Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Socialism in the Midlands
In 1881 Frank Podmore met Edward Pease, a young stockbroker, at a Spiritualist meeting in London. They discovered a mutual interest in socialism, and joined the Progressive Association, founded in November 1882. They took a keen interest in the utopian philosophy of Thomas Davidson, and with a few others formed a society, the Fellowship of the New Life. Other members included Edward Carpenter, Edith Lees, Edith Nesbit, Isabella Ford, Henry Hyde Champion, Hubert Bland, Henry Stephens Salt (interestingly, Nesbit was a member of the occult society Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn).
In 1882 Pease and Podmore attended the founding meeting of the Society for Psychical Research (http://www.spr.ac.uk/main/). For the first year of its history Pease served as Hon. Secretary of the SPR Haunted House committee and Podmore went on to become one of the leading lights of the SPR and Victorian psychical research.
In October 1883 Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland decided to form a socialist debating group with their Quaker friend Edward Pease. They were joined by Frank Podmore and Havelock Ellis and in January 1884 they decided to call themselves the Fabian Society. In January 1884 the group became known as the Fabian Society and Podmore’s home at 14 Dean’s Yard, Westminster, became the organisation’s first official headquarters. The Fabians are still going today (http://www.fabians.org.uk/), although I’m not sure how keen they would be to own up to their past!
George Bernard Shaw joined the Fabian Society in August 1884. Shaw is perhaps a good example of the cross-over of interests: “Thus I have attended a Fabian meeting, gone on to hear the end of a Psychical Research meeting, and finished by sleeping in a haunted house with a committee of ghost hunters”.
The historian Alex Owen, who has made a careful study of the period notes:
“It was considered perfectly feasible at the turn of the century to adhere to a communitarian vision and socialist principles while espousing a belief in an unseen spirit world…”
The Midlands region of Central England didn’t go unaffected by this heady mix of spiritualism, socialism and radical theological thought.
Joanna Southcott (1750-1814)
Joanna Southcott was born in 1750 in Devon. She rose to prominence when she claimed to be the fulfilment of the prophecy in the Book of Revelation by being “the woman clothed with the Sun…” and would give birth to the new messiah. In 1814 at the age of 64 she announced to her followers that she was carrying the messiah. Medical examinations carried out at the time, even by the Royal Surgeon, did indeed seem to confirm that she was pregnant. Joanna became a cause célèbre and the butt of many cruel jokes. Throughout all of this, her greatest supporter was the Rev. Thomas Foley from Oldswinford, near Stourbridge. Joanna visited Foley at Oldswinford rectory in 1803. Such a trusted supporter was Foley that he kept Joanna’s sealed box of prophesies at the rectory. (Hopkins, 1982) Following the death of Joanna, certain elements of her millenarian beliefs were taken up by the Owenite followers of Robert Owen. The cross-over between these radical beliefs is best seen at the former Lawrence Street Chapel, Birmingham. Originally a chapel for the followers of Joanna Southcott it was then taken over by the Owenites, then the Chartist movement and then, before it was demolished, by the Unitarians.
Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927)
Victoria Claflin, the sixth of ten children, was born in Homer, Ohio, on 23rd September, 1838. When Victoria was a child the family was forced to leave Homer after her father, Reuben Claflin, was accused of an insurance fraud. She received very little education and spent most of her childhood with her family’s travelling medicine show. At the age of fifteen Victoria married Canning Woodhull. The following year she gave birth to Byron Woodhull. Over the next few years she earned a living by telling fortunes, selling patent medicines and performing a spiritualist act with her sister, Tennessee Claflin. Woodhull promoted women’s suffrage and other radical causes such as the 8 hour work day, graduated income tax, and profit sharing. Woodhull also exposed fraudulent activities that were then rampant in the stock market. Woodhull became the leader of the International Working Men’s Association (the First International) in New York City and in 1872 controversially became the first person to publish The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
Woodhull was nominated for President of the United States by the newly formed Equal Rights Party on May 10, 1872. A year earlier, she had announced her intention to run. Also in 1871, she spoke publicly against the government being composed only of men; she proposed developing a new constitution and a new government a year thence. They nominated the former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass for Vice President. This made her the first women candidate. Victoria Woodhull became an advocate of free love; the idea that a person has the right to stay with a person only so long as they choose, and that they can choose another (monogamous) relationship when they choose to move on. She met Colonel James Harvey Blood, also a Spiritualist and advocate of free love; they are said to have married in 1866 though no record has been found of them actually marrying. Victoria Woodhull (she kept using her first husband’s name), Captain Blood, and Victoria’s sister, Tennessee, and mother moved to New York City, when Victoria reported that Demosthenes, in a vision, told her to move there. In New York City, Victoria established a popular salon where many of the city’s intellectual elite gathered. There she became acquainted with Stephen Pearl Andrews, an advocate of both free love and Spiritualism as well of women’s rights, and a Congressman, Benjamin F. Butler, who was an advocate of women’s rights and free love. Victoria also became more and more interested in women’s rights and woman suffrage (the right to vote). In 1878 Woodhull moved to England. She continued to campaign for women’s rights and in 1895 she established the Humanitarian newspaper. Victoria Woodhull died on 9th June, 1927 in the Worcestershire village of Bredon’s Norton.
