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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

Saturday 1 November 2014


Charles Masterman, a cousin of my grandfather, is regarded by many as one of the last great old-school Liberals. But his political potential was frustrated by his inability to find a safe seat. He lost as many parliamentary elections as he won, and his party was eclipsed by the emergence of the new Labour Party before he could shine in office. He died a disappointed man in 1927 at the age of only 56.

From Punch in July 1914, Charles Masterman (right), absent from parliamentary debate, visits in spirit his harshest critic, Conservative MP Lamington Worthington-Evans

He wrote throughout his life. But it was through his friendships with other writers, forged in the years before the First World War, that he had his greatest literary influence. When Britain entered the war in 1914, Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George put Masterman in charge of the newly created War Propaganda Bureau.

Books shape minds. Their very presence by a bedside encourages you to read them. The words within challenge your ideas and form your dreams. If nonconformists like the Gurneys understood this, so too did the propagandists. On 2nd September 1914 Masterman summoned a Who’s Who of British authors to his offices in Wellington House on Buckingham Gate in London. Twenty five literary giants of the day were present at the meeting, among them J.M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, my grandfather’s friend G.K. Chesterton, Cambridge Apostle G.M. Trevelyan, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle. Rudyard Kipling sent fulsome apologies and his full support.

What an extraordinary gathering! It took place that September afternoon, and I imagine our authors, all male, arriving one by one as dusk is falling. It’s raining and their capes and overcoats drip as some civil servant removes them from their shoulders before ushering them into a long-tabled meeting room. Full-length portraits of forgotten politicians look down on green leather chairs and the backs of those writerly heads. On the table before them, writerly hands hover over the pens and notebooks of each author’s choice or beside crystal tumblers filled from nearby jugs of water or decanters of brandy and whisky. The heads are wreathed in tobacco smoke as they wrestle with what Conan Doyle might have described as a three-pipe problem: how to counter the newly discovered German propaganda machine.

The approach which they agreed that evening was a subtle one. Rather than pump out propaganda through some patently biased organ of state, Masterman encouraged his authors to write in their own terms about the outbreak of war and about British values. Their output was printed, by secret arrangement, by mainstream publishing houses rather than the government’s own stationery offices. Consequently, none of the output of the War Propaganda Bureau was identified as state propaganda by the British public, but simply as patriotism.

Members of the Junior Debating Club at St Paul’s, London – among them Edward Fordham (tallest, at rear) and G.K. Chesterton (seated, front centre)

Masterman’s authors recruited other authors to the cause. For example, after that first meeting G.K. Chesterton roped in his and my grandfather's old school friend E.W. Fordham. Fordham, like my grandfather, was too old for recruitment into the army, but older men such as he were urged to serve in other capacities, releasing younger men for military service. Fordham (a poet by inclination but, like my grandfather, a lawyer by profession) volunteered to be a Special Constable.

A large force of Specials was recruited during the war years to replace the younger officers who had gone to fight overseas. They were unpaid, and served mainly as a visible reminder of the need for law and order in unstable times. They were also of practical use, chiefly in guarding the nation’s water supply against sabotage by enemy agents. Fordham seems to have been placed on such duty. In 1916 he published Songs of the Specials, describing in his preface the melancholy tedium of “keeping relentless watch on a brick wall.” The first song in the collection, Who?, begins

Who dashes, careless of his skin,
To meet the love-bird of Berlin,
The chuck-and-chance-it Zeppelin?
The Special.

Who watches by the water-works,
Where privily the Teuton lurks,
Besides Bulgarians and Turks?
The Special.

Hugh Riviere’s illustration for E.W. Fordham’s verse Who? In Songs of the Specials

Songs of the Specials was one of millions of books and pamphlets published at arm's length by Masterman's Propaganda Bureau. That first meeting, exactly two hundred years and two months ago tomorrow, launched one of the biggest and most successful propaganda efforts the world has ever seen. Thanks to it, and the Special Constables which it encouraged, the nation's water supply was kept safe from sabotage. Well might Edward Fordham sing!

Saturday 18 October 2014


My Gurney ancestors had their finest hours in the century or so in which they were official shorthand writers to the Houses of Parliament. But the reputation of the Gurney system of shorthand was built in London’s law courts, especially the Old Bailey, by Joseph Gurney ( my 4x great grandfather, whose father Thomas had invented the system).

Joseph Gurney (1744-1815)

The newspapers did not report court cases in those days, and the public appetite for sensational evidence was catered for by private shorthand writers who printed their verbatim reports of proceedings. The cases recorded by the Gurneys were acknowledged to be more accurate transcriptions than their competitors’. 

One of the scandalous hearings on which Gurney shorthand made its name concerned the Gordon Riots of 1780. It was a case of particular personal interest to the Gurney family and others of their nonconformist persuasion. If you were not Church of England, your freedom to participate in public life was significantly restricted under English law, and in 1780 this applied to Roman Catholics even more than to nonconformists.

