Borley Rectory was a Victorian mansion that gained fame as “the most haunted house in England” after being described as such by Harry Price. Built in 1862 to house the rector of the parish of Borley and his family, it was badly damaged by fire in 1939 and demolished in 1944.
The large Gothic-style rectory in the village of Borley had been alleged to be haunted ever since it was built. These reports multiplied suddenly in 1929, after the Daily Mirror published an account of a visit by paranormal researcher Harry Price, who wrote two books supporting claims of paranormal activity.
The uncritical acceptance of Price’s reports prompted a formal study by The Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which rejected most of the sightings as either imagined or fabricated and cast doubt on Price’s credibility. His claims are now generally discredited by ghost historians. Neither the SPR’s report or the more recent biography of Price has quelled public interest in the stories, and new books and television documentaries continue to satisfy public fascination with the rectory.
A short programme commissioned by the BBC about the alleged manifestations, scheduled to be broadcast in September 1956, was cancelled owing to concerns about a possible legal action by Marianne Foyster, widow of the last rector to live in the house.
Alleged sighting in the grounds of the rectory.
The first paranormal events reportedly occurred in about 1863, since a few locals later remembered having heard unexplained footsteps within the house at about that time. On 28 July 1900, four daughters of the rector, Henry Dawson Ellis Bull, saw what they thought was the ghost of a nun at twilight, about 40 yards (37 m) from the house; they tried to talk to it, but it disappeared as they got close. The local organist, Ernest Ambrose later said that the family at the rectory were “very convinced that they had seen an apparition on several occasions”. Various people claimed to have witnessed a variety of puzzling incidents, such as a phantom coach driven by two headless horsemen, during the next four decades. Bull died in 1892 and his son, the Reverend Henry (“Harry”) Foyster Bull, took over the living.
On 9 June 1928, Harry Bull died and the rectory again became vacant. In the following year, on 2 October, the Reverend Guy Eric Smith and his wife moved into the house. Soon after moving in, Smith’s wife, while cleaning out a cupboard, came across a brown paper package containing the skull of a young woman. Shortly after, the family reported a variety of incidents including the sounds of servant bells ringing despite there being disconnected, lights appearing in windows and unexplained footsteps. In addition, Smith’s wife believed she saw a horse drawn carriage at night. The Smiths contacted the Daily Mirror asking to be put in touch with The Society for Psychical Research (SPR). On 10 June 1929, the newspaper sent a reporter, who promptly wrote the first in 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 house. He arrived on 12th June and immediately 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. As soon as Price left, these ceased. Smith’s wife later maintained that she already suspected Price, an expert conjurer, of falsifying the phenomena.
The Smiths left Borley on 14 July 1929 and the parish had some difficulty in finding a replacement. The following year the Reverend Lionel Algernon Foyster (1878–1945), a first cousin of the Bulls, and his wife Marianne (née Marianne Emily Rebecca Shaw) (1899–1992) moved into the rectory with their adopted daughter Adelaide, on 16 October 1930. Lionel Foyster wrote an account of various strange incidents that occurred between the time the Foysters moved in and October 1935, which was sent to Harry Price. These included bell-ringing, windows shattering, throwing of stones and bottles, wall-writing and the locking of their daughter in a room with no key. Marianne Foyster reported to her husband a whole range of poltergeist phenomena that included her being thrown from her bed. On one occasion, Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible”. Foyster tried twice to conduct an exorcism, but his efforts were fruitless; in the middle of the first exorcism, he was struck in the shoulder by a fist-size stone. Because of the publicity in the Daily Mirror, these incidents attracted the attention of several psychic researchers, who after investigation were unanimous in suspecting that they were caused, consciously or unconsciously, by Marianne Foyster. She later said that she felt that some of the incidents were caused by her husband in concert with one of the psychic researchers, but other events appeared to her to be genuine paranormal phenomena. She later admitted that she was having a sexual relationship with the lodger, Frank Pearless, and that she used paranormal explanations to cover up her liaisons. The Foysters left Borley in October 1935 because of Lionel Foyster’s ill health.
Today the site of the rectory is no more but the land remains so who knows if you did decide to take a visit to the place where the rectory once stood you may just see how haunted it was!