No Hand Was Visible: The Mysterious “Wall Writings” at Borley Rectory— An Investigation
Andrew Clarke, 2003
The wall-writings at England’s infamously haunted Borley Rectory have proven to be of enduring interest. Although they may not be unique, they are memorable, with the repeated calling of the name ‘Marianne’, their chilling pleas for ‘Rest’, exhortations for ‘Light’ the ‘Mass Prayers’, and childlike scribbling, redolent of a tortured soul desperate to communicate.
Who can fail to be stirred by the account of their arrival as remembered by a visitor, the professional medium, Guy L’Estrange?:
“Later, being entertained by the rector and his wife, he heard for the first time of mysterious forms, male and female, being seen inside and outside the house; of lights in unoccupied rooms; of articles appearing and being thrown; of fires breaking out; of mysterious whisperings and unexplained writings on walls and scraps of paper. Once, the rector told him, he was working alone in his study when he saw a pencil rise from the desk and scrawl words on the wall in front of him -no hand was visible!’
— Guy L’Estrange, quoted in Borley Postscript by Peter Underwood, p.114
It is an image that we all kept when we first read the Harry Price books about Borley Rectory: the pencil rising from the desk and scrawling the words ‘Get light, mass, prayers.’
This account was introduced by the professional medium, Guy L’Estrange. Unfortunately Guy seems to have made it up. Lionel Foyster, the rector would never have said it. He was meticulous in his care for the truth and was always keen to point out that he never saw anything of a paranormal nature whilst at Borley Rectory. The story of the pencil rising from the desk does not appear in any other account.
The ‘paranormal’ writings first appeared in the spring of 1931 when the Foysters were living at the Rectory.
The diary of occurrences, written soon after the event, records the first manifestations of this strange phenomenon, and then, in instalments describes how it evolved:
“Another strange occurrence is that Marianne’s name was at one time continually being written on little odd pieces of paper in a rather shaky childish hand (Adelaide, needless to say, cannot write yet) That has stopped now as far as I know (March 23rd).”
—Lionel Foyster Diary of Occurences, p.17
In Lionel’s final account which was written seven years later, some detail was added that gave this a much more ‘paranormal’ air:
‘MF sees paper in the air; it at once falls to the ground; discovered to huave some hardly decipherable writing on it. Next day, when we come up, it has disappeared.”
—Lionel Foyster, Summary of experiences, p.4
These scribblings tailed off at about the time that Frank Peerless came to lodge at the rectory, bringing his son Douglas (both were known at the time as Francois D’Arles). However, there was one last curious incident:
“Another thing I should mention, I believe I stated in my first account that the word ‘Marianne’ was at one time often found written on odd scraps of paper; Lady W[hitehouse] suggested we should write ‘What do you want?’ underneath one of these which I did. The next day there appeared what I read as ‘Pest’, but which Marianne read as ‘Rest’, (It might be either, I think) underneath, while on another piece of paper appeared ‘Marianne help me’. I wrote ‘How?’ underneath that, but no answer has yet been given.”
—Lionel Foyster Diary of Occurences May 7th 1931, p.25
Lady Whitehouse was the wife of the churchwarden, and much interested in spiritualism. She remembered the paper writings.
“Mr Foyster showed us scraps of paper with mysterious writing on them, asking ‘Marianne’ for help. They had been left about all over the house.”
—Lady Whitehouse’s statement to Harry Price March 29th 1939 published in MHHE, p.86
She had, nearly eight years later, forgotten her contribution to the phenomenon; the idea that they should respond. All these writings were on bits of paper, including old envelopes and bits of old newspaper. The strange writings then moved to the walls. They were mostly in the passage outside the bathroom:
“During this time there was also some very mysterious writing on the walls. I mentioned writing on papers before. ‘Marianne’ appeared one day on the wall of the passage leading down to the bathroom. It looked as if the writer had been pulled away just as he was finishing, since the end of the ‘e’ went up in the air and the ‘I’ was not dotted. I wrote underneath ‘what can we do?’, but no notice was taken of it. Later, a little further along the passage was written ‘Marianne please help get’ and then a dash as if again someone had been pulled away. Later still, further along the passage was written ‘Marianne get help (something undecipherable) bother me’ (or bothers me). Marianne wrote underneath ‘I cannot understand, tell me more. Marianne’. Something was added underneath but subsequently written over.”
