History of the SAGB (1872-2011)
Try and imagine this scene. It is a chill night - February 7, 1872, to be precise. See, sense and smell Victorian London. Outside, gas-lights flicker in an evening breeze. Indeed, it looks as though snow might be on the way. Horses jostle for space on the ever-crowded roads, their warm breath looking like ghostly vapour. People are rushing home, everyone from the street urchins and traders to the professional classes. Even the old lady selling violets seems anxious to vacate her pitch and head for the often foul-smelling East End and her large, ever-demanding family. Women, many wearing fur mufflers and sensible hats against the increasingly bitter cold, occasionally lift their now absurdly long dresses just an inch or so to escape puddles, some of which are just starting to ice over.
Now the scene switches to 16, David Street, Marylebone in London's West End. Around a dozen friends have gathered. Perhaps they were very different in class, size, education and background: that we do not know. But what we do know is that they had but one purpose - to discuss forming a Spiritualist society. After all, Modern Spiritualism had begun in America in 1848. Surely it was time to establish a Spiritualist organisation.
Perhaps seated informally around a table - the well-stacked fire occasionally belching smoke as a north wind blew down the chimney - the friends decided that, yes, they would form a society. A few informal meetings were arranged.
On July 10 of that same year, the Marylebone Spiritualist Association came into being as an organised body. During the early years, meetings were held at various locations throughout London, even including a carpenter's workshop and former police court. A major problem was that Spiritualism was still a taboo subject. Indeed, so great was the prejudice that occasionally the Association changed its name (unofficially, of course).
Now leap forward to September 1894, and to London's Mortimer Street where, thanks to an anonymous donation of £50, "a commodious meeting place" was secured. Incidentally, Emma Hardinge Britten, who founded "Two Worlds" and was the medium responsible for the Spiritualists' National Union's Principles, delivered the opening address.
Over the next decades, the Association met at various places, such as Steinway Hall, where famous trance medium J. J. Morse similarly delivered an opening address. Another well-known venue was New Bond Street's Aeolian Hall.
In fact, it was not until February 1930 that the Association secured permanent premises at 42, Russell Square, in Holborn. By that time some of the most famous names in contemporary Spiritualism had - or were - to serve it, such as Florence Marryat, the novelist, W. T. Stead, Alfred Vout Peters, Estelle Roberts, Annie Brittain, Horace Leaf, trance healer Fred Jones, trance and direct voice medium Kathleen Barkel, Nan Mackenzie, Bertha Harris; the list is almost endless.
Not even the Second World War could halt the Association's activities, for an official air raid shelter was established in the basement. Amongst active staff members then were Joe Benjamin. Within a comparatively short time other well-known mediums were to join the Association's ranks, like Ena Twigg and Ivy Northage.
A major move - literally! - occurred in 1955 when the Association purchased a lease on its present premises, 33, Belgrave Square, in the heart of plush Belgravia. The cost of the then 92-year-long lease was a now unbelievably low £24,500. Famous Spiritualist Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding declared the magnificent building open. Indeed, he later took part in one of a number of "At Homes" in order to raise money for the new headquarters. Later, after an approach to the Board of Trade, the Association was renamed The Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, a move which rightly reflected its growth and status.
The SAGB celebrated its ninetieth anniversary in 1962 by building six new rooms on the ground floor specifically for sittings. These are still in use, providing ideal private venues. Still, the Association continued to offer sittings with top class mediums, such as psychic artist Coral Polge, Lilian Bailey, Ursula Roberts, Doris Collins, Magdalene Kelly, Harold Sharp, Nora Blackwood, Robin Stevens and David Young, to name but a few.
In recent years, the Association has undergone a carefully planned refurbishment, still honouring Spiritualist pioneers by remembering them with the Oliver Lodge Hall, Dowding Wing and Conan Doyle Hall. Indeed, on display is a chair in which Sir Arthur wrote a number of his famous Sherlock Holmes' stories.
Upon closing its doors on the 5th day of December at 7 o'clock p.m. in 2010 to commence the Christmas holidays, a new chapter in the history of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain was being written. After 55 years of residence at 33 Belgrave Square, the Association began packing boxes, not for Christmas, but for a new home in the Victoria Charity Centre at 11 Belgrave Road, London, close to Victoria Station. What was probably the most poignant and difficult decision for the Association to make, the move was agreed by the Board of Trustees after much soul-searching and in a sign of the times and age, for sound economic and business reasons.
The economic climate not just in Great Britain but throughout the free world had for some time dealt a serious blow to investors, savers, workers and citizens alike. The banking crisis and serious financial state of many institutions, national, international and local created a climate in which little seemed safe from closure or demise. Amongst the greatest to suffer and be affected from a downturn in investments and reduced income, the "third sector" had been dealt the severest blows; most significantly through the loss of interest from their investments and the lack of new money being invested or given in charitable aid. How then to survive?
As the leaseholder of 33 Belgrave Square, the Association had for some time been in the unwelcome position of having to make significant investment in the repair and upkeep of a building that now more than 175 years old, was showing signs of significant dilapidation and need for substantial investment. What to do and how best to do it? The terms and conditions of the lease required the Association to maintain the fabric and structure of the building, yet the rate of decay and necessary investment to arrest the unremitting dilapidation was not financially sensible unless the Association owned the freehold. Under the Leasehold Reform Housing and Urban Development Act 1993, and the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 it had become possible for leaseholders to buy the freehold of their property. Acquisition of the lease was formally abandoned on cost grounds and an alternative strategy was initiated that would enable the Association to realise sufficient funding to move to temporary premises whilst waiting for the most opportune time to reinvest in a freehold property and above all, have sufficient reserve funds to guarantee the survival of the Association and its continuance as a worthy charity contributing to the Spiritualist cause and the specific aims of the Association. A momentous and difficult choice for the Board of Trustees to make and one that was taken in the face of difficult decisions and mounting pressures. And so it is that the work of the SAGB continues, as it will at Nş 11 Belgrave Road, with a secured future and one that will take it to a new and permanent home sometime over the next two to three years.
True to its founding fathers, the Association is at the very forefront of promoting high-quality younger mediums from all parts of the UK in addition to already established mediums. Public demonstrations of clairvoyance are held daily so that everyone - convinced Spiritualist or not - can attend and, perhaps for the first time, come into contact with mediumship and Spiritualism in conducive surroundings. As such, the SAGB does not have an official Mission Statement, to use a hideous modern expression. But if it did, perhaps it would run along these lines: "To offer evidence to the bereaved that man survives the change called death and, because he is a spiritual being, retains the faculties of individuality, personality and intelligence, and can willingly return to those left on earth, ties of love and friendship being the motivating force. To offer spiritual healing to those suffering from dis-ease, whether in mind, body or spirit, in a warm and loving environment.With both of these objectives in mind, to offer only the best and highest so that those on both sides of the veil can progress in a truly spiritual sense."