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Saturday 24 April 2010


I had a lot of trouble learning about Talfourd Salter, a cousin of sorts. Thanks to a couple of mistakes in transcription by, I spent some years looking in vain for more information about a Talpurd Salter, and later a Salsound Salter. Only very recently did a very helpful correspondent put me right, and suddenly I find a great many references to him online.

He was a QC, and transcripts of several of his cases at the Old Bailey are available. He was a jobbing barrister, and his cases dealt with everything from petty theft and sheep-rustling to bigamy and murder.

The process of the law is a sober and serious business, but even QCs should be allowed to enjoy their work sometimes, as a report in the Times of 17th July 1879 shows.

This was a peculiar and amusing case, and would almost tend to show the advisability of extending the privilege of witnesses to the brute creation under the Attorney-General's new code ; for to-day, for probably the first time in the history of our legal procedure, an elephant appeared in court and gave forcible, if dumb, testimony.

The Nubian Encampment, Alexandra Palace, 1877

The plaintiffs had been visiting the Nubian Encampment, an exotic attraction of North African tents and animals at Alexandra Palace. Rather than pay to go in, they were standing on the wagon they came in, to look over the fence, when the pony pulling the vehicle was startled by an passing elephant. Never having seen such a creature the pony bolted, throwing a Miss Thurman from the cart. She was off work for several months with a fractured collarbone, and was now suing the circus owners, Bertram and Roberts, for her loss of earnings and medical expenses.

Talfourd, acting for the defence, disposed fairly quickly of the case, arguing that they had been warned not to park where they did, that they and their pony should expect strange sounds and sights at a circus, and that in any case the elephant in question was well beyond them when the pony took off. So something else must have been the cause of its alarm.

As a character witness for the elephant, Talfourd then called its keeper Mr George Kibble. When Mr Kibble did not immediately appear in court, Talfourd explained:

Mr. Salter said: I am told he is in charge of the elephant outside, in Palace Yard, my lord.
Baron Pollock [the judge]: Pray do not let him leave the elephant. (Laughter.)
Mr. Salter : I believe the baby elephant has excessively amiable manners, and that he will come into court and get into the witness-box.
Baron Pollock : If so, I think it very desirable that we should see him.
Kibble then entered the box and was sworn, and said he was bringing the baby out by the ear as usual, after the performance on the day in question. He was a "baby," – that was, under 10 years old. Elephants grew till they were 43.
Mr. Hall [Mr Salter’s assistant]: The average age, I believe, is from 100 to 150 years.
His Lordship: Do you know that of your personal experience, Mr. Hall?
Mr. Hall: Happily not, my lord. (Laughter.)

A baby elephant and its keeper:
the famous Blue Peter incident, BBC, 1969

At this point the scene in the courtroom began to resemble a Walt Disney family movie or a  children's TV program.

The baby elephant then walked into court himself, with bells on his head, following Kibble in the most perfect way. He threaded his way through the " mazes of the law" in the body of a crowded court in the most wonderful and clever fashion, like the most accomplished Q.C., and caused some consternation by making his exit at the other side, where no passage had been cleared in the crowd. While he stood, a mute witness for the defence, before the jury, Mr. E. Jones said, cross-examining, "I have no questions to ask," which caused a roar of laughter.
Mr. Salter: That is, I am thankful to say, the last witness in the case.

In the end Bertram and Roberts agreed to pay Miss Thurman’s medical bills provided no blame was attached to them for the accident. Miss Thurman accepted. As always, the judge had the final word.

His Lordship : That is very proper, as the elephant has come to offer his apologies in person. (Renewed laughter.)

Another baby elephant and its keeper
Dumbo, Walt Disney, 1941

Saturday 17 April 2010


I wonder how many of my ancestors have started wars! Of course everyone has family feuds but I’m talking about armed conflict, and specifically international armed conflict.

