The Spirit of Stoke-on-Trent: Reflections on the healing heritage of Brexit Capital…

What lies on Stoke-on-Trent's horizon?

What lies on Stoke-on-Trent’s horizon?

All eyes are on a bitter and divided Stoke-on-Trent, as it goes to the polls amidst a flurry of sickening political deceit, backstabbing and the occasional well-aimed egg-throwing.

But I wanted to use this opportunity to reflect on another of Stoke-on-Trent’s vernacular vagaries. For not only is the city the ‘Brexit Capital’ of Britain, it has also been the hub of a thriving Spiritualist movement for some 150 years. And perhaps Spiritualism has something of value to reflect on in these dystopian times.


The healing power of Spiritualism…

Spiritualism is a religion that is misunderstood, ridiculed and even feared, yet, as I have written before, one of its core practices – hands-on healing –  has begun to make its way into mainstream healthcare in recent years.

But for Spiritualists, there is more to the healing dynamic of their religion and philosophy than the laying-on of hands. Even mediumship (communicating with the dead) – so often disparaged by wider society as praying on and exploiting the vulnerable – is understood as being essentially about developing a healing relationship between those who have ‘passed to spirit’ and those who are left behind.

Healing encounters…

Of course, death also has its place in mainstream healthcare. In end-of-life care it is widely recognised that the complex and unpredictable spiritual (and/or religious) needs of patients and families often come to the fore. As people face their own mortality, the meaning of life and how it may fit into a broader picture, is cast in new relief. Sometimes this manifests in requests for visits from religious leaders to prepare for death; at other times some very different spiritual visits will occur. Nurses in palliative care have often reported paranormal visitations and events as patients approach death; and bereavement counsellors will frequently find those mourning their loved ones talking of seeing, sensing or hearing the spirits of the deceased.

In both contexts – for those approaching death and those left behind – these otherworldly spiritual connections are experienced as therapeutic and comforting, often easing the passing and the subsequent transition to a life without that person for those left behind.

They are in essence healing encounters.

Healing the spirit? An angel statue looks over the graves in Longton Cemetary

Healing the spirit? An angel statue watches over the graves in Longton Cemetary

A healing approach…

But Spiritualism takes these extraordinary encounters as its starting point. These are seen as very normal and ordinary parts of everyday life; not reserved for moments of crisis. Spirit doesn’t just call at the death bed; for Spiritualists, it exists as an ever-present and active part of everyday life. And this serves as a healing framework for daily life which offers connection, continuity and shared experiences.

Ghostly laughter..? [source:]

Ghostly laughter..? [Source]

When a medium delivers a message from the dead, therefore, it is met with tears of laughter, as much as tears of loss.

But mediums do not only talk to the dead. Like any other person standing in front of a church congregation they will also offer a reading or address at each service. This is often used to highlight shared responsibilities and commonalities despite apparent differences – from Aleppo to pets, the Christmas story to the NHS, there is a reminder that spirit’s universal presence binds the world together, often against the odds.

Even for non-Spiritualists (for there are many who attend these services in the hope of a message from beyond the grave) there is common sense and comfort in this message which offers a welcome contrast to the images of conflict, devastation and hate beamed into homes daily by global news corporations.

But so what? What can we usefully take from that broader narrative of healing? Is it just feel-good palliatives in a world beyond hope, or might there be some message of value to be gained by reflecting on this other side to Stoke-on-Trent’s cultural traditions?

From curing to caring…

A healing touch..?

A healing touch..?

The unspoken subtext in any medical encounter is the need for it to be healing on some level, not simply curative, or treatment-based, or scientifically measurable, but for it to have at its heart a sense of having been cared for; hence we call it health care practice. There is also general consensus that developing healing relationships in health care encounters will improve clinical outcomes, ensure higher rates of patient compliance, and have beneficial impacts on job satisfaction for practitioners.

Embracing healing in health systems, it seems, is win win.

At the same time, healing has a complex and ambiguous relationship with health, illness and wellbeing. On the one hand, it might seem logical to think that healing implies overcoming some form of disease, ill-health or suffering. Yet on the other, someone can be terminally ill – or perfectly healthy – and still undergo profoundly healing experiences.

If healing, therefore, exists somewhere beyond the immediate physical biology of bodies, how do we locate it and how can it be accessed in health care encounters? Well perhaps Spiritualism has some of the answers.

The reality is that healing is independent of health, illness, curing, treatment, and even death; and the narrative of healing in Spiritualism shows that very clearly. In acknowledging and attending to the intangible, Spiritualism draws attention to more than the machinery of the body we inhabit here-and-now, relocating that body in the moments, places and relationships which make our lives worth living.

This can only be a good thing when the root causes of so many of today’s greatest challenges to wellbeing lie not only in physiological malfunctioning of flesh-and-bone-bodies, but in the social, cultural and spiritual dis-eases of their containing societies.

So here’s hoping for a brighter future for Stoke-on-Trent, premised less on its reputation as Brexit Capital and a little more on the city’s uniquely healing heritage…

Hidden connections..?

Visualising our unseen hidden connections..?

[I will be speaking in more detail about healing, healthcare and messages from Spiritualism at the 2017 Spirituality and Wellbeing Conference in York this weekend].

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Spreading Spiritualist Stereotypes with #MyPsychicLife

For the Twittersphere ‘My Psychic Life‘ (Channel 4 9pm 4 November 2015) was set up to fail before it even aired. The trolls and the cynics were out in force ready to criticise and attack the poor characters who had opened their lives to the cameras…

As is evident from the general flavour of tweets, when people hear the word ‘psychic’ they think con-artist, tricksters, frauds and deception.

Stereotyping for sensation..?

Unfortunately, as is often the case in sensation-seeking broadcasting (and Tweeters!), this is only addressing one stereotype from what is actually a very broad church. And yes, I use the word ‘church’ deliberately, because Spiritualism as a religion has churches and centres up and down the UK in most towns and cities from Edinburgh to the East End, from Leicester to Lochgelly, Maidstone to Manchester.

But the programme decided to sidestep that more mundane aspect of everyday faith and belief, and leap right into the world of flamboyant psychics on the entertainment circuit. The programmers claimed to want to understand why mediums are more popular than ever, but their approach was like trying to understand feminism in British society by following the Spice Girls around for a day.

The real face of Spiritualism..?

Channel 4 missed a real opportunity here. I’m not sure where they got the figure of a 79% increase in people claiming to be ‘Spiritualist’ in the last census (it’s actually nearer 17%, though considerably higher in some areas). But what they failed to do completely was to explore what that meant in terms of the changing spiritual landscape of the UK. At the same time there was a decline in the number of people registering as ‘Christian’ by about 12% and an increase of 10% in those who said they had ‘no religion’.

The fact that people are abandoning God and finding solace (and entertainment) in mediums is an interesting feature of a complex and changing religious landscape. It deserves more nuanced exploration.

The programme, like so many, made the mistake of equating Spiritualism with people who identify as professional psychic mediums. Yes, there are Spiritualists who earn money as ‘professional mediums’, but this is just a small handful of the thousands of people up and down the country who identify with Spiritualism as a religion. For them this isn’t about flamboyant shows in Blackpool or hooking big London agents. It’s about a personal belief and faith which – like any religion for anybody – underpins their everyday life experiences, but hinges on some things which those without that particular religious frame of reference might find difficult to countenance.

After all, is it any weirder to believe in a man with a big white beard in the sky than it is to believe people who have actually lived can continue to exist in some way?

What is the secret..?

The word Spiritualism was mentioned a handful of times. But Channel 4 did nobody any favours by equating it with a handful of people who resembled more closely the characters in Hilary Mantel’s ‘Beyond Black’ than the very normal people you might find sitting in a Spiritualist Church in a Sunday divine service. A great book, by the way, but one which was written for entertainment rather than cultural or theological accuracy.

