The Society for Psychical Research at the Outbreak of War

Investigating the Paranormal During the First World War

All of these strange signs and portents did not go unnoticed. The popular press reported some of them, the Spiritualist press almost all of them. Nor did they go uninvestigated. At the outbreak of the First World War there already existed an organisation for the investigation of what we would call the paranormal nowadays: the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Founded in 1882 at the instigation of physicist Professor Sir William Fletcher Barrett and journalist Edmund Dawson Rogers, the Society was now in its thirty-second year.

By the time war was declared, many of the most important original members – Henry Sidgwick (d. 1900), Frederic Myers (d. 1901), Edmund Gurney (d. 1888) and Frank Podmore (d.1910) – were dead, but by no means forgotten. Not all of the initial wave of investigators had passed beyond the veil that shrouded their research interests, but, more importantly, the Society’s scientific approach had found favour among an intellectual, cultural and aristocratic elite that ensured its continued existence.

Society for Psychical  Research Votes for German President

In 1914, there were 1,212 members of the SPR and we find them engaged in their usual activities. They had voted in the German-born philosopher Dr Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller to take over from the French philosopher Henri Bergson as President, and had re-elected and co-opted familiar names to the Council.

Eleanor Sidgwick, widow of Henry Sidgwick, former Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and former President of the Society, was Honorary Secretary. She shared the position with the Honourable Everard Feilding, second son of the late Rudolph Feilding, 8th Earl of Denbigh. One of Eleanor Sidgwick’s brothers, the Right Hon. Gerald Balfour (later 2nd Earl Balfour), was also on the Council and a Vice-President – another of her brothers was the former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (1st Earl Balfour), he was also a Vice-President of the Society.

Also on the Council was the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge. He was another dominating figure and much of the history of the Society during the war years revolves around his activities. Winifred Coombe Tennant described him as ‘wonderfully tall and large, like a lion’, although the SPR’s Research Officer, Alice Johnson, thought him ‘credulous’.

The Great and the Good on the Society’s Council

Other members of the Council were equally important and well-connected. They included the Nobel-winning physicist John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, former President of the Royal Society and member of the Privy Council; the Revd Matthew Albert Bayfield, Classical scholar, clergyman and headmaster, who acted in an unofficial role as the Society’s padre; the Right Revd Bishop Boyd Carpenter was also a Vice-President (he had been President in 1912); the political scientist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson; the writer and politician Ernest Bennett, later Sir (he was knighted in 1930), then a Fellow of Pembroke College; the Classical scholar Professor Gilbert Murray – he would become President of the SPR for 1915 and 1916; and the philosopher L. P. Jacks, then a Professor at Manchester College, Oxford – he would serve as President in 1917 and 1918.

The Polish medium Stanislawa Tomczyk had been invited to the UK by the Council and a special committee was formed to investigate her claims, involving Everard Feilding, W. W. Baggally, Eleanor Sidgwick, Helen Verrall, Dr Woolley, and two of Feilding’s friends, Mr S. Cowper-Coles (photographic expert) and Mark Barr (electrical expert). The medium was in poor health and not all of the séances were successful, despite that the committee witnessed what appeared to be the levitation of a small ball. No fraud was detected; however, they decided that the results were inconclusive.

Sir William Barrett was involved in the investigation of a supposedly haunted house in Worcestershire. Eleanor Sidgwick was researching the medium Mrs Piper’s ‘trance phenomena’. The Society’s Research Officer and Editor, Alice Johnson, began the year by publishing ‘A Reconstruction of Some “Concordant Automatisms”’. The Society’s young Assistant Research Officer, Helen Verrall, was also working on the Icelandic Seer Case (that of so-called ‘Dreaming Joe’).

Did the Society for Psychical Research have Forewarning of the Great War?

There was no particular indication that members of the SPR were any better informed than the general public as to the coming crisis and terrible catastrophe of the Great War. And the question the SPR asked itself at the time was why, given the vast scale of the slaughter, were there not more cases of supposedly supernatural phenomena? The short answer is, there were, if only the Society had cared to look.

It was only after the declaration of war – or even after the end of the war – that pieces of earlier puzzles began to be put together. The more involved members of the Society at that time were much concerned with the so-called cross-correspondences – a series of cryptic psychic messages from different mediums that only made sense when considered as a whole and were taken as possible evidence of communication from deceased members of the SPR. Among these communications there were several that appeared in retrospect to have predicted the war. But the analysis that revealed all this was only published in 1923.

More Supernatural Stories from World War I

The Woman Who Solved the Angels of Mons

Controversy surrounding the Angels of Mons legend prompted the Society for Psychical Research to launch an investigation. Assistant Research Officer Helen Woollgar de Gaudrion Verrall (later Salter) was given the task of collecting and weighing the evidence in the case of the alleged angels at the Battle of Mons: had it been a supernatural intervention to save the British Expeditionary Force, or had it been something else?

When Rupert Brooke Returned from the War

War Poet Rupert Brooke died during the First World War. The mystic Aelfrida Tillyard claimed to have paranormal experiences in which she was visited by his ghost or spirit in dreams and received communications allegedly from Brook via automatic writing.