Sir John Bowring, my 3x great uncle, was a pugnacious polymath, an early proponent of decimal currency for Britain whose views on reforming public accounts were too radical both for the Tories and for his own party, the Whigs. A devout Unitarian, a poet and hymnwriter, a multi-linguist, a railway speculator, an iron magnate … I could fill this blog with his exploits. His public service was distinguished although often controversial; it is sad that much of his good reputation was discredited by events during his last appointment.

Sir John Bowring (1792-1872)

In 1849 he left Britain to take up an position as Consul in Hong Kong, and later as Plenipotentiary in China. By 1854 he was back in Hong Kong as Governor. Britain had imposed some treaties of trade access on China in 1842-43 and was having trouble enforcing them. To Palmerston, the foreign secretary, Sir John’s keen intellect and able negotiating skills must have seemed perfect for the job.

It was not a happy posting for Sir John, one dogged with personal loss and misfortune. Early during his absence from Britain his father and two of his sisters died, and his wife’s health declined so much during their time in the colony that she died without him soon after her return to Britain. Her condition was due in part to an extraordinary Chinese attempt to poison the entire European population of Hong Kong by baking arsenic into their bread, from whose effects she never fully recovered. (It's through Sir John's second wife Deborah Castle that I am related to him.)

Bowring was extremely conscientious and competent in his duties in the Far East, amongst other things concluding an important treaty with Siam. But Mr Yeh, the Chinese Imperial Commissioner of Canton, tested his patience by continuing to block access to the city by British merchants. When Yeh ordered the boarding of  the Arrow, a pirate ship flying a British flag which he suspected of smuggling opium, Bowring decided the time had come to take firm action; he ordered a naval bombardment of the city and occupied it with land troops. Thus began the Second Opium War which rumbled on until the British burnt down the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860.

Imperial Britain attacking Imperial China
in a contemporary Chinese cartoon

Unfortunately Sir John didn’t have the military force to sustain the occupation, and the Chinese retaliated by burning down European properties in Canton including the British consulate (killing a nephew of Bowring’s for whom he had found an appointment there). War junks attacked and massacred the passengers of a postal steamer en route from Canton to Hong Kong; and the arsenic bread was another act of the same war.

Bowring was criticised for his aggressive tactics and relieved of many of his duties. He bitterly resented being sidelined, and more sorrows followed in the deaths of a son, a daughter in law, a brother, and finally of his wife. In 1859, now aged 67, he was relieved of his post and left Hong Kong for good. But even the voyage back to Britain was cursed with bad luck when his ship struck a reef in the Red Sea. All escaped drowning, but his daughter was washed up on rocks in nothing but her nightgown.

I’m afraid this is not a cheerful introduction to Sir John! He really was a remarkable Victorian, and I promise I will return to him in his sunnier days.

 I'm delighted to add in August 2014 that a new biography of Sir John Bowring has just been published. "Free Trade's First Missionary" is written by Sir John's descendent Philip Bowring and deals with his time in Europe and Asia. Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, said of the new book: "This scholarly and very readable biography, written by one of Asia's most distinguished journalists, shows how free trade became part of Hong Kong's DNA." It's published by Hong Kong University Press and is available on Amazon as a real book and also in a Kindle edition. (And this blog is acknowledged in the introduction!)

Saturday 10 April 2010


I now find that I have not two but three connections with the strange case of the cross-correspondences. The mediums at the centre of it, Margaret Verrall (see my earlier post) and her daughter Helen, were my great great and great aunts, but one of the dead correspondents is also an ancestor.

Edmund Gurney (1847-1888)

My cousin Edmund Gurney (his great grandfather was my 4x great grandfather) was an intellectual philosopher, a frustrated musician, a too-sensitive medical student, a bored lawyer, a gullable sceptic. In short he was a complicated, intelligent man prone to depression and addicted to the chloroform which relieved his neuralgia.

