Funnily enough, I arrived at the College of Psychic Studies, on the first day of the Open House London initiative (a.k.a. legitimate house and public building snooping), through a set of unforeseen circumstances. Well, unforeseen to the staff at Open House London, who failed to anticipate the crowds of 18,000 people wanting to roam the gutteral insides of Battersea Power Station before it’s refurbished. Not like that would be a big deal to the general public or require any kind of sensible ticketing system whatsoever… anyway, I digress in my bitterness.
After spending an hour and a half queuing with my sister at the Albert Bridge (yes, the line stretched that far back…), our Battersea dream was crushed and we admitted defeat, sloping off to grab lunch and then to see at least one sight in the city that was similarly spectacular, perhaps with less public demand. Finding ourselves just a short bus ride from South Kensington, we resolved to pop into the college for a bit and see what on earth a psychic curriculum looked like.
I should point out here that, whilst I embraced the experience, I was perhaps not the most spiritual visitor they’ve ever had; I can’t even do those Magic Eye optical illusion books, let alone see visions or feel the presence of unseen beings in a room, and I consider it something of a miracle on the rare occasions I experience déjà vu or a sense of intuition. Every time I’ve been to a bone chapel, for example, I haven’t felt the souls of the people buried there, but I’ve just felt oddly calm. No flash of lightning, no powerful guidance, no shivers down my spine, yet it’s not for want of trying. Anyway, I might not be the best candidate for spiritual awareness, but I went into this tour with an open mind, ready to take in everything that our guide, Michelle, had to say.
We started our tour of the College of Psychic Studies by looking at photos and paintings from the archives, tinged with contact from spirits. Founded in 1884 and having been on the current premises since the 1920s, there was a lot of history to explore here. The photos, whilst stylised and clever, weren’t highly convincing, looking more like camera trickery and playing with double or triple exposures, but what grabbed me were the paintings.
Ethel Le Rossignol’s rainbow-coloured artwork adorned several walls of the college and was created with the help of spirits, who guided her to paint during the 1920s. Each piece was incredibly vivid and psychedelic, with echoes of William Blake’s illustrations for Songs of Innocence and Experience and the Pre-Raphaelites.
This tranquility was somewhat dampened by our guide discussing ectoplasm which, as it turns out, is even more visceral a phenomenon than I’d imagined. “Ectoplasm comes from the medium’s stomach lining,” Michelle cheerily told us. Hmm – maybe I wasn’t quite prepared for this to get so physical…
Seeing a photo of the Ghost Club was where things got really interesting. My sister will be the first to admit that she was skeptical about the whole experience (the comments she scribbled on my notes will testify as much…), but even she was surprised to discover that Charles Dickens was a member, no less.
This organisation initially developed Cambridge, then formed in London, but subsequently disbanded when Dickens died and was later reformed by college founder William Stainton Moses, when he wasn’t off verifying psychics. The club’s members were a mixture of academics and religious men, which must have led to some pretty lively debates.
As for the tools of the trade, like Ouija boards and scrying mirrors, I really didn’t have a clue about the true significance of these objects, in fact I’d never even heard of ‘scrying’, which means to look within. Michelle explained that you use a crystal ball, a mirror or tea leaves to look within, getting in touch with the spirit world. However, in the case of the Ouija board, you must always respect the process and also the forces at work (cue my sister trying not to laugh – guessing she won’t be trying this one out any time soon).
Both of us faced our most challenging moment when we heard about the the talented apporter, Madame Elizabeth D’Esperance. Apports, we were told, are objects transported by mediums, and this lady had managed to excel herself by making a 7ft lily appear in a room during an 1890 séance. “It just sounds like a portkey from Harry Potter,” my sister mumbled, and I firmly agreed.
That was nothing compared to Michelle’s explanation: “It’s a bit like Star Trek,” she said. “You beam in and beam out.” I could see what she was trying to convey, but comparing the process to a sci-fi program didn’t really convince us that it was entirely possible. I wanted to share Michelle’s enthusiasm but I struggled at this point.
Moving on from apports, the séance trumpet is perhaps the most bizarre item on display, not least because it looks a bit, well, cheap. This simple metal cone was used by a psychic to communicate with the members of the séance in the voice of the spirit, but it wasn’t actually the practitioners who chose when to speak; a red cloth was placed over a lightbulb and then the trumpet, which had been dipped in a fluorescent substance, would levitate until it pointed to the person who would be getting a message.
Again, as I’m not wholly convinced by this spectacle without seeing it, I did feel a little deflated by this part of the tour, but we quickly moved on to look at voice mediums like Etta Wriedt and spirit mediums like Ivy Northage and Gladys Osborne Leonard. This was where the stories felt more real, when they could be connected to specific alumni and teachers.
We heard about Queen Victoria’s passion for psychic readings, but also the Queen Mother’s (she would even have readings with her daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, present). Her chosen psychic was Lillian Bailey, who worked with her right up until the Queen Mother’s death. On the other side of respectability, poor Arthur Molinari had to give readings for the Kray twins in prison, and dreaded opening any presents they sent him, in case they contained threats rather than gifts.
My sister’s curiosity was piqued in the basement, also known as the Arthur Conan Doyle Room, where we were told more about the great author and spiritualist, who was the former president here. Michelle painted a mental picture of Sir Arthur as he trained to be a doctor, guided by a Doctor Bell, who had a great interest in early forensic medicine and “taught Sir Arthur that you don’t just see a body on the ground, you see the whole picture”.
She advised us to look up Sir Arthur’s great speech on spiritualism, made during the 1920s. His gradual interest in psychics developed when his son was killed in WWI; out in the corridor, the painting of another prominent member of the college, which was then known as the London Spiritualist Alliance, was linked to Sir Arthur’s story; its subject was Sir Oliver Lodge, a scientist and great believer in life after death. He too lost a son in WWI. Michelle pointed out that there are many connections between the First World War and spiritualism, which is why Jeremy Paxman is due to visit the college soon as part of his research for an upcoming documentary examining the subject. As a longtime WWI fanatic, I imagine it will make fascinating viewing, and hopefully the overbearing Paxman won’t ruin it too much.
Whilst I’m not sure how much of the college’s evidence I believe, I do have faith that the tutors here aren’t charlatans; as far as I can tell, they really do live and breathe spiritually. The fact that they want to pass on their knowledge so openly also makes me more inclined to trust them, as this is hardly the cloak-and-dagger world of the Magic Circle. I’m fairly confident they’d be happy to welcome vocal skeptics as well (though my sister kept a dignified silence in front of the other visitors!), and certainly our guide, Michelle, wouldn’t stand for any nonsense. Their openness and friendliness suggests that perhaps we’d all be a lot calmer if we disconnected with our everyday lives, even if that didn’t result in channeling apparitions.
I’m by no means set to have psychic visions or buy a Ouija board, but I’m happy to live and let live, and I don’t see how these beliefs harm people, at least from the examples I’ve seen. Furthermore, if fortune telling or clairvoyance brings hope to someone who needs it, who am I to deny them that?