What fascinates me about the Borley Rectory affair is that the participants were given historical permanence by accident. They achieved fame by sheer chance. There are many other famous historical events to which the same applies, like the Ripper Murders or the Great Tay Bridge disaster. Those who were caught up in the events were artificially preserved, like a fly in amber. In this case, more than ten books and countless articles and papers. 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’, and Frank Peerless, 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.
One must call it the Borley Rectory Affair, rather than the Borley Rectory Haunting, because the latter title prejudges the explanation. One must say at the outset that odd things happened at Borley Rectory in the inter-war period, odd events that need to be understood properly without prejudice. It is a story set in a time when the Great War had destroyed confidence in international commerce, the great depression had set in, and money was tight. It was a hard time to live in.
It all started in a quiet country Rectory near Sudbury, in Suffolk. The Bull family had been hereditary rectors in the small north-Essex country parishes for generations. They were a property-owning, fairly prosperous, ‘county’ family, who intermarried with similar East-Anglian families over the centuries to produce a minor sqirearchy that stocked the professions, the army and the church. In those days, the country parson was responsible for the welfare and education of his flock, as well as their spiritual needs, and so occupied a prominent and vital role in the community. Henry Bull had taken on the tiny parish of Borley whilst his older brother occupied their fathers’ and Grandfather’s position at the next parish, Pentlow. He went on to live a blameless life of hunting, shooting, fishing, and ministry, spawning a huge family of thirteen children. Only the three boys went away to college, for despite appearances, the Bulls could not afford private school fees for all their children. The girls were educated at home within the claustrophobic and isolated community, forming two or three cohesive tribal cliques within the large rectory. They grew up as intelligent, bored, youngsters who rarely travelled further than London, but led an active social life in the Sudbury area. From what we can gather, they lived a life that was typical of a family of their age, location and class, their life punctuated by the occasional excitement of dances, tennis parties and rare foreign holidays. At some point, amongst their many other interests, a group of them experimented with ‘chair-walking’ and, one suspects, séances. Some of them read ghost stories and a few of them began to crystallize tales gleaned from what they read, and heard, into stories of ghostly nuns and coaches. Whereas the younger boys dismissed this as girlish nonsense, the oldest son, Harry, was smitten by these ghost stories and seemed to believe them. There is no direct evidence that father Henry even heard these tales. Only three members of the large family ever seem to have claimed to have actually seen a ghost, and none of the servants, as far as we know, but the stories about ghosts were firmly established in the family before the end of the century. Two of the girls gradually built up a legend that there had been a monastery on the site from which there has been an elopement of a monk with a nun from a nearby nunnery. They were, so the legend went, caught and the nun was subsequently walled-up as a punishment.
When Henry died, the oldest son Harry took over the parish. He was an athletic, engaging chump, a long-term bachelor who had the slightly alarming hobby of inviting boys, who he was supposed to be tutoring for Latin, to all-night ghost-watching sessions in a summerhouse in the garden. His unmarried sisters managed the house, taking on more responsibility as his mother aged. After she died, the unmarried sisters ran the household, and did a great deal of parish work. Late in life, Harry destroyed the harmony of this cosy ménage by marrying a much younger catholic divorcee with a daughter. This event pitched the family into a long-running quarrel over inheritance. Harry then set up his new family in a house across the road, but when the remaining unmarried sisters were obliged finally to move out to more congenial accommodation at Chilton, near Sudbury, he was able to move back to the Rectory with his young wife and lived there for ten years until his death. Amongst his other wide-ranging interests, Harry evidently continued to believe in the haunting though neither his wife nor stepdaughter noticed anything unusual about the house. His last years were less cheerful than before: his income from local farms declined greatly, and the Rectory proved difficult for the couple to run.
The next vicar, Rev Smith, was an Anglo-Indian with a rather frail wife. Her condition was not helped when Ethel Bull, the sister of the previous incumbent, bombarded her with stories of the haunting. Much of this was obvious fantasy. By the time that the couple moved to the rectory, it was damp, dark, poorly repaired and without modern amenities. The house was originally built at a time of rural affluence, when domestic help was plentiful. Now, in the post-war world, domestic help was difficult to find.
