The rise of spiritualism after WW1

How do you make sense of a world shattered by conflict? For many Britons in the wake of the First World War, writes David Nash, the answer lay in rejecting rationality and instead searching for meaning in the realms of the dead

Bird's eye view: An old woman with a 'fortune telling' parakeet in 1920s London. Those who questioned science and reason in postwar Britain were

It was November 1918 and the First World War was over. As soldiers put down their weapons and peace broke out across Europe, Britons breathed a sigh of relief and contemplated the future. But the question weighing heavily on many people’s minds was, what should that future look like?

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Some fervently sought a return to normality – to the comforting certainties of the prewar world. But others exhibited a starkly different outlook. They reasoned that it was those comforting certainties, the very institutions that had dominated Britain in the countdown to 1914, that had led the country into a catastrophic conflict. Their reaction to the horrors of the war was to reject rationality in favour of something altogether stranger, something that encompassed witchcraft, spiritual renewal and communication with the dead.

Spirits of the fallen

Britons had been drawn to ‘irrational’ ideas and practices in growing numbers long before the Armistice of 11 November 1918. Interest in spiritualism surged dramatically in 1917, as the nation endured a third full year of conflict. In fact, at one point, this religious movement – which promised believers the prospect of being able to communicate with the dead – briefly threatened to become more popular than the Anglican church.

At the heart of spiritualism’s mass appeal was its offer of individually tailored solace to bereaved parents who could not be reunited with their fallen sons – soldiers whom the War Office had decreed were to stay buried together on the continent. No one captured this thirst for comfort better than the physicist Oliver Lodge, whose bestselling book, Raymond, communicated the joy the author felt on contacting his own dead son.

Casualty of war: medics tend a soldier on the western front. Anxious relatives sought 'news' of loved ones via tea-leaf reading and fortune-telling. (Photo by CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Casualty of war: medics tend a soldier on the western front. Anxious relatives sought ‘news’ of loved ones via tea-leaf reading and fortune-telling. (Photo by CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The benign spirit of Second Lieutenant Raymond Lodge – who had been killed in the Ypres Salient in autumn 1915 – described helping newly deceased soldiers “reach the other side”, and promised his mother that he would occupy a vacant chair set specially for him at the Christmas dinner table. But he added: “There must be no sadness. I don’t want to be a ghost at the feast.” Raymond also told of the safe and comfortable beyond, and carefully explained that spirits were working tirelessly to ensure the course of world events would benefit civilisation from now onwards.

The emotional trauma that fed the rise of spiritualism also spawned a surge in interest in fortune-telling and tea-leaf reading – both of which offered worried relatives ‘news’ of loved ones potentially in peril. But by the time the guns fell silent, these more traditional means of seeing the future and contacting the dead were being overshadowed by the theories expounded by Frederick Bligh Bond, William Packenham-Walsh and Margaret Murray – three figures whose teachings on the relationship between the living and the dead chimed perfectly with Britons’ growing scepticism of logic and science.

Oliver Lodge’s bestselling book, Raymond, described the joy the author felt on contacting his son, who had been killed at Ypres in 1915

Frederick Bligh Bond was a former chief archaeologist at Glastonbury Abbey, who in 1918 began offering startling revelations that he believed would transform Britain. In his book The Gate of Remembrance, Bligh Bond explained that his successful excavations over the previous decade had been guided by spirit contact with 16th-century monks. These monk-spirits offered Bligh Bond important assistance as part of a great collective consciousness that joined them with the living, what he called ‘The Great Memoria’. This consciousness was universal, even including the German enemy. As such, it promised redemption for all races.

Bligh Bond’s esoteric ideas might have been scoffed at before the war, but the message that the dead were still linked to the consciousness of the living resonated powerfully with the anxious and the grief-stricken in the dark days of early 1918. And this was reflected in stunning sales: The Gate of Remembrance sold out two editions in 1918, a third in 1920 and a fourth in 1921.

Part of the book’s allure was its enticing title and seductive cover, which beckoned the living through the ‘Gate of Remembrance’ into a deeply comforting paradise, where longed-for reunions were certain to occur.

Bligh Bond also called for spiritual renewal, proposing that Glastonbury become “a centre of spiritual realisation and reconciliation between the various racial elements in these islands and their distinctive religious expressions”. The book’s publisher went as far as to plead in The Times that Glastonbury be rebuilt as a lasting spiritual memorial to the war dead.

One correspondent to 'The Times' argued that Glastonbury Abbey, shown in a c1915 postcard, should be rebuilt as a spiritual memorial to the fallen. (Photo by Allan Seiden, Legacy Archive/Getty Images)
One correspondent to ‘The Times’ argued that Glastonbury Abbey, shown in a c1915 postcard, should be rebuilt as a spiritual memorial to the fallen. (Photo by Allan Seiden, Legacy Archive/Getty Images)

As if to echo the mood, in 1920 William Kerrich apparently discovered the bones of Joseph of Arimathea – the legendary biblical custodian of the Holy Grail, who supposedly Christianised England – in Glastonbury. Though Kerrich’s ‘discovery’ was eventually dismissed as a fake, its timing betrays a desire to address a raging tide of hope. This was augmented by the vicar of Glastonbury who alleged that he had uncovered proof that St Paul had preached in England. Such romanticism persuaded one reviewer of The Gate of Remembrance to praise Bligh Bond for invoking a Glastonbury “wrapped round as by an intense cloud with a cluster of beautiful old legends and traditions”.

