Things that go bump in the night: A history of Spiritualism in the UK

A 'Spirit' photograph, in which a woman is surrounded by ghostly faces, supposedly of the dead
A 'Spirit' photograph, supposedly taken during a seance, actually a double exposure or composite of superimposed cut-outs by John K. Hallowell, Chicago | Library of Congress | Pexels

When the Fox sisters spoke to a man in their house one April night in 1848, they couldn’t have possibly known just how far from the sleepy town of Hydesville, New York, their conversation was going to reach. This conversation, however, wasn’t one of exchanging pleasantries with a member of the household. Kate and Margaret Fox, teenagers at the time, claimed to have communicated with a previous tenant of the house that was murdered years before the Fox family moved in.

It didn’t take long for the tale of the Fox sisters to sweep across the US like a wildfire, and the two sisters became overnight sensations with their travelling seances. Together the sisters would reach beyond the veil and communicate with spirits on the other side through a series of rapping knocks. Despite the considerable advancements of science and industry of the 19th century, the Spiritualism movement seemed to answer a question that had remained unanswered by science: is there life after death?

Marla B Hayden

When Marla stepped off the boat from America in 1852, she brought a unique skill set with her. An educated woman of good social standing from Boston, Marla spent a year in London offering her mediumship services (for a small fee of a guinea per person, of course). Much like the Fox sisters, Marla’s communications with the other side came in the form of table rapping and knocks. Marla’s year in London left a legacy still felt today over a century and a half later, passing on messages from spirits for a guinea per person. By the time she had returned to America, Britain was littered with their own local Mediums hosting seances and readings to those who could pay.

The Royal Seal

Spiritualism seeped into all levels of Victorian society. Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert, were known to host regular seances at Windsor Castle. With keen interest from the Royal Family, seances became a fashionable pastime. Any scepticism of the Queen’s belief of the Spiritualist movement was quelled when, shortly after the death of Albert, a 13-year-old boy reached out with a message from her late husband.

Using a pet name known only to Victoria and Albert, Robert James Lees (who had taken part in the seances hosted by his family) passed the message on to Victoria. So impressed by the message she received, Lees was invited to give regular seances at Windsor castle. Following the death of Victoria, her daughter would continue to hold seances at the palace to receive messages from her family on the other side.

Ectoplasm? Elementary!

As Spiritualism grew in popularity and complexity, so did the criticism of the practices of fraudsters, hoaxers, and con artists looking to capitalise on the pain of others. Harry Houdini notoriously debunked some of the more spectacular seances. From ectoplasm to flying objects and spiritual apparitions: as the movement grew, so too did the efforts to discredit it.

Perhaps the most surprising supporter of the Spiritualism movement was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - author of the infamously logical detective Sherlock Holmes. Having spent time as an investigator for all things metaphysical, in 1919, Doyle declared: 'I have spent years performing with fake mediums all over the world in order to disprove spiritualism, now, at last, I have come across a genuine medium.'

This endorsement would lend a heavy amount of credit to spiritualism in the early 20th century; however, it was later revealed to be another hoax.

First World War

The Spiritualism movement seemed to die back during the early 20th century, though it wasn’t long until it would see a considerable resurgence. With the tremendous losses of life seen in the First World War, many turned to Spiritualism in an attempt to contact those lost to the war. This second boom of the movement, while not as theatrical as the shows of the late-Victorian era, became a steadfast part of the British religious and metaphysical scene. Still widely practised today, The Spiritualist’s National Union has 11,500 subscribing members throughout the UK.

Written by:

Jo Rowan