This was Eric Smith’s first incumbency in Britain. He had accepted the living ‘sight-unseen’ whilst still in India. They were used to a congenial colonial life in India. The house had suffered years of neglect. The parish was initially unsettled by Eric Smith, after so many years of the Bulls as rectors. Eric Smith quickly applied to the Bishop for a new living. This was refused. Mabel Smith began to be more and more unnerved by visits from the Bull sisters with their tails of the supernatural and ‘her nerves began to suffer’. It got to the stage where Mabel managed to persuade her more placid and sceptical husband into attempting to contact the Society for Psychic Research (SPR). By itself, this was not a foolish action. However, the naive couple precipitated the entire Borley Rectory affair and its consequences by asking the Daily Mirror for the address of the SPR, and to do it at the height of the ‘Silly Season’ when real news was in short supply. The newspaper scented a story and sent down a reporter who found tales of haunting, but not much else. The Mirror, undiscouraged, then contacted a journalist called Harry Price and commissioned him to ‘assist’ the reporter. We would recognise Price as being an ‘investigative journalist’. He specialized in stories of Psychic matters, Mediums, Spiritualism and Ghosts. For reasons of vanity, he liked to portray himself as a scientific researcher into such matters, though in fact he had no training or qualifications to do so. In real life, he was a travelling salesman for a manufacturer of greaseproof paper to butchers shops. The Mirror wanted a story and, as soon as Price, who was an expert conjuror, arrived on the scene, all sorts of sensational ‘manifestations’ occurred. For the reporter and the readers of the paper, it was all most satisfactory. They even held a séance at the request of the Bull sisters. The spirit of the late Rev Harry Bull was obligingly summoned and the spirit was able to confirm that the will should have been made in favour of his sisters, and not his wife. A journalist who accompanied Harry Price was certain that he witnessed Harry Bull faking poltergeist phenomena. The Smith’s maid also spotted Harry Price up to tricks and joined in, much to Mabel’s irritation. Nobody seemed to take events particularly seriously.
As soon as Price returned to London, the various ‘phenomena’ ceased. The story featured all week in the newspaper. The tale of the haunting captured the popular imagination, and all that summer, the country lanes were filled with the charabancs and cars of tourists wanting to see the Haunted Rectory.
The Smiths soon moved out of the rectory due to its lack of amenities, and soon left the parish altogether. The Smiths kept a cordial but cautious correspondence with Harry Price for a while, but Harry Price unsurprisingly lost interest in the affair for some six years. He gave just one lantern slide lecture that was delivered ‘tongue-in-cheek’. After Rev Smith’s death, some ten years later, Mrs. Smith declared herself convinced that there was no haunting at all, and all could be explained by Mr. Price’s conjuring skills. Some other investigators who visited subsequently with Price shared her suspicions
After an interregnum, a cousin of Harry Bull called Lionel Foyster agreed to take over the living at Borley. Lionel Foyster and his much younger wife Marianne were a devoted couple who had been married for several years. It was a curious relationship, though. Lionel Foyster was what we would once have called a ‘confirmed bachelor’, rather a cold fish, who had suddenly proposed to Marianne by letter without having seen her for years. When he arrived at the rectory, he was already unwell, and went into a physical decline during his stay at the rectory. Whereas he had once been a most sociable, lively and engaging chap, he gradually subsided into isolation and quiescence. Marianne, by contrast, was in her prime, feminine, pretty, extravert and lively. They had moved from Canada, and found themselves isolated in a strange country, in a remote parish with no friends. Something had to give, and the fault lines were soon to cause emotional earthquakes. Their stay at the rectory has become famous because Lionel wrote three versions of haunting at the rectory. We do not know for certain whether they were intended to be fictional, as Marianne subsequently maintained, or whether they were a faithful record of what Lionel experienced or was told about by others. To many people, they remain some of the strongest evidence for the supernatural ever published, so they need to taken seriously.