In touch with the Tudors

But Frederick Bligh Bond wasn’t alone in offering traumatised Britons the prospect of a brighter future now that the First World War had ended. In fact, it was a similar cocktail of spiritualism, wishful thinking – and, it could be added, a decidedly shaky relationship with reality – that moved a missionary returning from the far east in 1919 to offer the nation a profound reconciliation with its troubled past. That missionary, Reverend William Packenham-Walsh, was convinced by the idea that Anne Boleyn was speaking earnestly to him from beyond the grave. Today, Packenham-Walsh’s claims may appear hopelessly far-fetched. But in the culturally turbulent Britain of 1920–21, large numbers of people were prepared to believe him. Those who had migrated beyond the fringes of rational belief helped his research and joined him at seances.

Packenham-Walsh gathered around him some of the most proficient mediums in the country, supplemented by the Irish spiritualist Hester Dowden, who had apparently interacted with the spirit of Oscar Wilde.

Anne Boleyn, we’re told, referred to Packenham-Walsh as “her champion”. But she wasn’t the only Tudor heavyweight to whom the missionary and his associates claimed to have talked – they also apparently conversed with Queen Elizabeth I, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey. All wanted the living to to do them a favour: to assist “one who was in darkness”. When, during one of their meetings, the mediums were hastily told by a spirit to reconvene in a nearby Tudor garden in Chelsea, Hester Dowden wrote the portentous name “Henry Rex”; it seems that the “one who was in darkness” was none other than King Henry VIII.

Packenham-Walsh was beside himself and vowed to bring to repentance the deeply troubled spirit of the Tudor king, who, he was told, displayed “little of kingly quality”. After some pantomime-villain bluster from Henry, in which he suggested that Packenham-Walsh was “…some knave from a tavern who is making sport of me because I lie at your mercy”, the irascible king was reduced to weeping. Gradually he was reconciled with all his wives and children. Henry was even prepared to “…learn my lesson and strive to win back other souls who have erred in like manner as myself”.

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But Packenham-Walsh had yet more good news for his followers. Those former rivals Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were now close friends – further proof that, in the spirit world, all jealousies and enmities had been transcended. The reconciled Henry even lectured Packenham-Walsh’s war-scarred country about the lessons it could learn about itself. “Methinks thy boasted civilisation hath no cause to vaunt itself, who didst still send forth thy sons to the slaughter, to a greater bloodshed than ever stained the annals of my reign,” the former king declared.

They discovered that the wrongs of history, however distant, may yet be redeemed through intercession with the power of the spirit world

Packenham-Walsh and his followers were delighted with their achievements. They had brought the greatest sinner-king from the realms of despair to light-filled repentance. They had also discovered that the wrongs of history, however distant or apparently irretrievable, may yet be redeemed through intercession with the power of the spirit world. Could this tool be of still more benefit to the rest of postwar civilisation?


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The Holy Grail legend

Someone who would have answered this question with a definitive ‘yes’ was Margaret Murray, an archaeological and anthropological scholar who specialised in Egyptology. Murray turned to voluntary hospital work when the war broke out. But, having exhausted herself at a hospital in France, in 1915 she agreed to be invalided home, choosing to convalesce in Glastonbury.

While recovering, Murray immersed herself in the study of the Holy Grail legend. She had already accepted the ideas of the diffusionists – who believed that all civilisations had emanated from one place (Murray, predictably, believed that this was Egypt) and spread throughout the globe. But Murray now took this theory one step further, arguing that it should be used to enact reconciliation between nations after the intense conflict of the First World War. If she could somehow prove that all cultures had a common heritage, then dialogue, tolerance and respect would be much easier to forge in the postwar world.

A lobby card for the 1916 film 'Udine', based on a fairytale about an eponymous water spirit. Margaret Murray portrayed witches as unsophisticated and guileless, like those who had been sent to their deaths in the trenches. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)
A lobby card for the 1916 film ‘Udine’, based on a fairytale about an eponymous water spirit. Margaret Murray portrayed witches as unsophisticated and guileless, like those who had been sent to their deaths in the trenches. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

The fruits of these labours appeared in Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe, the first attempt in the 20th century to write the history of witchcraft. In it, Murray argued that witches were an organised pre-Christian fertility cult which had been widespread across Europe. Her diffusionist logic argued that their practices throughout Europe were identical and they had been a central part of all European cultures. They had been revered until later ruthlessly destroyed by Christianity in the early modern period.

Murray argued her case passionately but her theories could never remotely pass scholarly muster. She falsified evidence and hid contradictory facts, while scholars considered her work on witchcraft a byword for intellectual dishonesty. Not that the population at large cared. Murray’s work remained popular enough, for long enough, for her to be asked to compile the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on the phenomenon – to the great ire of her fellow academics.

Murray’s witches had genuine popular appeal for all kinds of reasons. They were spiritually mature but harmless dancing pagans, a pleasing antidote to the ugly crones of Grimms’ Germanic fairy tales. In the popular mind, they also represented the bucolic innocent and unsophisticated, who had been callously brought to the slaughter by the powerful and educated – an image that had obvious parallels with the industrialised and mechanised carnage of the western front.

But, most tellingly of all, in the context of the times, Murray’s witches “went to the gibbet and the stake, glorifying their god… with a firm belief that death was but the entrance to an eternal life in which they would never be parted from him”.

Murray, Bligh Bond and Packenham-Walsh may be largely forgotten today, but there’s little doubt that a century ago their ideas had enormous resonance for a nation still coming to terms with one of the most harrowing episodes in its history. All three may have been motivated by guilt – they were non-combatants aged in their fifties – but they were also motivated by a genuine concern to promote renewal, and to reject the ambivalent rational approach to knowledge that, in their opinion, had unleashed the war. As such, they tuned into an important populist zeitgeist. Wartime England had now become strange England as it grappled with the challenges of restoring relationships with both the living and the dead.

David Nash is a professor in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture at Oxford Brookes University

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This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine