Hellish Nell: the Scottish ‘Blitz Witch’ tried at the Old Bailey

Helen Duncan was the last person jailed under The Witchcraft Act. She was derided for the use of fake ectoplasm but many lauded her skills. Pictures: Creative Commons
Helen Duncan was the last person jailed under The Witchcraft Act. She was derided for the use of fake ectoplasm but many lauded her skills. Pictures: Creative Commons
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Helen Duncan, a working-class medium from Edinburgh, was the last person in Great Britain to be jailed for witchcraft following her trial at the Old Bailey in 1944.

Known as Hellish Nell from childhood given her bolshie character, Duncan’s seances became the stuff of sensation, with her apparent ability to summon the dead in much demand during World War Two.

Her powers were highly regarded by some, with the ghost of Sherlock Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle among those who reportedly appeared at one of Duncan’s seances in the capital, according to testimony given at the trial.

However, Duncan was to suffer great humiliation after being exposed by psychic investigators for regurgitating fake ectoplasm – made from cheesecloth or paper dipped in egg white – to indicate she had successfully summoned a spirit.

Papier mache heads were also used to depict the dead.

Psychic researcher Harry Price later wrote: “Could anything be more infantile than a group of grown-up men wasting time, money and energy on the antics of a fat female crook?”

Despite it all, Duncan, who was originally from Callander but moved to Dundee to work in the jute mills as a teenager, travelled the country for work.

She and her husband, Henry, who was disabled, later settled in Kirkhill Road, Edinburgh, and had six children to feed.

Her activities were to arouse suspicion among the authorities during the war years with officials attending her seances after she told a meeting in Portsmouth in November 1941 of a conversation with a dead sailor, Sid, who drowned during the sinking of HMS Barham.

At that time, the sinking had not been made public by the government although letters had been sent to the families of the 861 men who died. A newspaper report had also appeared.

Duncan was arrested in January 1942 following another seance at the Master Temple Psychic Centre in Portsmouth.

Duncan plead not guilty with three others to conspiring to contravene the 1735 Witchcraft Act and pretending to exercise conjuring.

The severity of the charges has long been criticised. Richard Denham, in his book Weird World War, notes how the “Blitz Witch” was originally to be charged with treason or espionage until the offence was upgraded.

More usually, mediums would be charged under vagrancy laws, but Duncan’s case was opened at the Old Bailey in March 1944.

The defence presented 44 witnesses to speak of Duncan’s supernatural powers.

They included Vincent Woodcock, of Henley Avenue, Blackpool, who said that his wife, who died in 1939, appeared at each of the 19 seances he had attended.

The prosecution claimed that Duncan had been involved in fake seances for those who had been killed in the war. The medium had made £112 in six days – the equivalent of £3,500 – the court also heard.

On sentencing Duncan to nine months in prison, the Recorder said: “Many of those who sought solace in spiritualism were poor people and the law endeavoured to protect them against themselves.”

Duncan collapsed moaning in the dock on hearing her sentence before she was escorted to Holloway Prison, where she enjoyed a degree of popularity given the seances she held in her cell.

Winston Churchill, himself a member of the Ancient Order of Druids, described the case as “obsolete tomfoolery”.

The Witchcraft Act was repealed in the early 1950s. A long-running campaign has sought to pardon Duncan, from her conviction.

In 2008, the Scottish Parliament rejected a petition to clear her name with The Criminal Cases Review Commission also declining to reopen the case. A bronze bust of Helen Duncan is on show at Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum after some objected to placing it in her birth town of Callander.