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Saturday, 15 November 2014


Helen Verrall, my great aunt, was, like her mother Margaret, a psychic medium, active in the Society for Psychic Research. The Society was formed in 1882 with the intention of applying scientific methods to the study of that great Victorian fascination, the paranormal.

Helen Verrall and Willy Salter on their wedding day, 
28th September 1915

After her marriage in 1915 she introduced her husband William Henry Salter to the work of the Society, which he joined in 1916 and served at various times as Treasurer, Secretary and – in 1947-48 – as President. He was a historian at Cambridge; but as far as I can tell, all his published work after his marriage was concerned with psychic phenomena, including Ghosts and Apparitions and Zoar, his review of the evidence of psychical research concerning survival after death, dedicated to Helen “and all who are working to complete Man’s knowledge of his Nature.”

As Mrs W.H. Salter, Helen also wrote, and gave talks. Among her publications is the Frederic Myers Memorial Lecture which she gave in 1945, Psychic Research: Where Do We Stand?; and Evidence for Telepathy: The Response to a Broadcast Request for Cases, which followed a talk she gave on the BBC on 16th February 1934 with a round-up of some of the four hundred letters she subsequently received. “A few of these,” she notes in her introduction, “were from persons not entirely sane.”

Evidence for Telepathy, by Mrs WH Salter (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1934)

The book examines fifty eight of the more credible ones, and she concludes, “These are the kind of things that happen from time to time to ordinary people, leading ordinary lives.” There’s a lovely matter-of-factness about that remark that I like.

Many of her correspondents describe telepathic intimations of the death or illness of a loved one which were later confirmed by more conventional communication. It is shiver-up-the-spine stuff, and I wonder idly where Willy was when Helen died, and whether he sensed her parting.
Here are two of the cases she reports. The first
… was sent by Mr JR Johnstone, who wrote as follows:
My Battalion was stationed at Ballykinlar Camp, County Down, Ireland, in April 1917. On 5th April I was “Captain of the Day.” Part of my “duties” was the turning out of the various Guards, once after 10pm and once after midnight. Between these times I was sitting alone on a deck-chair in my cubicle reading a book.
In the middle of a chapter, I stood up and exclaimed aloud, “Arthur is killed.”
On April 7 Mr Johnstone received an official telegram informing him of his brother Arthur’s death in action on April 5th, and subsequently he learnt in a letter from a brother-officer that Lieutenant Johnstone had been killed at about 11pm.
The death of 2nd Lieutenant Arthur James Johnstone, 6/7 Bn The Royal Scots Fusiliers, is officially recorded [notes Aunt Helen] as having occurred on April 5, 1917.

Ballykinlar Camp became an internment centre during the Irish War of Independence in 1920-21

For the second, her informant
… was Mrs Bradburn, who wrote thus:
In the year 1893 my husband’s brother was out in South Africa at the time of the rising of the Matabele War, and all had to take part in it to protect their farms. One night my husband woke me up, and was terribly upset. He dreamt he saw his brother in the midst of fighting, and all at once he saw a lot of smoke and his brother fall into it, at the same time calling my husband by name.
That was on December 3, and we got a letter from him on January 1, saying they were going to fight Lobengula, the King of the Matabeles. The letter was dated on the eve of the battle and it coincided with my husband’s dream. My brother-in-law was one of the twenty-four brave men in Major Wilson’s last stand.

Major Wilson’s Last Stand was a celebrated act of British Imperial heroism. The entire party (actually thirty-four men) were cut off and massacred by 3000 warriors in the British equivalent of Custer’s Last Stand. A Sgt Bradburn is known to have been a member of Major Wilson’s party.

Major Wilson’s Last Stand, as depicted on a cigarette card

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