Edmund was the son of a Unitarian minister but Darwinian science had undermined his Christian faith. His search for a greater meaning and value in mundane existence led him to devote the last fifteen years of his life to experiments and research in hypnotic states, telepathy and hallucinations. In 1882 he was a founder member of Frederick Myers’ new Society for Psychical Research.

Gurney’s published works included “The Power of Sound” (1880), an essay on the philosophy of music; and “Tertium Quid” (1887), which might loosely be translated as “The Third Way”, an argument for open-minded discussion, ideas developed from more than one aspect, and the existence of a third state between mental and physical, between god and atheism.

"Phantasms of the Living", by Gurney, Myers and Podmore, 
the results of their early experiments in thought-transference

He was a clever and energetic researcher. It is astonishing and tragic therefore that he should have entrusted the execution of his experiments in hypnotism to a theatrical producer by the name of George Albert Smith. Smith, it emerged in Spring 1888, had been using stage effects and techniques to falsify phenomena. This was precisely the sort of deceptive showmanship which the SPR’s early studies of mediumship had exposed, and it undermined all of Gurney's results.

Edmund was a broken man. His rising reputation as a man of science was dashed on the rocks of theatrical illusion. In June that year he was found dead in a hotel bed in Brighton, a chloroform pad still held to his nose. The coroner passed a verdict of accidental death, although suicide seems a clear possibility.

So much for Edmund Gurney’s life and death. The most extraordinary part of his story now follows. Edmund was part of the group of surviving dead who entered into cross-corresponding communication with the living through a number of independent mediums all over the world (including my great great and great aunts) to prove their survival. Once they had provided proof, at least to their own satisfaction, of an existence beyond the grave, the group came up with an even more ambitious experiment.

Winifred Coombe Tennant (1874-1956) 
Welsh writer, politician, suffragette, patron of the arts 
and, as Mrs Willetts, celebrated medium

To prove further the ability of the dead to influence the living, the group asked one of the mediums, Mrs Willett, to bear a child, a son, who would be the fruit of Edmund Gurney’s psychic paternity. The physical father was to be Gerald Balfour, her lover and the brother of former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and of Eleanor Balfour the wife of another cross-correspondent Henry Sidgwick, founding member and first president of the SPR.

It is a little surprising that the group should have chosen Edmund for the job, of psychic godfather to the new Wunderkind: a manic depressive dilettante, a possible suicide with four failed careers behind him. Nevertheless the boy was born on 9th April 1913, Augustus Henry Serocold Coombe-Tennant (Mrs Willett’s real surname), amidst great expectations. Before the birth Mrs Willett had almost messianic visions of him, and the group spoke of his coming in terms of a New World Order. 

The boy, highly intelligent, was unaware, perhaps throughout his life, of the burden placed on him. But one day he told his sister-in-law during a walk on North Berwick beach of a terrifying dream he had had: “He seemed to be three persons: he would rise up from the bed and look at his three selves. There were other people in his bedroom and he got the impression that they were trying to make him do something.”

Perhaps the three were Gurney, Myers and Sidgwick. But like Gurney, Henry’s life never fulfilled its enormous potential. He was described as sexless and lacking inner fire, which was perhaps smothered during an over-protective childhood. At any rate after an unremarkable military career and the death of his mother in 1956, he converted to Roman Catholicism and entered the Benedictine order as a monk. He died in a monastery near Bath in 1989.

The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney, by Trevor Hall (1964)

Despite the ambitious aims of the cross-correspondents to prove life after death, the often obscure knowledge of classical literature which they used to do so, and the staggering boldness of the scheme to create in Henry a being of a higher order … despite all this, Edmund Gurney seems to have maintained in death the depressed underachievement of his living years. He once communicated to one of the receiving mediums these plaintive, self-effacing, rather sad words:

“You never seem to realise how little we know. I’m not … sometimes I know and can’t get it through, but very often I don’t know.”

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.
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