Originally created 08/30/98

Mansion boasts 'most haunted' title



Borley Rectory, a handsome, twin-gabled Victorian mansion perched atop a gently sloping hill overlooking the Stour River in Essex, has been described as one of the most beautiful houses in England.

Some say it is also one of the most haunted.

For more than a century, the 135-year-old house has been the scene of strange noises, phantom coaches that come and go at midnight, mysterious cold spots and poltergeist activity.

The most commonly reported apparition is that of a young nun, thought to have been strangled more than 300 ago. Other phenomena include heavy footsteps tramping up and down the stairways late at night, objects appearing and disappearing, bells ringing and writing on walls. Organ music is often heard coming from nearby Borley Church, along with weird monastic chantings.

In 1945, The Times of London called Borley Rectory "the most haunted house in England."

Built in 1863 for the Rev. Henry Dawson Ellis Bull, Borley Rectory is supposedly situated on the site of a medieval monastery. Ghostly encounters began almost as soon as the rector and his family moved in.

"We heard strange footsteps almost every night," the rector wrote in his diary. "Bells rang constantly. Voices whispered to us in the dark."

One daughter was awakened by a slap in the face. Another saw the dark figure of an old man in a tall hat by her bed. One frequent visitor saw a nun several times.

No one was harmed, but the experiences were unnerving.

The vicar's son, Harry Bull, took over the rectory in 1892 and stayed until 1927. In that period a headless man was seen in the bushes; a phantom coach appeared almost every night; a cook reported that a locked door was open every morning; and four of the Rev. Bull's sisters together saw a young nun who disappeared without a trace.

Edwin Whitehouse, who later became a Benedictine monk, visited the rectory with his aunt and uncle during 1931. On one occasion a fire started in the baseboard of an unused room. As the flames were put out, a flint the size of a hen's egg fell to the floor. Later, while the vicar conducted a service of exorcism in his room, Edwin and his aunt were hit by falling stones.

In 1937 Harry Price, founder of Britain's National Laboratory of Psychical Research, advertised in The Times for people "of leisure and intelligence" who were intrepid, critical and unbiased to join a group of observers. From more than 200 people who applied, he chose 40.

Ellice Howe, an Oxford graduate, saw objects move. Others reported unexplained noises. Commander A.B. Campbell, of the BBC "Brains Trust" team, was hit by a piece of soap in a sealed room. Dr. C.E.M. Joad, the philosopher, another member of the team, reported that a thermometer recorded a sudden and inexplicable drop of 10 degrees.

The rectory was damaged by fire in 1939. On the night of the fire, two mysterious figures were seen leaving the building-although the only person known to have been in it was the new owner, a Capt. Gregson. Several people saw the figure of a young girl at an upstairs window.

In 1943 the site was excavated. At a depth of four feet, workers found fragments of a woman's skull and pendants bearing religious symbols. As late as 1961 torches, car headlights and camera flashes all failed during an investigation of the site.

Other researchers into Borley Rectory have learned at seances that, in the 17th century, a young French nun, Marie Lairre, was induced to leave her convent at Le Havre to marry one of the Waldegraves of Borley, a landed family. They were told that she was strangled by her fiance on May 17, 1667, in a building standing on the rectory site.

The nun's body, according to spirit messages, was buried in the cellar.

Randall Floyd is a syndicated writer living in Augusta.