The Borley Rectory
Borley Rectory was constructed on Hall Road near Borley Church by its rector, the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull in 1863, he moved in a year after being named rector of the parish. The building was a large brick Rectory that replaced the rather earlier Georgian house built for Rev Herringham that had been destroyed by a fire that broke out in 1841. It was eventually enlarged by the addition of an extra wing to house Bull’s family, a wife and fourteen children.
The church itself dates to the 12th century and the area received mention in the Domesday Book as having a manor house. Ghost-hunters like to quote the legend of a Benedictine monastery supposedly built in this area around 1362. According to legend, a monk from the monastery carried on a relationship with a nun from a nearby convent. After their affair was discovered, the monk was executed while the nun was bricked up alive in the walls of the convent. It was discovered in 1938 that this legend had no basis whatsoever in historical fact and seems to have been invented by the children of the rector to romanticize their rather ugly, recently-built, red-brick rectory. The story of the walling up of the nun was probably taken from a novel by Rider Haggard.
The first known reports of paranormal events date to around 1885. At this time, a few locals reported hearing footsteps within the house, and, on 28th July 1900, four of the daughters of the rector reported seeing what they thought was the ghost of a nun from 40 yards distance near the house in twilight. Various people would witness a variety of puzzling incidents such as a phantom coach through the next four decades. Henry Dawson Ellis Bull died in 1892 and his son, Rev. Harry Bull took over the living. In 1911, he married a younger divorcee, Ivy, and the couple moved with her daughter to nearby Borley Place until 1920, at which point he took over the rectory whilst his unmarried sisters moved to Chilton Lodge a few miles away.
On 9th June 1927, the rector, Harry Bull, died and the rectory became vacant. In the following year, on 2nd October 1928, the Reverend Guy Eric Smith and his wife moved into the home. One day, soon after moving in, Mrs. Smith was cleaning out a cupboard when she came across a brown paper package. Inside was the skull of a young woman. Shortly after, the family would report a variety of incidents including the sounds of bells ringing, lights appearing in windows, windows shattering and footsteps. In addition, Mrs. Smith saw a horse-drawn carriage at night. The Smiths contacted the Daily Mirror to ask them to put them in touch with the Society for Psychical Research. June 10 of that year, the paper sent a reporter who promptly wrote the first of a series of articles detailing the mysteries of Borley. The paper also arranged for Harry Price, a paranormal researcher, to make his first visit to the place that would ultimately make his name famous. He arrived on the 12th June. Immediately, objective ‘phenomena’ of a new kind appeared, such as the throwing of stones, a vase, and other objects. ‘Spirit messages’ were tapped out from the frame of a mirror.
Finally driven from their home by the poor state of the house, the Smiths left Borley in on the 14th July 1929 and after some difficulty in finding a replacement, the Reverend Lionel Foyster, a first cousin of the Bulls, and his wife Marianne moved into the rectory with their adopted daughter Adelaide on 16th October 1930. Lionel Foyster wrote an account of the various strange incidents that happened, which he sent to Harry Price. Price estimated that between the Foyster’s moving in October of 1930 and October of 1935 that some two thousand incidents took place there, including bell-ringing, stones, bottle-throwing, and wall-writing. Lionel Foyster’s wife Marianne reported to her husband a whole range of poltergeist phenomena which included her being thrown bodily from her bed. On one occasion, Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible”. Twice, Reverend Foyster tried to conduct an exorcism, but his efforts were futile. In the middle of the first, the reverend was struck in the shoulder by a fist-sized stone. Because of the publicity in the Daily Mirror, these incidents attracted much attention at the time from several psychic researchers who investigated and were unanimous in suspecting that they were caused, consciously or unconsciously, by the Rector’s wife, Marianne Foyster. Marianne Foyster later stated that she felt that some of the incidents were caused by her husband in collaboration with one of the psychic researchers, but other events appeared to her to be genuine paranormal phenomena.
The Foysters left Borley as a result of Lionel’s ill health and Harry Price, after a gap of over 5 years, renewed his interest in the house, renting the building for a year between May 1937 to May 1938. Through an advertisement in The Times newspaper on 25th May 1937, and subsequent personal interviews he recruited a corp of forty-eight ‘Official Observers’, mostly students, who spent periods, mainly at weekends, at the Rectory with instructions to report any phenomena which occurred. In March 1938 Helen Glanville, conducted an Ouija Board sitting in Streatham in London. Price reported that Glanville made contact with two spirits. The first was that of a young nun who identified herself as Marrie Lairre. She said she had been murdered on the site of Borley Rectory. Her answers were consistent with the local legend. Her French name, though, was a puzzle. She was a French nun who left her religious order, married, and came to live in England. The groom was supposedly none other than Henry Waldengrave, the owner of the seventeenth-century manor house.
Price was convinced that the ghostly nun who had been seen for generations was Marie Lairre, condemned to wander restlessly as her spirit searched for a holy burial ground. The wall writings were her pleas for help. The second spirit to be contacted identified himself by the strange name of “Sunnex Amures”. He claimed that he would set fire to the rectory at nine o’clock that night. He also said that at this same time, the bones of a murdered person would be revealed. The predictions of Sunnex Amures came to pass, in a way, but not that night (27 March 1938). In February 1939, the new owner of the rectory reported that he was unpacking some boxes when an oil lamp in the hallway overturned. The fire quickly spread, and Borley Rectory was severely damaged. An onlooker said she saw the figure of the ghostly nun in the upstairs window. The burning of the rectory was investigated by the insurance company and determined to be insurance fraud. Harry Price conducted a brief dig in the cellars of the ruined house and, almost immediately, two bones of a young woman were discovered. Subsequent meticulous excavations of the cellars over three years revealed nothing further.
Since the destruction of the rectory, the events there have been investigated and argued from various angles. After Harry Price’s death in 1948, three members of the English Society for Psychical Research, two of whom had been Price’s most loyal associates, investigated his claims about Borley and published their findings in a book ‘The Haunting of Borley Rectory’ 1956 which came to the conclusion that any evidence for a haunting was hopelessly confused by Harry Price’s duplicity. The ‘Borley Report’ as the SPR study has become known stated that much of the phenomena were either faked or were due to natural causes such as rats and the strange acoustics due to the odd shape of the house. Subsequently, Robert Hastings, an SPR member, discussed several of the charges of duplicity and falsification of evidence made against Harry Price in a paper to the SPR called ‘An Examination of the ‘Borley Report’, without being able to rebut them convincingly. Hastings’s report was never published in book form and is often overlooked.
Further books on the Rectory hauntings have appeared over the years including a collaboration in 1973 by ghost-hunter & author Peter Underwood and Price’s literary executor Paul Tabori entitled ‘The Ghosts of Borley’ which is generally sympathetic to the idea of paranormal activity at Borley and defends Harry Price against accusations of fraud. A similar approach was made by Ivan Banks in his ‘The Enigma of Borley Rectory’ which was published in 1996. In 1992 Robert Wood published a study of Marianne Foyster and Borley entitled ‘The Widow of Borley’ which was in a similar vein to the ‘Borley Report’. Occasional reports of paranormal activity still come out of the area, including Borley Church.
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