Merry we meet - Merry we meet - Merry we meet
A Battleship, U-boat, and a Witch.
Written and compiled by George Knowles.
HMS Barham / U-boat U331 / Helen Duncan
Spiritualism (communication with the dead after life) has often been regarded as a specialist art of witchcraft. Throughout history there have been many cases of mediums condemned as witches because of their psychic abilities. One of the last recorded witchcraft trials in England involved a medium, and took place in that bastion of English justice, the central criminal court of the “Old Bailey” during the last World War. As a result of this trial the old antiquated Witchcraft Act of 1735 was repealed, and replaced with the current Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.
Helen Duncan was a prominent spiritualist medium renowned for her ability during séances to produce ectoplasmic materialization’s (physical spirit appearances in the likeness of a dead person). Just months before the proposed date of the D-Day Landings in Normandy (6th June 1944), and in fear that she might clairvoyantly reveal the dates and beeches of those proposed landings, the government’s paranoid “Intelligence Agencies” conspired and used the old Witchcraft Act of 1735 to have Duncan arrested and incarcerated believing her a “serious” risk to national security.
The events that led to her trial make for some fascinating reading, and include some of the strangest moments of the Second World War. This story involves the war propaganda of the “British Intelligence Agencies”, the sinking of the battleship “HMS Barham”, the skill determination and courage of the captain and crew of “U-boat U-331” as it tracked and eventually torpedoed the Barham, followed by the clairvoyant revealing of it’s demise by the medium “Helen Duncan”.
HMS Barham / Captain G. C. Cooke
H.M.S. Barham led by H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth and followed by H.M.S. Valiant where escorted by eight destroyers as they sailed in convoy from Alexandria on the 24th November 1941. They were part of the Royal Navy Eastern Mediterranean Fleet under the flag of Admiral Cunningham. Their orders were to cover operations against two enemy convoys reported to be making for Benghazi. As they proceeded westward in the hope of finding and destroying these enemy convoys, it appeared to many of the crew a typical if routine autumnal day in the Mediterranean. As they steamed along in formation, few could perceive that this would be their final mission.
On the 25th November Kapitänleutnant Von Tiesenhausen commanding the U-boat U-331 was stationed off the border of Egypt and Libya. Sailing out of Sollum in the eastern Mediterranean, he was patrolling submerged near the British naval base at Alexandria, when his hydrophone operator reported the sounds of heavy screws. After securing a bearing on the sound, Tiesenhausen eased his U-boat up to periscope depth (less than 75 feet), he soon spotted the three British battleships flanked by eight destroyers and was able to identify the Queen Elizabeth, Barham and Valiant. For the next few hours he played a dangerous game of cat and mouse endeavoring to penetrate their defenses and get in close for a kill.
Three times the U-boat came within sonar range of the convoy and was identified and reported to superior officers. However “Sonar” being relatively new at that time, was neither trusted nor respected. On each occasion they believed the contact to be merely “schools of fish”, and directed the sonar operators to ignore the contact. Taking advantage of this Tiesenhausen was able to work his way under the outlying destroyers to point black range inside the convey itself. There he eased the U-boat back to periscope depth (less than 75 feet) in a position between the two destroyers Barham and Valiant. From a distance less than 1200 yards, he fired four torpedoes at the middle battleship in the line.
It was approximately 16.00hrs (English teatime) when the torpedoes where released and most of the officers and men of the Barham were below decks enjoying the tradition break in the day. Three of the torpedoes hit the port side of the ship just below the water line causing it to take on water. The forth torpedo hit the port 4inch magazine causing a fire that subsequently spread to the main magazines. Within moments the magazines began to explode. After the torpedoes had struck, the internal lighting and communication systems failed causing panic and confusion to follow amongst the crew. The Barham at the time was operating the correct degree of watertight subdivision for cruising, but she listed too quickly for any effective countermeasures to be carried out.
After rolling to Starboard on impact, the ship turned over to Port with a list of 15 degrees, which quickly increased. Soon the Barham was listing heavily at an angle of 30 degrees and the order to abandon ship was verbally circulated. It was reported that the officers on the bridge were hanging on to railing, as if on to parallel bars. As the Barham continued to capsize men started diving off the side, some only to hit the barnacled bottom of the ship as it came up to meet them.
The Barham was almost at an angle of 90 degrees and sinking fast, the funnel slipped into the water and a final almighty explosion ripped through it as the main aft magazine exploded. Men, debris, weapons and oil were flung hundreds of feet into the air and the whole area was shrouded in a thick column of black smoke. One spectator watched in awe and later claimed to see a 15" turret flying a hundred feet through the air, men still clinging to it. Destroyers raced in against the smoke to pick up survivors as they swam in a mixture of oil, water, and debris. By the time the smoke had cleared the Barham had disappeared underwater; it had taken only two and a half minutes to sink after being hit.
Bryan Samuels was a sailor on board the Barham that afternoon, one of the lucky ones who survived to write about his experience. His story is a graphic account of his own experience as it happened on that day, but typifies the bravery and courage exhibited by many sailors who found themselves in similar situations from other stricken ship’s during the course of the war.
Samuels was a battery gun “Sight setter” and was actually at his station when the Barham was hit. He and his mates “Taffy Clements” and “Spoff Berry” were just finishing tea in the mess before going on watch at 16.00hrs (the 1st dog watch). "Pass the char, Taff” called Samuels, pouring a cup and quickly drinking it down. "Time to go on watch Sam, don't hang about now", shouted Spoff, he was Killick of 9 Mess, Forecastle Division, and also in charge of the gun crew. Samuels grabbed his cap and followed him up the ladder.
Arriving at their station to relieve the opposite gun crew, they were quickly briefed before the others stood down. After the usual checks and gun drills they settled down at the rear of the gun leaving one of the crew to man the headphones, awaiting further orders. The time was approximately 16.19hrs when a sudden violent explosion rocked the ship. The ship rolled sharply to starboard on impact then listed back to port. "Close up" shouted Spoff, thinking the 15" guns had opened up for some reason. They closed up station before realizing it was the ship that had been hit, as it listed more and more to port.
