Yes, it’s been a while. I find writing about most things nowadays superfluous – people can become absurdly well informed by reading Wikipedia, and people like me belong to an irrelevant generation of people who hoarded books and knowledge the 21st century has made academic in every sense. ;) Very occasionally though my book collection becomes briefly relevant, and in my bedroom on a bookcase mainly littered with empty cat food boxes and partly collapsed showing where my DIY skills are sadly lacking, is half a shelf of books on Harry Price and Borley Rectory.
A lot of ink has been spilled on these subjects – Babbs, Banks, Mayerling, Tabori, Dingwall, Brazil, Wood, Hall, and many more– but I’m noved to write tonight a very brief piece for the non-subject specialist, for the person who actually don’t know much about dear old Harry. I’m writing this for people who have watched and enjoyed the new Harry Price show on ITV tonight (I must admit I haven’t watched it, as I don’t really do fiction and it is a fictional treatment of Harry) and who want a discussion of who he was and why he mattered that is a bit more lively than his Wikipedia biography
So Who Was Harry Price?
At the simplest the question of “who was Harry?” can be answered in a sentence. He was a “publicity hungry dedicated ghosthunter and psychical researcher in the first half of the 20th century who is most famous today for his investigation of the alleged haunting of Borley Rectory, a house on the Essex/Suffolk border”.
He is often depicted as the first great “ghosthunter” – he wasn’t — Elliot O’Donnell came first, and was even more outrageous than Harry. However in the 1920’s Harry became interested in psychical research, studying the paranormal, and after earlier ventures in archaeology and coin collecting failed to make much impact, he turned his attentions to investigating mediums and ghosts.
Despite what the TV show suggests Harry was never a fake medium, or indeed any kind of medium or psychic, and I think it important to say at this point the show is a fiction, and not have much to do with Harry Price the man. Tom Ruffles of the Society for Psychical research has addressed the novel which inspired the series on his blog here, and you will quickly start to see differences between the real and the fictitious Harry Price (the fictitious one has more hair! Surely they could have shaved Rafe Spall’s head? ;) Harry lost his quite young).
Now Harry was also not the first psychical researcher – the SPR had been going for decades, and huge amounts of work had been done on investigating mediums and researching spooks by the time he got involved.
Harry did have a knowledge of conjuring, and stage magic — and OK I am going to explode in a short off topic rant — for over a century sceptics have said “psychical investigators need to use magicians”. Yet from the 1880’s onwards psychical researchers have done just that; and if you look at the Fielding Report of 1904 in to the medium Eusapia Palladino, through Price right to the present day – yes magicians have always been an important part of field investigations. (Whenever James Randi says “they should take a magician along” I want to scream, because they have been doing this repeatedly since the year dot, and he MUST realise this by now??!)
So why is Harry Price important? Because he was media savvy, and a colossal show off, egotist and publicity hound. Now I write that like it is a bad thing, but I suspect very few of my readers have heard of DJ West, Erlendur Haraldsson, Andreas Somner, Christopher Laursen, Alan Gauld, Robert McLuhan, Carlos and Nancy Alvarado and Steve Hume — all eminent authorities in modern parapsychology — whose names I took from a journal cover. (If you are the kind of person who has the JSPR lying on your bedroom floor, I am clearly wrong).
Arguably a great deal of important work was done in this period in trying to understand ghosts, with GNM Tyrrel & HH Price (different chap!) Apparitions being the classic — but honestly who has heard of them? Harry Price was at least known, and his books sold like hot cakes. In fact he would have sold even more, had not wartime paper restrictions and his sudden death while engaged on his third book on Borley not severely restricted them.
So What Did Harry Do?
Harry’s single greatest achievement was arguably marrying a woman who was wealthy enough that he could neglect his job – he was a traveling salesman in the paper industry, and it seems fairly shiftless and before his marriage unable to hold down a job at all for long – and set about making Harry Price famous :)
In 1920 Harry joined the Society for Psychical Research (henceforth SPR) and was invited by Eric Dingwall to investigate a medium called Rudi Schneider with him in Germany. There he met the famous psychical researcher Baron Albert Von Notzing (nicknamed Baron “shrink at nothing”). Price put his knowledge of conjuring to good use, debunking a number of mediums, and taking part in a number of high profile seances.
