Gareth was a little ‘tied up’ last week (and the week before in fact) but here is his summation of the Borley mystery. Matt is one person who asked a question about this: so now, here is Gareth to qualify it . . .
The gist of Matt’s enquiry is, wasn’t ‘The Most Haunted House in England’ all just a fraud concocted by the ghost-hunter Harry Price? Since books and articles continue to appear on the subject, this is an important question.
Borley Rectory first came to national attention in June 1929, when the rector, Rev. George Smith, wrote to the Daily Mirror saying that there was reason to believe that the house was haunted, and asking to be put in touch with the Society for Psychical Research. The paper sent down a reporter, V. C. Wall, who reported that they told him of stories of a phantom nun, and an old-fashioned coach that was equally unreal. He himself saw an inexplicable light shining through the window of an empty bedroom. Curiously, he reported that the Rev. Smith “does not believe in ghosts”. The Smiths moved out soon afterwards.
On 25 July 1929 Price visited the rectory with his secretary Lucy Kay, and Charles Sutton, a reporter for the Daily Mail. Some stones were mysteriously thrown, one of them breaking a window. Sutton grabbed Price and found that his pockets were stuffed with stones; he intended to tell the public this, but a libel lawyer advised him against it, so he waited until Price was dead, then related it in the Inky Way Annual. An unpublished piece by Lucy Kay confirms this by describing Price as preparing for this trip by “stuffing his pockets with anything that would fit in them.”
In ‘The End of Borley Rectory’, Price included a photograph taken on 5 April 1944, showing a brick apparently suspended in mid-air amid the now ruined building, implying that it was levitated by non-human hands. But the photographer, David Scherman, and a journalist present, Cynthia Ledsham (both from the American magazine Life), later maintained that the brick had been thrown by a workman involved with the demolition of the building, though Life had itself used the picture ‘tongue-in-cheek’.
Thus, it seems fairly certain that two supposed paranormal incidents at Borley Rectory were faked by Harry Price. This is out of hundreds of incidents, with dozens of witnesses, extending over several decades, from the early 1880s (when Price was in his cradle) until the 1940s, and there have been reports of sightings in the neighbouring churchyard up until the 1990s at least.
The Society for Psychical Research did eventually produce a report in 1955, written largely by Trevor Hall, a conjurer who did not believe in ghosts. They had interviewed Mabel Smith, widow of the late rector, who told them she and her husband had never thought that the place was haunted, though if so it is curious that they should ever have written to the newspapers to say that it was. She did offer possible explanations for one or two phenomena: a mysterious light seen in the windows of a bedroom could have been reflections of lights on passing trains (though Price reported that they were also seen in the window of a bedroom at the end of the new wing, which was on the opposite side of the building to the railway line). On the other hand, neither she nor the SPR could explain how, looking out of a rear window after having heard a noise, “I saw two ‘headlamps’ … by the light of these lamps I saw the outline of some sort of vehicle. I did NOT hear any vehicle or car leave.” This was evidently the phantom coach reported by many other people both before and after this time.
The next rector, the Rev. Foyster, also reported many strange things, poltergeist phenomena, sightings of eerie figures, and writing that mysteriously appeared on the walls, which Price and many others have suspected to have been faked by his wife Marion. Yet, as the SPR report notes, all of these things stopped after a Spiritualist group named Mark Tey held an all-night séance there which apparently exorcised them. I have always thought that the success of an exorcism shows the genuinely inexplicable nature of the phenomena, since an exorcism would not put an end to hoaxing or reflections of train lights.
In 1978 Hall produced a nit-picking biography, ‘Search for Harry Price’ in the introduction to which he remarked peevishly that despite his brilliant report, some people continued to believe that there had been real ghosts at Borley. He therefore set out to prove that Price was “a pathological liar with a craving for publicity”. Some examples: Price stated that his grandfather was born in Shropshire. This was a ‘flat lie’, said Hall, as in fact he was born in the neighbouring county of Worcestershire. He said that his own childhood home was in Brockley, south London, when actually it was between Brockley and New Cross, but nearer to the latter, which is more downmarket. Price stated that the medium Stella Cranshaw was 21 when he first met her, when in fact she was 23, and he always spelt her name Cranshawe. Price’s bookplates contained coats of arms to which he was not entitled (though since most bookplates include coats of arms, whilst few book collectors are armigerous, this must be a common practice). Such inaccuracies, Hall considered, showed Harry Price to be a liar in the Baron Munchausen class. It may be mentioned that Hall himself had claimed in Who’s Who to have a master’s degree from Trinity College, Cambridge, when in reality he had not attended any university, so that it must be admitted that he was an authority on spurious claims.
Not all of these things even imply dishonesty on Price’s part: he may well have believed that his grandfather was born in Shropshire, Cranshaw may have lied to him about her age, as so many women do, other errors may have resulted from faulty memory rather than conscious deception. Price was certainly a publicity seeker (though his media stunts were not so outrageous as those of a certain vampire hunter I can think of), but I see no reason to think that he was more of a liar than the average person (allowing that the average person tells several lies every day). In any case, the vast majority of phenomena at Borley were reported by other people when he was not there, and I would like to write of these at length, but for the time being I have used up too much of David’s blog.
Gareth J. Medway