Sunday, 17 April 2016
Borley Rectory: The Final Miscellany
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.'