Shortly after the death of Harry Price in 1948, the SPR commissioned two of its most experienced researchers, Mollie Goldney and Eric Dingwall, to make a reappraisal of the evidence pertaining to the haunting of Borley Rectory, Price's most famous case. It was a formidable task, requiring the taking of statements from people who had been involved with the phenomena, and a close inspection of the vast amount of written material residing in the Harry Price Library. Both researchers were getting on in years, so it is not surprising that, when they were approached with an offer of help from a much younger man, they responded gratefully.
The younger man was Trevor Henry Hall, and it was largely due to his participation that the ensuing 'Borley Report' came down so heavily on Price. The famous researcher was accused of downright dishonesty in reporting and even the deliberate faking of phenomena (Dingwall, Goldney & Hall, 1956). In the years that followed Hall wrote a series of books and articles 'debunking' the findings of deceased psychical researchers, often making unpleasant insinuations about their personal lives. The books were heavily criticised by reviewers for the poor quality of their scholarship and the lack of justification for many of their assumptions. In later years both Dingwall and Goldney severed their relationships with Hall, believing that he had gone too far.
The 'Hastings Report' of 1969 went a long way towards exonerating Price of the charges of fraud at Borley, but it also provoked a furious response from Trevor Hall. His Search for Harry Price, published in 1978, must be one of the most spiteful books ever written. Once again, it included much that was speculative or under-researched. Hall even got the wrong name for the papermaking firm where Price worked for most of his adult life. There was no attempt to contact Price's surviving relatives, who were understandably incensed by the publication of Hall's book.
Knowing something of this long and depressing story, I was delighted when Richard Morris told me that he had been commissioned to write a new biography of Price. I thought that at last we might get a scholarly and genuinely unbiased account of Price's character and achievements. Alas, a mere glance at the summary of the contents of this book on the dust cover showed me how mistaken I was.
Perhaps something of the flavour of the book can be gleaned from its references to Eric Dingwall, whom Morris describes as 'Dirty Ding'. Now I am aware that this appellation was around during Dingwall's lifetime, but I would
have thought that, in this post-Kinsey age, most mature people would have grown out of the juvenile attitude which stigmatises any interest in human sexuality as 'dirty'. Dingwall was, in fact, a fine scholar who made important contributions in several academic fields. To label him in this contemptuous way is, I feel, unkind and unfair to the memory of one of the SPR's most distinguished members (for an appraisal of Dingwall, see Gauld, 1987; MacKenzie, 1987; Playfair,1987; West, 1987).
When it comes to the sexual life of Harry Price there is almost no surviving evidence, so Morris is able to give his imagination free rein. He portrays Price as a serial womaniser keeping "a string of mistresses" on the money donated by generous supporters of his National Laboratory of Psychical Research (p.212). Morris names three of the women he thinks were involved: Lucy Kay, Mollie Goldney and Stella Cranshaw. He suggests that Price was the father of Lucy Kay's illegitimate son (p.110) and that Price paid for Stella Cranshaw to have an illegal abortion, using money gained by stealing and selling his own coin collection, then on exhibit in Pulborough Parish Church (p.69). Needless to say, Morris produces not a shred of evidence for any of these grotesque assertions.
Relentlessly pursuing his hatchet job, Morris suggests that Price was somehow involved in the notorious Piltdown forgery of 1913 (p.32). His 'evidence' for this consists of the fact that Dawson, the reputed forger, belonged to the same archaeological society as Price. Morris also suggests that Price tipped off the police to launch a raid on the premises of the London Spiritualist Alliance, in revenge for a dispute over his tenancy of the upper floor of their building (p.110). Again, he produces no evidence for this assertion.
Of the numerous attacks on Price's reputation in this book, perhaps the nastiest is the assertion that he was involved with the Nazis and approved of their practices (p.183 et seq.). It is true that Price had many friends and acquaintances in Germany in the pre-war years, and Morris quotes a letter from Price to Dingwall, dated 29th July 1939, in which Price says he has drafted a letter to Hitler asking for permission to attend the Nuremburg Rally in August, adding "I should very much like to see this spectacle" (p.190). But there is no evidence that the Hitler letter was ever sent, or that Price ever met the dictator. Morris also reproduces a rather sentimental letter from Price to Gerda Walther, which he says he "discovered while researching this book" (p.191). In fact, the same letter was printed in toto by Paul Tabori as long ago as 1950 (Tabori, 1974, p.169), and he evidently saw nothing sinister in it. Tabori made the eminently sensible comment: "Price was no politician, and in the autumn of 1938 millions of Englishmen felt as he did."
Harry Price was an immensely active man who has left behind a vast archive of his activities. He seems to have made no attempt to censor this material but has preserved everything, good and bad. The records include details of his mistakes, injudicious comments and actions, fantasies and foolish excursions. By selecting from the worst of this material, ignoring the best, and putting imaginative reconstructions on what is incomplete or inconclusive, it is easy enough to make Price appear to have been an unmitigated scoundrel.
Morris himself has committed a string of errors which, if they had been committed by Price, would probably have evoked accusations of deliberate
deception or ulterior motivation. For example, Walter Franklin Prince has become 'William' (p.143) and Frederick Bligh Bond has acquired a superfluous hyphen (p.71 and throughout). Ferro-cerium (an alloy used in lighter flints) has become ferro-cerenium (pp. 117, 223). The 'debut edition' of Price's British Journal of Psychical Research is said (p.91) to have a photograph of Stella Cranshaw on the front; I have copies of the first two issues of this journal, and there is no photograph of anyone on the front.
