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.
The man without a legacy
2 hours ago