Spiritualism was very popular in Victorian England:

The focus on physical explanations for the structure of the universe and man's position within it, had one unexpected result. The rise of spiritualism, which spread from America to Great Britain in the 1850s, seems to have been a direct response to the need for physical manifestations of supernatural realities. If the dead could materialise during seances, and be photographed and touched, would this not provide evidence that the afterlife did exist after all? Interest in mediums and spiritualist networks quickly sprang up, with both Christian and non-Christian adherents. ... Although the followers of the movement could fall prey to charlatans, there were many reputable mediums whose seances were attended by leading figures of the day. ... Spiritualist churches and meetings also had a strong following in less eminent circles ... A surprising number of middle-class housewifes developed a talent for automatic writing, trances and table tipping. ... While the driving force behind spiritualism was the desire to contact the dead, and thus prove the existence of an afterlife, throughout the nineteenth century there was also a broader enthusiasm for exploring and manipulating the conscious and unconscious spirits of the living. This took many forms, including mesmerism and hypnosis ... More serious was the interest in the subconscious and the nature of dreams ... [Cooper and Atterbury, 2001: 142-3]

Pitt-Rivers thought of himself as a scientist, he often referred to himself in this vein. However, like many scientists of the Victorian age he had a very enquiring mind, which refused to discount issues without examination. One of the unlikely matters which appears to have piqued his interest during the 1860s and 1870s (at the least) was spiritualism.

It is clear that Fox (as he then was) had a strong interest in the supernatural from the 1860s (if not before). His interest has been known of for some time as a paper by George Stocking, written in 1971, drew attention to the reference in Edward Burnett Tylor's diaries to Fox attending a séance. Tylor writes:

Of Mrs Basset[t] I had heard twice before ... once from Col. Lane Fox, who was with his wife at a séance at Lady Powlett's. When the phosphoric lights came, Mrs L-F [Lane Fox] let go Mrs Crookes' hand, jumped up & caught the lights & a very human hand[,] which struggled out of her grasp, which of course in the elaborate Medium report became a spirit hand. Mrs L-F has not I think cared much for the business since. [Unpublished ms in Tylor papers, PRM ms collections; cited in Stocking, 1971: 97]

Attending séances at this time is not necessarily proof of credulous belief, many people (including Tylor) attended in a spirit of scepticism. It is possible that Fox did similarly, or that his wife was interested and asked him to escort her.

Fox, as an active member of the Anthropological Society of London in 1868, may also have been involved in 'evaluating the claims of the Davenport brothers, visiting American mediums ... the committee of the Society specified a number of conditions for their continued participation; and when these were declined, they withdrew from the investigation'. (Stocking, 1971: 89)

There are two letters in the Rolleston manuscript collection at the Ashmolean Museum [1] which give us more background:


Aug 24th 76

[Printed header] Anthropological Institute / of Great Britain & Ireland / 4, St Martins Place W.C. / … 187 …]

Dear Prof Rolleston

I understand they [insert] ie the spiritualists [end insert] have sent you an invitation to go & see this exhibition of Mr Slades  If you do go notice some points that attracted my attention today when I went.

this writing on the slate is evidently done by the small fragment of slate pencil which is put on the slate, and whilst the slate is under the table. Without doing anything, I noticed the position of the fragment of pencil at the time he put it under the table and also immediately after it was taken up with the writing on it & I found that it [insert] had changed and [end insert] settled on the end of the last stroke of the writing thus for example one of the answers written was “he is not *” and the fragment of slate was in the position in which I have marked the * this convinces me that the slate is not charged but that the writing is done in some ways whilst it is under the table and by the piece of pencil.

I also noticed that the appearance of the hand was in a position in which Mr Slade’s hand would naturally have appeared if he pushed it forward and up from under the table the appearance was so rudimentary [?] that it might well have been done in this way. also notice the carpet under the table to see if any thing can be shoved up from the floor.

It is I think worth investigating as many people are being bamboozled by it.

Yours sincerely

A Lane Fox



August 29th 1876

Dear Professor Rolleston

I am sorry you did not go the subject whether it be all quackery or partly quackery or partly insanity or partly true is doubtless an important one for anthropology. I should not have thought the subject worth investigating had it not been for the proof I have of unconscious writing in my own family where I know there is no deception. I have seen it present [?] over & over again thus some of my children do write unconsciously full & connective answers to questions put to them altho they are in no way given to unconscious action at other times and further I have proved that two or more acting in concert produces a more intense manifestation of the phenomenon [insert] whatever it is [end insert] than when it is done singly, consequently it cant be the unconscious action of one mind, in fact in the case of my children one of them cannot do it alone and this is what [illegible] me. I should have liked much to have heard your opinion on the subject as you are not biased towards either side. I met Professor Barrett [1] there and have twice written to him my opinion to what I saw. I think the subject ought to be brought forward & discussed by good men. Certainly nothing I saw at Mr Slade’s impressed me so much as what I have seen done at home. ...

