‘There are more things in heaven & earth…’a response to my piece on Spiritualism in the Great War

mediumdoyle

Today I welcome a post from Ian Stevenson, who contacted me following my recent post about spiritualism and the First World War, a subject I cover in Shell Shocked Britain.  Ian is a counsellor and a member of the Scientific and Medical Network with expertise in the history of the period and a long standing interest in the subject. He offers the view that some of those offering support to the bereaved could have had a genuine gift. Is he right?  Is it true that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…..’? I would love to hear your views…

I would like to give another side to the idea that people were taken in by frauds which is what links on Wikipedia and other internet sites relating to spiritualism during and after the First World War, suggest.

The Great War of 1914-18 created a number of revolutions; political, technical and social. One of them was the growing interest in non-Christian religions and the decline in church attendance. The huge number of war dead meant many families were in mourning and looking for comfort and answers. Spiritualism attracted a wide range of followers although it is probably true to say that women played a greater part than in most other churches and most members were ‘working class’. The church and the scientific world largely dismissed or ridiculed it. After all, they knew best.

PC3-00bOne of its chief supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for Sherlock Holmes, who wrote a book  ‘
The Land of Mist’ in which a young reporter (who first appeared in the story “The Lost World” ) and his female friend investigate Spiritualism. Doyle included a number of incidents which had a factual basis. In one chapter he has them going to the laboratory of a French investigator who he admits in the notes at the end, is based on Professor Richet, the Nobel Prize winner (he was a physiologist who worked on allergies among other things) who was involved in psychic research for thirty years.

In his book, Doyle has a character that pretends to be a medium and is portrayed as a ‘bad guy’. His brother in the story, a real medium, is sentenced to a term in prison for fortune telling. This is the other side of the coin. A friend recently told me told me that as a little girl she had to watch out for policemen when her mother was having a séance. Those attending a middle class séance had no such worries.

There is little doubt that many people did-and do- attain comfort from the Spiritualist churches which tend to be informal and welcoming. We need to distinguish between them and the ‘sole trader’ medium or clairvoyant who takes money. The years after 1918 were hard for many people and some may have tried to cash in, the ‘frauds’ referred to. However, I have come across many people who go to a medium and are given facts which are correct and often obscure.

Some skeptics might dispute this, claiming that this is cold reading. Dr. Gary Schwartz, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry in Arizona, arranged a series of experiments where the mediums could not see or hear the sitters (they could hear a yes/no response in some of the early experiments and in a second part  could ask for feedback) The amount of accurate information is impressive. Schwartz invited stage magician ‘cold readers’ to try to duplicate the work of the mediums in the same conditions. None even tried.

Harry Houdini claimed to expose frauds but he seems to have been on a bit of a mission. I saw a few of his ‘exposures’ recreated on TV and was not convinced. He did talk about ‘genuine mediums’ which suggests a belief in an afterlife. His wife certainly did and there is a signed and witnessed document which says Houdini communicated a code word to her after his death.

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

The accusation often made is that grieving people or those who would like it to be true, have low standards of investigation or are gullible, at least in this respect. The Rev. Drayton Thomas investigated Mrs Osborne Leonard (who sat with Sir Oliver Lodge and Coonan Doyle)as did Lady Troubridge. They didn’t just turn up for an evening or two; they sat with her for years and made meticulous notes and she was never accused of fraud. Mrs Piper, in the USA with whom she is often compared, was investigated for some years by William James, the founder of the modern discipline of Psychology in that country, before he assented to her genuine ability. Wikipedia accounts tend to be hostile and sceptics (Skeptics in the US) tend to write the pages. Sir Oliver Lodge was a Fellow of the Royal Society and not just an ivory tower theoretician. He probably sent the first radio transmission a year before Marconi.

raymondThe Wiki page says ‘sceptics have analysed the mediumship of Mrs Leonard… and auto suggestion was used.’ Having read Raymond (the book written by Sir Oliver Lodge) I find it an amazing suggestion. Read the third section of the book by Sir Oliver in which he deals with questions of scientific method, theology and philosophy, you will see that a charlatan medium impressing her ideas on him and all his family is hardly worth considering. The assertion ‘Raymond’ could not remember the names of the officers with whom he had served, is refuted by looking in the book.

