The last British person ever imprisoned for witchcraft wasn’t even a witch. She was Helen Duncan, a spiritualist medium. Her mission was to pass on messages from departed loved ones to their families. This was a great comfort to people, especially during the Second World War, when her psychic stage presentations were hugely popular.
At one of these events in 1941, Helen received a message from a sailor. He said he’d died on the HMS Barham when a German U boat sunk it. He just wanted his family to know that he was alive and well in the spirit world.
However, the sinking of the Barham was meant to be top secret. The government wanted to hide that information from the enemy, and not create despondency at home. They were also secretly planning the D Day landings in Normandy. If one word about that got out, it could have been disastrous. Fearing what other secrets Helen Duncan might let out, they arrested her for spying.
When that charge didn’t stick, they dusted off the Witchcraft Act of 1735. This made it illegal to claim magical powers, or to accuse anyone of being a witch. At the time, it was an enlightened step forward from the old days of witch hunting.
Under this law, they sentenced Helen Duncan to nine months in Holloway Prison. This outraged many, including some top legal people. Chief among her allies was Winston Churchill, who called her imprisonment ‘obsolete tomfoolery’.
Churchill was no stranger to the mystical side of life. He was a lifetime member of the Grand Order of Druids. As a British soldier in the Boer War he was captured, but subsequently escaped. While on the run, he said ‘some form of mental planchette’ guided him to the only house that would help him.
In the Second World War, he conferred with the Glastonbury mystic Wellesley Tudor Pole to come up with the idea of the Silent Minute. For the rest of the war, for one minute at 9.00 pm every night, the country went silent and focused on peace. One German general called this Britain’s secret weapon.
In prison, Helen’s cell door was never locked. She gave free readings for a constant stream of inmates and warders alike. Sources close to her said Churchill himself visited her, with a promise to make amends for this injustice.
As Home Secretary in 1951, Churchill’s only major legislation was to abolish the 1735 Witchcraft Act. It became the softer Fraudulent Mediums Act, which ruled that making money from magic was illegal except as entertainment.
This opened the door to significant developments that have shaped the world we now live in. In 1954, the Spiritualist Church was recognised as a religion. In the same year, Gerald Gardner published his best-selling book ‘Witchcraft Today’, refuting the stereotype of witches as evil old hags on broomsticks. He said Wicca was primarily a peaceful way of honouring nature through seasonal rituals. Many people liked the sound of this, and Gardnerian witchcraft spread rapidly.
In 2000, Paganism was recognised as an official religion. Paganism honours the spirituality of nature, and is a broad umbrella that includes many sub-groups such as Wicca, Shamanism and Druidry. A 2011 census revealed that Paganism is now the fastest growing religion in Britain. Many other therapies, philosophies and practices that we now take for granted could also never have emerged under the old witchcraft law.
Controversy still hangs around Helen Duncan, like the old-fashioned ectoplasm she was said to produce. Whether that was real or not, her message about the sinking of the Barham was factual enough to rattle the establishment. Perhaps her most powerful magic was the higher purpose of the drama she went through. Without that, we might have been living in a very different world today.
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