Amongst the verdant green landscape of a rural area of Essex, near the east coast of England, once sat the stately, Gothic-style brick building called Borley Rectory, built in 1863 by the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull, who would go on to live there with his family of 14. The area where the rectory was built already had a long and strange history dating back far before the house was constructed, as the land was said to have once been the site of a monastery in the 14th century, which itself already had a sinister cast to it. The local legend apparently was that a monk from the monastery had fallen in love with a nun from a nearby convent and the two had had an illicit affair that was unfortunately discovered, leading to the monk being hanged on the very spot where the rectory stood and the nun bricked up alive within the walls of her convent. It is perhaps in this grim tale where the hauntings at Borley Rectory begin, which have launched it into its place as one of the most haunted places in the world.

Practically as soon as Henry Bull had settled in with his family at the estate they were allegedly besieged with strange phenomena. It began as anomalous noises such as footsteps when no one was there, the sound of rushing water, voices from nowhere, bells ringing on their own, even if their wires were cut, and moving objects, but it quickly escalated. The children began seeing the apparition of a frightening ghostly nun lurking about on the property, and this strange entity was seen on several occasions by the family. The youngest daughter, Ethel, was also physically accosted by this unseen force, sometimes being pushed or slapped, often hard enough to leave welts. There was also supposedly a spectral horse drawn coach driven by two headless phantoms that would tear through the area, and such strange ghostly phenomena would continue on into later years even after Henry Bull died in 1892 to leave the house to his son, Harry Bull.

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Borley Rectory

Under Harry’s watch the haunting did not abate one bit, and there are several very strange accounts from his tenure there. On one occasion Henry was out in his garden when his dog began barking uncontrollably for no discernible reason and cowering behind a tree. When Harry Bull went to investigate, he claimed he saw a headless body walk out from behind some bushes and walk off to board a ghostly coach before silently rolling out of there. Harry would have several encounters with this mysterious coach, which would typically rush past only to vanish into thin air. Of course the spectral nun continued to be seen around the property, often wandering about in broad daylight, sometimes peering in through windows, to the point that Harry purportedly even blocked up the dining room window because their mealtimes were so often disrupted by her face leering in at them.

Harry Bull would pass away in 1927, and the rectory would sit abandoned for some time before being moved into by a Reverend Guy Eric Smith and his wife. They too immediately experienced the paranormal phenomena, such as roaming ghost lights, the apparition of the nun, the ghostly coach with its headless riders, shadow figures, and strange noises such as footsteps and bells. Most disturbingly of all, Smith’s wife was cleaning out a cupboard one day when she found ensconced within a crumpled paper package, which when opened revealed the shocking sight of a human skull. There were also reported the sound of hoarse whispering, and someone plodding about the house, to the point that Smith took to carrying a stick around with him to fend off whatever it was. These spooky occurrences were unsettling enough that they reached out to the newspaper The Daily Mirror in 1929, and the paper would send in paranormal researcher Harry Price and his team.

Upon his arrival, Price soon experienced these occurrences for himself, and they seemed to become even more intense in nature. During his investigation he would report that he had seen objects fly through the air, stones or other objects thrown by some invisible force, and cryptic messages tapped out on a mirror. On another occasion, Price and his assistant claimed that a glass candlestick had hovered in the air by their heads and smashed itself against the wall to send shards showering everywhere. He also claimed to have seen the apparitions of the nun, the headless coach drivers, and even the ghost of Henry Bull himself, and they even managed to allegedly photograph an apparition, yet many of the these phenomena Price spoke of were not witnessed by the Smiths themselves, and they would later doubt that some of it had ever really happened at all. Nevertheless, they had experienced enough paranormal phenomena of their own that they ended up moving out of the rectory in 1929, less than a year after moving in. Price would report on what he had seen in the papers, and this is when the story of Borley Rectory would hit the public consciousness.

The next tenants of what Price had dubbed “The Most Haunted House in England,” were Reverend Lionel Algernon Foyster, who was a cousin of the original owner Henry Bull, along with his wife Marianne and their adopted daughter Adelaide, who moved in in 1930. They apparently inherited the haunting along with the house, as they were also assailed with all sorts of strange happenings. Amongst the myriad high strangeness they encountered were thrown rocks, glasses, bottles, and other objects, windows that shattered for no reason, doors that locked people out of rooms, moving furniture, vanishing or appearing objects, and of course the sounds of bells, heavy breathing, footsteps, and others.

