The strange tale of Borley Rectory

 

borley

Standing in its elevated postion above the Stour valley and easily visible to those living on the far side, the church at Borley sits on a plot of land, an isolated and incongruous green wadi of grassy lawns, ivy-festooned oaks and a churchyard decorated with yew topiary. Surrounded by the brown and buff clays of the Suffolk farmland which falls away to the main A134 Bury to Sudbury road, the brilliant verdancy and manicured grounds stand in stark contrast. The church itself is mostly built in the Romanesque/Early English style of the late 12th and early 13th centuries with some fussier Victorian refurnishing  and the churchyard is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The name of the village, Borley, is a compound of the Saxon words “Bap” and “Ley”- “Boar’s Pasture.” There were, and still are, a number of pig farms nearby and my paternal grandfather once farmed one of them.

By Steve Foster
By Steve Foster

Even in summer, chill nor’-easterlies sweep across the valley whilst a pure easterly wind will bring with it, cold and dry air from Scandinavia. These winds scour the fields, sending up eddies of loam-dust and pushing trees into a distorted and angular shape, braced against the onslaught. We see regular if small tornadoes here. These clay fields do not play host to pre- nineteenth century homes generally because until then, homes in East Anglia tended to be built upon exposed seams of gravel that run through the valleys like dry riverbeds. You will not find older towns built upon the great clay plains that dominate this landscape but as the population grew, people had no choice- the clay had to be built upon.

it is difficult to approach Borley in a neutral frame of mind if you know anything about its past. Whether you believe in ghosts and manifestations or not, everything is couched in the stories that are famous worldwide and the villagers know this and they do not want you there. Even the ever present wind that buffets you in this exposed place seems to carry with it a timbre of notoriety. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the famous Victorian ghost hunter Harry Price knew this and in an instructional booklet given out to his investigators, he cautioned against ascribing psychic qualities to natural things “..It is very important that the greatest effort should be made to ascertain whether such manifestations are due to normal causes such as rats, small boys, the villagers, the wind, wood shrinking, the Death Watch Beetle, farm animals nosing the doors etc., trees brushing against the windows, birds in the chimney stack or between double walls..”

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The town of Sudbury can be seen on the horizon

Even this list of earthly causes has a suitably gothic feel: death-watch beetles and rats; the fluttering of birds doomed to die trapped in walls and the shrinkage of ancient wood that has tightened and relaxed against itself over time. These are the noises that have scared humans witless over the centuries and often defy logical explanation when it is night-time or we are worked up into a state of nervous agitation as Marianne, wife of the vicar Lionel Foyster, and resident of the reputedly haunted rectory well knew. “There were occasions when we frightened each other, if you know what I mean. We talked about things and we would get ourselves nervous and excited, and then even if the house creaked you imagined things were coming.” When you discover that Marianne and her rector husband played host to 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 during Easter 1935 for a seance at the rectory, it becomes clear that bumps in the night aren’t something that only the gullible fall prey to.

Louis Mayerling, writer of the book ‘We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory’ in 2000 admits that despite the many pranks he claims to have played on ghosthunter and paranormal investigator Harry Price (which the Foysters were allegedly in on), there was one incident that he could not explain and which frightened George Bernard Shaw so much he refused to stay the night. He recounts, “the kitchen bells clanged as one and a brilliant silver-blue light seemed to implode around us from the walls and the ceilings.” Mayerling’s previous attempts at creating eerie sounds and noises in the rectory had shown him that it was not possible to make all the bells sound at once. He was also unable to explain what had caused the lightning-like flash around them which actually blinded him although he eventually recovered sight in one of his eyes. Mayerling confesses in his book that memory of the experience still “set my spine to tingling.” Marianne Foyster went on to claim that many of the ‘spontaneous’ fires were the work of vagrants who broke into the house and gained access through the four outside doors and cellar entrance. These were apparently not secured during Price’s investigations.

Newspaper report of the hauntings
Newspaper report of the hauntings

Asides from putative deliberate pranks and faked hauntings, there are also the sounds that all houses make but especially those of a badly built Victorian edifice which attempts to defy or ignore the elements instead of mitigating them. Borley rectory was typical of the dwellings that cling to the exposed valleysides of East Anglia; draughty, ranging and cold and in the winter, its rooms would only have been heated if they were regularly inhabited and its interiors were barely protected from the worst of the weather battering the outside. The rectory had no insulation, draughty windows, bare floors of wooden planking and very poorly located north-facing windows that received the full strength of those vicious northeasterlies. Having lived in some very old houses with their peculiar micro-climates, I can attest to sudden vortexes of frigid air that shake keys from locks and cause doors to slam on the other side of the building. At night these houses talk. As the warmth of the day is chased out of a house by the dusk, Victorian wooden floorboards push against each other then shrink back like an overly modest maiden aunt. Tightly-laid boards creak around the skirting and sound like sharp footsteps around the room edges. The cold, dank and frequently wet climate in South Suffolk created in its Victorian house builders a hatred of chinks and cracks: floors were tightly-laid and joiners laboured under tighter tolerances to construct doors with securely tacked panels and window frames with no give. Their work was emblematic of the Victorian values of restraint, creating homes that were buttoned-up and doughty in their defence against excess. As a result, when the humidity rose, the panels increased their width and chafed noisily against their constraints. The sounds resembles a tap on the door.

