The Borley Rectory

The case of Borley Rectory is one of real fascination for me. It is often titled “the most haunted house in England” which is pretty good for a place that no longer exists. The case was made truly sensational by psychical investigator Harry Price (see my Price post) though some would say he was too much of a show boater, anyway.

Property History

Borley Rectory as it stood during its years of use

Borley Rectory as it stood during its years of use

It is speculated that the land may have been owned by Benedictine monks, Adeliza, the half sister of William the Conqueror, and the Easton family at separate times during its history. It is documented more assuredly that the property was granted to Sir Edward Waldegrave in 1545 (source: hysterlical historian). The Waldegrave family has owned the land until recent times and many generations have lived in a manor house that used to stand in the area. Sir Edward’s grandson, Phillip, was the first to make it a permanent residence in 1621 (source: hysterical historian).

The first rector was a Reverend Henry D. Bull, a relative of the Waldegrave family who was also the one who built the rectory after his appointment in 1863 (source: prairieghosts.com). His son would succeed him in the position.

Haunting History

Supposedly the locals knew the area was haunted before the first Rev. Bull built the rectory but it was not until 1900, 14 years after a maid had quit based on “ghostly footsteps”, that the daughters of Rev. Henry Bull saw what is now known as the famous “phantom nun”, beginning the series of hauntings (source: prairieghosts.com). It was send the Reverend built a house in order to watch the nun walk across the garden. The hauntings never really became a prominent issue until the Rev. Guy Eric Smith took the rector position in 1928.

Rev. Smith came with his family from India and began to hear voices, footsteps and servants bells which would ring on their own accord. Mrs. Smith was said to have found a skull wrapped in brown paper while cleaning out a cupboard (strange but true). The Smiths were the first ones to bring in Harry Price to investigate the phenomenon which then brought on a slew of publicity. The Smiths left in 1929.

The next family to move into the rectory was the Foysters. Rev. Foyster’s wife, Marianne, was to be the center of some of the more famous and contested phenomenon of the haunting. The Foyster’s had just come from a big city and Marianne supposedly miss the big city noise and excitement (source: strange but true?). This is one of the reasons skeptics will discount her stories and the stories surrounding her. She was said to be thrown from her bed several times during the night, windows being broken, bottles and stones being thrown, and most peculiar writings imploring Marianne to light masses and to “get help”. Many of the thrown objects were always when the couple were together but the Reverend was not always looking, also leading to the suspicion that Marianne was fooling the Reverend. Guy L’estrange, a well known psychical medium was brought in at one point and supposedly, during his visit for tea, the group heard a noise from the kitchen. Upon inspection they found broken crockery. Returning to their tea they then heard noises from the hall. Before their eyes they would see bottles levitating and being hurled around. Curiously, some sites will gloss over L’estrange’s mediumship and recall him being only a friend and local magistrate.

A photograph of Marianne Foyster

A photograph of Marianne Foyster

Time magazine wrote a report on the Borley Rectory haunting in 1956 which claimed more apparitions than most sites will, including a mournful woman thought to be Arabella Waldegrave, a 17th century member of the family, an English nun who was supposedly in love with a monk. The two of them were said to have eloped but were caught and both were killed. A phantom coach pulled by phantom horses and headless coachmen were said to be the ghosts of the horses and coachmen who were going to take them away.

When Harry Price became involved with the house himself by renting it after the Foysters left he added two major elements to the story. The first was recognition of the wall writings to Marianne. They were continued well after they left the house but were still often addressed to her. The second was revealing the presence of a French nun who called herself Marie Laire in 1937. The technique used was automatic writing, using a device called a planchette. The planchette may very well have been a predecessor to the Ouija board. It was a heart shaped board much like the one used for a Ouija board but this one had a pencil turned downward so it was able to mark paper. Marie told the séance attendees that she was supposed to be married to a Henry Waldegrave in the 17th century but he had strangled her and then buried her remains in the basement.

Photgraphs of the Borley wall writings. It is unclear whether these appeared during Marianne's occupation or during Price's later investigation.

Photgraphs of the Borley wall writings. It is unclear whether these appeared during Marianne's occupation or during Price's later investigation. The upper left is a request for Marianne to say a mass, the one to the right is asking for help and the bottom is indicipherable.

A short deviation about the Henry Waldegraves

This last piece of information gives a potential researcher a lot to go on. The original Waldegrave of the land was Edward of 1517. Searching down his family line there are two direct descendants named Henry Waldegrave who were alive in the 17th Century.