Poor Lionel: What comes through strongly from his accounts is that he faithfully and truthfully recorded what he experienced, and tried to explain what happened by fitting it into an increasingly nutty theory about ghosts. Doggedly, too, he also recorded the investigations into the events, which unanimously concluded that the supernatural had played no part in them, and that his wife was responsibly for them, consciously or unconsciously.
This was not entirely fair. At first, the events were happenstance. Any odd thing that occurred, whatever its cause, was attributed by Lionel to ghosts. His short-term memory was going: the first signs of his subsequent intellectual decline. Things started moving inexplicably, simply because he’d forgotten that he’s done so. Lionel shared the Bulls’ fascination with the supernatural, If anything inexplicable happened to Marianne, He would be gratified, excited and would give her much attention. Marianne loved her ‘Lion’ deeply, and responded by offering more haunting incidents. Lionel seemed to arrive at the rectory engrossed in the ghostly tales of his cousins, the Bulls, and the fascination started to consume his other interests. The more incidents that Marianne came up with, the happier he was. If things had continued like this, then all would have been well. They didn’t and it wasn’t.
One hesitates to delve further into the private life of the Foysters, but it is absolutely essential if one is to disentangle the complexities of what happened next. Suddenly, there were two others in the relationship. Edwin Whitehouse, the nephew of the Churchwarden became deeply interested in what was supposedly happening at the rectory, and began to spend a long time there. He was a vulnerable, disturbed young man who had suffered a nervous breakdown and had, like his aunt, become deeply engrossed in spiritualism. He was wrestling with the decision of whether to become a monk. Both the Foysters seemed to become emotionally involved with him to a degree, though this eventually turned to revulsion. Foyster tellingly recorded him as a young lady in his second, fictionalised, version of events. Lady Whitehouse eventually banned him from going to the rectory due to the deleterious effect it was having on his mental health. These emotional dynamics led to the ‘hauntings’ moving up a gear, and we begin to find violent ‘poltergeist’ events and wall-writing. When this triangular relationship fell apart, Marianne rebounded into a loveless physical sexual relationship with a lodger, Frank Peerless. She was becoming increasingly distressed. Lionel was suffering worsening health problems and began acting more and more oddly. He lost his engaging humour and sense of fun, and became increasingly frail. Unfortunately, Lionel had lost most of his inherited capital and had a pathetic income from his ministry. Marianne also must have gained a considerable insight into Lionel’s past from the ‘Edwin’ incident. At this stage, it was obvious to all that the many incidents of haunting, if they occurred, were caused by Marianne. In fact, she must have had a confederate, and Frank Peerless was almost certainly responsible for some of the ‘poltergeist’ phenomena. The most likely explanation for this is that they were covering up their affair from Lionel. Such was the residual interest from the original Tabloid reports of the haunting that there were several investigations, including one by Harry Price, but they all concluded that the phenomena were ‘caused naturally’. The phenomena ceased suddenly after the intervention of the ‘Marks Tey Spiritualist Circle’, the confinement of Lionel to a wheelchair, and Marianne’s weekly cohabitation with Frank Peerless in London, running a florists shop.
Lionel Foyster hoped, desperately, but unrealistically, that his account of the haunting would bring him an income. In fact, the haunting coincided with the crash of the stock market, and the further collapse of farm incomes in East Anglia. There was very little cash around, and considerable hardship. Mrs Smith, the wife of the previous incumbent, had also felt the pinch, and had also written a fictional book inspired by some of the more lurid stories of the Bull sisters, called ‘Murder at the Parsonage’. She had nurtured the forlorn hope of getting Harry Price to help her get this thriller published. The Bull sisters too were worrying about money, as the Bull capital had gone to the three brothers. Harry Price was desperately trying to raise funds by selling his library, and even attempted to sell it to the Nazis at one stage. If there was a common thread to the narrative, this was it.