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The mention of the death watch beetle may have significance too. Like all bugs, it can generate odd noises that carry over spectacular distances but the drilling of this beetle, sonorous and creepy as it is, becomes amplified by its preferred medium-rotting wood- which possesses its own set of characteristics. It loses a lot of strength as it rots and the slow collapse of its internal structure causes creaking and groaning. The former plumber at Borley rectory himself confirmed the presence of rot behind a courtyard window and that the sound carried unusually was corroborated by one of Harry Price’s observers, Major Douglas-Home, who, in 1943, wrote in a statement that that the footsteps of the cottage occupants were clearly audible inside the rectory or sounded as if they were actually footfalls from the rectory corridor. In fact, the sound came from people walking across the courtyard at the time. The cottage was very close to the rectory and its occupants often played in the courtyard attached to the rectory. He remarked, “Owing to the shape of the courtyard & the position of cottage, every sound made at cottage was magnified at least 5 times in the main house—I verified this—even voices spoken outside the pantry by cottage were strongly heard in the Base [the rectory library] and other rooms’. The metal skeleton of a building are not silent either and speak of its construction with fluctuating temperatures causing the truss rods and brackets to expand and contract and place stress on the building as a whole. Strange noises amplify under a phenomenon akin to ventriloquism as metal rods send their protests far away from the original source and their sum is far more than their parts.

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We recently drove to Borley to have a look around which is when some of these photographs were taken. It has been several decades since our last visit and we were disconcerted by how difficult it was to look around; the atmosphere was one of hostility despite the warmth of the early spring day and sun splashed graveyard with its pots of primroses, placed on graves and growing wild alongside ancient gravestones tumbled and piled at the back of the plot. We met another older couple standing by the gate who reported being shouted at by locals despite the fact that all they were doing was sitting in the churchyard admiring the view. Funnily enough this couple knew nothing of the villages past and were bemused by this behaviour. We used to visit Borley as teenagers and I daresay we were regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the locals who appear extremely unwelcoming to visitors, no matter their age or demeamour. The church is locked, its car park is chained shut and there are no attempts to provide tourist information or offer safe spaces to leave cars.

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I understand the desire for privacy but consider the amounts of tourists worldwide that visit Long Melford, Lavenham and even Polstead, (the latter with its own gruesome past). All of these villages possess fascinating histories and are evolved in the way they manage tourists  so I cannot help wondering if the attitude of Borley residents is actually exacerbating the problem they have with occasional anti social behaviour. Make visitors welcome, develop a small tourist industry which promotes what you want to promote (it need not be unmanageable), plough the income back into community projects and you will actually discourage anti social activity because this thrives on a place being deserted and dissasociated from its legacy. The stories do attract overnight campers who haunt the churchyard, sleeping (and drinking) against the graves and the proximate houses must get tired of this. But again, this occurs because of a lack of engagement with tourists, not because of. And the stories attached to this tiny village and its church are world-famous and could be an excellent source of parish revenue.

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The burned down rectory

I’m not going to explore the likelihood or not of the hauntings being real when the attendant story, that of their exploration by Harry Price and the subsequent Borley ‘industry’ that grew up around them is much more interesting. Harry Price was one of England’s most famous ghost hunters, dedicated to his mission to investigate suspected hauntings and with the potential to expose the fraud that might lie behind them. Since the early 1920’s when news of the suspected haunting at Borley first became public knowledge via a 1928 story in the Daily Mirror sent in by the then owner Guy Eric Smith, the burned out remains of this rectory and its graveyard and grounds in a small village near Sudbury in Suffolk has captured the imagination of the public to become arguably, one of the most, if not the most famous of all national ghost stories. It is a tale full of gothic tropes- nuns, ghostly writings and fierce fires with strange figures seen in the flames. Pure Vincent Price.

Harry Price by William Hope
Harry Price by William Hope

Borley Rectory was built in 1863 for the Reverend Henry Bull on the site of an ancient monastery.The ghost of a sorrowful nun who strolled along the so called “Nun’s Walk” was already well known locally at the time, believed to be a disobedient sister from the nearby nunnery at Bures who had fallen in love with a monk from the Borley Monastery.  We’d perhaps expect more ghostly monks to infest the grounds but by all accounts because of the prior existence of this monastery, it is the nun who dominates. The two had tried to elope and upon their capture, the monk was executed and the nun bricked up alive in the cellars of the monastic building. The family weren’t too bothered by her presence but their guests began to be startled by the nun appearing to peer at them through the windows of the new rectory and servants rarely stayed long. When Henry’s son Harry took over the rectory the visitations were reported to have increased with a ghostly coach and horses seen racing up the rectory drive. Other villagers have pointed out that a Mrs Yelloly of Cavendish Hall was a cousin of the Bull family and was conveyed on her social visits by an old-fashioned black horse-drawn coach at the time. The olfactory hauntings were said to include a strong smell of lavender which pervaded the halls and rooms of the rectory but a nearby lavender processing factory on the outskirts of Long Melford is the more likely source of such odours. Stafford Allen went on to become Bush Boake Allen, one of Englands most prolific producer of herb and spice preparations and scented the air for miles around.

