As I write this I am presently 5999th in a queue to buy tickets for a series of visits to Hidden London organised by the London Transport Museum, including the Down Street 'ghost station' and Clapham South Deep Level Shelter. It seems unlikely that I shall be getting a ticket, despite the fact that they are a mind-and wallet-blowing £75 each! At least the Down Street tickets are, others are less expensive.
I have added yet another update to the massively popular post on the alleged Victorian street under Selfridges in the light of the Subterranean Saturday discussions.
It is highly likely that I shall be joining David Quantick, Gareth E Rees and others for an evening of what they have termed 'Weird Shit' at Borough Wines in Robertson Street, Hastings on Thursday 5th May. I'll be talking for about 20 minutes about some of the more outlandish tales in my secret tunnel book. I understand that there will be a folklorish theme to the evening as it follows shortly after the excellent annual Jack in the Green festival. The shop has a large grungy underground space that looks as if it should have a smugglers' tunnel leading from it to the beach.
To conclude this short series of pieces on Borley Rectory I should note some of the more interesting aspects of the case for me.
A long list of dramatis personae (see here) were involved in the Borley story, some of whom went on to achieve renown in other areas. Two of the most significant are Robert Fordyce Aickman and Ellic Howe. Aickman (1914-1981) is probably the greatest 'weird' fiction writer this country has ever produced - Faber has recently reissued his stories and there have been documentaries such as this excellent one from Ray Russell and another on Radio 4. Aickman visited the ruins of the rectory on the night of July 24 1943 (End of Borley Rectory pp.76-77) and the following week on 31st - the second visit took place during a spectacular thunder storm, which must have added considerably to the atmosphere; the minor incidents he recorded on both occasions were not considered supernatural.
Ellie Howe (1910-1991) was known to me as the author of The Magicians of the Golden Dawn, but he was also an a authority on the history of printing and had an interesting war. He accompanied Price on his first visit to Borley on 2 June 1937 after he had agreed to rent the rectory. They established the Base Room in the old library and on the two nights they spent there Howe claimed to have heard taps and thumps and the sound of a door being closed.
The Revd Lionel Algernon Foyster was born in Hastings on 7 January 1878. Visiting All Saint's church this morning I saw that three Foysters in succession had been vicars of the church in the nineteenth century (see photo above). Marianne Foyster said that some of the furniture from the All Saints rectory was moved to Borley. Eric Dingwall, who was one of the three authors of the debunking tome The Haunting of Borley Rectory, spent his final years in a seafront flat in St Leonards. He has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and information can also be found here and here. His interest in erotica is explored a little here.
Our old friend C E M Joad (1891-1953), who features in my book Netherwood, not only knew Aleister Crowley, but was also a friend of Price (see an earlier post here). He visited Borley on 28 July 1937 when he said he saw pencil marking on the wall which he thought had not been there earlier.
Finally my favourite story from the whole farrago of nonsense:
At the ago of 80 and, it should be borne in mind, after having read The Most Haunted House in England, Mr P. Shaw Jeffrey felt moved to write to Harry Price. In his letter he recorded that he had visited the rectory in 1885 and 1886 where:
'I had lots of small adventures ... Stones falling about, my boots found on top of the wardrobe ... and I saw the nun several times and often heard the coach go clattering by. But the big adventure that would have been worth your while recording was one time when I missed a big French dictionary which I had been regularly using for some days. Nobody could find it, but one night I was awakened by a big thump on the floor, and there was the dictionary (after I had lit my candle), with its back a good deal knocked about, sprawling on the floor. My bedroom door was locked.'
Dr W J Pythian-Adams, Canon of Carlisle, a major supporter of the reality of the haunting at Borley, had in January 1941 sent Price a lengthy, ingenious and totally speculative 'explanation' for the events, based heavily on the reported seance results and other 'evidence' given in MHHE, which makes fairly entertaining reading, but cannot be taken seriously by anyone of a remotely critical frame of mind.
