beaten into him’ by his training. What irked him about Harry Price was that he should have lost the opportunity to prove, or disprove, by rigorous scientific means, the cause of the startling phenomena that occurred at Borley Rectory. Price, he felt, had let the affair slip through his fingers. Other than this, he believed that no further significant facts would come to light, and that no further books, other than his book on Marianne, would be written. He was wrong. Several books have been written and a few have been published.

The books on Borley Rectory tend to tell us a lot about the writers, but do not always illuminate the subject. The mass of evidence of the haunting is like a Rorschach inkblot test, on which the observer projects his own inner life. The writers all come to the task with their set agendas, and make the evidence fit their prejudices. They try too hard. Sometimes, it is better to relax, take a backseat, and let the participants speak in their own voices. When one does this, a curious thing happens, the whole subject comes alive. It is certainly an interesting exercise for the amateur historian, because one never quite knows where things will lead. It becomes a journey of discovery.

The 'Bones of Borley' are a collection of essays that were written to explore a particular thought or theme. They do not attempt to construct an encyclopaedia on the subject of the haunting. Each essay tries to illustrate one of the complex processes that end up producing stories of 'incessant paranormal bell ringing', supernatural smells of lavender, or apparitions. Wherever possible, I like to go to the original source, whether a witness statement, letter, article, or manuscript. The intention is for each essay to be self-contained, so it can be read in isolation without flicking to other chapters, and without assuming too much prior knowledge of the Borley Rectory story.

For me, no other story based in the years between the wars so illuminates the spirit of the times. It is not just the importance of examining the best evidence so far produced for the persistence of the spirit after death, but also the strange ways in which the story becomes an allegory for the age, telling us about the pains and strivings of a generation. No author could have ever had the temerity to construct such a potent myth. For many people, it shares a special place in history along with the Salem Witch trials, the Ripper murders, or the Tay Bridge disaster. It is a fairytale for our times, from which we extract whatever message and meaning we can manage.

The Borley Rectory affair ensured that the participants were given historical permanence by accident. They achieved fame by sheer chance. Those who were caught up in the events were artificially preserved, like a fly in amber. In understanding them, their lives and their motivations, we understand something of the period in which they lived and the place they inhabited: It is this that long outlasts the fascination of the events themselves.

What makes the Borley Rectory Affair unusual is the way that the characters leap out of the books as if larger than life. Marianne Foyster, an extraordinarily modern woman; sensual, intelligent and feisty; Harry Price, with his mesmeric manner and his compelling journalistic style; Lionel Foyster, the loveable, dignified, but ineffectual, English Gent; Harry Bull, the engaging but eccentric 'Hedge Parson', Edwin Whitehouse, the tormented man pursued by memories of his experiences in the war, Frank Pearless, the sinister sexual predator, Ethel Bull weaving a fantastic web of fable around the Rectory and its incumbents. The further one explores, the more figures burst out of the pages, so real that one can imagine being amongst them. Perhaps these are the real ghosts of Borley.

The generation that created the Borley Rectory legend died thinking that interest would soon die out, that theirs was an ephemeral event. Curiously, this has proved not to be the case. Very little new evidence has came out since Marianne finally placed the last piece in the jigsaw, but a great deal of the evidence has now been made generally available, due to the dogged tenacity of Marianne's son Vince. Of course, several opportunities were lost in the first rush to get to print in 1940. Frank Pearless, the sinister lodger, was never interviewed, as few understood his pivotal role in events; the maid, Mary Pearson's testimony would have been most valuable. A whole host of people who knew Borley Rectory at the time, and whose testimony would have helped enormously in our understanding of events, were ignored because their testimony was negative; they saw no nuns, headless coachmen, or materialising bottles. It is now too late; Sadly, as I write this, few of those who knew Borley Rectory in the twenties and thirties are still alive and well. We must also sigh for the material which has been lost; Mrs Mabel Smith's manuscript of "Murder at the Parsonage", for example, which would have told us so much about the strange stories told her by the Bull sisters, Lionel Foysters' letters to his family, or the parts of the Swanson tapes that were accidentally destroyed.

A curious obsession in the past writing about Borley Rectory was the endless speculation about whether Harry Price, who did so much to popularise the Borley Rectory business, was a fraud. One can get so distracted by this question that one can lose a grip on the important issues. Harry Price was a complex individual, who needs to be examined with the same forensic detachment as the other participants in the business, such as Lionel Foyster, Mrs Mabel Smith, Mollie Goldney or Mrs Wildgoose. Harry Price traversed the entire spectrum of emotions and beliefs, from complete scepticism to uncritical belief in the paranormal, from amused mischief to desperate faith. At different times, he did what we, in hindsight, adjudge to be silly or irresponsible. Because he was also difficult to like, he had few real friends who understood him well enough to defend his reputation. Several tried, but each time they managed to make things worse. Because the Borley Rectory story is so entwined with the personality of Harry Price, we get nowhere until we have a portrait of him in all the shades of grey, but he is too complex a person to have a simple label such as 'fraud' stuck on him. In the meantime we can all agree on his enormous charisma and energy, his contribution to the unmasking of the extraordinary tricks of the spiritualist mediums, and his lasting contribution in providing a national collection of books on the arts of the magician.