Samuel’s looked around and saw the pandemonium building up outside their casement. Men rushed up from the mess decks below and crowded around the main ladder to the upper deck. They were packed in tight between a large armored door halfway along the main deck and the upper deck ladder. "Fall out and get out" yelled Spoff. The crew joined the mass of men desperately trying to make their way to the ladder. Taff Clements took one look at the melee, shrugged his shoulders and turned to go back to the gun. “I didn’t see him again after that” Samuels recalled later.
Directly opposite their gun was the ship's galley, it took up the whole midship area between the port and starboard No 2 and No 3 guns. A door at each side allowed passage between the two batteries. Samuels saw his chance of getting to starboard and therefore higher side of the rapidly capsizing ship; it was a dangerous move as the ship was now at an angle of 25 to 30 degrees. The galley deck was tiled and hot greasy food and water sloshed down the sloping deck. Overhead he saw there were rails within his reach, and was able to haul himself hand over hand across the galley clambering out of the starboard door onto the main deck in the Marine's Battery.
Looking aft he saw that the armored door was open, but there was a large queue of men at the main ladder leading to the upper deck. On this side of the ship unlike the port side, there was another ladder between him and the main one. It led to a "flat" or corridor in which the ship’s bakery and flour store was situated. The chances were that the only door leading to the upper deck from that flat would be closed, and it would be virtually impossible to open with the ship at such an angle. Samuels decided to join the queue at the main ladder.
Suddenly an officer blocked his way and shouted that a motorboat had broken free of its chocks and jammed across the hatch. It had crashed down on top of the ladder crushing the men just climbing out. Samuels didn’t think twice, the bakery flat was just opposite him and up he went followed by half a dozen other men. Mercifully the door on the deck was open and they were able to crawl up the deck and on to the ship's side. He grabbed a guardrail and hauled himself over the side of the upper deck; he was now standing outside the starboard 6" battery.
In front of him was the Glacis, a deck outside the gun battery that was now a 6-foot sheer wall between him the ship’s sides. He wasn't alone, the whole side seemed to be swarming with men, some trapped as he was, with others both fore and aft of the Glacis. He watched as some of the men desperate to get of the sinking ship, dived off the ship's side only to hit the barnacled bottom as it came up to meet them. Samuels with no other alternative removed his shoes and waited for what seemed an eternity to take his own chance and dive. Suddenly with a tremendous flash the whole aft section seemed to blossom outwards, men and metal were hurled into space, then he too was flying. It happened so quickly, one moment he was in space, the next under water and going down.
In the water with his lungs fit for bursting he thought, “This is it, I’m done for”. When he could hold his breath no longer he opened his mouth expecting to take in water, but amazingly he sucked in air. He’d been caught in the wave caused by the ship’s sinking, and been sucked down, around, and up again. When he surfaced he could see nothing except an inky blackness, franticly he rubbed his eyes. "Oh My God!" he cried, "I'm blind", and panic setting in for the first time. With a tremendous effort of will power he managed to control himself and gradually the blackness began to clear. A surge of relief flooded through him as he realized that the oily black smoke coupled with the fuel oil that covered his face and head had caused the blackness.
Through the gloom of the rising oily smoke he saw a figure appear close by him. Calling out he received no reply and started swimming towards him. As he approached the silent figure he noticed that his head was bowed, it soon became clear that the man was dead. Half his head had been blown away and he was held up merely by his inflated lifejacket. Turning, Samuels started to swim away but the corpse started to follow? He swam faster, but still it kept coming. It took a while to realize that he was swimming through oil inches thick and anything caught in my wake followed him. It was a ghostly spectacle and frightening as other bodies and debris joined in and followed. Slowly he learned that if he used a gentle stroke the oil was not so greatly disturbed and would close in behind him more slowly, thus cutting off his ghostly chain.
As the pall of smoke gradually cleared he could see heads bobbing up all around the area, the oil seemed to cover the sea from horizon to horizon, but in the distance he saw two 'Carley Floats' and started swimming towards them. As he came closer he could see they were crammed with survivors and others clinging to the ropes all around the sides. From one off the 'floats' he heard a voice singing out: "There'll always be an England" trying to raise morale by encouraging others to join in. But it was a forlorn hope to get those shocked and dispirited men to sing. He learned later that the hopeful choirmaster was none other than 'Vice Admiral Pridham Wippell'.
By now he was beginning to tire, he had been in the water for what seemed an age. Suddenly ahead he saw a destroyer steam up and stop, it was maybe half-a-mile away. He watched treading water as they lowered a whaler, which started making for the Carley Floats picking up survivors as it reached them. Thinking rescue was at hand and his ordeal nearly over, Samuel’s started to swim towards them. It was then he heard a faint call for help to his right "Give us a hand mate, I think my legs are broken". As tired as he was Samuels with a wishful look towards the approaching whaler detoured to the right seeking the call for help.
“Where are you mate,” he called, pushing away debris as he searched.
“Over here, I’m here,” came back the faint response.
Samuels eventually found him clinging to a floating piece of wreckage and took the man in tow, once again started swimming for the whaler. Reaching it he called across for them to take him from him. To his shock and horror as they pulled him onboard he saw that both his legs were missing. The sight of the remaining bloody stumps turned his stomach and he vomited, adding to the awful stinking mess still floating all around him.
"Are you OK mate,” asked the Cox'n, half turning away because of the stench.
Samuels nodded, trying to catch his breath.
"Can you make it to the ship on your own?” asked the Cox’n.
"Yes, I'm alright mate, I’ll make it" he replied, and swam on towards the destroyer.
