Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent… #SpiritofGladstone

A hidden history

A hidden history

The city of Stoke-on-Trent hides a unique history of Spiritualism. The earliest written evidence of local Spiritualism is from a newspaper article in the Staffordshire Daily Sentinel in 1873. Since then the city has enjoyed a rich and vibrant Spiritualist history.

From the Victorian era, the possibility of spirit communication and psychic phenomena attracted the attention of scientists and intellectuals, and during World War I Spiritualism reached a new height of popularity across Britain. With so many young men failing to return from the front, many sought mediums to obtain some closure.

Well known figures came to Stoke-on-Trent to seek such conversations with the dead. Sir Oliver Lodge attended several séances, one of which was with medium Annie Brittain in Stoke-on-Trent, shortly after his son Raymond died at the front on 14 September 1915.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also visited Annie Brittain, particularly after the death of his son Kingsley at the Somme in 1917, and again following the death of his younger brother Innes in February 1919, who had served as a brigadier general in World War 1.

Window on the soul: Looking from Longton Spiritualist Church towards Gladstone Pottery Museum

Window on the soul: Looking from Longton Spiritualist Church towards Gladstone Pottery Museum

It was also Annie Brittain who told Longton medium Fanny Higginson that she would have a son who would grow up to be a famous platform medium. Gordon Higginson was born in 1918 and went on to become the longest serving president of the Spiritualists’ National Union for 23 years.

With such a rich history, is it any wonder that even Stoke-on-Trent’s very own Robbie Williams once said if he hadn’t made his career in music he might have been a Spiritualist medium instead? No doubt any one of the three Spiritualist churches still very active in Stoke-on-Trent (Burslem, Fenton and Longton) would welcome him into their congregations with open arms!

Find out more at ‘Talking With The Dead’ an exhibition on Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent at Gladstone Pottery Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, 1 September to 31 October.

And don’t forget to share your experiences of Spiritualism, Stoke or the exhibition with us using #SpiritofGladstone

Facebook: SpiritedStoke

Twitter: @SpELSProject

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SpELS dispels some myths: Spiritualism, stigma and prejudice in an age of political correctness.

Don’t mention religion..!

A very happy childood. Just don't mention religion!

A very happy childood. Just don’t mention religion!

I was brought up in a family where religion was a taboo subject. My dad had been raised a strict Catholic, but after enduring a childhood of corporal punishment inflicted by monks, he chose to leave Catholicism behind when he became a father in his 30s. The result, as often seems to happen with those who walk away from a strict religious upbringing, is that religion became a no-go area; we never discussed it, and the silence told us that all religion was seen as an evil cultural construction which caused nothing but war and misery.

As a result I had a huge gap in knowledge about what religion actually meant in the everyday lives of people to whom it mattered.

Religious intolerance…?

We live in an age when the headlines are full of national conflicts and terrorist attacks, driven by religious clashes and intolerance. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, religion is a touchy subject and many, like my dad, would be quite happy to do away with all of it. Nonetheless, religion also continues to play an important community building role in modern society. Away from all the wars and disputes, a sense of religious belonging enhances wellbeing in the everyday lives of many people.

Religious tolerance…?

We also live at a time when diversity and respect for difference have become central motifs in our society. Rather paradoxically therefore, whilst the number of religious wars and attacks appear to proliferate around the world, we are also – on the whole – more mindful of religious tolerance and sensitive to the variety of beliefs which circulate in our communities.

Which makes the reception of our research project by some all the more interesting.

Why does Spiritualism spook..?

SpELS is a resarch project exploring what is, according to the 2011 Census, the country’s fastest growing religion: Spiritualism. Although a relatively young religion (with its modern roots in the mid-19th century), it nonetheless has a visible presence in almost every town and city from Glasgow and Alness to Bodmin and Dagenham. Despite its geographical spread and growing popularity, however, there is a lack of wider understanding about what Spiritualism actually is.

Tracing Spiritualism

Tracing Spiritualism…

Recently we’ve been wandering the streets of Stoke-on-Trent looking at the location of premises previously registered for Spiritualist worship. This has taken us to a wide range of places from full blown church buildings, to rooms above high street shops, to the site of residential terraces long ago 2015-03-30 10.48.40demolished. Perhaps not surprisingly, we’ve met a lot of people along the path of our travels who ask us why we’re wandering around in the rain with ancient OS maps, pointing cameras at piles of rubbish or unattractive shop-fronts.

And we’ve been a bit taken aback by the response of some people when we tell them! A common attitude seems to be that people think we are dabbling in the occult or something. They literally back off – physically recoiling from us – as we explain that we’re looking at the history of Spiritualism. ‘Oh no!’ They cry, ‘Best leave all that alone…’

We had a really interesting conversation with a taxi driver one evening, which went something like this:
‘Spiritualism? Oh yea they believe in all that possession stuff don’t they?’
‘Well no, not really. They believe in the continuation of the soul after death. That the spirit lives on and continues to develop spiritually.’
‘Oh. Do they?’ [Pause] ‘Well I believe that… But like, don’t spirits possess and cause illness and things?’
‘Is that what you believe?’
‘It’s in my faith…’
‘Well, it’s different for Spiritualists. They believe spirit is there to help us, not cause us problems.’

Possessions and fakery…

I guess partly the lack of awareness and reticence to show interest in Spiritualism is down to the way its adherents are represented in popular culture. In sum, the main thing that Spiritualism is known for – talking with the dead – is ripped out of the context of the religion and community it sits within and placed uncomfortably into a world which doesn’t want to take the time to understand it or adjust any preconceptions about what it might entail. From the eccentric Madame Arcati in ‘Blithe Spirit’, to con-artist Oda Mae Brown in ‘Ghost’, portrayals of people who talk with the dead routinely play on the slightly mad and slightly comical older lady (yes, usually a lady) as a pitiful character who is easy to ridicule and dismiss. At the other end of the spectrum there are darker, more sinister portrayals like Alison Mundy in ‘Afterlife’ where the medium is possessed or haunted by spirits which roam battered and bruised around the earthly plain awaiting justice.

Street art on an old Spiritualist building: artistic creation or possessive desctruction..?

Street art on an old Spiritualist building: artistic creation or possessive desctruction..?

Invariably, people who talk with the dead are seen as ‘different’, ‘outsiders’, not quite at home in our modern world.

No wonder people are a little wary.

The real face of Spiritualism..?

The truth of the matter is that what Spiritualists do is actually a lot more mundane. A self-respecting Spiritualist medium is unlikely to let themselves be ‘possessed’ in a dramatic performance; a church service will often open and close with hymns and prayers just like many other religious traditions; and the medium, rather than being an eccentric recluse living in some windswept spooky cottage, or constantly haunted by restless souls, quite probably lives next door and works quite happily as a nurse, a fire-fighter or a teacher.

A typical Spiritualist Church service

A typical Spiritualist Church service

These are very normal people, practicing a very ordinary religion, in very mundane places.

But they make some extraordinary claims, and this is what seems to set them apart.

What they are unlikely to do, however, is to push their religion upon others. You won’t find Spiritualists knocking on doors for recruits; and although you quite possibly work alongside someone who has some interest in Spiritualism, and has perhaps visited a Spiritualist church, chances are they won’t talk to you about it unless it crops up in conversation. They won’t be out to convert you. For Spiritualists believe that Spirit will come to the person when they are ready, and it’s up to each individual to make the choice to listen or not. And although they have ‘7 principles’ they try to follow, their ultimate aim – they will tell you – is to seek the truth about our existence on earth and beyond it.

The truth is out there…

So in a world of contradictory tolerance and intolerance, religion continues to divide and judge in very visible, sometimes violent ways. Different religious persuasions remain locked in the fight for supremacy, and their right to claim ‘the truth’.

Meanwhile, quietly, in a street near where you live, people are gathering together not to preach the truth, but to find it; with a bit of help from a comforting energy they call ‘Spirit’ that will not possess them or punish them or con money out of them.

If the census results are anything to go by, there’s more and more people who are doing so.

And they’re not waging wars or attacking other religious faiths.

So what is everyone so scared of..?

Perhaps the real fear of Spiritualism lies in its apparently comfortable relationship with death. And however tolerant we are, we’re not quite ready for that just yet.

Where angels fear to tread..?

Where angels fear to tread..?

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Healing mind, body and soul: Guest blog by Dr Nadia Bartolini

Healing hands..?

Healing hands..?

Spiritualism is mostly known for its emphasis on mediumship. Becoming aware or attuned to The Other Side is often associated with developing mediumistic capabilities in a circle. This process takes time, dedication and trust.

While mediumship can be perceived as the cornerstone of Spiritualism, I have been very interested in another, perhaps lesser known aspect of Spiritualism: healing. I am unsure why healing has caught my attention. Is it indeed because I was less aware of it and feel as though I have uncovered a more hidden aspect of Spiritualism? Perhaps it’s because I am still trying to figure out what healing is about? Regardless of the reasons, I have been going to healing more and more, and to my surprise (because I can’t quite understand why), I very much enjoy it.

