Things that go creak in the night

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2000

Well, there were weird noises that were heard in the house, but there again, in most houses if you lie awake at night there are all kinds of happenings.

There were occasions when we frightened each other, if you know what I mean. We talked about things and we would get ourselves nervous and excited, and then even if the house creaked you imagined things were coming.

Marianne Foyster, the second Swanson interview, quoted in Chapter 5 of The Ghosts that Will Not Die by Vince O'Neil

I've lived in large old houses around Essex for around fifty years, and have lived just thee miles from Borley for around twenty. This experience makes me extremely cautious about attributing phenomena and occurrences to the paranormal. In this part of the world, if one lives in a big old house, you have to accept that occasionally things go bump, creak, tap, crash and groan in the night.

Harry Price was well aware of this. In the book of instructions that he gave out to his investigators he wrote

...It is very important that the greatest effort should be made to ascertain whether such manifestations are due to normal causes such as rats, small boys, the villagers, the wind, wood shrinking, the Death Watch Beetle, farm animals nosing the doors etc., trees brushing against the windows, birds in the chimney stack or between double walls etc.

There are two incidents in the Lionel Foyster's book that recount phenomena that turned out to be caused naturally. In one case, a cat was unfortunately caught by the leg in a rat-trap (she recovered), and on another occasion some mice discovered a pile of walnuts and ate them noisily.

When Borley Rectory was unoccupied, several of Harry Price's observers noticed noises that they were subsequenty able to explain. Both Mr M Knox, of Unicersity College Oxford and Mark Kerr-Pearse noticed the regular and spooky thumping noise caused by a rose tree being repeatedly blown against the wall. Knox noticed 'repeated and distinct thuds or raps, one every twenty seconds' (report of 19 Feb 1938)

These were not the only sounds one might hear in an old house. To understand the sort of natural noises and other occurences that one might expect, one has to appreciate the the way that the occupants lived at the time

We know, from the extracts of Caroline Bull's diaries, that the Bulls lived an active and very outgoing life, typical of the affluent rural middle classes of the time. Life in the countryside in agricultural Essex, even for the affluent Bulls, was remarkably different to our cosseted existence today. . They were a hardy breed, with a lifestyle that was remarkably unchanging from the restoration until the second world war. I'm just old enough to have experienced some of the facets of country living in the UK which are now remote memories; with bell pulls, servants, hot water brought to the bedrooms in a jug, blazing coal fires, icy-cold mornings, dark lamp-lit corridors, meat safes, oil lamps and candles, larders, ice-houses and the like. However, even this was luxury compared to life at Borley rectory in the first part of the century, when there was no longer the affluence or servants to support the lifestyle, and the place became damp, dark and desolate.

The Bulls lived in a house with no central heating or plumbing. The sanitation was primitive. Like many houses built at the time, it was cold and draughty. Country houses, in the winter, were heated only in the living rooms, studies and bedrooms. Even so, this was only sporadic ; during the day, one kept warm by taking exercise (The Bulls, for example, walked for miles, played ball - games, hunted, rowed and gardened) until the fire was lit in the late afternoon. If one dressed properly, then there was no inconvenience. A good tweed suit, and woollen underwear renders the wearer almost impervious to the weather. Travelling by coach or horse-drawn cab could be a problem, as they could not be heated and one had to keep still. I still have some of the devices that my own ancestors had at the time to keep their hands and feet warm in such circumstances. Fur stoles, mittens, ingenious little hand-held devices that burned lighter-fuel, and hot-water bottles. Even with these luxuries, one always preferred a horse to a coach in the worst of the winter as one kept moving in the saddle and thereby kept warmer.

Windows tended to leak draughts. Floors did not have wall-to-wall carpeting and therefore were much more porous. Staircases were designed to be imposing and lacked simple precautions to reduce draughts. Architects were induced by their clients to design more for show than comfort. All this meant that inside of the houses suffered much the same environment as the outside. East Anglia is prone to sudden changes in the weather. Anyone who has lived here will tell you that the weather is 'bracing'. We're a long way from the balmy west coast here and the weather can be more extreme than elsewhere in Britain. When the wind blows from the west, it brings mild moist weather from the Gulf Stream, and an east wind brings the cold dry air from the Scandinavia. A wind from the north can make temperatures drop suddenly. The inside of a house can suffer sudden changes in temperature and humidity. We even suffer occasional small tornados and sudden gusts that can blow an outhouse high into the air.

The architect of Borley Rectory made a particular mistake in the north-facing window of the dining-room. As well as forgetting that the window overlooked the public road and the driveway, the window had the full blast of the chill north-east wind of early spring as it swept down the Stour Valley. Although north-facing windows were common in town houses which had some shelter, they were much rarer in the countryside. It was soon bricked-up.