Two years before the riots, in 1778, Catholics had been advanced some limited concessions, notably the right to serve in Britain’s armed forces without swearing a religious (in other words, Protestant) oath of allegiance. This was an act of expedience as much as tolerance – Britain was at war with France, Spain and the United States, and needed all the troops it could muster. Nevertheless it was a liberal act which drew opposition from the Protestant majority, particularly in the form of an organisation called the Protestant Association led by Lord George Gordon.

Lord George Gordon (1751-1793)

Gordon was a maverick politician. A London-born, Eton-educated member of the Scottish nobility, he was unpopular with the establishment for his improvement of working conditions for sailors and his support for American independence. His opposition to Catholic emancipation could be seen in the same anti-establishment light; and popular support for his position was swelled by a general dissatisfaction among the public. Conducting war on so many fronts had damaged Britain’s overseas balance of trade, driving wages down and prices and unemployment up.

Whatever the source of his support, a crowd of around 50,000 marched on 2nd June 1780 under the Protestant Association’s banner and wore its symbol, a blue-ribbon rosette or cockade. With their entrance to the House of Commons blocked, they attacked the carriages of members arriving at the House of Lords. Although the crowd was eventually dispersed, violence flared up again later in the day elsewhere in the city. Riots rumbled on for the next five days, with attacks on houses and embassies with Catholic connections. 

The Burning and Plundering of Newgate, and Setting the Felons at Liberty by the Mob

Catholicism wasn’t the only target. The Bank of England was besieged, and several prisons including Newgate attacked and destroyed, releasing large numbers of escaping prisoners into the chaotic streets. On 7th June the army was finally called in, and ordered to open fire on the rioters. 285 were killed, 200 more injured and a further 30 later sentenced to death. 

Gordon himself was tried for high treason as the leader of the organisation in whose name the riots had begun. The trial naturally attracted a great deal of attention in the wake of the long and violent events which triggered it. He was acquitted on something of a technicality surrounding the definition of treason. His acquittal was popular with the public; and so too, presumably, were the transcriptions of the hearing published immediately afterwards by Joseph Gurney, and by his competitors.

The cover of the transcription of the trial of George Gordon, “the third edition, taken in shorthand by Joseph Gurney, London, sold by G. Kearsly, 46 Fleet-street, and M. Gurney, 34 Bell-yard, Temple-bar”

The establishment had its revenge on Gordon. In 1788, having been excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was imprisoned on the unlikely charge of defaming Marie Antoinette, consort of Louis XVI of France with whom Britain had lately been at war. In 1793 he died of typhoid in Newgate, the very prison which his supporters had destroyed thirteen years earlier.

Saturday 4 October 2014


The London St James Gazette of Tuesday 9th October 1883 carried a small sad announcement:
The death is announced of Mr. William Talfourd Salter, Q.C., of the South-Eastern Circuit, which took place at the Grand Hotel, Varese, Italy. Mr. Salter was prosecuting counsel for the Post Office on the South-Eastern Circuit, to which post he was appointed in June last.

I have written about several of Talfourd’s court appearances here. They were often fascinating, and his conduct of them sometimes surprising – as when, for example, he called a baby elephant as a witness. He was a cousin of my great great grandfather's, and he came across as quite human for a lawyer. So I was saddened when I read the Gazette’s report. Talfourd never married. Was he alone in Varese? I presume he was on holiday, but perhaps he was convalescing. Could he have been hiding? His recent appointment by the Post Office suggests that things were going well for him; but was he happy or unhappy with the way his life had turned out? He was only 56 at his death (on 5th October), the same age as me, and I can find no further details about the circumstances.

The Palace Grand Hotel, Varese, in 1913

And where, exactly, did he die? Today, Varese in the far north of Italy boasts not one but two Grand Hotels, both designed by the important art nouveau architect Giuseppe Sommaruga. What are the chances?! But neither of them was originally called the Grand, and neither of them was yet built at the time of Talfourd’s death. The Palace Hotel opened on a hill in the city in 1911, and the Hotel Tre Croci in the Campo dei Fiori national park northwest of Varese a year later.

The Grand Hotel Campo dei Fiori, Varese, in c1917

As the Palace Grand, the former is still going strong and boasts its own heliport. But the latter relied for its tourist trade on a funicular railway, which closed in 1958; and the Grand Hotel Campo dei Fiori followed suit ten years later. Now it is a sad ruin, used only to support communications masts. Ther must have been an earlier Grand Hotel in or near Varese, but I have found no record of it yet. My email to the Palace has not so far received a reply.

Was Talfourd Salter buried in Varese, or was his body brought home to London? His will was proved (with some alacrity, it seems to me) less than five weeks after his death, in England. He was worth £3531 3s 3d, a tidy sum in its time. I haven’t seen the will yet, so I don’t know about its beneficiaries.

There are still avenues for exploration – the will, a death certificate, a history of Varese perhaps. But it is frustrating that a man whose public life is so well documented in the transcripts of his court cases should have such a private death, hidden away from prying eyes both then and now.
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