Marianne Foyster
Marianne Foyster

The Revd Eric Smith and his wife arrived at the rectory in 1927 and they invited well-known psychic researcher, Harry Price, to visit, setting off nexplicable poltergeist activity where belongings were broken and stones thrown at the family and Harry Price. The Smiths only lasted two years before they moved, to be replaced by the Revd Lionel Foyster and his family whereupon the ghostly presences increased their activities. The resident ghost appeared to hold a penchant for the rector’s wife, Marianne, displaying its ardour in a bizarre manner- hurling objects at her and leaving messages scrawled all over the walls. Witnesses claimed to have seen these appear in from of their eyes, although most of the writing was illegible and unintelligible. According to Roger Clarke, writer of “A Natural History of Ghosts; 500 Years of Hunting for Proof’, the handwriting of the ‘otherworldly messages’ matched Marianne Foysters.

Fox among the pigeons...and the graves....
Fox among the pigeons…and the graves….

Finally the family decided have the Rectory exorcised and life quietened for a while afterwards but the manifestations eventually returned in a variety of new ways with inexplicable music emanating from the nearby Church and servant bells ringing by themselves, communion wine turning into ink and “something horrid” attacking one of their children. The family left and successive Rectors refused to live in the rectory and who would have blamed them?

The spectral scribbles
The spectral scribbles

Upon his return in 1937 with a large team of investigators, Harry Price recorded a number of phenomena, the most chilling occurring during a seance where a ‘communicant’ claimed that the the rectory would catch fire in the hallway that night and burn down. This second spirit identified himself as ‘Sunex Amures’ and warned that a nun’s body would be discovered in the ruins. Nothing happened until exactly eleven months later when the rectory burned down after an oil lamp fell over in the hall during the occupation of the property by Captain Gregson. The insurance company were not convinced with his explanation for the fire and it was thought as fraudulent. Locals were still claiming to have seen a nuns face peering from an upstairs window and ghostly figures cavorting around. When Price returned yet again in 1943, he discovered the jawbone of a young woman and gave it a Christian burial in an attempt to bring peace to the site. The bones were interred at nearby Liston Church by Rev. AC Henning.

Interior of Borley Church. Image by foxearth.org
Interior of Borley Church. Image by foxearth.org

Despite the fact that I am no stranger to Borley Church, it was only on my last visit there that I was struck by its position overlooking the south Suffolk valley (although the village is in Essex) and how this might have affected those looking at it from the fields directly opposite. Despite the evidence of fakery, many remain convinced that the place is haunted and that these spectral occurrences are mainly malevolent in nature. What must it have been like to see the church standing sentinel over the valley all those years ago, one of the taller and more imposing structures in the area with such an attendant reputation, contrary to everything a church and its rectory should stand for? We have always seen a church and its grounds as sanctuary since medieval times, dating back to King Ethelbert’s rule in 600AD although this privilege was finally brough to an end in 1723 but perversely the church as site of malevolent happenings is a popular filmic trope (The Omen) and not everyone sees it as a place of shelter. Researching local attitudes to the events at the church and rectory at the time would be a fascinating area of study; not so much the opinions and feelings of the Borley villagers but those of people living nearby and in homes and farms that had a direct view of the church standing silently over them.

Plan of the rectory
Plan of the rectory

Much of what happened may never be made public because it concerns the private spheres of those who were involved and what is known is an intriguing blend of observation, assumption, self delusion and pseudo science of its time. There is convincing evidence for both camps; the believers and the sceptical and if you believe in the old adage “from extremes comes moderation” then you might agree that much remains ‘not proven’ which is not the same as disproven. There has been a resurgence of interest in the Borley story over the last few years and if your interest has been piqued, Neil Spring’s book ‘The Ghost Hunters’ tells the story of the rectory and Harry Price via the character, Sarah Grey, one of the new assistants taken on to explore the hauntings. Sarah says: “I knew of Borley Rectory, too, before I visited it with Harry – supposedly the most haunted house in England. I knew there was no such thing as phantoms; the many witnesses must be mad, or lying. I knew I could visit Borley Rectory without fear, return without harm. These are the things I thought I knew. I now understand the true meaning of terror.” A new animated documentary film called ‘Borley Rectory is also currently in production. Noir-ish is style, the director Ashley Thorpe describes it as a ‘love letter to another age of horror’ after reading about Borley Rectory as a child in the Usborne Book of Ghosts.

Borley: a still from the upcoming film
Borley: a still from the upcoming film

 

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4 thoughts on “The strange tale of Borley Rectory

  1. I remember the Usborn Guide to the Supernatural, and Borley Rectory in particular. Terrifying stuff.

    Great article you’ve put together here. A great site in general.

    1. Thanks so much for the encouraging words. Yes, they were terrifying books weren’t they and the story has lost none of its scary appeal.

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