Thursday, 14 April 2016

Borley Rectory: The Final Analysis

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, he had been a member of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists), 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.

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