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The Hysterical Hystorian

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Harry Price and the Revelation (part one)

Such is the continuing reverence for Harry Price, the man responsible for the Borley Rectory Affair, that very few writers bother to check the facts of his life story. The first to do this in print was Trevor Hall with 'Search for Harry Price', published by Duckworth in 1978.

Ted Babbs, author of the recent 'Borley Rectory: The Final Analysis', writes that Hall’s biography was ‘a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work and no opportunity is lost to belittle the latter’s many and varied achievements and to question the truth of his claims.’. This is purely an emotional response to bad news.

If Mr Babbs, or any uncritical author, broadcaster or spiritualist who had pontificated about the Borley Rectory Affair, had cared to take time and study the documents and letters Harry Price bequeathed to the University of London, he would have discovered that, if anything, Hall underplayed Price’s lifestory.

He would also have discovered the Borley story was decidedly fishy, as was the case of the Battersea Poltergeist, the alleged mediumship of Stella Cranshaw, the talking mongoose, and hundreds of similar events their champion had investigated and written about.

Although to some it was obvious Price was living a pantomime, it is hilarious that this man, who seemed to have little idea about what he was doing in psychical research, duped the majority of his colleagues, the public, journalists and some of the greatest minds of his day with his po-faced seriousness, his great passion for phenomena and his bogus academic background. It must have been a fantastic piece of acting.

Richard Lambert, the editor of The Listener, who has first met Price in 1933, and visited him at his home Arun Bank in Sussex, where ‘the Magician meditated’ made the unintentionally hilarious remark that there was ‘something of Beckford, the collector, something of Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen’.

Harry Price, the paper bag expert, knew that if surrounded himself with the trappings of science and created the aura of a man deep in thought he could get away with almost anything, helped by his undoubted skill as a magician and showman.

He was an extremely likeable and clubbable man, so few bothered to look beyond his affability. All the grandstanding rows and recriminations followed by wide-eyed making up owed a lot to his ability as a salesman. It was something he had learned from his father and added to over his forty years representing a firm that sold greaseproof paper as a salesman.

He wanted his creation, the National Laboratory of Psychical Research to succeed, of course, since this would add to his prestige, but his method of trying to establish the model of a universe that no one understood only brought him frustration.

Out of his depth, he consciously invented mysterious phenomena and an eccentric personality he thought few would question, hoping that cash-rich supporters would keep faith with him and his ideas, knowing that positive acclamations of progress in psychical science brought in more money to pay for life’s luxuries.

On page 13 of his book, Mr Babbs stated it was hardly surprising that Price set up the NLPR and financed it ‘out of his considerable wealth.’

Price could not have afforded the Rolls-Royce cars, the antiques, the rare and expensive books, to say nothing of keeping a string of mistresses on his rather puny income, if he had not dipped into the generous funds his supporters had given the NLPR towards furthering his investigations into the unknown. Had he or his wife Connie been wealthy, it makes little sense that he continued to work for his employer Edward Saunders & Son until the day he died.

He worked, not because he needed to offset his income by ploughing hundreds of pounds of his own money into research, nor because, as he often claimed, he managed the firm his father owned – he worked as a travelling salesman because he could not afford to retire. He died 'in harness'.

Richard Morris


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