BORLEY – A VERY BRITISH HAUNTING
Posted June 4, 2011on:
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So much has been written about this little hamlet on the Essex-Suffolk border over the decades that it’s quite difficult to know where to begin.
THE TRAGIC LOVERS
I suppose the beginning is as good a place as any. Nobody seems to be quite certain what stood on the site of the old Rectory (which for many years was the hub of the haunting) prior to it being built in 1863 by the Rev. Henry Bull, to accommodate his Victorian-sized family. There has been a lot of speculation that a monastery stood there many centuries ago. Excavations in the Rectory cellars did uncover the remains of the foundations of a previous building, but I honestly don’t think there has ever been any substantial proof that a monastery stood here. Nevertheless it is from this speculation that much of the romance of the Borley haunting sprang up, with tales of a monk and a nun having an illicit affair. They were (supposedly) punished by the monk being beheaded, and the nun walled up alive.
It is a fantastic story, worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, but there is no evidence nuns were ever punished this way in Britain at any time, and there are only a few cases from mainland Europe. It has never stopped the story from capturing the public’s imagination though, and at the height of the fame of the haunting there were even sightings of the phantom coach in which the tragic lovers were supposed to have tried to elope. Again, this is very likely fantasy. If the story is largely accepted as belonging to the Middle Ages, then it is unlikely they would have fled in a coach, as coaches didn’t come into use in Britain until the latter end of the 16th century, and the few sightings of the phantom coach are dubious to say the least.
There have been many reputed sightings of the Grey Nun (as she is known), some of which can be dismissed as outright fabrication, as in the case of a man called Fred Cartwright, who was supposed to have seen her on 3 different occasions, as he was driving past the Rectory gates on his way to work, early in the morning. These days it is accepted that this was a story put about by controversial ghost-hunter Harry Price, as all attempts by other investigators to trace Mr Cartwright have resulted in a big fat zero.
The most famous sighting of the Grey Nun was on the evening of 28th July 1900, when 4 of Henry Bull’s daughters sighted her crossing the rectory lawn. This incident has been debated at great length. The sisters seemed to get a good view of her, to the extent that they claimed that she seemed to be in some physical pain. Later, a jawbone unearthed during excavations of the rectory cellar indicated that whoever it had belonged to had suffered from a severe tooth abscess, which would certainly account for her agonised expression.
Confirmed sceptics have gone to extraordinary lengths to pull apart this story. The most memorable of their explanations is that the sisters saw a pillar of wasps moving across the lawn, completely ignoring the ghost’s pained facial expression, and that one of the sisters described her as glancing up at the rectory at one point.
I can well believe that there may have been a gentle ghost at the rectory, who had lived in a previous building on the site. But phantom grey nuns/ladies are two-a-penny in Britain, so why did this one achieve such a huge amount of fame? Well I suppose it was all down to a combination of eccentric people, high emotional intensity in an isolated area, and the very human emotions and frailties that occurred at the Rectory over many years.
It was the death of the Rev. Bull and his son Harry taking up the reins as Rectory, which kicked the events at Borley up a gear. Unlike his father, who had been a typically tough and pragmatic Victorian squire, Harry was a sensitive soul. Perhaps too much so for his own good. He was eccentric, possibly a heavy drinker (the rectory was found stuffed full of empty bottles when he died), and he had that kind of fey imagination that was often to be found in Edwardian scholars, the sort of gentle, unworldly souls lost to us forever by the horrors of the First World War. Harry was highly emotional (he was said to have once burst into tears when his car wouldn’t start), and he had a positive obsession with the ghost of the Grey Nun.
Most people would take a resident Grey Lady as a typical quirk of living in a remote country house, but Harry seems to have been fanatical about her. He would spend hours in the summer-house in the garden, hoping that he too would see her on her walk (the route across the lawn which the sisters had seen her take had become nicknamed The Nun’s Walk), and one guest at the rectory said he was nonplussed one evening when Harry suddenly appeared in his room bearing a candlestick (the rectory never had electricity installed), and saying “she will be very active tonight, I am sure”.
