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The Premonitions Bureau: The British psychiatrist who tried to predict the future

Back in the 1960s, a respected psychiatrist called John Barker established the Premonitions Bureau in an attempt to harness the psychic powers of the British public


You may have heard of or even seen the 2002 movie Minority Report, featuring Tom Cruise, and directed by Steven Spielberg. The Sci-Fi yarn tells the story of a futuristic technology that allows police to catch criminals before a crime is committed. Cops can witness the future and prevent offences from ever happening.

Cool concept but pure fiction, right? Well, not quite. Back in the 1960s, a respected psychiatrist called John Barker established the Premonitions Bureau in an attempt to harness the psychic powers of the British public. He hoped the organisation would become an ‘early warning system’ to avert future disasters.

Sam Knight – a staff writer for The New Yorker – has written a gripping book on this subject titled The Premonition Bureau.

It seems that fact can often be stranger than fiction.

Aberfan disaster

The story of the Premonitions Bureau starts on 21 October 1966. On that day, one of the worst industrial disasters in British history occurred. After a period of heavy rainfall, a colliery spoil tip created on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan suddenly collapsed causing a landslide of mud and debris.

Entombed underneath the slurry was a row of houses and Pantglas Junior School. One hundred and forty-four people were killed that day, including one hundred and sixteen children.

In the immediate aftermath ambulances, fire engines and construction equipment used for moving earth rushed to the village. As did many volunteers who hoped to aid in the search for those still buried.

John Barker

John Barker reached Aberfan the day after the disaster. Barker was a 42-year-old psychiatrist who’d studied at Cambridge before qualifying as a doctor. He worked at a large mental hospital in Shropshire and was an experienced clinician. Barker had been published in medical journals on multiple occasions, especially on the topic of unusual mental illnesses.

He also had a keen professional interest in the paranormal, which led him to become a member of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research – an organisation founded in 1882 to investigate the paranormal. At the time of Aberfan, Barker was writing a book about people who accurately foretold their own deaths entitled Scared to Death.

The children who foretold disaster

At Aberfan, Barker heard stories from bereaved families about children foretelling the disaster.

The day before the colliery spoil tip slid down the hill, an 8-year-old boy called Paul Davies had drawn a picture of a mass of figures digging in the hillside under the words ‘the end.’

That same day, 10-year-old Eryl Mai Jones had told her mother about a dream she’d had the night before: ‘I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there,’ she said. ‘Something black had come down all over it.’

Both Paul Davies and Eryl Mai Jones died in the disaster.

Barker was so taken aback by what he heard that he began to wonder whether premonitions could be collected in advance to prevent future catastrophes from occurring.

The nationwide experiment begins

Soon after Aberfan, Barker wrote to Peter Fairley, the science editor at London’s Evening Standard. Barker wished to reach out to the entire country to find out whether others had experienced premonitions in the hours, days, or weeks before Aberfan.

Fairley obliged and on 28 October, the Evening Standard ran the piece to its 600,000-strong readership. Barker received 76 replies. Amongst them were several who reported having physical as well as mental symptoms when experiencing their premonition about Aberfan. Barker began to ponder the existence of something he called a ‘pre-disaster syndrome’, whereby the human body became a seismograph ahead of important events.

In the weeks that followed, Barker met with several correspondents that convinced him that precognition could be as common as left-handedness in the British population.

The Premonitions Bureau opens

The responses received from their Aberfan appeal persuaded Barker and Fairley to open what they dubbed The Premonitions Bureau. For a year, readers of the Evening Standard would be invited to send in their dreams, premonitions and forebodings. Each one would be documented, date stamped and rewarded points based on a system created by Fairley - five points for unusualness, five points for accuracy and one point for timing.

The project launched on January 4, 1967, and it wasn't long before the bureau started identifying those whose talents shone brighter than others.

Alan Hencher and Kathleen Middleton

The two stars of the project were Alan Hencher and Kathleen Middleton. The former was a 44-year-old telephone operator for the Post Office, whilst the latter was a 52-year-old piano and ballet teacher.

Both had foreseen the Aberfan disaster, with Middleton awakening the night before the event choking and gasping with a ‘sense of the walls caving in.’

It wasn’t long before the bureau had its first hit so to speak. In the spring of 1967, Hencher called Barker to tell him of a premonition he’d had about a plane crash over mountains in the Mediterranean that would kill 123 or 124 people. Thirty days later, a Britannia passenger aircraft crashed into a hill in Cyprus killing 124 people.

In November 1967, both Hencher and Middleton predicted a railway crash on a line heading into London just days before it occurred. Throughout the year and into 1968 Middleton foresaw a shipwreck in France, floods in Alaska, the death of an astronaut and even the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

The final prediction

In early 1968, both Hencher and Middleton began fearing for Barker's life. The stars of the Premonitions Bureau were foretelling the demise of the organisation’s creator.

‘It would be wrong for me to say that I was not frightened by a prediction of this nature,’ Barker wrote in a memo. ‘I suppose anybody who plays about with precognition in this way to some extent sticks his neck out and must accept what he gets.’

On August 18, 1968, Barker suffered a brain haemorrhage at home. He passed away in a Shrewsbury hospital at just 44 years old.

Barker and Fairley had wanted to present their findings to Parliament and the British Medical Research Council, believing it was no longer a case of proving the existence of precognition, but rather how could it be harnessed and utilised.

With Barker’s death, however, came the end of the Premonitions Bureau and any further research was halted.