In The Times of Saturday 16 September 1876 are published three related letters from E. Ray Lankester, Horatio B. Donkin and A. Lane Fox, headed 'A Spirit-Medium' [see page 7, issue 28736 column e). Fox's letter reads:

To the Editor of the Times

Sir,-- In your report of the meeting of the British Association on the 13th inst., I am stated to have said that I had witnessed the manifestation of spiritualism. I should be sorry that as President of the Anthropological Institute I should be supposed to have jumped to any such conclusion from the data that are now before us. Will you, therefore, kindly permit me to say that the experiments to which I briefly referred had reference to certain psychical phenomena connected with unconscious writing, and did not necessarily involve any conclusion of spiritualism. The expediency of inquiry into this subject appears to have been fully shown during the recent discussion at Glasgow. When at the present time a case of belief in witchcraft occurs among the lower orders, and some old woman is thrown into a pond for putting a spell on another, it is usual to record the circumstances as a survival of ancient superstition, and a whole district has been condemned as an abyss of ignorance through the existence of one such case; but among the upper classes of society the allied belief in spiritual manifestation through the agency of media is now as widely received as witchcraft was in the 17th century, and is continuing to spread rapidly. One of the main functions of the science of anthropology consists in interpreting the past by the present, the unknown by the known. It is rarely that any popular belief is so entirely devoid of truth as to be destitute of some few grains of fact upon which the belief is founded, and the work of anthropology consists in sifting these facts from the large volume of credulity and some imposture with which they are associated. But although the reading of Professor Barrett's paper at Glasgow may have done good by drawing attention to the prevalence of spiritualism and to the fact that some of our most eminent men of science are believers in it, it is, I think, rather by a committee inquiry that this investigation should be conducted than by public discussion, which, even if it could be restrained within the bounds of reason, is liable to be discredited by the unintentional misrepresentation of the views of the speakers. I remain &c. A. Lane Fox

E. Ray Lankester's letter, which precedes the above said:

... Sir,-- I trust that you will find space for a brief account of an interview with "Dr." Slade from which I have just returned. In consequence of the more than questionable action of Mr Alfred Wallace, the discussions of the British Association have been degraded by the introduction of the subject of spiritualism, and the public has learnt--perhaps it is time they should--that "men of science" are not exempt as a body from the astounding credulity which prevails in this country and America. It is. therefore, incumbent upon those who consider such credulity deplorable to do all in their power to arrest this development.

My friend Mr Serjeant Cox having begged me to go and see the medium Slade, ... I wrote to that person and obtained an appointment for last Monday morning. Slade's chief "manifestation" is of this kind:--The witness and Slade being alone in an ordinary well-lit sitting room, Slade produces a common slate and a small piece of slate pencil, which are laid on a simple four-legged table, at one corner of which the witness and Slade are seated. Slade then shows the witness that there is no writing on either side of the slate. He then places the slate horizontally close against the table and, below it, pressing the slate against the table, the little piece of slate pencil being supposed to be between the slate and the flat undersurface of the table. The slate is so closely-applied to the table that no hand or finger could possible get between them in order to write. A noise as of writing is now heard proceeding from the slate, which is held by Slade or by the witness--the spirit is supposed to be at work. The slate is then removed, and the message is found written either on the undersurface of the slate or on the surface which was facing the lower surface of the table. I watched Slade very closely during these proceedings, which were repeated several times during my interview last Monday, paying no attention to the raps, gentle kicks, and movements of the table, of which I will say nothing further than that they were all such as could be readily produced by the medium's legs and feet. I simulated considerable agitation and an ardent belief in the mysterious nature of what I saw and heard. At the same time I was utterly astounded to find the strongest reason to believe that, with the exception of the first message, which was written by Slade underneath the slate with (I believe) one finger of the hand which was holding the slate, the rest of the messages, which were longer and better written, were coolly indited on the slate by Slade while it was resting on his knee, concealed from my view by the edge of the table, and that the slate was subsequently placed by him in the position where the spirit-writing was to take place with the message aldready written upon it. I was led to form this hypothesis by noting the delay which always occurred between my being shown the slate with both sides clean and the placing of the slate against the table or over my head for the purpose of receiving the spirit writing, which was then heard proceeding with the usual sound of scratching on a slate ... During the delay Slade made various excuses; took up a little pencil and bit it, and also invariable made a peculiar grating noise by clearing his throat. At the same time I heard distinctly on three occasions a low but perfectly recognisable sound of a pencil traversing a slate, and twice on looking quickly at Slade's right arm, the elbow of which was visible, while the rest was hidden by the table and purporting to be holding the slate, I saw movements from right to left and left to right which accorded with my hypothesis that he was using his hand in writing.
... This morning I went with my friend Dr. H.B. Donkin, of Queen's College, Oxford, to test my hypothesis by this crucial experiment:--I had determined to seize the slate at the critical moment--at the moment when Slade professed it was entiredly untouched--[Lankester describes Slade's usual practice]... There had been the usual delay and fumbling on Slade's part when I put out my hand and immediately seized the slate away, saying, "You have already written on the slate. I have watched you doing it each time." And there, sure enough, was the message already written, as I had anticipated.

Donkin's account in his own letter to the Times confirms this account. He also adds:

To make the exposure still more perfect I may add that the first of the two later messages referred to consisted of two words read by the medium as "Samuel Lankester," in answer to the question as to what spirits were present. The "Samuel" being very indistinct my friend suggested it might be "Edwin" which the medium said was quite possible. The last message was an answer to the same question, and, the suggestion being adopted, the words "Edwin Lankester" were perfectly clear.

To any one not pre-disposed to believe in spirit agency at all hazards, the result of this seance is sufficient.

Henry Slade (1835-1905), a spiritualist medium, visited England from July 1876 en route for Russia, and held many sittings. His first séance in UK was held in July 1876, his ‘trick’ was that ‘messages were written inside double slates, sometimes tied and sealed together, while they either lay upon the table in full view of all, or were laid upon the heads of members of the committee, or held flat against the under surface of the table-top, or held in a committeeman's hand without the medium touching it.’ [http://www.spiritualist.tv/spiritualism/history/vol1chapter13.html] The same source says ‘Directly after his arrival in London Slade began to give sittings at his lodgings in 8 Upper Bedford Place, Russell Square, and his success was immediate and pronounced.’ At his first séance in England, according to the same source, ‘Slade put a tiny piece of pencil, about the size of a grain of wheat, upon a slate, and held the slate by one corner with one hand under the table flat against the leaf. Writing was heard on the slate, and on examination a short message was found to have been written. While this was taking place the four hands of the sitters and Slade's disengaged hands were clasped in the centre of the table.’ It was Professor Ray Lankester who exposed him as a fraud early in September 1876, as we have seen, and Slade was prosecuted for fraud in October and eventually found guilty.

It is clear from the letters to Rolleston now held by the Ashmolean Museum that Fox's interest was more than passing. It seemed that he and his family practised unconscious writing, and that he believed that his children were very good at it. It may be that he thought that it showed some links to the more 'primitive' nature of man, and that children would be better at it as they were less mature. Unconscious writing is also sometimes called 'automatic' or 'trance' writing. As one website puts it:

Automatic writing is writing allegedly directed by a spirit or by the unconscious mind. It is sometimes called "trance" writing because it is done quickly and without judgment, writing whatever comes to mind, "without consciousness," as if in a trance. It is believed that this allows one to tap into the subconscious mind, where "the true self" dwells.[http://www.skepdic.com/autowrite.html]

Nothing further is known, to date, of Fox's interest in spiritualism.

Pitt-Rivers' interest in spiritualism was shared with his second son, St George Fox-Pitt. His obituary in The Times in April 27 1932 page 14 [quoted here] says:

"Born at Malta on September 14, 1856, Fox Pitt devoted himself in early manhood to scientific research and mechanical inventions. He invented the Lane-Fox system of electric lighting and distribution, taking out one of the earliest patents (1878) for the use of small incandescent lamps in parallel; was one of the first active workers in the Society of Psychical Research; was vice-president and treasurer of the Moral Eduacation League and organizer of the International Moral Education Congress; and wrote a number of books on science philosophy, education, and social problems. He also fought three elections in the Liberal interest, but without success. In a discourse at the Royal Institution as far back as 1912 the late Mr. Campbell Swinton said that Fox Pitt was 'the first person to imagine, or at any rate to patent, a public electricity supply to all and sundry.'

"In a contribution to a book entitled 'Spiritualism: Its Present Day Meaning,' published in 1920, Fox Pitt explained his view that the proposition of an unchangeable and independent 'ego' and its survival was simply unmeaning; an immutable 'psychic body' was simply unmeaning; an immutable 'psychic body' was a pernicious delusion. 'Materializations' were not more than evanescent phenomena. The craving for 'egoistic survival,' in contradistinction to individual continuity, was a very strong one, and in his view was at the root of all evil. He agreed with Bergson that 'supernormal psychic phenomena' were always in operation, though generally speaking unnoticed.

St George clearly carried on his interest in automatic writing, an article records that he contributed to the discussion about automatic writing in The Journal of Psychical Research. He was apparently a long-term member of the Society, he apparently believed that psychical research was the objective study of paranormal phenomena, he disapproved of 'spiritualist excesses'. [Dellamora, 2011: 79]

Further Reading

Cooper, Suzanne Fagence and Paul Atterbury, 2001 'Religion and Doubt' in Mackenzie, John M. [ed] The Victorian Vision London V&A Press

Dellamora, Richard. 2011 Radclyffe Hall: A life in the writing University of Pennsylvania Press

Porrovecchio, Mark J. 2009 'The Curious Case of F. C. S. Schiller' Society of Psychical Research

Stocking, George W. 1971. 'Animism in Theory and Practice: E.B. Tylor's Unpublished 'Notes on Spiritualism'', Man New series 6 (1) (1971), pp. 88-104.


[1] Copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

AP, January 2012.

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