Not perhaps surprisingly, Harry had a difficult private life. In 1911 he caused shock and consternation to his family by suddenly marrying a widow, a London lady, who was older than him, with a grown-up daughter, Constance, in tow. Somewhat tellingly, Harry married Winifred in London, not locally. He brought his new family back to Borley though and they moved in to Borley Place. Harry’s elderly mother and spinster sisters stayed on at the rectory, and a right little nest of vipers the whole thing must have felt like too.
To say relationships did not run smoothly between all the women in Harry’s life would be an understatement. The female members of his family detested Winifred, to the extent that when Harry died they spread vicious rumours that she had poisoned him, coming up with gothic tales that a bottle marked ‘POISON’ had been conveniently found in the rectory after his death. (It is hard to believe quite frankly that any murderess worth her salt would be quite that negligent when disposing of vital evidence!). Their dislike of Winifred must surely have been largely down to financial reasons. Harry suddenly springing a wife on them was going to seriously mess up his will, and it put their entire future comfort and security at risk.
Poor old Harry died on 9th June 1927, (of cancer, not poisoning), and the long Bull tenancy of Borley Rectory finally came to an end. The Bull sisters (who never married), moved to nearby Sudbury, but their role in the haunting of the rectory was very far from over. The following year the rectorship of Borley was taken on by the Rev. Guy Smith, who had spent some time out in India prior to coming to Borley, and was later to claim that because of this he had never heard any of the tales about the haunting. In October 1928 he moved into the house with his wife, Mabel, a rather silly, neurotic lady, who I must say doesn’t seem to have been overly-blessed with brains.
Taking on the rectory must have been a daunting prospect for the middle-aged couple. It was far too big for 2 people, who didn’t have a horde of children to fill it. It had no electricity or running water, and was troubled by rats. The rectory had been built for a large Victorian family, with a fleet of servants on hand to look after it. It was all a very different matter in 1928.
I’m not quite certain why the Smiths contacted the press the following year to say that their house was haunted. Mrs Smith claimed she had heard voices out on the landing upstairs, and that lights had been seen in empty rooms (which I feel can be put down to sunsets, which can often light up windows to look as though someone is in there). Subsequent investigators have (rightly) queried the Smiths decision to contact the ’Daily Mirror’ in June 1929. As a religious man, if he was genuinely troubled at finding himself living in a haunted house, it would surely be thought more reasonable for the Rev. Smith to seek help from his Church. The Church of England has always investigated hauntingss and carried out exorcisms on occasion, but officially it is not something they tend to like being made public.
Over the course of a few weeks in the summer of 1929 the press visited the house, as did celebrated ghost-hunter Harry Price. The whole thing resulted in Price later being accused of fabricating some poltergeist-style stone-throwing (a witness apprehended him and found a handful of stones in his pocket), a maid at the house getting a lot of press attention by claiming she had seen that dratted phantom coach on the lawn (and typically photographed pointing to the spot where she had seen it), and Mrs Smith’s later denial that there was anything supernatural about the place at all! In a court of law, Mrs Smith would have been dubbed an Unreliable Witness. She certainly doesn’t fill me with confidence.
The impracticalities of living at the Rectory, plus some considerable inconvenience from coach-parties of sight-seers (the ’Daily Mirror’ article had clearly hit its target), forced the Smiths to move out in 1930. Mabel Smith was subsequently to have only bitter things to say about Price, and claimed that nothing paranormal had happened there until he arrived. Price’s involvement with Borley was certainly not blameless, but Mabel seems to have completely forgotten her claim that she had heard a ghostly woman’s voice crying out “don’t Carlos, don’t!” on the landing on a number of occasions!
After the Smiths departure the Foyster family moved into the Rectory, and if you thought things had been a bit odd there up to now, well it only gets even more bizarre from this moment on. The Foysters were an odd bunch to say the least. The Rev. Lionel Foyster was an elderly man, severely incapacitated by arthritis, (the cold, draughty rectory was hardly a brilliant place to move to in that respect). His wife Marianne was considerably younger than him. Marianne was a striking-looking woman, with hypnotic dark eyes and a very complex personality. She led a colourful life, both before and after living at the Rectory, and seems to have provoked extreme reactions in everybody she met. Although there is no evidence that she felt anything but fondness for Lionel (or Lion as she affectionately called him), her husband’s illness was so debilitating (Lionel had no “growl” in him, as Marianne put it) that she sought sexual satisfaction with other men. Marianne’s lovers were unsavoury characters to say the least, sort of violent second-hand car salesmen-types. It is thought now that Marianne engaged in rough sex with them, and she would explain away her subsequent bruises and black eyes as poltergeist attacks! She once explained away a large bruise on her shoulder as her having been attacked in the kitchen corridor by a huge dark shape.
