James Turner and the Borley Ghost
'The record of a man's gardening is the autobiography
if not of his soul, certainly of his body'.
We, children of death, acclaim the Spring,
unconsummated flowers, the livening seed
brother and benches, and stench
of work, boredom of long hours
is haloed by the single thrush;
primrose, violet and the plane tree
caracole even in the din.
Jonquil breathes into the air
and Lydian chords lift the soul
over death, over Jordan, over
We, children of death, acclaim life.
(Pastoral. James Turner. Seven Gardens For Catherine. p.181.)
James Ernest Turner 1909-1975
There is a wealth of non-existent material available, related to the green-fingered poet James Turner and his connection to the notorious Borley Rectory haunting, that I felt the need to collect some of the facts together for the purpose of some future reference.
James Ernest Turner was born on 16th January 1909 in the village of Foots Cray, at the bottom of Sidcup Hill. He was educated at Wykeham House School and after he left Lancing College in 1925, he went up to Oxford to read English at Queens College. His early aspiration to become a parson was quickly dashed when he felt the calling to become a writer. Following from Oxford, James found himself in search of some direction and felt himself being steered towards training as a nurseryman, in Sussex.
It would prove to be a disaster for Turner and the difficulties he faced while growing mushrooms eventually led him to bankruptcy!
He married Lucie Alice Porter (known as Catherine) on 4th March 1936 at Eltham and it was her sense of humour and support throughout their hardship and comic mishaps which was a great strength to James.
James filed his petition for bankruptcy on 7th November 1938 and was declared bankrupt on 8th February 1939. The period ended on 15th August 1940.
The Turners lived for a while in London when James became a chauffer/secretary to an eccentric woman who owned a magazine.
James found himself in a spiritual sense in East Anglia when the two themes of his life merged together - poetry and gardening.
On Wednesday 22nd January 1947 the Turners went to Borley in Suffolk to view the remains of a property that had been known as 'the most haunted house in England'. James saw the potential of the garden which could be developed into his own nursery, where he could grow his mushrooms in sheds. They bought the site of the old Borley Rectory (which included four acres of orchard) from a Mr Russell, and on Tuesday 29th April they moved into the red-brick cottage that was attached to the stables in the grounds of the former Rectory.
The cottage consisted of a sitting room which in the past served as the coach-house. A brick wall turned it into two rooms: a small sitting room and a dining room. The kitchen used to be the saddle room and the first floor has three small bedrooms and a bathroom.
'The cottage itself has been the centre of reported inexplicable phenomena for almost sixty years - as early as the occupancy by Mr Edward Cooper and his wife which lasted from April 1916 until March 1920'. (The Ghosts Of Borley. p.184.)
The legend of Borley Rectory is well documented and therefore I find no reason to give an in depth explanation of events at the house. But I will mention briefly that the Rectory became known as 'the most haunted house in England' due to the various manifestations that were seen and heard there. The infamous 'ghost-hunter' Harry Price visited the Rectory in 1929 and returned on many subsequent investigations. His finding are recorded and published in his two books: 'The Most Haunted House In England' and 'The End Of Borley Rectory'.
Among the many phenomena experienced at the Rectory is the apparition of a nun which appeared to the Misses Bull in 1900 and seen on numerous occasions. Mysterious writing has also been seen on the inner walls of the house during the Price investigation which appealed for 'help'. And legend has it that a phantom coach and horses along with a headless driver tears down the road towards the Rectory from the direction of Rodbridge.
The Rev. A.C. Henning
On Whit Monday 26th May 1947, James Turner assisted the Rev. A.C. Henning along with Mrs Henning and Mr J. Durrant in removing some of the floor boards in the Sanctuary of Borley Church. Directly below, they found a marble slabbed tomb. The tomb, that of the Reverend Humphrey Burrough, Rector of Borley from 1722-1757, was in good condition and many bones were found and later re-buried in Borley churchyard.
'Mr. Turner suddenly broke through into a cavity which proved to be a brick-lined vault, presumably that of Humphrey Burrough. The strange thing about this vault was that the brickwork looked new and there was no foul air from it. Below, as we lowered a torch at the end of a pole, could be seen some three feet of water. In the water were clearly visible three skeletons. The hole was closed again and now, of course, the new floor covers the place, leaving the black tomb slab'. (Haunted Borley. A.C. Henning. p.29.)