An eternity later he arrived alongside HMS Hotspur and helped by the crew he was hauled up the scrambling nets onto the deck. There he joined a group of other survivors. Assisted by the ship’s orderlies; they got out of their filthy clothes and removed as much oil from their bodies as they could with cotton waste. After a shower they were given blankets and a good helping of rum. Feeling much better if still weary from his ordeal, Samuel’s hung around the upper deck as more survivors came aboard, he was hoping to see his mates Taffy Clements and Spoff Berry. He heard later that neither had made it.
By the time he had reached safety on the deck of the Hotspur, it was 1845hrs. Time had passed so quickly it was hard to believe that he had been in the water nearly two and half-hours. Reflecting on the tragedy later, Samuel’s stated “I always thought the Good Lord must have been on my side, or at least had other plans for me. I had appeared to be in an impossible escape position. I am sure that both “He” and my “Guardian Angel” guided me out of that stricken ship”.
In the tradition of many great sea captains before him, Captain, G. C. Cooke commanding HMS Barham went down with his ship, together with 86l officers and men of his crew. Vice Admiral Pridham Wippell and 395 other members of the crew were rescued and survived the day.
U-boat U-331 / Kapitänleutnant Von Tiesenhausen
On releasing the torpedoes from near point blank range the U-boat reacted in a near disastrous way. It’s bows lifted upward after the weight was released and the conning tower erupted from the water barely 150 yards in front of the third battleship in line, the Valiant. “Crash-dive” called out Tiesenhausen urgently, as the Valiant immediately altered course to ram it. The U-boat's engineers moved quickly to get the boat under again. As the huge battleship turned in a wide arc, it bore down on the U-boat and agonizing seconds passed until at the last possible moment the U-boat slid beneath the waves and the battleship passed harmlessly overhead. Meanwhile the blast from a fourth explosion, the Barham’s main magazine going up, rocked and shook the U-boat as it descended.
Aboard the U-boat men and equipment was thrown around violently then something odd happened to the depth gauge. As the boat continued its crash dive the needle indicating it’s depth inexplicably slowed and stopped at 250 feet. The crew sensed that the boat was still diving, but the gauge said not. It was a dangerous situation as the boat's maximum safe depth was judged to be 330 feet. Tiesenhausen asked for a second forward depth gauge to be read. The report appalled the entire crew; they had reached the unprecedented depth of 820 feet. As they frantically halted the dive and began to ascend again, the hull that should have been crushed at that depth did not so much as spring a leak. "In such moments, you do not speak”, wrote Tiesenhausen many years later, "you are just glad to have been lucky and to still be alive".
Tension was great for the crew. Tiesenhausen was not only the most experienced member of his crew, he was also the oldest, aged 28 he was some seven years older than most of men serving under him. In these situations the crew of a U-boat faces many fears. First, should the U-boat not be able to resurface, they would die from lack of oxygen. Second, should the hull rupture, they would drown. Lastly was the fear of having to surrender to the English, particularly after sinking one of their ships. The English at that time would surely seek retribution; at the very least humiliate their U-boat prisoners, none of which were welcome thoughts to the crew hiding on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Eventually all was silent above them and they were able to surface. Miraculously they had escaped from the enemy above and the lethal pressure below.
Once on the surface, he reported to his superiors that he had “torpedoed a battleship”, but he could not be certain which ship he had hit and how bad the damage had been. As per normal protocol he transmitted his message using the Enigma coding device, unaware that the British had already broken the code the year before, and were decoding the message as fast as his superiors. Since they were not sure of the results, Tiesenhausen received back a simple message saying, “Very satisfactory”. This event prompted the English not to release the news of the sinking of the Barham, even to the families of the ship’s crew. Only months later would Tiesenhausen learn it was the Barham he had sunk, for which he would receive the Iron Cross 1st Class.
His action against the Barham had shown great daring and was well in keeping with his reputation. Tiesenhausen had begun his U-boat career in December 1939 on U-boat U-23, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Krestchmer. Together they completed three successful patrols, sinking five ships and a destroyer for a total of 27,000 tons. By April 1941 when Tiesenhausen had been given command of the U-331, he was already a decorated hero having received the Iron Cross '2nd Class' as well as the U-Boot's 'Kriegsabzeichen' in 1940. He had been given command of the U-331 as soon as she was built, as reward for his heroic career thus far.
To an outsider, life on board the U-331 must have seemed nightmarish. The crew had no extra clothing, nor any way of washing dirty clothes. Every item of clothing they had was soon dirty, and would stay that way until the end of the mission. Fresh water was in tight supply and little was used for hygiene, after a few days out on patrol their hair and beards would soon become matted with diesel oil and grime. The submarine was filled with the stench of diesel oil and human sweat, mixed with the odor of cooked foods. While on the surface, a U-boat was tossed about like a fisherman's cork, bobbing, rolling and being shaken about to test every seam. No one could walk even the shortest of distance without the use of handrails. Unless stored properly every item of equipment from cookware to personal gear was thrown about and ruined. Submerged the ride was relatively smooth.
The helm was located next to the ladder connecting the conning tower to the bridge, each time the hatch was opened or closed, the helmsman was drenched with seawater. Submerged the heating and ventilation systems were inadequate, and every thing in the U-boat was soon damp and clammy. For a crew of some 60 men, there was one toilet and often a line waiting to use it. When they first sailed every inch of space would be filled with food, even the torpedo room was filled with bread, cheese and meat hanging due to space limits. Soon, the fresh food would go off molding and rotting adding to the stench.
No matter how bad the voyage was there was some comfort to be had in knowing that upon return, clean beds and extended rest would be given as a special reward. The young men of the crew took great pride in the role they had earned. Many had started out in the Hitler youth program. They were tested beyond most human boundaries before being accepted into the U-boat service. So strict was their training, even the slightest mistake would result in their expulsion from the service. The fact that the U-331 was seeing action in the Mediterranean Sea was a source of great pride. The narrow entrance through the Straits of Gibraltar was the trickiest to pass due to the heavy security of the British Navy. Constant air flights, mine fields and patrols made the passage extremely difficult. Further more; should Germany lose their bases in Italy, they would be cut-off with little chance of exiting the Mediterranean.
The HMS Barham had been sunk on November 25, 1941. Ironically almost one year to the day, November 17, 1942 still serving in the Mediterranean north of Algiers. The U-331 still commanded by Tiesenhausen was badly damaged by a Hudson aircraft. Tiesenhausen signaled surrender to the seaplane, but was then attacked by the torpedo-equipped aircraft “Albacore” flying in from the British aircraft carrier HMS Formidable. Tiesenhausen was one of only 17 survivors; the other 32 members of his crew did not survive the attack by the Albacore.
It was the end of the war for Tiesenhausen who spent time as a prisoner first in England and then for three years in Canada. In 1947 he returned to Germany and worked as a joiner. During the autumn of 1951 he left Germany and went back to Canada, and there he lived for the rest of his life. He died on August 17, 2000 in West Vancouver, Canada.
When the HMS Barham was sunk on 25 November 1941, the Admiralty knew about it almost immediately. They also knew hours later that the German High Command did not know the Barham had been sunk. This prompted Navy Intelligence not to release the news of the Barham sinking, even to the families of the deceased for quite sometime.
The Admiralty's cover-up began on 25 November 1941, at which time they sent out letters of condolence asking the bereaved not to announce the news, and to keep it confidential awaiting the "official announcement". However they hadn’t considered the news being made public clairvoyantly in a séance held by Helen Duncan. Questions were asked at the Admiralty and they were forced to make the “official announcement” at the end of January 1942, earlier than they would otherwise have liked.
Here is the official text of those letters. Each of the families of the 861 men lost received such letters, leaving a large paper trail to prove that a cover-up did occur. The crewman's name has been deleted.
First letter (Condolence):
6th December 1941
I am commanded by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to inform you that they have learned, with regret, that your husband, (deleted here), Royal Navy, is presumed to have lost his life as the result of enemy action on Tuesday, 25th November 1941.
My Lords desires me to express to you their deep regret at receiving this intelligence and their profound sympathy in the great loss that you have sustained.
I am further to ask that for the time being you should not communicate this sad news to any but your immediate relatives, who should similarly be asked to regard it as highly confidential. My Lords feel obliged to make this request because it is most essential that information about the action which led to the loss of your husband’s life, should not find its way to the enemy until such time as it is officially announced, or until your husband's name is on an official casualty list.
I am, Madam, Your obedient Servant, (signature not
Second letter (The Official Announcement):
27th January 1942
The Admiralty have released to the press this afternoon the news of the loss of the Barham, so need no longer ask you to maintain silence on the matter.
I know Their Lordships are most grateful to you for complying with their request for secrecy, which must have added greatly to your distress at this time.
(Signature not legible)
The cover-up propaganda of the Barham sinking was in it-self, not unusual, many such cover-ups occurred during the war to confuse German Intelligence. What was unusual was the way in which the Intelligence Agencies later pursued Helen Duncan because of her psychic abilities.
Helen Duncan was born in a small Scottish town called Callander on the 25th of November 1897. She was the daughter of a master cabinetmaker who like many others during those times, struggled to earn a living and feed a large family. By the start of the First World War in 1914, Helen had begun to develop her psychic abilities and soon became a sought after medium. She had that rare and special gift of being a vehicle for physical phenomena. Using her spirit guide Albert, once in a trance she would produce strange and eerie ectoplasmic materialization’s, often in the appearance of a dead person’s likeness. In this way she brought messages of comfort to many grieving friends and relatives.
Just before the end of the War, Helen met and married her husband Henry, who had been injured during the fighting and returned home disabled. During the privations of the post war years times were hard for the Duncan’s, and Henry like Helen's father, was another cabinetmaker struggling to make a living and support his growing family. Despite his disability theirs was a loving marriage and Duncan fell pregnant 12 times, however due to difficulties during pregnancies only six of the children survived. To sustain such a large family, Helen worked all day in a local bleach factory, returned home to complete her domestic duties, and then pursued her Spiritual work by night supplementing her income with token donations from grateful believers.
Helen's trade as a spiritualist medium was undoubtedly helped by the war, for at such times interest in the supernatural tends to rise. As her reputation grew many families concerned over the fate of their loved ones sought her services for comfort and advice. However, many still viewed the Spiritualist Movement with skepticism, for it was rife with tricksters and fraudsters. As such it was the fate of many practitioners, genuine or otherwise, to be reported as cheats to the law. So it was that Helen first came to the attention of the authorities in 1933, when after one particular séance she was charge and convicted of fraud.
By the start of the Second World War in 1939, Helen was again in great demand especially from those who had lost close family on active war service. Such was her popularity she was soon traveling the length and breadth of wartime Britain, holding regular séances in Spiritualist churches and private home circles. Many stories of these séances are told for the information she provided was astonishing. Dead loved ones appeared in physical form, spoke to and touched their earthly relatives, proving life after death and bringing comfort to thousands of traumatized and grieving wartime families.
Vincent Woodcock attended a séance with his sister-in-law and recounted one such story during her trial at the “Old Bailey”. “During the course of the demonstration he said, Helen slipped into a trance and began to produce a strange shape shifting ectoplasm which materialized in the image of my dead wife. It then called for my sister-in-law and I to stand up and when we complied it removed her wedding ring and placed it on her sister's finger. "It is my wish that this takes place for the sake of my little girl,” said the spirit. A year later we were married and returned for a further séance, during which my dead wife reappeared and gave us her renewed blessings”.
Not all the stories of her séances were as touching, for
two in particular came to the attention of the authorities.
The first was held in
Edinburgh during May
1941 and was attended by Brigadier
R. C. Firebrace. Firebrace was a
paranormal enthusiast who was later to publish several works on astrology.
