Borley Rectory, an ordinary-looking (some would say ugly) red-brick Victorian house, perched on a ridge near the north Essex–Suffolk border, is to this day spoken of in hushed tones – even though it was demolished more than three-quarters of a century ago. Completed in 1863, the signs were unpromising from the start, with the death of a 17-year-old labourer – who drowned in the local river during the house’s construction – setting the tone for what was to come, and causing mutterings among the superstitious locals about bad omens.
Classic English haunting tropes soon became associated with the house: a ghostly horse-drawn coach driven by two headless men was seen; the grounds were allegedly the site of an ancient plague pit; and a spectral nun was said to promenade through the garden…
In 1928, Eric and Mabel Smith arrived from India to take over the lonely parish of Borley, 60 miles northeast of central London. Soon after moving into Borley Rectory, Mrs Smith made a gruesome discovery in a cupboard: a human skull. Before long, the house was electric with ghosts. And within a year, the Smiths had abandoned it and the Rectory became notorious as the ‘most haunted house in England’.
When the next incumbent of the Rectory, the Reverend Lionel Foyster, moved into the house, he experienced a further explosion of poltergeist activity – with an increasing violence seemingly directed at his attractive young wife. Marianne Foyster was a passionate woman isolated in a village haunted by ancient superstition and deep-rooted prejudice. She was to become the key figure at the heart of the haunting, alongside the Rolls Royce-driving ‘psychic detective’ Harry Price.
Borley was the case that was to make Price’s name as the most-celebrated ghost-hunter of the age. And the case that, later, would cast that hard-earned reputation into serious doubt…
Sean O’Connor is a writer, director and producer who has worked in theatre, radio, television and film. He has worked as showrunner on several major TV series including EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Minder. He produced Terence Davies’ film version of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. Handsome Brute, a study of the 1940s murderer Neville Heath, and The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury, shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award (2020), were both published by Simon & Schuster, as is The Haunting of Borley Rectory, his most-recent book.
Your host for this event will be the writer Edward Parnell, author of Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. Edward Parnell lives in Norfolk and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. He is the recipient of an Escalator Award from the National Centre for Writing and a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Ghostland (William Collins, 2019), a work of narrative non-fiction, is a moving exploration of what has haunted our writers and artists – as well as the author’s own haunted past; it was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley 2020 prize, an award given to a literary autobiography of excellence. Edward’s first novel The Listeners (2014), won the Rethink New Novels Prize. For further info see: https://edwardparnell.com