Most frightening of all was that whatever this sinister force was seemed to target Marianne the most, and she would often be pushed, prodded, and slapped by unseen hands, as well as be the direct target of flung objects. At one point she awoke in her darkened room to the entity trying to suffocate her with a mattress, and this was all followed by a series of cryptic messages that would be scrawled upon the walls, saying things such as “Marianne, please help get” and “Marianne light mass prayers.” At other times she claimed that she had ben thrown from the bed or held down by an invisible force, all of which convinced Foyster to attempt exorcisms on two separate occasions by himself, neither of which worked and which only seemed to antagonize the spirit, which hurled fist-sized stones at him throughout. Interestingly, Marianne would also claim to have seen the spectral apparition of Bull.

Many paranormal researchers who were following the now well-known story at the time speculated that the poltergeist activity was being projected by either Marianne herself or their daughter, but it was difficult to know for sure, and so when the Foysters moved out in 1935 Price was ready to go back in and pick up from where he left off. This time Price went in with state of the art “ghost hunting” equipment and went about a massive recruiting process to collect a group of 48 others to join him on his expedition and take turns camping out on the premises. This time he also planned to live there for a year in order to fully document all of the strangeness on offer, and it was all a rather ambitious ghost hunting venture indeed.

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Hall at the Borley Rectory

During the year they spent investigating the property the team would claim some rather spectacular results, not the least of which was a séance that they purportedly held one evening. During this séance, the psychic medium Helen Glanville supposedly made contact with a spirit that called itself Marie Lairre, and which claimed to have once been a nun in France. The spirit supposedly claimed that she had left her convent to travel to England and marry a wealthy man named Henry Waldegrave, after which she had been strangled by her husband and left to rot in the cellar of the rectory. It was this spirit who had reached out to Marianne for help. Glanville contacted another spirit as well, this time a male who identified himself as Sunex Amures, who was a bit more sinister in that he proclaimed that he would burn the whole structure down in 1938, and that in its ashes the corpse of a murdered man would be found. The team also witnessed numerous poltergeist activity, inexplicable cold spots, strange inhuman footprints left behind in the snow, and also purportedly the apparition of the nun. Price would compile all of this research into two books, The Most Haunted House In England (1940) and The End of Borley Rectory (1946).

Perhaps in a twist of fate, true to the spirit Amures’ word, in 1939, just about on schedule, the new owner of the rectory, Captain W. H. Gregson, dropped an oil lamp and set the entire place ablaze. In the ensuing conflagration, the manor was badly damaged, and in later years, in 1943, Price would claim to have been snooping around in the cellar of the charred husk when he found the remains of what were determined to have been that of a young woman, although others doubted that they were human at all.

Weird things would occur in the area of the abandoned, fire-gutted rectory in the years after, such as the sounds of ghostly laughter, mysterious lights, electrical equipment malfunctioning, sightings of the ghostly nun and reports from people, including WWII soldiers operating in the area, who said that some unseen party had flung stones at them. This would all go on until the rectory was finally demolished in 1944, and from there the reports of paranormal strangeness sort of peter out, and with the death of Price in 1948 the whole thing has sort of been lost to history.

Alleged ghost photo on the rectory grounds

In the ensuing years, the case of the haunted Borley Rectory has been faced with more than its fair share of criticism. Price’s original report was met with much skepticism by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) when it first came out, and this was a society dedicated to the paranormal. They argued that many of the sightings were either caused by natural phenomena, exaggerated, or even straight up fabricated by Price, and just after his death in 1948 a reporter for the Daily Mail who had been with Price at the time of his investigation came forward to accuse him of making up and faking the whole thing. Further damning the whole thing was testimony by none other than Marianne Foyster herself, who would admit that it had all been a hoax. In 2000 there was a book written by Louis Mayerling and rather straightforwardly called We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory, which alleges that the Bulls and Foyers, as well as Price and his team, were all a bunch of hoaxers and showmen who had concocted the whole thing.

Regardless of this skepticism, there are plenty of people who have defended the case as genuine, and it does seem odd that all of these parties would be able to so carefully orchestrate such a hoax over the course of decades. A lot of witnesses have also argued that many of the phenomena could not have been faked, and of course this has all been enough cause to make sure that the strange case of the haunting at Borley Rectory remains a classic haunting that is still discussed and debated to this day. What happened there, and indeed did anything happen there at all or is this all a long-running urban legend perpetuated by fraudsters? Considering that all of the main witnesses and researchers of the phenomena are dead, and that the rectory itself is long gone, it seems as if it is yet another mystery doomed to remain in the limbo of speculation and discussion.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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