Once Marianne had managed to disentangle herself from an increasingly unpleasant and sadistic Frank Peerless, she returned to live full time with Lionel at the Rectory. The relationship slipped into one of a daughter devotedly nursing an increasingly frail father, and they stayed a further three years in increasing poverty until his health forced his retirement. They saw no more ghosts, and experienced no more poltergeists. The country had tired of the story, and as another war seemed certain, the nation forgot its brief fascination in the events at the remote Essex rectory.
At this point, all would have been forgotten, and we would have heard of none of the participants in the saga. Then, everything changed. There had been a sporadic correspondence between the various parties in the saga. The Bull sisters kept Harry Price informed of events, and the Smiths still corresponded with him too. At some point, Harry Price got hold of Foyster’s first draft of the account of the haunting. Poor Lionel thought that, when Harry Price’s eyes lit up, they signalled a publishing coup for him. Not so, for Harry Price realized that, by including Foyster’s work in his own book, it would prove to be a publishing sensation for Harry Price rather than Lionel Foyster. He laid the groundwork carefully. To cover up his own previous lack of interest in the events, and goaded on by Ethel Bull, he rented the empty rectory, and installed independent observers, and persuaded one of them, Sidney Glanville, to do much of the necessary research and footwork. This ‘tenancy’ was curious. Harry Price stayed firmly away and selected a group of volunteers whose only common characteristic was that they knew nothing about psychic research. Anyone who proved to have experience in such things was rejected. The tenancy provided almost nothing of value besides Sidney Glanville’s meticulous survey of the house. It was, for the students, a ‘bit of a lark’.
Harry Price’s book, when it came out, was a publishing phenomenon, with his bold assertion ‘The Most Haunted House in England’. This was followed by a second, ‘The End of Borley Rectory’, in which any remaining trace of his scepticism disappeared.
Why ‘The End?’ By now, a subsequent owner of the rectory, in what looks like an attempt to defraud his insurance company, had burned down the rectory. Curiously, the legend of the Borley Rectory haunting refused to die. Harry Price was too good a writer to have left anything to chance. The setting was perfect, with the huge, dark awful, rectory building, the isolated country parish full of suspicious inhabitants, the spicy legends of monasteries, monks and nuns, haunted coaches, and the excavations of human bones.
The local people had, by this time, changed their amused tolerance of the stories to rank hostility. People were wandering around the church and churchyard at night, and there were a constant stream of tourists, many of whom had outlandish Spiritualist beliefs offensive to the tough rural Protestantism of North Essex. The BBC did a radio program, and their sneering and patronising ways were remembered in the parish for decades afterwards. The locals eventually had to remove every signpost to the parish, and this lasted for over twenty years. Any travellers who asked for directions to Borley were gleefully misdirected into the wilds of Suffolk.
Behind the scenes, there had been rumblings of discontent between the Society of Psychical Research and Harry Price. The SPR was the agency that Rev Smith had tried to contact in an effort to calm his wife’s fears about the place. Instead he had got a Tabloid Journalist and Harry Price. The SPR maintained an interest, and tried to warn Lionel Foyster about Harry Price. They did their own investigation, it seems, but it concluded that there was ‘nothing in it’. After the publication of Harry Price’s book, they appointed their own investigative team to check what had been written. One of the team Trevor Hall, was a newcomer to Psychical Research but had known Harry Price as a fellow member of the Magic Circle, the London club for conjurors. One of the researchers was one of Harry Price’s most prominent supporters, Mollie Goldney. She had actually taken part in Harry Price’s visit during the Foyster incumbency, so knew a great deal of the background. The third of the trio was Dingwall, whose daytime job was as curator of the obscene books in the British Museum, which earned him the rather unfair nickname ‘Dirty Ding’.
Their report, when it emerged, was devastating. Although Trevor Hall was credited with the hardest-hitting chapters, in fact all three of them were capable of very straight talking and much of the initial hostility to their findings was directed at Dingwall. Although one or two details in the report had to be subsequently modified in the light of further research by Hawkins, it still holds as a reasonably fair account of what actually happened.
