In June 1929, the Daily Mirror invited the renowned psychic researcher Harry Price to investigate paranormal activity at Borley Rectory in Essex. Reports of supernatural phenomena at Borley dated back to the 1860s, running the gamut from apparitions (most often a nun, but also, more dramatically, headless coachmen) and unexplained noises (footsteps, whispering and moaning, tapping and banging, bell-ringing) to telekinetic activity. Price would investigate the goings-on for close to a decade, even renting the house himself for a year in 1937, and recruiting a team of paranormal observers to assist him in his research as resident. Despite his reputation as a debunker of fraudulent paranormal claims, he would ultimately proclaim Borley Rectory the “most haunted house in England” in his 1940 book of the same title, asserting that the phenomena experienced by generations of residents, as well as by himself and his team of observers, were in every way objective and real. Borley Rectory was destroyed by fire in 1939, but its ghosts, in Price’s words, proved “fire-proof,” for they were seen and heard in the ruins and, subsequently, in the adjacent churchyard.
After Price’s death in 1948, his substantial library of magical, occult, and psychical literature passed to the University of London’s Senate House Library. Some of the items in Price’s library have since been digitized and made available to a wider audience through the database Victorian Popular Culture. In addition to featuring several of Price’s own works, including Most Haunted House in England and Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter (1936), this database provides access to a range of items from Price’s library representing the diversity of his research interests. Alongside nineteenth- and twentieth-century works on aspects of parapsychology (spirit communication, mediums, spirit photography, and the like), we find treatises on witchcraft and the occult that date as far back as the sixteenth century, as well as manuals on conjuring from across the centuries, including a succession of editions of Henry Dean’s Whole Art of Legerdemain, or Hocus Pocus in Perfection.
In the 1950s, the Society for Psychical Research disputed Price’s findings at Borley Rectory, arguing that many of the phenomena he had reported were explicable in naturalistic terms, and speculating that Price, himself something of a conjurer, had fabricated the more mysterious manifestations. This notwithstanding, Harry Price’s investigations continue to capture the imagination, inspiring a new documentary, Borley Rectory, just this year. And the small English village of Borley attracts paranormal investigators as well as the idly curious to the present day, to its dismay.