If mediumship focuses on demonstrating communication with the spirit world, I am gradually thinking that healing could be seen as highlighting the ‘caring’ aspect of Spiritualism. This is not to say that mediumship is not about caring – quite the opposite. But I had not previously appreciated the extent to which healers are as important as mediums. Healers also develop in circles, and their gift is as valued and necessary as that of mediums.

Letting Go

Painting of the old Fenton Church before it moved to new premises

Painting of the old Fenton Church before it moved to new premises

Since starting this project, I have taken frequent trips to Stoke-on-Trent. Due to personal obligations, I have been traveling to Stoke on Mondays and I have therefore tried to attend the Fenton Spiritualist Church’s healing services that occur on Monday evenings.

As an ethnographer, at first, I wanted to observe healing: what happens to patients when they receive healing? Is there a reciprocity that is observable between the healer and the patient? Then, I became curious to experience healing and find out whether it would affect me in some way. That said, I also wondered whether I could challenge myself: could I actually be still and relax for twenty minutes in a strange environment? Would I be able to trust a healer enough to let myself go, mind, body and soul? In other words, would I be open enough to receive healing, and if so, would I feel anything?

Being in the Moment

I have now had the opportunity to obtain healing from all the healers at Fenton. Each one of them is different and as I have been told, I would have my own preferred healers (which I do). From a patient point of view, I suppose that some personalities have an easier time to let go, but I am one of these people that finds it quite hard. It’s not that I can’t relax; I simply have always found it difficult to do it with other people. When I am alone, I can meditate quite easily. However, I always feel on edge somehow when I am supposed to let go with, basically, a stranger.

I was a bit nervous on my first healing experience. I found myself being led to a small, private room. The healer shut the door and asked me to sit in a chair that was placed in the middle of the room. She reassured me, calmed me and suggested that I close my eyes and try to relax. She asked if I was ok with her touching me: my back, my head, my arms, my hands. I said I was. As I closed my eyes and felt her presence close to me, I was immediately aware of a deep sense of calm. My rational mind couldn’t quite explain it, but I decided then and there to trust her… and I let myself be in the moment. With my eyes shut, my other senses kicked in: I could hear soft music coming from the speakers; I heard the distant hum of cars outside; I sensed her hands moving to my shoulders; I felt my muscles tense and then relax. As my mind became accustomed to the music, I imagined drifting away – not to a place, but to an emptiness. I noticed that my breathing was deeper, slower, and I got into a rhythm… and suddenly, I ‘awoke’: I couldn’t feel her presence anymore. I opened my eyes and saw her sitting calmly in a chair by the wall in front of me. She was smiling, and so was I.

Relaxing music adds to the healing atmosphere

Relaxing music adds to the healing atmosphere

Feeling the Energy

Now that I know what to expect when I go to healing, I find myself drawn to it. I can’t quite explain why, but as the last healer told me, perhaps I just need a little down time. There is something to this, of course. In this day and age, it is difficult to find time to sit quietly and empty our minds. But I think there is more to it than that. This is why I am always surprised when every once in a while, there is a story in the press that surfaces condemning complementary medicine, such as this recent article in The Guardian.

So, if I don’t need anything ‘healed’, why am I drawn to ‘healing’? Maybe it has to do with the presence of a healer – of another person’s body in proximity – creating a sense of calm, of energies flowing from one body to another. All I can say is that after healing, I feel better. I feel re-energized. After healing, I join healers and patients in the common area of the church and we sip tea and chat about how we’ve been. This familiarity, this sense of community and feeling of ‘care’ are just as important as the 20-minute healing session. I think this is worth considering – even though I have no data to prove that I am better, I sure do feel better.

Most Spiritualist churches will offer healing. If you’re around the Stoke-on-Trent area and feel in need of some healing energy, why not visit one of the churches the SpELS project is working with and experience it for yourself?:

Burslem Spiritualist Church
Fenton Spiritualist Church
Longton Spiritulaist Church

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Accountability and the human experience: spirit, consciousness and being (or not being) in bodies…

It's what's inside that counts...

It’s what’s inside that counts…

In ‘The Man With Two Brains’ brain surgeon Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin) falls in love with a brain in a glass jar. Of course, what he’s actually fallen in love with is the spirit of the person once attached to a body in which that brain was living. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s safe to say the film is a sweet parody reminding us that beauty is on the inside rather than the outside. True love, so the story goes, occurs between unaccountably attracted soulmates not just from the magnetism of physical bodies. It’s about a spiritual connection our physical selves do not necessarily have total control over.

Embodying disembodied spirits

A spirit having a human experience or a human having a spiritual experience?

A spirit having a human experience or a human having a spiritual experience?

