Seventy-five years ago, something happened that changed the lives of all spiritually-minded people. We should be deeply grateful, yet hardly anyone now knows about the shocking experiences of the woman who gave us the freedom of belief that we enjoy today.

Victoria Helen MacFarlane was born in 1897 near Stirling in Scotland. As a child, she began to exhibit psychic abilities and was known for her prophesies. At sixteen she moved to Dundee to work as a nurse, and met Henry Duncan who became her husband. Henry was a wounded veteran of World War I and he encouraged Helen to develop her psychic talents. The couple went on to have six children and, in those days of hardship, Helen worked part-time in a bleach factory. All of this no doubt contributed to her developing longstanding health problems, including heart trouble due to being overweight.

In the next few years, Helen would often go into trance. During one of these sessions, a disembodied voice told Henry that Helen had the potential to materialise spirits, so he duly made a ‘cabinet’ for this work. One day, the ectoplasm Helen evoked swirled into the shape of a tall, elderly and distinguished man who introduced himself as a guide named ‘Uncle Albert’. He became master of ceremonies at the materialisation séances that the Duncans now began to hold. Very soon, Helen gained a great reputation for ‘proving’ life after death.

Now, a degree of balance needs to be introduced to this account here because even Helen Duncan’s supporters would accept that she was not an easy personality! Her behaviour was occasionally hysterical or violent: a public example of this was during test séances organised by the researcher Harry Price in 1931. There were also some incidents of fraud, such as when the London Spiritualist Alliance revealed that a sample of Helen’s ‘ectoplasm’ had proved to be cheesecloth mixed with paper and egg white. Helen was prosecuted and fined.

We are very familiar now with the debate about whether talented ‘celebrities’ should be judged for their personal behaviour. And after all, history is full of rather dubious characters who have made huge contributions to the arts, sciences and sport.

Helen Duncan is a good case in point, a woman born with extraordinary psychic gifts and a mind very different to the ordinary person. She lived her life between two worlds and, like many mystics, found it hard to adapt to everyday expectations. Add to this the deprivation of the inter-war years and the need to support a large family while suffering ill-health… At this time there was great demand for proof of the survival of people’s loved ones lost in conflict, and Duncan was tempted into some dubious practices when she was unable to ‘produce the goods’.

However, in the light of the extraordinary turning point that was about to come, perhaps we should be charitable about these weaknesses.

In 1941, Helen held two particular séances that were to have huge repercussions for all of us. The first took place in Edinburgh and, as well as making significant predictions that later proved accurate, ‘Uncle Albert’ announced that a British battleship had just been sunk. This information had not been made public and the Admiralty became suspicious as to how it had become known. Similar events occurred at a séance later in Portsmouth, when the spirit of a sailor in uniform materialised; he told his mother in the audience that his ship had been sunk with many lives lost. The woman was shocked, of course, and contacted the Admiralty.

The authorities were now on Helen’s case and began to see her as a security risk. They had no idea whether she had made a lucky guess or had some validity from Spirit… or from ‘elsewhere’. The breaking point came with a further séance two years later when two Navy lieutenants were present, one of whom accused Duncan of fraud and reported her to Hampshire Police. They decided that the most sensible course of action for the sake of national security was ‘better safe than sorry’, so in January 1944 Helen Duncan was arrested on a minor charge under the Vagrancy Act 1824.

But her growing notoriety meant that news of the arrest spread higher up and she was then further charged under the Witchcraft Act 1735. This Act covered “fraudulent spiritual activity” and “pretending to conjure up evil and malicious spirits”.

The trial became a national cause célèbre and an absolute farce. The police had no evidence and their case was based on the simple logic that “spirits of the dead don’t exist”. Helen’s defence barrister put forward the reasonable proposal of holding a séance in court, to prove the afterlife, but Judge Dodson refused. Forty-nine defence witnesses spoke up for Helen Duncan yet the jury still found her guilty and in April 1944 she was sentenced to nine months in prison.

Winston Churchill himself complained about the “obsolete tomfoolery” of the charges. A spotlight had been thrown on the bias of the British judicial system and on sheer religious prejudice, using an obscure section of a two hundred-year old Act intended for entirely different circumstances. As a result, the Witchcraft Act was repealed shortly afterwards, although Duncan’s conviction still stands to this day.

Whatever her personal failings, the role she (perhaps inadvertently) played in establishing our freedom of spiritual belief is surely to be applauded.

Pam Brittan is a clairvoyant medium whose extraordinary life story is told, with accounts of her work, in her book Spirit Shows the Way, published by Local Legend.

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