On page 80 Morris writes: "Lord Raleigh (sic), a free thinker and one of the last intellectual giants of the Victorian era (he was a world-famous experimental physicist who had discovered argon - and, incidentally, was the brother-in-law of Eleanor Sidgwick), congratulated Price on his new post." In fact, the discoverer of argon and brother-in-law of Mrs Sidgwick was John William Strutt, third Baron Rayleigh (not Raleigh); he died in 1919 and could not possibly have congratulated Price on his appointment as honorary director of the NLPR in 1925. Morris has probably confused him with his son, the fourth Baron, who became President of the SPR in 1937. I would not bother to mention these errors if Morris had not been so unforgiving about every little inaccuracy of Price's; but I believe that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
Morris tells us that his book is not about psychical research as such, but that his aim has been "to understand Harry Price and his complex personality" (p.xvi). In reality, he has swallowed completely the image of Price presented by Trevor Hall and has interpreted all the events of Price's life against that background. Anything which might be regarded as favourable to Price's reputation has been played down or ignored. Price's sterling work for the British Film Institute gets a mere two sentences, and his church work in Pulborough is ignored altogether (the vicar, George Royle, called Price "a man of complete integrity", and Bishop Bell of Chichester made a special address to the Parochial Church Council on Price's death, describing him in glowing terms). There is no mention of Price's concern for animal welfare (he campaigned against the use of animals in conjuring displays) nor is there any reference to his numerous kindnesses to other people. Paul Tabori reproduces a letter from a mother expressing gratitude for Price's kindness to her daughter, dying in a sanatorium; Renée Haynes, one-time Editor of this Society's journal, often spoke appreciatively of Price's kindness in helping her to check references (Haynes, 1982, p.146). All of these might have had the effect of modifying the harsh portrait of Price presented in this book.
Although Morris says that he is not concerned with psychical research as such, he nevertheless gives brief descriptions of all the most important cases studied by Price. In each case he manages to imply fraud, without specifying how the fraud was done. The Borley Report of 1956 is now widely recognised as a flawed document, but Morris accepts its conclusions as axiomatic, dismissing the Hastings Report of 1969 in a single sentence: "it failed to excuse Price's behaviour" (p.213). Morris even manages to accuse the Rev. A. C. Henning, Rector of Borley with Liston from 1936 to 1955, of flagrantly lying about the paranormal phenomena at the rectory in order to sell the house (p.195). Needless to say, Morris provides no evidence for an assertion which, if his victim were still alive, would certainly lead to a court action.
It so happens that a few years ago I undertook a detailed examination of one
of Price's best cases: the mediumship of Stella Cranshaw (Randall, 2001). I discovered hidden patterns in the data which had not been noticed by Price, and I came to the conclusion that the phenomena could not be explained by fraud, either on the part of Price alone or by Price and Stella in collusion. The simplistic dismissal of all Price's work as fraudulent does not do justice to the surviving evidence.
Richard Morris has done a huge amount of archival research and has uncovered details of Price's life which have eluded other researchers. His account of Price's early life is particularly informative and well written. He has corrected many of Trevor Hall's errors (such as the assertion that Mrs Price was a rich heiress). Unfortunately he has also imbibed the general spirit of Hall's writing, which has led him to present a one-sided portrayal of his subject.
Morris makes only a brief mention of Anita Gregory's monumental study of the Rudi Schneider case (p.170), but I think her assessment of Price's general character is superior to his. Gregory did much to expose Price's mendacious politicking with other organisations, and she certainly thought he had faked one of the Schneider photographs. Yet her assessment of Price's character was not wholly negative. She wrote (Gregory, 1985, 139-140):
Sadly, I have to say that if anyone wants a fair, balanced and objective account of Harry Price and his psychical work they should turn to Tabori, not Hall or Morris. The definitive biography of Price has yet to be written.
Dingwall, E .J., Goldney, K. M., and Hall, T. H. (1956) The Haunting of Borley Rectory. ProcSPR 51, 1-181.
Gauld, A. (1987) Recollections of E. J. Dingwall. JSPR 54, 230-237.
Gregory, A. (1985) The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider. Metuchen, NJ and London: The Scarecrow Press.
Hall, T. H. (1978) Search for Harry Price. London: Duckworth.
Hastings, R. J. (1969). An examination of the 'Borley Report'. ProcSPR 55, 66-175.
Haynes, R. (1982) The Society for Psychical Research 1882-1982: A History. London: Macdonald & Co.
MacKenzie, A. (1987) Further tribute to Eric Dingwall. JSPR 54, 166.
Playfair, G. L. (1987) Further tribute to Eric Dingwall. JSPR 54, 163-166.
Randall, J. L. (2001) The mediumship of Stella Cranshaw: a statistical investigation. JSPR 65, 38-46.
Tabori, P. (1974) Harry Price: The Biography of a Ghost-Hunter. London: Sphere Books Limited. [First published 1950]
West, D. J. (1987) Obituary. JSPR 54, 92-95.
© John L. Randall 2007 & reproduced with the author's permission.
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