The Voice Box

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Helen Duncan 1897 - 1956

Helen was born, Victoria Helen McCrae MacFarlane on 25th November 1897, in a small Scottish  town called Callender.    The Daughter of a master cabinet maker.   She married at the early age of twenty to another master cabinet maker named Henry Duncan.   Henry had been injured during the war years of WWI and was unable to work.     She had 12 pregnancies but only 6 of her 12 children survived.   To maintain this large family of six children and a disabled husband, Helen worked in a local bleach factory by day, and worked at her spiritual and domestic duties at night.

Helen's particular mediumship skill was that of Physical Phenomena whilst in a Trance state.   A very precious gift that brought comfort to hundreds of grieving people the length and breadth of the country.   But, one that eventually cost Helen her life.

During WWII Helen was in great demand as she toured the country giving demonstrations of her mediumship, especially to those who had lost close family on active war service.   One particular sitting was in a private home in the Navel City of Portsmouth, on an evening in January 1944. Portsmouth was not the best place in the world to be at this critical point in the war.   The German Luftwaffe being hell bent on turning it in to rubble hoping to destroy the British Navel Fleet.

The real danger on that night came from within the arranged sitting, when a plain clothes police officer disrupted the circle and blew his whistle to start a raid.   The officer made a grab for the ectoplasm believing it to be a sheet, but spirit was to quick for him and it vanished before he could touch it.   Helen and three of her sitters were arrested and charged with Vagrancy.   At the hearing the court heard testimony that Lieutenant R Worth RN, had attended the seance suspecting fraud.   He claimed he had £2.10shillings for two tickets, one of which he gave to the police officer who instigated the raid and grabbed for the ectoplasm.  

Then something strange happened.   Under the law at that particular time, had she been found guilty of this offence she would probably only have had to pay a five shillings fine and she would have been released.   Oddly she was not, also she was refused bail and sent to London and spent four days in Holloway prison.   The Vagrancy charge was later amended to one of Conspiracy, which during wartime, carried the death sentence by hanging.   But by the time the case came to court at the Old Bailey, this had also been amended to one of Witchcraft, an old Act of 1735 had been dredged out of the old and dusty law libraries.

Under this old act, Helen and her three sitters were accused of pending "to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased dead persons should appear present".   But in case this charge failed others were brought also.   The Larceny Act which accused her of taking money 'by falsely pretending she was in a position to bring about the appearances of these spirits of deceased persons'.

Her trial, which took place at the Old Bailey, lasted for seven dreadful days, and only a few months before the D-Day landings in France.   Spiritualists from all over the country were angered that one of their most treasured demonstrators was being treated in this way.   A defence fund was quickly set up and was used to bring witnesses from all over the world to testify on her behalf about the genuiness of her mediumship abilities.   Because of this, her case soon became a "cause celebre" which attracted news papers from all over the world.   Sceptics must have cringed at the continual reporting of case after case were 'dead' relatives had materialised and given proof after proof of their continued existence.

On the next but last day of the trial, the defence called their star witness, Alfred Dodd, an academic and very respected author on the works of Shakespear's sonnets.  He had been interested in psychic things for over 40 years.    Alfred informed the courts that during 1932 and 1940, he had been a regular visitor at Helen Duncan's home seances. During one of these seances in Manchester in 1932 the Voice of Albert Mrs Duncan's guide said;    "there is a big man coming out for you" referring to Mr Dodds.   "The curtain of the cabinet went to one side, and out there came the living form of my Grandfather.   I knew it was him because he was a very big man, tall, about six feet one inch at least. He looked around the room very quizzically until his eyes met mine.   He then strode across the room from the seance cabinet to where I was.   He pushed the heads of the two strangers that were before me to one side, and he put out his hand and grasped mine.   He said as he grasped it, 'I am very pleased to see you, Alfred, here in my native city'.  I was very surprised to see him and looked closly at him and said, 'why, you look just the same'.   He next said, 'I am sorry you are having such a rough time' (which was true).   After talking with me for some period, he put his hand on my friends shoulder and said ''Stand up Tom' my friend looked up at him, then the voice of Albert said "Stand up ; stand up', So Tom Waller stood up, my Grandfather said, 'Look into my face, and look into my eyes, will you know me again Mr Waller?'   'Yes' - replied Tom, 'You ask Alfred to show you my portrait which is hanging in his dining-room, and you will see it is the same man that is speaking to you now'.   He turned round and walked back into the cabinet, he lifted up his leg and slapped his thy three times.   He then turned and rose himself to his full height and smacked his chest three times, he said, so that all could hear, 'It is solid, Alfred; it is solid,' and went back into the cabinet."

   Hannan Swaffer and James Herries, both highly respected journalists of the time, took their turn in the witness box at the Old Bailey.   Swaffer, who had already recognised as the uncrowned father of Fleet Street, and co-founder of of the Spiritualists weekly paper "Psychic News, told the court that "anyone who described ectoplasm as butter muslim, would be a child, under the red light of the seance room it would look yellow or pink, whilst all these materialised spirits forms appear white."   Herries, who was himself a Justice of the Peace.   A psychic investigator for over twenty years, testified that he had witnessed the materialisation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Homes books.  

The defence, wishing to prove beyond doubt that Helen's mediumship was beyond repute, wanted to conduct a seance within the Old Bailey.   The suggestion caused absolute panic from the establishment.   Think of the consequences.  If she pulled it off, the press would have had an even better hey day thatn they were already, it would bring her fame instead of censure, and this would make the British legal system held to ridicule.   Needless to say the idea was rejected, and instead call Mrs Duncan as a witness, giving the prosecution a chance to cross examine her.   To try and destroy her credability.   Helens defence was quick to point out that Mrs Duncan was in a state of trance, and could not therefore, having no knowledge, discuss what had gone on.

The Jury took all of thirty minutes to reach a verdict.   Helen and her co-defendants were found guilty of conspiriacy to contravene the ancient 1735 Witchcraft Act, but not guilty on all other charges.

Portsmouths Chief of Police, described Mrs Duncan as an unmitigated humbug and pest, and revealed that in 1941 she had been reported for announcing the sinking of one of His Majesty's ships before it had been publiclly anounced.


The following Monday the judge summed up stating that the verdict had not been concerned with whether genuine manifestations are possible ot not, and that the court had nothing to do with such questions.   What he did do was to interperet the jury's findings to mean that Helen Duncan had been involved in plain dishonesty, and for this reason alone he imprisoned her for nine months at Holloway.

Even Sir Winston Churchill who was then Prime Minister and no stranger to physical phenomena, wanted to know why such a charge using the 1735 Witchcraft Act was used in a British Court, and at what cost to the state.  Churchill visited Helen in Prison and made promises to make amends.   True to his word in 1951 the 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

In 1951, to the rejoicement of Spiritualists all over the country, Spiritualism was recorded as an officially recognised religion by an Act of Parliment.   This meant that while frauds would be properly brought to justice by the police and those head hunters of the Spiritualist movement, It also meant that bonifide working mediums could carry on working without fear of harrament.

Well thats what was supposed to happen, In November 19576, police raided a seance in Nottingham.   They grabbed the presiding medium, strip searched her and took endless flashlight photographs.   Shouting at her that they were looking for beards, masks and shrouds.   They found nothing.   The medium was Helen Duncan, and in their ignorance the police had committed the worst possible crime involving  physical phenomena, that of a medium in trance never being touched.   Our spiritual teachers have explained to us so many times what damage can be done with the ectoplasm returning to the mediums body to quickly which can cause terrible injuries to the sitters and possible fatel injuiries to the medium.   As it was with Helen Duncan, a doctor who was summoned to attend to Helen discovered two second degree burns on her stomach.   She was so ill that she was immediately rushed back to her home in Scotland  and later into hospital.     Five weeks after the Police raid, Helen was dead.

Spiritualists are no strangers to scorn and hypocrisy at the hands of disbelievers.   But this was without doubt the most disgusting and hanius crime against any person.   For what?  Bringing confort to those grieving souls who have lost loved ones to spirit. Giving them the comfort of knowledge that they are not dead, just moved  into a different life pattern from which, from time to time, they can bridge that gap between our world and theirs to return and speak to us once more through mediums like Helen Duncan.

Helen has returned on a number of occasions now in Spiritualist home circles, but her first contact was to her daughter Gina.


Helen Duncan - By Hannan Swaffer


by Hannen Swaffer

In the fifth year of our war for freedom! - Orthodoxy was to arrest Helen Duncan, our best materialising medium, after submitting her to a physical examination that was indecent, refuse her a doctor until morning, ill with diabetes and suffering with shock though she was - and to invoke the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

Orthodoxy was back to broomsticks!