Edith Holden (1871-1920)
Edith Blackwell Holden (1871–1920) was born in Warwickshire in 1871. She was an art teacher, known in her time as an illustrator of children’s books. Much influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, she specialized in painting animals and plants. Holden was made famous by the posthumous publication, in 1977, of her Nature Notes for 1906 under the title The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. She was living in Kineton Green Road, Olton, Solihull in 1905-6 when she recorded the notes. The collection of seasonal observations, poetry, and pictures of birds, plants, and insects – which was never even considered for publication when it was composed – had the nostalgic charm of a vanished world seven decades later. It was a best seller.
Edith’s mother, a Unitarian, was Emma Wearing, a former governess who wrote two religious books, ‘Ursula’s Childhood’ and ‘Beatrice of St. Mawse’, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Her father, a Unitarian, was Arthur Holden, owner of a factory in Birmingham and a philanthropist. Edith’s middle name honoured the pioneer woman physician, Elizabeth Blackwell, also a Unitarian and the Holdens’ cousin. The Holden family attended the Birmingham Labour Church. Like many religious liberals of the 19th century, the Holdens were interested in spiritualism. Mrs. Holden practiced automatic writing. Upon the death of their mother, her daughters began to receive automatic writing messages from her, which her father published in a book called ‘Messages from the Unseen’. On Tuesday, 16 March 1920, she was found drowned in a backwater of the River Thames, near Kew Gardens Walk.
Rev. John Page Hopps (1834-1911)
Hopps was born in London on 6th November 1834. He was trained for the Baptist ministry, but after a short pastorate at Hugglescote, Leicestershire, left it to become assistant minister to George Dawson at the Church of the Saviour, Birmingham. Thereafter he was called to Unitarian congregations. For a short time he issued a small magazine called ‘Daybreak’, the editorship of which he relinquished to James Burns who changed the name to ‘The Medium and Daybreak’. For a period Hopps was President of the Manchester Progressive Spiritualist Society. In his book ‘Death a Delusion’ he reveals his mothers gift for automatic writing and how, at the age of fourteen he became interested in the writings of Swedenborg. Conversations he had with Sir William Crookes and Alfred Russell Wallace about Spiritualism and psychical research seemed to have impressed him. Towards the end of his life he was considered ‘one of the pillars’ of the London Spiritualist Alliance. The journal ‘Light’, published by the College of Psychic Studies was indebted to him for many contributions during a number of years.
Edmund Dawson Rogers (1823-1910)
Rogers was an English journalist and spiritualist born in Norfolk. He was the first editor of the Eastern Daily Press and the founder of the National Press Agency. In 1845, he went as a surgeon’s dispenser to Wolverhampton, where he joined the Staffordshire Mercury as a journalist.
In 1873, Rogers moved to London and at the request of leading members of the Liberal Party established the National Press Agency in Shoe Lane, remaining as manager until he retired in 1894.
About 1843 Rogers was introduced by Sir Isaac Pitman (of shorthand fame) to the work of Swedenborg. He went on to study mesmerism and mesmeric healing. He began to attend séances in 1869 with various mediums, especially Mrs Thomas Everitt and William Eglinton, and became a spiritualist. In 1873 he helped to form the British National Association of Spiritualists, and in 1881 founded the spiritualist journal ‘Light’, which he edited from 1894 until his death in 1910. In 1882 he founded the Society for Psychical Research, with Sir William Barrett. In 1884, he was a founding member of the London Spiritualist Alliance, afterwards the College of Psychic Studies (http://www.collegeofpsychicstudies.co.uk/), and was its president from 1892 until 1910.
I am very grateful to Dr. Sarah Edwards from the University of Strathclyde for her help in obtaining a copy of her article on Edith Holden. I am also grateful to Michelle Elaawar, Services Administrator and Paul Gaunt, Archivist at the College of Psychic Studies for their help. Also, Leslie Price, historian of the Theosophical and Spiritualist movements, for pointing me in the right direction, and finally Eric Hatton SNU, Honary President of the Spiritualists National Union for providing details of the social history of Spiritualism in Stourbridge during the late nineteenth century.
By David Taylor