The new floor was laid over the tomb the following day and Mr Turner took the old wooden altar in his car to Liston Church.
Here is Mr Turner's account taken from his diary entry for that day - Monday 26th May 1947:
'Whit Monday. Began to raise the boards in the sanctuary. Present, at first, were myself, Clifford Henning and a Mr Durrant. Began work at 10.45. Soon after we arrived pressmen from the Evening News and the Daily Telegraph. On the removal of the first board D and I were, at once, confronted by the black marble tomb slab of Humphrey Burroughs, Gainsborough's uncle, who was once rector here - a very good and exciting find. It was in perfect condition having been protected by the wooden floor. We had to rip up most of the boards (only deal and about twenty years old). Not important. Strangely no one knew that the tomb was under the altar, the usual place to bury a priest. Durrant began, then to dig in the earth, mortar, sand and lime, forming the bed of the church floor at this spot. Immediately he started to dig up leg bones and perfectly formed, very yellow, ankle and foot bones. Catherine came across and verified these as none of us could be certain. Broke off for coffee. Afterwards I began to dig with Eva Henning taking notes. Very many more bones came up, even down to a depth of three feet. As yet no clay.
In the afternoon I began to dig before the others came back. The church was cold and still. I began to find more bones and talked with an R.C. priest who arrived. When Durrant and the Hennings came back I had already begun to dig under the black marble stone of Humphrey Burrough's tomb. Quite quickly I found a skull and clavicle which, I suppose, went with the legs and ankles. (Note. No one explained these finds, was it another clergyman? Next morning I dug a hole in the churchyard for the Rector to re-bury them).
Durrant suggested breaking into the vault as it would be our only chance to do so. Tomorrow all this would be concreted over and the stone slabs laid. I drove the crowbar into the 'modern' brickwork of the top and within a quarter of an hour, the bar went through without any warning, bringing my arm down hard on the edge of the memorial stone. I enlarged the hole until we could dimly see the level of water in what we then thought was a tunnel from the old rectory. The rector's lamp was lowered on string which Cathy fetched and, before a crowd of people who arrived to see what we were doing, we discovered it to be the vault with the bones of two bodies, no traces of coffins, three feet of water and built, 7ft. x 5ft. of modern bricks and mortar, just as if it had been finished yesterday. One of the sets of bones was, of course, that of Humphrey Burroughs'. (Sometimes Into England. p.12.)
'Mr. Turner lived at the Rectory cottage from May 1947 to June 1950 and during this time carried out extensive explorations in the vicinity of the wells. Before he completely filled in the rubble-crammed cellars of the Rectory and laid out a sunken rose-garden, he and his friends spent considerable time in clearing the rubbish from the cellars and at length reached the round well where the cream jug had been discovered. As they uncovered the well, there was much escape of gas. Next day the well was broken into and dug out. There was nothing below but solid clay and though this, too, was excavated thoroughly, nothing interesting came to light'. (The Ghosts Of Borley. p.141.)
Some Accounts Of Mr Turner's Occurrences At Borley
On Saturday 17th May Peter Underwood met the Turners for the first time at Borley. The Turners had been living at the cottage for three weeks. And it should also be noted that this date (according to messages received by the planchette) is the 280th anniversary of the death of the Borley nun, whose name was given as Marie Lairre. Mr Underwood stayed over night investigating the church and the cottage.
On Tuesday 27th May the Turners were at breakfast in the cottage and they heard a loud noise from the rooms above, but on inspection the noises stopped and nothing seemed to be out of place.
Between May and June James worked hard at clearing the overgrown brambles from the area known as the 'nun's walk'. He mostly worked during the evenings using a sickle. But he found his attempts to clear the tangled growth, met with laughter; in fact throughout his hacking at the undergrowth he heard the sound of laughter and voices talking, but not distinct enough to make out the words. The sounds seemed to come from the location of the old Rectory. On stopping work to listen to the voices, they appeared silent and on picking up the sickle to begin again, the voices and laughter would start up again. His wife Cathy also witnessed this occurrence.
In June 1947 the BBC produced a broadcast on the Rectory and after it was aired numerous 'ghost-hunters' and 'sensation seekers' rushed upon the site of the old Rectory which was of the greatest annoyance to those who lived there, especially the Turners who were quite happy to have the odd ghost or two, but to be invaded by people in search of a thrill and not caring or being respectful of property was something they could do without!
