My recent picture of HMS Barham leaving Portsmouth Harbour in the 1930s reminded Calum Kennedy of the unusual connection between the battleship, Portsmouth and witchcraft.
He recalls that in November 1941 Helen Duncan, a Scottish spiritual medium, held a séance at the Master Temple Psychic Centre, a room above Homers drug store at 301 Copnor Road, Copnor. During the séance Duncan indicated that HMS Barham had been sunk.
This was true. For on the morning of November 25 the ship was hit by three torpedoes from U-Boat 331 and sank taking 862 men with her in just three minutes.
But to mislead the enemy and protect morale the government withheld this information until January 14, 1942.
Calum says: ‘After this incident the navy took a keen interest in Duncan’s activities.
‘During another séance, this time in January 1944 the navy sent along two lieutenants. A few days later the police raided the temple while she was conducting a séance and arrested her.
‘With D-Day coming up and in the interests of national security the ‘‘authorities’’ wanted her out of the way so they rediscovered the Witchcraft Act of 1735.’
Helen’s trial took place at the bomb-damaged Old Bailey and the jury took just half an hour to find her guilty. She was sentenced to nine months imprisonment.
Calum adds: ‘Prime minister Winston Churchill was said to be furious, complaining about the misuse of court resources and the ‘‘obsolete tomfoolery’’ of the charge.
‘The spiritualist movement demanded a change in the law, and called Portsmouth ‘‘an ungrateful city’’, Calum adds.
The Witchcraft Act did not deal with witchcraft itself but with people who claimed to be able to procure spirits and the Act was repealed in 1951.