The astronaut Edgar Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic (new) Sciences. The chief Scientist is Dean Radin who got so tired of people saying ‘show me the evidence for the spiritual/ supernatural/paranormal and then maybe I’ll believe it,’ that he complied a list of formal experiments, trials and studies. Google ‘Radin /evidence’ and you will find nine pages of mainly recent peer-reviewed studies. If you want to have an informed debate, this might be a place to start.

If one starts from the view there is no afterlife-like Clodd- then there are only two explanations; one is that the medium is misinterpreting what they see, hear or feel (and may have even good motives) or they out to deceive. As it’s impossible, good results MUST be fraud. In most twentieth century science not only acknowledged matter and energy but quantum physics and dark matter and dark energy have shown the limits of what we thought we knew. There is evidence that consciousness may exist beyond the brain e.g. near death experiences. If we are open-minded it may be that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in some people’s philosophy.

Ian Stevenson

Ian Stevenson

My thanks to Ian, as I am always keen to offer the opportunity to reply to posts I have written. It feels uncomfortable, looking back, to judge whether those drawn to the Spiritualist Church during and after the Great War were duped. After all, for many electricity was still a mystery and radio waves impossible to fathom. Do please comment if you have a view. Ian will be happy to respond.

Posted in Book, Books, First World War, Guest posts, History, Mental health, Reading, Religion, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What shapes us ~ nature, nurture or experience? A novelist’s view

square peg

Today on No Wriggling I am lucky enough to host a guest post from author Vivienne Tuffnell. Vivienne, who wrote for (and inspired the title of) my book, Dandelions & Bad Hair Days, talks here of family history in the broadest sense, and of the process of writing via the characters in her latest novel Square Peg, which offers the wonderful line ‘She’d seen faces like that before, but on the television, in films and in the history books. The faces of fanatics, cold and blind to all reason staring back at her….’ 

It’s a great debate, nature or nurture, when it comes to who we think we are. While we may think we are our own person, that person is shaped both by upbringing and genetics and the experiences we go through in life. As a novelist, the shaping of characters is a curious process, half unconscious and half deliberate and I’d like to think that the fusion of the two has meant I’ve created some memorable folks amid the pages of my novels.

I was asked recently (several times) if Chloe’s grandmother in Square Peg is based on my own grandmother. My answer is that she’s not based on anyone(as such) but she’s probably how I’d like to be seen when I am granny-aged. I’ve also been asked how much of Chloe is me (just as I was asked how much of Isobel in Away With The Fairies is me) and I’d answer that question in the same way: a good deal of me is in her.

Yet Chloe’s Gran and her unconventional upbringing shaped her and brought her to the uncomfortable place she’s in at the start of the novel. Gran was one of those free-spirited women who blazed trails through history yet get almost no acknowledgements for the work they did. Trained as a doctor, she chose to spend her working life amid the poor, oppressed and marginalised people around the world, travelling and finding new challenges in a risky life. At some stage, she met and fell in love with someone whose child she came back to England with. She never saw him again, and returning to her home town and parents, people assumed she’d married while abroad but kept her maiden name for professional reasons. A generation before it would have been a massive scandal and a generation later, something fairly unremarkable, yet at the time the birth of a son out of wedlock was something she needed to keep private. As soon as her son was independent, she left to return to the work she loved, only returning when her son lost his wife in an accident.

In the intervening years, she visited her family and sent presents home, usually gifts that reflected the community she was living in. Chloe and her sister are sent a colourful Pendleton blanket, packed with white sage, suggesting that Gran was living among Native Americans, perhaps acting as doctor on a reservation. The battered sandalwood Buddha that sits on the hearth is another such fixture in Chloe’s home.