Price used the letter as an entire chapter (X) in The End of Borley Rectory and all subsequent research was based on this theory that the nun Marie Lairre from Le Havre was brought to this country by a member of the Waldegrave family and was later strangled by him and buried in the grounds of the rectory. Looking at the transcripts printed in EBR (ch VIII) it is clear that Marie Lairre was just one of many different entities contacted during the seances, some claiming to have been murdered at Borley, the most popular burial spot being by a tree in the garden. Some fragments of female remains were found by Price in very suspicious circumstances in the rectory cellars in August 1943 (as explained here, the 'well tank' under which her remains were interpreted to lie by Canon Pythian-Adams, based on his reading of the wall writings, would have been in the attic and not in the cellar - you'd think a seventeenth-century nun would have had a more thorough knowledge of plumbing). It is also repeated many times in the transcripts that the nun claimed to have been based at a nunnery in Bures, which we know simply did not exist, and neither, I would hazard, did she.
There is also the rather unusual fact that the seances were conducted in English, not French (although some nonsense Latin was received at one point). Fortunately Canon Pythian-Adams came to the rescue once more to explain why, in particular, the mysterious wall writings later attributed by him to Marie Lairre, were in English rather than her native French. By the time that he came to pen an article for the Church Quarterly Review in 1946 he was aware of Mr Shaw Jeffrey's tale of his disappearing dictionary from the 1880s and could therefore write:
'Am I seriously contending that a French girl (the 'Nun') was haunting Borley all those years and that she collected English words out of a dictionary in the 80s for an appeal [the wall writings] which had to wait another half-century? I am contending nothing. I simply ask whether any other explanation will fit the facts.'
A local legend of a 13c Bendictine monastery once occupying the site of Borley Rectory gave rise to a ghost story about a monk who was said to have eloped with a nun from a convent at Bures: both were caught and executed, he being beheaded and she walled up in her convent. A further strand of the story has them eloping in a coach before being apprehended - sightings have been reported of a ghostly coach at Borley - a pure anachronism, as it is referring to the period prior to the Dissolution. The Rev Henry Bull, who had the rectory built for his large family in 1863, seems to have been fond of this story (a pair of monks were carved into the side of a fireplace in the house) and it probably spread beyond the rectory to the surrounding houses of Borley. In 1938 Sidney Glanville told Price that he had been informed by the local archaeological society that there was no documentary or physical evidence whatsoever for a monastery on the site of the rectory. However, when his first book on the subject was published two years later, Price still referred to the possibility that it existed, as it fitted in with his theories about the ghost of a monk and nun haunting the grounds of the building (note also the handy materialization of the 'monkish' medallion in 1929 when this theory was strongly held, which magically transformed into two Roman Catholic medallions when this theory had to be altered to accommodate the murdered nun; see Borley 1 below).
Inevitably, secret tunnels are also involved in the legend. In The Most Haunted House in England (p.26) Price wrote:
'The remains of a portion of an underground tunnel can be seen in the farmyard of Borley Rectory. Apparently it had caved in at some period in the remote past. It is impossible to trace it very far, and no one appears to know for what distance it is blocked. Future investigators might well make it their business to explore this tunnel. But portions of the tunnels - or a tunnel - have been discovered in various places in a direct line between Borley and Bures, a township seven miles from Borley, on the River Stour ...Bures is six miles southeast of Sudbury and the remains of a nunnery or similar religious foundation have been found there. The story is that a secret passage or subterranean tunnel led from Borley Monastery or castle to the nunnery at Bures. Whether this tunnel - of small ancient bricks - was used as a means of escape from some possible danger, or for some military purpose; or whether it was constructed as a purely domestic arrangement between the monastery and nunnery, is a matter of conjecture. I have been told that the entrance to a second tunnel, or perhaps the entrance to a branch of the Borley-Bures tunnel, is still extant in the farmyard of Borley Place, the ancient house opposite the Rectory. A tunnel from Clare is supposed to meet the one from Bures somewhere in the Rectory grounds.'
Bures, a village located on the border between South Suffolk and North Essex, is a union of the two parishes of Bures Hamlet in Essex and Bures St Mary in Suffolk and is called Bures for convenience. According to legend, a tunnel is said to run from a shop in Bures |(later a cafe called the Two Teas) to the site of Borley Rectory. There is also no evidence to suggest that there was once a nunnery at Bures.