'Mr Turner tells me he even arrived home one night to find two men in the garden with guns, though what they imagined their bullets could effect upon a ghost, they did not explain'. (Haunted Borley. p.31.)
On Saturday 2nd August 1947, James Turner walked to the church just after midnight and sat on the steps of the priest's door for around 45 minutes. He heard the Sudbury clock strike one when he suddenly became aware of a presence moving up the main path to the church. Nothing was visible but there were definite footsteps heard and the sound of a swishing skirt. It motioned towards the porch away from Mr Turner, to his relief. There was a full moon that night and the air was still. This phenomena has also been witnessed by others visiting the church. The Rev Henning writes about Mr Turner's occurrence in his Haunted Borley: 'Mr Turner had a strange experience. One beautiful night in August 1947, he thought he would cross to the church for a stroll. He sat down on the step - but I will tell the story in his own words.
The night of the full moon and my brother, Philip, and his wife are staying with us. Went to Long Melford to meet John and Elizabeth and home again about 10.30 Elizabeth wished to spend the night in the church, but this was not possible because both doors were locked. At 12.15 I went across alone to the church where I sat, in the light of the full moon, for three quarters of an hour or more, for I heard the clock in Sudbury strike one o'clock. All the time, out in the road, a young man was saying goodbye to his sweetheart. I could hear their voices dimly along the moonlit paths and between the great yew trees. There was absolutely no wind at all and I sat huddled up upon the step of the priest's door with a jacket over my shoulders. I stood up and looked out across the fields and realised, as one does sometimes, that I was utterly happy. In a few moments, I slumped back into my former position for I was quite tired after the day's work, tired but not in the least sleepy. It was then that it happened.
Something was going up the main path of the churchyard, something which had one footstep more marked than the other, and something in a gown or skirt which swished as it went. Perhaps the whole affair lasted no more than ten seconds, but my attention was held for, it seemed, much longer. All the time, the man and the girl were talking by the gate, some two hundred feet away from me.
Whatever came up the path to the porch must have passed them if it came from the direction of the rectory. But they had not been disturbed. The actual happening, which occurred as I have stated while I was neither thinking of such things or perhaps of anything in particular, left little visible impression upon me.
I left the churchyard soon after as my brother came to call for a cup of tea. Had I heard the steps coming up the little path to the priest's door, I should have been terrified. As it was, whatever manifested itself then seemed intent upon its own errand and to have nothing to do with me. I do not believe I would have gone back alone into the churchyard after that, however!' (Haunted Borley. p.35-36.)
It was on the evening of Tuesday 8th June 1948 that a seance took place at the cottage. Those present were: the Turners, Rev. John C. Dening, Mrs G. Taylor of Chelsea, and Mr T.S. Frankland of Trinity College, Cambridge. During the seance an entity wishing to be known as 'Harry Bull' came through and declared that he would haunt Borley for '4004 years'. When asked whose footsteps are heard in the churchyard, the spirit replied that it was the Rev. Lionel Foyster and he suggested that the Rev. Foyster's death occurred under strange circumstances!
Around 2.30 a.m. Mr Frankland asked the so called Harry Bull if he would make an appearance, it being the 21st anniversary of his death, and the entity replied: 'Go to church now!'
The sitters marched over to the church porch where they sat expecting some manifestation. After some time, Mr Turner broke the silence by saying 'I don't think we ought to be here!' Mr Frankland went over to the cottage with Mrs Turner and they talked and had tea while the remaining party still waited in the churchyard. The sceptical Frankland said jokingly: 'You know, nothing will happen if I put my finger on the glass...like this...' Suddenly the glass was seized and made three wide circles - Mr Frankland, quite startled by this, asked 'Why were we sent to the church?' and the answer came back - 'Pray'. Then he asked who was in the church now and these letters were slowly spelt out: 'C-H-R-I-S-T. He ended the questioning then and there!
On another occasion in July 1948, Mrs Turner was sitting on a deck chair, near the location of the old Rectory when she became aware of footsteps approaching towards her, and then dying away. She described them as sounding like a man walking upon floorboards, along a passage. She experienced the same phenomenon two weeks later in the same location.