Like so many women called upon to care for those who need it, Chloe’s grandmother reluctantly returned but never fully settled into a life of a suburban general practitioner and her restlessness was only assuaged by working with the fringe communities, like Romanies and other travellers. Chloe spent enough time as a child among these communities that she grew to identify unconsciously with the marginalised and the outcasts and not with respectable middle class values of those more expected to be her peer group. She also learned a lot of very dubious skills, like how to fight and use a shotgun. Combined with her plain-speaking grandmother’s influence, who taught tolerance for differences of faith, ideology and race but resistance to blind convention and mealy-mouthed maintenance of a status quo of injustice, Chloe arrives in a place where she’ll be tested to her limits simply to survive without going under or losing integrity by acquiescing to the kind of hypocrisy that would make her grandmother spin in her too-recent grave.

It’s not only her grandmother’s influence that has brought her to this turning point in her life. Her childhood and her student days shaped a woman who is combative and uncompromising, yet her choice of husband has also changed her. Clifford has not tamed her, but rather has seen her wildness as something to cherish. He sees her plain speaking as a virtue; not as the college wives do, as rudeness and a lack of community spirit. He’s not the kind of ordinand who wants or expects his wife to be a stereotypical help-meet, organising prayer groups and baking scones; it would bore him senseless and the spark he has with Chloe would gutter and die if she became meek and conventional.

Chloe isn’t someone who needs a horde of friends, but she does need kindred spirits to keep her from sliding into despair, and she’s lucky to find one in her first year of college who keeps her from the darkness of total isolation. But it’s not until their final year when the anarchic Isobel arrived with her ordinand husband Mickey, and a bond is formed between two square pegs that will endure some terrible times. Isobel is someone better able to walk the line between being outrageous and acceptable. She’s had a bit more practise, swapping from a degree chosen to placate her father to a degree in art to please herself, and somehow keeping it secret long enough to produce work her father can see is potentially a career builder. She’s also able to accept some compromise, cutting off her dreadlocks and removing her piercings before she and Mickey start at college. She sees them as peripherals and not really that important to her identity; she can go ‘plain clothes’ for the duration and not see it as infringing on her core identity. She makes the perfect mole.

Authors sometimes talk about back story, of knowing who your characters are, and how vital that is even if little of the background appears directly on the page. It’s about knowing marrow-deep precisely who they are and how they came to be that way. Chloe inherits her grandmother’s not-inconsiderable intelligence, her red hair and her questioning nature, but perhaps not her tough and resilient hide, impervious to the opinions of most other people. Her time growing up with such a role model taught her not to suffer fools gladly but it’s only experience that teaches how to spot rogues and frauds, and only experience that can teach self preservation in impossible situations.

There’s a saying that the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go, and that’s the one secret that Chloe’s Gran really needed to have taught her.

Vivienne Tuffnell

Vivienne Tuffnell

My sincere thanks to Viv for this post. To read more of her wonderful writing, go to her blog, Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking. Square Peg, as well as her other novels The Bet, Away with the Fairies and Strangers & Pilgrims, and short story collections The Moth’s Kiss and The Wild Hunt are available from Amazon by following the link.

Posted in Book, Books, Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, Family, Family History, Guest posts, Mental health, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In which I write a ‘Romantic reading’ of Keats for The Wordsworth Trust…

Screenshot 2014-05-24 17.25.36(2)Just a quick post to show off  let you know that I have been given what I consider to be a huge honour – a place on The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog on the fabulous Wordsworth Trust website. As part of the ‘Romantic Readings’ series I write about ‘When I have fears…’, a sonnet that has meant much to me ever since I first discovered my love of John Keats’s writing as twelve year old.

Apparently it has gone down well, and judging by some of the discussions on twitter people have been encouraged to think about their own favourite Keats, and why he still has the power to move us almost 200 years on.

Do go over to the website and if you are interested, read my post and then take a look at the others on the site; I feel really proud to be amongst them.  Over the coming weeks there will be a wide variety of other posts by enthusiasts of the Romantic period, discussing the poets, writers and artists who made the decades of the late 18th and early 19th century ones of sublime creativity. You can also follow the blog via the twitter feed @Wordsworthians.

And I have been invited to write another for later in the year. I can’t wait!

