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"Believing in Community"

Belfast Spiritualist Church

"Believing in Community"

Helen Duncan , the daughter of a cabinet maker was born in Calendar, Stirling, Scotland on the 25th of November and from an early age she is said to have displayed the gift of medium with the spirit world. A prominent feature of her sittings was the fact that she omitted ectoplasm from her mouth during her trances. Ectoplasm being a substance that gives form to spirits allowing them
to communicate.

Helen made a living by conducting séance throughout Britain, during which the spirits of those who had passed on appeared, talking to and even touching their relatives

Duncan was accepted as a minister to a number of Spiritualist churches and private homes, but her work was not without controversy. In 1931 Helen was denounced as a fraud by both the Morning Post newspaper and an organisation called The London Psychic Laboratory, which had examined her. She was also prosecuted at Edinburgh Sheriffs Court in 1933 for affray and being a
'fraudulent medium' for which she was sentenced to a fine of ten pounds or a months imprisonment.

During World war two Duncan lived in Portsmouth, the home of the Royal Navy. In 1941 the spirit of a sailor reportedly appeared
at one of her séances announcing that he had just gone down on a vessel called the Barham. The HMS Barham was not officially declared lost to the public until several months later, its' sinking having been kept secret to mislead the enemy
and to protect morale

An image of the HMS Barham just before she exploded.

Unsurprisingly Duncan's' activities attracted the attention of the authorities, and on the 19th of January 1944 one of her séances was interrupted by a police raid during which she and three of her audience were arrested.

Duncan was remanded in custody by Portsmouth magistrates, originally charged under the Vagrancy Act (1824), under which most charges relating to fortune telling, astrology and spiritualism were prosecuted by magistrates in the 20th
century. This was considered a relatively petty charge and usually resulted in a fine if proved. She was eventually tried by jury at the Old Bailey for contravening section 4 of the Witchcraft Act (1735), which carried the heavier potential of a prison sentence.

In particular the medium and her three sitters were accused of 'pretending to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased persons should appear to be present'. Duncan was also charged with offences under the Larceny Act for taking money 'by falsely pretending that she was in a position to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons'.

The trial caused a media sensation and was extensively covered in the newspapers, many of which revelled in printing cartoons of witches on broomsticks. At one stage the defence announced that Duncan was prepared to demonstrate her abilities in the witness box. This amounted to conducting a séance in the court while in a state of trance, the offer was refused. A number
of prominent people, among them Alfred Dodd, an historian and senior freemason, testified that they were convinced that she was authentic.

Duncan was found guilty as charged under the Witchcraft Act and sentenced to nine months in Holloway prison, London, but was
later cleared of the other charged offences. She was the last person in Britain to be jailed under the act, which was repealed an 1951 and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act following a campaign by spiritualist and member of parliament Mr Thomas Brooks.

Additionally it has often been suggested that the reason for Duncan's imprisonment was the authorities fear that details of the imminent D-Day landings might be revealed, and given the revelation about the sinking of HMS Barham it is clear to see why the medium might be considered a potential risk. Nonetheless, the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill wrote to the Home
Secretary branding the charge 'absolute tomfoolery'.

A campaign by her descendants to clear her name continues to this day.


Thanks to

Author : Michelle Nicholl