Legless at Borley Rectory

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2002

Amongst the most exciting stories about Borley Rectory is the sighting of the Legless Man. This is one of a number of incidents that date from the early years of the 20th Century, when Rev HDE Bull's large family had grown up. We have the famous sighting of the Nun by the Bull sisters, the various phantoms, the coach, and the report of the ‘legless man’. The ‘legless man’ was said to have been sighted by Rev. Harry Bull.

'Once he said he saw a legless man in the garden and at the same time, his dog looked in the direction of the phantom or whatever it was and growled and cowered in fright. The legless man disappeared as he watched'

(Peter Underwood, Borley Postscript p13)

Who first told this story, and where did it come from? One first sees it in the notes of Harry Price and Miss Lucie Kaye from their first visit to Borley rectory in June 1929

'[Ethel Bull’s story] ‘Rev. Harry Bull, saw coach. Juvenal Retriever, terrified and growled. Saw man’s legs rest hid by fruit trees, thought poacher, followed with Juvenal, gate shut, but saw legs disapp thro gate.’

Harry Price's notes, quoted in The Haunting of Borley Rectory, Dingwall, Goldney and Hall

Of course, by the time Harry Price was told the story, Rev. Harry Bull was dead. This story was related to Price by one of the unmarried sisters, Ethel Bull, who seems to have been the sole source for most of the ghost stories about Borley Rectory. It seems to concern two incidents, one in which he saw the famous coach, and, in the other, he saw a man in the garden. He could only see the man’s legs as the rest of the man’s figure was hidden by the fruit trees. He thought that the man was a poacher and so set off to investigate, followed by Juvenal, the retriever. As he approached, the intruder headed for the gate, and the man’s legs were visible as he left the garden via the gate, although he thought the gate was shut. What we seem to have here is a story of an intruder in the garden, below the fruit trees, who was almost completely hidden by the foliage of the trees. With the approach of the rector and his dog, he retreated through the lower ‘postern’ gate of the garden, into the public road that bordered the garden on the north side. The punch line to the story seems to be that the intruder passed through a gate that Rev. Harry Bull thought was locked.

This story must date from around 1885, as the dog Juvenal is mentioned in Caroline (Dodie's) diaries.

It seems from the manuscripts that Lucie Kaye, Harry Price's secretary later fleshed out an account from these notes. This was then used by Harry Price who, ten years later, wrote this rather more exciting story.

'‘One day Harry was in the garden with his retriever, ‘Juvenal’, when the dog suddenly started howling and cowering with fright. Looking in the direction in which the dog was pointing, the Rector saw the legs of a figure, the upper part of which was apparently hidden by some fruit trees. The legs moved, and when they had cleared the bushes, Rev. Harry Bull saw that they belonged to a man who was headless. The figure went towards the postern gate-which plays a big part in the Borley drama-through which it passed. This gate was always kept locked. The figure disappeared in the vegetable garden where it was lost to sight.'

The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price. Longmans, 1940 page 49)

Note that the figure is no longer assumed by Rev. Harry Bull to be a poacher More extraordinarily, it now emerges from the shrubbery into full view and seen to be headless, and then disappears in the vegetable garden. (he’d have had to come back through the gate to do that). It could be that these exciting details were related by the Bull sister, and not recorded in the notes, but the fact that the figure was headless is so striking that it seems very odd that it was not noted at the time, when other, less sensational details were carefully noted.

The term 'postern gate' is a curious one. According to a maid who worked at the rectory in Harry Bulls time (interviewed by Mrs Baines) the word 'Postern Gate' was never ever used by any of the staff, and the likelihood was that the name was made up by Harry Price to make the Rectory sound more monastic. In any case, the gate was not kept locked, as it was used as a short cut by the family when it walked up or down Hall Street

Peter Underwood says that Rev. Harry Bull had related the story to Lady Whitehouse some years before, and says he had described it as headless to her. Well over twenty years after the event, she cave the following story.

'Some years ago Mr Harry Bull the second rector of Borley told me that one afternoon he looked out of his study window and saw a headless man go by and disappear into the shrubbery. He went out quickly with his spaniel, and the dog stood on the spot where the man disappeared, howling. Of course they should have dug on that spot.That might have solved something'

Lady Whitehead, interviewed for the 1947 BBC program: reproduced in Borley Postscript by Peter Underwood

One thing here is new; She says that he was inside the house. The distance from the house to the orchard was considerable, and would have prevented much detail being seen. Unfortunately, this statement was taken after Harry Price's two books had been published so the waters were sufficiently muddied by this time. It may be that the man was headless, but it may well be that he actually told her that he couldn’t see the poacher’s head because of the trees in the way and the distance, which is much more likely. There is no mention of the postern gate either.

The story is now firmly given its place in the legend and appears again and again.

'‘the phantasm passed right through a closed wicket, across the vegetable garden where it disappeared.

