…the credence in the phenomena of Spiritualism is very general. In fact, it is popular. Belief is common. It is widespread. It exists amongst all sorts of people, from the highest to the lowest. You find it in Mayfair and you find it in the remotest village.
from ‘The Popularity of Spiritualism,’ The Globe, 29 December 1919
By the end of 1919, belief in Spiritualism was ‘spreading like wildfire.’ Spiritualism is defined as a relatively modern religion that is based on the beliefs that the spirits of the dead exist, and both have the inclination and the ability to communicate with the living. And as Edward Cecil observes in an article for The Globe, 29 December 1919, with the 1920s approaching, belief in Spiritualism was ‘rampant amongst women, and it [was] getting a hold upon men.’
By 1921, a journalist writing for the Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin Review explains how ‘Spiritualism has…been gaining more converts every day,’ leading ‘many eminent men…to investigate its mysteries.’
This was the beginning of the 1920s Spiritualism revival. And in this special blog, using newspapers taken from The Archive, we shall seek to understand the phenomenon of the Spiritualism revival in the United Kingdom during the 1920s, and how it gained such popularity, with advocates across the country and across social classes.
‘The Ringing of A Psychic Bell’
In early 1920 the nation was captivated by a so-called ‘Haunted House’ in Aberdeen, 1 Gordon Place. The house, which was lived in by a Mr Urquhart, his wife and son, had been subject to ‘alarming noises in the walls and floors,’ which had prompted an investigation by local spiritualists, as reports the Aberdeen Press and Journal.
The mystery of the knockings, after a séance, was soon solved ‘to the satisfaction of the spiritualists.’ The Aberdeen Press and Journal tells the remarkable story of what unfolded at 1 Gordon Place, as the séance began:
…the medium passed under the control of an Irish guide, which has frequently influenced her before, and about this time last year was a regular visitor to seances in Aberdeen. We asked the guide if he could account in any way for the disturbances which have been taking place, and he said, ‘Sure and bedad, I’ll do my best.’ Continuing in his Irish brogue, he described minutely the presence in the room, of the spirit of an old man, who was in a most agitated state and was walking round and round the apartment.
Immediately, Mr Urquhart ‘recognised the manifestation as his father.’ His father, a commercial traveller, had died some six years before. And on his death bed, he had been calling for his son, but had passed away before he was able to deliver his final message.
Meanwhile, the Irish guide had left the medium, and the room was still. That was, until, Mr Urquhart’s son John, who had been sleeping, sat up and suddenly said:
Oh! Daddy, daddy. I ken what is noo; it’s gradda to tell you to take care of grandma…
As the Aberdeen Press and Journal relates, the atmosphere in the room ‘had changed,’ and everyone present became ‘certain that no further knockings would take place,’ now that Mr Urquhart senior had finally delivered his pressing message.
The article went on to remark how:
The manifestation proves the theory of Sir A. Conan Doyle that the knockings are just the ringing of a psychic telephone bell, and that once the message is delivered, the summons of the spirit will cease.
With such proponents as renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it was little wonder that spiritualism was gaining widespread credence. Mr and Mrs Urquhart were converted, stating that after the séance they had become ‘convinced Spiritualists.’ And as Edward Cecil remarked for The Globe, ‘every convert to Spiritualism is more or less an enthusiast. An enthusiastic convert spreads his own enthusiasm.’
‘Is it Josephine?’
As belief in Spiritualism grew, aided by such advocates as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and those like Mr and Mrs Urquhart, the press reported on more and more remarkable happenings from séances across the country.
In July 1921, the Dundee Courier reported on a ‘Mystery Light‘ at a séance, which was conducted by Ada Bessinet (1890-1936), an American spiritualist medium. At the séance, which was held in London, was one Ernest Duxbury, who related his extraordinary experience.
He told the press, how, during the course of the proceedings:
I clearly distinguished a face, and a form draped in white, extending to about the waist. This was also seen by other sitters. Then I felt myself being touched, this being the indication that someone wished to speak to me. The light lit up for a few seconds, and I saw distinctly a pallid feminine face, looking as though asleep. I could not, however, recognise it, and said so. Several of the sitters stated that it was the face of a beautiful young lady.
This went beyond the knocking experienced in the Aberdeen house. Here was a physical manifestation, that could actually be seen by sitters, that was somehow able to touch, and make contact from what was supposedly the other world.
Duxbury, meanwhile, as he took in the extraordinary events unfolding around the table, had his own hunch about what was going on. Leaning forward, he asked:
Is it Josephine?