And again in September 1948, the Turners rushed from the dining-room to the kitchen on hearing a loud noise of smashing crockery, but nothing appeared to have been moved when they investigated. This phenomenon - the sound of breaking crockery had been reported on several occassions by the previous occupants of the cottage, Mr and Mrs Cooper, in 1919, and also in the Rectory itself. Several weeks later, a loud pistol shot was heard by the Turners from in the kitchen - it sounded as if it had been fired in the kitchen, it was that loud!
On Thursday 28th July 1949, Mrs Turner was awoken by scratching at the bed clothes. A thorough search by Mr Turner found nothing to be in the room that should not have been there. The door was closed. They also noticed a hollow in the bed where it appeared a cat had been sitting. But no cat was in the room!
Again on Sunday 28th August 1949, Mr Turner was looking out of the kitchen doorway when he saw a mysterious shape, a furry form playing with their own cat Fred. The 'mysterious cat' was grey and white and it disappeared under Mr Turner's car and did not appear again. If it had come out it would have been seen as there was open space all around the car.
There has been a long history of 'spectral cat' sightings at Borley cottage and at the Rectory. Cats were prevalent during the time of the Rev. Harry Bull's incumbency. In fact, he had up to 34 cats on the premises and there is a cat's cemetery in the grounds of the old Rectory. Mr Ronald Blythe, the writer, has also witnessed the so called spectral cat in the bathroom at the cottage during October 1949.
On Sunday 5th March 1950, the Turners were visited by Mr Dening, who stayed the night. Mr Dening went to bed at 12.30 a.m. Mr Turner was in the sitting-room with Fred the cat next to him on the sofa. Mrs Turner was in the kitchen and Holly, their other cat had been let out. Suddenly there was a loud feline scream which seemed to come from inside the cottage, from the landing. After a search they confirmed that Holly was still outside and Fred was still on the sofa - no other cat was present to have made the noise.
On the weekend of 4th and 5th March 1950 Laurence C. Gafford and Peter Underwood spent a night in Turner's lounge at the cottage, below the Turner's bedroom. Controls were placed around the church and within to attempt to capture some of the reported phenomena. Beginning at 1 a.m. on Sunday 5th March after the Turners retired to bed, the controls were checked at regular intervals. At 2.15 a.m. footsteps and voices were heard overhead by both Gafford and Underwood. This occurred on different occassions. The Turners confirmed that they had not woken during the night and that they slept soundly. They were not surprised to hear reports of whisperings and footsteps as it had been an ever-present phenomena in that room. Mr Dening was sleeping in the front room of the cottage on the first floor. He also confirmed that he had not risen in the night and that his sleep was undisturbed.
While living at Borley cottage, Mr Turner wrote his novel - 'My Life With Borley Rectory', published November 1950. The Turners moved out on Saturday 1st July 1950 and went to live at the Mill House, in Belchamp Walter, 3 miles away. Borley was put up for sale for £4000. The site was sold in March 1951 to Mr Robert Bacon and his wife for £3,250 and they lived there until 1972.
Letter from Peter Underwood to James Turner, Saturday 18th January 1969:
'I remember that first visit when Tom Brown and I spent a night in the grounds; you said we were the first ghost-hunters during your occupancy (you had only been there a very short time). Unfortunately we were not the last! You very kindly asked us into the cottage for coffee, saying 'we won't do this every time but as you are the first to spend a night on the site while we're here...' and very acceptable it was, too! We talked about the ghost nun and you said that if you saw her, you'd like to position yourself in her path and see whether she'd walk through you. Perhaps like me you're too sceptical. I've spent scores of nights in haunted houses and I've yet to see my first ghost...
I hope you will not feel it necessary to disparage the Borley hauntings. (Alas, I have a little, I think). There is fact behind the 'legend' of Borley. As I think you know I have contacted and personally interviewed practically every person who had anything to do with the Borley 'case' and I have a great deal of good first-hand evidence from the Coopers, Marianne Foyster, Mr A. H. Foyster, Marianne's husband's brother, Mary Pearsons, the Bulls, Norah Walrond, the Hennings, Edith Whitehouse, Guy L'Estrange, J.P., a doctor who knew Harry Bull, a pupil to who Harry Bull taught Latin, Mrs Goldney (who told me she would be the last person to suggest that nothing of a paranormal nature happened at Borley), Dr Peter Rowe, who saw the 'nun' a few years ago, a Bank of England official, the Rev. John Dening, Mrs Ellie Howe, the Rev. Stanley C. Kipling, Canon Phythian-Adams (who passed to me all his papers pertaining to Borley) - the list is endless - right up to the present day and to the Williamses and the Bacons (who now own the Borley cottage and site). And Harry Price. You know there is no real evidence that he played false at Borley...'