While she was giving a séance at Portsmouth, a whistle was blown. Policemen rushed into the room, took part in a sort of Rugby scrum, and, because they could not find the white “sheet “- that is what they called the ectoplasm the medium had exuded - were childish enough to believe that she had swallowed it, or else that the sitters, who demanded in vain that they should be searched, had secreted it on their persons.

Baron Schrenck-Notzing, who spent many years on psychical research, had analysed ectoplasm. Dr. W. J. Crawford, of Queen’s University, Belfast, had weighed it, traced its flow - 
and even certified that one medium, while exuding it, lost 54 lbs. of weight!

Thousands of Spiritualists all over the globe knew it to be living matter, out of which they had seen built up solid spirit forms that walked about the room, talked with their earth relatives, had been photographed - Sir William Crookes took lots of photographs of a materialised “Katie King” which a member of his family
destroyed after his funeral, although some of the pictures still survive - and played musical instruments.

But the Portsmouth police said it was a sheet! More, the Public Prosecutor’s department bought cheese-cloth - and just because Harry Price, who had apparently forgotten that he once brought me a piece of ectoplasm which he said was cut from Mrs. Duncan’s body and which he had analysed, declared that her materialisations were cheese-cloth which she had regurgitated.

So cheese-cloth, bought by Whitehall for Helen Duncan’s trial at the Old Bailey, was actually held up by Treasury counsel before every defence witness, each of whom was asked in turn, “Isn’t this what you saw?” Yes, this took place in 1944!

Did the Treasury, the Public Prosecutor, or the Home Office underling who afterwards boasted of his cleverness in remembering the Witchcraft Act know that this Duncan prosecution would put every Spiritualist, every medium, and every psychical researcher in Britain in perpetual jeopardy? Someone must have known.

This is no attack on Spiritualism,” said Treasury counsel, time after time. The Recorder of London, who tried the case, stressed the same thing.

But the truth is that, since Helen Duncan’s conviction proved that mediumship of any kind is, in law, “a pretence at conjuring up spirits of dead persons,” public trance has been barred, in Altrincham, in a municipal hall - in case the town council were guilty of conspiracy! More, free speech on the subject is so barred that, when I wanted to address a meeting of protest in Altrincham, I had to do so in Sale, a neighbouring borough. No local minister who was approached would lend his chapel! “It is contrary to the teaching of our religion,” they said - or else dodged it.

When questions were asked about this in Parliament, the Home Secretary was truculent and defiant. When he said that it had been arranged that an address was to be given “by the spirit of a dead man,” and that a collection would be taken, M.P.s roared with laughter.

Little did they know, but the Duncan case had caused such a scare about the Witchcraft Act that two printers who had read about the illegality of mediumship were afraid to print a pamphlet dealing with the subject and planned for distribution in the Commons. One suddenly got cold feet even after he had set up the type.

You saw, no doubt, many comic headlines in the newspapers during the Duncan case. You did not know that it might be destined to rank, one day, with the trial of Socrates, who was condemned to death because he said he had a spirit guide, and with the conviction of Joan of Arc because she obeyed spirit voices, that, remembering Helen Duncan’s conviction, Spiritualists recalled Rome’s threat to torture Galileo, whom it forced to recant, because he said the sun did not move round the earth.

The fact that Helen Duncan is a fat Scotswoman of working-class origin and with a desire to earn more money as a medium than we thought wise for her, does not affect the issue. She had demonstrated to countless numbers of people all over the land that it was possible for the spirits of the dead to materialise, that they need not rely on so-called “resurrection” because of an unproved, and contradictory, story of how Jesus returned from the grave, but that they could test it for themselves.

No fewer than 300 of these were prepared to give evidence at the Old Bailey trial. Actually, 40 of them did so. They included people belonging to all the Services, and various learned professions - a medical officer, a lawyer, one of the best-known Scottish journalists, a sanitary inspector, an electrical draughtsman, and a Church of England clergyman.

For three days, these described how full materialisations of relatives and friends had taken place at Helen Duncan séances, and that they were satisfied about the genuineness of her powers.

Yet, time after time, Treasury counsel held up the cheese-cloth or butter-muslin, as some called it, and said, “Wasn’t it like this?

Then I arrived in the witness-box. You must realise that I had nothing to gain, but, although one of the most famous journalists in the country, I was risking obloquy and scorn. Yet Truth is Truth, and you have to stand for it.

“You are also, I believe, a dramatic critic,” said C. E. Loseby, counsel for the defence.

“I was, unfortunately,” I replied.

“Unfortunate for whom?” asked the Recorder.

“For me, my Lord,” I said. “I had to sit through it.”

I did not know until I turned him up in “Who’s Who” that he had once been a playwright of sorts, part author of “Rebel Maid.” You can guess what authors of humorous musical plays think of me!

Well, I told the Court that for over 20 years I had investigated psychic phenomena of every kind and type, and in many countries, and that the purpose of my investigation was: “It is my duty to tell people the truth about the survival of their beloved dead.” Then, saying how I had sat perhaps half a dozen times with Mrs. Duncan under test conditions, I explained to legal high-ups who thought ectoplasm was a piece of cheesecloth that it was exuded from mediums through the mucous membranes, the solar plexus, the ears and the nostrils, that it appeared to be a living substance, that I had seen it perhaps 50 times and that, in the case of Helen Duncan, it resembled “living snow.”

“When was the last time?” the Recorder asked.

“Since this case was sent for trial,” I replied.

The point of this was that, between Portsmouth and the Old Bailey, we had made a rigid test of Helen Duncan’s powers and that the results were so extraordinary that C. B. Loseby, who was present, said at the end, “I am so impressed that I will tell the Court I am willing to allow the medium to demonstrate her powers in open court, and in broad daylight.”

Yet the Recorder decided that all evidence about this test must be ruled out “since it would be under a cloud.”

Before this test sitting, two women took Mrs. Duncan into a room, stripped her stark naked, dressed her only in a loose black garment - the reason for this was that the ectoplasm was white - and then brought her, in our sight, into the séance room. There she went into a trance in a red light in which we could see everything that happened.

Albert, her guide, began: “Something has been said about a sheet. I will show it to you.” Immediately we saw a large mass of ectoplasm, probably eight feet long and six feet wide. This was what the police had called a sheet!

Then, to prove the genuineness of the ectoplasm, the medium moved half across the room, the living substance becoming a sort of rope which lengthened as she moved further away.

Yet all this was ruled out, as, later, was every scrap of evidence sworn to by witnesses who had sat with Mrs. Duncan all over the country. Nor was she allowed to give a test in court. “That would be in the nature of a trial by ordeal,” said the Recorder.

Surely if a woman who is accused of “a pretence at conjuring up the spirits of dead persons” offers to produce them in open court - well, what more can she do? But even if she did so, she would still be guilty under the law of Britain.

“Could the ectoplasm be mistaken for butter-muslin?” Loseby asked me.

“Anyone who described it as butter-muslin would be a child,” I replied. “Besides, under red light, butter-muslin would turn yellow or pink. How could a red light make that kind of material take on a living whiteness?

Then I had to explain to a Recorder ignorant of ectoplasm, how it reacted to light, how the actinic qualities of light which retard photographic processes also affect ectoplasm. More, I had to tell how, the first time I sat with Mrs. Duncan, someone foolishly shone a light on the medium with the result that the séance had to be stopped and that then we discovered the medium was bleeding furiously at the nose.

I also produced a document signed by four magicians after I had taken them along to test Mrs. Duncan They had tied her up with 40 yards of sash-cord, they said in their agreed statement, handcuffed her, and tied her two thumbs so close together with thick thread that it cut into the flesh. Although it had taken eight minutes for Will Goldston, a professional magician, to tie
up the medium, her guide freed her from the cord, the thread and the handcuffs in three minutes.

As a dramatic critic I ridiculed, in the witness-box, the idea that Mrs. Duncan could impersonate Albert, her guide.

Yet, in his summing-up, the only thing said by the Recorder about my evidence was: “All that Mr. Swaffer said was to contradict some of the others, not altogether to be wondered at.”

I did not contradict any of the others, for I was talking of séances at which they had not been present, and they were talking of sittings which I had not attended.

Besides, the Recorder seemed to have forgotten that I so smashed the case for the cheese-cloth theory that never again, after I left the box, was it held up or referred to.

I remembered how I could have killed the regurgitation theory, had the evidence been allowed, by producing a doctor’s certificate that Mrs. Duncan had a normal stomach and so could not regurgitate, and also X-Ray photographs proving that her stomach was normal. These, I held up in vain. These were not “evidence.”

Then, Treasury counsel, jumping at my remark that I had seen every possible test applied to Helen Duncan, asked if we had applied the electrical controls used by Harry Price when Rudi Schneider, the Austrian medium, came to London.

Treasury counsel did not know, but I was present the first time that test was applied, I sat with Sir James Dunn and Lord Charles Hope, in Harry Price’s laboratory, where the so-called electrical test was used - and I said so.

When counsel tried to force the point that this was the kind of test he had been hinting at all the time, I replied that it was not a real test and that, on the occasion I referred to, I was compelled to point out to the psychical researchers how silly it was. For instance,” I said, “Price’s secretary was walking about the room.”

“Was she covered with phosphorus?” asked counsel.

“No, she was not,” I said.

Then, when the Crown asked whether Mrs. Duncan had ever been tested with a coloured pill - this would prove regurgitation if it occurred - I said “Yes, we tried even that.”

You can scarce believe it, but, only a few months after the King had asked all the nation to pray, Treasury counsel, referring to the fact that séances are often opened with prayer, asked: Wouldnot prayer make the sitters more receptive?”

“Would prayer make people receptive to the sight of a bus?” I jeered.

Besides, many people are Agnostics. Sometimes this court opens with prayer.”

Why, even the House of Commons opens with prayer. Does that make Winston Churchill credulous?

Well, we came back to the cheese-cloth. This, I explained, would be merely a soggy and stained mess if brought up from the stomach.

May I try to swallow the cheese-cloth?” I sneered, wishing to show that it could not be done; for it was hard and stiff.

“We will not reduce the Court to the level of an exhibition,” said the Recorder, reprovingly.

“Why have you got it here?” I asked counsel.

“We tried to get Harry Price to try to swallow it. Never have I heard such nonsense - until Price invented this new lunacy of the cheese-cloth. It is all a silly invention of his.”

That ended the cheese-cloth bunk!

Counsel, coming back to Mrs. Duncan’s nose-bleeding, then asked, Did you examine her nose?”

“I looked at it,” I said. “What else does one do but look at a nose which is bleeding? Besides, I am a trained observer. My word is taken when I report other things.”

“Aren’t you a Spiritualist with fixed opinions?” said counsel,suggesting, I suppose, I would defend any psychic fraud.

Yes,” I replied. “My opinions are fixed because they are based on evidence which is incontrovertible.”

“When you were a dramatic critic,” pressed counsel, “did other critics agree with you?”

“Criticism is not a matter of fact,” I retorted, but a matter of opinion.’’

Then counsel sat down, looking tired. And I stamped out of the court.

Well, having been refused a chance to demonstrate her powers in court, Mrs. Duncan was sent to prison for nine months; the Court of Appeal refused to reverse the judgment; and then the Attorney-General denied us leave to take the case to the House of Lords, saying, it is not a matter of sufficient public importance.”

Shortly afterwards, General Eisenhower promised the people of Germany that they would have religious freedom. But we Spiritualists have not got it!

Why, at Redhill, nine months after the Duncan case, the police banned mediumship in the borough!

A few weeks later, I met Herbert Morrison (Home Secretary) in the Ivy Restaurant. We had a friendly argument about my various criticisms of him. Then, at the end, he said, with a grin, “Well, I’ll see you on the Other Side.”

“Herbert,” I replied, “you are on the other side.”

Since then Morrison has changed his mind. A deputation of M.P.’s led by Clement Davies, who spoke for all the Liberal Party, went to see him to explain the disabilities suffered by Spiritualists.

In consequence, Morrison went so far as to say - and this was only a few weeks after he denied that we suffered any - that he understood our grievances, and that it should not be found impossible, when Parliament had time, to get through a non-controversial Bill guaranteeing Spiritualists their religious


As published by Zerdini on:


Helen Duncan and the Barham Conspiracy

The Barham Conspiracy - A Different Perspective.

In late November 1941 the British battleship HMS Barham was attacked and sunk by a U-boat off the coast of Egypt. In March of 1944 Mrs. Helen Duncan, a well-known Scottish spiritualist and medium, went on trial in London’s Old Bailey for conspiracy to violate the 1735 Witchcraft Act.

In the intervening years these two seemingly disparate events became woven together in a complicated wartime tale of naval disaster, government cover-up, a drowned sailor purportedly speaking from a watery grave, and a modern-day witch trial that Winston Churchill described as “absolute tomfoolery.”

An Afternoon Tragedy
On the afternoon of November 25, 1941 Barham and two other battleships of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet cruised off the Egyptian coast of Cyrenaica to provide distant cover for an attack on Italian convoys. Though constantly zigzagging and screened by eight destroyers, the battleships sailed into peril. Undetected beneath the calm water, Kplt. Hans-Diedrich Von Tiesenhausen manoeuvred his U-331 inside the British destroyers and launched four torpedoes at a battleship looming in his periscope.

The 31,000 ton Barham stood no chance when three of the torpedoes exploded against her port side. Obscured by enormous spouts of water, the stricken warship lost all electrical power and began listing heavily; a scene recorded by a cameraman aboard the nearby battleship HMS Valiant. Still plowing forward into the sea, Barham rolled onto her beam ends and blew up in a tremendous magazine explosion just four minutes after the first torpedo struck. The blast flung men and debris hundreds of feet into the air, leaving behind stunned survivors churning in a thick oil slick. 861 sailors and officers lost their lives in the disaster, while 395 were rescued.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham, was having tea aboard his flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth when he heard the roar of the torpedo detonations. Cunningham rushed to the deck to witness Barham’s final moments, a sight he recorded in his autobiography as “a horrible and awe-inspiring spectacle when one realized what it meant.”

Kplt. Von Tiesenhausen, however, could hardly savour his success. The ejection of the torpedoes compromised U-331’s buoyancy and caused the periscope and conning tower of the Type VIIC boat to broach the surface just 150 yards from the now provoked Valiant. The battleship heeled over to ram the U-boat as its starboard pom-pom guns fired 19 rounds that, due to the submarine’s proximity, flew harmlessly overhead. To save his boat, Von Tiesenhausen ordered a crash dive that took the submarine to a depth of 265 meters, over a hundred meters below its maximum safety depth. The proximity of Barham’s swimming survivors prevented the destroyers from attacking with depth charges, allowing U-331 to slowly escape to the north.

The chaotic aftermath, however, also prevented Von Tiesenhausen from knowing the outcome of his attack. The rapid torpedo explosions were audible inside the submarine, but he had no knowledge of the Barham’s fate. He later radioed his superiors that he had torpedoed a battleship with unknown results, a message intercepted by British code-breakers. His official report on December 3 made the modest claim of one torpedo hit on an unknown British battleship.

The Admiralty Reversal
Since the sinking of the battleship HMS Royal Oak in October 1939, also by a daring U-boat commander, the Admiralty established the policy of immediately announcing all major warship losses. When the German battleship Bismarck blew up HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait in May 1941 the government sombrely broadcast the loss of the famous battlecruiser on the same day it was sunk.

But when the British realized the Germans remained unaware of Barham’s destruction, they quickly reversed this policy. Royal Navy naval forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean were already under strength, and although they did not know it, new disasters lurked on the horizon. In less than a month the two remaining battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, would be mined and severely damaged in Alexandria harbour by Italian “human torpedoes.” Their long-term repairs would leave the Royal Navy incapable of intervening during a crucial Axis build-up in the Desert War. And three days after Barham’s loss, HMS Prince of Wales would meet HMS Repulse in the Indian Ocean before proceeding to Singapore on their fateful mission to deter an increasingly belligerent Japan. Both warships would be sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers within two weeks. It was what the London newspaper The Daily Express later called “the blackest fortnight in Britain’s naval history in world wars.”

Realizing an opportunity to mislead their enemies and protect home-front morale, the Admiralty censored Barham’s sinking. News of the loss of one of the Royal Navy’s fifteen remaining capital ships was confined to the chambers Admiralty and White Hall – or so they believed.

A Summoned Sailor

Helen Duncan did not fit the subversive type. Born in 1897 in Scotland, she married a struggling cabinet-maker and had six children, losing six others as infants. Duncan, who weighed 300 pounds and was plagued by constant poor health, gained notoriety in the UK during the 1930s and 40’s for her séances. Her particular skill involved “materialization,” a process in which streams of ectoplasm would issue from her mouth and take on forms of the dead. Sceptics called her a fraud, claiming she regurgitated cheesecloth to simulate the ectoplasm. In the early 1930s she was put on trial in Scotland and fined for falsely claiming to communicate with dead spirits.

Despite her court appearance, Duncan remained a popular spiritualist and much sought-after medium during the war. She organized frequent séances for people seeking to communicate with deceased relatives. During one séance held shortly after the Barham’s loss in late 1941 she reportedly summoned the spirit of a sailor who announced, “My ship is sunk” to the astonished audience. The sailor reportedly wore a Royal Navy hatband with the name “HMS Barham.” This episode occurred while Barham’s loss remained a heavily guarded secret. When news of the event reached the Admiralty, they feared Duncan’s séances would unravel their extensive measures of concealment.

Keeping Secrets

On November 27, two days after Barham’s loss, Winston Churchill telegrammed Australian Prime Minister John Curtain to describe the objectives of the censorship campaign: “This [the loss of Barham] is being kept strictly secret at present as the enemy do not seem to know, and the event would only encourage Japan.” Under the strain of two years of constant war, the embattled leaders of Britain grasped every advantage they could.

Many steps, both elaborate and subtle, were taken to prevent the truth from reaching the public or the Axis powers. One extraordinary measure included the printing and mailing of Christmas and New Year’s cards for the crew of the sunken battleship, even those who had perished. Admiralty officials realized that withholding the cards would have raised suspicions about the Barham’s status.

More traditional forms of deception were employed as well. On January 8, 1942 Adm. Cunningham reassured the readers of the Glasgow Herald with an article headlined “All’s well with the Navy in the Mediterranean.” Although Cunningham admitted his forces “had to fight and win against some pretty long odds at times,” his upbeat appraisal hardly reflected the actual situation of three British battleships in the Mediterranean sunk or disabled in as many months.

The censorship campaign also extended to the Admiralty’s monthly “Naval Supply and Production” statistics. These documents charted the number and types of British warships ordered, launched, damaged and destroyed for each month during the war. The supply and production records for November 1941 failed to register the loss of the battleship Barham, although the December 1941 statistics accounted for the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse in the South China Sea. Since these documents were circulated throughout the Admiralty, all traces of the Barham’s loss had to be removed.

After a delay of several weeks, the War Office decided to alert the next of kin of Barham’s dead, but they added a special request for secrecy. The notification letters included a warning not to discuss the loss of the ship with anyone but close relatives, stating it was “most essential that information of the event which led to the loss of your husband's life should not find its way to the enemy until such time as it is announced officially…” The wives and families receiving these letters were undoubtedly devastated by their grief yet were prevented from making any public announcement of their loss.

Since the sinking of Barham occurred in the late afternoon with many other warships present, it was one of the best-recorded and investigated naval disasters of the war. A Reuters correspondent who witnessed the torpedoing and explosion later wrote, “It was something like one sees on film.” His analogy proved prescient when it was revealed that a Gaumont-British cameraman named John Turner filmed the last minutes of Barham. The navy impounded the footage shortly after the sinking, holding it until 1945.Today, Turner’s film of the stricken battleship keeling over and exploding comprise one of the most compelling short movies of the war.

Only when the German High Command guessed at Barham’s loss in late January 1942 did the British government acknowledge the truth. The Admiralty informed the press on January 27, 1942 and explained their rationale for withholding the news. By then, with crushing Allied defeats mounting in the new Pacific war, newspapers wrote little about the torpedoed battleship or the censorship. The January 28, 1942 edition of the Glasgow Herald resembled most newspapers when it accepted the Admiralty’s decision to censor the loss, writing “it was important to make certain disposition before the loss of this ship was made public.” When the news of the Barham’s sinking was confirmed in Germany, Kplt. Von Tiesenhausen received the award of a Knight’s Cross.

A Modern Witchcraft Trial
Helen Duncan was not arrested in the aftermath of the Barham incident, and she continued to organize séances throughout the country. But authorities watched her more closely. In 1942 Duncan began to lead spiritualist demonstrations in Portsmouth, a naval town on England’s southern coast. She was conducting a séance in Portsmouth on January 19, 1944 when suddenly a whistle blew and a participant rushed forward to grab the floating ectoplasm. Others in the audience turned on the lights and ushered in the police. Undercover naval and police officers had infiltrated the meeting, and Duncan and three other shocked participants were arrested and charged with vagrancy before the Portsmouth magistrates.

