Bewitched Bothered and Imprisoned

Bewitched Bothered and Imprisoned

Tue 22 May

Even Churchill was bemused when during the last year of World War Two, a clause of James I’s 1604 legislation that was imported into the 1735 Witchcraft Act was used to prosecute a woman for being a witch. Helen Duncan’s real crime, her supporters maintained, was that she had “brought through” sailors from a sunken vessel at a séance in Portsmouth in December 1941. In so doing she had unwittingly broken the law by acting as a channel for news that had been placed under a government D-Notice forbidding publication.

Many, both at the time and since, likened Helen’s case to the persecution of witches that swept the country in the 17th century. Did the authorities genuinely believe she had used supernatural forces, and suspect her of being a spy? Or did they simply want to silence a voice likely to spread panic and unease? Another question remains unanswered: Why did three years elapse between this séance and her trial, and why did that take place at the Old Bailey in London, and not at Porstmouth Assizes, the city where she was arrested?

Two of Mrs Duncan’s staunchest defenders were the editor of Psychic News, Maurice Barbanell and his friend Hannen Swaffer, at the time the most popular journalist in the land. Swaffer was a longtime Spiritualist, having been convinced of the existence of Other Worlds by no other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The two men met when Doyle claimed to have been contacted by Swaffer’s former employer, Alfred Harmsworth Lord Northcliffe, two years after the press baron’s death in 1924. Swaffer attended a series of séances in which conversations were conducted via a medium, and facts were verified by Northcliffe’s private secretary. This had convinced Swaffer that he was indeed conversing with the man who had first brought him to Fleet Street in 1902. He began to speak publically about Spiritualism, joining Conan Doyle on the platform at events at the Royal Albert Hall and HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

By the 1930s, Swaffer was holding séances at his home in St Martin’s Lane, with a circle of trusted friends, including Maurice Barbanell, with whom he conceived the idea of the Spiritualist newspaper Psychic News. Helen Duncan had come to their attention in 1931, when, as the latest sensation of the psychic world, she was publically tested in a series of séances held by the London Spiritualist Alliance.

These in turn caught the attention of arch sceptic Harry Price, the self-styled Ghost Hunter, who also ran tests on Helen at his National Laboratory for Psychical Research in Roland Gardens, South Kensington. The society ladies who witnessed a handcuffed Helen produce her ectoplasm for the LSA were a great deal more impressed than Price. His session ended in a punch-up between Helen and her husband Henry when she refused to be X-rayed. Price was an experienced stage magician and member of the Magic Circle. His 1932 paper Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship came complete with plates of Helen manifesting what Price was convinced was a length of cheesecloth. He claimed she had concealed it in her stomach to be brought back up when occasion demanded.

It was the coming of War in 1939 that tipped Helen's activities out of the darkened parlours of consenting adults and into the realm of criminality. The Home Defence Executive was established to coordinate activities between the Home Office, MI5, MI6, the police and Admiralty. By 1940 measures were being taken to tighten mutual security. All chief constables were instructed to report twice a month to their MI5 regional security liaison officer. Rumours, circulated in the Daily Sketch, that German agents were attending British séances swirled amid a general atmosphere of paranoia about spies and Fifth Columnists. Maurice Barbanell had a visit from plainclothes Scotland Yard officers, who had a friendly word with him about not publishing any information obtained from mediums.

Among those who had witnessed Helen’s feats for the LSA back in 1931 was Brigadier Roy Firebrace. He was now the head of Military Intelligence in Scotland. Firebrace, himself a Spiritualist, had been impressed. At the end of May 1941, he attended another, private séance in Edinburgh, during which Helen announced that a great British battleship had been sunk. Firebrace subsequently telephoned the Admiralty to check if she was right. He was duly informed of the nightmarish fate of HMS Hood, split in two in the Denmark Strait on the 24th by the German ship Bismark, with the loss of all but three of its crew.

Helen was particularly tuned into the navy. A few months later, on 2nd December 1941, she passed on a message from a sailor from the HMS Barham. This ship had been torpedoed by the Germans in the eastern Mediterranean on 25th November, with 868 killed.

It is possible that Firebrace had something to do with Helen’s subsequent prosecution. Officially, she started to be investigated in December 1943, by Portsmouth constabulary’s Detective Inspector Frederick Ford. He had received complaints about the Master Temple Psychic Centre in Portsmouth. It was run by chemist Edward Homer and his wife Elizabeth, from the rooms above their shop on Copnor Road. Concerned that his mother was being conned, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Lieutenant Stanley Worth had attended several services. The chemist’s wife told him that an amazing medium called Helen Duncan would be visiting in the New Year, and that tickets, already highly priced, were at a premium.

Worth and his friend Surgeon Lieutenant Elijah Fowler came back to the Master Temple on 14th January 1944. Before they were allowed into the room, their blackout torches were taken off them before they were given their assigned seats – which could be construed as ruses used by stage magicians to prepare “marks” in the audience. Once a hymn had been sung, Helen began her contact with the Other Side, sitting in a curtained cabinet in the centre of the dimly lit room. She produced a form that she told Worth was his Aunt, recently deceased from bowel trouble. Knowing all his aunts to be in rude health, Worth’s next visit was to Portsmouth Police Station, where he was interviewed by DI Ford.

