Kingston Spiritualist Church & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The following is the result of research undertaken by Ann Morrice, Church Vice President, for the purpose of an Exploring our Spirituality talk given at the church during September 2018. Research is on-going and some of the details may change as new facts are discovered.
Kingston Spiritualist Society was eventually founded in 1909 after an unsuccessful effort nine years before by Mr M Clegg, the London District visitor of the Lyceum Union. The Union of London Spiritualists deputed three members of the Lyceum Union to hold a mass meeting In Kingston to see if it was the right time to open a church. Although the meeting was well attended, it was decided that it was not the right time to proceed. Mr Clegg became the founder of the church in 1912 and spiritualists met in Bishops Hall in Thames Street, Kingston. Advertisements in the Two Worlds on March 19 2012 show that this was where the church met. Mediums working at the time were advertised in Two Worlds in exactly the same way that we advertise who is working in our church today.
On Sunday March 21 1926, at 11 am and 6.30 pm, the Medium was Mr Nickels of Luton. At 3pm Lyceum was held. (The Spiritualists` Lyceum Union was founded in 1890 following conversations between Emma Hardinge Britten and Alfred Kitson. The movement became the British Spiritualists` Lyceum Union until 1948, when it became a Branch of the Spiritualists` National Union. It remains a branch of the SNU to the present day. The Lyceum promotes the truths of the S.N.U. through the teaching of the Seven Principles).
On Monday 22, Mr Nickels had obviously stayed over as he was working again that evening at 7.30 and on Wednesday 24th March, Mrs Robertson was the working medium. I could not find any details of these mediums but they were obviously the working platform mediums of that time. On Wednesday 14th March, a public meeting for clairvoyance was held.
On January 2nd 1927, the church was still based in Bishops Hall and held a healing service at 11 and another service at 6.30. Mr Swami Ramayandas was the working medium. There seemed to be a monthly healing service as well as the free healing on Fridays at 7.45.
In Two Worlds, April 29, 1927, it was reported that there was a new Spiritualist church at Kingston-Upon-Thames. The article was written by Horace Leaf, F.R.G.S. (Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society) and states that a large and enthusiastic audience gathered at Villiers Road to witness the laying of a foundation stone by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the new Spiritualist church at 3pm on Saturday April 23rd. (I wonder if as many people would have turned up if a local councillor had laid the stone – the opening of this church certainly had celebrity status). The President at the time was W J Humphries who welcomed Conan Doyle on behalf of the Committee and Members of the church. The article in Two Worlds stated that ”Mr Humphries congratulated Sir Arthur on his fearless advocacy of the truths for which Spiritualism stands and requested him to honour the church members by adding to the new building “some of the spiritual strength which is yours. This will give us greater courage and power to keep our platform clean and wholesome as your noblest ideas of what our movement stands for”.
After laying the stone, Sir Arthur referred to the large number of new Spiritualist churches that were springing up all over Great Britain and his pleasure at being asked to do something in connection with them. He was, he remarked humorously, thinking of taking out his ticket as a member of the Bricklayer’s Union.
Sir Arthur went on to refer to a number of special truths which Spiritualism helped to establish :
1. That immortality may be proved.
2. That religious doubts may be cleared up.
3. That it gives information about the next life.
4. It brings comfort to bereaved and troubled people. Some opponents declare that it drives people insane when really it saves many from it.
5. It banishes fear of death. In the next world, we shall have proper compensation awaiting us. He had often been able to console those who feared to die, by showing them that they need not fear.
Other stones were laid by Mr and Mrs W J Humphries, Miss A and Miss J Welbelove and one by members of the Church Committee. There were letters and telegrams read out by those who could not attend and various speakers were called upon.
A short address was delivered by the President dealing with the history and aims of the church. He said that the church began about twenty years ago by small meetings being held in private homes. These grew so large that a public hall had to be engaged and after various changes, they had at last found a permanent home in the new building now being erected. Honour must be paid to such pioneers such as the late Mr Stockwell and Mr Brown and to Mr Welbelove whose arduous labours had made the present occasion possible. The ceremony was interspersed with hymns and with a suitable invocation.
The article states that “The new church will have a seating capacity for just over 250 people. The building is well proportioned and artistically designed and will be finished in Atlas white to represent stone. It will contain cloak rooms and various offices and be fitted with a moveable partition to make room for more seats when required. The end wall will be so constructed as to enable an extension be to be built without great inconvenience. The rostrum is excellently designed to show the speaker fully to the congregation and extensive enough to allow freedom of movement.