—Lionel Foyster Diary of Occurrences June 30th 1931, p.25
Some days later, some writing appeared that seemed to be a reply:
“We think [‘Get Light Mass and prayers here’] was written whilst we were going about the house one day, since we were showing someone round and did not notice it, but passing the place shortly afterwards saw it there. Also when we first saw it, we did not notice the word “here”, which soon afterwards was found added. This was very clear and I intended to get a photograph taken of it, but before I had done so some officious person had washed it out; it was written on the painted woodwork.”
—Lionel Foyster manuscript of ‘fifteen Months in a Haunted House’ p.94, 1936
Lionel puzzled over the request, and decided that it had been written in answer to his previous question ‘How?’, which, in turn, was a response to one of the paper messages ‘Marianne help me’.
“After reading this, we could see that evidently either this or something very much like it was originally written at Marianne’s request as mentioned above ”
—Lionel Foyster Diary of Occurrences June 24th 1931, p.25
The person that they were showing round when the message appeared must have been Edwin Whitehouse, the nephew of the churchwardens. He later recalled the incident too, but remembered it as having been on June 16th, ten days later.
”I thought I would look at the walls downstairs. I returned a couple of minutes later and Mrs. Foyster joined me on the landing. We compared notes, but neither of us had anything to report. Happening to turn my eyes towards a bit of wall that jutted out from the landing, a point directly opposite where we had been kneeling, I was surprised to notice a fresh bit of writing on an otherwise clean bit of wall. The message, which was scribbled in pencil, but quite legible, ran as follows: ‘ Get light mass and prayers. M’… A little later on, returning to the spot, the word ‘here’ was written up quite clearly under the other writing.”
—Edwin Whitehouse, quyoted in The Most Haunted House in Engluand, p.94
There is some confusion here. Lionel was definitely there: he mentions the incident as an eyewitness in both his accounts. The version in the diary of occurrences was written soon after the event
“Some time later, was written one day one day while we were in the house, ‘Get light mass and prayers here’. When we first saw it, the ‘here’ was not written and then a shuort time afterwards we found it added.”
—Lionel Foyster Diary of uOccurrences June 24th 1931, p.25
Yet here is Edwin thinking he was in the house alone with Marianne, praying in the chapel.. Edwin always maintained that he took prolific notes of his outings to Borley Rectory, (they have never been seen by anyone else) but here he seems to have been remiss. Another oddity is Lionel’s assertion that the word ‘here’ was ‘washed out’ by someone, yet it appears in the photographs of the wall-writings. The words ‘Get light mass and prayers here’ was written only once, according to Glanville’s survey, and the photograph of the scrawl shows a distinct ‘here’ at the end of the message.
The reinstatement of the word ‘here’ may have a prosaic explanation. Unfortunately, when it came to recording the scribblings on the wall, Mr Glanville’s camera proved incapable of getting a good image so, with Harry Price’s encouragement, he went over the writing with a pencil to make them easier to photograph, so we will never be sure as to whether the word ‘here’ had been scrubbed out as Lionel suggested. Mr Glanville’s tracings ruined any further attempts at interpretation as it would have been impossible for him to do the tracing without imposing his own favoured interpretation on the scribblings.
Marianne later recalled the advent of the wall-writings:
“The first writing that appeared was like m’s and u’s, loops and letters. It could have been ‘Marianne’, but I thought that it might have been some little girl that had used our bathroom facilities. Edwin said that it was a spirit, trying to get in touch with me. He wrote: ‘What do you want?’ I washed it from the wall and was very annoyed at Edwin, because I had to wash the walls and I didn’t like it at all. There were two others times that it appeared. Edwin said that he saw it written on the wall, without a hand as he was passing. He told everybody this; I discounted it.”
—Marianne Foyster from Robert Swanson Interview Gladstone Hotel – Florida ruary, 1958
Marianne had an adopted child, then a toddler, called Adelaide, who was, according to the neighbour, an inveterate scribbler. Those who were eager to ascribe the first scribblings to a spirit were keen to point out that Adelaide was very backward at the time and therefore incapable of the simple task of scribbling ‘m’s and u’s, loops and letters’. The same could not be true of the son of the lodger, little Douglas Pearless (‘Francois D’Arles Jnr’), who was bright as a button and staying at the Rectory full-time. Both children were encouraged to call Mrs Foyster ‘Marianne’ and she was, according to Mrs Pearson, the Char, tryting to teach them to write.
