I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In 1863, the Reverend Henry Bull built a rectory in the village of Borley, near Sudbury in eastern England. It was a large home, necessary for a man with a wife and 14 children. It was also cold and drafty and given to creaking and groaning, as houses with wooden floors are wont to do in damp climates.
Rectory Built on Site of Old Monastery
According to Brittania.com the rectory, “was erected on the site of an ancient monastery and the ghost of a sorrowful nun who strolled along the so-called ‘Nun’s Walk’ was already well known...”
The legend is that in the 14th century a nun had committed the sin of falling in love with a monk from a neighbouring monastery. The lovers tried to elope but were caught and came to a sticky end; the monk was hanged, the coachman who was to drive them away was beheaded, and the nun was entombed, alive, in the monastery’s cellars. No doubt the loving and all-merciful god directed such activities.
New Paranormal Sightings
Ghost-Story.co.uk notes that a visitor to the rectory in 1885 witnessed “stone throwing and similar poltergeist activity.”
More unexplained events followed: “A former headmaster of the Colchester Royal Grammar School reported seeing a ghostly nun several times during 1885. A series of pastors and their families who have lived at the rectory have all reported sightings of the nun.”
Guests at dinner parties were treated to the sight of a pale-faced nun peering in at a window; this became so disconcerting that the window was bricked up. There were reports of groans and mysterious footsteps and some residents of the house complained they had to dodge pebbles thrown by an unknown and unseen assailant. Servants’ bells rang even though the cords connecting them had been cut.
Borley Rectory Becomes Famous
In 1928, the Reverend Guy Eric Smith was the incumbent vicar in the parish. He and his family were very disturbed by the apparition of the nun and the malevolence of the poltergeists, so they turned to the media for help. Reverend Smith contacted The Daily Mirror newspaper, which sent along reporter C.V. Wall to get the story.
The Mirror published Wall’s account (June 10, 1929) in which he wrote of “Ghostly figures of headless coachmen and a nun, an old time coach drawn by two bay horses, which appears and vanishes mysteriously, and dragging footsteps in empty rooms.”
The newspaper followed up by sending “psychic investigator” Harry Price to the house.
Period of Heightened Poltergeist Activity
Reverend Lionel Foyster and his wife Marianne were the next residents of the troubled rectory and, according to Vincent O’Neill, writing for Paranormal Insight (1995) “Price estimated ‘that at least two thousand poltergeist phenomena were experienced at the Rectory between October 1930 and October 1935.’ ”
The pebble-throwing and bell-ringing continued and were added to by writing appearing on walls and slips of paper. Glass objects were said to materialize and then be crashed to the floor. O’Neill writes that “After an attempt at exorcism, Marianne [Foyster] was thrown out of bed several times.”
Harry Price Investigates Borley Rectory
After the Foysters left, the house was empty for a couple of years until Harry Price leased it and set up a team of 48 observers who stayed in the building, mostly over weekends.
After 12 months of observations the Harry Price Website records that, “Rather than stories of spectral sightings, poltergeist effects, and the like, the vast majority of the reports returned routine and mundane information … However, there were several incidents (primarily aural which includes thumps and footsteps) which observers …. could not put down to natural causes …”
Undaunted (or unhaunted?) by the lack of evidence, Harry Price published his book, The Most Haunted House in England in 1940.
A Prankster Confesses?
In 2000, Louis Mayerling published his book We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory. Mr. Mayerling claims to have been a frequent visitor to the house and outlines how he engaged in elaborate schemes to fool ghost hunters.
He would prowl the grounds at dusk in a black cloak with the collar turned to give the appearance of a headless man. He would poke the servant’s bells with a rod through a barred window. He would write cryptic messages on the walls of the house. So he said.
But there are no records of a Louis Mayerling in the huge collection of documents about Borley Rectory.
The conclusion of many, especially among the legions of Borley ghost enthusiasts, is that We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory is, in fact, a hoax.
Was Borley Really Haunted?
In 1939, Borley Rectory was destroyed in a fire and the wreckage was removed in 1944, but stories that the ghostly nun has moved her hauntings to the nearby church persist.
However, at the time of Price’s investigation there were plenty of debunkers around who suggested the whole thing was a hoax. The website Skeptoid sides with the disbelievers.
In a July 5, 2007 posting Skeptoid points out that Harry Price was an accomplished magician and deceiver having toured Britain “with a fake statue of Hercules. He exhibited a fake silver ingot from the reign of Roman emperor Honorious. He showed gold coins from the kings of Sussex and a bone carved with hieroglyphics, all proven to be fakes. By every account, Harry Price was a practiced hoaxer …”
The website says all of Borley Rectory’s hauntings can be explained as natural occurrences, exaggerations, and outright fabrications, with Price’s hand detectable behind many of them.
Not so, said Peter Underwood, President of the Ghost Club of England. In a 1975 interview with the BBC he claimed to be convinced “beyond any shadow of doubt that [Borley Rectory] fully lived up to its name as the most haunted house in England.
- In 1935, an A-list of observers is said to have assembled at the rectory for a séance. The gathering included George Bernard Shaw, T. E. Lawrence, of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame, the Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Montagu Norman, and Bernard Spilsbury, the Home Office criminal forensic scientist. Accounts of what happened vary from not very much to blood-curdling flashes of light causing temporary paralysis.
- A dozen miles away from Borley is the village of Polstead, which has its own grisly history. In 1827, 25-year-old Maria Marten, a resident of Polstead, disappeared. Her stepmother dreamed of her being murdered and said she had seen Maria’s ghost pointing to her grave in a barn. Her body was found in a barn and her lover, a ne’er-do-well called William Corder, was arrested, convicted, and hanged.
- “Hoaxer’s Confession Lays the Famed Ghost of Borley.” Amelia Hill, The Observer, December 31, 2000.
- “Borley Rectory.” Harry Price Website, undated.
- “Borley Rectory: the World’s Most Haunted House?” Brian Dunning, Skeptoid.com, July 5, 2007.
- “Borley Rectory – The Most Haunted House in Britain.” Ghost-Story.co.uk, undated.
- “The Strange Tale of Borley Rectory.” Nicola Miller, Millers Tales, April 9, 2015.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Ian McKay on May 26, 2017:
Harry Price was quite the enigma. He exposed a lot of psychics and introduced some good investigative techniques to the paranormal field. Such a shame that the rectory burned down. In this day and age they could have made a fortune hiring this place out to TV crews and wanna be Harry Price's. I have a fascination with the paranormal too, although I'm firmly on the sceptical side of things.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 26, 2017:
That's a really interesting story. How sad it got ruined by fire. Such a lovely building too. I love reading ghost stories like this.
Peggasuse from Indiana, USA on May 26, 2017:
Interesting story. It's a shame that those ghosts can't find peace. As far as the account of what happened and who caused everything, I have to say, it's just sad, on a huge level, how cruel people can be to each other....