An interesting feature is that the main upper window will be fitted with a stained glass cross in blood red so that when the sun shines through it will cast a shadow of the cross upon the audience. On the top, in front of the church will be the emblematic figure of a dove holding an olive branch.” As you can see, the artist for the window obviously changed this design as there is no cross in the middle and no dove at the top. I wonder why this change was made – was it because this was a Christian spiritualist church and after discussion, it was decided to incorporate the figure of Christ but the colour red remained. It does not seem to cast a red reflection on the congregation however.
It has been reported that the window was made by the Victorian firm, Heaton, Butler and Bayne who started their business in 1862 and made windows for Westminster Abbey. In the Twentieth century, the firm was controlled principally by the Bayne family and the company archives were sold off in the 1970s. In a report by Robert Ebernard who researched and listed hundreds of stained glass windows in churches, it was suggested that the window was brought from elsewhere and made in 1870. The Central window shows Christ in Majesty and right hand side shows the raising of Lazarus with three disciples in the centre.
Other windows in this church feature red crosses and this is because the church was started as a Christian Spiritualist church. As stated earlier, Doyle was a Christian Spiritualist and may have had influence on the spiritualist nature of the church.
We have the architectural drawings for the church and they were drawn up by Victor Field of Lewisham. The wording on the plans states “This plan forms one of the Contractor’s drawings for the erection of the Spiritualist church at Villiers Road, Kingston-on Thames. The plan goes on to show that J W Humphries signed the plan as President and A H Merryman as a Member of the Committee on 9th March 1927. G W Spinks was the contractor. The plans are dated 20 September 1926. It is a classic design of the 1920s drawing on the Arts & Crafts movement.
I don’t have a date for this letter in Two Worlds from Walter Nunn who had been given old copies of Two Worlds but it must have been after the three Doyle churches had been built. It states “there are new churches being opened or in the process of building. One copy of Two Worlds contained the names of three churches. He says stone laying is becoming quite a habit with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as he states that he is ‘considering taking out a Union ticket’. This corroborates what was said in the earlier paragraphs about the church opening.
The Bishops Hall church began working as a healing church and an advertisement on April 29 1927, when W J Humphries was shown as the President, advertised a healing service at 11 am lead by the President. The first advertisement for a free healing service at Villiers Road was advertised in Two Worlds on December 16 1927 so presumably healing had continued at Bishops Hall until the church was finished.
The church held harvest festival activities on Sunday September 27th 1927. It was reported in Two Worlds that Mrs Spence spoke on ‘Our Garden’. Mrs Humphries was the medium. At the evening service, Mrs Cannock spoke on ‘The harvest’ to a packed congregation. The church was beautifully decorated. The gifts given by the congregation were given to the sick and the rest sold in aid of the Building Fund.
I was able to compile a complete list of mediums who worked at the church during 1926 and 1927 They included Maurice Barbanell (channel for Silver Birch and founding editor of Psychic News) who worked at the church three times, on April 11 1926 at 6.30 pm at Bishops’s Hall and once on 21st August 1927 at the 6.30 service at Villiers Road. I haven’t managed to trace the third visit. The first issue of Psychic News was published on 28 May 1932. The name of the paper was devised by one of its founding editors, Maurice Barbanell, who said that he was told to use it by his spirit guide. The other founding members were Hannen Swaffer, a Fleet Street journalist, and Arthur Findlay, a notable figure in the history of Spiritualism in Britain.
Mrs Lestrange worked on May 13 1928 and did two services on that day.
On 18th April 1927 at Villiers Road, the Rev Vale Owen made a special visit to the church giving an entirely new lecture on the Life after Death. I love the fact that the advertisement says that there will be a silver collection.
There was also a Ladies Service advertised which occurred also at 3pm, obviously not at the same time of Lyceum and an ad shows that Miss George did a demonstration of Psychometry on November 4th. Whist drives were also held at the church and an ad in the February 4 edition of Two Worlds in 1927 stated that a whist drive would be held at the church at 7.30 on Saturday at a cost of 1/6d inclusive!
I am still researching ‘American Teas’ which were held at the church. They are mentioned in Two Worlds ads and if anyone knows why the church held these teas, please let me know. Two Worlds shows that one happened on May 7 at 7pm so the church needed to raise funds soon after the foundation stone was laid on April 23rd 1927.
In Britain, by 1853, invitations to tea among the prosperous and fashionable often included table-turning, a type of séance in which spirits were said to communicate with people seated around a table by tilting and rotating the table so maybe this was the ‘American Tea’ service.
Spiritualism was mainly a middle and upper-class movement, and especially popular with women. American spiritualists would meet in private homes for séances, at lecture halls for trance lectures, at state or national conventions, and at summer camps attended by thousands. These camps still continue today.
On August 20th 1927 – it was reported in Two Worlds that ‘an interesting ceremony took place at Kingston Spiritualist church when Miss ‘Tommy’ Franks was married to Mr A S Marsh, both being members of the church. The church was prettily decorated with lilies, carnations and gladioli. The bride wore a lovely gown of white velvet, embroidered with pearls, with a chenille train lined with pink and a wreath and veil. The service was taken by Mr Humphries which was ‘a very beautiful and impressive one’. Two hymns ‘How blest the sacred ties that bind’ and ‘Bless, Lord, the Happy pair’ were sung. Mrs Merryman (whose name is on the stone outside) was the organist and played the wedding march. Mr and Mrs Marsh left for their honeymoon on the Isle of Wight.
Also in August, Mr and Mrs Sedgewick kindly offered their house and garden for a garden party in aid of the building fund. There was a gift stall, competitions and a refreshment stall. The workers joined in an hour’s community singing and story-telling which ended a very happy and successful day.
On September 9 and 16th 1927, an advertisement appeared in Two Worlds for the opening and dedication of the new church. It stated that the church would be opened and dedicated on the 17th September 1927 by Ernest W Oaten, editor of Two Worlds. The medium was Mrs F Kingstone and the soloist was Mrs Chartres. I did wonder what the soloist did at the service. It was followed on Sunday by services with Ernest Oaten as the medium. The Purpose of Spiritualism was the subject of the morning service and The wages of Sin is Death was the subject of the evening service. Was this the address the medium gave in 1927? Services were also held on Monday 19th and Wednesday 21st. The church was nearly as busy as we are now. All collections were for the building fund.
On Sunday 16th September 1928, there was a special harvest festival service and first anniversary of opening. The church was obviously branching out from the services as on the following Monday, they had Mr Stephen Foster with psychometry and in the evening he gave a lecture on Numerology with birthdate readings from the audience.
Another article, writing about Mr Bostock of Runcorn who held a successful week’s mission from 15th to 21st September 1927 at the Surbiton Assembly Rooms. The meeting was well attended and it was thought that this meeting created sufficient interest to ensure the success of the meetings that followed in the Kingston church. Trance addresses were given and at the six meetings, clairvoyance of a remarkable nature was given by Tom Tyrell. He described spirit people, with Christian and surnames, together with the full address and the profession given in each instance. Eighty per cent of these were recognised. Three development circles belonging to the church received the benefit of Mr Bostock’s experience regarding development as Mr Lovett, one of his guides, gave useful advice to each sitter.
It seemed that church members, at that time, visited other churches and on Saturday June 12th 1927, members and friends of Kingston church visited Worthing by charabanc ‘where they had a very delightful day amid brilliant sunshine ’and visited Worthing church where they were met by Mr Harper (the President) who showed them round. Worthing church was designed in a similar design to Kingston Church. Mr Humphries (the Kingston President) thanked Mr Harper and hoped a very close link might be forged between the two societies. The members of Kingston church then spent a very enjoyable afternoon beside the sea. On the journey home, many songs were given by the Lyceumists who had joined the party – ‘and so with much laughter and fun, the journey ended’.
The other churches that Conan Doyle endowed were Worthing church and Rochester Square in Camden Road (run by Kentish Town Spiritualist Society). Foundation stones for Rochester Square were laid on Saturday October 30th 1927 by Conan Doyle, Hannen Swaffer, Ernest Beard and Mr & Mrs Ellis (the founders). Members from Worthing church attended. A notice showed that all earnest spiritualists were welcomed. The ceremony was filmed by the Topical Budget Company. The chronology of the church foundation stones shows that Worthing was opened first on 24th March 1926, then Camden church on October 30th 1926 and finally Kingston was opened on 23rd April 1927.