In 1863, the Reverend Henry Bull had a rectory built in Borley, Essex to house himself and his family. The land on which the rectory was built was rumored to have been the site of a Medieval monastery, and the locals told stories of a ghostly nun who was often seen in the area. Bull ignored the stories and built his home in this location anyway.
After the home was built, strange things began to happen. Footsteps with no clear source were heard, the Bull children reported seeing a phantom nun walking about the grounds, and stories of a phantom coach with a headless driver began to circulate in the area. These stories squared with local legends concerning a nun who fell in love with a monk at the local monastery. The two chose to elope, and both were executed, along with the driver of the get-away carriage.
Two generations of the Bull family maintained residence at Borley Rectory until 1927, when reverend Guy Eric Smith became the rector of the church and took up residence.
After moving in, Smith's wife discovered a paper package containing the skull of a young woman in one of the cupboards. Shortly thereafter, the sounds of servant bells ringing (even after their strings had been cut) and sourceless footsteps became common. Lights appeared in the house (presumably in unoccupied rooms), and the phantom coach was again seen (though whether or not the driver was headless this time is unknown).
At the Smiths' request, the Daily Mirror newspaper put them in touch with the Society for Psychical Research. The newspaper also arranged for a paranormal investigator by the name of Harry Price* to come to the house.
After Price arrived, new phenomenon were observed, including tappings from spirits (often referred to as "spirit messages") and objects began to be thrown.
The Smiths left in 1929, and were replaced in 1930 by Reverend Lionel Foyster and his family. The old phenomenon continued, and were accompanied by even more violent throwing of objects, shattering windows, people being locked into rooms, people were physically thrown by unseen forces, and Adelaide Foyster, Reverend Foyster's step-daughter, was once attacked by something that was described only as "horrible."
Reverend Foyster twice tried to conduct exorcisms, but to no avail. A stone was thrown at him during his first attempt, and the second simply brought no result. The Foysters eventually left the home in 1937 due to the Reverend's poor health.
Harry Price continued his investigations during this time, and rented the house in 1937. He built a group of observers who would visit the house, often spending several days there, and keep track of their observations. During seances conducted during this period, contact was made with the spirit of a nun who had been killed on the grounds where the house stood. She claimed to have been murdered by Henry Waldengrave, who had owned the 17th-century manor house that had previously stood at the rectory's location.
A second spirit, going by the name of Sunex Amures, was contacted and announced his intention to set fire to the house in order to reveal the remains of a murder victim. In 1939, nearly a year later, the house's new resident, one Captain W. H. Gregson, was unpacking boxes when an oil lamp overturned and started a fire, severely damaging the house. After the fire, Harry Price returned to the rectory, and began exploring the basement, where he found bones, which were interred in holy ground at Liston Churchyard, putting the wronged nun's spirit to rest.
Commentary: ...and you thought that the howling cabin in Harry Potter was the most haunted house in England.
Although much of the legend that has been built up around the house implies that it was built at the abandoned site of a former monastery, it was actually built on the grounds of the previous rector's home, and the story of the monastery, eloping couple, and executed carriage driver was invented by the Reverend Bull's children and only later became part of the legend surrounding the place.
Harry Price's investigations at the house are what "made" him as a paranormal investigator, but have themselves been the source of much controversy. The Society for Psychical Research, once one of the most prominent paranormal investigation groups in the world, performed their own study of the house, and not only came to different conclusions than Price, but also accused Price of Fraud in his investigations. Later biographies of Price have portrayed him as a con-man who made a supplemental income by performing "psychical research."
However, Price also has his defenders, though their case typically seems rather weak. Nonetheless, it can be argued that he was not quite the cunning, cynical force that his opponents made him out to be, though he may still have been a con man. Indeed, his discovery of the bones of an alleged murder victim both seem rather remarkably convenient (especially seeing as how his spirit contact had said that he would burn down the house nearly a year before it actually happened), and the bones were buried in Liston churchyard rather than Borley churchyard after the authorities of Borley established that the bones were from a pig and not a human.
Childhood stories and possible hoaxing aside, it is still difficult to figure out what, if anything, actually happened at the Borley Rectory. As noted, some of the stories appear to have come directly from the imaginations of the Bull children, others may have been due to a hoax, and still others may have come from other non-paranormal sources. For example, after the fact it was revealed that Marianne Foyster was having an affair with a lodger, and used the well-known ghost story to create distractions and cover up some of her activity. In addition, the media attention focused on the house likely resulted in "bigger fish" stories being created, turning natural phenomenon into larger-than-life (or death) ghostly happenings in order ot feed the ravenous media creature.
Unlike the rather similar Amityville case, the media of the time was more limited, producing fewer reports to be examined, and there was no legal proceedings involved, further preventing the generation of publicly available information. As a result, this case can not be examined as exhaustively as the Amityville case.
So, in the end, what happened at Borley Rectory? Did something truly strange and unexplainable happen in the midst of the made-up stories and the media blitzkrieg? Or was the haunting simply a series of hoaxes?
I have no idea. I do know that those who advocate for proof of spirits would do well to steer clear of the Borley Rectory simply because there is so much confusion surrounding the place. Whether or not there is something strange sitting underneath the surface is an open question, but one that we would do well to consider somewhat skeptically.
SOURCES: Prairie Ghosts, Brittania.com, LLc, Ghost-Story.co.uk, Podcast, Internet, Internet, Internet, Internet, Internet
*Irrelevant to most people, but funny to me - I used to work for an archaeologist named Barry Price, and so I keep having to go back and change my "b"s to "h"s when I write Harry Price's name.