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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Cold Light on Harry Price: 'Archaeologist and Numismatist'

Harry Price, the author of the two books that made Borley Rectory famous, operated in the grey area between spin and fraud. In an extraordinary career he often overstepped the mark into deceit.

Harry Price had enormous energy and enthusiasm. For part of the week, he was a travelling Salesman, a sales rep., for a paper-bag manufacturer, without academic qualifications. For the rest of the week, he was a gentleman of private means, a scientific expert, and psychic researcher. The public, fantastic, image of Harry Price, which took as its inspiration his hero, Sherlock Holmes, is the one that many people desperately wanted to believe in. He even became the inspiration for some of Dennis Wheatley's later 'Occult' novels.

Harry Price was driven by two passions, a yearning for academic respectability, and the esteem of his peers. His self-esteem was extremely brittle, and he was renowned as an abrasive, hostile and vindictive man when he considered that he had been crossed. He was suspicious and quick-tempered. By the end of his life he had few friends, and his most loyal acolytes had hardly met him, and were familiar only with the public persona.

Spiritualism wasn't his first choice as a medium in which to achieve fame. He had tried previously tried Archaeology. Price had been fascinated by old coins from his schooldays. In his twentiers, he became interested in Trade Tokens and copied out the sections on Shropshire and Kent from the standard work on 'Trade Tokens’ written by George C Williamson, and then published the results under his own name. Bizarrely, the secretary of the Ripon Naturalists Club read the article and, impressed by his apparent erudition, invited him to become their Curator of Numismatics. The Club was a local amateur group that met in the evenings in rooms leant to them by the Ripon Museum, and Price accepted the appointment, but called himself the ‘Hon Curator of Numismatics, Ripon Museum'. So, passing himself off as an expert on coins, with a bogus qualification, and a published article plagiarised from a textbook, he bought a collection of Roman and Anglo-Saxon coins from a local farm worker called Mickelthwaite in Pulborough, soon after he moved there in 1909. This coin collection had apparently been the fruit of a lifetime’s amateur archaeology in the area and Arundel. He then passed these off as his own and gave lectures on them. He supplemented these coins with another collection of Saxon gold coins bought from dealers, and wove a fantastic tale of how he had found them over the course of several years diligent archaeology. As these lectures went down so well, he then obtained some clumsy forgeries of spectacular finds, such as silver ingots and bronze figures and passed these off as his own archaeological finds. All this was well-received in the local papers and his fame spread. He was soon heralded as the ”Well-known Sussex Archaeologist”,

In his lectures, and subsequently in his autobiography, he claimed, falsely, to have helped with the excavation of a Roman Villa at Greenwich Park in 1902. ‘Excavating Roman Villas is one of the most exciting jobs imaginable’. The truth is more prosaic: he had reviewed A.D.Webster’s book of the excavation in his School magazine in 1902. He went on to claim that he had supervised the archaeological work at Borough, 2 ½ miles from his home in Pulborough. He hadn’t.; and the Royal Society of Antiquaries had to issue a denial. He also claimed to have been engaged, since 1903, on a major work ’The Numismatistic History of Sussex’.

After Price was exposed publicly in the local newspapers in 1910, by the President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, one hears no more of Harry Price the ”Well-known Sussex Archaeologist” . This left him with certain difficulties, and a redundant coin collection. In 1923, he leant the coins to the church for an exhibition. The church was, at the time, in an almost ruinous state, the coins were left in the empty unlocked church and were uninsured. Inevitably, there was a theft, though there is some confusion as to what, if anything, was taken. Harry Price announced, as a direct consequence, the end to his work as a Numismatist (coin expert) and the abandonment on his ‘Great work ’The Numismatistic History of Sussex’. No trace of this work has ever surfaced, despite Price’s claims that it was ‘Nearly completed’, and ‘all the plates had been engraved’. However, for Price, it brought down the curtain on ‘Harry Price the Archaeologist’, just as ‘Harry Price, psychic Investigator’ was taking off well in the public eye.


A fascinating new book about Harry Price, written by Richard Morris, is soon to be published. Its revelations about the true story of Harry Price are likely to contain many surprises. Pre -Orders are now being taken on Amazon at a reduced price- Harry Price The Psychic Detective is published by Sutton Publishing on 19 October 2006

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