Government of Ireland CARA Postdoctoral Mobility Fellow, NUI Maynooth, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2011
ISSUE 6 | Pages: 39-53 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2011-2052
2011 by Shane McCorristine | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Although primarily known today as a physicist and founder member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), William Fletcher Barrett (1844-1925) was an important figure in social and scientific circles in late Victorian and Edwardian Ireland. From the 1870s onwards, when he became Professor of Experimental Physics at the Royal College of Science for Ireland, Barrett created an interest in psychical research among prominent members of the social and cultural elite in Dublin. This article reconstructs the history and membership of the little-known Dublin Section of the SPR (1908-c.1914), in which Barrett was the leading personality, and sketches out some conclusions which can be drawn from the make-up of this forgotten group.
Si bien en la actualidad se le conoce como físico y fundador de la Sociedad para la Investigación Psíquica (SPR), William Fletcher Barrett (1844-1925) fue una figura importante en los círculos sociales y científicos de la Irlanda de finales de la época victoriana y de la eduardiana. A partir de la década de 1870, cuando fue nombrado catedrático de Física Experimental del Royal College of Science for Ireland, Barrett promovió interés en la investigación psíquica entre prominentes miembros de la élite social y cultural de Dublín. El artículo reconstruye la historia y la afiliación de la poco conocida sección dublinesa de la SPR (1908-aprox.1914), de la cual Barrett fue la personalidad más destacada, y esboza algunas conclusiones que pueden extraerse de la composición de ese grupo olvidado.
William Fletcher Barrett; investigación psíquica; W.B. Yeats; espiritualismo; sociedad dublinesa
W.F. Barrett and Psychical Research in Ireland
While the clash between science, spiritualism, and psychical research in Victorian England may be a familiar one to historians, the fact that William Fletcher Barrett was a central figure in the scientific world of nineteenth-and early-twentieth century Ireland has, until quite recently, been largely ignored. There is no biography of Barrett (although see Mollan 2007; Gauld 2004; Inglis 1988-89) and despite living, working, and researching in Ireland from 1873 to 1916, he is primarily known today only in connection with the Society for Psychical Research, a predominantly Cambridge and London-based group which he helped to found. This does an enormous disservice to Barrett’s professional and personal integration in Irish society as – ipsis Hiberniis Hiberniores – a scientist, educationalist, populariser of physics, psychical researcher, and lobbyist for various domestic reform movements.
The son of a Congregationalist minister, Barrett attended Old Trafford Grammar School before studying chemistry and physics at the Royal College of Chemistry, London. From 1863 until 1867 he worked at the Royal Institution, London, where he was an assistant to the Irish-born John Tyndall and came under the guidance of the great Thomas Huxley and Michael Faraday (Noakes 2004). In a research context where subjects such as a “fourth state of matter” (Crookes 1879) and a “fourth dimension” (Zöllner 1880) were being investigated by physicists, it is no surprise that prominent scientists engaged in significant amounts of ‘boundary work’, seeking to exclude what was considered illegitimate and deviant from scientific investigation. Indeed, each of Barrett’s mentors at the Royal Institution had developed entrenched anti-spiritualist attitudes in reaction to the spread of table-turning and spiritualism in mid-Victorian Britain. However, it was the visit of an Irishman named John Wilson to the laboratory of the Royal Institution that inspired Barrett’s interest in such matters and connected him with a new intellectual network in Ireland which discounted the scientific naturalist boundaries between science and psychical research.
After a disagreement with Tyndall, Barrett left the Royal Institution in 1866 to teach science at the International College, London, and then went on to lecture on physics at the Royal School of Naval Architecture (1869-73) at South Kensington. By this stage Barrett had commenced his important research into the phenomenon of sensitive flames, and in 1868 he came to Dublin to lecture at the Royal Dublin Society to a “crowded” and “highly fashionable” assemblage which included Sir Robert and Lady Kane. According to an enthusiastic report in the Irish Times, Barrett told his audience of the unity of a universe that was “ringing with noiseless music”, and conducted many experiments and demonstrations of this effect. He then went on to talk about:
complex bodies which are capable of being thrown into an abnormal state, and when in that condition were sensitive to the slightest stimuli if of the proper kind. This he believed to be the foundation for whatever truth there might be in the science of homeopathy and the still more startling facts of mesmerism (“Royal Dublin Society”).