He reported that while in a trance, Helen passed on news that a British
battleship had been sunk. Firebrace
learned shortly afterwards that HMS Hood had just been sunk with a loss of over
1100 lives. He reported the facts
of the séance to the Intelligence Agencies.
the time the Intelligence Agencies viewed such things as Spiritualism with
skepticism, particularly on this occasion for Helen
hadn’t revealed the name of the ship and indeed many ships were being lost
during that time. It was flimsy
evidence of true clairvoyance, but enough
for the Intelligence Agencies to take an interest in her activities.
The second story involves a séance that took place in November the same year. During this séance a sailor manifested itself wearing the hatband of HMS Barham. It told those assembled that his ship had been sunk. Stories of this séance vary. Some versions have it that the sailor's mother was present and went to the Admiralty demanding to know why she had not been told of her son's death. Another version is that the editor of the “Psychic News” (The Spiritualist Movements weekly newspaper) heard about it and called the Admiralty. Whichever the case, the Admiralty was forced to make the “Official Announcement” of the sinking at the end of January 1942, much earlier than they would otherwise have liked.
The effects of the Barham incident was to cause the Intelligence Agencies much concern. While they had been skeptical before, now they believed, and began to monitor her séances much more closely, even sending in personnel to report on her progress. By 1944 invasion plans for Europe were well advanced and the D-day assault on Normandy was imminent. As such the Intelligence Agencies grew more and more paranoid and began to view Helen Duncan as a risk to national security. Fearing she might clairvoyantly reveal the dates and beeches of the Normandy landings, they conspired to have her arrested and incarcerated out of harms way.
On the 19th of January 1944,
Helen was booked to give an evening séance at a private house
in Portsmouth, the homeport of Britain's Royal Naval fleet.
It was a dangerous place to hold such meetings for it was a prim target
of the German Luftwaffe. Constant
bombing raids were reducing Portsmouth to rubble in their efforts to disable the
British fleet. As she made her way
through the cluttered bombed out streets accompanied by three of her friends and
assistants, they little realized the real danger lay not in a hail of enemy
bombs, but with the skepticism and fear of the establishment (“The
R. Worth of the Royal Navy attended this séance
and paid 50 shillings for two tickets (about £5.00 each in
today’s money). On
the premise of suspected fraud, he passed the second ticket to a
policeman who also attended dressed in plain cloths. During the course of the evening when Helen
went into trance and started to materialize the ectoplasm,
the policeman jumped up out of his chair blowing his whistle and launching a
police raid. During the mêlée
that followed the policeman dashed forward and made an unsuccessful grab for the
ectoplasm believing it to be a white sheet and thus exposing a con trick.
However the spirit form was too quick and dematerialized before he could
get to it. A subsequent fingertip
search of the room after the raid, failed to discover any white sheets or other
Duncan together with her three assistants were arrested and taken before
Portsmouth magistrates. Initially
they were charged with offences under the Vagrancy Act, the preferred statute of
choice for the prosecution of paranormal fraud and often used against mediums, palmists,
crystal gazers and the like. Under
normal circumstances if she had been found guilt under this charge, all she would
have received was a fine and then been released. But these were not normal circumstances, and the
establishment (“The Intelligence Agencies”) had an old grudge to settle, they
didn’t want her walking free. To
the astonishment of all who knew her, Helen was refused bail and remanded,
then sent to London and forced to spend four days in that notorious
women's prison called Holloway.
the anxious establishment debated what best charges to use against her.
On her first appearance before the Portsmouth magistrates she had been
charged under the catchall act of Vagrancy.
This was later amended to one of Conspiracy, which in wartime Britain
carried the ultimate sentence of death by hanging.
But by the time her case had been referred to England's central criminal
court, the “Old Bailey”, the charges had been changed yet again.
This time to one of Witchcraft, and the old Witchcraft Act of 1735 was
dragged out of dusty law libraries. Under
this antiquated Act, Helen was accused of pretending “to exercise or use human
conjuration so that the spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be
prosecution was determined to prove Helen a fraud and fearing this single charge
might falter, scoured through their dusty law precedents for further charges.
One such was the Larceny Act, which they used to accuse her of taking
money “by falsely pretending she was in a position to bring about the
appearances of these spirits of deceased persons”.
The trial was set for April 1944 and would last a grueling seven days.
The Spiritualist Movement was up in arms, angry that one of their most
respected and gifted practitioners should be treated in this way.
A defense fund was quickly raised and used to bring witnesses from all
over the world to testify about her genuine gifts.
Because of this her case drew the attention of the media and was
a welcome distraction from the privations of wartime reporting, sensationalized
daily headlines appeared in tabloids and broad sheets alike.
indication that this was no ordinary case was a rare example of cross border
co-operation between the Law Societies, the senior legal bar councils of England
and Scotland, who jointly declared the case to be a travesty of justice.
As a debunking exercise the case failed miserably.
Skeptics must have winced at the daily reporting as the defense called in
witness after witness to testify that “dead” relatives had materialized
during her séances, giving absolute proof of their continued existence.
One witness was Kathleen McNeill, the wife of a Glaswegian forge master
who told how she had attended such a séance during which her sister appeared.
Her sister had died after an operation just a few hours previously and
news of her death could not have been known.
Yet Albert, Helen’s spirit guide announced that she had just passed
In an effort to prove these manifestations were naught but
the clever trick of a fraudster, the prosecution brought in Harry Price a noted
psychic investigator. Amid a deal
of instrumentation and camerawork he contrived to eliminate most of the obvious
means whereby the trick could have been done.
He concluded with his regurgitation theory, suggesting that before a séance
Duncan was swallowing “butter Muslin” or “cheese cloth”, which she used
to fake the ectoplasm by bringing it back later as required.
That would certainly account for the fact that nothing was ever found
during the course of pre-séance examinations, for which Duncan insisted on
being naked, though some commented later that she smelled odd.