Worth returned for Helen’s next sitting the following day, carrying a concealed torch, with another friend, War Reserve Constable Rupert Cross. While Ford waited outside, the Reservists waited for Helen to begin her manifestations before Cross threw open the curtains of the cabinet. With a flourish worthy of a stage magician, Worth shone his torch on Helen, revealing her pushing away yards of white fabric. He blew on a whistle, the cue for Ford to come in and arrest the medium on suspicion of contravening the Vagrancy Act by “pretending to hold communication with the spirits of deceased persons”. Helen was taken to Kingston Cross Police Station and cautioned, then put before the magistrate the next morning without representation. She was remanded in custody at Holloway prison until 25th January.

Swaffer and Barbanell swept into action. They brought in the Spiritualist King’s Council Charles Loseby to represent Helen at her next hearing. Police at Porstmouth Magistrates were surprised to see a barrister rush to her aid, still more by his argument that, by denying Helen bail and representation at her arrest they had presented her as a dangerous criminal. Helen was released and another hearing timetabled for 8th February.

DI Ford submitted a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Edward Tindal, in which information was amassed to support the case against her, including Harry Price’s paper and photographs. As a result, a charge of conspiracy to defraud was brought against her. This would lead to a jury trial and, in the event of a conviction, a custodial sentence. Helen was read this new charge at 10.50 on the morning of 8th February and promptly fainted. Fresh summons were issued and served that afternoon at the Homer's Master Temple above their chemist shop. The court was adjourned and a new date set for 29th February.

After the accused all pleaded not guilty, a trial was set at The Old Bailey. The barristers and Home Office framed an indictment, found in Section 4 of the Witchcraft Act: “…the more effectual preventing and punishing any pretences to such arts and powers”. All the Prosecution needed to prove was that Helen had pretended to conjure up the dead.

The trail began on 23rd March 1944 in the Blitz-damaged Old Bailey. The public gallery was bombed out of use, but eager spectators crammed into corridors and precincts and there was a distinctly showbiz dazzle to the proceedings. The DPP’s representative, JE Robey was the son of George, aka the “Prime Minister of Mirth”, Britain’s best-loved comedian. The presiding Recorder of London, Sir Gerald Dodson had a sideline writing light musical comedies, one of which had its Drury Lane premiere midway through the trial. And the Prosecuting KC John Maude was the dashing son of a well-known actor.

For Helen’s Defence, the less glamorous Loseby, a 62-year old who spoke in a voice made husky by a gas attack suffered in the trenches of the First World War, had mustered over fifty witnesses to testify to the medium’s veracity. These included high-ranking military men, noted scientists, society ladies – and of course, Swaffer.

But Loseby’s lengthy cross-examinations were routinely ridiculed by the Prosecution who made him appear dithering and bewildered next to the handsome and erudite Robey. The trial closed on 29th March, and when the summing-up came the next day, Helen and her co-defendants were all found guilty. Due to their previous good behavior, her Portsmouth hosts the Homers had their sentences suspended. Helen faced the return trip to Holloway alone. She was to serve ten months imprisonment made still more hellish by the onslaught of V2 attacks that had just commenced on the Capital.

Home Secretary Herbert Morrison received mountains of correspondence from a public outraged by Helen’s treatment – and so did Winston Churchill. Helen’s supporters often say that Churchill went to visit Helen in Holloway. While this has never been verified, he certainly sent his Home Secretary a personal minute that read:

Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost of this trial to the State, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London, for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of necessary work in the courts?

Churchill’s disgruntlement signaled a shifting of tectonic plates. By 1948, Clement Attlee’s succeeding Labour government stopped the police from being able to arrest suspected mediums. By 1951, the Witchcraft Act had been repealed and a Bill passed that finally made Spiritualism legitimate. Witchcraft, by whatever definition, ceased to be a crime.

Sadly, there would be no happy endings for the players in this story.

Helen Duncan passed beyond the veil on 6th December 1956, having failed to recover from the events of her last séance. It was given on 30th October at a private address in Nottingham, which was raided by police 20 minutes into her sitting. Following a lengthy interrogation and examination by a doctor, shaken to the core by the prospect of another prison sentence, Helen was taken to hospital and never came home again. On hearing the news of her demise, Charles Loseby issued a rare public statement that: “Helen Duncan was murdered!” Why the séance was raided remains yet another mystery. By strange coincidence, the raid took place less than 36 hours after the largest British military operation since D-Day, the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal. Perhaps the Secret Services were taking no chances that Helen might “leak” again…?

Swaffer continued to speak publically into his eighties, still writing for Psychic News as well as The Herald and The People. He died on 16th January 1962, having penned his own obituary. It opened with the words: He was an old bore…

Maurice Barbanell worked for Psychic News until his death in 1981. Like Swaffer with Northcliffe, he kept in touch with his old comrade in the afterlife. But Swaffer’s demise heralded the fading of Spiritualism itself. In 1961, the then editor of Psychic News Bill Neech summarised the losing of his religion thus: “Doyle died, the Second World War came and went. Swaffer stepped more and more out of public life, Spiritualism was recognized by an Act of Parliament. It was the kiss of death.”

Article by Cathi Unsworth.

Cathi will be talking about the Trail of Helen Duncan for Haunt London at the Backyard Comedy Club, Bethnal Green, London EC2 on 4th June. For more information and tickets, please go here:

The trail of Helen Duncan, as well as the Hagley Woods mystery, informs Cathi’s latest novel, That Old Black Magic (Serpent’s Tail). For more, please go to

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