The word ‘Marianne’ continued to appear on bits of paper throughout June. Edwin recalls, ‘We found Mrs Foyster’s Christian Name ‘Marianne’ pencilled up on walls in the kind of scrawl which characterised this writing as also on bits of newspaper which were lying about on the ground floor. In some cases there was ‘please help’ added.
We know rather more now than the readers of Harry Price’s books about the wall-writing…
“Writing & Messages. H.P. makes no mention at all of a pencilled Adelaide in similar writing on the kitchen wall. I asked him about it, when I was there, & he brushed aside the question. The writing is at the same height as the M(arianne) messages!! I asked you the housekeeper about the writings, she said. Adelaide was a terror for scribbling—she used to write on every wall—and I spent hours washing them out- you can see the marks still’-& told me the rooms where I found little lines of doll’s houses, etc.—NONE OF WHICH are mentioned by H.P .”
—Major Douglas-Home in his statement to Lord Charles Hope in about 1943
Actually, this is not quite correct. An adult of roughly the same height as Marianne did the decipherable writings in Marianne’s handwriting, whereas the scribblings were at the height (2ft, 3in.) that a child of Adelaide or Douglas’s age would naturally favour. The housekeeper must have been Mary Dytor (who later became Mrs Wildgoose). This must have been during Price’s rather mysterious third visit, a year after the wallwritings happened.
Marianne was keen to suspect Edwin of doing the more articulate wall-writing:
“She says the writings only appeared when Edwin Whitehouse was in the vicinity, and she felt he was in some way responsible, either deliberately or unconsciously. She felt the wall writing originated in some way from him, although they would all ‘reply’ to the comments and questions—she specifically said she herself wrote, as did Lionel and Ian, when he stayed with them on holiday.”
—Marianne Foyster from ‘Marianne’s Story’ by Iris Owen and Pauline Mitchell
Marianne had evidently forgotten that the wall-writings had almost all appeared before Edwin first turned up at the rectory.
Thanks to Lionel Foyster’s original account, We have a clear idea of when the wall-writings happened. There was a rash of scrawls on bits of paper before the end of March 1931, which were still happening when the Braithwaites, a prominent local family interested in spiritualism, visited the rectory, held a séance, and managed to save one of the bits of paper for posterity.
The wall writings reached their greatest pitch in May and June, and seem to have ceased thereafter (or rather, they were no longer reported). We can be confident that no further writing appeared after the end of the Foyster residency. The wall writings were already there when Edwin arrived, though more may have been added whilst he was around, but they ceased long before he stopped visiting the rectory. The wall writings themselves coincided with the start of Marianne’s affair with the lodger Frank Peerless.
We have three different accounts that mention the fact that the marks were removed or ‘washed out’. In Lionel Foyster’s words, ‘I intended to get a photograph taken of [the message], but before I had done so some officious person had washed it out’. Marianne mentions ‘ I washed [the message] from the wall and was very annoyed at Edwin, because I had to wash the walls and I didn’t like it at all.’: when interviewed later in life, she remarked that she was ‘mad’ (annoyed) when they first appeared as the wall had been recently redecorated and it took her hours to clean it up. And we have the housekeeper’s statement that she ‘spent hours washing them out’. How then was it that the wall writings were all there for Sidney Glanville to photograph several years later?
The Braithwaites, keen spiritualists, held a seance a the rectory on 13th of August and noted ‘They then went out of the study and inspected the alleged ‘supernatural’ writing on the wall. Sir John Braithwaite says this was obviously done by Mrs Foyster’.
Marianne later denied having written the messages, although they all seem to be in her hand:
“I like had nothing to do with it. I saw them, surely did, but I had nothing to do with them … There were a lot of people around. There was Edwin. There were tenants over at the cottage, the Mitchells, at that time. They had a boy, Jack, a young fellow.”
—Marianne Foyster from Robert Swanson Interview Gladstone Hotel – February, 1958
Edwin was shown the wall writings on his first visit so he could hardly have been responsible for them:
“I have never written on walls, and when the wall writings appeared, I thought it was the children who did it, and at one period we had a young maid. She wasn’t with us very long. In fact, it was the only maid with the exception of Mary Dytor who did stay indoors. She was a little young thing. She stayed about, I think, four or five weeks. She was just quite a child, I think 14, and very much of a child and not very good at anything, and she got lonesome and went home. It wasn’t for any other reason than that, but that was the only resident maid that we had.”
