The Borley’s ghostly problems began centuries ago.
In 1362 Benedictine monks built a monastery in the little village in Essex, south east England. Local legend says that a monk tried to run away with a nun from the nearby Bures nunnery. Despite having an escape plan organised and a carriage ready to smuggle them away to safety, the two lovers were caught. The monk was hanged, and the nun was bricked up in the walls of the monastery’s cellars.
The modern legend began in 1862, when Reverend Henry Bull became rector of Borley and built the rectory a year later in 1863. Villagers knew of the mournful nun who could be seen, walking sadly round the land near the old monastery – and it seems Reverend Bull grew accustomed to her too.
In 1875 he added a new wing to the rectory overlooking what was known in the village as the ‘Nun’s Walk’ so that he could watch the ghost. However, the nun eventually became an annoyance, particularly as she had a habit of staring in the windows of the rectory, scaring many visitors.
Henry Bull died in May 1892 in the Blue Room of the rectory. His son Harry took over the building and, if anything, the tales of haunted happenings increased. Four of Henry’s sisters saw the nun walking along her path, and in addition to the nun apparition, there were new sightings of a ghostly coach and horses arriving in the rectory drive. Harry Bull died in June 1927, also in the Blue Room; before his death, he claimed to have said he had experienced ‘communications with spirits’, but his passing marked the end of the Bulls’ physical, earthly tenancy with the rectory.
In October 1928 the Reverend Guy Eric Smith and his wife took over residency of the rectory. The Smiths knew about the house’s history and soon began experiencing their own strange phenomena. The haunting phenomena usually began each night in Borley Rectory shortly after Reverend and Mrs. Smith had retired for the evening. They would be lying in bed, and they would hear the sound of heavy footsteps walking past their door. Reverend G. E. Smith soon took to crouching in the darkness outside of their room with a hockey stick gripped firmly in his hands.
Several nights he lunged at “something” that passed their door—always without result. Bells began to ring at all hours and became an intolerable nuisance. Hoarse, inaudible whispers sounded over their heads. Small pebbles appeared from nowhere to pelt them. A woman’s voice began to moan from the center of an arch leading to the chapel. Keys popped from their locks and were found several feet. Objects were moved around the house, lights were switched on and off, stones were thrown, there was even the sound of strange whispers mentioning Henry Bull’s nickname – Carlos. The Smiths found themselves living in what Dr. Harry Price would soon come to call “the most haunted house in England.”
The Smiths finally wrote to the Daily Mirror for help, and the paper dispatched the paranormal investigator, Harry Price, to the rectory.
Price recorded incidents of many unusual activities including inexplicable bell ringing and the strange appearance of a Catholic medallion. The Smiths moved out of the building and then left Borley altogether in April 1930, but the October of that year saw the start of a period Harry Price would refer to as ‘the most extraordinary and best documented case of haunting in the annals of psychical research’. Reverend Lionel Foyster, his young wife Marianne and their adopted daughter Adelaide moved into the rectory and immediately the phenomena worsened.
Marianne faced the worst of the poltergeist attacks – objects were thrown at her, and messages addressed to her appeared scribbled across the walls. One message read, Marianne, please help get. Pleas for help and prayers’. The Reverend Foyster decided to have the rectory exorcised and things settled down for a short time, although the hauntings returned and Marianne was repeatedly thrown from her bed by spiritual forces. Reverend Foyster finally decided to move his family away from the area, and all subsequent rectors have refused to live in the house.
By June 1937 Harry Price himself decided to rent the building and installed a team of observers. On 27th March 1938 a séance was held in the rectory. A spirit voice said the rectory would catch fire in the hallway, that very night and burn down. It did not. Price’s tenancy expired. In 1944, Price returned to the site and was hunting in the cellars when he found the jawbone of a young woman. He believed it belonged to the infamous nun, and gave it a Christian burial.
In late 1938, the Borley Rectory was purchased by a Captain W. H. Gregson, who renamed it “The Priory.” He was not at all disturbed by warnings that the place was haunted, but he was upset when his faithful old dog went wild with terror on the day they moved in and ran away, never to be seen again.
He was also mildly concerned with the strange track of unidentified footprints that circled the house in fresh fallen snow. The tracks were not caused by any known animal, the captain swore, nor had any human made them. He followed the tracks for a time until they mysteriously disappeared into nothingness.
Captain Gregson did not have long to puzzle out the enigma of Borley. At midnight in 1939, the “most haunted house in England” was completely gutted by flames. On 27th February 1939 Captain Gregson was in his library when a lamp in the hallway fell over. Eleven months later than the spirits warned, Borley Rectory burnt to the ground. Witnesses saw strange apparitions dancing in the flames, and the nun’s face was said to be seen staring from an upper window. Gregson testified later that a number of books had flown from their places on the shelves and knocked over a lamp, which had immediately exploded into flame.
Borley Rectory has remained one of the most haunted houses in Britain, but in December 2000, Louis Mayerling, who claimed Borley was a second home to him until it burned in 1939, wrote a book entitled We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory in which he claimed that Harry Price and the world had been taken in by hoaxsters. Mayerling states that he first arrived at Borley in 1918 to find Rev. Harry Bull and his family taking great delight in perpetuating local folklore about a phantom nun and other paranormal activity. According to the author, the Foysters were also in on the hoax, encouraging Mayerling, a teenager at the time, to walk around the gardens at dusk in a black cape.
Mayerling admits that there was one incident he was unable to explain. On Easter in 1935, the acclaimed playwright George Bernard Shaw; T. E. Lawrence, the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”; Sir Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England; and Bernard Spilsbury, the Home Office criminal forensic scientist—all believers in the haunting phenomena at Borley—joined Mayerling and Marianne Foyster for a seance at the rectory.
All at once, Mayerling recalls, all the kitchen bells clanged as one and a brilliant silver-blue light seemed to implode around them from the walls and the ceilings. From his previous experience creating eerie sounds and noises in the rectory, Mayerling knew that it was impossible to make all the bells sound at once and he had no idea what had caused the lightning-like flash around them.
He was, in fact, blinded by the phenomenon and eventually recovered sight in only one eye. Shaw and Norman refused to stay the night after such a violent display of the paranormal, and Mayerling confesses in his book that memory of the experience still set his spine to tingling.
Mayerling’s confession of pranks during the occupancy of the Bull and Foyster families does not explain the extensive phenomena reported by Price’s team of researchers during its year-long observation of the rectory nor the manifestations noted by Gregson after he assumed ownership of Borley. Since the admitted pranksters were not present at the rectory during those years, the authenticity of the haunting of Borley will remain a controversial subject among psychical researchers.