I've seen effects caused by changes in humidity that would have been instantly ascribed to the spirit of Harry Bull at Borley rectory. Wood increases its width as humidity rises. Rapid changes in humidity can have spectacular effects; If one walks down a stair so that the boards jam, they will release with a sound like a footstep. If a layer of dryer air rises, the footsteps go up the stair as the wood shrinks and springs back into shape. If boards have been too tightly laid, the skirting boards can creak as if someone is creeping around the edge of the room. Victorian houses tended to creak more than older ones, as the joiners worked to tighter tolerances, with less allowance for movement of timber. Victorian house owners didn't like cracks. Taps on a door, or in a piece of furniture, can happen as the panels move against the frames. As a change of air moves along a lengthy corridor, as when someone leaves an outside door open, the shifting in the woodwork can sound for all the world like someone in slippers moving along.

Where there was iron in the house, such as truss rods and brackets, they would expand and contract with temperature much more than wood, which hardly moves at all in length. This can cause all sorts of stresses that are translated into strange noises as joints move, and parts of the house shift. Where brick is used, and the builder has made no allowance for movement, things start to go creak in the night, as the temperature drops.

Before double-glazing, it was surprising how much movement of air there could be in a house. A slammed door at one end can be felt at the other even if it was not heard. Changes in air pressure could have odd effects, such as doors being rattled, windows shaking, and so on. A window or door opened on the windward side of a house could have effects out of all proportion, especially if someone else opened a window on the other side. (such as keys being blown out of locks , which I have not personally witnessed, but have heard of from others ) If you lived in a house that was taken from a pattern book intended for an urban setting, as Henry Bull did, you would know about draughts and their effects. Moans and groans are common. Henry Bull compounded the problem by building wings onto the back of the house that concentrated the prevailing westerlies like a great funnel so that it must have been most uncomfortable to live in. Because of the siting of walls, you can get strange effects like dust-devils, miniature whirlwinds, that look to those of a nervous disposition, just like a ghost.

Houses move up and down too. In East Anglia, the majority of houses are built on clay, which expands considerably when wet. Before the nineteenth Century, the East-Anglian towns were built on the exposed gravel seams within the valleys. You will not find an old town on the great clay plains that dominate the landscape. However, as the population rose, more houses had to be built on the clay.. A small house built on clay will bob like a cork, but larger ones may be less lucky and different parts will rise and fall at different rates. Before the Victorians came with their hard cement, the canny old country builders made brick walls with a lime mortar. This was a soft flexible jointing that allowed for movement in the walls. The nineteenth century houses seemed more rigid, but they stored up their stresses until they cracked and subsided, with a sound that has to be witnessed to be believed. It sounds as if the house is falling down around you. One resident of the Rectory Cottage must have heard this, and he rushed downstairs thinking that the kitchen had been turned upside-down only to find everything in place. He should have looked for new cracks in the walls.

Just to make matters worse for the rectory, it was built over the site of an earlier, smaller, house, which made the foundation work even more suspect. From the description of the sounds in the house, it must have been suffering quite a bit of gradual subsidence.

Borley rectory was troubled by rats and mice. In those days, everybody had them. At the rectory, the house was next to an old barn. There was a working farm with livestock including pigs, next to the rectory. This was bound to make matters worse. The Bulls tried to deal with the problem with various poisons, including phosphorus compounds, which glowed in the dark to the consternation of passers-by.

It was the rats that caused the next incumbent at Borley Rectory more trouble than anything else, causing sounds like footsteps

The footsteps my husband heard we attributed to rats ; his stick never whistled through the air ; he simply took the stick to frighten mice or rats away.

Mabel Smith, the Rector's wife in annotation to a copy of MHHE p48 HBR

I state emphatically that I saw enormous rats in the place, and am sure these were responsible for bell-ringing and many noises attributed to the supernatural ; they would scratch the boards. The house had been empty for a long time, and rats had taken up abode in kitchens and cupboards.

Mabel Smith, the Rector's wife in Signed statement p47 HBR

A well-fed adult rat is a fearsome beast, almost the size of a small cat. They can cause strange scratching sounds as they chew convenient holes in woodwork, or scrabble about behind the skirting boards

I, too, heard the scratching at the drawing room window but we both thought it was some animal, or RATS. I have seen a big rat sitting on its haunches licking its paws, so how can people say there were no rats?????