P.S. Do comment with your own favourite Keats, either on the site or on here. I always love to hear from fellow Keats admirers…

Posted in History, Keats, Poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Don’t admit weakness to Marie Stopes: Eugenicist, not Feminist

Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes

I have spent many happy hours researching my book Shell Shocked Britain, and have learned many things that turned my long-held beliefs about the war and inter-war period on their head. Not only has this made BBC Drama The Crimson Field impossible to watch without the desire to throw things at the screen and shout ‘it wasn’t like that!’, but it has required me to reassess my views about certain important 20th century historical figures, some of whom I had previously thought admirable.

The greatest surprise came during my work on post war attitudes to those men who came back from the war with psychiatric, rather than physical, wounds. Eugenics, and the discussions about the impact of the war on the ‘breeding’ of the next generation, threw up incidents in the life of Marie Stopes that have changed my views on the woman I had previously thought of as one of the great pioneers for women’s rights in the 20th century.

I was recommended to read a book called Dear Dr Stopes, edited 170px-Married_Love_Coverby Ruth Hall. It is a collection of letters to, and from, Stopes during the 1920s, when many of the questions referred to her from readers of her book Married Love, published in 1918. It is a fascinating look at attitudes to sex and contraception that is by turns quaint, funny and deeply disturbing.

After the war ended and it was clear that many men had returned from the Front traumatised by their experiences, there was a concern expressed – quite openly in high office – that the British Empire would be placed at risked should the ‘C3′ population be allowed to procreate at a reckless rate. What was described for the first time as the ‘A1′ class of man (the officer class) has been disproportionately devastated by the conflict so what could be done, at a time when contraceptive advice was not to be widely available for another decade?  Stopes was one of a number of intellectuals of the period to support a eugenicist view of the future – Havelock Ellis, John Maynard Keynes, Cyril Burt and George Bernard Shaw were expounding similar views, and army psychiatrists readily discussed the possible, negative, impact of allowing many of the traumatised men in their care to reproduce.

But it was Marie Stopes, as a pioneer of birth control, who adopted a high profile campaign. She supported compulsory sterilisation of parents who were “totally unfit for parenthood” and in 1921 she advocated “Joyful and Deliberate Motherhood, A Safe Light in our Racial Darkness.” and criticized a society that “allows the diseased, the racially negligent, the thriftless, the careless, the feeble-minded, the very lowest and worst members of the community to produce innumerable tens of thousands of stunted, warped and inferior infants”.

Just before the 1922 general election,  Stopes circulated a questionnaire to every parliamentary candidate to be returned to ‘The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress’, which she founded. The statement candidates were required to sign up to said:

I agree that the present position of breeding chiefly from the C3 populations and burdening and discouraging the A1 is nationally deplorable, and if I am elected to Parliament I will press the Ministry of Health to give such scientific information through the Ante-natal clinics, Welfare centres and other institutions in its control as will curtail the C3 and increase the A1.

Ruth Hall offers some of the replies she received, including those that took issue with the implications of her proposal:

...how any institution is going to tell millions of people that they must not breed, or how you are going to get physical or mental deficients, who are sometimes returned to Parliament, to vote for the extinction of their rights, and to reflect on their parents by passing an Act of Parliament I do not know…’

What is striking in many of the replies – positive and negative – is the acceptance of the term ‘deficients’, amongst whom were included many of the men who had but recently been fighting for their country. Such language had been included in the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 and an awareness of the importance of terminology would be many years coming.

eugenicsMarie Stopes was a woman who fought to get birth control on the political agenda, and wanted it available to women of all classes. She was always happy to answer questions, very warmly, from any woman who wrote to her. But why she was so forceful in her argument is not as altruistic as I had previously thought. She even disapproved of her only son’s choice of partner and tried to dissuade him from marrying her on the basis of her short-sightedness. When her son refused to bow to her pressure, she cut him from her will. She wanted a world where only the physical and mentally perfect survived and at the end of my researches I was not surprised to learn that she had sent a book of poetry to Hitler, and wrote anti-Semititic poems, including the lines “Catholics, Prussians, the Jews and the Russians, all are a curse, or something worse.”

Shell Shocked Britain looks at the legacy of the Great War for Britain’s mental health. With leading figures of the day regularly making eugenicist arguments in the national press, and army psychiatrists giving evidence to committees in terms that were eugenicist in nature, why would anyone feel confident that a plea for support at a time of fragility would be met with a positive response?