(Sometimes Into England. James Turner. Appendix.)
Leaving my love is binding freedom
In chains, and the burden of spring
Into the overheated summer ovens.
The journeys were into freedom
And the faith of love. Of spring
The freedom. Where can I go,
Up here into the hills above the river,
Or here in the woods or again
Along the tessellated street,
And stare and stare without love?
Leaving my love is the closing of hatches,
And to be lost. This was an investment
Of love, this noble building.
This, too, because of our freedom,
This avenue of ilex was an embodiment
Of the straight road of the free.
Who has betrayed? Or must it come
Always to this, a flower grasped
Slowly dying, each minute slowly,
Dying even with soft water.
Where is the meaning of such freedom
And the heart of happiness?
The meaning comes to a betrayal,
Comes to the loss and to iron gyves,
Because her voice sped the hours,
Her laugh was a shield to humour,
And her body bought off weariness
Leaving my love is an open wound
Handwide in my breast, and a heart
Of blood sucked dry and of throat
Burning with unslaked thirst.
Leaving my love is a life spent.
(The Alien Wood:Twenty Elegies. James Turner. Seven Gardens For Catherine. p.219.)
Bibliography Of James Turner
Murder at Landred Hall. Cassell. 1954.
A death by the sea. Cassell. 1955.
The strange little snakes. Cassell. 1956.
The frontiers of death. Cassell. 1957.
The crystal wave. Cassell. 1957.
The dark index. Cassell. 1959.
The deeper malady. Cassell. 1959.
Condell. Cassell. 1961.
The glass interval. Cassell. 1961.
The crimson moth. Cassell. 1962.
The nettle shade. Cassell. 1963.
The slate landscape. Cassell. 1964.
The long avenues. Cassell. 1964.
The blue mirror. Cassell. 1964.
Anna Chevron. Cassell. 1966.
Requiem for two sisters. Cassell. 1968.
Stone dormitory. Littlehampton Book Services. 1971.
The dolphin's skin: six studies in eccentricity. Cassell. 1956.
The shrouds of glory: six studies in martyrdom. Cassell. 1956.
Pastoral. Cambridge University Press. 1940.
The alien wood:twenty elegies. Cambridge University Press. 1945.
The hollow vale: a poem. Cambridge University Press. 1947.
The interior diagram and other poems. Cassell. 1960.
The accident and other poems. Cassell. 1966.
My life with Borley Rectory. The Bodley Head. 1950.
Rivers of East Anglia. Cassell. 1954.
A book of gardens: a collection of original essays on some aspects of gardens and gardening. Editor. Cassell. 1963.
Thy neighbours wife: twelve original variations on a theme of adultery, by Denys Val Baker (and others). Editor. Cassell. 1964.
The fourth ghost book. Barrie & Rockliffe. 1965.
A coin has two sides: a collection of double stories on a theme of love. Cassell. 1967.
Seven gardens for Catherine: an autobiography. Cassell. 1968.
The unlikely ghosts. Mayflower. 1969.
Sometimes into England: a second volume of autobiography. Cassell. 1970.
Love letters: an anthology from the British Isles, 975-1944. Littlehampton Book Services Ltd. 1970.
Ghosts in the South West. David & Charles PLC. 1973.
Stella C. - an account of some original experiments in psychical research. Harry Price. intro by James Turner. Souvenir Press Ltd. 1973.
Staircase to the sea: fourteen ghost stories. Kimber. 1974
The way shadows fall. Kimber. 1975.
Stone peninsula: scenes from a Cornish landscape. Kimber. 1975.
The countryside of Britain [with Edwin Smith and intro by Ronald Blythe]. Book Club Associates. 1977.
Sceptred Isle. [photos by Edwin Smith]. Methuen. 1977.
Stories contributed to The Ghost Book series:
The guardian. The ghost book vol 4. Editor. 1965
Double take. The ghost book vol 5. 1969.
No one ever comes here in winter. The ghost book vol 6. 1970.
Fly away home. The ghost book vol 7. 1971.
An ordered sequence of events. The ghost book vol 8. 1972.
Love me, love my car. The ghost book vol 9. 1973.