One Henry appears in 1661, seemingly perfect for this story. He was born in Chewton, Somersetshire, England, however which is about 200 miles west of Borley. He did die in France but at the age of 28 and had no recorded spouses. That could give credence to the version of the tale that says Marie Laire was killed because she refused to marry Henry.

Another Henry was born in 1599 was the grandfather of the above Henry. He was born in Hever Castle in Kent which is only 80 miles from Borley. He was buried in Norfolk, however. His wife was recorded to be Ann Paston of Norfolk, England. He lasted 59 years. It is not entirely unreasonable that he may have been visiting the family homestead in Borley (during his time likely under the ownership of his relative Nicholas, son of the original Edward) and could have killed a nun and buried her there. It is known that Phillip, Nicholas’ sone was the one who first made it a permanent residence so it was in existence during the lives of both of the these Henrys.

One last candidate is the Henry Waldegrave of 1572. He was also born far from Borley in Chewton, Somersethire and was not a direct descendant of the original Edward, but a much earlier common ancester Thomas Waldegrave, the furthest the name goes back in record. Less likely but still potential.

What was the point of that digression? To poke potential skeptical holes in the theory of Marie Laire and Henry Waldegrave. All the evidence has to be considered. Admitedly I have limited access to genealogical information in England, but this is what can be garnered from what is accessibly. Back to our original story.

Another spirit named “Sunes Amures” became known during these same séances in 1938 which predicted the burning of the rectory the very night it made itself known. It also promised that the remains of the nun would be found in the ruins. It took 11 months for this to come true, however. Captain Gregson, while unloading books in the library, knocked over an oil lamp and that was the end of the building of Borley Rectory. The story goes that a figure was seen to be walking in the flames (source: prairieghosts.com)

After the Burning

The ruins of Borley Rectory after the fire which destroyed it

The ruins of Borley Rectory after the fire which destroyed it

After the burning naturally investigations had to be halted. That did not stop the curious and even Price himself from returning to the site. He returned with a photographer from Life magazine to photograph the ruins when a brick levitated in the rubble. The photographer was able to find a picture.

The famous Borley floating brick picture. Many will say it was faked and it is easy to see how it could have been. The photorapher and Harry Price swear to its authenticity.

The famous Borley floating brick picture. Many will say it was faked and it is easy to see how it could have been. The photorapher and Harry Price swear to its authenticity.

One of the most remarkable revelations from the ruins were what Price found in the ashes. A man named Canon Phythian-Adams studied the case extensively but never visited the site. He also did extra research on the Waldegrave family and the village and wrote to Price, telling him where to dig to find the bones of a woman. When Price went to the spot, the exact spot, sure enough he found the bones of a young woman and two religious medals (source: prairieghosts). The group gave the woman a consecrated burial and the nun has not been seen again.

The hauntings, however, have been said to have moved to the church across the way. Organ music has been heard coming from the church when both the church and the organ console were locked. The sound of pebbles was also heard in the church when no one was around as well as EVP sessions recording strange noises when the church was empty (source: strange but true).

Harry Price would go on to write books and make the case, as well as himself quite famous from this haunting. It is also said that his work at the rectory would create an early blue print for how to investiage hauntings. He brought in various scientific instruments to record data and invited multiple witnesses to join his investigation. He would try to systematically record who was there and “boobie trapped” the place so he would know if anyone was fooling with him and the house by “sealing” doorways with cotton threads. The threads were always in place when he returned to check on them but the inside of the room may have been marked or scratched or rumpled.

There was reference to the confessions of Marianne Foyster in the video Strange but true? Borley Rectory Ghosts, a short video produced by the BBC many years ago but I have been unable to find record of Marianne confessing to faking the phenomenon. There was a story associated with the Foyster era of Borley which included a third witness. The magistrate Guy L’estrange was having tea with the couple one afternoon when they heard a commotion from the kitchen. The three went to investigate and found broken crockery but no one around. A second interruption of their tea surprised them all when they saw bottles floating and being hurled around before their very eyes. L’estrange would later personally recount the story.

Sources and links with more information:

The first newspaper account of the Borley Rectory affairs in “The Hysterical Historian” blog

Paper atttempting to find the actual rectory site

Extensive details of the Borley Rectory investigation within a Harry Price biography at “Prairie Ghosts”

Youtube video: 1975 BBC, “Borley Rectory most haunted house in England”

Youtube video: two part British video on Harry Price and the haunting at Borley Rectory

Archived 1956 TIME article on the Borley Rectory

A 23 part account of the Borley Rectory Experience including a photogallery

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