New Discoveries about Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899)

in Esotericism/Faith/History/Latest/Spirituality/Theosophy

Visitors to the Arthur Findlay College at Stansted Hall may find themselves in the Britten Museum or the Britten Library, and they may wonder who this was. Most Spiritualists can reply that Emma was a pioneer medium, who received from spirit the Seven Principles, which form the legal basis of the Spiritualists National Union. Paul Gaunt, the museum curator, has explored how those principles evolved, for Emma had a long interest in how to summarise spirit teachings, and the number and content varied during her work.

In 1996, the SNU published a facsimile edition of Emma’s autobiography, which had been issued posthumously by her married sister, Margaret Wilkinson, in 1900.

You might think then that we have a clear picture of Emma’s life, which from about 1857, was widely reported in Spiritualist newspapers, as she worked as a medium in the United States, Britain, and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.

But this was, until recently, not the case, and even now there are unresolved mysteries. As recently as March 2017, there was a significant revelation about her which scholars are discussing, and which you will read about here.

What Emma would have included in her Autobiography had she lived we do not know. She wrote in a guarded way about her early life. She devoted over twice as many pages to her parrot as to her husband William Britten whom she married in a New Jersey (USA) rectory in 1870. She said nothing in the published autobiography about her status as a founder member of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. She did recall that as a child, she had been a hypnotic subject in an occult group that she calls the Orphic Circle, about which she was not permitted to say much.

Apart from the occult secrecy, why is Emma careful about what she says? She had been born in Bethnal Green, London in 1823, and baptised in her local parish church. Some years ago, I asked a Theosophical friend John Clarke to go to Tower Hamlets Record Office, London, in search of her, and he found the entry in the church register. Her father Ebenezer Floyd was recorded as a schoolmaster, though he may have been involved with boats when younger. At one time Emma gave the impression she was born 10 years later, in 1833. In interviews with American Spiritualist papers, she sometimes conveyed a middle class background, but after the death of her father when she was 11, she and her mother were actually plunged into grave poverty. Emma’s musical gifts offered some salvation, as did her success as an actress in London and Paris; her name was changed for the stage from Miss Floyd to Emma Harding.

This led to the belief, possibly encouraged by Emma, that she had been married, but there never was a Mr Harding (or Hardinge).  It is possible that she did suffer a serious trauma as a girl, and that this is one reason why she was reticent about her early years.

It was after moving to New York for theatre work in 1855 that Emma was drawn into Spiritualism, and she did meet some leading pioneers, such as the Fox sisters. She became a professional medium, a precarious existence, and although she tried other forms of work, such as (with her husband) becoming briefly an early electric therapist in Boston, USA, she always returned to Spiritualism, travelling between England and America repeatedly. Emma specialised for some years in extemporaneous lectures in trance, at a time when attending such lectures was a popular form of entertainment, but audiences could be volatile, and this was dangerous for a woman alone. She could be assaulted in the hall, and on the road.

Emma began to collect material for a history of “Modern American Spiritualism” which was published in 1870. She attributed to this idea to her spirit guides, and this is quite feasible. Despite her poor background, they clearly perceived her literary and organisational gifts. Moving from place to place, it must have been extremely difficult to accumulate newspaper and other references to events in early Spiritualism, even when she knew the persons concerned. She does not always quote verbatim, but she gives much information which has not been preserved elsewhere. Although there were a few other writers on American Spiritualism, there is nothing comparable to Emma’s book. Later, in 1884 she published “Nineteenth Century Miracles”, an account of Spiritualism in different countries, which uses chiefly English-language reports which had appeared in Spiritualist papers and journals in Britain and America. That too was very valuable.

Although Emma came from a Christian background, she quickly embraced Spiritualism as her religion, her new convictions doubtless being strengthened by the hostility her mediumship encountered from the orthodox. By the time she settled back in England, around 1880, she had become convinced of the need for Spiritualist organisation in the form of churches. A few already existed. She was one of a group who founded a weekly newspaper in Manchester “Two Worlds” in 1887 which promoted Spiritualism through churches, and which found an audience especially in the industrial North and Midlands of England.