A ‘weak voice’ answered him – ‘Yes.’ But who was Josephine? Duxbury explained:
The ‘Josephine’ I had in mind was a beautiful girl who died twenty-seven years ago, at the age of 25. I never knew or saw her in life, and only chanced to see a photograph of her about three days before the seance. I have known her only surviving sister for many years, who had told me a great deal about her sister Josephine.
And this report, as detailed in the Dundee Courier, contains no modicum of doubt, no questions over the veracity of Duxbury’s tale. What occurred at séances now filled newspaper columns as news, and were reported on alongside all the other news stories of the day. But not everybody approved, nor believed in Spiritualism, and were quick to attack and resist its surge in popularity.
‘As Old As Man Himself’
Criticism of the Spiritualism movement mainly stemmed from different Christian denominations, and such criticisms were also aired in the newspapers of the time. For example, the Reverend J. Hutler gave a sermon at the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Malmesbury, which was reported on in the North Wilts Herald, January 1920, just a week after the Aberdeen case had been ‘solved.’
Hutler pronounced how Spiritualism was ‘one of the most dangerous practices and beliefs it was possible for the human mind to indulge in,’ warning of how mediums and séances ‘constituted a gigantic swindle.’
He went on to observe how:
Popular spiritualism was no new thing. It was as old as man himself, and was a very ancient doctrine of deception and distorted imagination.
Indeed, Spiritualism in its 1920s format was no new thing, as the Reverend Herbert Thurston told listeners in Edinburgh in a talk entitled ‘Spiritualism – Its Fruits and Fallacies:’
…he gave an interesting account of the history of the modern spiritualistic movement, which, he said, was founded in 1848 by two sisters named Fox, who lived in a little homestead at Hydeville, in America, and indicated how from the very beginning it had been a fraud with no truth in it.
Indeed, the Fox sisters, Margaretta and Leah, had managed to convince the world with their ‘rappings’ that they were able to communicate with the dead, precipitating the Spiritualism movement. However, many years later, Margaretta admitted that their ‘rappings’ were a hoax, and the sisters died in poverty. It was no wonder, then, that the clergy were warning of the dangers of deceptions and falsehoods in the world of Spiritualism.
Speaking alongside Thurston, as reports The Scotsman in March 1920, was Roman Catholic Bishop G. Graham, who attributed the rise of Spiritualism to stories like the one about Josephine, which had appeared in the Dundee Courier:
There had also been manifest a love of the novel and sensational, which was the most attractive and popular side of spiritualism. Nothing more ridiculous than the drivel that appeared in the Sunday journals on this subject could be conceived…
The love of the novel and sensational was, however, by no means a new thing, if we take into account the penny dreadfuls of the Victorian era, and the ongoing popularity of the eminently salacious Illustrated Police News.
There was something much deeper at play in the revival of the Spiritualism movement, which some put down to the decline in organised religion. As Edward Cecil observes for The Globe:
There is a vogue of the spiritualistic because there is a slump in the spiritual… People who really believe in God do not need Spiritualism. Their belief in God is sufficient.
Bishop Graham also attributed the popularity of Spiritualism to the ‘great decline in real religion.’ But why this decline in faith? And why fill the void with Spiritualism? Four words – the First World War – which was then known as The Great War, the war to end all wars.
‘These Desolating Years’
In February 1920, as the Spiritualism movement was flourishing, the Bishop of Durham, Dr. Moule, addressed a congregation in Gateshead regarding ‘the growing popularity of spiritualism.’ As the Evening Mail reports, the congregation ‘contained many who had lost relatives in the war.’
The Bishop, in his address, told them how:
…in these desolating years many had lost those whom they loved, and were hungering for contact with them. This accounted in part for the great spread of spiritualistic beliefs and ideas.
The First World War had devastated families across Britain. Every town and village had lost someone to the war, fathers, sons, husbands had all perished, with one million deaths attributed to the conflict across the British Empire. And following that was the hammer blow of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which killed over 220,000 people in Britain during the years 1918 and 1919.
Britain was a population dealing with loss, and an unprecedented loss at that. It was no wonder that people were losing their faith, and turning elsewhere for comfort, and a chance to be reunited with the loved ones they would never see again. As Dr. Moule profoundly put it, many were ‘hungering’ for such contact.
Bishop Graham, as reports The Scotsman, agreed with this assessment:
…another contributing cause has been the great bereavements which many thousands of people had suffered during the war. Their mentality had been seriously disturbed by the events of the last few years, and this disorganisation of the mental faculty and the neurotic condition of the mind had been the most fruitful field in which the practice might take root and flourish.