In 1957 a tunnel was found during work on the road between Borley Place and the farm opposite. Intrepid researcher Len Sewell, who was following in the footsteps of Harry Price, went down into the tunnel and some photos were taken (see above) showing that it was extremely low (28 in high), although some books print an image without Sewell which might make readers think that it was larger than it actually was. The idea that a monk or nun crawled their way along here to facilitate a romantic tryst is absurd. It was most likely a storm water culvert.
Much more on the tunnels of Borley can be found at the excellent Foxearth site.
Last week, while staying at Clare, we visited Borley one evening at around six. The church is rarely open, this being due to the work of vandals, which can also be seen in the damaged monuments in the churchyard. Ever since the first newspaper reports in 1929 the village has been the target of thousands of sightseers - coach tours from Colchester were organised in the early years. The number of unwanted visitors combined with the lack of basic facilities was one of the main reasons for the Smiths quitting the building.
I took a few photographs, above are Borley Place, the farmhouse behind which the rectory once stood and an atmospheric shot of the church including a ghost, or could it be wood smoke from a fire behind the hedge that we saw when we parked? Just before we were about to drive off an old and possibly blind rabbit came and stood right beside us and wouldn't budge. Earlier, in the churchyard we noticed a pair of secateurs swinging ominously on the railings surrounding a tomb. Despite these possible ill omens we went back the next day and had nothing unusual to report.
While we were staying in Clare, Suffolk last week I bought a copy in the local bookshop of Borley Rectory: the Final Analysis (2003), signed by the authors Edward Babbs and Claudine Mathias. Having been primed by reading four other books on the subject I was interested to discover what this 'final analysis' might be. It has to be said that it would be little use reading this book without having read anything else on the rectory, as the narrative is confused and omits vast amounts of material (mostly of a critical nature), although the basic threads of the story are here. The authors claim to have written an unbiased account, but it is very clear from the first pages that they support the idea that Borley was haunted and use a number of opportunities to attempt to discredit the work of 'scoffers' and 'cynics', especially the painstaking research undertaken by the authors of The Haunting of Borley Rectory (which admittedly isn't without its flaws, but raises many awkward questions). Most of these consist of ad hominem arguments, rather than a detailed unpicking of accusations and documented statements.
One of their least convincing rebuttals comes in the final summing up, when the topic of the possible influence of ley lines that allegedly pass through Borley is discussed. After a fairly long description of ley lines and the alignments that are supposed to pass through the site they pause to admit that (pp173-4) 'not everyone agrees with Alfred Watkins' theories. One such was the late Dr Simon Broadbent ... primarily an advertising statistician but he also had an interest in megalithic monuments. In a paper read to the Royal Statistical Society he argued against claims made for the existence of ley lines, emphasizing that the number of alleged lines was fewer than would be expected from a random distribution of locations between which lines could be drawn.' The authors then comment: 'Dr Broadbent was using his professional skills to try to disprove the beliefs of Alfred Watkins. However other people have reservations about statisticians and will quote Disraeli's sardonic comment: "There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics".' So that's that argument successfully dealt with then!
The book is useful in including many reports of alleged sightings made well after the rectory was seriously damaged by fire in 1939 and totally demolished in 1944. The authors have interviewed some of the few survivors who knew the earlier participants in the story and provide background to some of the more obscure characters and places. There are 'testimonies' of sightings of the nun, a phantom coach and other 'inexplicable' events. However in almost all cases a supernatural or 'open-minded' rather than everyday explanation is preferred: for example, a woman finds a bracelet on a heavily overgrown grave, that eluded her a few minutes previously when she was mysteriously 'drawn' to it - must be paranormal. In 1941 one of a party of hikers 'felt the need to answer the call of nature' and went into the rectory grounds 'in order not to be visible from the road'. Suddenly within sight of the ruined rectory 'he became aware of a feeling of intense cold and an awful smell which reminded him of rotting vegetation' - perhaps his 'call of nature' was more pressing than he thought! He then saw three large hissing cats which promptly vanished causing him to run back to his friends and ignore his original intention, although you would have thought his experience might have accelerated it. And so on.