Dingwall later fell out with Price, after Price met an attractive young lady on a train, a nurse called Stella Cranshaw(e). [Price had a peculiar habit of adding a “e” to the end of women’s names – Cranshawe, Kaye. To my amusement Lucy Kay(e) after she married became Mrs Meeker!)
Discovering Stella was a medium, Price began a series of sittings with her – and perhaps a romantic connexion too, though that is based solely on the latter she wrote breaking of further sittings after her engagement in which she says cryptically “it would not be fair on either of us”. There may be a less romantic explanation.
On finding Stella, and being well established, Price dropped “dirty Ding” as Eric Dingwall was nicknamed (he presided over erotic books at the British Museum library) and in fact seems to have prepared to people his test seances with her with actors and celebrities than SPR members according to Dingwall.
It is rarely hard to fall out with the SPR, ASSAP or any other parapsychological organisation if you put your mind to it, and Price realised his sensationalism and celebrity seeking had doomed his chances in the rather dry world of mainstream academic research. So he decided to go it alone!
The National Laboratory of Psychical Research
Price set up his own organisation, the grandly titled National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Price managed to find some wealthy backers to cover expenses (feel free to request my Paypal details if you wish to carry on this noble tradition) and set about testing the Schneider brothers, and eventually accusing Rudi of fraud. Trevor Hall makes a case in his book Search for Harry Price (1978) that Price actually doctored a photo to fraudulently proved the medium was fraudulent, out of jealously when Schneider started to sit for seances for another researcher. I have no knowledge as to the strength of the case – but it is always possible. Harry could get quite narked if you crossed him. ( I will return to Hall’s book later).
Never really getting anything like the respect accorded the SPR Price now tried to set up a university department dedicated to psychical research, and entered in to negotiations with both the University of London, and several German universities. No department was ever created but the University of London took his book collection and equipment on permanent loan and it remains there to the present day. He now called his organisation the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation – but it was a sort of affiliated body, not officially part of the university.
He did however have prominent friends there. It was probably the closest we had to a proper parapsychology unit in a British University until the founding of the KPU fifty years later.
Adventures in Psychical Research
Harry was pretty shameless in his pursuit of publicity, and unlike the stuffy and academic restraint associated with the SPR under Mrs Sidgwick’s presidency, Price was only too willing to engage in tabloid antics. Think of Price as the Most Haunted of his day – immensely popular, sneered at by the ‘professionals’, but everyone knew his name and he did masses to bring about interest in the subject.
He was involved in investigating (and debunking many) famous mediums. More importantly he also got to investigate Gef the Mongoose, probably the most bizarre and splendid poltergeist case of the decade, if not ever. Go read the Wikipedia article – it is worth it!. (Christopher Josiffe’s magisterial treatment is not online afaik, but good bibliography here and Gef has his own endlessly fun (and accurate) Twitter account).
Of course in his adventures Harry had the backing of Richard Lambert of the The Listener, a hugely important figure in the history of the BBC now largely forgotten, and C.E.M. Joad the philosopher, so his mongoose-hunt became a public sensation.
The high point of his publicity seeking trail was the attempt to use a magical manuscript of the Goetia to conjure a goat in to a handsome youth on top of the Brocken (Bloksberg) where the witches dance on accursed Walpurgisnacht. Price and Joad missed that date, but did conduct the spell on two consecutive nights in June, in front of the news cameras and assembled European journalists. The spell may have failed, but as a publicity stunt it was unrivaled. Whereas nowadays getting that much attention would probably guarantee you university tenure, back in the 1930’s it was probably the nail in the coffin of Harry’s attempts at
academic respectability and getting a university place.
This experiment, the “Bloksberg Tryst” was not just for Harry’s benefit – it was a German Tourist Board sort of affair, to make the centenary of Goethe and to be fair it’s more interesting than staging The Sorrows of Young Werther.
