It was a strange house, Borley Rectory. And I don’t mean the ghosts. The Society for Psychical Research published The Haunting of Borley Rectory in 1956. It was written by 3 members of the Society. It contained some very interesting discoveries on the “haunting” but it was on the whole disappointing. The authors were highly inductive rather than deductive and most of their conclusions are the product of extrapolation of a solitary, often factoidal point, rather than synthesis of all facts and context.
Nevertheless, one thing that comes through crystal clear, though I don’t believe the authors ever saw it due to their objective to expose Harry Price’s involvement. This one thing is, quite frankly, how strange every family was or became that lived in the odd Rectory. The real life haunting of “England’s Most Haunted House” is very much like Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It is subtle. Ambiguous. Everything open to interpretation. Like most everybody else with a keen eye, she saw the real nuances of Borley’s history.
Let’s have a look at some of it. Harry Price’s fake poltergeist effects are only carnival frosting on a very interesting case.
The Rectory was built by Rev. Henry Bull in 1863. In some respects, he seems to fit as the inspiration for Jackson’s Hugh Crane. Family quarters and servant quarters at the Rectory were easy to distinguish from the outside, for Henry Bull had bars put on the servants’ windows in order to keep the women servants getting out at night or receiving callers. Henry Bull’s actions or remedies were often strange. Consider a glaring token on the front of the house. For some bizarre reason, he had a large window in the dining room bricked up. Harry Price exaggerated the motive. He said that Bull was tired of the famous “ghost of the Nun,” the resident spook at Borley, peaking in the window with her care worn face.
In their joint 1956 “report,” the 3 members of the SPR team clarified that it was to keep passersby from looking in while the family was dining. Insofar as motive is concerned, this is used by SPR to remove any idea that this reflects any “haunting.” Yet drawing the drapes would easily and more affordably do what an ugly brick window accomplished without despoiling an already Spartan and ugly looking house. Ghost or no, strange indeed. But because it countered the tales of haunting, the SPR accepted it.
Henry Bull was not just the local reverend. He was what was called a Squarson— half squire and half parson. He was a major landowner and the local religious leader of a small farm community. Like Hugh Crane, he must have had oppressive Victorian authority.
His son, Harry Bull, succeeded him, in 1892. Squire Bull, for it seems more appropriate to call him that, was thus the hereditary vicar/squire. He was educated at Oxford, and took up his duties. He seemed to eschew married life. He lived elsewhere than the Rectory and let his numerous siblings and mother live there. He finally married in 1911 but remained at Borley Place, another dwelling across the road. In 1920, they moved into the Rectory and the others moved out. He died 7 years later in 1927. He had no children.
During this period various Bulls saw interesting things at the Rectory. At twilight one night, Harry’s sister, Ethel, saw a tall man dressed in dark clothes stand by her bed. On a couple of occasions she felt someone sit down on the bed. On July 28, 1900, along with her sisters, she saw what seemed to be a woman dressed in black and hunched over, walk along the wall of the Rectory’s garden. This inspired the legend of the “Nun.” But there was no Nun. This was merely a draped figure in black. She saw no white or any religious ornaments to indicate a Nun. She saw it again, hunched over and leaning over the drive’s gate.
Harry Bull, too, saw a number of apparitions. One evening, his dog Juvenal was terrified and growled. Harry saw legs behind a fruit tree and thought it a poacher. He pursued with his dog. It’s hard to interpret exactly what happened. He said he saw the legs disappear through the closed gate. I suppose that means that through the foliage he saw the legs transpose through the garden gate. Or perhaps only the legs were visible the whole time. He also saw a phantom dark coach with two lamps streak by; and a number of times horses clopping, as if pulling a coach, could be heard on the road. Yet no coach and horses passed by. He, too, supposedly saw the hunched figure draped in black— the “Nun.” Odd, dragging footsteps also sounded through the house on occasions.
The SPR dismissed the incidents by suggesting that because Harry Bull slept so much he might have had narcolepsy and hallucinated the events. They make no explanation for what Ethel and the Misses Bull reported in 1900.
Compared to Harry Price’s sensationalizing in his 1940 book The Most Haunted House in England the above encounters by the Bulls don’t seem like much. But taken on their own, they are still quite odd.
The SPR members, I don’t think, could realize how odd the visual events were. So odd that the Rectory was clearly believed to be haunted by the locals.
Harry Bull died in 1927. There was no Bull to take the living at Borley, and so the place remained vacant until October 1928. Finally, outsiders, the Rev. Guy Smith and his wife, were appointed. They were informed of its haunted history, but they didn’t believe in ghosts. Nevertheless, odd things occurred. In cleaning out a cupboard, Mrs. Smith found a neat parcel wrapped in paper and tied with string. She opened it. It was a woman’s skull. Can you imagine? Quite unsettling, I should think. There were “sibilant” whisperings, that woman’s voice moaning for Carlos, invisible footsteps and, according to the gut feelings of Rev. Smith, something “evil.”
In 1930 the Foysters move in. Rev Foyster is kin to the Bulls. His wife is much younger than he. Their little girl is adopted. They have a lodger in the cottage. For up to 15 months the haunting is intense. The events of this period have become the fodder for the great haunted house movies— especially The Haunting of Hill House. Poltergeist effects abound. Bells ring. Bottles are thrown down stairs. They supposedly materialize in mid air. Strange pencil scribbles appear on the walls addressed to Lionel Foyster’s wife, Marianne, calling for help, prayers, light. Furniture is found moved. Things disappear and things appear from nowhere. Though suspicious that Marianne was causing all of these events, Harry Price still promoted the haunting as genuine in his books. Others were not so gracious.
In fact, many suspected Marianne was to blame. Marianne was supposedly either a bored, lonely wife of a country rector seeking attention or cheating on her much older husband. Eventually she went into business in London with the lodger, a Mr. D’Arles, and came back home only on the weekends. “It was a strange household,” one former servant had told the SPR investigators. Mr. D’Arles seems to have dominated the family. D’Arles prowled the house at night. Furniture that was found moved had been moved in places where Rev. Foyster would trip over it, thus alerting anyone in the house as to where he was. More than one said adultery and not haunting motivated the strange effects.
Strange that Marianne never did anything like this at the other rectories she and her family subsequently moved into. Equally strange that the young daughter had an obsession with wanting to burn down the Rectory, having tried at least 4 times. She kept repeating “I must burn down the house.”
A very bizarre set of families lived at the Rectory or changed to something quite strange while living at the rectory. The last tenant, Captain Gregson, would lose two dogs to madness and then finally experience the dreadful fire.