Following a great deal of anecdotal evidence a chapter entitled 'The documents and what they tell us' raises the reader's hopes, only to be dashed when they reveal that these consist of: the wills of Revs Henry and Harry Bull, an article from The London Gazette, an article written favourably about the haunting (and referencing F W H Myers) from The Suffolk and Essex Free Press from 13 June 1929, the electoral roll for 1935, a surveyor's report from 1938, two letters from the son of the owner of the rectory in 1939 Capt William Hart Gregson (suspected of arson when the building burnt down, although he lost a fair amount of personal possessions and books), a quote from a newspaper article supporting the authors' opinion that the SPR report was a 'dastardly attack on Mr Price when he is no longer here to defend himself' and, er, that's it.
In their 'balanced and impartial' (p.184) summing up of the case they note: 'With regard to the two books on the subject written by Harry Price, sceptics have claimed that because of his love of publicity, he altered statements to suit his own purposes, in other words, to make them more sensational. There is an element of truth in this, but it is no argument for dismissing the entire contents of the Borley books as nonsense.' Rather than undertake a detailed refutation of the contents of The Haunting of Borley Rectory they instead refer to a talk given by one of the authors to the SPR in 1975 (20 years after publication) after which some members of the audience criticised the author's premises and conclusions. One member who had visited Borley on a number of occasions 'too disagreed with Mrs Goldney's emphatic views on the lack of genuineness of the Borley hauntings and it was quite clear that the majority of the audience did so as well.' Another decisive victory for the yeasayers. They also have this advice for 'non-believers' (p.183): 'they are entitled to their view, but we must emphasise the point that it is necessary to be careful at all times not to allow rigid disbelief to interfere with logic.' If this is indeed the 'final analysis' it is a flawed and misleading one.
Another review can be found here. Foxearth is very near Borley.
Perhaps the most damning criticism of the 'evidence' for the haunting of Borley Rectory comes from the pen of Harry Price himself in private correspondence.
Considering the later interest he claimed to have expressed in the case it is a fact that he only visited the house once during the incumbency of the Rev Foyster and his wife Marianne (1930-35), when alleged paranormal activity reached a peak, and this was enough to convince him of the bogus nature of these events. On 15 October 1931 he wrote to Dr D F Fraser-Harris: 'Well, we went to Borley on Tuesday last, and have had two nights on the premises. It is the most amazing case, but amazing only in so far that we are convinced that the many phenomena we saw were fraudulent because we took steps to control various persons and rooms [and] the manifestations ceased. We think that the rector's wife is responsible for the trouble, though it is possible that her reactions may be the result of hysteria. Of course we did not wire it to you because although, psychologically, the case is of great value, psychically speaking there is nothing in it.'
In a letter to Eric J Dingwall on 17 October 1946 he wrote: 'I agree Mrs Foyster's wine trick was rather crude [a glass of wine turned to ink in their presence, a common conjuring trick using a small pill slipped into the glass, Price himself was a skilled conjurer], but if you cut out the Foysters, the Bulls, the Smiths etc. something still remains.' That 'something' must be a reference to the large number of reports submitted by a group of volunteers Price recruited through The Times to observe supernatural phenomena at the rectory during the period when he acquired the lease for a year between 1937 and 1938 - all volunteers were given a pamphlet explaining the types of phenomena they were likely to encounter and how to deal with them, thus priming them perfectly. But in a letter to Gordon Glover written in February 1938 he wrote: 'As regards your various criticisms, the alleged haunting of the Rectory stands or falls not by the reports from our recent observers, but by the extraordinary happenings there of the last 50 years' thus discounting all the 'evidence'.
Despite the fact that a number of observers remarked that the rectory possessed unusual acoustic properties, owing to the house being built around a three-sided courtyard very close to a farm, that gave the impression of noises made outside being produced inside the house, Price chose to omit this from his books. Complaints of unpleasant odours detected inside the house could also have their origins in the farm rather than some supernatural source. On the other hand, there were many descriptions of cooking and perfume-like odours wafting through the house that were often given a paranormal origin in the absence of any logical explanation; turns out there was a factory nearby that manufactured fragrances and condiments. Who knew?