It also accounts for why nothing was ever found during the searches after
the séances. On top of that there
is a long and honorable (if slightly nauseating) history of regurgitation acts,
mostly in the carnival freak shows of the US grind show circuit.
the penultimate day of the trial the defense was ready to call their star
witnesses. Alfred Dodd was an
academic and a much-respected author of works on Shakespeare's sonnets, he told
the court that during 1932 and 1940 he had been a regular guest at Helen
Duncan's home séances. At one of
these sittings his grandfather had materialized, a tall, corpulent man with a
bronzed face and smoking cap, hair dressed in his customary donkey-fringe.
After speaking with his grandson the spirit then turned to his friend Tom
and said, “Look into my face and into my eyes.
Now ask Alfred to show you my portrait”.
It was the same man.
equally respected journalists, James Herries and Hannen Swaffer were next to be
called and take their places in the witness box. The chain smoking Swaffer had already won acclaim as the
acerbic un-crowned father of Fleet Street (home of England's newspaper quarter)
and was a co-founder of the Spiritualist weekly "Psychic News",
ridiculing Harry Price’s testimony he told the court that anyone who described
ectoplasm as “butter Muslim” was being childish.
Under the red light of a séance room it would have looked yellow or
pink, whilst these spirit forms all displayed a white appearance.
Herries was a Justice of the Peace and a much-respected psychic investigator of
some 20 years standing; he was also the chief reporter of the prestigious and
influential "Scotsman" broad sheet.
He too ridiculed Harry Price and affirmed that he had seen Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle, famed author of the Sherlock Holmes books materialize at one of
Helen's séances. He had especially
noted the distinctive Doyle’s rounded features, moustache and equally
unmistakable gravely voice, “butter Muslim” cannot imitate a voice he told
Wisely or otherwise the defense decided that the best test of Helen Duncan's genuine gifts was for her to give a demonstration of physical phenomena, and from the witness box of England's Central Criminal Court, the “Old Bailey”. This suggestion caused a deal of apprehension among the establishment, who were already suffering from all the media attention the case had attracted. If she pulled it off they debated, then instead of the censure they sought, her cause would be spread throughout the land and even beyond. And this would mean that the famed British legal system adopted by so many former colonies - including America - would be held to total ridicule.
the night they held hurried conferences with their best legal minds. Their
solution was to reject this offer and suggest instead that Helen Duncan be
called as a witness, thus giving the prosecution an opportunity to cross examine
her, and in doing so attempt to destroy her credibility.
But Helen's defense lawyers saw through this ploy, and pointed out that
Helen couldn’t testify on her own account, since she was in a trance state
during these séances she could not therefore discuss what had transpired.
The jury took only half an hour to reach their verdict. Helen and her co-defendants were found “Guilty” of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act of 1735, but “Not Guilty” on all other charges. Portsmouth's Chief of Police was then called in before sentencing and asked to describe this new criminal's background. He reported that Mrs. Duncan was married to a cabinetmaker and had a family of six children ranging from 18-26, and that she had been visiting Portsmouth for some five years. He then described her as "an unmitigated humbug and pest", and revealed that in 1941 she had been reported for announcing the loss of one of His Majesty's ships before the fact had been publicly known. The presiding judge announced a weekend's delay whilst he considered sentence. Helen was helped from the dock weeping in her broad Scottish accent, "I’ve never heard so many lies in my life".
following Monday morning the judge declared, “that the verdict had not been
concerned with whether genuine manifestations of any kind are possible, this
court has nothing whatever to do with such abstract questions“.
However he interpreted the jury's findings to mean that Helen Duncan had
been involved in plain dishonesty and for this reason he sentenced her to nine
months imprisonment. The shocked Spiritualist Movement immediately demanded an
appeal. They felt that she had been
prosecuted merely to stop any "presumed" leakage of classified wartime information, as for example
the sinking of HMS Barham, and not for dishonesty.
right of appeal to the House of Lords, Britain's highest court of appeal, was
denied. The establishment had
achieved its objective and an appeal would only cause more unwanted publicity.
Helen was sent back to London's Holloway prison to serve her sentence.
Holloway is a Victorian monstrosity used to house some of Britain’s
most notorious female prisoners, as indeed it is still being used today.
It was this same Victorian goal where the suffragettes had been
forced-fed by prison warders, and where the grisly gallows still stood waiting
for female murderers, spies and traitors. Not
only had the best legal minds in the country felt this case a miscarriage of
justice, so too did her prison warders. They refused to “bang her up” and
for the entire nine months of her sentence, Helen’s prison cell door was never
once locked. What's more she continued to apply her psychic gifts as a
constant steam of warders and inmates made their way to her cell for spiritual
Many senior Spiritualists who were close to Helen reported that it was not only prisoners and staff who made the pilgrimage to Helen’s cell. So too did some of her more notable sitters, including Britain's Prime Minister, 'Sir Winston Churchill'. Churchill was no stranger to psychic phenomena. Recalling an event during the Boer War when he had been captured and was later escaping seeking sanctuary. He explains in his autobiography how he was "guided by some form of mental planchette (a Spiritualist tool) to the only house in a 30 mile radius that was sympathetic to the British cause". Had he knocked on the back door of any other house he would have been arrested, returned to the Boer commanders and shot as an escaping prisoner of war. Many years prior to this he had been ordained into the Grand Ancient Order of Druids, and throughout his life he experienced many times that his psychic sixth sense had saved his life.
Churchill was angry indeed when the Helen Duncan case began. He penned an irate ministerial note to the Home Secretary, "Give me a report of the 1735 Witchcraft Act. What was the cost of a trial to the State in which the Recorder (junior magistrate) was kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery and to the detriment of the necessary work in the courts?" But his civil servants were over-ridden by the all -powerful intelligence community. D-Day was coming and their levels of paranoia had reached an all time high, even the Prime Minister's anger was set aside. Helen Duncan, mother of six and a part time bleach factory employee, was considered a risk to national security and they wanted her out of the way when the Allies struck.
served her full sentence Helen Duncan was released on the 22nd
September 1945, vowing never to give another séance. Despite her declaration, within a few months she felt a
strong call from the Spirit World to continue her work and was soon spending
more time than ever in trance states. Perhaps
too much, for the quality of her séances began to deteriorate and at one stage
the Spiritualist's Movements governing National Union, actually withdrew her
Spiritualist friends say that during his visits to her cell, Sir Winston
Churchill had made promises to make amends to Helen, he didn’t forget, but his
promise had to wait a few more years to be fulfilled. During the general election held on the 26th July
1945, Churchill lost his position and Clement Attlee in a Labour landslide
victory became Prime Minister. At
the next general election held on the 25th Oct 1951, Churchill
regained his position as Prime Minister and true to his promise to Helen, one of
the first things he did was to repeal the damning Witchcraft Act of 1735.