Which conveniently brings us to … the poltergeist activity. There was so much of this (allegedly) at the Rectory at this time that Lionel kept a diary of it for 15 months. It was the usual tedious and pointless phenomena: items being thrown, bedclothes pulled off, doors locked, etc etc. Some of it can be dismissed as outright lies, such as cooking smells detected late at night. It is pretty certain now that this was probably one of Marianne’s lovers having a sneaky fry-up in the kitchen, after Lionel had gone to bed. Marianne was nothing if not resourceful with her story-telling, and was later in life to admit that she always been a complete fantasist.
The only really intriguing paranormal activity was the scrawled pencil messages which appeared on the Rectory walls at this time. These ran along the lines of ’MARIANNE GET HELP’ and ’LIGHTS MASS PRAYERS’, which naturally evoked the spirit of the Grey Nun for everyone who saw them. Sceptics have said that Marianne scrawled them herself to get attention, and this is entirely possible. On the other hand it’s also entirely possible that they may have been genuine. Marianne could well have been a plausible channel for a spirit to communicate through. She had an imaginative, open mind. She was a troubled soul, not at peace with herself. The restless spirit of whoever the Grey Lady may have been may have felt a connection with her. I for one don’t want to discount that possibility.
The messages also have very Catholic overtones, with urgent calls for a mass to be said. Marianne flirted with Catholicism, and enraged her husband’s low-church parishioners by going to Catholic services in Sudbury.
Harry Price had come away from his early visits to Borley rather under whelmed by the whole thing. He hadn’t seemed to take any of it terribly seriously, and had been prone to trickster antics himself. As someone who had been a professional conjuror in his time, he wasn’t short of ideas. So I can’t imagine that he was really too excited when, on 29 September 1931, he received a visit from those Stygian Witches of Sudbury, the Bull sisters. They presented themselves in his London office, and urged him to look again at the Rectory haunting. The reason for their visit was that they believed the ghost of their brother Harry had been seen in one of the Rectory windows, wearing his trademark plum-coloured dressing-gown, and … CARRYING A ROLLED-UP COPY OF HIS WILL UNDER HIS ARM!!! (Well at least it wasn’t a head I suppose).
I am indeed very cynical about their involvement in all this. It had been only 4 years since Harry’s death, and I can well imagine that their rancour towards Winifred, his widow, had not dissipated one jot in that time. The fact that Harry’s ghost was reportedly carrying a rolled-up copy of his will speaks volumes about what they were trying to do. Popular legend has always had it that ghosts walk and are troubled when their final wishes aren’t honoured, it has been the staple of many a hoary old ghost story. The implication was blindingly obvious. Dear Harry’s final wishes hadn’t been honoured. So the news that the Foysters were allegedly experiencing a whole raft of supernatural activity at the Rectory would have been fuel for their fire.
At this point the Borley haunting takes on all the elements of a stage farce. Marianne was using the alleged haunting to cover up the seedier side of her private life, and this in turn convinced the Bull sisters that the troubled ghost of their late brother was still pacing around. Into the mix we have Harry Price, a very charismatic man who did a lot of good work in the paranormal field, but whom you probably wouldn’t trust with your life’s savings, or your wife or girlfriend. From then on in the haunting of Borley Rectory would most certainly not be just another run-of-the-mill British haunted house.
The Bull sisters attitude towards Marianne was, I feel, very revealing. Many years ago I read a microfiche copy (the original had been stolen) of The Locked Book, housed at the Harry Price Library at the University of London. The Locked Book contained a lot of local information about the Rectory which had been gathered by one of Price’s team of official observers, Mr S H Glanville. (A transcript of the book an be accessed far more easily these days by logging onto Paranormal United Bridgnorth, which has a copy of it on their website). For many years, the contents of The Locked Book had been deemed too salacious for people to use when writing about the haunting. As, these days, all the prime players in the Borley saga are now dead, it’s not a problem anymore. According to the Locked Book, when the Bull sisters were asked what they thought about Marianne Foyster, they called her “a little beast”. Well it’s easy to imagine what a clash of personalities it was between all these ladies. The Victorian spinsters, respectable rector’s daughters, versus the freewheeling, flighty flapper. This was hardly going to be a cosy all-girls meeting of minds.
