John Avery Heritage
Member Southampton Heritage Federation
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 Sharing local history with the community
In 1967 the Queen Mary set off on her final voyage to Longbeach, California. This watercolour by Eric Crompton records the farewell.A stone carving on the RSH Hospital Chapel.An afternoon stroll on Plymouth Breakwater
John Avery is a Fellow of the Huguenot Society of Britain and Ireland, a member of Southampton
Heritage Federation, City of Southampton Society [Honorary Life Member], Friends of Southampton Old Cemetery [Honorary Life Member],  Friends of  Town Quay Park, National Federation of Cemetery Friends, The Southampton Fryatt Plaque, Devon Family History Society, Friends of Southampton's Museums, Archives and Galleries and 
West Country Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust , Landmark Trust, National Trust
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   Home      Helen Duncan - tried under the Witchcraft Act
 
 




Helen Duncan was a medium who practised her art at spiritualism gatherings. A mother of six children she began to hold séances in Callander and then moved to the larger venues in Edinburgh and beyond. Typically she made manifestations appear as “ectoplasm” and cynics believed prior to coming in the room she swallowed cheesecloth which she regurgitated at the appropriate time in a blacked out room.

In 1934 she underwent tests led by Harry Price of the National Laboratory of Physical Research but on approaching an X –ray machine she fled from the Laboratory. A few months later one of her audience grabbed in the air at the white shape floating and he announced that it was a piece of stockinet underclothes. An affray broke out and the police were called, Miss Duncan was fined £10 at the Sheriff’s Court.

Helen began to move further afield away from her native Scotland where there had been less publicity about her shenanigans and began visiting provincial towns on the south coast of England.

The battleship HMS Barham was hit by three torpedoes from the German submarine U-331 on 25th November 1941 and keeled over and the magazine store exploded killing all of the 862 man crew. Unusually a Gaumont British cameraman on an accompanying ship filmed the incident. So sensitive was the newsreel that the Admiralty banned the public showing until after 1945. The clip is such a poignant and accurate portrayal of such a great loss that it has been later incorporated in entertainment films such as The Guns of Navarone [1961].

The U Boat was exceptionally close to its kill and dived immediately anticipating the explosion so the commander was unable to report a confirmation of the sinking to the German High Command. The British Admiralty decided to take advantage of this fact and kept the loss of the Barham a secret until 27th January 1942. The next of kin received letters with a caveat that it would be harmful to national security to disclose the loss of the battleship and each recipient had to agree to keep the details of the loss of a son/father/brother strictly within the family. However on the same day the Admiralty publicly revealed the loss, Lieutenant Hans-Dietrich von Tiesenhausen the commander of U-331 was awarded the Iron Cross by the German High Command.

Helen Duncan’s séance a few days after the sinking of HMS Barham in November 1941 was held in a Spiritualist Church in Portsmouth.  A voice was coming through…… a sailor…..struggling in water… he and 800 shipmates died claimed Duncan. She had caught sight of the sailor’s hatband….. HMS Barham. [From the outbreak of war the named hatbands had been replaced with just “HMS” so on this point she was inaccurate]. Word soon spread in Portsmouth of the prediction and the Admiralty began to pay close attention to Helen Duncan as the sinking was still very much a secret.

In January 1944 two RN Lieutenants were among her audience and a few nights afterwards CID officers revealed themselves at another séance and arrested Duncan, plus the two local organisers and Duncan’s agent. 

When gathering evidence they found a rather poorly made hatband imitation with HMS Barham printed on it but the anticipated codes or messages from the enemy or any leaked documents from British sources were not forthcoming. A pretender perhaps but the lady was no spy or propaganda promoter for the enemy.

Miss Duncan was charged under section 4 of the Witchcraft Act of 1735.She was eventually tried by jury at the Old Bailey and  sentenced to 7 months imprisonment. On her release she gave an undertaking that she would not hold further séances. In 1956 she was found conducting a séance and was re arrested. This had an affect on her health as she felt that she had served her remorse to the community. She died a few months afterwards.

Members of her family and officials in the spiritualist community have since her death been seeking some form of pardon. Mr Graham Hewitt, who is also assistant General Secretary of the Spiritualists National Union, said: "The Criminal Cases Review Commission wouldn't reopen the case as they said it wasn't in the public interest”. In 2008, the Scottish Parliament rejected a petition to pardon her.

Perhaps the most pragmatic view was taken by Winston Churchill. He described the whole episode as 'obsolete tomfoolery' in a memo to the then Home Secretary Herbert Morrison.

Parliament when Churchill returned to power repealed the Witchcraft Act by the passing of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.




snowfall Southampton Old Cemetery courtesy FoSOCSeamen's strike at Southampton 1966Royal Blues at Bournemouth c 1949 photo by Derek Amey local historians Jim Brown and John Avery deep in thought. Image Ann MacGillivray Veronica Tippetts addressing Court Leet Oct 2nd 2012. Image Will TempleJohn Melody Southampton Town Crier at Court Leet 2012. Image Will Temple