Another significant omission was any mention of rats and mice in the house that could easily have caused the many scurrying and scuffling sounds reported. In fact Price goes out of his way to state: 'on no occasion have I ever seen or heard the slightest indication of these rodents. And never once has any observer, to my knowledge, mentioned rats.' Amongst many examples that prove the contrary, given in The Haunting of Borley Rectory, is an instance when two observers wrote in their report that they: 'Heard faint "scrabbling" sounds outside which we attributed to the activities of mice.' This is edited in Most Haunted House (p199)to read: 'while sitting in the Blue Room in semi-darkness, they heard faint "scrabbling" sounds outside' with no mention of the likely cause. Even in MHH (p82) Price quotes an extract from Foyster's account of events, 'a terrific noise started up in the hall, which we found was due to the cat having its claw caught in the rat trap.'
The arrival of the Foysters was an unfortunate coincidence that helped perpetuate the legend thanks to Marianne Foyster's apparent faking of poltergeist-type phenomena. This was probably inspired by the fact that immediately prior to moving to Borley, Lionel Foyster had been the rector in Scotville, Nova Scotia, Canada, five miles from Amherst, scene in 1878-79 of a famous and much-publicised outbreak of poltergeist activity centred around a young woman. In Haunting of Borley Rectory the authors list 19 points of similarity between the events in Amherst and those at Borley, including the violent throwing of small objects, small outbreaks of fire and, unusually, messages written in pencil on walls in the house. Price reports that over 2000 unexplained events took place during the five years of the Foyster incumbency (almost all reliant on the personal testimony of Marianne, who in later interviews admitted to faking most of the events), but as noted earlier, he only bothered to visit the rectory once. Admittedly he was busy with other cases, but this does seem odd.
Finally, one of the reasons for Price's reluctance to visit the rectory much after 1929 may be an incident that was said to have occurred in the early days of his involvement that year when he conducted a journalist Charles Sutton from the Daily Mail around the house. According to Mr Sutton: 'Many things happened that night I spent in the famous Borley Rectory with Harry Price and one of his colleagues [his secretary Sheila Kaye], including one uncomfortable moment when a large pebble hit me on the head. After much noisy 'phenomena' I seized Harry and found his pockets full of bricks and pebbles. This was one 'phenomenon' he could not explain, so I rushed to the nearest village to phone the Daily Mail with my story, but after a conference with the lawyer my story was killed. The News Editor said: 'Bad luck, old man, but there were two of them and only one of you.' This story emerged soon after Price's death in 1948 and many apologists claim that it was simply made up to discredit the reputation of somebody who could not answer back. The authors of Borley Rectory: the Final Analysis (pp80-81) helpfully point out (also with reference to another accusation of 'hocus pocus' made by a journalist from Life magazine in 1944 about the notorious 'flying brick') that the writers were 'in the employ of popular and not particularly intellectual publications' and that 'Frankly, sensationalism is part of the stock-in-trade of some newspaper reporters and although many people felt that Price was far too concerned with publicity, there is the possibility that in regard to these two alleged incidents it may have been a case of being sinned against rather than sinning.' The hundreds of sensationalist newspaper reports written uncritically about the Borley haunting escape censure however.
Recently I've been reading quite a lot about Borley Rectory, so-called 'Most Haunted House in England' (which I probably first came across in one of Colin Wilson's books in the 1970s - my friend Gary Lachman, who spoke at the event on Saturday has just completed a biography of Wilson, out in the autumn). There are a number of books on the subject - I've read about half and probably cannot face any more - but most incline towards belief rather than scepticism.
I think it's instructional to first read Harry Price's famous/notorious The Most Haunted House in England (pub. 1940) and The End of Borley Rectory (pub. 1946) and then to immediately go on to The Haunting of Borley Rectory (pub. 1956 by three members of the Society for Psychical Research). The latter is a carefully constructed major debunking exercise of the whole Borley legend and is especially critical of Price's role in its development; the study took five years to complete and the authors had access to a vast amount of correspondence, notebooks and material in Price's archive which he donated to the University of London; they also interviewed a number of surviving witnesses. Despite this, a handful of books have since been published that attempt to reclaim the supernatural nature of the Borley phenomena and clear Price's name. Personally I found the SPR book to pose some fundamental problems with the evidence that I don't feel have been adequately answered by subsequent researchers who all accuse the SPR writers of conducting a personal vendetta against Price. It has to be noted that unusual phenomena were recorded there before and after Price's intervention, but his arrival was certainly the catalyst that propelled Borley into worldwide prominence and he was eventually to benefit considerably both financially and in terms of publicity from the association.
