Join me as I take a trip back in time to visit “the most haunted house in England”…
“Some houses are born bad.” So wrote Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House, and she might have been talking about Borley Rectory, in Essex, England. The house seemed to have a bad reputation from the outset; locals claimed to have heard mysterious footsteps in its echoing corridors from its earliest days, and from then on the ghostly phenomena would only intensify.
The rectory was built in 1862 to house the rector of Borley, the Reverend Henry Bull, and his family. The area in which it stood was once said to have housed a Benedictine monastery, and a colourful local legend concerned a monk who had fallen in love with a nun from a nearby convent. The lovers had planned to elope together, but their affair was discovered; the monk was executed, while the unlucky nun was walled up alive.
It was, however, only in 1900 that the haunting began in earnest. On a drowsy summer’s evening that year the rector’s daughters saw what they believed to be a ghostly nun in the garden. This phantom would be seen on several occasions, according to the church organist. Others claimed to have seen a phantom carriage driven by headless horsemen in the vicinity of the rectory – a psychic remnant, presumably, of the carriage that the renegade monk and nun had planned to escape in.
So far, this seems like a mildly chilling, rather romantic ghost story – the kind of eerie local legend that exists throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles. In another world, it might have remained as such. However, from this point onwards the haunting of Borley Rectory would gather pace, and would eventually become known far beyond the sleepy confines of rural Essex.
A Psychic Storm
Following the death of the younger Reverend Bull in 1928, the Reverend Guy Eric Smith took over the living at Borley, and he and his wife moved into the rectory. Mrs Smith presumably got the shock of her life when, while cleaning out a cupboard one day, she came across a human skull wrapped in a brown paper package. The discovery seemed to unleash a psychic tsunami: lights appeared in the rectory’s windows, disembodied footsteps sounded in the corridors, and bells rang even though the wires had been disconnected. Past crimes cried out for justice. The dead would not rest easy.
If you live in a haunted house – and since the ghostbusters, alas, don’t really exist – who you gonna call? The police? A psychologist? A medium? An exorcist? The Reverend Smith, rather bizarrely, chose to write to the Daily Mirror newspaper. Perhaps it was an honest, if mistaken, request for help, but the consequences were predictable. It wasn’t long before a reporter was despatched to the rectory; and, hard on his heels, arrived a paranormal researcher called Harry Price…
A Tangled Web
Harry Price was a curious figure. A paranormal investigator, an amateur (but excellent) conjurer, and an exposer of fraudulent mediums, his genuine interest in psychic phenomena was combined with an apparent love of the spotlight. He was frequently accused of at best exaggerating, and at worst inventing, paranormal occurrences – an understandable accusation, perhaps, given his flair for conjuring. Certainly his arrival at Borley coincided with a new and violent phase of the haunting. Stones and vases flew. The spirits took to tapping out messages on the walls. Mrs Smith apparently suspected Price of being behind at least some of these events, not least because they abruptly ceased when he departed. This, however, was not to be the end of Price’s involvement with Borley.
Following the Smiths’ departure from the rectory in 1929, the Reverend Lionel Algernon Foyster, his wife Marianne, and their adopted daughter Adelaide moved in. According to the legend, something about the presence of Marianne Foyster seemed to invoke a storm of psychic phenomena. The house bells rang (again), stones were thrown, windows were broken, and mysterious writing appeared on the walls. Marianne was thrown from her bed, and Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible”. Several psychic researchers, however, concluded that these phenomena were caused – either as conscious, deliberate fraud or on a subconscious level – by Marianne. Mrs Foyster was years younger than her husband, and might well have been bored with life in a small place like Borley; how better to liven things up than with some ghostly hijinks?
The End of Borley Rectory
Following the Foysters’ departure in 1935, the rectory remained empty for a while before, in 1937, Harry Price arrived back on the scene, taking out a year-long lease on the property and recruiting a team of psychic investigators to help him conduct a proper study. During this period, two spirits were allegedly contacted during a seance: one, the ghost of a nun, identified herself as Marie Lairre, while the other, “Sunex Amures”, threatened to set fire to the rectory and stated that, after the building’s destruction, the bones of a murder victim would be revealed.
A fire did indeed eventually occur, albeit later than the spirit predicted. In 1939, as the rectory’s new owner, Captain W.H. Gregson, was unpacking some boxes, he accidentally overturned an oil lamp. A fire took hold and spread quickly, and by the time it was put out the rectory was but a smoking, blackened ruin. Yet the ghosts continued to plague the rectory even as it was being destroyed: a local resident claimed to have seen the phantom nun standing at an upstairs window during the blaze.
The story of Borley Rectory was not quite at an end, however. In 1943 Price carried out another investigation in the house’s exposed cellars and excavated some bones which, he believed, belonged to a young woman. He arranged for them to be buried in nearby Liston churchyard (the parish of Borley refused to inter them, largely because of the local opinion that they belonged to a pig).
Phenomenal, or Fake?
Harry Price died in 1948, and in the wake of his passing a reassessment of the Borley case took place. Daily Mail reporter Charles Sutton claimed that, while visiting the rectory with Price in 1929, he had been hit by a large pebble. Sutton prudently insisted on examining Price’s pockets, and found that they were full of similar-sized stones. While not proof positive of fraud, this certainly added a question mark to Price’s claims.
The Society for Psychical Research also pursued an investigation into the case. They concluded that Price had been responsible for at least some of the phenomena, while other occurrences might have been due to natural phenomena – the activities of rats and mice, for example, or the strange acoustics that were produced by the house’s odd layout.
Finally, Marianne Foyster – long after she had left the rectory, and following her husband’s death – admitted that she had seen no apparitions at Borley, and that she herself had produced many of the supposed phenomena, apparently for no other reason than to play a trick on her husband.
And what of the legend of the ghostly nun, walled up alive after her plot to run away with her lover was foiled? Alas, it seems that this might have been no more than a story invented by the Reverend Bull’s children, perhaps in an attempt to add some colour and romance to their quiet home.
Still, the legend of Borley lives on. A steady procession of researchers and the idle curious still apparently make their way to the small village (much to the dismay of local residents) to gawk at the site where the rectory once stood. “The most haunted house in England” continues to exert a pull on our collective imagination. In Britain, at least, this might be explained by nostalgia: the Borley story takes us back, imaginatively, to an England that has largely disappeared. Or perhaps we are simply entranced by the idea that, at certain times and in certain places, the dead do not rest in peace, but cross over into the world of the living…
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