To be spiritual is to be aware of what lies beyond the physical world we can touch, see, hear, smell and taste. For many, spirituality is particularly about recognising and acknowledging the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ that lives temporarily within the physical body and physical world, but has no permanent reliance on either. This is understood as a spirit that will go on to live in other forms when that body can no longer serve it; and had a presence even before that body came into existence.

People with this outlook on spirituality and life often say ‘I am a spirit having a human experience’.

But why would a spirit want a human experience?

What is it about the human experience that the spirit is trying to learn from?

Human accountability to the spirit?

Caring for the future: embodied logic or spiritual imperative?

Caring for the future: embodied logic or spiritual imperative?

Spiritually minded people are often very sensitive to their responsibility to others in their actions. They endeavour to create relationships which nurture rather than undermine other people. They might have a particular interest in caring for the future of the planet, recognising that their spirit in this particular body will one day no longer need that physical environment, but believing nonetheless that they have a responsibility to leave the world in the best shape possible for future generations.

But I read an article today which got me thinking about what is probably actually the most unique thing about having a human experience (‘Embodied Spirituality’ by Cat Chapin-Bishop). It’s not necessarily our relationships with others, for those are understood to continue far beyond our earthbound existence. It probably isn’t even the experience of living in a physical world, because any living being can experience that, not just humans. For me, I think the most profound thing about being human is that – whether we do it as embodied spirits or as a random collection of cells governed partly by something we don’t really understand called consciousness – we do it from ‘inside’ or ‘as’ a body.

Human accountability to the body?

Many people have reported out-of-body experiences when their physical body has temporarily died but they experience consciousness as continuing. Whilst others deliberately pursue such an experience through meditation and astral projection. Increasingly scientific observations are also suggesting that consciousness can in fact be disembodied.

We often feel let down by our bodies

We often feel let down by our bodies

So the unique thing about being human is that we inhabit a physical body…

which we are consciously aware of…


That consciousness can also exist – at least in part and in some way – outside that body.

At times we are made consciously aware of our body. It may be during periods of physical illness or injury, or when our body’s limitations frustrate us. Or it might be when others judge us by our physical appearance, or by what we do or don’t do with our bodies. At times like that some people have an overwhelming urge to disown their body or to try and change it. From cosmetic surgery and dieting, to self-harm and suicide, us humans have developed a huge range of ways in which to articulate our frustration with our embodied existence.

So Cat Chapin-Bishop’s article made me think about the relationship between the spiritual and embodiment.

What does it feel like to be a spirit having a human experience in a body?

What does it feel like to be a human in a body who occasionally has out-of-body spiritual experiences?

What does it feel like to simply be a collection of cells with an unruly consciousness which sometimes ignores the known physical limits of existence and takes it upon itself to step outside the confines of the body it’s meant to be housed within?

Being without ‘Being’…?

Whatever our take on the human experience is, we often forget how essential our bodies really are to that experience. Not only as something which helps us do the things we want to do in the world – or tries to prevent us from achieving those things – but quite simply as the home to the spirit or consciousness which is leading us towards those things in the first place. That spirit or consciousness might exist independently in other ways we are yet to fully understand, but without the body the human experience of simply ‘being’ is lost.

We also often forget to just be in that body.

So I agree with Chaplin-Bishop. Remember how to be a body and how to live in that body, as fully and completely as you can. Because it won’t always be at your disposal; regardless of what you believe happens once it has gone.

Never forget to BE in your body!

Never forget to BE in your body!

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The Fool’s journey? Opening up academia to otherworldly travels…

Playing the fool or expanding horizons?

Playing the fool or expanding horizons?

‘Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do’.
(Benjamin Franklin)

Fools rush in…

Getting the SpELS Project (Spiritualism in the Everyday Life of Stoke-on-Trent) off the ground wasn’t easy. Academia tends to shy away from what it doesn’t understand; and Spiritualism is something academia on the whole fails to understand.

When I first started to conduct research into the lives of people who lived in a world where death doesn’t mark the end, but just the beginning of the next chapter, colleagues and publishers were reluctant to take me seriously. There is a long history of researchers (across both the social and natural sciences) who have developed an interest in the ‘otherworldly’ only to have it quashed by an establishment that ridicules them as fools. Professor Charles Emmons wrote about this very experience on the blog back in 2013.

Several years ago when I told a colleague I was studying angel healing, she laughed at me and said, ‘that’s ridiculous, angels don’t exist!’ Like a fool, however, I stuck my ground, found some likeminded curious ‘fools’, and began to develop a research career in this fascinating area. Because whether or not angels ‘exist’ in the way we currently understand ‘reality’ to exist, a belief in angels and other otherworldly beings is growing in modern British society. And as I’ve discovered from previous research, such beliefs have a big impact on people’s lives in all sorts of ways.

Seeing the light…

A perfect venue...

A perfect venue…

So SpELS has emerged as a result of a small group of (possibly foolish) academics persevering with our journey, and the project is now well and truly launched. On Tuesday evening we invited all our participants from Gladstone Pottery Museum, the three Spiritualist Churches at Fenton, Burslem and Longton, together with the advisory board members along to a celebration of the project at The Church Bar and Restaurant in Hanley. We chose this particular venue because it was home to Hanley Spiritualist Church for the best part of a century.

When she took it over the new owner, Diane McDaid, was keen to renovate the property in a way which was sensitive to its former use. The result is an impressive restaurant and bar with lovely food, some interesting ghostly stories and the added attraction of Tuesday Tarot nights!

Diane explains the journey from church to restaurant

Diane explains the journey from church to restaurant

Tarot is a very popular tool used by spiritually curious people for self-development. But it’s also popular more generally among people who – like the Church Bar and Restaurant’s Tuesday night diners – just want some insight into what’s going on in their life. Many Spiritualists also use Tarot cards as one way to open a channel to Spirit and receive their mediumship messages.

Play your cards right…

Coincidentally (although as Spiritualists might tell you, there’s no such thing as coincidence!) the Tarot deck is based around ‘the Fool’s journey’. The Fool is a simple soul open to embracing whatever comes his way as he embarks on his journey through life. He is unaware of the hardships he will inevitably face, so he steps out with confidence and an innocent faith that something good will come of it.

The Fool begins his journey

The Fool begins his journey

Adopting the childlike innocence of the Fool takes nerve, but it can also help to advance our understanding of what it means to be human; shedding light on areas where others might fear to tread. Outside the circles of those who practice it, little is known about the role of Spiritualism in modern Britain, yet it is the fastest growing religion according to census data. We would be fools to pretend it doesn’t have a place in our disenchanted world.

And this is why I continue on this particular journey, however foolish some academics may think me to be, because it helps to broaden our understanding of the world, and challenge preconceived ignorance and misconceptions about other people’s journeys.

‘People do not wish to appear foolish;
to avoid the appearance of foolishness, they are willing to remain actually fools’.
(Alice Walker)


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Pots, Principles and Rainbows: SpELS on the road in Longton…

@SpELS has been on the road in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, collecting information and materials for our forthcoming exhibition at Gladstone Pottery Museum

Longton Spiritualist Church

Longton Spiritualist Church

Longton has a rich history with the Spiritualist movement. Gordon Higginson, the longest serving President of the Spiritualists National Union, was born in Longton in 1918. His mother Fanny, also a Spiritualist medium, was already a member of Longton Church and he went on to serve there for most of his life. Today Longton Church continues as one of the leading centres for Spiritualism and is rightly proud of its heritage.

You may be more familiar with another aspect of Stoke-on-Trent’s heritage – its pottery industry. Longton Spiritualist Church is actually right next door to the Gladstone Pottery Museum where you can learn all about this aspect of Stoke’s history; and we’re delighted to say the two went hand-in-hand yesterday as we were presented by Longton Church President with one of the first objects that will feature in our exhibition at Gladstone.

The Seven Principles

The Seven Principles

This decorative plate, produced for the Church by Longton-based ‘Edwardian China’, lists the seven principles of Spiritualism. The ‘Seven Principles’ – familiar to all Spiritualists today – developed from the work of Emma Hardinge Britten, a medium, Spiritualist and inspirational public speaker who played a pivotal part in bringing Spiritualists together across the country in an organised movement.

When in 1899 Emma herself ‘passed to Spirit’, Spiritualists across the UK and America felt they had lost one of their most eloquent advocates. Nonetheless, the Spiritualist belief that the soul lives on beyond death meant mourners at her grave did not feel entirely bereft. As reflected in these words by a Mr Walter Howell in attendance that day:

“…tears will come and the darkness of earthly sorrow will hide the light, yet we know that behind the cloud the sunlight of the world of spirit shines, and that she whom we loved is there in that glory, glimpses of which pierce through the rifts and cause the rainbow of promise to shine in the mist of our tears…”

As we left Longton Church clutching our plate, the rain was pouring down over Stoke-on-Trent. But then a beautiful rainbow appeared, stretching right over the Gladstone Pottery Museum next door. Perhaps it was Emma’s rainbow of promise, shining down on her continued legacy..!

Gladstone Pottery Museum under a 'rainbow of promise'..?

Gladstone Pottery Museum under a ‘rainbow of promise’..?

Don’t forget you can follow @SpELSProject on Facebook too!

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Under the spell of Stoke-on-Trent? Potbanks, Spiritualism, and the hidden history of a city…

What's your image of Stoke-on-Trent?