The End of Borley Rectory by Harry Price. London: Harrap page 30)’

The figure has been promoted from a suspected poacher to a headless phantasm, and now manages to disappear, in the sense of vanishing when in plain view. Harry Price also changes the story to happen at night. The phantom is no longer in the orchard, which was the other side of the low brick wall, but is now in the vegetable garden, based on the south of the house.

Peter Underwood , in The Ghosts Of Borley, repeats the story, more or less exactly as Harry Price evolved it, but added the wonderful codicil, ‘Rev. Harry Bull offered no explanation…nor was any sought’ ( GB p25) Details are added to give a spurious exactness to the tale e.g. ’branches of heavily-laden fruit-bushes’, though the idea of the phantom ‘vanishing’ in the vegetable garden has been abandoned, presumably after Peter inspected a map of the garden and realized the impossibility of Price’s version.

Books on Borley Rectory have all provided their distinct stitches of embroidery to the story. Ivan Banks (1996), for example', adds that the dog Juvenal was 'cringing at something in the gloom ahead of them'. Ivan invents 'To Harry's consternation, the figure appeared to be headless'.

In his slide lecture on Borley Rectory, printed in Borley Postscript, a strange inversion takes place. Instead of being headless, the ghost becomes legless.

''Once he said he saw a legless man in the garden and at the same time, his dog looked in the direction of the phantom or whatever it was and growled and cowered in fright. The legless man disappeared as he watched'

(Borley Postscript, Peter Underwood White House Publications 2001 p13)

Now the idea that the vision disappears, has been re-adopted with enthusiasm. The legless man disappears ‘as he watched’.

Curiously, the story became attached to the redoubtable Mary Pearson, who was the maid to Rev Eric Smith, several years after Rev. Harry Bull’s death. Harry Price relates that she saw man behind some trees, apparently headless, and she gave chase, but he disappeared. When re-interviewed by Dingwall and Hall, she could not remember this incident, or having told the story, but it seems like she merely saw an intruder behind these same fruit trees, and could not, of course, see his head as it was obscured from view. Mrs Pearson, Mary's aunt was able to confirm to Peter Eaton and Alan Burgess in 1947 that her neice had seen absolutely nothing in all the time she worked at the Rectory. Nevertheless, this story became cemented securely into the legend.

'‘She said that she had seen a man out in the shrubbery and thinking that it may be a poacher, went to see him off. When she got outside and he emerged, she was shocked to see that he was short of a head! She actually chased him out of a gate (through which the man ran without opening) until he soon vanished.’

Joseph Olding, The Mystery of Borley Rectory from BorleyRectory.com

'‘Mary Pearson also told Harry Price that she say a man “apparently without a head”, behind a tree’

(The Ghosts of Borley Peter Underwood p91)

One can see that some of the original Rev. Harry Bull story has applied itself to Mary Pearson’s tale, The postern gate has, once more, featured, and the idea of the intruder vanishing rather than being lost from view.

So, a simple story of a trespasser or poacher caught scrumping apples, who slipped through a gate that they thought was locked, has been transformed, and multiplied, into a completely fictitious story about a headless, or legless, phantom who vanishes into thin air in the vegetable garden.

The story came from Ethel Bull, who complained to Peter Underwood, in 1965, and both Dingwall and Hall in 1953, that Harry Price had misrepresented her, and that her statements had been altered to make the story more sensational. She later told a BBC producer that she was, in consequence, the butt of jokes whenever she returned to Borley. The villagers had become angry at the consequences they had suffered because of her ‘tales’ and now jeered at her for believing in ‘fairies’.

Of course, there was a core of stories which Ethel and her sisters insisted were true, and which they related in a consistent and clear manner over a long period of time. But these were of more ambiguous events, shadows seen at a distance an hour after sundown, people standing in the road that they couldn’t account for, odd noises and so on. Events that would normally be put down to natural causes, in houses less inclined to spiritualist beliefs. To balance against these stories, one should bear in mind that Rev. Harry Bull’s wife and child, and most of the Bull children maintained that they saw or heard nothing at all of a supernatural origin whilst they lived at the rectory.

Perhaps one should say that it is not normally one’s first instinct to attribute intruders in the garden to the supernatural. The Bulls were keen gardeners, with a well-stocked greenhouse, orchard, and vegetable garden. The garden was a long narrow strip along the public road to Borley from Rodbridge. In the early part of the century, there was quite a lot of hunger and poverty in East Anglia, and it must have been a great temptation for anyone travelling up the road to look longingly at natures bounty on the other side of the hedge in the rectory garden. Whether or not the postern gate was closed, It would have been the work of a moment to slip through the hedge and make off with garden produce. I would not even be surprised to see a headless man doing it, as anyone anxious not to be recognised would slip his jacket over his head. Come to think about it, he would look uncommonly like a nun, in the twilight……..