By October 1928 the ministry at Borley parish had stood vacant for some time. Borley Rectory, a rambling, ramshackle Victorian barn of a house, sprawled on an Essex hillside, had little to offer the wife of any rector. Its roof leaked; its plumbing was in hopeless disrepair; its corners and closets were cluttered with the detritus of ages; rats and mice infested its secret corridors; and many of its rooms were unfurnished. To the Rev. Guy Eric Smith, a man of middle age newly ordained to the ministry, all this was of little accounta parish was a parish. But what the Rev. Mr. Smith did not know was that Borley Rectory was the haunt not only of mice and cobwebs but the headquarters as well of what seemed to be the busiest set of ghosts in all England.
Borley's haunts included a tall stranger in a top hat who paid bedside calls on unsuspecting parlor maids, an aged family retainer long since dead, a lurking prowler who went without a hat and without a head as well, a phantom coach that rolled wildly through the front yard behind a brace of phantom horses. Also in the ghostly cast: a wistfully mourning lady variously identified as 1) Arabella Waldegrave, daughter of a 17th century local lord, 2) an English nun whose weakness for a monk in a monastery, said to have occupied the rectory site, had led to her being sealed up alive in a wall, and 3) a French nun, Marie Lairre, who had renounced her vows to become the bride of a Waldegrave only to be strangled and buried in a cellar for her devotion.
Sixteen Hours. All or most of this was well known to the villagers of Borley when the Smiths took over their parish. In local pubs the rectory was known as "the most haunted house in England." Within a year, thanks to Rector Smith himself and an enthusiastic ghost hunter named Harry Price, its infamy had spread throughout the nation. Harry Price, an affable hobbyist of independent means, was far and away Britain's best-known investigator of psychic phenomena. His books on the subject were legion and readable, and his spectacular exposures of fake spiritualists were invariably good for pages of newspaper copy.
Called in by a London newspaper to investigate Parson Smith's complaints, Harry sped to Borley Rectory on June 12, 1929. Soon the old place began acting up as it never had before. Keys shot out of their keyholes like projectiles. Bells rang with no one to ring them. Pebbles and candlesticks hurtled through the air. Rappings and tappings sounded from all sides like a telegraphers' convention. Even the ghostly nun Marie put in a polite appearance in honor of the visitor. Altogether, wrote Price later, "it was a day to be remembered even by an experienced investigator . . . Sixteen hours of thrills!"