In its place came the Fraudulent Mediums Act and some four years later in
1954 by formal Act of Parliament, Spiritualism was officially recognized as a
Spiritualists everywhere knew why and they rejoiced that whilst frauds would be properly prosecuted under the new Act, the authorities could now stop harassing true working Mediums. But sadly they were wrong. In November 1956 police raided a séance in Nottingham, during which they grabbed the presiding medium, strip searched her and took endless flashlight photographs of her. They shouted at her that they were looking for beards, masks and shrouds, but nothing was found. The medium was Helen Duncan and in their ignorance the police had committed the worst possible sin of physical phenomena, that a medium in trance must NEVER, ever be touched. If this happens the ectoplasm returns to the medium's body far too quickly and can cause immense, sometimes even fatal damage.
And so it was in this case. A doctor was summonsed and discovered two second-degree burns across Helen's stomach. She was so ill that she was immediately taken back to her Scottish home and later rushed to hospital. Five weeks later on the 6th December 1956, Helen Duncan died having never recovered from that final police raid.
Overtime Helen Duncan’s unwarranted conviction and
resulting disgrace was never forgotten nor forgiven by her friends and family.
In an effort to restore her name and respectability, Helen Duncan’s 72
year old granddaughter “Mary Martin” started a campaign in 1999 to petition
Britain's ‘then’ Home Secretary “Jack Straw”, to overturned her
conviction and grant her a full pardon. Sadly
that petition was turned down.
Undaunted by this rejection Mary Martin is determined to
try again, and has started a new campaign bolstered this time with support from
Dr. Gordon Prestoungrange, a holder of a medieval Scottish baronetcy.
In 2004, Dr. Prestoungrange used his position as the local baron in the
coastal town of Prestonpans to pardon 81 local women and men executed for
witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Prestonpans has been closely associated with the injustices
of witchcraft persecutions over the centuries, and the pardons were granted with
authority from the Barons Courts of Prestoungrange and Dolphinstoun.
An annual commemorative ceremony for the persecuted ‘witches’ now
takes place at the Prestoungrange Gothenburg, the town’s cultural hub and
premier pub and restaurant, where murals have also been created in their honour
Last year 2006 was the 50th Anniversary of Helen Duncan’s death, and by popular consent the Prestoungrange Arts Festival resolved to give what help it could to Mary Martin and her campaign for Helen Duncan's Pardon. On the 27th of December 2006, a new Petition was launched on the Prestoungrange website, and all those who would like to the support the campaign are asked to register their support there (details below). The Glasgow Herald and Edinburgh Evening News both reported the campaigns launch, and media in Portsmouth where Helen Duncan was first tried, also gave details of the Petition. More recently as this campaign gathers momentum, all who have shown concern will be pleased to learn that The Guardian have also joined the cause and took up the case with a full page national news story on January 13th 2007.
information about this campaign can be found at:
you wish to support the campaign to achieve a Pardon for Helen Duncan, please
As yet to be added
First published on the 19 June 2003, 19:47:18 © George Knowles
Best wishes and Blessed Be
Site Contents - Links to all Pages
A Universal Message:
Let there be peace in the world - Where have all the flowers gone?
Wicca & Witchcraft
The Wiccan Rede / Charge of the Goddess / Charge of the God / The Three-Fold Law (includes The Law of Power and The Four Powers of the Magus) / The Witches Chant / The Witches Creed / Descent of the Goddess / Drawing Down the Moon / The Great Rite Invocation / Invocation of the Horned God / The 13 Principles of Wiccan Belief / The Witches Rede of Chivalry / A Pledge to Pagan Spirituality
Traditions Part 1 - Alexandrian Wicca / Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC) / Ár Ndraíocht Féin (ADF) / Blue Star Wicca / British Traditional (Druidic Witchcraft) / Celtic Wicca / Ceremonial Magic / Chaos Magic / Church and School of Wicca / Circle Sanctuary / Covenant of the Goddess (COG) / Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) / Cyber Wicca / Dianic Wicca / Eclectic Wicca / Feri Wicca /
Traditions Part 2 - Gardnerian Wicca / Georgian Tradition / Henge of Keltria / Hereditary Witchcraft / Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (H.O.G.D.) / Kitchen Witch (Hedge Witch) / Minoan Brotherhood and Minoan Sisterhood Tradition / Nordic Paganism / Pagan Federation / Pectic-Wita / Seax-Wica / Shamanism / Solitary / Strega / Sylvan Tradition / Vodoun or Voodoo / Witches League of Public Awareness (WLPA) /
Other things of interest:
Gods and Goddesses (Greek Mythology) / Esbats & Full Moons / Links to Personal Friends & Resources / Wicca/Witchcraft Resources / What's a spell? / Circle Casting and Sacred Space / Pentagram - Pentacle / Marks of a Witch / The Witches Power / The Witches Hat / An esoteric guide to visiting London / Satanism / Pow-wow / The Unitarian Universalist Association / Numerology: Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / A history of the Malleus Maleficarum: includes: Pope Innocent VIII / The papal Bull / The Malleus Maleficarum / An extract from the Malleus Maleficarum / The letter of approbation / Johann Nider’s Formicarius / Jacob Sprenger / Heinrich Kramer / Stefano Infessura / Montague Summers / The Waldenses / The Albigenses / The Hussites / The Native American Sun Dance / Shielding (Occult and Psychic Protection) /