In 1890 she reached the peak of her influence. The 1880s had been marked by several attempts to organise the paranormal. In 1882, Stainton Moses and other leading Spiritualists had supported the formation in London of a Society for Psychical Research, but had become disillusioned by the negative tone sometimes shown in its publications.

In 1884, metropolitan and county Spiritualists had established the London Spiritualist Alliance whose leadership was moderately Christian, and had no aspiration to set up separate churches. (The LSA is with us today as the College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington, and remains, like Stansted, a major training centre for mediums and healers.) Emma was a founder member of the L.S.A. but it was not central to her outlook.

In the 1880s, the Theosophists had established active Lodges in several British cities, but their message of course was distinctly unsympathetic to Spiritualism. Emma and her husband had been founder members of the Theosophical Society in the distant New York days of 1875. But now they rejected such occult claims.

Most of all, Victorian Britain was controlled by a Christian establishment. Emma clashed with its spokesmen week by week in “Two Worlds”.  Emma’s proposed therefore to “call together in a primary annual moveable conference, the best and united thoughts of the age on the question of how to carry on the propagandism of pure practical spiritualism, both in its phenomenal and religious aspects. Also, how we can aid and improve our local meetings by better methods of awakening our several districts to the value and importance of our work.” (TW March 21 1890).

Conference was the important word. Once this institution was launched, it gathered to itself a wide variety of activities.

Whose idea was it? An editorial of July 18 recalled “For many weeks past, a party of some sixteen spiritualists have met together at the earnest request of Mrs Hardinge Britten, to consider a plan given to her by the spiritual guides and friends of the higher life, who have directed her world-wide travels and protected her through the unnumbered trials and experiences of her past thirty years of public spiritual propagandism.”

Emma gave the names of this council- Dr and Mrs Britten, Mr and Mrs E.W. Wallis; and Mrs Wilkinson; Messrs J. J. Morse (Liverpool ) W Johnson ( Hyde) J.B. Tetlow ( Pendleton), H. Boardman (Openshaw), P. Lee  ( Rochdale), Messrs Rayner and J. Gibson (Oldham), R. Flitton, T. Brown, J. Simkin, and F. Tomlinson (Manchester) “ the latter gentleman being elected as treasurer, the others in groups as sub-committees on different departments of use.” We should not forget their joint share in this work, even though Emma was the most prominent- their names appeared in the newspaper frequently, and some of them were directors of “Two Worlds”.

It will be noted that this committee was drawn entirely from one region, NW England, and nearly all from Manchester. The committee sent out 8000 copies of their circular, hoping to assess the views of British Spiritualists. There were hundreds of positive responses, and the conference at the Co-operative Hall, Downing Street Manchester on Sunday July 6 1890, was full. The Yorkshire Federation (of 16 societies) was represented by its secretary, Mr M. Marchbank, and Mr Wortley represented the London Federation of Spiritualists, not to be confused with the LSA. James Robertson of Glasgow took part in the debate.

The religious background of the proceedings was evident. The meeting began with an invocation from Mrs Britten addressed “To the Father of Spirits, the Lord and Master of Life”, followed by the first of several hymns. There were also musical interludes.

In her original proposal, Emma had praised Spiritualism as the only religion able to offer “present practical and undeniable proofs of their affirmations.” These not only confirmed survival but also knowledge of life’s duties, and the demands of the laws of God, nature and duty.

She denounced “idealists, cranks, transcendentalists and speculators” who had infiltrated the movement “to foist their vain theories on the one hand, and their worldly practices on the other.”

She had particular scorn for orthodoxy. “Christianity, in its modern form of absurd creeds, antiquated ideas, unworthy conceptions of the creator, and ridiculous teachings concerning the life hereafter, is simply crumbling into pieces beneath the analysis of reason, reverence for the grand problems of existence, and the revealments of creative wisdom in present-day science.”

During the conference, Emma gave an important address on the need for unity about the basis of spiritualism.  She recalled that when she attended her first séance, “her mind was pervaded by the doctrines of the Church of England, in the tenets of which she had been educated.” Her spirit friends had given her a better faith, which she summarised in six doctrines. These were the later Seven Principles, save only for the omission of the communion of spirits and ministry of angels.

She considered this a superhuman rather than human revelation. She asked “that it should neither be affiliated with man-made creeds, labelled with simply human beliefs, opinions or unproved revelations, nor be confounded with any sect in existence that did not offer similar and equally incontrovertible proofs of a supermundane origin and revelation.”

The conference was a resounding success; indeed Mr Wortley of London claimed never to have enjoyed any day so much in his life. Most obviously, the conference continued as an annual event, growing into a national organisation.

For Emma, sadly, troubles were henceforth to multiply. She quietly announced her retirement from public speaking at the 1891 Bradford conference – in the next year; Then she was in effect deposed from the editorial chair at Two Worlds. The American historian Marc Demarest, of whom more below, has discovered why.

Her husband William Britten, who was chairman of the board of the Two Worlds Publishing Company, was called to task by the board for stock manipulation. He had taken in two thousand pounds, in two tranches, from an anonymous donor (Lady Caithness, probably), along with a few hundred pounds in “donations”, to prop up TTW, which never made any money because it was a penny paper — the cover price barely covered the cost of production. Instead of putting this capital into the corporation as ordinary William used at least some of the money to purchase shares in the corporation under various names.  The goal on William’s part was control of the Two Worlds Publishing Company. My read of the situation [ writes Marc privately to me] is that the Wallis camp saw Emma largely as an unwitting/unwilling participant in William’s schemes. They went out of their way at the time to be kind to her, continued to cover her peregrinations and activities after she left TTW, and welcomed her back as soon as William died in 1894.

An attempt to raise a testimonial for her caused such ill-will, that she ordered it to cease. Her new magazine “Unseen Universe” (1892) was short-lived. Organisational bickering developed between the Midlands and London. In 1894, her husband William Britten died age 74, and by 1897, her own health had broken down. Later she made only occasional appearances at local Manchester events.

Perhaps she looked back wistfully to that perfect July day in Manchester, when there had been such a sense of harmony. Although the Union was not to be formally constituted until after she passed in 1899, societies had begun at once to affiliate to the Federation, as it became known at the 1891 Bradford conference.

Most of the consequences still lay in the future- the hundreds of member churches, the education schemes, the college for Spiritualists at Stansted, the ordination of Spiritualist ministers. It was only a later generation that could see the full consequences of Emma’s 1890 proposal. She had a long and unparalleled experience of organisation, and she believed also in the institutionalization of the movement. Indeed, Marc argues that she was the major force for institutionalization. Her motive was both pure and personal: the movement can’t grow without institutionalization, and she can’t do her job (and get paid for it) without institutionalization.

Now we must turn to the occult side of Emma’s life. She had been a mesmeric or hypnotic subject as a child for clairvoyant experiments. She was a founder member, with other Spiritualists, of the Theosophical Society in New York which was initially intended to develop such occult powers as astral projection. Emma postulated a new school of the prophets, trained on mediumistic lines, and she engaged in a long struggle with Madame Blavatsky, the leading figure in the new T.S.  Indeed, the two movements, Modern Theosophy and Spiritualism, remain in conflict today.

Mrs Britten issued in 1876 a curious volume, at first only on subscription entitled Art Magic.   With this, and with her novel Ghostland, Mrs Britten claimed occult authority.

However, Marc Demarest, the American scholar already mentioned, through his research reported on has traced back much of Art Magic to other nineteenth century writers, rather than to a supposed specific occultist, “Chevalier Louis”, whom Mrs Britten might have known.  This evidence was included in his new edition of “Art Magic.” published by Typhon Press in 2011. Another scholar Wouter Hanegraaff has just suggested that the sequel “Ghostland” includes narratives of psychedelic experiences, possibly undergone by Emma while living in Paris as an actress.

This college, Stansted is part of her legacy, as it endeavours to be the school of the prophets for which she longed. She was a historian, a medium, and a missionary. After her passing, she continued to take an interest in our later pioneers; in turn, we will learn much by taking an interest in her.

With thanks to Marc Demarest for permission to cite his research


Leslie Price is librarian of the College of Psychic Studies, London, this is a talk given at the 2017 Open Week at the Arthur Findlay College, Stansted, Essex.



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