People were vulnerable, in ways they had never been before, to the suggestion that contact with the departed might somehow be made. The Reverend T.J. James, addressing the Wycliffe Congregation Church in Warrington, was critical of such suggestibility, condemning ‘the pathetic side to the eagerness with which people are buying up what Sir Conan Doyle can tell them about immortality.’
The St. Helens Examiner in October 1920 goes on to relate how James believed that the Book of Revelation was enough to provide answers about the after life, with its ‘more poetic imagination and strength of beauty.’ But for many, this was just not enough.
‘I Shall Be There on Armistice Day – With Multitudes of the Boys’
The First World War had ravaged a generation, and for the people left behind, they entered the 1920s trying to somehow rebuild their lives, as well as mourning and remembering their dead.
Spiritualism, in many cases, offered these people comfort. And newspapers from the time illustrate the power and potential of this comfort, as they provide instances where contact had been made with those killed during the conflict.
One of these instances was related by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the Royal Albert Hall. He related how contact had been made with a soldier from the 7th Division, following a ‘solemn religious service to commemorate the part taken by the first seven divisions in the war.’ Conan Doyle, as reports the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, told of how:
The leader of the séance asked the spirit, ‘Have you anything…to say?’ and the reply was, ‘There was too much ceremony. All of us felt out of it.’
The séance leader then asked:
Were most of those who passed away in the seven divisions there?
And the spirit of the soldier then replied: ‘Yes, they were there.’
The Sheffield Evening Telegraph goes on to record Conan Doyle’s description of a ‘good Spiritualist,’ who was a ‘brave Army Commander.’ He was able to communicate with his ‘vanished men,’ who:
…told them not to mourn, because that was the one thing that cast a cold cloud upon their perfect happiness. The spirits also asked them not to regard the vanished as things forgotten and done with, but as still in the family circle.
That was exactly it – Spiritualism allowed those who had died in the war to stay within the family circle – and this is illustrated by an article in the Daily News (London), which was published in January 1921.
The headings for the article read – ‘Dead Soldier’s Spirit – Lady Glenconner on Her Son’s ‘Messages’ – ‘A Happy Glow in the Family Circle’’ – immediately reveal the comfort that Spiritualism was able to afford. Lady Glenconner’s eldest son, Edward Wyndham Tennant, known as ‘Bim,’ was in the 4th Grenadier Guards and ‘fell in the Battle of the Somme.’
Having made contact with her deceased son, using a series of ‘book-tests,’ Lady Glenconner then published her experiences in a book entitled The Earthen Vessel. The so-called ‘book tests’ were conducted under the auspices of ‘professional medium’ Mrs Gladys Osborne Leonard, in which, whilst she was in a trance and guided by the spirit of her great-great grandmother, inquirers were ‘directed…to passages in certain books.’ It was, apparently, ‘impossible for her to have known’ the position of these books.
And these passages espoused great meaning to Bim’s family, the Daily News writing how ‘In each case the passage was recognised as having some distinct personal application.’ The newspaper went on to depict the ‘family circle’ upon a receipt of one of these messages:
To attempt to describe the happy glow in the hearts of Bim’s family circle when this Book-Message was read would be in cold print impossible. There are, however, moments well known to all to which it may be likened: when a wished-for letter arrives; when a door swings open and a treasured presence is before one…Laughter runs from lip to lip, and eyes speak contentment. Such a moment was theirs now, they were happy; and it was Bim, as of old, who had cheered them.
It was Bim, a beloved son, brother, who had cheered them. And it was little wonder, then, that Spiritualism had gained a foothold in British society, with the comfort it was able to offer to those who had been so bereaved, who had lost a generation of sons.
And when Earl Haig, the leader of the British forces in France, died in 1928, he had a message that was delivered at the Royal Albert Hall by the Reverend Vale Owen. This message had been received during a séance in Dundee, as relates the Sheffield Daily Telegraph:
Tell the people I shall be there on the Armistice Morning great meeting – with multitudes of the boys.
And it must have been of some great comfort, to think that those fallen soldiers who were set to be commemorated on 11 November would be amongst those who mourned them. And so, whilst the Spiritualism revival of the 1920s profited from doses of sensationalism, peeling behind the headlines it is possible to uncover the profound sorrow that fed into the movement, of a longing to feel close to those who were gone far too soon.
Find out more about the Spiritualism movement, the 1920s, the First World War and so much more by browsing the pages of our extensive newspaper Archive here.