We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Kitson, Alfred (1855–1934), spiritualist, was born at Gawthorpe, Ossett, near Dewsbury, Yorkshire, on 15 February 1855, the son of John Kitson and his wife, Esther (Betty), née Butterfield. His father was a coal miner and his mother a mill worker. The family lived in poverty, owing to his father's poor health and consequent irregular employment. Alfred was the eldest of six children and before the age of nine he decided to seek employment down the pit, in order to help bring money into the family. A sensitive and artistic child, he was a hard worker and physically strong, remaining in employment as a miner for much of his working life.

John Kitson was a preacher at the local Primitive Methodist Chapel and in 1867 investigated rumours of ‘spirit rappings’ in the neighbourhood. Initially sceptical he was converted to spiritualism and became a medium. He also found himself cured of his ill health and thus able to work again; the family finances benefited as a consequence. Alfred, already fascinated by the claims of spiritualism, and troubled by the primitive teaching about hellfire, took to attending seances with his father. As local interest in spiritualism grew a meeting room was rented. This was visited, in 1871, by James Burns, the editor of the spiritualist journal, Medium and Daybreak, and James Peebles, a well-known medium. The visitors told John Kitson to take care of his eldest son, as he was to do great work for the cause of spiritualism. Alfred showed no sign of developing mediumistic talents, so the prophecy was ‘deemed a failure’ (Kitson, 27).

In 1871 spiritualists in Sowerby Bridge opened a lyceum, or Sunday school for children, which Alfred Kitson visited. This was the third lyceum in England, following Nottingham (1866) and Keighley (1870). These were modelled on the American lyceums introduced in New York by Andrew Jackson Davis in 1863 and described in the Medium and Daybreak. Lyceums enabled spiritualists to give their children a religious education that fitted their own philosophy, rather than sending them to church Sunday schools, where they would be exposed to ‘false’ teaching. The Gawthorpe spiritualists were keen to start a lyceum of their own and Alfred made use of a copy of the American lyceum guide to help them. This contained a variety of poems for recitation, called ‘Gold and Silver Chains’, and callisthenic exercises.

Kitson had received only intermittent education in childhood, and became an autodidact. Knowing that he was to instruct children in matters of faith and philosophy, he devoured books on religion, as well as botany, geology, physiology, and astronomy. He also learned to play the double bass, and joined a band with his father and brother (both violinists), which brought in extra funds. On 22 December 1877 at St Thomas's, Batley, he married Mary Fothergill Wainwright (1857–1933), a weaver, daughter of Frank Wainwright, pattern maker. She was a devoted wife and supporter of his spiritualist endeavours. The couple had five children: four sons died in infancy or childhood, but their youngest child, Mary Ellen (Nellie) (1890–1929), became an active supporter of Alfred's lyceum work.

Kitson and his wife settled at Bromley Road, Hanging Heaton, between Batley and Dewsbury. Money was scarce in the household, though in 1879 Kitson became a check weighman, a responsible position in the mine that meant he negotiated with managers on behalf of the workers. His successes in this led him to be appointed as delegate to the Yorkshire miners' union.

Kitson quickly became aware that the American lyceum guide was inadequate for teaching, and supplemented it with his own hymns, recitations, and teachings. Wanting to rouse spiritualists to the cause of their children's education, in 1883 he decided to send summaries of his weekly sessions to the Medium and Daybreak. The newspaper was sympathetic to the cause and inserted the reports, along with Kitson's comments about the superiority of lyceums over Sunday schools. By 1886 there were enough lyceums up and running to necessitate a conference, during which the pressing need for a guide or manual became clear. The lyceum workers (mostly, like Kitson, working men) lacked capital. James Burns, a potential source of funds, was unsympathetic, but in the same year Kitson was invited to open and address the lyceum at Newcastle upon Tyne and met Harry A. Kersey.

Kersey had the funds to print a manual. He had also been inspired by Emma Hardinge Britten, a well-known spiritualist writer and advocate, who had seen them on her travels around America. She had already composed a sixteen-page pamphlet to aid English lyceums; Kitson encouraged Kersey to expand this pamphlet into a manual, amplified by his own material. The manual was a success. A note in Kitson's personal papers reveals that by 1893 the manual was into its fourth edition and had sold over 5600 copies. Its publication, though, had the disappointing effect of snubbing James Burns, who, for some years made attacks on Kitson in his newspaper.

Kitson corresponded and compared notes with his American counterparts, notably Andrew Jackson Davis and Emma Tuttle. A hymn book, or ‘Songster’, was published in 1888 and in 1889 Kitson published a book, written in his spare time and funded by the lyceums, called Spiritualism for the Young (reissued in 1894 as Outlines of Spiritualism, and later as Outlines of Spiritualism for the Young). He drew up the constitution of the Lyceum Union, founded in 1888 by the lyceum conference. In 1890 the Spiritualists' Lyceum Magazine was first produced, which enabled better communications between lyceums. This became the Lyceum Banner and Kitson (with reluctance) took on the editorship. In 1901 he was elected permanent (or general) secretary of the Lyceum Union.

In poor health, Kitson stepped down as general secretary of the union in 1919. A testimonial of £405 was raised in order to keep his services as an adviser, along with a salary of £1 10s. per week. He continued to maintain his interest in the lyceums until his death at 10 Hanover Square, Boothroyd Lane, Dewsbury, on 16 January 1934. The Lyceum Banner recalled ‘Dad’ Kitson as the ‘Father of the British Spiritualist Lyceum Movement’: a man of indefatigable spirit, a self-taught teacher and born organizer, who by his life's mission encouraged the movement to take seriously the mental and spiritual development of children.

Georgina Byrne

Sources  

A. Kitson, Autobiography of Alfred Kitson (1919) · L. Barrow, Independent spirits: spiritualism and English plebeians, 1850–1910 (1986) · papers, Lyceum Museum, Darlington · census returns, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911 · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

Lyceum Museum, Darlington


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Barrow, Independent spirits, 197

Wealth at death  

£347 17s. 6d.: probate, 16 Jan 1934, CGPLA Eng. & Wales