One of the central problems with Price's account is the way that he presents the 'evidence', especially with what he often leaves out, rather than what is put in. There are many instances of manipulation of witness accounts given in the SPR book, but I think one of the most important examples of Price's chicanery is that of the so-called 'Borley medals'. Put briefly and according to his account in MHHE (p.59): on 5 July 1929 Price visited the Rectory with his secretary Miss Kaye and SPR member Lord Charles Hope, during their time spent there a number of 'paranormal' manifestations occurred, including 'a shower of keys ... a small gilt medallion, such as are presented to Roman Catholic children on their confirmation; and another medallion or badge ... issued in Paris after the French Revolution.' He adds 'many of the phenomena at Borley are connected in some way with Roman Catholicism: the "nun" and monks, the medallions; France ...and so on.' To put this in context: in 1937 the Glanville family (Sidney Glanville assisted Price in his investigations) conducted some planchette experiments and claimed to receive communications from a French Roman Catholic nun giving the name Mary or Marie Lairre. In her account she had come to England to be a novice at a nunnery in Bures and was murdered at Borley in 1667 and buried in the grounds of the rectory. The medals that mysteriously appeared in 1929 would appear to provide some form of evidence for the presence of a French Roman Catholic at Borley, at least according to Price and his supporters.
However, there is one major problem: according to Price himself in an earlier account and a couple of contemporary witnesses, only one medal was found in July 1929, it was made of brass, minted in Rome c.1700 and depicted St Ignatius Loyola in what could be described as 'monkish' garb. Price's secretary confirmed that it was this medal that appeared on that date and she was given it for safe keeping. Lord Charles Hope in his notes of his visit described the discovery of '6 or 7 keys (I think) and a medallion with Latin words on it & the head of a monk all lying about on the bare floor.' Price himself wrote a piece for the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in August 1929 in which he notes 'amongst the keys was a brass Romish medallion, which the rector could not identify'; the medal was also found amongst Price's Borley papers after his death. It is never mentioned in his books about Borley. Price was a numismatist and had a large collection of coins and medals.
Subsequent non-sceptical writers have claimed that Price made a 'simple mistake' when he came to write up his account 11 years later, substituting two different medals for the one recorded in 1929. However, suspicion is heightened by the fact that at the time Price believed the local legend that the rectory was built on the site of a Benedictine monastery - an image of a monk found in the house would help bolster the belief (even though the medal significantly post-dated the Reformation). When he later discovered, thanks to the local archaeological society, that there was no evidence whatsoever for the monastery, the story was conveniently changed to that of the murder of the French nun, which again seemed to be supported by the medals later described in MHHE. Even as I write this, the notion that these medals are 'evidence' that somehow supports these theories seems absurd. So there we have it - a simple error or an attempt to bolster up the most recent far-fetched theory about the ghosts of Borley (based on the 'evidence' of a seance using a planchette)?
There is an excellent website with a series of clear-eyed, well-researched essays written by a local author that should surely convince any doubter about the manner in which the legend of Borley was constructed and manipulated here.
Any day now LAW magazine (April 2016, not the issue with the cover used above) will be publishing an interview with me that took place a couple of months ago. It's the first time that a proper interview - rather than a journalist's take on the contents of one of my books - has appeared, so that's another step forward. It's mostly about Subterranean City and the new secret tunnel book.
The Subterranean Saturday event last weekend organized by the London Fortean Society was a resounding success. All 400 seats for the Conway Hall had sold out by last Thursday and the place was rammed. I think my talk on secret tunnels went well (certainly a bigger crowd than my first out-of-London book talk last October when I attracted an audience of 7 - four of whom were my wife, her friend and our children).
Even more impressively I sold 60 copies of Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore & Fact, so there are now fewer than 200 left. Sounds That Swing/No Hit in Camden is no longer stocking the book, but it should still be available from the following: (London) Watkins, Treadwells, Atlantis, Hatchards, London Review of Books Bookshop; (Nottingham) Five Leaves; (Hastings) Albion Books, Borough Wines; (St Leonards) The Bookkeeper.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact