6 October 2023


Trevor Hamilton, Arthur Balfour’s Ghosts: An Edwardian Elite and the Riddle of the Cross-Correspondence Automatic Writings. Imprint Academic. 

Over the years, I’ve rather gloated over my standard reply to the sceptics’ usual line: ‘There’s not a shred of evidence for an afterlife’. Not being remotely a sceptic myself – because of some personal experiences that aren’t strictly relevant here – I’d reply, ‘Oh, so you dismiss the Cross-Correspondences, do you?’ 
Every time, I’d be greeted with an embarrassed silence and blank looks, before the subject was hastily changed. To me, the Cross-Correspondences were the proof of an afterlife. And, after reading this important book, I still think they are – although now I have some questions.

So this is the overview: the august Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in 1882 by several Cambridge scholars, including classicists such as Frederic Myers (who, incidentally, gave the world terms such as telepathy and subliminal), Edmund Gurney and Henry Sidgwick – all co- founders of the SPR. This was no flakey organisation full of wishful thinkers and charlatans. It was dedicated to meticulous research of – for example – crisis visions, and achieved a great archive-full of impressive data, often based on highly intelligent analysis of the results of widespread surveys. (These gentlemen had no problem with anecdotal evidence, unlike the researchers of today.)

Over the subsequent years, these men began to die, one by one. But that did not mean disappearing from the record – far from it. Gradually, one by one, they – or whatever form of their consciousness continued, somewhere or another – began to contact different mediums with complex messages, often containing Greek or Latin phrases and classical allusions. Mostly upper-class women, these mediums usually had no knowledge of each other, and indeed, were scattered throughout the world. Yet the messages, delivered via automatic writing (the medium allows her pen or pencil to be controlled by the invisible communicator), put each one of them in touch with at least some of the others. 

Most significantly, the standard of the scripts, with their quirky and highly erudite phrases and quotations, #only made complete sense when taken with the others#. Each script was merely part of a complex and apparently pre-arranged plan – pre-arranged by the spirits of these men, that is – which the mediums could have had no knowledge, or indeed, proper understanding of.

Known therefore as the Cross-Correspondences, the building of this paranormal jigsaw lasted for 35 years, until the last of these articulate and educated men had not only died, but said his final piece via the mediums’ automatic writing. Yes, impressive to say the least. I’d go further, as I said, and suggest these Correspondences are if not the proof of an afterlife, then certainly the evidence.

So why aren’t they more well known outside of psychical researchers’ circles? Surely they deserve their place in the spotlight, in great worthy debates, in schools and universities?

Well, all I can say is, oh dear…

Oh dear, because they’re dreadfully, appallingly tedious, with their Latin and Greek in-jokes, redolent of the worst kind of intellectual snobbery and educational elitism (especially to the non-classicists of today). Even without a classical education, it doesn’t take much more than a relatively quick look at a couple of pages of these scripts to realise that these guys were, as we would say, totally up themselves. They seem intoxicated by their cleverness, weaving unbelievably complex codes, puzzles and allusions into the scripts they poured out through their usually uncomprehending mediums.

These included Helen and Margaret Verall, the famous Leonora Piper; Rosalie Thompson; Winifred Coombe-Tennant and Trix Fleming (Alice MacDonald Fleming, sister of novelist Rudyard Kipling), an Anglo-Indian. While none of them bore titles themselves, they could hardly have been called salt-of-the-earth ordinary women. Indeed, it seemed a point of honour among the communicators that the mediums were from ‘good’ families, as if that in itself bestowed integrity and honesty. Actually, though, very largely their faith was not misplaced: the mediums’ output and their occasional doubts and sense of failure to capture all the dead men’s nuances – and that’s not a phrase you often come across! – do come across as strikingly straightforward.

The picture, overall, indeed, is one not only of intellectual elitism, but also simply elitism. They all came from ‘good’ families and seemed intent on reminding us of that, even from the great beyond. And yes, and yet… (You get used to going round in circles with the Cross-Correspondences.) All that Latin and Greek knowingness, all those boring and typically upper-class in-jokes and all those incidences of Edwardian superiority that come over loud and clear, are, surely, in their own way, highly convincing evidence that these scripts were really from who they claimed to be – Myers and his peers.