On 1 October 1931, Lionel invited Price and his team to re-visit the Rectory. The whole visit was to be every bit as much of a debacle as the previous one had been. Some say Price and his gang descended on the Rectory unannounced in the evening, which put the Foysters out of sorts, but this doesn’t really tally with the fact that Lionel had invited them. Whatever the matter, it was certainly clear that there was an immediate hostility between Price and Marianne. Afterwards, Price made the comment that Marianne was the kind of woman who would benefit from playing a good game of hockey! In return, Marianne seemed to find Price physically repulsive. Her description of him made him sound like Nosferatu. I always thought he was quite handsome, in an offbeat sort of way, in the photographs I’ve seen of him, but I guess that’s just me.
Things didn’t improve much from these unpromising beginnings. At one point in the evening, Marianne said she went out into the corridor to find that Price had his secretary up against the wall, with her dress up around her waist. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t exactly the kind of thing to fill a person with confidence when they have invited ghost-hunters into their home!
At some point in the evening Marianne announced that she wasn’t feeling well and took herself off to bed. A while later, one of the ghost-hunters who was keeping vigil in the downstairs study, saw her drift past the doorway in her nightgown. She seemed to be in a kind of sleepwalking state, muttering about having to make sure all the doors were locked.
Some observers have taken this as proof positive of Marianne’s deranged state of mind, and that she was probably up to no good. Whereas I suspect she was simply dropping a heavy hint that she wanted her unwelcome guests to go home! What is usually conveniently forgotten at this point is that Marianne had 2 very young children in the house, their toddler daughter Adelaide, and an adopted baby son. I suspect the last thing she needed was a houseful of over-excitable strangers who looked intent on staying up all night. It was never clear if Marianne had ever wanted them there in the first place, and the evening came to a very unsatisfying end.
Ironically though, from then on Harry Price seems to have changed his mind about the haunting. From being rather dismissive about it, he went to asserting that he was utterly convinced there was something in it. In a letter to a friend in 1935, he said that when he had visited the place on this occasion, it was “literally alive with something”. In 1932 he wrote to the previous rector, Guy Smith, to say that he wanted to go back to Borley, but the Foysters refused to have him, which, considering he had practically accused Marianne of deception, is not perhaps terribly surprising!
The Foysters were to spend another 4 years at Borley, but towards the end of their stay here Marianne took to staying away for much of the time. She opened a flower shop in London, and spent her weekdays there, shacked up with another of her dubious men friends, only returning to Borley and poor old Lionel at weekends. In the autumn of 1935 the family finally moved out for good. They relocated to Ipswich, where Marianne continued with her colourful private life, and where Lionel was bedridden for his final years. He died sometime in the early 1940s. There have been accusations that Marianne eventually murdered him, but there seems to be very little solidity to this vicious gossip-mongering. It was put out about by Robert Wood, the author of ’The Widow Of Borley’, who launched such a savage, hysterical hatchet-job on Marianne, that he practically accused her of every crime known to the human race. A reviewer of the book on Amazon even tried to claim that the Rectory would never have burnt down if it hadn’t been for Marianne and her antics. Stuff and nonsense.
After the War, Marianne emigrated to the United States as a middle-aged GI bride. She spent the rest of her long life there, living until her 90s. In the 1950s she confessed that she had faked SOME of the phenomena at the Rectory, but other than that, she made it clear that she wanted to put her years at Borley firmly behind her.
The new rector of Borley, the Rev. A C Henning wisely chose to live at the nearby village of Liston, and Borley Rectory was never again to be inhabited by a man of the cloth. It stood empty for 2 years, a depressing eyesore in the village, and the Church (who owned it) must have despaired as to what they were going to do with this rambling Victorian white elephant, which was so spectacularly unsuited to the slimmed-down austerity of 1930s life. So when, in 1932, Harry Price offered to rent it for a year, it’s not really surprising that they took him up on his offer.
