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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Questions I Get Asked about Harry Price and Borley Rectory

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 psychic research?'

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 incumbent.

'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 instead.

'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 Hall?'

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 affected Borley?'

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 nothing.
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 theme park.


'How would you sum up Harry Price as a psychic researcher?'

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. 


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