In January 1882, 135 years ago, the idea began for the Society for Psychical Research. One of the founder members, Eleanor Sidgwick (née Balfour, see portrait below) was a member of the Ladies Dining Society (1890-1914). She and her husband Henry Sidgwick (see photograph below) contributed significantly to women’s education in Cambridge. This is a guest blog by the writer Jane Dismore.
‘It was a dark and stormy night….’ This famous opening to a Victorian novel is today considered purple prose and often used humorously to start a spine-chilling story. Its author was the acclaimed and hugely popular novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873), a friend of Charles Dickens, and the book was Paul Clifford (1830). The novel was not in fact a chiller, although the author’s literary career would come to include science fiction and occult fiction, for Bulwer Lytton was a respected occultist. His interest began when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge (where he also won the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for English Verse), and he became known for his passion for predictions using a crystal ball, and for the casting of horoscopes. In 1854 Bulwer Lytton was visited by Eliphas Levi, a French occult author and magician, who considered him to be one of the principal exponents of occult studies in Britain. At around that time there began a huge increase in the practice of spiritualism and a resulting explosion of paranormal claims throughout the Western world and in all parts of society. Now mediums made their first appearance, claiming contact with the dead. At the same time science-based naturalistic explanations increasingly challenged the old religious world view. Lively debate raged, which pondered whether these alleged phenomena could be fully accounted for in naturalistic terms or whether they pointed to aspects of consciousness which were not yet known to science.
Bulwer Lytton did not live long enough to see where the debate led but he surely would have been gratified to see that it was taken seriously, and at his alma mater, too. Exactly 135 years ago, in January 1882, a conference was held in London to consider the viability of setting up an organisation to carry out formal scientific research into alleged paranormal phenomena. In February the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded, the first organisation to conduct scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models. Its first President was Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), Professor of Moral Philosophy at Trinity College and a man of great standing in intellectual circles. His chief associates in the early stages were Frederic Myers, a classical scholar with wide-ranging interests, and Edmund Gurney, who would develop a pioneering interest in hypnotism and psychological automatisms.
Prominent early members of the SPR included the Balfour brothers: Arthur (Britain’s Prime Minister from 1902-1905), who had been Sidgwick’s pupil at Trinity; and Gerald, a Trinity Classics scholar and later MP and President of the Board of Trade. In 1884 their sister Eleanor, a mathematician, joined the SPR. With Arthur she had been a member of a group set up before the SPR to investigate spiritualism claims. Through the group she met Henry Sidgwick, whom she married in 1876; along with the paranormal, they shared a passion for women’s education. Henry had helped found Newnham College in 1871, of which Eleanor served as Vice Principal, then Principal, and between them they succeeded in enabling women to sit University examinations, although lost their fight to allow them to take degrees. All three Balfours served as President of the SPR: Arthur in 1893; Gerald 1906-1907; and Eleanor 1908-1909 and again later. Another sister, Evelyn, married the Nobel Prize winner (for physics), John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh. He was another graduate of Trinity and became President of the SPR in 1919.
Shortly after its creation the SPR created a methodological and administrative framework, including a scholarly journal in which psychical research could be reported and debated worldwide, to which the Sidgwicks and the Balfours made significant contributions. In July 1882 another Balfour sibling, Francis, was killed while climbing Mont Blanc. He was 30 and regarded as a brilliant biologist, a successor to Darwin. Francis appears in psychical research literature as a communicator in an important case investigated by the SPR, ‘The Palm Sunday Case’, which focussed on Arthur Balfour and his dead lover.
Gerald Balfour’s wife, Elizabeth, was a granddaughter of Edward Bulwer Lytton. Evidence of Bulwer Lytton’s interest in the occult can be seen in the gothic and sometimes unsettling features of his home, Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, still occupied by his descendants. Eleanor Sidgwick’s active involvement in the SPR continued into the 1930s, long after Henry’s death in 1900. The SPR continues to be active today, promoting and supporting the main areas of psychical research.
© Jane Dismore, January 2017 (Please reference as follows: Jane Dismore ‘The Cambridge Psychics’ https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)
The author is a freelance writer and biographer. Details of her work can be found at www.janedismore.com . She was briefly a member of the SPR while at Cambridge. More information on Eleanor Sidgwick can be found here.