Posted in Book, Books, First World War, History, Mental health, Parenting, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Talking Books goes walkabout with The Real Sherlock Holmes…..

A13cI-0avRL._SL1500_Talking Books, my show on 10Radio.org,  went national last week when I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of Angela Buckley’s great new book ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada‘. The launch took place in the Sherlock Holmes Hotel on Baker Street in the heart of London and Angela was good enough to allow me to wander around the room with my radio mike, John Motson style, putting her many guests on the spot, and grabbing some great interviews.

‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’ is wonderful ride through crime fighting in Victorian Manchester. Jerome Caminada was not the dashing and flawed character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels but he was a resourceful and committed ‘super sleuth’ in his own right, utilising all manner of disguises and subterfuge to solve the many high-profile cases that made him a national figure in the late 19th century. More recently overshadowed by his fictional contemporary, Angela has brought him to the fore once more in a book that takes you through the poverty-stricken streets of Manchester, and further afield, on Caminada’s coat tails. One can only admire the audacity of his methods; disguises, undercover operations (including the duping and schmoozing of domestic servants) and determined chases that brought some remarkable criminals to justice. He even had his own equivalent of Moriarty, a criminal who threatened to be his nemesis.

mcGHow marvellous it would be to see him on-screen, perhaps interacting with Holmes and Watson. I have been thinking about who might play the role of Jerome, a more solid and less flamboyant man than Holmes but just as dashing. Aiming for big box office – how about George Clooney, Russell Crowe or Hugh Jackman? All look good with a beard after all. If Paddy Consadine hadn’t already played the eponymous Mr Whicher, of Suspicions of fame I would suggest him. But I am nominating Ewen McGregor. About the right age with just the right about of gravitas. Find his agent’s details Angela!

download (1)Anyway, do listen to the recording of the event below. It was great fun and you will hear snippets from writers and historians Emma Jolly and Rosemary Morgan, Essie Fox, Kate Mayfield and Mel Backe Hansen as well as the lovely Rachel Hale, author of the fabulous History Magpie blog and Angela’s writing buddy who came along with her husband Steve who is an accountant and a jolly good sport. I was determined to find out who was the on-screen favourite Sherlock Homes. I think Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch will have to settle for a draw. Angela and I had a good long chat about Jerome and I also got a great interview with Nick Barratt of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’  fame, who, it appears, also has a great-uncle of dubious fame…..

Angela’s children Ella and Ethan were stars. I was quickly reminded by Ethan that the Buckley household never ran out of cornflakes whilst Angela was writing because they ‘only have Shreddies’. One day he will be a challenge for Paxman…….

So grab a copy of Angela’s book and enjoy. It is published by Pen & Sword History (Angela and I share a lovely editor, Jen Newby) and is selling like the proverbial. Many thanks to Angela for allowing me to piggy back her launch to cut my outside broadcast teeth. I had a great time and as you can tell from the recording, so did everyone else there.

angelaThe Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada by Angela Buckley is published by Pen and Sword Books. For more details see her blog, http://victoriansupersleuth.com

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Family History, History, London, Radio Show, Reading, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Speaking to the dead: spiritualism, secularism & seeing the ghosts of the Great War

 

Mina Crandon  known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s

Mina Crandon known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s

Do you believe in ghosts? Can you trust in mediums who claim to commune with the dead? In Shell Shocked Britain I look at the rise of spiritualism during and after the First World War, examining why it experienced an explosion in interest and what it offered a nation traumatised by loss and grief. It is a fascinating subject that encompasses not just the supernatural, but issues of gender, the role of religion and the psychological need for both certainty and succour.

Even before 1914 church attendance was declining. As now, the majority of the population would classify themselves as Christian, but religious observance was increasingly confined to traditional holidays such as Christmas, Easter, harvest festivals and rites of passage – births, marriages and deaths. Demographic changes had led to the breaking up of small and close knit communities and young people were finding the strictures of the scriptures less relevant to their lives.

