In mid-Victorian London the early spiritualist movement was relatively small and mainly dominated by the upper circles of society. A varied grouping of middle-class intellectuals and professionals became the early advocates of spiritualism, which included physicians, professors, lawyers and writers of the day. However, it was in the North of England amongst the industrialist working-class where spiritualism made its initial impression; areas such as Yorkshire, Lancashire, Manchester, Nottingham and other manufacturing towns were the prime centre of spiritualist activity. The skilled and respectable proletariat spread the word of spiritualism and espoused the cause in working men’s clubs and homes.
David Weatherhead who founded the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph in the 1850s illustrated the large extent to which secularists swayed towards spiritualist beliefs. The Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraphreported in 1856, “We find both clergymen… [and] Ministers… [are] members… but also Shakers, Quakers, Unitarians, [and] even popular advocates of sceptical opinion… [are]susceptible to spirit influence”. The members of Swedenborgian church that had firmly established itself in Yorkshire by the 1840s were not strangers to the notion of spirit entities. Its strong following consisted of mainly working-class men and women who sought an alternative insight into organized religion, which no doubt paved the way for the later popularity of spiritualism within its communities.
The movement was becoming more active in London from 1860. The Capital’s newspapers were filled with articles surrounding spiritualist lectures and advertisements for public séances. By the mid 1850s a number of spiritualist newspapers and periodicals had been established: The British Spiritualist Telegraph ran from 1857-59, the Spiritual Magazine 1859-77, the Spiritual Times 1864-66, Human Nature, 1867-77, Daybreak 1868-69 and Medium and Daybreak 1870-95. Each of these journals had stopped publishing by the end of the century. The Light and the Two Worlds which were both founded in the 1880s are still in existence today.
The culture of modern spiritualism cannot be fully understood without a broader comprehension of the role of a medium. These were the men and women (and, occasionally children) who negotiated their lives between the living and the dead. In a structured framework contact with the dead was sought through the mediums psychic powers during a séance. A typical séance would usually be conducted in semi or total darkness and often begin with a spiritual prayer (to enhance spiritual positivity) the participants then formed a circle and joined hands in order to maintain a flow of energy between the sitters. The medium would then take control of the circle whilst becoming entranced and contact with the dead would then be sought. The proceedings of séances, however, often varied and much would depend upon the size and character of the audience and the mediums skills and ability.
It is important o recognise differences between those covered by the
umbrella term ‘medium’: many subspecies and variations existed. Within mediumship terminology the terms “public” or “private” would determine a medium’s social status. A “public” medium would advertise their skills within a professional and economic remit. Their séances were open to general entry and their talents and reputation normally ascertained their sole source of income. On the other hand the “private” medium or commonly termed “domestic” operated in a more exclusive milieu, such as the home, their séances would be conducted without any direct payment.
 Ibid. Pages 97-100
Barrow, L. 1986. Independent Spirits. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Berry, Catherine. 1876. Experiences in Spiritualism. London: James Burns.
Evans, William H Lee. 1897. Hours with the Ghosts. Washington.
Kingsland, W. 1888-9. “The Higher Science.” Theosophical Siftings 1, no.11: 1. (Quoted in Oppenheim J., The Other World, p. 196).
Nelson, Geoffrey K. 1969. Spiritualism and Society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Oppenheim, Janet. 1985. The Other World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Owen, Alex. 1089. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Russell, M & Goldfarb, C. R. 1978. Spiritualism and Nineteenth Century Letters. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Press Inc.
Stein, G. 1996. The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books.
Strange, J. M. 2005. Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain 1870-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tromp, M. 2006. Altered States. Albany NY: University of New York Press.
To cite this post : Julie Mathias, “Seeing is Believing: Spiritualism in the Victorian Era-Part 2”, Curious Histories (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), January 26th, 2017.
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Julie Mathias is the Head of Learning at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. Her role includes convening the schools programs for students studying the “Medicine Through Time” series and related subjects. As a social historian Julie is interested in the history of ‘ordinary’ peoples’ experiences of health, illness, and death, and how investigating this fascinating phenomena enriches our present day understanding of our own bodies.