Friday, 22 November 2013

Preserving the Archives of Psychical Research

Cambridge University Library

Introduction

Shirley Hitchings and James Clark’s book The Poltergeist Prince of London: The Remarkable True Story of the Battersea Poltergeist (The History Press, 2013) begins with a sad but familiar tale.  The case, concerning alleged poltergeist activity in the 1950s of which the teenage Shirley Hitchings had been the focus, was investigated by a researcher named Harold Chibbett.  He died in 1978, and his wife about sixteen years later.  Their relatives, with no interest in the subject, threw away almost all of his papers.  The ones relating to the Battersea poltergeist only survived because Chibbett had promised Hitchings that she could have them, and the relatives contacted her to say that she should retrieve them before the rest went to the tip:

“Shirley and her husband Derek raced from the south coast of England to Chibbett’s house in north London.  There they discovered an Aladdin’s Cave of paranormal papers, the repository of Chibbett’s decades of investigation into esoteric subjects.  It was clear, though, that the process of discarding material had already begun and that there would be no time for a return trip.  As tempting as it was simply to grab the entire collection there was far too much to take with them, so with Derek’s help Shirley set about looking for material relating specifically to her and rescuing as much as she could.”

The rest, the years of painstaking investigation (and this book is testament to the pains Harold Chibbett took), was simply thrown away by relatives who were more interested in clearing the house than in preserving papers.  They can’t be blamed for that, but Chibbett I think can for not making adequate provision.*

Relatives faced with clearing out the notes, typescripts, newspaper clippings, cassette tapes, photographs, and all the other bits and pieces accumulated during a case, or at least accumulated before digitisation became commonplace, will not know, because they don’t have the expertise to judge, whether what they have is worth saving.  If the records are concerned with paranormal investigations they may consider the subject embarrassing, or distasteful.  There is the possibility that confidential notes may contain frank opinions about others which could be construed as distressing and/or defamatory to them or their families, or the investigator may be open to charges of credulity that would reflect badly on the relatives.  Better not to take the risk, but to dispose quietly of the lot.  A safe strategy, but the result is the potential loss of invaluable information.


Successes and failures

I have had some first-hand experiences of retrieving collections, and a couple of experiences of trying to track down files only to discover that they have probably been thrown out by heirs for whom they held no interest.  These experiences are I’m sure fairly representative and indicate some of the issues involved.  The first I was instrumental in securing was that of Jim Jameson, who had a large number of automatic writing scripts produced by his mediumistic wife.  They lived at Wymondham, just outside Norwich, and as I was living in Norfolk at the time I went to see them several times to discuss possible donation to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  Dr Jameson said that he wanted to ensure that the scripts, which held enormous personal significance for him and his wife, were going to the best place, and he quizzed me carefully before agreeing to consign them to me to transport to the SPR’s office.  A second, much more extensive, collection was that of the late Mostyn Gilbert, and after some correspondence I and my wife made a couple of visits to Bexhill to discuss its acquisition, collect the boxes for the SPR, and then return a few items that were not relevant to his psychical research activities.

In both cases the individuals had expressed a wish that their files should be preserved.  In the first Jameson assigned the papers before death, in the second Gilbert’s wishes were carried out by his family.  A third instance involved the photographic albums of Cyril Permutt which were ‘on loan’ to the SPR, and I negotiated their purchase with his son, the money kindly coming from the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene at Freiburg.  These were success stories, and the SPR has acquired similar collections over the years, mainly from members who had had a long association with the Society and left express instructions in their wills.

Less successful were experiences trying to track down papers produced by two other researchers.  While examining the role of George Albert Smith in the early SPR, I tried to ascertain what had happened to the notes that Trevor Hall must have made while working on his book The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney.  Hall had died in 1991 and I could find nobody who knew where his papers had gone, though I learned that Hall had sold some to Stephen Gray who was writing a book on Smith’s early collaborator Douglas Blackburn (unfortunately Gray’s book deals mainly with Blackburn’s South African novels, not his involvement in psychical research).

Having obtained a copy of Hall’s will, I wrote to his last address in 2007, hoping against hope that his wife or another relative was still there.  The letter was passed on, and I made contact with one of his sons.  Although we had some correspondence he did not seem particularly interested, merely stating baldly that after his father death the papers had been removed by “the beneficiary”, but not naming the individual.  Hall had married twice and had families with both wives, and there was little contact between the branches.  I assumed that the beneficiary was a particular name referred to in the will, who I suspected was a step-sister.  When I wrote back asking if the son had an address for her he did not reply, and the trail was effectively dead.  Hall must have made a large number of notes when writing his books on Edmund Gurney and William Crookes.  For example, he conducted interviews with Gurney’s daughter Helen in her old age, and with Smith’s niece Mrs Ford.  Very little of these interviews made it into his book on Gurney, and as Hall tended to include only what would support his thesis and suppress contrary evidence, the files could have contained valuable information he chose not to use.  The files are currently missing, presumed lost.

Also depressing is the example of the files accumulated by Fraser Nicol when fighting a libel claim launched against him and the Parapsychology Foundation (PF) by Hall.  In these Nicol in the US and Mostyn Gilbert in England recorded numerous inaccuracies in The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney.  As Gilbert described it in his appreciation of Nicol’s career in the January 1990 issue of the SPR Journal, this was a formidable assemblage of information:

“By the summer of 1967, if not before, Fraser had provided [his legal] Counsel with a mass of new material to support the defence, voluminous evidence supplemental to much of what he had already written in his review. Following a meeting in the south of France, with Eileen Garrett [of the PF] and Fraser, I spent some months undertaking an in depth study of the early history of the SPR, with particular reference to the events surrounding Smith's relationship with Blackburn and the early telepathic experiments. Forgotten material was unearthed from the SPR archives. The Myers and Sidgwick papers at Trinity College, Cambridge, were examined, foreign publications translated, family correspondence borrowed and assessed for additional evidence, runs of newspapers at Brighton and Tonbridge (where Blackburn worked as a journalist) studied and extracts copied, and finally, perhaps the most exciting of the discoveries, meetings with journalists who as young men had worked with Blackburn.

“Fraser fitted together, both in draft manuscript and reports for study by Counsel, a scholarly study of events and experiments almost unparalleled in the literature dealing with the early history of the SPR. However, these major and newly-discovered footnotes to history were to be unexpectedly suppressed.”

Gilbert kept flimsies of his letters, but he did not retain copies of documents.   Nicol continued to work on the manuscript even after the legal action was settled, but it was never published.  John Beloff, when editor of the SPR’s Journal, expressed an interest in publishing it, but for some reason that never happened.  Nicol died in 1989, Gilbert in 1992, and Nicol’s wife Betty Humphrey in 1993. In 2004 I wrote to Fraser’s daughter, who told me that after Betty died all the files were thrown out.  Nor had Beloff kept a copy, and an enquiry to the PF yielded nothing.  All that work had simply vanished.  Some of it can be recreated, though often with difficulty, but some cannot because the sources no longer exist.

This problem is not confined to psychical research, but affects it more than archives in other fields because of its marginal nature and a possible feeling by those not in the field that the data are not worth the paper they are written on.  It therefore behoves researchers to ensure that the fruits of their labours are properly organised and the preferred destination specified, because they cannot rely on those arranging for the disposal of their effects to do it for them if they themselves fail to make clear provision.  That means that their wishes are included when they are writing their wills, the executors are clear about it, and preferably the eventual recipients as well.


Current options

So what are the options for ensuring a safe destination for papers and significant libraries?  The SPR has a still-growing archive, though people might assume that since it went to Cambridge (it is looked after by the University Library, but is still the property of the SPR) it is closed to new acquisitions.  This is not so, but donations have to be negotiated with the archivists there.  That sets the threshold for inclusion higher than it need be if the archives were housed in independent premises because the university has its own space concerns.  Still largely on the drawing board, the Charles Fort Institute (CFI) is an ambitious initiative set up by Bob Rickard, Fortean Times’s Editor Emeritus, which it is hoped will raise money for a study centre that will attract archival donations.  However, progress has been slow.  Significantly, the motivation for the formation of the CFI was the destruction of a significant collection by uninterested relatives, that of Arthur Constance.

Much further advanced is the Swedish Archives for the Unexplained (AFU), which has been very active.  Among the numerous material that has been donated, much with a ufological slant, it holds the extensive library of Hilary Evans, who had been a Council member of the SPR.  More recently AFU received Rickard’s collection for which he had to find a new home because it was housed in a damp cellar.  As AFU’s website indicates, the organisation has an international reach and it is likely that more loads of books and papers will go there; in October this year its blog stated that “Between September 23 and October 5, AFU’s heroic gang has been touring the southern parts of Britain (and Denmark) for new pickups of excellent archives and libraries to be preserved by AFU,” and these forays are made on a regular basis.

Sending things to Sweden has to be better than throwing them out, but it seems a shame that we are unable to preserve them in England.  I am told by CFI member Gordon Rutter that Rickard’s material is effectively on loan and can be returned on request when suitable facilities are available; in the meantime it is being scanned.  It is highly likely though that much that is shipped off to Sweden will not return, and there is no reason why organisations here should not be able to organise a similar operation to AFU’s.  A living, growing archive is essential for a subject to thrive.  Without access to previous research and thinking the field is the poorer.


Future possibilities

The obvious organisation to oversee such an operation in this country, because it has the necessary structure already, is the SPR.  The Society has a narrower remit than an organisation like AFU or the CFI, and over the years the SPR has actually given items considered outside its core activities to other organisations: its UFO books went to the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, for example.  But there is no reason in principle why it should not, space and other resources permitting, enlarge its already substantial holdings to cover the entire range of Fortean phenomena, fulfilling in essence, if not in name, Bob Rickard’s vision.  That would however entail a radical alteration to the Society’s current arrangements.

One could become somewhat utopian and speculate on the possibility of the SPR purchasing premises large enough to contain the archives and rare books currently housed in Cambridge.  These could be combined with its London administration and library, currently in cramped rented premises in Kensington, plus facilities for conducting research.  It would be a bold step and it would require money, not least to fund a full-time archivist.  The last is imperative because it was due to the lack of security for the rare ‘Z’ books that these and the archives were transferred to Cambridge.

So where would the money come from?  Buying larger premises, not necessarily in Kensington, would require extra funds, but a start could be made by utilising the windfall of the Buckmaster bequest.  Nigel Buckmaster left the SPR more than £600,000 (a figure stated by the Hon. Treasurer Dr David Rousseau in his statement of the Society’s financial position in the SPR’s 2011-12 Accounts).  The provisions of the will fall into three parts.  The first two relate to publications, but the third states:

“If there is a balance of funds available my preference would be to contribute to the purchase of a freehold headquarters building for the Society where a more extensive library could be housed.”

That would seem to be a sound proposal, using the bulk of the money to help pay for bigger accommodation.  With such a start, and using some of its invested assets, additional funds could be raised by appeal, allowing the SPR to become an even more important centre for researchers than it is at present, and acting as a beacon for donations.  One may have reservations about the methods of Harold Chibbett when investigating the Battersea poltergeist, but without the files that Shirley Hitchings and her husband salvaged it would not have been possible to write The Poltergeist Prince of London.  What other fascinating cases were lost when Mr Chibbett’s relatives threw out the rest of his files after his wife’s death?


Digitisation – will it solve the space problem?

Perhaps in future there will be fewer such scenarios, with piles of lever arch files and manila folders, full of yellowing sheets held together by rusty staples, taken to the local municipal recycling centre.  It is a fair assumption that such collections will be far less prevalent: much material probably never sees paper these days, but while the storage issue is less of a problem, it is even easier to delete electronic files than it is to dump the contents of a filing cabinet, and their value is much more easily overlooked.  It is imperative that researchers ensure that such files are flagged so that they can be transferred to new owners.

Putting records on computer that in the old days would have been typed has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Electronic files can be delivered easily, but it is more difficult for an archivist to assess and preserve them in a way that will be helpful to others.  Evolving formats is an issue (my personal example being all those WordStar files that are unreadable by the word processing packages I currently own).  Eventually it would be beneficial to see all paper-based archives digitised where possible for ease of access and preservation, but not at the expense of disposing of the originals, not least because digital reproduction standards continually improve.  These are the subject’s heritage, and we should ensure that they are maintained, and expanded, for the benefit of future generations.



*Update, 26 May 2014:

I heard a rumour earlier this month that more of Harold Chibbett’s papers had survived, and this has now been confirmed.  Fortean Times, issue 315, June 2014, p.71, carries a letter by James Clark which has a surprising, but extremely welcome, announcement about their fate.  Chibbett, it turns out, did make provision for the safekeeping of his papers, so my original assessment of him was somewhat harsh.

Last month Clark received an email from a Mr John Edens who told him that Chibbett had issued instructions for certain of his papers to be destroyed, which presumably was what Shirley Hitchings saw in progress when she arrived to retrieve those relating to her own case.  However, the remaining papers were not thrown out but passed to Mr Edens, who still possesses them.

Why he was made the beneficiary is not clear, though Clark says that Edens told him that his family was involved in the case of ‘Charlie the Basingstoke Poltergeist’, which was also investigated by Chibbett.  It is not clear either what criteria were used for preservation, how much Edens holds, or its condition.  Despite these uncertainties this is marvellous news, and one can only hope that Edens in turn has made adequate provision for the safekeeping of the files.  It would be useful if Clark could elicit further details from him.  Presumably this information only came to light after Edens read The Poltergeist Prince of London.  But for that, Chibbett’s papers would still be in the ‘lost’ category.

Ironically, if I myself had not read the erroneous description in The Poltergeist Prince of London I might not have written this post, but the points in it are still valid, and such success stories are rare.  We need to ensure that provision is made for the preservation of archives, and access ensured for scholars.  When I thought that the papers were lost forever I asked: ‘What other fascinating cases were lost when Mr Chibbett’s relatives threw out the rest of his files after his wife’s death?’  Now we may have the opportunity to find out.

Unfortunately it is clear that my ‘utopian speculation’ that the Society for Psychical Research might utilise the money left it by Mr Nigel Buckmaster to purchase a property that would allow it to accommodate a research centre and be a magnet for future donations cannot now come to pass.  The Buckmaster funds stood at £729,000 in September 2013 (SPR Annual Report 2012-13, p.12), but they have now been allocated elsewhere and my utopian dream will have to remain – for now – just that.