For a couple of years in the early 1870s Barrett spent his vacations with John Wilson, who owned an estate at Daramona, Streete, Co. Westmeath. Wilson was an enthusiast for advanced astronomical physics and with his young son William Edward Wilson (later a Fellow of the Royal Society), had commissioned a reflector telescope from the famous Grubb’s Works in Rathmines, a suburb of Dublin. At this stage the whole area of animal magnetism and mesmerism still had an aura of pseudo-science about it, despite the widespread use of mesmerism as a therapeutic and palliative tool among mid-Victorian physicians and surgeons (Winter 1998). Ireland was no exception: a Dublin Mesmeric Association existed briefly in the 1850s and a Trinity College Dublin mathematician named Hill H. Hardy gained some notoriety as a local practitioner (“Mesmerism”). Wilson and his son persuaded Barrett to scientifically examine certain aspects of the phenomena.
On one visit Wilson rounded up some young “uneducated” village girls to be placed into a trance state – again an unexceptional practice in an era when Irish working class patients were considered to be physiologically close to animals (Winter 1998: 61-2). Barrett soon found that these ‘sensitives’ could act as conduits of thought-transference:
In the mesmeric trance – in spite of every precaution that I took to prevent deception – whatever sensations I felt, whether of touch, taste or smell, were transferred to the subject, and, moreover, ideas and words which I thought of were reproduced more or less accurately by the hypnotised subject (Barrett 1924: 282).
Barrett believed this to be a finding of immense importance, perhaps the discovery of an unknown mental faculty. This was the beginning of Barrett’s conviction that thought-transference (or telepathy, as it later came to be known) could be the factor in our lives which would dominate all our conduct.
What would be the use of a luxurious mansion at the West End and Parisian cooks if all the time the misery and starvation of our fellow creatures at the East End were telepathically part and parcel of our daily lives? (Barrett 1917: 294-5).
By this time Barrett had established a name for himself among elite scientists and in 1873 he gained the support of the English astronomer William Huggins in his application for a position in the London Institution (W. Huggins to W.F. Barrett, April 27th, 1873, William Fletcher Barrett Papers). Another scientist Barrett befriended was the Irish polymath Robert Stawell Ball, the Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at the recently established Royal College of Science for Ireland, of which Sir Robert Kane was Dean (McCorristine 2010). Ball came into contact with Barrett when the latter gave his lecture on sensitive flames to the Royal Dublin Society: Ball wrote that Barrett “had astonished the scientific world by his beautiful discovery of flames which would respond to sound” (Ball 1915: 86). In October 1873 Ball urged Barrett to go for the vacant Chair of Physics in the RCScI saying “the opportunities for original work seem to be very great” (Ball to Barrett, October 9th 1873). Through the influence of Ball, and perhaps background support from Tyndall, Barrett was appointed Professor of Experimental Physics in succession to William Barker, who had died that year.
By 1874, when he was living and teaching physics in Dublin, Barrett began attending séances held in a Kingstown residence owned by James Wilson, John’s brother. Here Barrett investigated the physical phenomena of a medium named Florrie Clark, the ten year old daughter of an English solicitor, and also engaged in experiments with the Lauders family who, under the name Lafayette, were spiritualists and the leading photographers in late-Victorian Dublin (Barrett 1917). Barrett’s connection with the Wilson family continued into the 1880s when he tutored James Wilson’s son, Henry Wilson (later Chief of the Imperial General Staff during World War I; assassinated by two Irish Republican Army volunteers in 1922) (Barrett 1924: 284).
Barrett was therefore already an immensely well-connected figure in Irish science and psychical research before he became the driving force behind the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882 and the American Society for Psychical Research in Boston in 1885. Colleagues, friends, and correspondents included William James, Frederic W.H. Myers, Oliver Lodge, Charles Richet, Gerald Balfour, and Balfour Stewart. One of his greatest friends and colleagues was Alfred Russel Wallace, who stayed with Barrett in Kingstown on occasion (Marchant 1916: 10). Barrett was a well-known figure in late-Victorian Dublin, a moderate Home Ruler, philanthropist, an advocate for women’s education in science and medicine, and a supporter of reforms in technical education. Eleanor M. Sidgwick summed up his life:
There can be no doubt that Sir William Barrett had in a remarkable degree a power of stirring up in others interest in subjects which interested himself. Both in conversation and as a lecturer he was very successful in this, not only in psychical research, but also, I believe, in experimental physics, the subject with which he was professionally engaged during the greater part of his life (Sidgwick 1925: 415).