I have a tiny family connection with Borley Rectory, so here it is. During the great War my grandmother Alice used to work for Codd’s lemonande bottlers in Bury St Edmunds, and after the War she used to be a delivery agent for a company, possibly Codd’s, delivering lemonade (and milk I believe). Borley was at the further extreme of a round she did, and she said “dark miserable old place. Bad drains. No ghosts” whenever we discussed it. She certainly thought that the stories about Borley in the Suffolk Free Press/Bury Free Press were a load of bilge, and I must say I was “bored with Borley” even before I had any interest in ghosts.
In fact ghosthunters had a pretty bad reputation locally when I was growing up, as Borley is a hamlet with less than a score of houses, in fact four or five round the church, and idiots driving up looking for ghosts used to cause endless annoyance to residents. At Halloween Suffolk and Essex police used to turn car loads away, and today I believe there are cameras linked back to Sudbury police to allow for rapid intervention if thrill seeking legend trippers cause a disturbance. I’m really surprised no one has been shot in all the years people have been causing hassle there. So the point of this aside – don’t bother the residents of Borley, there is feck all to see there, the rectory burned down in 1939 and the church is firmly locked.
Local residents like Edward Babbs, or my friend Ambi cover the psychical research side for us, and there are far more interesting places to go than Borley. (I have been writing this same disclaimer for almost 30 years – I don’t think it makes much difference but I try).
Anyway Price investigated Borley Rectory, and crucially write two books about it – The Most Haunted House in England, and The End of Borley Rectory. The former in particular strikes me as an interesting and remakably well done piece of psychical research — from Price’s poor reputation in parapsychological circles had expected something like Elliot O Donell, and it is actually a very well conceived and written book and investigation.
Now I can not begin to do justice to the Borley case here. The case ranges over forty years, and for a year in 1937 Price took the tenancy of the haunted rectory, and investigated it by sensing teams of observers up to say and take notes. Before Price came on the scene various incumbents, the Bulls, the Smiths and the Foysters claim to have experienced all manner of things, though Mabel Smith subsequently denied it in a letter to The Church Times (not necessarily to be taken at face value).
Marianne Foyster was certainly an extraordinary woman, and not being willing to repeat calumny of the dead I think I will stop for now at saying few books are as shocking and outrageous as Robert Wood’s study of her The Widow of Borley, which makes a sensational case for adultery, bigamy, and even hints at worse. (This book reminded me in many ways of Trevor Hall’s books on psychical researchers, where their feet of clay are revealed).
I rather like Marianne, and have a feeling that in Harry and Marianne we do have fertile scope for the novelist — but as to the truth of Borley, I recommend Ivan Banks book, Edward Babbs, and The Borley Companion to the interested party. One to avoid was the hoax confession We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory by Louis Mayerling, which is actually a hoax itself, though it briefly impressed some sceptics who took it at face value. ;) I only wish someone had not nicked my copy!
The Borley Rectory case finally made Price a bestselling author, and he achieved the household name status and level of book sales he had always hoped for.
His sudden death of a heart attack prevented his third book coming out, but he had put Borley on the map, which as anyone who has ever been there will tell you is a pretty bloody impressive feat!
So What Went Wrong?
Price died near the height of his fame, but critics were not far off. The Borley case was so complex, and some of the stuff in The End of Borley Rectory so questionable, that pretty soon people were asking questions. A photo of a flying brick that appears in The End was debunked by a journalist who was there who said it was thrown perfectly normally as Price well knew, and a sinister series of allegations surrounding the death of one Katie Boreham who died in Sudbury and was alleged to perhaps be the spook were proven hogwash – and more importantly Price appears to have concealed that he saw the name in the parish register before it came up during a Ouija board session. Doubts were cast on various persons testimony, and Price accused of having planted certain medallions found in the dig he did under the rectory ruin after the building burned down.
The attack was not spearheaded by the sceptics, oddly enough – most of whom simply sneered at tales of ghosts in those days – but by the members of the SPR, the Society for Psychical Research. As always in these matters you have to consider the political context of the individuals involved, in the sense of their affiliation to rival camps. What is important to note though is that the SPR does not hold corporate opinions — ,members are free to believe whatever they want, and may were friends of Price.