HARRY PRICE AND HIS GHOST-HUNTERS
Price wanted to do something truly revolutionary. He wanted to put a haunted house under the microscope, and analyse it on a day-to-day basis, fully documenting all its little quirks. A similar thing had been done before, at the Scottish country mansion of Ballechin House in Perthshire (which was demolished in the 1960s). In the late 19th century Ballechin had been rented by some members of the Society For Psychical Research. But Ballechin had only been rented for a few months, and the emphasis had been more on it as an extended Victorian house-party, with the ghosts as an added interest. By contrast, Price wanted to do a thorough scientific investigation, and he went about it in a wholly professional way. There was to be none of the genteel house-party, with a bunch of friends playing croquet on the lawn and treating the whole thing as a jolly lark, about this one. Price’s cut-to-the-bone scientific attitude was much more in tune with the spirit of the 1930s.
He advertised in ’The Times’ for a team of people, preferably from assorted professional careers, to stay at the Rectory. It would have been unreasonable and impractical to expect one team to spend an entire year on site, so he organised the investigation on a rota basis. Even Price himself wasn’t there the whole time. It was a brave experiment. I can’t help thinking how excited Price would be now with all the techno gadgets that are so essential to the 21st century ghost-hunter. He would certainly have made good use of them at the Rectory. Instead, his team had to make do with drawing chalk outlines around trigger objects, and dossing down on camp-beds.
The year-long experiment didn’t produce the sensational results which perhaps everyone had hoped for, certainly not enough to set the paranormal world on fire. Even the table-tipping sessions were disappointing, producing a lot of gobbledegook, except for the information that the Nun’s name was possibly Marie Lairre, and the startling allegation that the Rev. Henry Bull had murdered a maid called Katie Boreham. (There had been a maid called Katie Boreham who worked at the Rectory during Bull’s time, but she died of natural causes when she was married and living in Sudbury). Seances are a notoriously unreliable way for getting at the truth of a haunting. Even if you accept that these are genuine communications with spirits, (and can ignore intentional and unintentional fraud on the parts of the sitters, and the very human frailties that some mediums can have), there is nothing to suggest that some dead people can’t be as big a liars as living ones. Just think how often people spread malicious rumours during everyday life. I find it hard to believe such people change after death in that way either!
There were some minor results such as sharp temperature fluctuations, small movement of objects, and a woman’s coat being found hanging on the back of one of the bedroom doors, which no one could account for. If Price was disappointed he resolutely didn’t show it. He seemed to be quite content with the experiment, and his involvement with Borley was far from over. He went on to write two bestselling books about the place, namely ’The Haunting Of Borley Rectory’ and ’The End Of Borley Rectory’, which are well worth reading these days for Price’s engaging enthusiasm for ghost-hunting.
On 19 May 1938 Price and his team vacated the premises, and the following December a Captain Gregson bought the property with the intention of turning the place into, of all things, a tea-garden. Price voiced reservations that anyone could make money out of a tea-garden in such a small and out-of-the-way place as Borley. Gregson must have soon come to realise this, as it is now largely believed that he set fire to the house for the insurance money on 27 February 1939. The official story put about was that a pile of books stacked in the hall fell over and knocked over an oil-lamp. To this day some people still persist in putting it about that the Rectory burnt down “mysteriously”. It must have been quite a night when the Rectory reached its sad end. Villagers gathered to watch it burn, and soon there were tales circulating of a ghostly woman seen at the window of the Blue Room, which had been the master bedroom of the house. Even in very recent times I have read articles by people breathlessly quoting this as definite proof of the haunting.
During the War years the Rectory stayed as a burnt-out ruin. There is a story that the British army tried to camp there one night, but were put off because they didn’t like the look of the place. Once again, this has been taken as positive proof that the place was unbearably sinister, when I suspect that the structure was simply unsafe and potentially dangerous. Harry Price retained an affection for the place, and even asked if he could have the old clanging, metal front door bell, which he was to keep in his back garden as a sort of wind chime. In spite of his ailing health he took part in excavations in the old Rectory cellars, where the jawbone of the unknown woman was unearthed in 1943. Price maintained that this was the remains of Marie Lairre, the phantom nun (no nun of that name has ever been traced, in spite of some rigorous research done by some writers in recent years), and he arranged for her to have a proper burial at Liston churchyard. It is to Price’s credit that he insisted on this being a private ceremony. It was this that determined him to have her buried at Liston and not Borley, to deter publicity.
