Last British Witchhraft Conviction - 1944

Does the date surprise you?.

I think it quite a sad tale, myself.


There seems to have been some determination to obtain a conviction - any conviction. Methinks, if the 1735 Witchcraft Act, they might well have tried for a crime such as “being in possession of a loud shirt within the hours of darkness”. :frowning:
(btw - the “loud shirt” bit is from an old TV comedy series - possibly “Alas, Smith and Jones”)

um - it should read if the old act “had failed

But Helen Duncan wasn’t convicted of witchcraft. Indeed, there was no such crime as ‘witchcraft’ in English law in 1944, with that particular offence having been abolished by the 1735 Witchcraft Act, the very statute used to convict her. Indeed, far from being some throwback to the Middle Ages, the 1735 Act was a model piece of enlightened legislation. It abolished the offence of witchcraft because most people had come round to the view that witchcraft didn’t exist.

No, what Duncan was convicted of was pretending to have occult powers. That was why she was so keen to prove in court that her powers were genuine. What is more, pretending to have occult powers is still an offence in English law, although the 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act does mean that the accused must have done so for financial gain. It might not be such a bad thing if these laws was used more often.

So the authorities feared that she would reveal the date of the D-Day landings? That suggests they believed that occult powers existed (unlike their enlightened forebears in 1735).

Presumably, the authorities were just skittish. Probably worried about morale etc.

Why should pretending to have occult powers (as opposed to actually having them!) be illegal? What about the horoscope writers? Take this to its logical conclusion and half the weight-loss and the rest of the advertising industry would be in prison.

She predicted a ship would sink?

during a war?


Because it can be thought of as a form of fraud.

In Duncan’s case, there were several separate concerns. The main one was that she had confidential sources and was using genuine information to impress her clients. That would have amounted to leaking military secrets during the middle of a war. There is no evidence that she did have such sources, but it is not that surprising that the authorities should have thought that she might. She was, after all, living in Portsmouth. More likely, she was just guessing. That amounted to spreading false rumours during the middle of a war.

There was also the feeling that she was exploiting vulnerable people, which is perhaps the sort of thing that there ought to be laws against, except that, in this case, there already was a law against it.

It is hard to overstate how spooked the British were about this stuff during the war.

look at the third article about crosswords:

I believe there are states in america where it is still illegal to act as a medium (I could be talking cods off course)

Selections from the OP:

Ummm … what were those dates again?

Ummm about the dates… Either the police where psychic or there’s a typo on the page.

She was released before she was arrested! That’s efficiancy for ya!

Sorry… Must.Stop.Proofreading.

Now there’s a mysterious simulpost for ya … do you suppose witchcraft is involved?


As someone who went to Bar School, I have to say this is a very long way from mainstream legal knowledge. I have no idea what you do for a living, or indeed what your hobbies are, but I sense you are not a million miles from Middle Temple Lane . . . no, I don’t expect a response.

Nice post.

Bar school? Then you can make me a nice Madras, yes?

The ship concerned was HMS Barham, but her prediction was so unclear that it was bound to find something to attach itself to as the war progressed.

Since this happened in 1941, I can only conclude that the authorities took a long time to gather any ‘evidence’, or that she was not taken too seriously.

The D-Day landings were the subject of a massive disinformation campaign by the allies, and no doubt it was felt that she might disrupt it, she was in Portsmouth at the time and would have seen the preparations, and no doubt rumours along with accurate stories were circulating.

Nah, given that you are involved, it must be “jommetry”…:smiley:

I think youre thinking off Not The Nine O’clock News where a racist policeman is beeing repremanded by one of his superiors for repeatedly arresting a black man for ridicoulous offenses like “wearing a loud shirt in a built up area”, “beeing in pocession of an offensive wife” and “looking at me in a funny way”.

Ah, but it would have been very different if she was studying Substitutiary Locomotion :smiley:

Yep - that’s the one!

“you are a bigot - there is no place for that sort of thing here- I am transferring you to the SPG”

SPG= Special Police Group with bad reputation for racism, since, I think disbanded.