Gerald, our local historian of Spiritualism, who has written much on the history of Spiritualism and the history of Spiritualism in York, has kindly made available, in electronic form, material from his recent book – “Dead Men’s Embers” which we have used for this page.

Not everyone wants to read a detailed history, so on this page we will present brief summaries of the history of Spiritualism, and Spiritualism in York. Those who would like to read more in-depth information should look at Gerald’s book, copies of which can be found in the Centre’s library.

Another wonderful source of information on the history of Spiritualism is the free monthly e-journal, “Psypioneer”, to which anyone can subscribe. Please see the advert lower down in the right hand column for more details.


Spiritualism is as old as mankind. It has been called the oldest religion in the world. Neolithic peoples built elaborate burial chambers to house the remains of their dead. The construction of a single cairn took considerable time and effort - something that would suggest that the dead, or ancestors, of each community were very important in their daily lives.

Whether we can class this reverence of the dead as a form of ancestor worship is unclear. By comparison with tribal societies across the world today, we can surmise that they had knowledge of ways of contacting the spirits of the dead. In the Bible, (1 Samuel 28 v. 3-25), King Saul (1079 - 1007 BC) consulted the medium at Endor and asked her to call up the spirit of the recently deceased prophet Samuel, which she is reported to have done.

The ancient Greeks had their oracles for consulting the gods and foretelling the future, and, nearby, psychomanteums for contacting the spirits of the dead. Roman literature talks about necromancy and shows that there were occasionally attempts made to contact the spirits of the dead. In tribal societies, shamen had ways of inducing out of body experiences, (OBEs), when the spirits of the dead could be met and consulted. They also induced trance states for this purpose. These practices continue to this day where tribal societies are found.

Spiritualism in its modern form began in Hydesville, New York State, in 1848. On the 31st March, the Fox Sisters made a break through contacting the spirit entity who had been disturbing the family with strange sounds and activities. The spirit entity communicated by a system of raps to spell out the letters of the alphabet and give intelligible messages. The following year, 1849, Margareta Fox gave the first public demonstration of mediumship in the Corinthian Hall, New York. Leah Fox is credited with having produced full-form materialisation of human spirits in natural light.

Spiritualism spread quickly throught North America, where soon many people discovered that they had mediumistic gifts.
Spiritualism quickly spread to the UK, where the Spiritualist movement began in Yorkshire - at Keighley in 1853. In that year Mr David Richmond of the Shakers Movement of America brought news of spiritual phenomena to Mr David Weatherhead of Keighley. In June 1853 three lectures were held at the Working Men's Hall in Keighley. These were given by David Richmond assisted by David Weatherhead. Thereafter Keighley was the first town to have a Spiritualist society. Spiritualism quickly spread to all regions of the UK, and many more local societies were formed.

In 1871, through the mediumship of Emma Hardinge Britten, the spirit of Robert Owen communicated five basic and fundamental principles of Spiritualism.

The first Spiritualist organisation in the UK was the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, (SAGB), formed in 1872 by a group of Spiritualists, who first met in Marylebone. They called themselves "The Marylebone Spiritualist Association". The name was changed to the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain in 1960.

Attempts were made to bring together the various individuals, Spiritualist churches, groups and societies in the whole of the UK, and the concept of a national federation of Spiritualist churches was discussed and written about in 1889 by Emma Hardinge Britten in the ‘Two Worlds’ magazine, which she had founded in 1887. Emma arranged many meetings and in July 1890 the first national conference of Spiritualists was held in Manchester. At this Conference Emma advocated her five principles as the basis of Spiritualist philosophy, which later became the Seven Principles of SNU Spiritualism. Other resolutions were carried unanimously establishing a "Spiritualists' National Federation".

This changed its name to "The Spiritualists' National Union" in October 1901, when the Spiritualists National Union Limited (SNU), was incorporated under the Companies Act. The primary objectives of the SNU was "to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of the religion and religious philosophy of Spiritualism on the basis of the Seven Principles".

During The First World War, the SNU was responsible for organising memorial services for the war dead, along with campaigning for government recognition for Spiritualism as a religion. This was not achieved until 1951 with the passing of 'The Fraudulent Mediums' Act'.

In 1964 the SNU was given a permanent home by J. Arthur Findlay who was a wealthy Spiritualist, and author of "The Curse of Ignorance" and "The Rock of Truth", when he bequeathed Stanstead Hall to them, "to be used as a college for the advancement of psychic science", which it remains to this day.
There has been a Spiritualist Society in York since 1899. York Spiritualist Centre opened in its present premises in Wilton Rise in 1999. Prior to that it had a home in Spen Lane for many years, but it had to vacate these premises when the Aldwark area was redeveloped. For a few years after that it had no home of its own, and used Clementhorpe Community Centre for its services and events.
In Holgate a Methodist Society Young Men's Class was begun in 1862. With the expansion of this class the need for accommodation became pressing and about 1872 a mission chapel was built in Wilton Street (now part of Wilton Rise). This building, known as the WILTON STREET MISSION, accommodated 172 persons and was built of red brick with white brick ornamentation; the cost was £800.

The society in this area, where many railway workers lived, expanded as the population increased. On 14 September 1910 HOLGATE CHAPEL was opened at the corner of New Lane and Acomb Road. The Wilton Street mission-chapel was then sold to the Railwaymen's Mission. In 1955 it was used by the Salvation Army. It later became the York Bridge club, after which it was sold to the York Spiritualists to become York Spiritualist Centre in 1999.