In part one we talked about the history of the house and some of the things that were found on site. The excavations were the culmination of many reports of ghostly phenomena. But was Borley really haunted?
The history of the house can be summarised as follows:
- 1863: the Reverend Henry Bull moved into the house he’d just had constructed. Reverend Bull had a large family and subsequently had the house extended
- 1892: Henry Bull died, and his son, Harry Bull, also a vicar, took over the role
- 1927: Harry Bull died and in 1928 Rev. (Guy) Eric Smith and his wife moved in. They moved out in 1929. Eric Smith’s sister was a medium
- 1930-1935: the house was occupied by the Rev. Lionel Foyster, a cousin of the Bulls, and his wife Marianne; they left due to Lionel’s ill health
- 1937-1938: the house was rented by Harry Price, a paranormal researcher, who secured various observers to report on phenomena
- 1939: the house caught fire and was badly damaged. By then the owner was W. H. Gregson
- 1944: the house was demolished
So what was reported
- Henry Bull’s daughters and a number of others reported seeing the ghost of a nun
- Various people at different times heard servants’ bells ringing; no-one wanted to admit ringing them
- Stones were thrown, lights were seen or turned on, and a number of people heard unexplained footsteps
- There were wall writings – these have been photographed
- The planchette séance incident (a planchette is a device to facilitate automatic writing)
The truth and the fiction
With hindsight, we can see that much of the haunting wasn’t ghostly at all. The story of a nun being seen at the rectory was probably initially developed by the Bull daughters for their own amusement. The legend of a nun being walled up alive after an illicit romance is just that, a legend, or maybe taken from the plot of a novel. Borley was a rural community and Andrew Clarke (2003) suggests that at that time, a lot of people would be wandering around Borley on foot. A travelling farm worker dressed in black, with a scarf on her head, might look like a nun, particularly at dusk, and at a distance.
The sounds of bells are easily explained. The bell wires (the bells had previously been used to summon servants) were laid out in the attic and could have been triggered by mice or birds. One of the Foyster family, Ian, found a string tied to a wire in the rectory courtyard. This suggests the bells had been rung on purpose, for ‘fun’, at least once. Marianne Foyster also mentioned a broken wire hanging down from the ceiling. Such wires would be an excellent opportunity for causing mischief.
There were a whole host of unexplained phenomena, which could be ghostly, but realistically, were more likely to be down to human interference. Frank Peerless (or Pearless), the Foyster’s lodger, is said to have admitted to being responsible for some of the phenomena.
Prior to that, when the Smiths were in place, Mabel Smith was cleaning out a cupboard when she found a skull wrapped in paper. While it’s tempting to think it might be the skull of a missing nun, or someone who had an illicit affair and was buried beneath the floor of the house, it’s possible the skull may have been recovered from the garden where bones of the dead used to reappear (see part one). The Smiths were bothered by a number of incidents such as unexpected lights in windows and the ringing of bells and they wanted to contact a psychical researcher. They got in touch with the Daily Mirror who as well as making their own report, arranged for Harry Price to visit.
Price, who was associated with the rectory for quite a few years, including after the building caught fire, expressed a belief that the happenings were real, but caused by people, rather than ghosts. But he clearly had doubts and couldn’t wait for the Foysters to leave, so he could get a team in and investigate further.
The wall writings, from the 1930s, are almost certainly fake, but have attracted a continual stream of interest. They, and the earlier writings on scraps of paper, included Marianne Foyster’s name and requests for help. Was this the nun, asking for peace? There was also confusion over what exactly had happened with the writings as Marianne Foyster said she’d removed them, but later they were photographed. The style of the writing is similar to Foyster’s but she denied being involved. It remains another Borley puzzle.
The planchette séance is an interesting phenomenon, which happened after the Foysters had left. The house was being studied by several of Price’s volunteer researchers. One of the researchers, Sidney Glanville, recovered a planchette from a storage room, and it was used one night in the Borley library. Two ‘messages’ came out of the reading, one about a nun, Marie Lairre, said to have been murdered by one of the Waldegrave family in the 17th century. There appears to be no evidence that such a figure actually existed (although given that this was the 17th century, that’s hardly surprising). The other message involved ‘a clear prophecy that the Rectory would be burned and under the ruins would be found the bones of a murdered person’ (Sidney Glanville, source below). Eleven months later, on 27 February 1939, the house caught fire and fell into disrepair. At the time of the fire the house was owned by a W. H. Gregson.
There are numerous other strange incidents, such as lights, smells and various sounds. But old buildings creak, and Henry Bull’s extension may have added to the effects. When people were outside in the courtyard, for example, the sounds were magnified inside, and sounded as if they came from within.
It seems likely that environmental factors combined with a few mischievous people were responsible for most of the so-called hauntings. But even now, some questions remain. Were so many people really so gullible? The Smiths, for example, stayed a very short time, and unknown to them, the church had tried to fill the position unsuccessfully several times over before the Smiths took it. Smith himself had a very bad feeling about the place, and when the Foysters took over, the incidents increased, although perhaps because of their suggestible natures. Also, several people died in the Blue Room, but then, it was a bedroom.
We’ll probably never know what happened at Borley, but there’s a vast array of reading material to keep even the most enthusiastic ghost hunter going for decades. And some say the ghosts of Borley still lurk in the churchyard – but I don’t believe it…
Note: Borley Rectory no longer exists. Anyone visiting the local area should respect the peace and privacy of residents.
This article is copyrighted material. Brief extracts including a link to this site can be quoted but the article must not be reproduced in full anywhere without the author’s written permission.
- Borley Rectory: the most haunted house in Britain (Ghost-Story.co.uk)
- Borley Rectory: the most haunted house in England (Harry Price website)
- Clarke, A. The Nun and the Travelling Scissorman, 2003 (website)
- Glanville, S. H. The Strange Happenings at Borley Rectory (originally appeared in Fate magazine, Oct. 1951)
Images – sources
- Borley Rectory, probably in 1929
- Harry Bull, the son (not Henry, the father)
- Parish Church of Borley, Essex
- Borley Rectory images: Foxearth and District Local History Society
- Clarke, A. The Bones of Borley, 2000-2005 (website)
- Clarke, A. Dramatis Personae (Borley Rectory cast of characters)
- Lee-Van den Daele, R. & Adams, P. Borley Rectory in 1984 (website)