Barrett’s activities in the early years of the SPR have been well-documented: yet his activities in science and psychical research in Dublin deserve to be reconstructed. Barrett organised extensive experiments in sound and vibration in the late 1870s: one colleague later claimed that he was one of the first to use the microphone after an experiment in Kingstown (“Late Sir William Barrett”). Aside from his central role in the thought-transference tests in Dublin and London, Barrett also engaged in experiments in the ‘Reichenbach phenomena’ in Dublin and extensively investigated dowsing and poltergeists during his vacations from the RCScI. As he approached retirement in 1909, Barrett greatly increased his activity in promoting psychical research in Ireland. He publishedOn the Threshold of a New World of Thought in 1908, while in 1909 he gave public lectures at St. Peter’s School-house, Camden Row (“Recent Results of Psychical Research”) and at a fundraiser for the Bray Art Furniture Industry Improvement Fund (“Telepathy and Recent Developments”). Yet it was the founding of a native, Dublin section of the SPR which is perhaps most worthy of attention in the context of Barrett’s Irish career in psychical research.
The Dublin Section of the SPR
In May 1908 a Dublin section of the SPR was founded with the Reverend Dr. James William Barlow, late Vice-Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, as Chairman, Barrett as Vice-Chairman, and his friend, the physicist E.E. Fournier d’Albe, as Honorary Secretary. It was described by one member as “a research group of intelligent, informed and highly placed men and women” (Cousins and Cousins 1950: 115). The original membership of 47 in 1908 rose to 75 in 1909 (“Report of the Council for the Year 1908”: 40). At the end of 1910 it was reported that “considerable progress” had been made with 10 meetings held and the membership rising to 110 members (“Dublin Section…1910”: 64). At the end of 1911 the DSSPR reported “another year of fairly successful work” and a membership of 105 (“Dublin Section…1911”) which compares favourably with a membership rate of around 1000 for the SPR at the turn of the century. Most meetings took place at rooms on 33 Molesworth Street. A library was set up and 13 papers and addresses were delivered in 1911, three of which were given by Barrett (ibid). By 1912, there were 110 members and 16 meetings were held (“Dublin Local Section”). In 1913 J.H. Hyslop gave a lecture on “Psychical Research in America” to the DSSPR, chaired by Barrett (“Psychical Research”).
From the start the DSSPR was dominated by investigations into the planchette, ouija board, automatic writing, and séance phenomena. These were all in contrast to Barrett’s earlier interests in psychical research (telepathy, Reichenbach phenomena) and one member sought to rectify the impression that the activities of the DSSPR could be identified with spiritualism (“Society for Psychical Research. Dublin Section”: 64). Another feature of the DSSPR was the fact that it patronised autonomous units to engage in private experimental work, although the results were not “of a very definite character” (“Dublin Section…1910: 64). The extent to which Barrett dominated the running of the DSSPR can be ascertained by a comment in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research: “The Society is most fortunate in having the constant guidance and sympathetic assistance of its chairman, Professor Barrett. His whole-hearted interest in its researches and his constant efforts on its behalf give courage and hope to the Committee to continue experimental work” (ibid). A colleague of his also later reminisced: “Barrett might be described as Ireland’s representative in the international movement to extend the frontiers of knowledge beyond the limits of the material order of life” (“Late Sir William Barrett”). The last mention of the DSSPR I have come across in the JSPR was with Barrett’s obituary of Barlow in January 1914 and it is clear that Barrett began to spend less time in Ireland following his marriage to Florence Elizabeth Willey in 1916. Yet judging by material contained in the Barrett Papers in the Society for Psychical Research Archive, University Library, Cambridge, his wife shared his deep interest in spiritualism, attending séances with the famous London medium “Mrs Leonard” (Gladys Osborne Leonard) over the next few years. At one such occasion in August 1921 Barrett was asked: “Have you been thinking about Ireland lately? Feda
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