Sabbats and Festivals:
The Sabbats in History and Mythology / Samhain (October 31st) / Yule (December 21st) / Imbolc (February 2nd) / Ostara (March 21st) / Beltane (April 30th) / Litha (June 21st) / Lammas/Lughnasadh (August 1st) / Mabon (September 21st)
Rituals contributed by Crone:
Animals in Witchcraft (The Witches Familiar) / Antelope / Bats / Crow / Fox / Frog and Toads / Goat / Honeybee / Kangaroo / Lion / Owl / Phoenix / Rabbits and Hares / Raven / Robin Redbreast / Sheep / Spider / Squirrel / Swans / Wild Boar / Wolf / Serpent / Pig / Stag / Horse / Mouse / Cat
In Worship of Trees - Myths, Lore and the Celtic Tree Calendar. For descriptions and correspondences of the thirteen sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft see the following: Birch / Rowan / Ash / Alder / Willow / Hawthorn / Oak / Holly / Hazel / Vine / Ivy / Reed / Elder
Rocks and Stones:
Stones - History, Myths and Lore
Articles contributed by Patricia Jean Martin:
Apophyllite / Amber / Amethyst / Aquamarine / Aragonite / Aventurine / Black Tourmaline / Bloodstone / Calcite / Carnelian / Celestite / Citrine / Chrysanthemum Stone / Diamond / Emerald / Fluorite / Garnet / Hematite / Herkimer Diamond / Labradorite / Lapis Lazuli / Malachite / Moonstone / Obsidian / Opal / Pyrite / Quartz (Rock Crystal) / Rose Quartz / Ruby / Selenite / Seraphinite / Silver and Gold / Smoky Quartz / Sodalite / Sunstone / Thunderegg / Tree Agate / Zebra Marble
Wisdom and Inspiration:
Articles and Stories about Witchcraft:
Murdered by Witchcraft / The Fairy Witch of Clonmel / A Battleship, U-boat, and a Witch / The Troll-Tear (A story for Children) / Goody Hawkins - The Wise Goodwife / The Story of Jack-O-Lantern / The Murder of the Hammersmith Ghost / Josephine Gray (The Infamous Black Widow) / The Two Brothers - Light and Dark
Old Masters of Academia:
(Ancient, Past and Present)
(Departed Pagan Pioneers, Founders, Elders and Others)
Abramelin the Mage / Agrippa / Aidan A Kelly / Albertus Magnus - “Albert the Great” / Aleister Crowley - “The Great Beast” / Alex Sanders - “King of the Witches” / Alison Harlow / Amber K / Anna Franklin / Anodea Judith / Anton Szandor LaVey / Arnold Crowther / Arthur Edward Waite / Austin Osman Spare / Biddy Early / Bridget Cleary - The Fairy Witch of Clonmel / Carl " Llewellyn" Weschcke / Cecil Hugh Williamson / Charles Godfrey Leland / Charles Walton / Christina Oakley Harrington / Damh the Bard - "Dave Smith" / Dion Fortune / Dolores Aschroft-Nowicki / Doreen Valiente / Dorothy Morrison / Dr. John Dee & Edward Kelly / Dr. Leo Louis Martello / Edward Fitch / Eleanor Ray Bone - “Matriarch of British Witchcraft” / Eliphas Levi / Ernest Thompson Seton / Ernest Westlake / Fiona Horne / Friedrich von Spee / Francis Barrett / Gavin and Yvonne Frost and the School and Church of Wicca / Gerald B. Gardner - The father of contemporary Witchcraft / Gwydion Pendderwen / Hans Holzer / Helen Duncan / Herman Slater - Horrible Herman / Isaac Bonewits / Israel Regardie / James "Cunning" Murrell - The Master of Witches / Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone / Jessie Wicker Bell - “Lady Sheba” / Johannes Junius - "The Burgomaster of Bamberg" / John Belham-Payne / John George Hohman - "Pow-wow" / John Gerard / John Gordon Hargrave and the Kibbo Kith Kindred / John Michael Greer / John Score / Joseph John Campbell / Karl von Eckartshausen / Laurie Cabot - "the Official Witch of Salem" / Lewis Spence / Margaret Alice Murray / Margot Adler / Marie Laveau - " the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans" / Marion Weinstein / Matthew Hopkins - “The Witch-Finder General” / Max Ehrmann and the "Desiderata" / Monique Wilson / Montague Summers / Nicholas Culpeper / Nicholas Remy / M. R. Sellars / Mrs. Maud Grieve - "A Modern Herbal" / Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory / Old Dorothy Clutterbuck / Old George Pickingill / Paddy Slade / Pamela Colman-Smith / Paracelsus / Patricia Crowther / Patricia Monaghan / Patricia “Trish” Telesco / Philip Heselton / Raymond Buckland / Reginald Scot / Robert Cochrane / Robert ‘von Ranke’ Graves and the "The White Goddess" / Rosaleen Norton - “The Witch of Kings Cross” / Ross Nichols and the " Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids" (OBOD) / Rudolf Steiner / Sabrina Underwood - "The Ink Witch" / Scott Cunningham / Selena Fox - founder of "Circle Sanctuary" / Silver Ravenwolf / Sir Francis Dashwood / Sir James George Frazer and the " The Golden Bough" / S.L. MacGregor Mathers and the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” / Starhawk / Stewart Farrar / Sybil Leek / Ted Andrews / The Mather Family - (includes: Richard Mather, Increase Mather and Cotton Mather ) / Thomas Ady / T. Thorn Coyle / Vera Chapman / Victor & Cora Anderson and the " Feri Tradition" / Vivianne Crowley / Walter Brown Gibson / William Butler Yeats / Zsuzsanna Budapest /
Many of the above biographies are briefs and far from complete. If you know about any of these individuals and can help with additional information, please contact me privately at my email address below. Many thanks for reading :-)
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