The Borley Rectory Companion, by Paul Adams, Eddie Brazil and Peter Underwood
Reviewed by Sarah Sparkes
What would make a person want to travel from the other side of the world to visit a small non-descript village in a remote and rural part of Britain to see the site of a building that has not existed for nearly sixty years? The answers are to be found in the pages of this book
So write co-authors Paul Adams and Eddie Brazil in their introduction to this new edition of The Borley Rectory Companion: The Complete Guide to the Most Haunted House in England, but what lies behind these claims?
In June 1929 Harry Price, in his capacity as leading psychical researcher of the day, joined Daily Mirror reporter Vernon Wall at Borley Rectory to investigate the strange happenings reported by the occupants there. Borley Rectory was to become Price's most famous case - he rented the Rectory for a year, advertising in The Times for live-in ghost hunters and wrote two popular books documenting his Borley investigations.
Psychical researchers have attempted to find answers to what is often referred to as ‘the Borley case’, writers, film makers and other creatives have taken inspiration from it and between them they have produced a wealth of material about the alleged ghostly goings on in this small village in Essex. The Borley Rectory Companion (BRC) is a guide to help the curious reader or the seasoned ghost researcher to navigate through all of this information.
The BRC was first published in hardback in 2009. The current slightly updated re-issue, re-printed in paperback by the History Press in 2018, includes a tribute to the co-author, respected writer, broadcaster and ghost researcher Peter Underwood (1923-2014). The History Press is the UK's largest dedicated history publisher focusing on “exceptional people, places and events”. With accounts of a spectral nun walking its grounds, haunted objects propelled by hands unseen, inhuman voices from the nearby church and a host of other alleged paranormal phenomena, the history of Borley is certainly exceptional. With evidence and allegations of bigamy and arson, some of the earthly occupants of Borley have provoked almost as much interest as its unearthly ones.
This new edition of the BRC has spooky looking photographs of Borley Rectory and its first occu-pants, the Bull Family, on front and back cover. A large book, this paperback cover soon became worn with my regular handling as I found it compelling reading, but then, like the book's three au-thors, I am fascinated by the life and work of Harry Price the man charged with giving Borley Rectory its reputation as ‘the most haunted house in England’ (Price, 1940).
Paul Adams, Eddie Brazil and Peter Underwood became aware of Harry Price and the Borley case during their formative years and were interested and inspired by both. Adams and Brazil, separately authors of numerous books on ghosts and paranormal histories, together set up and maintain the Harry Price website. Underwood, who was a long-standing member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), researched Borley Rectory and church over several years, tracing and personally interviewing almost every living person who had been connected with the case. Underwood co-authored The Ghosts of Borley with Paul Tabori (Tabori & Underwood, 1973), one of the more generous books with regard to Price’s credibility. Author and scholar of the occult Colin Wilson’s admiration for Price is also evident in his Foreword. Price has his advocates, while others consider him a con man who faked phenomena; the authors’ sympathetic perspective on Harry Price is reflected in the BRC and the tone in general is not one of dispassionate academic research.
Divided into three parts the BRC is in the format of a compendium. Sources include significant public and private archives such as The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at the University of London, the archives of the SPR and the archives of BRC authors Adams and Underwood - Underwood’s considerable contribution to the BRC content is acknowledged in several instances. The SPR instigated report, The Haunting of Borley Rectory (Dingwall, Goldney & Hall, 1956) which accuses Price of deception and finds no evidence of any paranormal activity at Borley, is also named as a frequent reference source in the authors notes.
Part I, a shortish section, gives an overview of the ‘haunted’ history of Borley Rectory, introducing the reader to all significant events and characters in the Borley story. As a narrative, regardless of your position on the credibility of ghosts and those who research them, it is a fascinating read.
Part II comprises the majority of the BRC. Here, the authors have organised and summarised the various events, people, phenomena and other pertinent material. The ‘flying brick’ and ‘phantom nun’ are there among a host of other phenomena along with Borley’s more notorious percipients, investigators and their findings. Pretty much all that has been published, broadcast or archived on the Borley case somewhere is summarised here in alphabetical order.
Part III, A Borley Chronology lists, by date, all occurrences connected to the Borley case and is designed to be cross referenced with Part II. There is an attested early background in this chronology, though it did not convince me of a historical context for Borley’s infamous ghostly nun. That said, it is through apocryphal histories that ghosts accounts are passed on and many of the entries in the chronology read like mini ghost stories. For instance, the entry for 26 July 1949:
Dr Abernethy, a local physician, drives through Borley and sees the figure of a nun standing close to the hedge adjacent to the Rectory site. She stops and backs down the hill but there is no one there (p. 358; the authors give the sources for this account as Underwood, 1973 and Tabori & Underwood, 1973).
At the back of the BRC, two documents from the Price tenancy are included. Appendix I reproduces the contents of Harry Prices ‘Blue Book’ of Instructions, given to the observers who volunteered to investigate Borley’s ghosts. Appendix 2 lists the ghost hunting volunteers who agreed to Prices’ conditions by signing a ‘Haunted House Declaration Form.’ These documents give a nostalgic glimpse into ghost hunting practices in the 1930s.
The contents and writing style of the Borley Rectory Companion is narrative and engaging rather than rigorous scientific fact. In his essay, Engaging Textual Spectres, Peter Suchin (2005) writes that Prices’ book The End of Borely Rectory “conveys a complicated range of interlocking themes with a conviction that is, if not entirely plausible from the viewpoint of scientific rigour or blunt factuality, engaging and endearing” and the same could be said of the BRC.
The BRC is a thorough guidebook to an extraordinary social history and a rich insight into early psychical research and its association with public media as well as a very useful research resource. If you want answers as to why Borley has obsessed and inspired paranormal researchers, fiction writers and film makers alike, then look for them in this book.
Dingwall, E. J., Goldney, K. M., & Hall, T. H. (1956). The Haunting of Borley Rectory. Proceedings of
the Society for Psychical Research, 51, 1-181.
Price, H. (1940). The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years’ Investigation of Borley Rectory.
London: Longmans, Green & Co.
Suchin, P. (2005). Engaging Textual Spectres: Harry Price's The End of Borley Rectory. Miser &
Now, No, 7.
Tabori, P., & Underwood, P. (1973). The Ghosts of Borley: Annals of the Haunted Rectory. Newton
Abbot, UK: David & Charles.
Underwood, P. (1973). A Host of Haunting. London: Leslie Frewin.
Sarah Sparkes is an artist and curator. She blogs at Sarah Sparkes.