Mabel Smith, the Rector's wife in annotations of MHHE p48 HBR

I've heard them racing along in the roof space above a passageway sounding like the ghost of a whole choir of nuns. With a cat in enthusiastic pursuit, the cacophony would be startling. I once had a peculiar experience where I had the impression of being followed down a dark attic corridor. I could hear a strange whispery scratching, like the ghastly rattle of a soul in torment. I was baffled by the presence, which followed me wherever I went. It was only when I heard a familiar mewing that I realised it was my pet neutered Tom cat in the roof space above the corridor who had been diverted from his pursuit of nourishing mice to pay me his respects. This sort of thing was going on at Borley Rectory. In one of the letters by Mrs Smith, the rectors wife, to Miss Kaye, Harry Price's secretary, she advised her when next she came down, to 'spend a night in the attics with a ferret or a dog!; The next incumbent had two cats, one of which had the misfortune to get caught in a rat-trap in the house.

A friend of mine had an alarming experience whilst billeted in an old East Anglian country house just after the war. He woke up in the night in his huge antique bed to feel something pressing on his chest, like some ghastly disembodied hand. He put out his arm, thinking, maybe, it was a cat, only to touch a gigantic rat!

A famous haunting at Chale Rectory, in the Isle of Whight in 1940 turned out to have been entirely caused by rats. Rev Sinclair and his wife arrived at the rectory to hear stories of 'the driving into the yard at midnight of a carriage and pair, which was said to have been heard, but not seen, on many occasions.' The were amazed to hear jingling as of harness, creaks, clangings, grinding and jarring sounds and a 'rather stagey horses-hooves noise' of a somewhat 'coconutty' quality. They were also perplexed by 'unseen hands' knocking objects off shelves, stealthy footsteps on landings, 'cold spots'. After laying down rat poison, all phenomena ceased

An incident described by Hugh Barratt (in the book 'A Good Living') whilst working on a farm nearby at Justices Hall, describes well the frightening rat migrations that occur in farming country like Borley

Leaving by the back door I noticed a rat run along the low garden wall and I thought, casually, that rats weren't often seen there. As I opened the loose box door there was a scurry of feet and two rats shot across the floor to hide behind the feed bin. Another ran up the wall and onto the rafters. Several more tried to get past me and out into the yard; one went under the door. It would not have been unusual to see one or two rats in that box, but half a score was unprecedented. And what struck me was that these rats didn't know their way round. They were not skipping along the normal well-trodden routes, but were plainly confused. They were strangers: aliens.

I got on with the milking but with my head pressed into the cow's flank rats appeared and disappeared across my field of vision. 1 was finishing stripping the last drops into the pail when Pinnock stuck his head round the door. 'Th'ole dawg ha' killed hell know how many rats. They're everywhere. Buggers even in th'oil shed. I dussent hardly go into the barn. We'll hatta do suthin quick!'

I carried the milk indoors and returned to have a look. Pinnock had not exaggerated. Truly the rats were everywhere: we were infested. You couldn't move sack or bag, empty or full, without at least one rat jumping out in search of safety. By eight o'clock Pinnock and I and his dog had killed scores, but it was terribly clear that for every one we slaughtered there were ten more left.

More drastic measures would have to be taken so I sent word to the village that anyone with a good ratter or even without would be welcome to join the fray. 1 told Euan what was afoot but he declined to assist, saying he was frightened of rats. (So was I, and so I am even now.)

For the rest of the day six men, a horde of kids and heaven knows how many dogs killed and killed, first round the buildings, barn, yards and pens and then up in the paddocks. How many? Hundreds for sure, perhaps a thousand. (They were gathered in heaps but no one was keen to count them.) By next morning the great mass had gone. There was the odd 'stranger' and the normal locals' but the rest had vanished.

We used to have the most glorious bats in our house. The previous owner of the house used to be a 'weekender' from London who did not appreciate sharing the house with wildlife. The bats lived in the roofspace above the kitchen and bothered nobody. Unfortunately they prospered to the point where one got caught in the flue of the Aga cooking stove and fell dead down the flue onto the hotplate just when the 'townie' wife was preparing to cook stew. Sadly, their nesting holes were blocked off.

'I have gone upstairs in the dark at Borley and watched in the supposed Haunted Room and looked from the windows, and the result has been always 'Nil'—only bats and the scratching sometimes of rats.

Mrs Smith Signed Statement HBR p47

Price shows up how unfamiliar he actually was with Borley Rectory when he says 'And as for rats or mice, during my investigation of the Rectory, on no occasion have I seen or heard the slightest indication of these rodents. And never once has any observer, to my knowledge, mentioned rats. After all, there was little to attract a rat—or even a mouse—especially when the place was empty!' (MHH, p. 62). They'd certainly mentioned the mice. One of Price's band of observers, Mr Kerr-Pearse, reported to him on 26 June 1937, 'Found many traces of mice in cup- boards which contained old pieces of paper in them. This might have misled people [regarding small noises heard]. Noticed that many of the bell wires run along rafters of attics. Could mice or rats have rung bells... ?'. Mr C. Gordon Glover, another observer reported that a 'thing we particularly noticed was the large number of mouse marks—drop- pings and so on—in various parts of the house.' Mr Glanville and Mr H. G. Harrison 'Heard faint "scrabbling" sounds outside which we attributed to the activities of mice.' (15 August 1937). Dr P. E. Ryberg, R. M. Christie, and L. G. Cooper mentioned 'No sounds of un- explained origin were heard-----Mice were heard ravaging in some boxes under the table. Gnawed paper was found in these boxes. . . . Mice were seen to scuttle around . . .' (8 December 1937)

