Hidden Histories #8: Do you believe in ghosts?

Daniel

I have three questions for you:

  1. Do you believe in ghosts?
  2. Do you remember the psammead?
  3. Why is the Fabian Society called the Fabian Society?
A ghost, the psammead, and the Fabian window,

This long-winded ramble covers all three questions in a unnecessarily complicated but connected way.

So:

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

Frank Podmore asks this question at the beginning of his book written in 1909 called Telepathic Hallucinations: The New View of Ghosts? You can read the whole book online for free but don’t because it’s quite boring.

Let’s pause to look at Frank, who would not look out of place in 2018 enjoying an espresso in Shoreditch Grind.

The very swipe-right-able Frank Podmore (picture from Wiki Commons)

Frank very much believed in ghosts and wrote widely on psychical research. I wish there was a detailed biography of him or some citeable information about his life, because some of the possibly made up stuff about him seemed very interesting, such as being fired from his job at the post office due to “sadism”…

Anyway.

One night in Autumn 1893, Frank met his friend Edward Pease and they spent the night in a haunted house in Notting Hill, hoping to see a ghost.

They had borrowed the key from the letting agent, left the door on the latch, then went back later and waited for a ghost…

This is Edward by the way:

Edward Pease photographed by George Bernard Shaw in around 1900

Edward had excellent handwriting. Here he is trying to squeeze in kisses into the end of a letter addressed to Percival Chubb, who was also his friend (more of Percival later).

Frank and Edward waited for the ghost.

They waited.

And they waited.

And the ghost either never came, or else never let them know it was there.

Instead, the two men chatted about their interests. It turned out they weren’t only fans of psychical, paranormal research. They were also interested in social progress, so Frank invited Edmund to a gathering…

Fellowship of the New Life

These gatherings were hosted by Thomas Davidson, the noted philosopher who was establishing a “Fellowship of the New Life”. It was a socialist movement:

“….Object: The cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.

…Principe: The subordination of material things to the spiritual

...Fellowship: The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere and strenuous devotion to the object and principle

Fellowship House is on 29 Doughty Street over in Bloomsbury, so I wondered there after work to see if the building gave me some sense of historical perspective or any kind of mysterious FEELING about the history I was writing about.

It did not. Here it is anyway:

Site of Fellowship House, 29 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury. More info here about Fellowship House

Percival Chubb attended those meetings along with Edward and Frank (and many others), and here are the notes from one of the first meetings in 1883, taken by Percival.

From the Chubb archives

We have the archives of Percival Chubb which contains lots of correspondence between various members of the group. I had a quick look through this and I always love the randomly personal finds that don’t really have anything to do with the story you’re trying to tell but show little moments of humaneness — there were several letters from Percival’s nephew thanking his uncle for the Christmas money which he was using to save up for a bike:

There’s also some nice letters from an angsty Thomas Davidson getting progressively more and more annoyed at Percival for not replying.

Early on in the life of the Fellowship of the New Life, the decision was made to form a separate society that could be more politically involved. It would be called The Fabian Society at the suggestion of Frank (The Fellowship of the New Life still continued, established a journal, along with a commune at Fellowship House and a school - see here for where to find more info about this)

There were around 9 founding members of the new Fabian Society, two of which were Frank and Edward. It probably also included Havelock Ellis, the famous sexologist, whose handwriting is dead annoying:

One of the other founding members is also quite interesting…

Do you remember the psammead?

As I kid I loved watching the BBC adaptation of the novel “Five Children and It”. It tells the story of a group of children who move to the Kent countryside and discover a psammead, or sand-fairy, in a sand pit who grants them wishes.

Here is the psammead having a delicious sing song:

The author of the book, Edith Nesbit, wrote lots of books - probably “The Railway Children” being among the most famous.

She had 5 children herself (“The Five Children and It”?), and one of those children was called Fabian, although he would later die aged 15.

As well as a prolific novelist, she was a part of the founding of the Fabian Society, and was well acquainted with Edward and Frank. Her husband, Hubert Bland, was also a founder.

Photograph of Hubert Bland, Edith’s husband, taken by George Bernard Shaw using an experimental processing technique around 1900
George Bernard Shaw never took a picture of Edith Nesbit, but he did take one of Rosamund Clifford Sharp, Edith’s adopted daughter, c.1900

Later on in life, Edith lectured on socialist issues, and also spoke at LSE on a number of occasions.

Her choice of the word psammead for “The Five Children and It” is a weird one that she made up, and is probably derived from Greek for “sand”, implying a sand-nypmh or fairy.

Effortless segue into the Ancient World because GREEK leads to ROMAN leads to LATIN leads to…

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator

Quints Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, public domain

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cuncator was born in Rome in around 280 BC, and probably had a verruca or wart on his lip. So that explains “Verrucosus”.

“Maximus” and “Quintus” are quite standard Roman names. “Fabius” is probably derived from a more ancient group of families from Rome (I’m very out of my comfort zone here)

Cuncator? It literally means “delayer” and is my new favourite insult. Fabius became associated with his military tactics, where instead of a full on strike, he would gradually wear the opponent down through a war of attrition. This has become known as “Fabian Strategy”.

So why is The Fabian Society called The Fabian Society?

Amongst the newly-formed Fabian Society’s activities was the publication of a series of pamphlets, or “tracts”. Edith Nesbit, mentioned earlier, was elected to be on the pamphlet committee of The Fabian Society, and this is Fabian Tract №1, entitled “Why are the many poor?”

You’ll see on that front page that there is a slightly odd quote, that reads:

“For the right moment you must wait, as FABIUS did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless”.

According to Edward Pease’s recollections of those first meetings, that particular quote “does not exist in history” and therefore it was probably made up by Frank Podmore, who had probably learned about Fabius during his university days.

“Resolution 1 — That the Society be called the Fabian Society (as Mr. Podmore explained in an allusion to the victorious policy of Fabius Cunctator”

The choice of “Fabian” for Fabian Society then, refers to a slow, steady and calculated advance towards socialism rather than sudden revolution.

The Fabian Society manifesto, 1884. Read in full here.

Finding out further information

  • Fabian tracts and the minutes of the executive committee have been digitised, and you can browse and read them for free online here
  • There’s a great biography of Edith Nesbit in the Women’s Library at LSE,
  • Edward Pease’s history of the Fabian Society can be found at LSE Library, or else you can read for free online here.
  • The (huge) archives of the Fabian Soceity are held at LSE Library as part of its special collections on British politics
  • The Fabian Society still exists today as a political think tank, and continues towards “principles of democratic socialism via gradualist reformist effort in democracies, rather than by revolutionary overthrow”. It’s affiliated to the Labour Party, and is also a part of the story behind the establishment of the LSE and the New Statesmen — but those will have to be for another post because if I’m exhausted by this stage you probably left quite a few minutes ago…

Daniel

Written by

Daniel

Politics Curator at the Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Sharing "hidden histories" from the archives.

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