Price died in March 1948, whilst apparently working on a third Borley book, and the paranormal world lost one of its most colourful characters. He was barely cold in his grave himself though before the knives were out, and his reputation was to be savaged mercilessly. Charles Sutton published a magazine article accusing Price of fabricating the stone-throwing poltergeist activity during their visit in 1929. But the most vicious attack by far came from members of the SPR, the Society For Psychical Research. E Dingwall, K Goldney and T Hall, who published a slim volume entitled ’The Haunting Of Borley Rectory’, which was a bile-ridden attack on just about anything that had ever happened at the house. Their targets were Price and Marianne.
My own feelings about Price are that he was a flawed character (like just about everybody else really), but there were a lot of things in his favour. On the minus side, yes, he did fake some of the activity in the early visits, mainly I suspect because he didn’t take it seriously. By the time he did take the phenomena at Borley seriously, it was too late, the damage was done. On the plus side, he made an enormous contribution to psychical research, so much so that even today it’s quite common to see a book about the paranormal with Price’s picture on the cover. He did do silly publicity stunts, which must have upset the purists, such as trying to raise the Brocken Spectre on Walpurgis Night, whilst wearing full evening dress, and accompanied by a nubile maiden, or being photographed spending a night in an allegedly haunted bed with the notorious egomaniac and male-chauvinist plonker Professor C Joad (who once bragged that he only bothered having a conversation with a woman if he was certain he was going to have sex with her!). But Price also did a lot of exhausting spade-work in the cause of the paranormal. He investigated mediums under tightly-controlled laboratory conditions, and did a great deal of research into the history of poltergeist phenomena. On his death he donated his vast collection of books on the supernatural to the University of London, setting up the Harry Price Library, which I once had the privilege of being shown round. His lively enthusiasm for the world of the supernatural has long been an inspiration.
Some of the bile directed at him I feel can simply be put down to jealousy. Price enjoyed himself, he enjoyed everything he did, and to some people that is a red rag to a bull. He also came from the wrong side of the tracks, and in Price’s day ghost-hunting had long had a gentlemen’s club image about it.
The SPR failed to kill of the public’s interest in Borley. It is a still a fascinating case over 70 years on since the Rectory burnt down. In January 1956 the ’Sunday Express’ carried as a story that a Mrs Jean Clarke, of Fobbing, Essex, gave a lift to a phantom hitch-hiker one chill winter’s night. Mrs Clarke described her ghostly passenger as wearing an old-fashioned fawn coat. She only had his company for about 40 yards when he motioned her to stop, and disappeared. Classic phantom hitch-hiker behaviour.
BORLEY – POST RECTORY
No trace of the Rectory remains today, (although you can still see one of the old gateways, which would have once led into the bottom part of the Rectory lawn), and much of the focus of the haunting seems to have drifted across the road to Borley Church (which curiously has no name). Ghostly noises have been heard from the locked building on occasion, and some even claim to have seen the vague outline of a woman on the path. Recently, I saw some old BBC footage from the 1970s on YouTube, showing a pararnormal investigation at the church. It was refreshing to see a ghost-hunt which didn’t revolve around screaming hysterics, dodgy mediums, and an over-reliance on gadgetry! (Well worth hunting those down if you get a chance).
I first visited Borley myself in the autumn of 1991. It was a beautiful, cold but sunny day, and we walked up the hill from the car-park on the outskirts of Long Melford. There were no road signs to Borley, and we only knew we were on the right track when we noticed that one of the roads leading out of Long Melford was called Borley Road. The village itself sits right by the Essex/Suffolk border (on the Essex side), and British folklore has long had it that boundary places have an atmosphere right of their own. Many phantom black dog legends can traditionally be found near county boundaries. As we approached it the hamlet of Borley seemed like an island surrounded by an ocean of vast empty fields. We prowled around the outskirts of the Church, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere, until two loud-mouthed middle-aged male idiots, laden down with expensive camera equipment, turned up in a flash car. One of them started pillocking about round the back of the Church making screaming noises, (strange behaviour for a grown man, but never mind) and so we decided to leave. I would add a note of caution about parking in the car-park at the bottom of the hill, as I think (or they did a few years ago when we were last there) that druggies tend to hang about there in the evenings, giving it an unsavoury atmosphere. We have been to Borley again several times, at all hours of the day and night, and I can honestly say we have never experienced anything paranormal there. It does have a unique atmosphere to it though, and one that I personally find quite magical.