The Great War thrust the established church back into the limelight as clergy were called upon to rally people to the cause and offer hope and comfort to combatants and civilians alike. However, many found the support of their local priest wanting.  The church was sometimes viewed as too ready to promote an aggressive patriotism, focusing on fighting the good fight, rather than offering the necessary emotional support to those grieving. Yet if an individual priest were seen to be questioning the war, he would be vilified in local and national press. The church lost its way and a grieving nation sought meaning elsewhere.

Spiritualism as we would recognise it today began in mid-Victorian North America and by the 1870s there were numerous Spiritualist societies and churches throughout Britain and the United States, which in 1891 joined together to form the National Federation of Spiritualists. In 1902 the organisation became the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), which still exists today.  Spiritualist mediums, whose influence had declined following the the heyday of the séance in the late nineteenth century, became, for thousands of people during the First World War,  a focal point for grief and hope. Great crowds would attend spiritualist meetings across the country and enthusiasm for the gatherings went across all classes.

espiritus‘Celebrity’ endorsement furthered the cause. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge were great advocates for the movement, affected as they both were by the loss of sons to the war. In Shell Shocked I look at some of the key reasons why such eminent intellectuals were ‘taken in’, and at Mrs Osborne Leonard, one of the mediums who made such an impression on them. It makes disturbing reading, but in the 21st century there are equally audacious ‘cons’ that draw us in. Many sought to prove spiritualism was a fraud, including illusionist Harry Houdini, but that interest only heightened the public interest.

Gladys Osborne Leonard was born in 1882 and would later say that she had first had commune with spirits whilst still a child. Thwarted in her ambition to become a professional singer by illness, she turned to spiritualism and was giving professional sittings by 1915.  It was when she came into contact with scientist Sir Oliver Lodge that her fame spread. Lodge’s experiences of working with her to communicate with his son, killed in action in 1915, were written up in his book Raymond or Life and Death – a paean to the afterlife and ultimately to his desperate grief at the loss of his son.

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

Leonard worked with the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation established to prevent fraud, which offered a veil of respectability.  However, many later suggested Leonard was a clever charlatan who used auto-suggestion in a similar way to many of the doctors treating shell shocked soldiers, tapping into her client’s unconscious until they believed what she wanted them to believe. Her work may seem feeble by today’s standards, but in the days of early wireless technology it was not difficult for Sir Oliver Lodge to believe that invisible radio waves were acting as a conduit to his dead son’s existence on the other side.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a firm believer and said of Leonard: “The greatest trance medium with whom the author is acquainted is Mrs. Osborne Leonard. The outstanding merit of her gift is that it is, as a rule, continuous. It is not broken up by long pauses or irrelevant intervals, but it flows on exactly as if the person alleged to be speaking were actually present. The usual procedure is that Mrs. Leonard, a pleasant, gentle, middle-aged, ladylike woman, sinks into slumber, upon which her voice changes entirely, and what comes through purports to be from her little control, Feda”

It is little wonder that so many were attracted to this contact, and with the ‘Happy Valley’ in which Leonard said dead soldiers lived a comfortable life. They smoked pipes, drank whisky and took springtime walks.

As worrying as the fraud on the recently bereaved was the exploitation within spritualism itself. In the 19th century, the formal spiritualist movement had been dominated by female mediums, such as the Fox sisters. It was closely allied to women’s suffrage and offered an opportunity for women to make their views known. However,  some of these women were preyed upon by male confidence tricksters who, to all intents and purposes, ‘pimped’ them around meetings and informal gatherings. A movement that had originally given women subject to the restrictive social mores of Victorian and Edwardian society a ‘voice’ now became another way to subjugate them.

In the inter-war years spiritualism was the only way many could make sense of loss and cling to the belief that their loved ones were in a ‘better place’. It stepped in where the Anglican church, along with other denominations, seemed muddled and without a lead, unable even to agree on what was meant by an ‘afterlife’.

In Shell Shocked Britain I look at this subject in  more detail, to assess how hundreds of thousands came to rely on the voices of the dead to keep them in the land of the living. It is a fascinating aspect of the emotional turmoil the whole country experienced during and after the Great War, and one that is rarely discussed.

Posted in Book, Books, Family, History, Mental health, Reading, Religion, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The ‘First Blitz’ – Terror Comes To The Home Front

220px-It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bulletsHow many people know anything of the ‘First Blitz’ – war waged by Germany from the air between 1915 and 1918?

