These questions have all been asked of me over the years by journalists researching Harry Price and the Borley Rectory story. I have been interested in this story for over fifty years and have a large collection of photographs, interviews, books and documents collected over time about the case. I am a local historian for Borley.
For the details of all the answers I give to these questions, see my series of articles 'The Bones of Borley'
'How would you sum up Harry Price? Three
words to describe him?'
An untrustworthy cynical journalist.
'The 1920s seemed to be a great age for
mediumship? Why do you think that was?'
There was huge public interest in séances
and mediums, The shock of the scale of the slaughter of the first War, the
awful personal losses suffered, the dwindling faith in the traditional
teachings of the church; The rise in interest in mysticism. Death was in the
zeitgeist. Until Harry Price’s pioneering work, few people were aware of how
easy it was to fake evidence of the afterlife.
'How did he become the most famous psychic
researcher in Britain?'
He wasn’t a psychic researcher in the
modern sense, but he made his name as an investigative journalist who specialised in debunking the
worst excesses of mediums. He professed to be a scientist but had no training
and none of the scientific mindset. This was a shame as the scientific
discipline is there to protect the scientist as well as the public. He was, however, an expert photographer and conjurer: these skills were turned to great use in investigating mediums.
'What personal qualities did he bring to
He had terrific energy, and one of the
best writing styles ever to have been used to document psychic phenomena. He
was a great showman. His physical presence oozed charisma, dignity and
integrity. He was not a man one would wish to cross, and retained few lasting friends.
'What do you think made Borley Rectory the
most haunted house in England?'
It was inspired journalism, together with Harry Price's own conjuring skills, brought to bear on a coincidental combination of
unconnected events. Once the house got its reputation,
everything that happened was attributed to ghosts.
'How did the Borley story come to the
attention of the Daily Mirror in 1929?'
Rev Guy Eric Smith, the rector, asked the
Daily Mirror for the address of the Society for Psychical Research, so that
they could investigate the stories he’d heard from the sisters of the previous
'How did Harry Price get involved in the
1929 Daily Mirror investigation?'
The News Editor of the paper called him
in. Almost certainly he was employed by the Daily Mirror to ginger-up the
story. After he was caught out faking some of the events, he subsequently lost interest in the case, except to refer to it flippantly, or to accuse the maid of faking the phenomena.
'What made Harry Price return to Borley
Rectory when the Foysters were in residence?'
He was persuaded to visit once again by
Ethel Bull, the sister of the previous incumbent, who visited him in London.
She showed him Lionel Foyster’s ‘memorandum’ of events. Ethel wanted to hold a seance to cast doubt on her late brother's will that left nothing to her.
'Can you talk about Harry Price’s assessment
at that time that Marianne Foyster was responsible for much of the phenomena?'
Price informed Lionel and Marianne that
Marianne was responsible for the phenomena. He was not the first to do this, as
three other investigations had already reached the same conclusion. Price and
Goldney reached their firm conclusion after a single evening and did not budge
from it subsequently
'What was Marianne Foyster’s attitude to
Harry Price and the subsequent haunted status of Borley Rectory?'
She loathed and distrusted Harry Price
and resented Harry Price’s accusation that she was entirely responsible for the
haunting. She accused Harry Price of stealing Lionel Foyster’s manuscript to
the account of his haunting.
'What do you think made Harry Price believe
that Borley Rectory was worth investigating in 1937?'
He was lent the draft of Lionel
Foyster’s writings that gave a full account of what the Foysters had
experienced. He recognised it as literary gold dust. Ethel Bull asked the Church
commissioners to offer the Rectory to him for sale, but he agreed to rent it
'Can you describe how Harry Price set about
his own 1937 investigation?'
He hardly ever turned up at all. The
investigations were done by others; mainly Sidney Glanville and Kerr-Pearce.,
and a whole host of untrained but enthusiastic volunteers. Curiously, other more experienced psychic researchers volunteered to investigate but were turned down by Price.
'What do make of subsequent allegations that
Harry Price created rather than discovered Borley Rectory?'
Initially, Harry Price was amused by the
Borley Rectory affair but had no real interest in it because he’d seen it for
what it was, and had even faked incidents himself to oblige the Daily Mirror. Harry Price was
subsequently moulded and changed by the
events at Borley Rectory, and particularly the events of the Foyster
Incumbency. Towards the end he moved from his stance of complete cynicism to
the suspicion that there might be something in it.