Actually, Price certainly knew about the problems of rats at Borley Rectory, as he himself had noted 'There are rats in the house, and toads, frogs, newts etc. in the cellars' (Harry Price visit notes 12 June 1929)

It is not only mammals that can make their presence felt. We have an old tiled roof, which starlings use to nest in. They burrow in between the tiles and the lath-and-plaster work to build their nest, and the scrabbling sounds are weird, particularly when listened to at night after a deep sleep. A letter from Mr Smith to Harry Price dated 18 March 1930 tells Price that on entering the rectory 'about full moon, we heard the most horrible sounds in the house'. Mabel Smith later recalled that they later found this was caused by a bird that had got locked into one of the rooms and it made 'horrible sounds' with its wings flapping. It had, one assumes, dropped down the chimney.

Screech Owls are beautiful creatures, and we are proud to play host to them, but we have to warn our more nervous guests who come from London for a restful weekend in the country, because their sound in the dead of night is quite scary, particularly if they give voice just outside the house. Even the hedgehogs can give voice in remarkable ways and are evidently noisy during their mating process. Insects can make spooky noises, particularly the death-watch beetle, which drills into wood with a sepulchral tapping. They love rotten wood. Rotting wood can cause its own phenomena, especially if it is dry rot. The wood loses all its strength and the resulting slow collapse of the structure can produce unpleasant creaking sounds. I am told by the plumber that used to maintain Borley Rectory's pump that dry-rot was rife behind a window in the courtyard. However, it is so rare in East Anglia's dry climate that I feel sure it was Wet Rot.

Large buildings can generate wierd acoustic effects, where noises made at a distance can sound clearly as if made close up. This was particularly true of Borley Rectory where a later extension to the Rectory caused strange effects. Sounds in Borley Rectory's enclosed courtyard, and in the nearby cottage, echoed loudly inside the rectory. This was noticed by Canon Lawton and his wife in 1933 when he was resident there. When their children were playing in the courtyard and the then empty cottage their cries echoed strongly in parts of the rectory as if they were actually there. In 1937, Major Douglas-Home, one of Harry Price's observers, stated in his notes that the footsteps of the occupants of the cottage were clearly audible in rooms in the rectory or sounded as if they were in the rectory corridor, when they were actually walking across the courtyard.

Owing to the shape of the courtyard & the position of cottage, every sound made at cottage was magnified at least 5 times in the main house—I verified this—even voices spoken outside the pantry by cottage were strongly heard in the Base [the rectory library] and other rooms'

(undated statement by Major Douglas-Home c. I943

This was corroborated by several of Price's Official Observers (J. Burden's report, December 1937 ; J. M. Bailey's and C. V. Wintour's report, July 1937). Major Douglas Home noted that, whenever the water-level of thew well-tank in the attics was getting low, Mr Arbon used to work the handpump in the covered passage in the courtyard during the night from whence issued 'thumps, groans-galore' and that 'their footsteps were heard in each room of the house as they moved across the courtyard'. He observed that 'Arbon's footsteps (owing to the silence of the rectory) sounded as if they were in the corridor of the house'.

Just beyond the cottage was Mr Payne's farm with a block of piggeries and farm buildings which extended from the west end of the cottage southwards by the side of the rectory to a distance of some seventy yards. As any countryman knows, such buildings can echo to strange bangs, taps, rustlings and screams, all magnified by the unnatural ampitheatre that was created by the strange service wings of the rectory. This unfortunate architectural mistake seems to have caused the light in the 'schoolroom', reported by many of the residents and observers. The mysterious light in the schoolroom happened only when the curtains had gone and doors were left open

I proved that the lights seen [in the rectory window] were but reflections of light on Vita glass viz., lights lit in the landing over the kitchen, would show through to the windows opposite to the courtyard ; this gave a reflection of double lights in the room we called the Schoolroom

Mabel Smith, the Rector's wife in annotations of MHHE p48 HBR

The gardener, Herbert Mayes, was more and more curious about this light and eventually decided that it was caused when the tenant in the cottage got up in the night to work the pump that pumped the well water into the well-tank in the roof of the rectory.  Mr Arbon, like all previous tenants, used to hang up their duplex lamp so they could see what they were doing and the light shone through the passage and out of the schoolroom window.