Higher authorities intervened, however, and the police transported Duncan to London to face charges from the Director of Public Prosecutions. The more serious accusation of conspiracy, punishable by death in wartime, replaced her original infraction. Finally, the prosecutors decided to charge her with violating the 1735 Witchcraft Act, a law originally passed during the reign of King George II that had lain dormant for a hundred years.

Duncan’s trial at London’s Old Bailey court began on March 23, 1944 and lasted a week. It was a tabloid trial, attracting widespread coverage in the newspapers for its characters and accusations quite unusual for a 20th century court. The undercover agents who broke up the Portsmouth séance testified against Duncan, and the chief of the Portsmouth police called her “an unmitigated humbug and pest.” The prosecutors introduced evidence that Duncan revealed the loss of Barham in 1941 while it remained an Admiralty secret. For her defence the jury heard from 19 witnesses who testified that Duncan had summoned the spirits of their dead relatives and friends. The defence team also proposed that Duncan hold a séance in the courtroom, but the prosecution, realizing the mockery that could result from the stunt, refused their offer.

Despite her surprisingly strong defence, a jury found Duncan and her associates guilty of a conspiracy to violate the Witchcraft Act and a judge sentenced her to nine months in London’s Holloway women’s prison. In a surprising move she was denied the right of appeal to the House of Lords, a common appeals practice. It has been suggested that Duncan’s prosecution was motivated by concern that her Portsmouth séances would reveal the timing of the approaching D-Day invasion. The government considered her inexplicable knowledge of Barham’s sinking as evidence to the danger she posed to wartime secrets. Yet to many observers, sending an uneducated and invalid witch to jail seemed an odd pursuit for a nation finally turning the corner of a terrible war.

The efforts to convict Helen Duncan did not please everyone in the government. Most notably, the witchcraft trial caused Winston Churchill to write to his Home Secretary to criticize the resources wasted on a prosecution he described as “absolute tomfoolery to the detriment of the necessary work of the court.” Modern-day defenders of Helen Duncan claim that Churchill held spiritualist sympathies, and it was his second government that eventually repealed the ancient Witchcraft Act in 1951, replacing it with the Fraudulent Mediums Act. However, it is equally likely that Churchill considered the trial a distraction from the war effort, and an embarrassment to his government.

Legacies of the Loss
The entwined legacies of the Barham and Helen Duncan keep this story very much alive in the UK. An official memorial to the battleship lies in one of the country’s most sacred places, Westminster Abbey. Tall gold candlesticks flank the entrance to the choir, placed there in February 1943 during an official dedication. The Abbey hosts a service of remembrance on the second to last Saturday in November when survivors and their families can view a special book of remembrance.

Although Duncan died almost fifty years ago in 1956, the story of her trial and imprisonment continues to inspire her admirers on both sides of the Atlantic to win her a post-humus pardon. In 1997 a spiritualist fellowship presented a bust of Helen Duncan to Callander, Scotland, the town of her birth. Council officials attempted to display the bust in the town’s Rob Roy Visitors Centre, located in a former church, but some locals objected to Duncan’s spiritualist past. Currently, a bronze cast of the bust is displayed at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, which also stores the original copy in its basement.

In 1957 a group of Barham veterans founded the HMS Barham Survivors Association. Every May the few remaining survivors and their relatives hold a reunion dinner in Portsmouth where they toast the memory of the ship and those that died. One surprising attendee at early reunions of the Barham Association was U-331 commander Hans-Diedrich Von Tiesenhausen, who survived the war as a prisoner and lived until his death in 2000 in western Canada working as an interior decorator and painting many of his war memories.

Al Collier, a Little Rock, Arkansas resident and expert in Helen Duncan’s story, interviewed the elderly Tiesenhausen in January 1998 with help from the former submariner’s wife. According to Collier, Tiesenhausen expressed dismay at the story of Helen Duncan and her witchcraft trial. “No government,” he reportedly said, “should be allowed to treat a poor woman so terribly.” If some of the Barham’s surviving sailors can accept the U-boat captain who sank their battleship, perhaps the British government will pardon a witch who guessed at too many wartime secrets.
This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of World War II magazine.


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