What’s your image of Stoke-on-Trent?

What (if anything) do you associate with the city of Stoke-on-Trent?

Robbie Williams?

Sir Stanley Matthews?

‘The Potters’ and their Britannia Stadium?

Josiah Wedgewood, ceramics and the industrial decline of the potbanks?

Perhaps it’s the delicious Staffordshire oatcake and the fact that it was once the centre of the Northern Soul scene…

But would you associate it with one of the fastest growing religions in the UK? For this unique conglomeration of industrial towns is also home to a flourishing Spiritualist movement.

Is there anybody there?

Seances and Spiritualism in the popular imagination

Seances and Spiritualism in the popular imagination (source: The Pennington Edition)

It’s often assumed that Spiritualism is a religion of the past, enjoying its heyday in the first half of the twentieth-century and since fading into the margins of cultural obscurity. However the number of people describing themselves as ‘Spiritualist’ in the 2011 Census showed an increase of about 21% from 2001 (during the same period there was a decline of about 11 per cent in the number of people describing themselves as ‘Christian’).

Although overall numbers of Spiritualists remain small, there is no doubt that Spiritualism is alive and well. And in Stoke-on-Trent there are still three very active Spiritualist churches enjoying healthy congregations and playing an important role in their local communities.

Spiritualism is a philosophy and religion based on the belief that the soul continues to live following the death of the physical body and that communication with spirit is possible through the channel of trained spirit mediums. In the popular imagination Spiritualism is dominated by images of fakery in Victorian séances and Derek Acorah being possessed on ‘Most Haunted’. But the everyday reality is much more mundane. People do very ordinary things in Spiritualist churches, like get married or conduct funerals. They attend Sunday divine services and hold fundraising events just like many other church congregations. And in a very similar way to many other religions, Spiritualists will light candles or offer prayers in memory of loved ones who have died…

Candles lit in memory of loved ones in a Christian church.

Candles lit in memory of loved ones in a Christian church.

A 'Memory Tree' in a Spiritualist church with messages for loved ones.

A ‘Memory Tree’ in a Spiritualist church with messages for loved ones.








…but here lies the crucial difference, they might also get a direct message from that loved one in the Spirit world.

But why Stoke-on-Trent?

Longton Spiritualist Church

Longton Spiritualist Church, home of Gordon Higginson.

Stoke-on-Trent, famous for its Victorian pottery industry, and making the world’s finest bone china, lives in the shadow of its past glories. Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Potteries’, this area is now probably most famous for its post-Pottery decline and for being the birthplace of Robbie Williams. But it was also birthplace and home to the longest serving President of the Spiritualists National Union – Gordon Higginson – who was born in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent in 1918. His mother, Fanny, was already an established medium at Longton Spiritualist Church and, like her, he went on to serve there until his death.

Industrial decline in Stoke-on-Trent.

Industrial decline in Stoke-on-Trent.

Today Stoke is a city dominated by its intractable struggle to reverse industrial and economic decline and Stoke City Council has tried to reinvigorate the region by drawing on the city’s industrial heritage. But the emphasis on its pot-based past overlooks another important and continuing aspect of its cultural heritage. In the 1960s whilst the number of potbanks was declining daily, there were twelve very active Spiritualist churches in the city. This, together with it being the home of Fanny and Gordon Higginson, made Stoke-on-Trent the national hub of a thriving Spiritualist movement.

This legacy, together with the active life of the city’s remaining Spiritualist churches today, represents a hidden heritage for Stoke that’s worth discovering more about. With this as its starting point, the SpELS project seeks to unearth the Spiritualist past and present of Stoke-on-Trent by bringing together the city’s people, museums and Spiritualist churches in conversation.

You can follow the SpELS Project on Twitter and Facebook.

SpELS is funded by the AHRC and based at The Open University.

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Making a place your own…

Do you create your own world?

Do you create your own world?

I’ve always done a lot of yoga. But I’ve never been a huge fan of the growing number of glossy yoga magazines which are hitting the shelves – because quite simply they make my yoga practice feel a bit inadequate! Flick through the pages of any yoga magazine and you will find them full of idyllic images of exotic ashrams, adverts for holistic retreats and features on the latest studios opening up in some fashionable district of London. But the reality for me is that yoga practice takes places in decidedly less tranquil surroundings. Occasionally I’m lucky and the local gym has a class I can get to, or I end up having to carve out moments of time in a corner of the living room, in between getting home from work and cooking the kids’ tea.

But just because my lifestyle, location and budget don’t stretch to the perfect yogic experience, it doesn’t mean those moments of practice should be any less powerful. A class in a noisy gym pumping out dance music in the next room, or half an hour at home with the kids jumping all around me as I float off in the ‘corpse’ pose can be just as magical as a weekend retreat. It all depends on how I relate to the place I happen to be in!