'What do you make of the accusations of
fraud against Harry Price by people like Charles Sutton?'
He was not the only one to suspect Harry
Price of chicanery. One has to include Mrs Smith, the rector’s wife, Mary
Pearson the maid, Mr Tatum, the maid’s boyfriend, Douglas Home, the psychic
investigator, and Marianne Foyster.
Charles Sutton’s testimony was examined
over many years, and is completely convincing. He never retracted what he’d
originally said He was a friend of Price and was one of the journalists that
specialised in reporting Price’s antics in the press. He knew him well!
Mr Jackson, who was the man who actually
dug out the bones that were subsequently attributed to the Nun, was convinced
that Harry Price had switched Pigs bones for human bones.
Harry Price’s technique was to create
phenomena himself, and then record other people’s reactions to the phenomena in
a straightforward way, ‘forgetting’ to add that he’d done it in the first
place. He never ever told an direct untruth in his books.
'How was the report of Hall, Goldney and
Dingwall received in the SPR?'
This book was a huge effort. It was comprehensive and left Price's reputation in great doubt. Those who wanted desperately to believe
that Borley Rectory was, at last, proof of the persistence of the spirit after
death were obviously horrified and angry. The committee of the SPR, and Sutton
in particular, had always been alarmed by Harry Price’s antics from the moment
the story first broke in 1929, and were utterly convinced in Price’s
manipulation of the truth. Many ordinary members were greatly angered by the
attack on Harry Price. A whole system of faith had built up around the
assumption that the books were gospel truth. It split the society.
'Why do you think so many people have tried
to tarnish the work of Harry Price’s critics, particularly the work of Trevor
Because the criticisms were unassailable,
they did the next best thing and took the battle ‘ad hominem’. Trevor Hall was
a determined and pugnacious Yorkshire man and didn’t bow to that sort of
pressure, but the attacks were unpleasant and untrue. There are, even today,
some who accuse Trevor of stealing a book out of Harry Prices’ collection (he
didn’t) and argue that, in consequence,
the entire report by report of Hall, Goldney and Dingwall should be ignored as
untrustworthy. Trevor and I became friends, and I was proud to have known him.
'What do you think of the continuing
perception of Borley as a haunted place?'
It is the victory of wishful thinking
over the scientific method and analytical thought. Anyone who argues against this
perception of Borley as a haunted place is made to feel one is unkindly attacking a system of beliefs. The closer you look at the evidence in a dispassionate and scientific way, the more flimsy it becomes.
'How has the reputation for hauntings
The residents would like their village
back please. There never was any haunting there, and none of the residents who lived nearby in the parish in the past century have witnessed anything odd or bizarre beyond the host of tourists
Borley has suffered much, especially during Halloween each year, and benefited
Graves dug up, headstones smashed,
endless break-ins to the church; tourists wandering about the churchyard at all
hours. People forget that it is a sacred place rather than a ghost-hunters
PRICE - SUMMING UP
'How would you sum up Harry Price as a
He was a great journalist, a tireless
worker, a charismatic man, but not a scientist. Once he felt he was certain of
the truth he felt he was justified in gingering-up the evidence. Even famous
scientists have fallen from grace for the same crime. The nearest parallel I
can think of is Sir Cyril Burt, the educational Psychologist, trying to prove
the inheritance of personality and ability.
For a while, he achieved greatness in
exposing the tricks of the spiritualists and mediums. Sadly, something awful
happened to Harry Price in late middle age that led him to cut corners. It got
worse as time went on so that even his supporters (e.g. Edwin Whitehouse) noted
that he had lost his critical faculties. It was as if some intuition of his
impending death caused him to want to believe in the permanence of the spirit
and his antics in faking phenomena and evidence seemed to be self-deluding as
much as financial gain. He mistook firm belief for knowledge of the truth
'What has been his lasting effect on the
world of psychic research?'
Although he did great service in debunking the fraudulent mediums, his later work in attempting to contact Mars, turn a goat into a young man, and in investigating Gef the talking mongoose were all examples of his ludicrous attention-seeking behaviour, and the whole field of psychic research was tainted permanently by association with it.
The Harry Price Library is an enduring
legacy. One hopes that it will be his chief memorial.