Conan Doyle and the Southsea Spirits

Matt Wingett recounts spiritualism in Southsea as experienced by one of Portsmouth’s most famous former residents, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

One night in a darkened hotel room in Southsea, a group of convinced Spiritualists joined hands in an effort to contact the dead. One among their number was the world-famous creator of Sherlock Holmes and one-time resident of Portsmouth, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The strange events of that evening were to astound him and strengthen his commitment to a new religion that was sweeping the world.

The night was September 12th, 1919, nearly a year after the end of the Great War that had devastated so many families across the UK. Indeed, Sir Arthur’s family had not been untouched by loss. His son, Kingsley, weakened by injuries sustained in battle, had died of pneumonia in 1918 .

On the night in question, Sir Arthur had just finished delivering a talk entitled Death and the Hereafter which was reported in the press as a resounding success. Initially intending to speak at the local Spiritualist Temple on Victoria Road South, Southsea, the talk had proven so popular that it was relocated to Portland Hall, next to the Portland Hotel, opposite St Jude’s Church. Now gone after bomb damage in World War II, the hall was at the time the largest assembly room in Southsea, seating 1600 people. On that night it was sold out as people thronged to hear the celebrity writer speak.

Spiritualism’s fortunes had risen in Britain in line with the death count of the Great War. Indeed, earlier that year a huge National Spiritualist Memorial Service held at the Royal Albert Hall had pulled in around 7,000 Spiritualists to celebrate the transition of their loved ones from Earth to Summerland, the world beyond the grave. In a few brief years, Spiritualism had become a genuine rival to Christianity. In the face of the massive wave of grief sweeping the country, the Church seemed paralysed to stem the tide – its message of eternal life being too filled with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ about whether each soul was worthy of its place in heaven, and unlike Spiritualism, unable to offer direct news of the dead.

Desperate families who approached mediums for consolation were often rewarded with direct news of or conversations with their loved ones from the Other Side.

Doyle himself had for a long time been fascinated by Spiritualism. A psychical researcher since his early years in Southsea in the 1880s, he had announced himself to the public as a committed Spiritualist in 1916 at the height of the war. In the years preceding his son’s death he had become the most prominent advocate of this burgeoning belief, and drew solace from it himself when he was told of Kingsley’s demise. Throughout 1918 and 1919 he spent much of his time on missionary work around the UK, speaking about his first Spiritualist book The New Revelation, and then giving a series of talks entitled Death and the Hereafter in which he argued that the Church had forgotten the true meaning of the New Testament and that Jesus himself was the most powerful Spiritualist the world had ever known.

It was this talk that drew him to Southsea again. Afterwards a small group of friends and a Welsh medium called Mr Powell retired to Conan Doyle’s hotel room.

In that room that night, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle met his dead son.

This is how the encounter was reported in Light magazine, a Spiritualist publication Conan Doyle regularly wrote for, and which is still published to this day.

Light, December 27 1919




Sir A. Conan Doyle, it will be remembered, in his recent address at Wimbledon, referred (as already reported by us) to a sitting he had had with Mr. Powell, the Welsh medium, at which he had spoken with his son who had passed over. We are now able to give from the “Two Worlds” Sir Arthur’s story of this event in detail:-

Upon the occasion of my lecture at Portsmouth Mr. Powell returned with me to our rooms, and most kindly gave us a sitting. There were present my wife, sitting on my left, Mr. Frank Blake, President of the Southern Counties Spiritualist Union, upon my right; next to him Mr. and Mrs. MacFarlane, leaders of the Portsmouth branch; and on their right Mr. Harry Engholm, once well known upon the London press, and now one of the leading cinema producers, in the world. This gentleman was intellectually convinced of the truth of Spiritualism, but had never before been to a seance.

Mr. Powell insisted upon being searched, and was then bound by me to a wooden armchair. Remembering the possibility of getting out of bonds of rope—especially such cable-like rope as is used by Mr. Maskelyne in his absurd bogus performances—I cut six lengths of stout twine, and tied the medium in six places to the arms and legs of the chair. So thoroughly was this done, that at the end of the sitting it was quite impossible to loosen him, and we were compelled to cut him free. A small megaphone belonging to the late Admiral Moore was placed beside him. This was circled with luminous paint so as to be visible in. the dark. The lights were then turned out, and the room in total darkness, we sitting in a semi-circle round the medium, but none of us touching him, though we joined hands with each other, so as to intervene between him and the room.

Within a couple of minutes the breathing of the medium became loud and stertorous. A voice then addressed us, which issued from his own lips, but which was quite unlike his normal voice, and remained absolutely consistent throughout. It was deep, strong and virile, while that of Mr. Powell was essentially Welsh, gentle, musical and rather clipped. The voice greeted the company, and announced the presence of Black Hawk, the control. The deep voice spoke with an air of good-humoured raillery, addressing us by name. I was christened “Great Chief” and Mr. Engholm “Little Chief,” with all good wishes to our respective wigwams. There was an interval of silence while the steady snoring of the medium sounded in the darkness. Then we saw the luminous band of the megaphone rise in the air, and it circled round our heads, sometimes slow, sometimes swift, as smoothly as if it were swung at the end of a string. Then it remained motionless, poised in the air above us. Presently it vanished, and returned with flowers taken from the mantelpiece inserted into its narrow end. These flowers, I may say, were at our backs and quite out of reach of the medium. They were carried round to our noses in the dark with an accuracy which showed that whoever held them could see very plainly where we were. We were then touched by various objects which proved to be taken from the mantelpiece and elsewhere, but lay within the circle when the light was eventually turned on.

Black Hawk had spoken from time to time, and the breathing of the medium continued steadily from the same Position. The Indian control now said, “Leely is here, Leely wishes to speak with the lady of the Wigwam.” A dear friend of ours named Lily died some years ago, and as she had shared our spiritual experiences we had always believed she might be the first to find her way back. We can trace no way by which her name or existence could have been known to the medium. An instant later a quick, excited voice said, “Jean, Jean, I am here.” In the darkness I could hear incoherent words of love as the two friends gasped out little messages of affection. My wife assures me that the voice was that of the dead lady, but I could not hear enough to be able to corroborate. Then came silence again, with a brisk current of cold air which played upon our faces. Shortly afterwards we turned up the light, and found to our surprise that a great wooden pedestal, weighing, I should think, from forty to fifty pounds, had been brought from the corner and placed in the centre of our semi-circle. Some people may reasonably ask what is the use of heavy phenomena of that sort in the presence of the finer ones, but at least in its solid materialism it gave a sufficient answer to those who might be rash enough to suppose that our imaginations had produced the other results.

Next evening we sat at the same hour, under the same conditions, save that the medium was weary, having delivered an exhausting address. Physical phenomena and movements of the luminous trumpet were as before, and Ihe huge pedestal was once more lifted into the circle, and was placed upon my head. An examination had shown us that the heavy crown of this pedestal was balanced upon a single loose screw in a wide socket, so that any careless handling would have sent it down with terrific effect upon our skulls. In spite of the darkness it was held so steadily that there was no accident, but the strength which placed it so gently on my head, and afterwards rubbed the side of it down my cheek, must have been enormous.

Then came what to me was the supreme moment of my spiritual experience. It is almost too sacred for full description, and yet I feel that God sends such gifts that we may share them with others. There came a voice in the darkness, a whispered voice, saying. “Jean, it is I.” My wife felt a hand upon her head, and cried, “It is Kingsley.” I heard the word “Father.” I said, “Dear boy, is that you?” I had the sense of a face very near my own, and of breathing. Then the clear voice came again with an intensity and note very distinctive of my son, “Forgive me!” His life was so admirable that I could only think that he referred to our perfectly good-humoured difference about Spiritualism, concerning which, in the bustle of his medical and military life, he really had no chance of forming an opinion, I told him eagerly that I had no grievance of any kind. A large, strong hand then rested upon my head, it was gently bent forward, and I felt and heard a kiss just above my “brow. “Tell me, dear, are you happy?” I cried. There was silence, and I feared he was gone. Then on a sighing note came the words, “Yes, I am so happy.” Whilst this was going on I was dimly conscious that another conversation, to which reference is made below, was going on between Mr. Engholm and some voice at the other end of the semi-circle.

A moment afterwards another gentle voice, claiming to be that of my wife’s mother, recently deceased, was heard in front of us. We could not have recognised the voice as we could the other. A few loving words were said, and then a small, warm hand patted both our cheeks, with a little gesture which was full of affection.

Such were my own experiences. In a letter which lies before me, Mr. Engholm says: “The seance was conducted under unusually strict test conditions, arid I for one was very much awake, indeed. All my senses were alert, and whilst Sir Arthur and his boy were carrying on a conversation of a very private and sacred nature, I was suddenly addressed by a very dear old friend, a. well-known newspaper correspondent, in terms and on a subject that left no doubt in my mind as to who the unseen personality was. There were as a result two distinctively different voices speaking at the same time, each of which could be recognised by voice characteristic alone. My ears did not deceive me.”

This is a flavour of the extraordinary phenomena Sir Arthur investigated and experienced during his time as a Spiritualist. The full story of his conversion to Spiritualism and how he became the leader of a massive world movement and a vigorous missionary for the Spiritualist cause will be told in Matt Wingett’s upcoming book, Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light.

Watch out for further announcements.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.