The narrator of ‘My Psychic Life’ claimed ‘for centuries their work has been a secretive world’. I’m not convinced the programme did anything to lift the lid on that purported secrecy. Actually, people like Derek Acorah and Psychic Sally have been highly visible for many years, so there is no secrecy around this high profile side of entertainment mediumship. Channel 4 simply reinforced a few more stereotypes and hammered the nails a little deeper into the coffin of Spiritualism for the trolls to delight in.

If there is any secrecy around this world, it is purely because nobody has bothered to ask what it actually means for those who claim Spiritualism as their religion. Through our research project we’ve learnt that Spiritualism is not an evangelising religion, so they won’t come knocking on your door bringing deceased Aunt Ethel with you. But if you have a genuine interest in what it is actually all about, we have also found that the churches will welcome you to join them at one of their services where you’re likely to learn a lot more interesting things about living with spirit than you will have gleaned from an hour watching ‘My Psychic Life’.

Time to spread a little tolerance..?

So let the trolls and self-styled cynics have their fun, because Channel 4 really did hand it to them on a plate; but they should realise that by tweeting accusations that all mediums are delusional, ‘mentally ill’, robbing liars they are mistaking one small expression as representative of a much wider religion (not to mention being rude to the many thousands living with serious mental health issues).

And in modern Britain we are meant to be more tolerant towards all religions (and mental health). I can’t imagine the same people would tweet so confidently accusing all Muslims of being terrorists, for example, but perhaps they would? And whilst the seriousness of the accusation is admittedly on a very different scale, the reasoning and logic behind it is just as narrow-minded and ill-informed. It’s a shame Channel 4 missed the opportunity to enlighten us all…

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Talking with the dead vs. talking with Tweeters… which is more scary?

twitter qnaIt is with some trepidation that I am looking forward to taking part in a Twitter Q&A session tomorrow, hosted by the Open University and based on our research project ‘Spiritualism in the Everyday Life of Stoke-on-Trent’.

The OU run these things with their academics frequently and, as usual, advertised the forthcoming session amongst their followers earlier this week. Sometimes they get a lot of people taking part, sometimes very few; but the aim is always to open a conversation about areas of research that are ongoing amongst the research community at the university.

Now I know Spiritualism isn’t everybody’s cup of tea; and that is fair enough. Nonetheless, it has been a part of the religious landscape of Britain since the 1850s, and for its community of followers it has brought comfort, faith, friendship and laughter through good times and bad. Just like any other religion.

However, Spiritualism also attracts an incredibly negative – often hostile – response from some people. We have first-hand experience of that from our research fieldwork. When our associated exhibition (Talking With The Dead) opened, one commentator on Facebook said:

I hope that this exhibition doesn’t sanitise what, in other circumstances,
would be called a fundamentally morbid cult. A cult that cynically preys
on the bereaved person’s love for their dead relative, and thus dangerously
warps and freezes the grieving and healing process. I hope it also acknowledges
the movement’s historical support for pseudo-science ‘research’, and its
tolerance of fakery.

In some ways the comment was perfect for us in terms of highlighting the need for this research in the first place – because it summarised so succinctly some of the widespread misunderstandings and prejudices that surround this long-established faith. This person clearly felt very strongly but appeared to be basing his criticisms on a very outdated and limited understanding of what Spiritualism actually is. The experience for many thousands of British people is very different, and his description is not one which its practitioners would recognise.

It was also interesting that he mentioned healing – because healing is a key part of Spiritualist philosophy, and indeed spiritual healing is now widely provided in the NHS as a beneficial therapeutic intervention for people living with chronic long-term health problems.

Thankfully there have been only positive responses elsewhere to our exhibition and the research project as a whole; but Twitter is seems promises to be a very different beast. Within hours of the Open University Tweeting the Q&A event we were being ridiculed. It wasn’t just Spiritualism under attack, however; this became a critique of the Open University itself, of me personally, and of the wider research community.