No one would, or could, fake such scripts, especially over such an incredible length of time. What would be the point? Yet with every smug aside, every line of Greek poetry, lies evidence that real classicists organised this phenomenon – and presumably carried it out, as claimed. Of course, at the other extreme from sceptics are those who see diabolism in any form of Spiritualism or apparent spirit contact. But what kind of evil spirit would have the knowledge, the organisational skills or the sheer, grinding, dogged patience, to pull this off over three decades?

Again, why would they bother?

Technically, of course, if the Cross-Correspondences prove anything, it is that these men – and only these men – somehow survived bodily death. Their minds and personalities lived on, certainly for as long as the scripts kept coming. Anything else, any greater – if welcome – extrapolations must remain speculation. Yet if these gentlemen triumphed over death, it is not unreasonable to deduce that others did, and do.

Hamilton’s book provides us with enormous detail of the background to the scripts. The title, Arthur Balfour’s Ghosts, for example, refers to the Victorian notable, Arthur James Balfour, Prime Minister of the UK (1902-1905). His chaste passion for May Lyttelton did not end with her untimely death – indeed, his desperate search to commune with her spirit involved an impressive apparent contact through a medium. (We will try to overlook his typically grim Victorian act of putting a ring on her finger as she lay in her coffin.)

This seemed to open the door to other, greater communications, revolving around the same elite circle, including the Cross-Correspondences.

Hamilton’s book is packed with detail – enough, certainly, to do justice to the incredibly detailed Correspondences themselves. If you have the patience, it is very worthwhile poring over them – and perhaps even chasing up some of the quotations for yourself.

The author, too, is honest in that he does not shy away from certain problems that rear their ugly heads in some of the later Correspondences, such as that concerning medium Winifred Coombe-Tennant, a suffragette, philanthropist and Justice of the Peace. Certain of the scripts that came through her veer off into talk about the ‘Messianic Child’ (also known as ‘Augustus, Wise One’) and the great Plan concerning his future role. 

This was Henry Coombe-Tennant, a child at the time of the first scripts about him. Apart from sounding rather crazy in itself, his mother, the medium Winifred, actually claimed that her young daughter Daphne’s death had been meant so that she could develop her automatic writing skills. There is much that is distasteful about the whole Messianic Child episode, which does seem, at least superficially, to be born largely out of the medium’s own mind and her emotional turmoil about her beloved child’s death.

(The concept of a Messianic Child in the 1920s was not so weird as it would be today, as the then highly influential Theosophical Society was presenting the young Krishnamurti as a great holy man for a new age.) Indeed, no doubt modern psychologists would have no difficulty in pinpointing Winifred’s emotional devotion to the idea of Henry being the Messianic Child. It could easily have been over-compensation for the fact – a great secret – that he was illegitimate. In fact, he was the result of Winifred’s affair with Gerald Balfour, brother of Arthur. Yet the scripts themselves backed up the idea of Henry’s future glory.

Did they perhaps, at least partly, emanate from Winfred’s own mind? Or do they simply reflect the power of personal choice, of freewill? For although the scripts promised great things for Henry on the international stage, his career veered off into MI6 and then even a monastery – as far from the international stage as one could get, although he always remained a believer in the Correspondences.

And Winifred herself also returned two years after her death in 1957 with her own highly impressive series of scripts published in 1965 as Swan on a Black Sea, by medium Geraldine Cummins. (I recall reading them years ago and being particularly impressed by her honest admission that problems with her weight tended to dent her confidence! A curiously personal point, and one that struck me as being quite genuine.)

So, yes, Hamilton has pulled off a major work – scholarly, astute, meticulous, honest. The Cross-Correspondencers would no doubt have been proud. Or, perhaps I should say, no doubt they are proud! His book is of immense significance – one might even say historic in its way, for it concerns the one #huge# breakthrough in humanity’s great quest to know if there’s something after death. In his careful, non-sensational way, he’s very largely celebrating these scripts, though not without criticism and the odd element of doubt. Masterly.

So next time you’re inclined to sneer at the lack of evidence for an afterlife, or encounter someone who does, remember Hamilton’s book and the extraordinary paranormal marathon it describes. Better still, get it and read it. Like the scripts themselves, it can be a hard read – reflecting their intensity and immense intellectualism – but you will be left shaken. And very possibly a believer. Why wouldn’t you be?
  • Lynn Picknett

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