Was Borley Haunted? It wasn’t just the house

Borley Rectory in an earlier timeYou’ll know I’ve talked about Borley before, probably the most famous haunting of all. I thought I’d covered most of the story.

But it seems there’s always a little bit more and I wanted to share this snippet with you. For those who don’t know much about Borley Rectory, you can read the earlier posts here:

Borley Rectory: the house and its ghosts – part one

Borley Rectory: the house and its ghosts – part two

Now for the postscript.

A London journalist, Montague Eleman, who’d heard of the case while a serving soldier, hoped to sell his story to the dailies, and once demobbed, set off for Borley to see it for himself. He was a little bit late. By the time he got there it was 1946, and the house by then had been demolished. After walking around the rubble for a while and chatting to any people he could find, he left for London, carrying a piece of wood with him – the wood was charred (because of the fire) and possibly from the roof or the floor. The next nine years were something of a nightmare.

Arriving back in London that evening, he left the wood on the mantelpiece, in the room he used at his sister’s house and then went down to supper, alone. He heard a noise and when he looked up his sister was there, claiming she’d seen a nun in his bedroom. It didn’t stop there.

In the nights that followed, Eleman and his family heard quite a few noises, ranging from screams to a clock chiming, all quite close to where the wood was. But eventually, the noise settled down.

When several weeks later, Eleman moved and took up lodgings in a seaside town, there were several more incidents, the doorbell rang when no-one was there, and a dark-clad person crossed the landing. Needless to say, he’d brought the wood with him.

Eleman finally sussed that whenever he moved to a new location and took the wood, the disturbance increased, but then eased off, as if whatever it was that had been disturbed had now settled down. In 1955, after nine long years he gave the piece of timber away. Nobody knows where that wood is now.

Or maybe they do…Borley Rectory after the fire

Borley’s story is quite exceptional, it transcends time, people and the place, as we’ve just seen. But this wasn’t the first time the haunting had extended beyond the house.

In 1928, (Guy) Eric Smith and his wife Mabel moved into Borley after being abroad. They didn’t know that other vicars had refused the living, because of the house’s reputation. Like other residents before and since, the Smiths experienced some strange incidents. A mirror on Mrs Smith’s dressing table began tapping whenever she came near it, and this continued after they left Borley.

Some years later, in 1937, the Smiths were living in a village in Kent, when they were visited by Sidney Glanville. Glanville was one of Price’s researchers. He held the mirror in his hands. A week after he’d visited the Smiths and held the mirror he received a letter asking if he’d brought a ghost with him because ‘the mirror has started tapping again.’ He never went back to the house to find out.

Ghosts aren’t always tied to a house.

Shadows of the Lost Child - a novel and ghost storyMy latest novel, a partly historical mystery, with a time travel element, also centres around a house: there are ghosts in the story, but are the ghosts connected to the house? You’ll have to read the book to find out…

Article written by Ellie Stevenson, author.

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Adams, P. & Brazil, E. Extreme Hauntings: Britain’s most terrifying ghosts, History Press, 2013

Glanville, S. The Strange Happenings at Borley Rectory (originally in American Fate magazine, 1951)

Images (Wikimedia Commons)

Borley Rectory before the fire

Borley Rectory as a ruin





Borley Rectory: the house and its ghosts – part two

Borley Rectory (probably in 1929)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.

Reverend Harry (Henry) BullThere 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.

BorleyChurchWe’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.

Ellie Stevenson, authorArticle written by Ellie Stevenson, author.

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.

Sources (websites)

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Further Information

Borley Rectory: the house and its ghosts – part one

Borley Rectory 1892Houses are a current fascination. Perhaps because my next novel includes a house – but is it haunted? Borley Rectory, on the other hand, wasn’t just haunted, but supposedly England’s most haunted house. It  certainly is England’s most complex haunting.

Looking at the picture of the house above, the place has an almost ethereal quality. Borley Rectory was anything but. Built by the Reverend Henry Bull in 1863, the building itself was large, red brick and gothic Victorian. It was decidedly striking – from the outside. Inside, the house was a different story. The floors were stone or heavy wood, the doors were substantial and also heavy, and some of the windows were iron-barred. There was no gas or electric lighting, occupants used oil lamps and candles for light, and the water supply came from a well.

While the house lacked charm, it did have space, being three storeys high with about 20 rooms.  It was on the same site (more or less) as a former building, Herringham Rectory. Herringham Rectory, from what we know, seems to have been rather attractive, but wouldn’t have had sufficient space for the social engagements the Bulls enjoyed, and the size of their family (14 children of whom 12 survived). So Reverend Bull had his own home constructed, and later, even had it extended.

Andrew Clarke, paints an interesting picture, when he talks about the presence of two previous buildings, Herringham Rectory  and an older building, maybe also a rectory, and mentioned in several ancient documents. This building is likely to have been from the 17th century or maybe the mid to late 16th century. Clarke describes it as a ‘typical three-bay oak-framed building.’  He suggests the three buildings would have used the same driveway and also shared a stable and coach house. But why is the oldest building significant?

Borley Rectory sometime before demolition (1939-1944)By the 1950s, Borley Rectory had vanished from view, all that remained were cellars, foundations and plenty of rubble. In 1939, the house had caught fire and was badly damaged, it was later demolished (in 1944). But a history of ghosts, suggestions of nuns and messages on walls had finally led to cellar excavations, the first in the thirties when the house was still standing, and later in the fifties, when again nothing of significance was found. But in between, in 1943, was a different story, when ghost hunter Price was one of a team exploring the site. His motley crew included a pathologist, the local vicar and the vicar’s gardener who did the digging. They were looking for death but instead found bottles and broken knives. Then they moved on, and three feet down, and discovered a jawbone and part of a skull.

We can only speculate, from a modern perspective, how the  gardener, Jackson, a former farm labourer insisted the jawbone belonged to a pig, while Bailey, the pathologist instead reported that the bone was human. The vicar, Henning, wanted the remains to be buried in the churchyard, but the locals protested  and the bones were hastily buried at Liston. Oh, for today’s forensic specialists!

The bones and skull raise several questions and not just whether they were animal or human. Also significant: how did they get there, and were they anything to do with the hauntings? Possible explanations include:

  • the bones were animal : detritus left from a former building (probably the first)
  • the bones were either animal and human but planted/exchanged by Harry Price to support his theories. Price was a sceptic turned believer, so maybe the bones were part of his plan?
  • the bones were human:  the remains of a nun, probably not the one of the legend, but maybe French and possibly murdered in the 17th century (highly unlikely, although it’s interesting that when the dig was extended the following day some old French pendants were found nearby)
  • the  remains of someone associated with Borley whose death might not have been totally innocent (was Katie Boreham buried in the churchyard?)
  • the bones belonged to a plague victim of the 17th century, although why he or she might be lying in the cellar is anyone’s guess

An interesting point with regard to the last, is that apparently part of the rectory’s garden was a burial site for plague victims, and occasionally bones would reappear  (A. Clarke, 2003).

Still one question remains unanswered. What did happen at Borley Rectory and how much of the story is attributable to ghosts? Find out in part two.

Note: Borley Rectory no longer exists. Anyone visiting the local area should respect the peace and privacy of residents.

Ellie Stevenson, authorArticle written by Ellie Stevenson, author.

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.

Sources (websites)

Sources – Images

Further Information