I found myself wondering if my colleagues in Religious Studies conducting research into Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and various Indigenous peoples’ religions from around the world get the same criticisms levelled at them. We live in a country which, by and large, prides itself on its cultural tolerance. Paradoxically, extremism in many forms is on the rise. Social science can play a key role in trying to understand how and why that arises, and how we might be able to overcome it. Social science plays a key role in understanding the way society works, how people live together in peace, and how we can help to forge a better future. And part of that is to understand the role of religion and spiritual belief in all its guises.

So for those of you who have already ripped the project apart, criticising the OU and the research team for conducting this project, I wonder if you might be able to set aside your fears, and challenge yourself to learn something informed about this unique part of Britain’s history which continues to play a growing role in society today.

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From curing to caring? Rethinking healing with a bit of spiritual help…

Time to reach out..?

Time to reach out..?

Feeling a bit under the weather? Struggling to face the daily grind? Battling an injury or longterm illness? Or simply looking for half an hour of uninterrupted relaxation? Well perhaps you need some spiritual healing…

A touch of instinct…

Anyone who has ever looked after a small child will be familiar with the natural human instinct of laying on of hands to soothe an injury. Whether it’s the distraction of a cool or warm hand placed on the hurting site, or the powerful placebo of love and attention, it’s usually a calming thing to do which has some beneficial impact.

But is there something else going on at a deeper subconscious level behind this natural human act?

The idea that the human touch can heal is something which stretches right back in time, from Bible stories about Jesus to modern day evangelical faith healing. But did you know that spiritual healing isn’t just a religious thing?

Curing with care…

Across the UK a number of NHS hospitals now offer ‘spiritual healing’ to alleviate pain and symptoms for chronically ill patients. It is part and parcel of a progressive approach to managing longterm chronic conditions in an overburdened NHS (healers usually give their services for free!).

Take time out to heal...

Take time out to heal…

The popularity of spiritual healing (and other hands on therapies such as Reiki or crystal healing), not only amongst spiritually minded people but the wider population as well, is testament to the fact that such therapies often involve more time, care and attention being given to the individual than with standard medical appointments. The basic features of personal time, individual attention and a genuine sense of being cared for in themselves have beneficial therapeutic impacts. Things which were once the mainstay of medical care as well, before it moved to a focus on cure (and more recently an overwhelming emphasis on cost!).

Healing Stoke…

But you don’t have to be in a hospital to be healed. You could pop along to your local Spiritualist church. Most Spiritualist Churches will have dedicated healing rooms where you can receive healing for free or for a small donation towards the healer’s travel expenses (usually a pound).

Gladstone: a magical place of peace and healing!

Gladstone: a magical place of peace and healing!

Stoke-on-Trent has three very active Spiritualist churches, in Burslem, Fenton and Longton. All these churches offer healing, but it doesn’t stop at the church door; healing can occur at any time and in any place, so we are bringing healing to the wider community in Stoke-on-Trent by offering free healing sessions at Gladstone Pottery Museum.

Your invitation to relaxation…

Healing can benefit anyone because it is peaceful and non-invasive and demands nothing more of you than sitting comfortably and relaxing. You don’t need to have any particular faith or belief system to benefit from it, and you don’t even have to be ‘ill’ or in need of a ‘cure’.

If you’ve never tried it before why not pop along to see what you’re missing…!

Saturday 10th October
Twyford Room, Gladstone Pottery Museum
1.30 to 3 pm
Free (normal admission applies for the rest of the museum)

You can turn up on the day or book in advance on 01782 237777

We look forward to seeing you there! #SpiritOfGladstone

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Robbie, angels and an enchanting history: Locating Spiritualism in the modern world

Loving angels instead..?

Loving angels instead..?

According to the 2011 Census, 59% of the population of England and Wales describe themselves as Christian, a decline of about 11% since 2001. On the other hand, although the numbers remain small, those choosing to register themselves as Spiritualist showed an increase of about 21%.

The first Spiritualist church in the UK opened in 1853 in Keighley, Yorkshire, and the first national conference of Spiritualists was held in Manchester in 1890. As well as having dedicated buildings, early Spiritualist groups met in school halls, working men’s clubs and medium’s own houses. Today the Spiritualists’ National Union has about 350 registered Spiritualist churches and centres throughout the UK.

For many, however, the ‘hub’ of Spiritualism in the UK is somewhere better known for its ceramics and oatcakes than its spiritual side…

Longton: an enchanted cityscape?

The longest serving President of the Spiritualists National Union was Gordon Higginson, and he was born in 1918 in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. His mother, Fanny, was already an established medium at Longton Church and, like her, he went on to serve there until his death. Today Longton Church’s website claims it ‘is one of the leading centres for Spiritualism.’

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 most famous for its post-Pottery decline and for being the most working class city in the UK (Edensor 2000) – and, of course, the birthplace of Robbie Williams!

The hidden enchantments of a spirited Stoke..?

Stoke was also the setting for Arnold Bennett’s Anna of The Five Towns, where he describes it as both squalid and enchanting:

“The entire landscape was illuminated and transformed by these unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime, and dull, weird sounds, as of the breathings and sightings of gigantic nocturnal creatures, filled the enchanted air… nothing can be more prosaic… yet be it said that romance is even here – the romance which, for those who have an eye to perceive it, ever dwells amid the seats of industrial manufacture, softening the coarseness, transfiguring the squalor, of these mighty alchemic operations.”

Despite Bennett describing Stoke-on-Trent as having an ‘enchanted air’, this is a city that is dominated by its intractable struggle to reverse industrial and economic decline. In recent years Stoke City Council has tried to reinvigorate the region and its popular image both by drawing on the city’s industrial heritage and by redesigning Stoke as a city of culture.

This image of Stoke, however, and the almost exclusive emphasis on its pot-based past overlooks another important and continuing aspect of its cultural heritage, namely Spiritualism. In the 1960s, whilst the number of potbanks was declining daily, there were twelve very active Spiritualist churches. 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 enchanted, whilst simultaneously ordinary, heritage for those who have, as Arnold Bennett puts it, ‘an eye to perceive it’.

And that’s why a team of researchers at the Open University chose this particular location to explore the place of Spiritualism in modern British society…

Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent

Tracing histories

Tracing histories

The earliest written evidence of Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent is from a newspaper article in the Staffordshire Daily Sentinel in 1873. Since then the city has enjoyed a rich and vibrant Spiritualist history with some well-known faces. In the Victorian era, the possibility of spirit communication and psychic phenomena attracted the attention of scientists and intellectuals. But it was during World War I when Spiritualism reached a new height in Britain. With so many young men failing to return from the front, many sought mediums to obtain some closure.

Sir Oliver Lodge, born in Penkhull, Stoke-on-Trent, had several séances in the area, one of which was with medium Annie Brittain in Hanley 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 the death of his younger brother Innes in February 1919, a brigadier general in World War 1.
It was also Annie Brittain who told medium Fanny Higginson from Longton that she would have a son who would become a famous platform medium; and we already know about what her son Gordon went on to achieve!

Longton Spiritualist Church

Longton Spiritualist Church

Today, there are three very active Spiritualist churches in Stoke-on-Trent. Longton Spiritualist Church is off Normacott Road (at the back of Gladstone Pottery Museum), while Fenton Spiritualist Church can be found on King Street (corner of Royal). Burslem Spiritualist Church is situated on Haywood Road, near the hospital. In the 1980s, the construction of the A50 affected Fenton and Longton Spiritualist churches. Both were demolished, yet both rebuilt in the 1990s. This is not a religion confined to history – it is alive and well and thriving!

With this 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 (the angels would have loved that, Robbie!).

Gladstone Pottery Museum Exhibition: Talking With The Dead

Talking With The Dead

You can find out more about the history and present day role of Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent by visiting ‘Talking With The Dead’ at Gladstone, Pottery Museum, Stoke-on-Trent.

Here you will be able to listen to stories about what it’s like to live with spirit in everyday life, you can wander around a Spiritualist’s living room, and you can pick up a copy of our ‘Spirit Trail’ that maps all the sites that have been registered for Spiritualist worship and services across the city between 1870 and 2015. You may be surprised at what a magical and enchanted history this seemingly very prosaic city hides!

Spirit inspires enduring memories

Spirit inspires enduring memories

Don’t forget to leave a message on our memory tree and share your experiences and reflections on the exhibition and any aspect of a ‘spirited Stoke’ using the hashtag #SpiritOfGladstone

Spirited Stoke on Facebook

Spirited Stoke on Twitter

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Spirit Art: mediumship, art and the unseen landscapes of spirit…

What does the world look like with spirit in it?

What does the world look like with spirit in it?

Visualising landscapes…

The first time I ever sat in a Spiritualist church and listened to the medium at the front I found myself wondering what the world of spirit looked and felt like to her. I wanted to know what she actually saw, how she saw it, and how she interacted with this strange unseen world. What did the ‘spirit world’ she was talking about look and feel like?

The reason I was asking these questions wasn’t actually because of a particular desire to know what the spirit world might look like (although that in itself is an interesting question!); but it was because being a geographer by training I always find myself wondering what it looks and feels like to be in the world from other people’s perspectives. We all have a physical ‘reality’ we move around and bump into everyday. We also all have other layers on top of that physical landscape of ‘things’ and ‘places’; we have memories and attachments, we have relationships and rules, we have expectations and habits. All of which influence the way we see and experience the world (for more on this see my previous post ‘Making a place your own‘).

But some people have additional layers of complexity to their worlds. Sitting in the audience of the Spiritualist church that evening I realised this lady had a complexity I’d never even thought about; and as a geographer I was fascinated. What was even more exciting from a geographical/philosophical point of view was the way in which the medium’s interactions with this unseen world overlapped and were woven through the worlds of people in the audience.

Materialising landscapes…

That was about ten years ago, and the ‘Spirited Stoke’ (or SpELS) project and our ‘Talking With The Dead’ exhibition are, in part, the result of that first experience of a demonstration of mediumship and the questions it opened up for me as a geographer.

As I came out of my reverie that evening – reflecting on the structures, meanings and implications of this unseen landscape for those who traversed it – I realised the medium had drawn a picture of a man. And that man had been recognised by someone in the audience. I have since learnt that what she was doing was ‘Spirit art’ – a form of mediumship where the medium draws the messages they are receiving.

We are very lucky as part of the series of events linked to our exhibition at Gladstone, to have internationally renowned Spirit artist Ann Bridge Davies doing two demonstrations of mediumship through Spirit art for us.

Ann told me:

Ann, medium and artist.

Ann, medium and artist.

“Spirit art is the drawing of portraits, landscapes and familial objects belonging to those who have passed to spirit by someone who never knew the people. The mediumship is through the language of art rather than spoken language… It is always exciting when a portrait is recognised by a person who doesn’t know the artist. And sometimes people have photographs on their phones or in their pockets which provide proof of the likeness.”

If you’re interested in finding out more about how the artist-medium works – and maybe even receiving your own message – why not come along to one of Ann’s demonstrations at Gladstone Pottery Museum? The first is on Thursday 17th September 1.30 – 3 pm and the second on Saturday 17th October 1.30 – 3 pm.

The sessions are free but you are advised to book your place in advance through the museum. To book, please call 01783 237777.

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Talking With The Dead: Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent

'Talking with the dead: Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent' at Gladstone Pottery Museum

‘Talking with the dead: Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent’ at Gladstone Pottery Museum

The @SpELSProject exhibition is now open to the public and we have a series of associated workshops and activities coming up over the next two months which you can view here:

Workshops and activities

Do pop along if you can – and don’t forget to share your reflections, experiences and thoughts with the hashtag #SpiritofGladstone…

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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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