Borley, a hamlet on the Suffolk/Essex border, is an unlikely backdrop for one of the most notorious ghost stories of the twentieth century. Surrounded by arable land, so typical of this part of the world, the view on a late summer’s day is benign: newly-harvested fields with the fifteenth century Holy Trinity Church at Long Melford in the distance—tranquillity, all is well.
It was Harry Price, self-proclaimed paranormal investigator, who bestowed upon Borley Rectory the sobriquet “The Most Haunted House in England” in his 1940 book. In 1929 Price was appointed by the Daily Mirror to investigate reports of hauntings by the then-occupiers of the rectory, the Reverend Guy Smith and his wife. It is said that Mrs Smith found a woman’s skull wrapped in brown paper when clearing out a cupboard not long after moving in, and that this discovery was the catalyst for a series of disturbing and unexplained events: disconnected servants’ bells ringing, lights appearing in windows, the sound of footsteps, even the appearance of a horse-drawn carriage.
The alleged paranormal activity pre-dates this time. The first reports emerge not long after the rectory was built to house the Reverend Henry Bull and his large family in 1862: unexplained footsteps, the appearance of a ghostly nun in the garden and a coach driven by two headless men. The local legend that explains the hauntings told that in the fourteenth century a monk from a Benedictine monastery on the site and a nun from nearby Bures Convent fell in love and attempted to elope. On discovery, the monk was hanged, the nun bricked up alive within the convent walls and the coachman who was to drive them to their new life was beheaded.
Harry Price’s arrival coincided with more weird phenomena: the throwing of objects, and the tapping-out of “spirit messages”. Events stepped up during the occupancy of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and their daughter from 1930 to 1935. More unexplained incidents, many reported by Marianne including poltergeist activity and ghostly writing on the walls addressed directly to her. She even claimed to have been hurled out of bed, slapped and almost suffocated by spectral hands. One of the written messages to Marianne referred to “mass prayers”, and from this and other clues, Price concluded that the “spirit” was a young Catholic woman, a nun, who had suffered some act of betrayal and violence.
The ghostly writing
When the Foysters moved out of the rectory in 1935 Price leased the house for a year-long investigation. Price conducted a series of séances and claimed to have made contact with the spirit of Marie Lairre, who had been a nun in France until she had come to England to marry Henry Waldegrave, whose ancestral home stood on the site of the rectory. He had strangled her and buried her in the cellar, she said. Shortly afterwards, in March 1938, another spirit claimed that the house would burn down that night and that evidence to prove Marie’s murder would be found in the cellar. The night came and went, but there was no fire, no drama. It was not until February 1939 that the new owner accidentally tipped over an oil lamp, the fire spread and by morning the rectory was in ruins. Price did indeed investigate the cellar and the bones of a young woman were found, and reburied in the nearby village of of Liston.
The ruined Borley Rectory
Without doubt, Price was a brilliant publicist, who, through his many articles and two books on the subject, put Borley well and truly on the map. His involvement is not without controversy, though. A reporter from the Mirror, Charles Sutton, accompanied Price to Borley in July 1929. Along with Price’s secretary, the men investigated each of the house’s ground floor rooms in turn by the light of a hurricane lamp, Price always following Sutton and locking the doors behind him. Each time Price went to turn the key, the sound of a stone hitting the floor would be heard. Upstairs Sutton suggested that he would be the last to enter. Price objected and they carried on before. As they crossed the landing there was another crash. Sutton had had enough. He grabbed Price and plunged his hands into his jacket pockets to find them full of stones. (The Mirror apparently suppressed the story for fear of a libel action.)
Whatever your point of view, Borley is worth a visit. Today modern bungalows stand on the site of the rectory, but the twelfth century church, guarded by a line of sombrely clipped yew trees, remains. Without doubt, the place has atmosphere and the many ghosthunters who still visit today would agree—but whether that’s because of its notoriety is, of course, impossible to prove. Weird phenomena such as the pervading scent of violets, the clapping of invisible hands and the appearance of objects out of the blue have all been reported in recent times.
And whether you’re a believer or not, I defy you, on a sharp winter’s night, such as tonight, not to feel a frisson as you stand amongst the distorted shadows in the light of an almost-full moon…
Is there a place with a spooky history down your way?