Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Borley Rectory 1

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.

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