More was to follow: Marianne Foyster had drifted out of the picture, but was finally located in the United States of America where she had built a new life. She was persuaded to make two statements to a private investigator, who unfortunately got rather carried away with the cross-examination and intruded too far into irrelevant details of her private life. However, she was clear on the main point, that her husband’s so-called diaries were a fictional account and most of the now-famous incidents simply did not occur. She claimed that her only odd experiences at the Rectory was the sighting of an old man who she thought may have been Harry Bull. She later met with more sympathetic researchers, but stuck to her story. Although odd things had certainly happened, much of what was reported in Harry Price’s book was, she insisted, pure fiction. She was deeply critical of Harry Price who, she felt, had deceived her unfortunate husband, Lionel, and had stolen the manuscript of his book.
Of course, the truth is much more complex. Some phenomena, such as the lavender scent had an obvious explanation (a nearby lavender factory). The mysterious footsteps were most likely due to parishioners slipping in to use the toilet. Pranks were most certainly played by some locals, and rats in the attic caused some of the random bell ringing. However, there is a core of incidents that cannot be explained that way. Some odd things definitely happened during the Foyster incumbency. Marianne’s effort to dismiss Lionel’s accounts as being fictional just will not wash. We can be certain that very odd things were occurring for the first eighteen months of the Foyster incumbency, for we have other witnesses besides the Foysters. The most telling was the written account of a medium who had been invited in by a local Spiritualist group, and corroborated by other members of the group, who visited at the height of the phenomena. The picture of a highly neurotic, and very worried, lady emerges strongly from this testimony, and there are hints that even this group of spiritualists suspected that what they experienced had more to do with this world than the next.
We shall never be sure who caused these strange incidents, Lionel Foyster, Marianne, Frank Peerless, Edwin Whitehouse, practical jokers from the village, or Marianne’s firstborn son, who stayed with them at the rectory for a while. We know that the bells had been rigged, in order to make them ring in the passageway when a chord was pulled in the yard outside. We can be fairly sure that objects such as bottles were thrown up the stairwells from the cellar, which wwas accessible directly from the yard. The mysterious wall writings were all in Marianne’s own handwriting. However, one doubts if it would ever be possible to untangle the strange tale completely.
A strange thing happens when one examines the evidence. The closer one gets to the primary evidence, the eye-witness accounts, the flimsier it all gets. The spine-chilling account of a headless man wandering in the garden turns out to be a rather routine account of a trespasser who was glimpsed beyond the orchard trees; only the legs being visible. The famous sighting of the nun turns out to have happened an hour after sunset. The famous incident of the soap being hurled from the wash-basin happened when nobody was in the room. It was a schoolboy trick with wet soap on the underneath of a table. The materialisation of a bottle in mid-air was subsequently denied by both purported witnesses. When one reads the Foyster diaries, one is struck by the fact that nothing ever seems to occur in his presence barring bell-ringing and a collar-tweaking incident. Many of the star witnesses subsequently deny having seen anything.
Without a doubt, both Mabel Smith and Marianne Foyster were in a very agitated state of mind during part of their residence at the Rectory. This may also have been true of Rev Smith too. Their subsequent denials of this simply add to the confusion, as it is simply too well documented. One suspects that they looked back on their emotional state retrospectively with some shame. They both moved to the Rectory at a vulnerable time in their lives and both came under the spell of the unmarried Bull sisters, who visited frequently, bearing spine-chilling stories of the haunting. The house was, at that time, a creepy, dark, outsized, lonely place, the perfect receptacle for ghost stories, and the chemistry was right for hatching supernatural tales which, viewed in the cold light of day, were simply absurd.
There is simply no need to reach for a ghostly explanation for the events at Borley Rectory. If there was a common theme to the events, it was that of people living in a style well beyond their income, keeping up appearances and pouring all their hope of being rescued from financial melt-down by producing a best-selling book. Mabel Smith, the Rev. Smith’s wife attempted it and failed. The Rev. Foyster tried to do it as well and failed. Harry Price then attempted it and was magnificently successful.