However Borley came under hostile scrutiny, and he attack culminated in The Haunting of Borley Rectory: A Critical Survey of the Evidence (1956) by SPR members Mrs K. Goldney, E. J. Dingwall and Trevor Hall. I think it fair to say this book severely dented Price’s reputation, though of course it never had the reach of Price’s own populist books.
Harry Price, Charlatan?
Then in 1978 one of the authors of that critical report, Trevor Hall, went far, far further in Search for Harry Price basically making a case that anything written by Harry Price was totally unreliable, and that the man was a complete liar. His book the Search for Harry price begins by digging in to Harry’s family background, discovering some unsavoury characters and that far from the gentry of Shropshire harry purported to spring from, he was in fact from humble origins. If Harry lied about his ancestors it may not have been consciously – at least one of them may have had good reason to misrepresent himself to his children and grandchildren, and Price did have Shropshire roots.
So Price pretended he came from monied classes, had a boarding school education and was a son of a wealthy paper manufacturer, whereas in fact he had very little, and lived by his wits without much in the way of a proper job for years, even peddling patent veterinary medicine which sounds like snake oil and touring the country putting on magic lantern shows, while holding a series of menial jobs. Harry seems to have been a bit of a snob, and after his very advantageous marriage in to wealth he “improved” his background to allow him to move in his new social circle, even going as far as having book plates printed to go in his books with a spurious coat of arms and for those he claimed to have inherited from his dad’s collection from a stately home where neither of them had ever set foot.
To Hall this is absolutely damning – he lied, therefore is a liar, therefore can not be trusted. This was very much the attitude of the SPR historically. If you get caught cheating or lying once, why should we ever trust you? Clearly however these biographical lies were to make Harry look better, and with the class prejudice of the era one might make a case they were necessary. The Victorian SPR had been remarkably egalitarian, and wonderfully open to all – but under Mrs Sidgwick it became an absolute bastion of Establishment propriety, and the doors might firmly have been shut in the face of a tradesman like Price?
Unfortunately Price seemed intent on being caught out, as he is totally inconsistent about his biography, adventures and other matters in his books. Almost any fact he subsequently seems to contradict in a later publication. Hall did extensive research to find that sometimes you find Price only giving key facts ion one foreign publication, or retelling exactly the same incident totally differently each time.
The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime
My favourite piece of Hall’s rather turgid but extraordinarily thorough debunk on poor old Harry is the story Price tells four times, in four different books. In each case it is he claims the only ghost he ever experienced at home, and in each case the main details agree — Price is in bed, hears footsteps approaching his bed, turns on the light and it the footsteps stop. The light varies as to a lamp or lantern, and other minor details vary – but in a piece on Animal Ghosts it was his dead but faithful dog whose paws he clearly heard, then it was the bare feet of a ghostly toddler, and finally he describes it as clearly a poltergeist manifestation.
Now Hall perfectly makes his case – Price presents his experience three times, using it to present different perspectives depending on the main theme of his argument at the time. One might argue this is not gospel through — except that the authors of the Synoptics even certainly did exactly this, editing their material and presenting it to make a point, and I don’t think people consider that fraudulent? It seems a little harsh to hold Price to a higher standard than the Bible, and assume deception rather than recourse to literary device? Secondly, it seems entirely consistent with memory and how one writes to reinterpret the experience over time, and get things wrong. Price was either incredibly careless, or not intentionally lying – he was just telling the same story as far as he was concerned, probably not aware he was contradicting himself. There is something quite believable about the account – I had a vaguely similar experience once in a pub near Corby, and I’m inclined to think something did happen that impressed Harry.
Hall’s book is rather unpleasant to read – vindictive and base. I enjoy Hall’s book, but this is the only one where he was left feeling he went too far, and often it was not necessary, and he offers Harry no benefit fo the doubt. Still if you are interested in Price, it is probably more useful than the autobiography Search for Truth (1942) and Dr Paul Tabori’s biography which is rather a homage.
All in all, Price may be his own worse enemy – but he was fascinating, and a bigger man than many of his critics.
CJ, Christmas 2015.