I have heard some say that ghost-hunters are not welcome in Borley. I don’t think you should really have any trouble, but then again I think it helps if you try and be as unobtrusive as possible. I honestly don’t think the villagers object if all you want to do is to have a quiet wander about and take a few photographs. It’s if you make a noisy menace of yourself (like the aforementioned middle-aged brat), or treat the place like a public dustbin, or somewhere to get pissed in the open air, that they understandably get riled.
Numerous books have been written about Borley in the past 40 years, of varying quality. Some I have already mentioned. I have a soft spot for Peter Underwood’s book about the Rectory, mainly for his old-school gentlemanly prose, but also because, when I first came across a copy of this many years ago in Sudbury Public Library, I found he had included some pictures of the rooms inside the Rectory, and being the easily-pleased simpleton that I often am I got rather a kick out of finally seeing what the inside of the house must have been like all those years ago. It is written almost wholly from a believer’s viewpoint though, and the lack of hard-bitten critical analysis will not suit everybody. ’The Enigma Of Borley Rectory’, by Ivan Banks, is an exhaustively-researched piece of work, which no self-respecting Borley-ite should pass up a chance to read. From the sublime to the ridiculous would be Louis Mayerling’s “We Faked The Ghosts Of Borley”, which is simply atrocious, a cheap work of utter claptrap. Mayerling is a Walter Mitty character, who has invented an improbable life-history for himself, including being a musical child prodigy, working as a chauffeur for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and having an affair with Marilyn Monroe! On top of all that he claims that he faked the entire Borley haunting, with the help of George Bernard Shaw!!! (To the best of my knowledge Shaw never went anywhere near Borley. In his memoirs, ’Confessions Of A Ghost-Hunter’, Peter Underwood said he once bumped into Shaw when he – Underwood – was a young lad, and Shaw had some rather caustic things to say about his interest in ghost-hunting).
About 10 years ago Mayerling got involved in a lengthy and supremely catty exchange of words on a Borley message forum with Marianne Foyster’s son, Vincent O’Neill. Handbags at dawn. Neither of them exactly came out of it very well, but it was quite entertaining to read. I was contacted myself by Vince O’Neill way back in 1993, after the publication of a book I had written called ’The World’s Great Ghost And Poltergeist Stories’ (long since out-of-print). He started off by saying “I am Marianne Foyster’s son”, and went on to try and flog me a guided bus tour of the Borley area! Ten years later we came into contact again, when I wrote to him via his website about Borley. This used to be a valuable mine of information about the Rectory haunting, but he has since closed it down, and the last I saw it had been replaced with a picture of Marianne and the words ’REQUISCAT IN PACE’. I regret to say we fell out almost immediately over the Iraqi war, (which was a pretty silly thing to do, but emotions were running very high at the time. He was for it, I was anti), and that was that.
The best website I can currently recommend for information about Borley is by the Foxearth And District Local History Society, which takes an entertaining tongue-in-cheek attitude to the whole haunting, but does give a wealth of detailed information about the history of Borley and its most infamous house.
These days the haunting is moving into a new generation. On the Rectory site stands a cluster of bungalows, which have been there for about 40 years now. Previously, it had always been supposed that the occupants of these had experienced no paranormal phenomena. Well perhaps not so. I recently came across a message posted by a woman on Ghost-Story.co.uk. She said she had been born on the site of the old Rectory and lived there until she was 20. She said that during those years dark shapes had been seen in their house, items were mysteriously moved overnight, and electrical items had switched themselves on and off. So it would seem that the old Rectory ghosts may still be active after all.
Several years ago, back in the early 1990s, I had the misfortune to catch a really bad magician doing a turn on television. This was before the days when the likes of Derren Brown and David Blaine had made magic cool and sophisticated. This act was from the old rabbit-out-of-a-hat school of magic tricks. At one point he pulled out some planks of charred wood (I have no idea what he was planning to do with them, I had nearly lost the will to live by this time), and announced grandly that these had been “salvaged from the ruins of Borley Rectory“. Oh for god’s sake.