Day Sherlock Holmes sleuth writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hit Doncaster town on spiritualism tour

Britain’s obsession with celebrities isn’t a modern phenomenon: exactly 100 years ago, the Doncaster Gazette was buzzing with the news that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was in town.

By Nicola Bexon
Monday, 20th May 2019, 1:01 pm
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visit advertised in the Doncaster Gazette 1919
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visit advertised in the Doncaster Gazette 1919

What fuelled the gossip column of the local newspaper, however, was that the famous author wasn’t in town to talk about his detective hero, but about the spirit world.

Local history volunteer Lynda Regan has been scouring the archives to discover what life was like in wartime Doncaster, before the Peace Treaty was finally signed in June 1919 – part of her work for Doncaster 1914-18, a community heritage project supported by National Lottery Players through the National Lottery Heritage Fund.  She discovered the forgotten story of Doyle’s Doncaster visit hidden among newspaper cuttings.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who visited Doncaster

Not only is it a record of a thrilling event in the town a century ago, but illustrates how local families were learning to cope with the loss of loved ones in the aftermath of the devastating First World War.

In 1919, Spiritualism was its peak: with its belief that the living could communicate with the dead in the spirit world, it’s not surprising that many people in post-war Doncaster found the religious movement appealing and comforting.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a huge supporter of Spiritualism, and on May 26, 1919, he visited Doncaster on a nationwide lecture tour with one of the most celebrated, well-known mediums of his time, Tom Tyrell.

The evening at the Corn Exchange consisted of a talk by Sir Arthur, followed by a demonstration of clairvoyance by the famous medium Tom Tyrell, who appeared alongside Sir Arthur in many of his lecture tour appearances.  Entitled ‘Death and the Hereafter’, the lecture enthralled the audience. The Doncaster Gazette reported that during the talk Sir Arthur claimed: “If I were to disappear from this platform, I would leave an exact mould of my body standing here. A clairvoyant would see it. That is my Spirit Body.”

The reporter went on to say: “Sir Arthur had told his audience so many things about the range of Spiritualistic phenomena, and with such an air of conviction, that possibly, members of the audience would not have been overwhelmed with astonishment if he had…vanished from view, like Mr HG Wells’ ‘Invisible Man’.  He did not do that however but continued with his lecture, a lecture full of interest to all hearers, whether believers, sceptics, impartial enquirers or merely those who had come in quest of ‘some new thing.’”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Herbert Rose Barraud in 1893

Sir Arthur talked about why he himself had come to be such a passionate believer, what Spiritualism is and the reasons why messages came from the spirit world. He spoke of the consolation Spiritualism had brought to parents bereaved in the war, saying that he had sent people to a medium in London and had received letter after letter testifying to the revelations they had received.  Although he “frankly admitted that there were cases of rascality,” he described mediumship as “a particular natural endowment.”

The highlight of the evening was Mr Tyrell’s demonstration of this natural talent. The lights were not lowered, but the medium claimed to see spirits in the hall, giving minute descriptions of their clothes and appearance, and offering their names and addresses.  In several instances, people in the audience recognised these names and claimed that the “spirit greetings” were for them.

The final message was for Sir Arthur himself and contained several pieces of information that the great man agreed were correct. Mr Tyrrell said that the sender of the message was none other than Sir Arthur’s old friend Oscar Wilde.

The Gazette at this time had a weekly column called ‘Here and There’ and the following week its author gave his view on what he had seen. He said he had gone with an open mind as he had never been to a séance or seen a medium at work, and he certainly felt that seeing Mr Tyrrell in action was a remarkable experience. He then gave an insight into two of the “alleged spirits” that the medium had described. One of the spirits was a young girl who Mr Tyrrell claimed to see with “lightning over her head”, having died from a lightning strike. The reporter had a vague memory of something like this; and when he searched through the newspaper’s archives, he found that a young girl of the name given had indeed been killed in such a way five years previously in a village near Doncaster. For more visit – a free online archive. 

Doncaster heritage volunteer workers