The SPR at War

The Society for Psychical Research and the First World War

On the evening of 6 August 1914, two days after Britain had declared war on Germany, Miss Ann Jones (a pseudonym)1 was sitting in her room, waiting for some friends to call, when she was overcome by what she described as ‘a feeling of great depression and fatigue’. She lay down on the sofa and fell into a trance state, ‘a kind of swoon […] between sleeping and waking’ as she called it. Her mind filled with the image of a sinking ship. When her friends arrived they found her still in this exhausted condition, talking about a strange dream. That night she wrote in her diary ‘had a bad dream of a ship sunk’.

The papers only carried news of a ‘ship sunk’ on the morning of August the 7th: after engaging and sinking the German minelayer, the Königin Louise, the light cruiser HMS Amphion had struck a mine on the morning of August the 6th and gone down, taking with her over a hundred of her crew.

It was the first British loss of the war – and the first psychic experience. An account was sent in to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and published in the December issue of the Journal.2

However, there was no particular indication that members of the SPR were any better informed than the general public as to the coming crisis and terrrible 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?

In 1914, members of the SPR were engaged in their usual activities. They had voted in the German-born philosopher Dr F.C.S. 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 Honourary Secretary, sharing the position with the Honourable Everard Feilding, second son of the late Rudolph Feilding, 8th Earl of Denbigh. Other members of the Council included the Right Hon. Gerald Balfour (later 2nd Earl Balfour), one of Eleanor Sidwick’s brothers – another was the former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (1st Earl Balfour) – the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, the inventor St George William Lane Fox-Pitt, who was married to the daughter of the 9th Marquis of Queensberry – the one who gave his name to the ‘Marquis of Queensberry Rules’ and famously called Oscar Wilde a ‘sodomite’ (actually, he wrote ‘somdomite’) back in 1895 – the Revd Matthew Albert Bayfield (1852-1922), Classical scholar, clergyman and headmaster, Sir Lawrence Jones, 4th Baronet of Cranmer Hall, the political scientist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (6 August 1862 – 3 August 1932) – his reaction to the war was to draw up plans for the League of Nations – the writer and politician Ernest Bennett, later Sir (he was knighted in 1930), who was then a Fellow of Pembroke College with a dashing past and a still dashing future to come, and the Classical scholar Prof. Gilbert Murray, who had been the basis for a character in one of Bernard Shaw’s plays.3 The philosopher L.P. Jacks, then a Professor at Manchester College, Oxford, would serve as President in 1917 and 1918.

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’.4 The Society’s Reasearch Officer and Editor, Alice Johnson, began the year by publishing ‘A Reconstruction of Some “Concordant Automatisms”’.5 Assistant Research Officer Helen Verrall was working on the Icelandic Seer Case (that of so-called ‘Dreaming Joe’).

The Polish medium Stanislawa Tomczyk had been invited to the UK by the Council and a special committee was formed to investigate her claims. 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.6 She managed to move more than balls and tugged heartstrings, too: she married one of the investigators, Everard Feilding, in 1919.

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 cross-correspondences – those 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.


For the full article see Leo Ruickbie, ‘The SPR at War: The Society for Psychical Research and the First World War’, Paranormal Review, 88 (Autumn 2018).