Your place or mine?

‘Place’ is about something much more than its physical location. You’ve probably experienced one of those moments where you’ve been struck by the power of a particular place. It might have been the grandeur of a cathedral, the electric atmosphere of a football stadium, or the romance of a country hotel decked out for a wedding. But in such moments it isn’t the physical bricks and mortar of the places which stop us in our stride – it’s everything else that’s bound up in them and the meanings we attach to that. It’s the spiritual history of a cathedral, the expectation and hope of victory in the stadium, and the deep emotion that pulls at the heartstrings when we think of a couple sharing their commitment to each other with friends and family.

The same can be said of the place where you practice yoga. Is it a community hall, the local gym or your front room? Is it a place of peace and tranquility you look forward to visiting? Or do you worry every time you enter it whether you will live up to other people’s expectations, or even your own? For each person in a class, chances are they’ll be experiencing a very different place to the person sat on the mat next to them. Place isn’t just a physical entity, it has personal, social and even spiritual dimensions, and being aware of that can help us to understand our place in the world better.

The breath of life

Some people live their lives almost completely in the ‘physical’ world – they’re controlled by the physical symptoms displayed by their bodies, and enslaved to the physical world around them, to such an extent that blood pressure can soar the instant a traffic jam appears up ahead. For others they’re bound by social rules, conventions and expectations, and they’ll worry about what will happen if the traffic chaos makes them late for their appointment with an important client. Others will be much more swayed by their personal experience of the world, and the traffic jam can become for them either a one-way street to hell on earth as they beat themselves up with the implications of the delay, or a welcome chance to get lost in a day-dream. For those who like to tap into a spiritual world, this offers up another dimension for them to experience the traffic jam. They may decide the universe has a reason for the delay and will relax behind the wheel safe in the knowledge that this was meant to happen.

The word ‘spiritual’ is derived from the Latin ‘spiritus’, meaning breath, air, life. Whatever our religious beliefs, our innate ‘spirituality’ is what animates us, gives us passion and a sense of connection with everything around us. It doesn’t matter if we have no religion, for there are numerous other ways to get in touch with this passion and connectivity – music, dance, poetry, art, are all inherently spiritual things because the act of creation and sharing unites us with something beyond ourselves.

Getting back to my yoga, this is also one way some people bring more of that spirit, that life, that connection and meaning into their lives. Sometimes that ‘breath of life’ is lost as we get caught up in the demands of daily life, but by being mindful, and by developing an awareness of these four overlapping worlds of experience (physical, social, personal, spiritual), it is possible to shape the world a little more towards where and what we want it to be.

Four worlds of experience

Four worlds of experience

What’s in a mat?

What's in a mat?

What's in a mat?

Let’s stick with the yoga for a bit. Yoga is often practiced on a mat – for some this will just be a random mat selected from a pile at the front of the class, a physical prop to help make the session more comfortable, a cushion between the soft body and the hard floor. Others will have a very close relationship with a particular mat – when they roll it out on the floor it transforms that space into a very personal and private retreat. Perhaps they might have been given the mat from someone special, and using it forms a bond with that person, or perhaps they might have a designer label mat because how others perceive them seems important. Someone else may have brought a special mat back from a yoga holiday and each time they connect with it they are transported instantly back to that time and place. So the humble yoga mat exists physically, personally, socially and spiritually – and how someone perceives it can have a profound effect on how they experience their yoga practice.

Make the most of every space

So if you practice yoga, or maybe even next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam, and you’re wondering why someone next to you seems able to switch off and you can’t, perhaps it’s time to focus on what you can change about your relationship with the space around you, to make it work better for you.

Think about the effect a traffic jam has on you. Do you instantly tense up and start panicking about the delay? What are you worried about? Is it that you may lose your parking space when you reach your destination? Is it because first impressions count and you’re going to be late for an important meeting? Or is it simply because you don’t have personal control over what’s going on and that annoys you?

And if you practice yoga, or take part in any other form of exercise which is meant to be enhancing your wellbeing, are you getting the most out of that time and place? Are you constantly distracted by noises, by the temperature of the room or by the over-powering smell of someone else’s perfume? Do you find your focus drifting, and instead of focusing on your technique you find yourself secretly envious of the person next to you, who seems to drift effortlessly through the session without breaking into a sweat? And at the end of class, do you feel good about yourself and able to fully enjoy the relaxation and stretches, or is your mind working against you, turning over that heated conversation you had with your boss or the hurt you still feel from an argument with a loved one?

