Borley Rectory Hoax

Pas Cutri

(Investigator 81, 2001 November)

It appears that one of history's most famous haunted houses has had an interesting "twist" to its reputation. The most haunted house in history has been unmasked as Britain's biggest hoax.

A new book written by one of the hoaxers will outrage believers and delight those who seek to disprove the existence of psychic phenomena. In "We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory" by Louis Mayerling – for whom the house was a second home until its destruction by fire in 1938 – reveals for the first time how the 'hauntings' were created by the rectory's various inhabitants. He describes how they watched in amazement as the world fell for the elaborate hoax. 'I would love to say that there was a grain of truth in it all, but I felt that the book had to be written to reveal the farcical truth about the house – as personally experienced.'

Mayerling arrived in the house, on the Essex-Suffolk border, in 1918 to find the eccentric Rev Harry Bull and his family of 14 children taking active delight in perpetuating local stories of a spectral nun, a family ghost and paranormal activity in the area.

'The house was the embodiment of eccentricities of many kinds,' Mayerling remembered. He reveals in the book how a 'magic piano' that the Bulls claimed was played by spirit hands was in fact activated by the six-year-old Mayerling plucking the piano strings with a poker from the safety of a nearby gap in the wall.

The infamous examples of poltergeist activity were perpetrated by various servants and children who were, Mayerling claims, encouraged by the Bulls to exploit the house's many hidden doors and passages. 'The example of paranormal activity that was given most publicity was the ringing of the servants' bells,' said Mayerling. 'That was simply activated by prodding the servants' bells through the barred windows over the well in the kitchen passage.'

Mayerling admits there was one incident he is unable to explain and which could prove there is still more to the Borley stories than meets the eye. In Easter 1935, Shaw, Norman, Spilsbury, Mayerling and Marianne Foyster attended a seance at Borley. 'We chose an ill-lit and underground cellar at about midnight and sat in silence,' he remembered. 'Someone gave a nervous cough and was about to speak when an extraordinary thing happened: the kitchen bells seemed to clang together in one single clash.'

Apart from those sitting at the table, the house was empty, and both Foyster and Mayerling knew from experience that it was impossible to make the bells ring at the same time.

'Norman jumped up and then there was a lightning strike of silver-blue light which appeared to implode from all walls and the ceiling of the cellars and then there was a dead silence,' he said. 'Shaw had been in the process of pushing a box of matches diagonally across the table and Norman was half off his chair in a turning position, but every member of the seance was struck with an instant paralysis which lasted about five seconds.'

Afterwards, Mayerling was blinded – he eventually recovered sight in one eye – and Norman and Shaw refused to stay the night in the house.

'I can't explain that occurrence and, to be honest, it still makes me feel rather shaken,' he said. 'The rest of the hauntings were, without exception, the most successful hoax of the age, but that still sets my spine tingling.'

The site of Borley Rectory (around 60 miles north east of London in the Essex countryside) was first noted in the 1066 Doomsday Book where a Borley Manor was situated – it follows that a wooden church would probably have been built on the site. It's history is shrouded in myth, but the first indication that all was not well on the site of Borley was in 1362 when a Benedictine monk attempted to elope by horse drawn coach, with a nun from the nearby nunnery. Their plans were thwarted – the monk was hanged and the nun was bricked up alive in the walls of the nunnery.

The red brick building that was Borley Rectory was built on this site by the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull (rector of Borley) in 1863, who later settled there with his wife, Caroline Foyster.

Thereafter, witnesses reported seeing stones being thrown from an unseen hand, ghostly footsteps were heard and the spectre of the nun, the most reported apparition at Borley, began to be seen, often in broad daylight and on a stretch of ground to be named the 'nuns walk'. On July 28th, 1900, three daughters of Henry Bull all saw the nun, and assuming she were normal flesh and blood, went to greet her as a guest on the grounds – she mysteriously disappeared. The nun was also seen standing by a gatepost on four separate occasions by a passing carpenter.

It was in 1928 when the haunting of Borley Rectory got underway in earnest. The Bull family had died one by one, or moved away and after a short period standing empty, the Reverend Guy Smith and wife moved in. Very quickly, there were reports of whispers in the night, unseen footsteps, objects being hurled at guests, illumination from unlit rooms, two maids saw the nun yet again, even a phantom coach was seen. The words 'Don't Carlos, don't' were wailed late at night' – Carlos was the nickname for Henry Bull.

In 1929 and at their wits end, the Smiths contacted the Daily Mirror requesting help. Harry Price, the most eminent psychical investigator of the time, then invited himself to the Rectory to carry out a full investigation. On their first visit the group (comprising of Price, his secretary and reporter) all witnessed poltergeist activity, spontaneous displacement of objects, strange odours, cold spots, the sound of galloping horses. Most notably, the Daily Mirror reporter, Mr C V Wall, saw the nun. Within a year, the Smith family left Borley Rectory forever, dismissing their move as forced 'due to a lack of amenities'.

In October of the same year, the Reverend Lionel Algernon Foyster, wife Marianne and daughter Adelaide move in. Within a year, the activity had increased to such a degree that after a visit from Harry Price, he voiced his fears. Apparently, the phenomenon had become more violent and Marianne appeared to be the preferred target. The by now usual paranormal activity was complimented by attacks. Marianne was assaulted at least twice, once being struck in the face, another time being flung from her bed after an exorcism. Perhaps the most interesting paranormal evidence comes in the form of notes and wall writings addressed to Marianne. In this period, Price claimed that at least 2000 separate paranormal events had taken place.

Not surprisingly, in 1935, the Foysters left Borley rectory and two years later Harry Price leased the house for a year. He conducted a plethora of experiments and vigils, but the activity appeared to have died back considerably. Indeed, Price was accused of fraud on more than one occasion (Price was allegedly caught with a pocketful of pebbles after a short pebble-throwing poltergeist had allegedly been tossing stones at witnesses). After a seance on March 27th, a message was received that 'Sunex Amures and one of his men' would burn down the rectory that very night. Nothing happened but on February 27th, 1939, a fire broke out at midnight and razed the building to the ground.

To this day, the site that Borley Rectory occupied holds a certain mystique for parapsychologists. It is unlikely that all the reported events at Borley were fraudulent, but there is enough evidence and testimony to bring ALL of Harry Prices conclusions in to disrepute. All the families leaving the rectory claimed that their decision was in no way related to any paranormal activity, no matter how it was reported in the press.

Unfortunately, as Borley Rectory no longer stands, no one will ever know the full truth, only the legend remains – which is perhaps, rather fitting for Britain's most haunted house.

George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence, Sir Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, and Bernard Spilsbury, the Home Office criminal forensic scientist, were firm believers in the hauntings and attended seances at Borley. Even now, belief in the hauntings has remained so powerful that the case is still held up by believers as incontrovertible proof of the supernatural.

Skeptics versus Religion, the Supernatural and the Paranormal: