Tuesday 13 April 2010

Hellish Nell by Malcolm Gaskill

I was so impressed by Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction, the latest book by witchcraft expert Malcolm Gaskill, that it prompted me to read one of his earlier books Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches.

Hellish Nell had been one of those books that had been sitting on my to-read pile for a long time - ever since I bought a copy after watching Tony Robinson's TV documentary on The Blitz Witch back in 2008.

Both the book and the documentary looked at Helen Duncan, a medium who in England during the 1940s was arrested, tried and jailed under witchcraft laws dating back to 1735 because she had made predictions about ships sinking during the Second World War and was considered a threat to national security.

Whereas Tony Robinson's TV programme primarily used the case as a background to an investigation into how fraudulent mediums faked seance phenomena, Malcom Gaskill's book is far more an in-depth look at Helen Duncan - whose childhood nickname was "Hellish Nell" - and the history of the era in which she lived.

The book is also more sympathetic to Helen - a woman who managed to gain fame, fortune and success against all the odds.

And the odds really were stacked against her. As a young woman she was cast out by her family because she became an unmarried mother. She struggled to earn a living working in the mills in Scotland, married a ex-soldier who had been invalided out of fighting in the First World War and who was frequently too ill to work. She raised several children in poverty and, despite her own poor health, held her family together through hard work and determination.

Helen also made the most she could of the one talent that made her unusual. She seemed to have psychic powers.

Becoming a successful and famous medium, Helen toured England giving seances to which people flocked in the hope of watching her materialise the spirits of their dead loved ones, giving words of hope and comfort to the bereaved.

Yet Helen also gained enemies, particularly sceptical men such as paranormal researcher Harry Price, who claimed that her materialisations were little more than Helen herself dressed up in a sheet pretending to be ghosts.

In 1944, during the Second World War, Helen was arrested and tried at the Old Bailey under the Witchcraft Act for pretending to materialise spirits. Normally, mediums were tried under the Vagrancy Act, and the fact that this case was taken so seriously is thought to be because Helen had shown knowledge of the sinking of the HMS Barham, which had not been publicly announced.

There was considerable evidence that Helen had - at least sometimes - faked materialisations. Whether all of her work as a medium was bogus is still a matter of speculation and debate, but many of her fans were convinced she was a genuine psychic.

Helen was found guilty and served a sentence at Holloway Prison. She was released in 1945, but arrested again after a seance in 1956. She died shortly afterwards. She was not a well woman and had a weak heart. Some say her death was at least partly a result of the trauma of her arrest.

However, Helen's trial almost certainly contributed to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act - something modern-day witches in England should be grateful for.

Malcom Gaskill's book on Hellish Nell is well written and thought provoking. It doesn't answer all the questions about Helen Duncan, but it probably reveals as many of the facts about her as can now be found.

Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches is available through Amazon. It was published in 2001.

Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches

No comments: