Borley is a village in Essex that is an exemplary slice of pastoral England. In fact, the Saxon words "Bap" and "Ley", where Borley comes from, translates to "Boar's Pasture." However, this lovely English hamlet was once home to one of the most intense and storied haunted buildings in England and, perhaps, the world: Borley Rectory.
Borley Rectory was first built in 1863. It was erected on the site of an ancient monastery, potentially dating back to the 13th century. The long history of this particular piece of land was well known during the Victorian Age. In fact, there was even a ghost story. The legend said that, on the site of the monastery, there was a sad, sullen ghostly nun who would walk back and forth on a specific walk and the locals called it ‘Nun’s Walk.’ The nun was said to hail from Bures and that she had fallen in love with a monk at the Borley Monastery. The two had an illicit love affair and even attempted to elope but were tracked down and punished. Both were executed and, as the legend goes, bricked up in the cellar (which, of course, seems like a bit of a stretch).
This is all to say, the land of the Borley Rectory was occupied long before the walls of the Rectory went up.
The Rectory was first built for Reverend Henry Bull and his family of thirteen (often misnumbered as 14) children, his wife Sarah, along with a small staff to run the stately home. It was twenty-three room, two-story red brick home, and its grounds stretched nearly four acres. Shortly after the Bulls and their staff moved in, things began...happening. It was said to have, like most hauntings, begun as fairly benign, footsteps heard when no one was there, whispering, and other small noises. But, as time progressed things became more and more intense.
While the family reported experiencing these haunting and ghostly noises throughout their time there, it remained the family seat until 1892. It seems that, for the most part, the hauntings were limited to noises although there are some claims the family would sometimes see ghostly faces in second story windows or full-bodied apparitions on the house and grounds.
Interestingly enough, Britannica Online reports, “Revd Bull had a summer-house put up overlooking the Nun's walk so that he could watch the manifestations. However, the lady soon became something of nuisance: often startled guests by peering at them through the windows of the new rectory.”
When his father died in 1892, Henry Foyster Bull inherited his father’s home. He moved in, clearly not put off by the haunting, and remained there until his death in 1927. Perhaps the family had gotten used to the extra noises throughout the home or had even struck up a deal with those extra guests in the 60+ years someone from the Bull family lived there.
Between 1927 and when the new family moved in, it was empty for about eighteen months. The new rector, Rev. Guy Eric Smith, moved in with his wife in 1928 but, unlike the Bull family, did not even stay an entire year. It seems that, during the Smiths short stay that the activity really kicked up. They experienced similar hauntings as the Bulls but in addition, also saw lights and heard the servant bells’ ringing despite being disconnected long ago. Perhaps most horrifically, Mrs. Smith discovered a human skull deep inside one of the rectory’s cupboards.
Although they didn’t stay long, it was the Smiths who first brought attention outside of Borley to the Rectory. They contacted the local paper in hopes of getting in touch with the Society for Psychical Research. Unhelpfully, the paper sent out a reporter to cover the story and write articles. At this time, Harry Price, a famed paranormal investigator, was also contacted.
It is said when Price visited the activity got louder and more intense, including objects flying around rooms and loud knocking from inside the walls. Price left without conclusions but after he did leave the grounds the haunting relaxed. Mr. Smith later said he believed Price was behind the escalated noises and experiences.
The Rectory did not stay empty long this time and in 1930, Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne, and their daughter moved in. This small family would experience some of the most intense hauntings the home had seen yet.
Unlike previous residents, the haunting seemed particularly focused and attracted to Marianne. Soon, in addition to the disembodied noises and footsteps often heard in the home, messages and her name began to be scrawled randomly on the walls of the home. In one case, it was said witnesses watched this writing manifest before their very eyes. According to Historic Mysteries, “However, despite attempts at communication, most remained unintelligible. Though one certainly read, "Marianne, please help get" and another, "Pleas for help and prayers".
Interestingly enough Marianne later confessed that much of it had been a hoax. She had been having an affair with one of the Rectory’s lodgers and that she covered up her physical activities with the intense haunting episodes. Although, this could be a falsity, as some sources cite it and others don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any definitive proof she said this. However, it could be a perfect explanation as to why the haunting, even if it was real to a degree, was so hyper-focused on one person whereas before it never was.
After the Foysters moved out in 1937, the next several reverends decided to live elsewhere and the Rectory remained empty. Returning in 1937 almost a decade after his first experience in the home, Harry Price rented the rectory in order to carry out a detailed investigation in May 1937-38.
In his typical and media-centric approach, he contacted the Times and a story about his impending investigation ran on May 25th, 1937 and an ad for ‘Official Observers’ to come to the Rectory. Price was not investigation alone, though. He created a team of 48 ‘official observers’ to lend credibility and insight into his investigation. These ‘official observers’ included an army colonel, a doctor and an engineer. Sadly, no official log of events was kept. But, Sidney Herbert Glanville, who stayed at the rectory on many occasions and wrote up his experiences.
On March 27th, 1938 a seance was held in the home. A voice from beyond shared the fate of the Rectory. It was said that a fire would catch in the hallway that very night and burn down the home. In the ruin of the fire, a nun's body would be discovered amongst the ruins.
Despite this extraordinary, exciting, and dangerous fortune...nothing happened.
In May 1938, Harry Price’s lease ended and he left. The Rectory was then leased by Captain Gregson, apparently unafraid of the Rectory’s hauntings. Like every other person who has inhabited, or even stayed at the home for a few nights, he was subjected to continuing mysterious happenings. Sadly, this included the loss of his two beloved dogs.
One night, exactly eleven months to the day after the seance held by Harry Price that told the fate of the home, an oil lamp unaccountably fell over in the hall and Borley Rectory burnt to the ground.
According to witnesses, ghostly figures were seen roaming around and through the flames and a nun's face peered down at the destruction from an upper window.
In 1943 it appears the final part of the fortune would be found true. Harry Price returned a third time to the ruins of the home. He had a team of excavators under his organization dig in the cellar and remains of the Rectory. Amazingly, a human female jaw bone was discovered. Price believed these lend credibility to the nun story that existed long before the Rectory was eve built. In an effort to end the hauntings of the Rectory’s ruins and the very land itself, Price gave the jaw, along with the few articles found near it, a Christian burial.
Sadly, the origin of the jaw bones and the articles (including medallions) was later contested and disputed. Although no official evidence or reports have been made one way or another.
The Rectory’s remains remained upright until 1944 when it was completely demolished. However, strange reports still flow out of the former place of the Rectory and the four acres it had.
Thanks to Caztor T for the suggestion!
The above image is of the Borley Rectory after the fire incident. It is in the public domain.