The little village of Borley is located in a very pretty but sparsely populated area of North Essex and just a few miles away from the Suffolk border where I grew up. At one time the Borley Rectory was considered the most haunted house in England.
As a small child I became fascinated with the ghost stories surrounding Borley rectory and the church On occasions, we would have to pick my father up from his work in the village of Long Melford. My mum would drive us through the tiny single lane backroads past Borley church (the rectory had long gone by then). My mother once told me about the hauntings and so every time we drove past I would always ask her more about it and I remember feeling a sense of intrigue and excitement as we went by. Deep down inside I always wanted to stop and explore in the hope that I might see a ghost! Perhaps that’s what really kicked off my fascination in ghosts. Now I’m older and a paranormal investigator, I thought it was about time I did just that, explore!
The church is now closed and locked up and only open to the public on occasions. I took the time to walk around the graveyard and the outside of the church and take photos. Unfortunately I didn’t see a ghost, but Borley church with its strange topiary hedges does still have a slight eerie feel about it, but that’s all part of the legend.
Borley Rectory was built in 1863 on what is believed to be the site of an old monastery. Local legend has it that a 13th century monk and a beautiful young novice nun were killed while trying to elope from the place. The monk was hanged and the nun was bricked up alive within the walls of her convent.
Ghostly happenings – the history
The reports of strange occurrences date back to the mid to late 1800’s however, the first documented evidence of paranormal activity was in the early 1900’s.
Over the years various types of phenomena have been reported including phantom footsteps; strange lights; ghostly whispers; a headless man; a girl in white; the sounds of a phantom coach outside; the apparition of the home’s builder, Henry Bull; and the spirit of the nun which was said to drift through the garden with her head bent in sorrow.
The original tenants of the rectory were the Reverend Henry Bull and family. He became pastor of Borley Church in 1862 and despite local warnings, built the rectory on a site believed by locals to be haunted. Over the years, Bull’s servants and his daughters were repeatedly unnerved by phantom rapping’s, unexplained footsteps and the appearance of ghosts. Reverend Bull enjoyed these happenings and he and his son, Harry, are reported to have constructed a summer house on the property where they could enjoy after-dinner cigars and watch for the appearance of the phantom nun who walked nearby.
Harry Bull, the son, inherited the rectory and the job as parson when his father died in 1892 and stayed on until his death in 1927. The Reverend Eric Smith and his wife were the next residents of the house. They reported mysterious footsteps, doorbells ringing of their own accord, and poltergeist activity which occurred on numerous occasions. It was Eric Smith who reported their experiences to the Daily Mirror newspaper, who then arranged for a paranormal investigator Harry Price to stay and investigate. The Rev. Smith and his wife left the rectory just one year after moving in due to the activity.
The next residents of the house were the Reverend Foyster and his wife Marianne. Although they continue to experience the same phenomena as all the previous residents, paranormal activity seemed to ramp up once they had moved in. Poltergeist activity become more aggressive with reports of smashed glasses, broken windows, the worst of the activity seemed to revolve around Mrs. Foyster; she claimed to be thrown from her bed at night, slapped by invisible hands, forced to dodge heavy objects which flew at her day and night, and was once almost suffocated with a mattress. Around this time a series of scrawled messages appeared on the walls of the house, written by an unknown hand. They seemed to be pleading with Mrs. Foyster, using phrases like “Marianne, please help get” and “Marianne light mass prayers”. There is some scepticism around Mariannes claims as apparently, nearly all of the poltergeist-like activity occurred when Mr Foyster was absent.
Enter the paranormal investigator
During the Foysters stay, Harry Price, the paranormal investigator, was often a guest at the manor. When The Foysters moved out of the house in 1935 after 5 years of residing there, Harry Price leased the house for an extended, round-the-clock, one year investigation. He ran an advertisement in the personal column of the Times on May 25, 1937 looking for open-minded researchers to literally “camp out” at the rectory and record any phenomena which took place in their presence. The advertisement read:
“HAUNTED HOUSE: Responsible persons of leisure and intelligence, intrepid, critical, and unbiased, are invited to join rota of observers in a year’s night and day investigation of alleged haunted house in Home counties. Printed Instructions supplied. Scientific training or ability to operate simple instruments an advantage. House situated in lonely hamlet, so own car is essential. Write Box H.989, The Times, E.C.4”
During his stay he and his team of 40 researchers were left somewhat disappointed as they witnessed very little compared to what had been witnessed before. However, Price’s first-hand accounts included phenomena such as hearing bells ring, rapping noises and seeing objects that has been moved from one place to another. In addition, he also collected accounts from scores of witnesses and previous tenants of the house, even talking to neighbours and local people who had their own experiences with the rectory. A full account of what Price experienced was published in the book ‘The Most Haunted House in England’.
Because of the Borley Rectory investigations, Price become the best-known and most accomplished of the early ghost hunters. Price coined the idea of the “ghost hunter’s kit”; used tape measurers to check the thickness of walls and to search for hidden chambers; perfected the use of still cameras for indoor and outdoor photography; brought in a remote-control motion picture camera; put to use a finger-printing kit; and even used portable telephones for contact between investigators.
Some of the bizarre events logged by Price included a séance, where a spirit named Marie Lairre came through and told the group that she had been a nun in France but had left her convent to marry Henry Waldegrave, the son of a wealthy family whose home had previously stood on the site of Borley Rectory. The tale turned grim when she declared that her husband had taken her life and placed her remains in the cellar. To Price, she seemed to fit the profile of the ghost that haunted Borley Rectory.
During another séance another spirit predicted that the former nun’s body would be found in the ruins. The spirit said the house would burn down that night, thus revealing the location of the bones. Nothing happened that night but 11 months later when the new owner, Captain WH Gregson, was unpacking library books, an oil lamp fell over and started a fire. The fire spread fast through the manor and the rectory was gutted and then later demolished in 1944. Prior to the house being demolished, Price took the opportunity to excavate in the cellar of the house and discovered a few fragile bones which turned out to be that of a young woman. This was evidence enough for Price to conclude that there was something to the story of the murdered nun. A Christian burial for the bones appeared to provide the ghost with the rest she had long sought and a service was later conducted by the Rev. AC Henning in the small village of Liston, less than two miles from the rectory.
Mr Price died in 1948 and since then many sceptics and has dissected his work, explaining all sound phenomena and other phenomena as misinterpreted natural occurrences.
More recent claims around the area still being haunted come mainly from a team of local paranormal investigators who spent the night in the church claim to have experienced some paranormal activity. They report things being thrown at, hearing unexplainable noises and seeing small moving lights. Having left a tape running inside the church all night, they also claim to have picked up the sounds of footsteps and creaks and a possible deep sigh. The same team also investigated the site of the old Rectory once stood and claim to have had a sighting of a nun. This supposed sighting lasted about twelve minutes. Whether people believe the stories surrounding Borley, its rectory and church, over 100 years of paranormal reports has ensured its reputation as ‘one of the most haunted houses in Britain’ remains intact.