If you catch yourself doing any of these things, remind yourself that you can have a powerful effect on creating the space around you – and that space doesn’t have to be dominated by physical distractions, social expectations or your own personal worries. Refocus on the spirit at the heart of what you are doing – and transform your space into what you want it to be. Think about the world you are creating around yourself, and make the most of every layer of that world, to make the most of every experience.

…And if you’re wondering what Russell Brand is doing in this post – well, he loves yoga too. But watch this space for a fuller explanation coming soon…!

(developed from an article I had published in Om Yoga Magazine, December 2011. pp. 66-67).

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Unveiling the artist within…

Sacral Passion

This summer I held my first exhibition as an artist. Art is something which has always been bubbling away for me, ever since I had my first cartoon commissions for a Welsh learners’ magazine while I was studying for my A levels. But as often happens, ‘real life’ got in the way and the art took a back seat.

…Until this summer.

I was invited by the owner of a local café bar to hold an exhibition of my work there. Initially I was a bit reluctant, I didn’t consider myself a ‘proper’ artist and the whole idea quite frankly terrified me. But then I thought of what my friends would say if I turned the opportunity down, and I remembered my daughter’s favourite saying:

‘Every day you should do something that scares you.’

So I did something that scared me – I said yes!

It was this Orange Man that had kicked the whole thing off – he had sparked a lot of interest on Facebook when I shared him there, and people seemed to like him. I’ve always enjoyed life drawing but what I’d tried to capture with my Orange Man was not the precise recording of the human figure in all its glory, but an imagined world going on inside and around that figure – the ‘spirit’ that resides within and spills beyond the boundary of every human body.

In my academic research I encounter people who live with and embody an ‘otherworldly’ spirit in every moment of their lives, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring together my research interests with my creative ones. So in my impressions of the human body I’ve become interested in trying to capture not anatomically perfect bodies but impressions of the spirit within (and spiritual connections beyond) which emerge from that body.

There are artists in the spiritual community who take this to a much higher level. A range of techniques are employed in psychic or channelled art, where the artist allows something other than their conscious mind to guide what they produce. Such techniques are used to open up links to otherworlds and entities, including spirit guides or deceased souls, and can aid the development of a wider awareness for both the artist and the person viewing the art.

I’m not claiming to be doing anything quite so profound, but my Orange Man certainly opened up a new world for me. Through the act of trying to capture his hidden world, I’ve released the creative spirit that was still smouldering away inside me, dormant for over twenty years. And I have to say on this occasion I agree wholeheartedly with my daughter – doing something that scared me really did pay off!

You can see more from the exhibition here SaraArt or visit my Facebook page.

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Unveiling uncanny encounters…

The Fool steps out with gay abandon...

Tomorrow I am presenting at the Encounters Conference at the Morgan Centre, University of Manchester. This conference seeks to open up interdisciplinary dialogue around the theme of ‘encounters’: Personal encounters, Sensory encounters, Intimate encounters, Material encounters, Imaginary encounters, Fleeting encounters, Spatial encounters, Unexpected encounters, Revelatory encounters, Serendipitous encounters, Dreadful encounters…  the list goes on.

In my paper I will be exploring otherworldly encounters, because in my fieldwork I find my encounters often involve discarnate entities – spirits, spirit guides, angels, that sort of thing – and I wanted to use the conference as an opportunity to try and reflect on how we can account for such unaccountable encounters in the research process.

I’ve written before on this blog and in academic papers about the difficulty I sometimes have in convincing other academics that it doesn’t matter whether these encounters are ‘real’ or not. What matters is the impact that experiencing such encounters  – ‘real’ or otherwise – has on those people who experience them. Yet my colleagues are often too busy trying to ridicule or laugh off the very notion of such otherworldly encounters to stop and acknowledge that even things we might consider ‘not real’ can have very real impacts.

In my fieldwork I participate fully in the activities I research – so I’m not just being told about these encounters and I find I am frequently encountering the unexpected myself as a result.  Tomorrow I’m going to be talking about my experiences of being a tarot student as part of my research, and it will be interesting to see what feedback I get as I haven’t shared this with an academic audience before! Yet the fact that I am sharing it shows that I’m gradually learning to become more fearless in the way I talk about these encounters with fellow academics – because they are encounters which I believe can tell us a lot about what it means to live in a modern world which, for growing numbers of people, is actually far more enchanted and mysterious than we might at first imagine. The sociological imagination needs a way to see that and capture it, and as academics we need to find a way to be able to write about it and represent it which is sensitive to the experiences we uncover, yet at the same time remains academically credible. And that is what I would like to explore.

I just hope sharing my otherworldly encounters with this particular audience doesn’t prove to be a regrettable encounter for me..!

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