—Marianne Foyster from Robert Swanson Interview Gladstone Hotel – Fell was bruary, 1958
Actually, the maid was employed later on in the year, long after the appearance of the wall writings. In a later interview, Marianne claimed to be puzzled:
“The wall writings were an example of phenomena that puzzled them. These would initially appear, apparently from nowhere, although she admits that she herself, and other members of the family “answered” the remarks by writing underneath them. But she denies responsibility for initiating them, and remarked that she was mad when they first appeared as the wall had been recently redecorated and it took her hours to clean it up.”
—Marianne Foyster from ‘Marianne’s Story’ by Iris Owen and Pauline Mitchell
There is little doubt at all that Marianne wrote the messages:
“Dr. Phythian-Adams suggests that the ‘entity’ responsible for the appeals borrowed the hand and arm of Mrs. Foyster to write the messages, and that she was quite unconscous of the actions. . . . In his analysis of the wall-writings prepared for Price’s intended third book on Borley [never published], Mr. Lewis T. Ackerman states with conviction that in his view, that of a professional graphologist, all the Borley scripts wiith the exception of ‘Edwin’ were executed by the same personality.”
—Dingwall, Goldney, Hall. The Haunting of Borley Rectory. p. 112
It is certainly a charitable way of explaining Marianne’s denials of being the author of the wall writings to say that an entity ‘borrowed the hand and arm of Mrs Foyster’ for the messages were most certainly in her handwriting
“Peter Underwood, in a letter to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, confirmed that when he submitted samples of the messages to a graphologist the opinion was that, except for one word, they all seem to have originated from Mrs. Foyster.”
—Ivan Banks. The Enigma of Borley. pp. 48-9
After inspecting the wall writings on his second visit to Borley Rectory, in 1931, Harry Price was discinctly unimpressed. Even after the publication of ‘the Most Haunted House’, Harry Price admitted that the wall-writings may have been done by Marianne. In 1947, he wrote:
“…as a matter of fact, we have already decided that Mrs Foyster MAY have been the instrument through which the scripts appeared on the walls-I mean as a secondary personality. Some of the later squiggles that seemed to have appeared during the Price tenancy were either earlier ones that had been missed. Others suspected Harry Price himself. Major Douglas-uHome noticed that pencil marks appeared on the walls (in the dark except for torches) during three tours in the rectory in 1937 when Price was in the rear. Major Douglas-Home’s suspicions being aroused, ‘On all our other tours I manoeuvred myself to the rear directly we entered a room. He [Price] was, therefore, in the beam of my torch. We never found another mark.”
—Major Douglas-Home in a letter to Lord Charles Hope, August 1949
So let’s compare Marianne’s signature, taken from the 1960s, with the word ‘Marianne’ from the wall writings:
Here is the word ‘get’ taken from the ‘Marianne Please help get’ wall writing reproduced at the start of this sidelight. The ‘g’ is a curious form.
And here is the word ‘getting’ taken from a letter of the 1960s. Even though written over thirty years later, there are certain similarities.
Although there is a remarkable consensus that the handwriting is that of Marianne, it is curious that Lionel Foyster, her husband, did not recognise it as such. It is even more puzzling that Vince O’Neil, Marianne’s son, is sure that the handwriting is not that of Marianne.
“The more I compare the wall writings to my mother’s letters, the more convinced I become she was not responsible.”
—Vince O’Neil, personal communication 1st Sept 2003
One now has to ask why Marianne would feel driven to write the messages. Of course, it is difficult to disprove the suggestion of Dr. Phythian-Adams that the ‘entity’ responsible for the messages merely borrowed Marianne’s hand. For a more prosaic explanation, one has to look at the payoff for Marianne. At this stage of her life it was attention and admiration that she craved above all else. The first messages were not messages at all but were scribblings by a child, probably Adelaide.
One of the spiritualist visitors was intrigued by the scribbles ‘m’s and u’s, loops and letters’ and suggested that it might be the start of Marianne’s name. This led to the second batch of scribbles, written by Marianne, more clearly writing her name.
The third phase started when Lady Whitehouse suggested that Lionel should write: ‘What do you want?’ underneath one of these. The simple written name developed into a communication, and migrated to the walls, where they were more permanent. This final phase was brief and finished at around the time when Edwin Whitehouse’s visits became less welcome to the Foysters.
We really do not know what sort of state of consciousness Marianne was in when she did the writing. However, the intervention of the Whitehouses and Braithwaites ensured that the episode Devon eloped into one of the more spectacular and memorable parts of the Borley affair.<
—Unless otherwise noted, all images used in this post were found at Pinterest.com and/or the Borley Rectory website (borleyrectory.com).