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Saturday 3 April 2010


There is a strong non-conformist streak that runs through many of the branches of my family tree: Baptists, Methodists, Unitarians, brought together by their common perspective on social injustice and religious intolerance. My great great aunt Margaret Verrall, née Merrifield, seems to these 21st century eyes to be unconventional in the extreme, but in her day she was a prominent figure in a popular area of scientific and spiritual enquiry.

Margaret de Gaudrion Verrall (1857-1916)

Margaret was at the centre of an extraordinary attempt to prove the reality of life after death, conducted (if it is to be believed) by several deceased founders of the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR was founded in 1882 with the aim of “understanding events and abilities commonly described as psychic or paranormal  by promoting and supporting important research in this area" and "examining allegedly paranormal phenomena in a scientific and unbiased way" and it still exists today.

In the year of the SPR’s founding Margaret married Arthur Woolgar Verrall, a classical scholar with a taste for convoluted commentary of classical Greek and Latin texts. In the light of Margaret’s subsequent career, and the fact that one of his future students was Aleister Crowley (notorious sex-magick mystic), one wonders just what Arthur was teaching in his lectures.

Margaret joined the SPR in 1889 and towards the end of the century began to develop psychic powers, perhaps as a result of her observational study for the Society of the work of a famous medium of the age, Leonora Piper. Frederick Myers, the Society’s founding father, had asked her to hold sittings with Piper. He died in January 1901, and in March that year Verrall began producing scripts by automatic writing – messages written by her hand but supposedly directed by minds beyond the grave.

Mrs Verrall was one of several mediums around the world to receive messages like this, although none of them was aware of the activities of any of the others. All however sent their writings in to the SPR for further study. It was there that Alice Johnson, a researcher, began to notice cross-references between these various communications from the dead. She coined the term cross-correspondences for the increasingly elaborate intellectual puzzles which, it seemed, could only be solved by the combination of several independently written scripts.

Those sending the messages included Frederick Myers who had been the Society’s second president, and Henry Sidgwick its first (who had died a year before Myers). It was no surprise to anyone that such SPR luminaries should attempt to prove the survival of the mind after bodily decease. Their choice of material for the conundrums sent to provide that proof was appropriately obscure and, one might say, convoluted. Clues came in the form of little known quotes from a specialised university text book, “Greek Melic Poets” by the American scholar Herbert Weir Smyth, used by their old friend and colleague Dr Arthur Verrall.

SPR presidents and correspondents 
Frederick Myers (1843-1901) and Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900)

It was certainly NOT a book likely to have been known or read by all the mediums involved (except Margaret), so its use as a source was seen as quite compelling proof. This is not the place for a full discussion of the evidence or the conclusions of the series of cross-correspondences. Margaret produced hundreds of scripts in the fifteen years until her own death in 1916. Her daughter Helen also had the gift and began writing automatically in 1903. The correspondences continued with an expanding cohort of living mediums and dead correspondents until 1930, when researchers asked Helen Verrall and her colleagues to stop receiving – there were by then tens of thousands of pages of evidence waiting to be annotated and analysed.

The wedding of Helen Verrall and Willy Salter,
28th September 1915

In 1916 Helen Woolgar de Gaudrion Verrall (1883-1959) married William Henry Salter (1880-1970), a lawyer whom she introduced to psychical research. He joined the SPR that year and wrote extensively on the subject of survival, automatic writing and telepathy (incidentally, a term first coined by Frederick Myers). He served as president of the Society 1947-48 and after his death he contributed to the debate by leaving a wealth of private papers which were not to be opened until 1995-96. These papers are still being examined.

Opinion remains divided about the truth of life after death. In our sceptical age the jury is still out, and perhaps the last word for now should go to Salter, who wrote:

"As the essence of courage is to stake one's life on a possibility, so the essence of faith is to believe that the possibility exists."

More on the cross-correspondences in my next blog.


  1. fascinating post and i love how you brought it together intot he quote at the end...

  2. Hi Brian, thanks! I'm so lucky to have even a tangential connection to all these stories, an excuse to look into them and share them. This is a weird one, and it gets weirder next week!

  3. What a lovely blog about your family tree. Very interesting too. Love the pictures.

  4. You certainly have a very interesting great great aunt!

    The field of parapsychology is fascinating, elusive hard scientific evidence notwithstanding.

  5. Thanks Mirella - those Victorians certainly knew how to pose for a photo!

    Merisi, it IS fascinating, and so interesting to learn how those rational, scientific Victorians set about apply reason and logic to exploring it all. Is it measurable by our science? I'm not sure! But personally I'm sure there is more to life than our immediate existence.

  6. Dear Heart of the Wood,
    I am writing to ask you if you could tell me anything more about your ancestor Helen Woolgar de Gaudrion Verrall (1883-1959.) I am at present preparing research for a future book publication in which she is featured.
    I look forward to hearing from you.
    Best wishes,
    John McIntyre.

  7. Hi John,
    Interesting! Contact me via email - my address is now in my profile. What is your book about?


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