As I researched Shell Shocked Britain : the First World Wars’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health I was surprised that so few of the stories from that time were well-known. I discussed the subject with a number of people and they had little or no knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by first the Zeppelin airships and then enormous fixed wing aircraft.

By 1914 Germany had several Zeppelins at the disposal of the armed forces. They could fly at speeds up to 85 m.p.h. with the capacity to carry approximately two tons of bombs. The first raid was on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in January 1915 and continued across areas in the Midlands and along the East coast, including Hull where raids in June 1915 caused devastation.  I was lucky to discover letters describing these raids in the Liddle Collection held by Leeds University Library, and those from Mrs Nell Hague to her husband George, who had remained in London whilst she visited her mother, offer a fascinating insight into the mix of horror and excitement many felt:

“The Zeps are here! And from mother’s bedroom window the whole town seems on
fire…..

It is no exaggeration to say that there were thousands of people in and around the fields and houses… the dear little children -the cripples, the aged – oh my dear it must be seen to be realised…”

The raids became a tool to boost recruitment; many men so disgusted  that the enemy had brought war to the homes of Britain that they felt compelled to join up in response to official posters, such as the one illustrating this post, above.

Gotha_RG_im_FlugBy 1917 Zeppelins had been replaced by fixed wing aircraft – the Gotha, and, shortly afterwards, the ‘Giant’, with a wing span of 42 metres (138 feet) and tail roughly the same size as a Sopwith Pup. It is hardly surprising that British planes had such difficulty countering these fearsome attacks.

In his recent series Britain’s Great War Jeremy Paxman briefly touched on the physical and emotional trauma experienced by the populations of towns along the East and South East coasts of England and in London, the target of many of the raids. He focused on the first daylight raid of June 1917 during which (amongst a total of 162 people) eighteen pupils of Upper North Street School, Poplar, in East London were killed. Sixteen of them were aged from 4 to 6 years old. In Shell Shocked Britain I develop the story of that day, and others, to consider some of the lasting mental scars of the air raids.

In total, around 1,500 civilians were killed by air raids over the period of the war.

My Great Uncle Alfred Hardiman was a conscript into the 31st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, a works battalion, and spent his short service in the army in London. At some point in 1917 he was involved in the aftermath of one of the Gotha raids on London and his experience marked him so deeply that he spent several months in hospital. He was eventually discharged ‘unfit for service’ due to enuresis – he had become,at the age of 27, incontinent. In 1922 he would finally break down, killing his ex-girlfriend and himself. By all accounts a previously gentle man, he was not alone in finding the terrible sights of war on the Home Front impossible to forget.

wwi-british-policeAs always, one has to be wary of imposing present day values and responses on those living 100 years ago. When the bombs of July 2005 went off in London we were given minute by minute accounts of the situation by all media outlets. In the First World War, coverage of raids was actively suppressed, ostensibly to avoid panic. When we look back just the few years to the terrorist attacks, we can recall fears of further attacks, utterly unpredictable and our lives endangered simply by virtue of the train or bus we boarded. In the war, the suppression of news reports had the undesired consequence of heightening rumour and suspicion. No accurate reports resulted in a population constantly on the alert and the continued official resistance to proper air raid warnings (even to the point where policemen could only warn people by wearing a placard around their necks) resulted in more disruption rather than less.

In Shell Shocked Britain I discuss the ensuing ‘collective trauma’ in more detail, looking behind the reports of calm responses and stoical public at the deeper, personal terrors. On the Kent coast, particularly in the town of Folkestone, severely battered by Gotha raids in 1917, doctors had already begun to describe a form of shell shock amongst the families involved. I found reports of suicides both during and after the war due at least in part to continuing air raid shock.

Of course many were left unmarked by such events; some even found them exciting. But others, such as Alfred Hardiman, were left so traumatised that the anxiety became impossible to bear.

I have not yet been made aware of many planned events to mark those lost in the air raids of the First World War. Discussions on twitter suggest that thus far these horrors have so far been neglected. I hope that, in the next four years, places affected will take time to remember the horrors of the days when death first came from the skies..

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