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  Emma Hardinge Britten (1823–1899), by J Gurney & Son, c.1870 Emma Hardinge Britten (1823–1899), by J Gurney & Son, c.1870
Britten [née Floyd], Emma Hardinge (1823–1899) spiritualist writer and lecturer, was born in Stepney, London, on 2 May 1823, the daughter of Ebenezer Floyd (d. 1834), schoolmaster, and his wife, Anne Sophia, née Bromfield (1792/3–1886). She was baptized at St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, on 28 May 1823. She had a brother, Tom, who died at sea and a younger sister, Margaret. By her own admission she was the centre of attention as a child, with a ‘fine voice and a passionate love for music’ (Autobiography, 3), but one who at the same time enjoyed moments of solitude and who ‘saw’ strange visions.

The family spent some time in Minehead, Somerset. When Emma Floyd was eleven her father died in Bristol, leaving her bereft; it was only hearing what she believed to be the sound of his voice that prevented her from drowning herself. In order to earn money she took up a career in music, playing and composing for churches in London and Bristol. She embarked on a period of study in Paris in order to become an opera singer, but took to sleep walking, wandering the streets and screaming—which damaged her voice. She returned to London and began a stage career, performing at the Adelphi Theatre under the name Emma Hardinge from 1844 to 1853. In 1851 she was living in Tufton Street, Westminster, with her widowed mother. She fell in, briefly, with an occult group which she called the Orphic Circle and was simultaneously pursued by a ‘cruel and remorseless persecutor … a baffled sensualist’ (Autobiography, 7) who persuaded theatre managers to withhold work from her, in the hope of making her dependent on him.

In 1855 Floyd sailed with her mother to New York, under the surname Hardinge, to take up a theatrical job on Broadway, which came to nothing. Encountering reports of ‘spirit-rapping’, she was both intrigued and repelled by talk of communicating with the dead. Her first encounter with spiritualism was not positive: she found it irreverent to scripture and fled the seance, praying for forgiveness. A friend took her to see a medium he knew. This was a private encounter with Ada Foye, who told her that she was herself a great medium. Emma subjected Ada to a series of tests as the spirits ‘spoke’ through raps and letters of the alphabet. Her dead brother, Tom, gave her a message that convinced her. Emma in turn convinced her mother of the veracity of spiritualism and the pair of them enjoyed trying the spirits—making tables spin and tilt as they did so. According to her own account, Emma became a medium herself on 19 February 1856. She had formed a friendship with a sailor, Philip Smith, when she travelled to New York on the Pacific. On 19 February, she received a spirit message from Philip, telling her that the Pacific had gone down and all on board were drowned. She ran to a friend, the medium Mrs Kellogg, who met her in a trance and repeated Philip's words. It transpired that the ship was indeed lost.

In New York Emma Hardinge offered her services as a medium, for which she refused payment, though she became acquainted with some of the well-known professional mediums of the day: along with Mrs Kellogg and Ada Foye, she knew the Fox sisters, J. B. Concklin, and Judge Edmonds. She supported herself by teaching music and directing the choir of a spiritualist church. She believed that she was ordered by the spirits to lecture, but she ‘shrank with disgust’ at the idea of being a ‘female preacher’ (Autobiography, 45). Eventually she relented, finding the task impossible to avoid, and was booked to speak at Troy, New York. She tried to write her lecture, or memorize it, but the spirits claimed they would take her sight and her memory, wanting her to speak extempore. In the event, on 5 July 1857 she took to the platform and, inspired by the presence of her departed father, lost her fear and spoke from the heart. Her lecture was a success and she continued as the Sunday speaker in Troy for two years.

Hardinge's speaking talents were such that spiritualists across the United States and Canada invited her to lecture, and she embarked on a tour. She spoke in churches and public halls, often facing hostile (mostly male) audiences of cowboys, miners, and settlers. Nevertheless, by her account she spoke quietly and convincingly and many were converted to the cause. According to commentators she was ‘dashing, brilliant and forceful’ (The Two Worlds, 13 October 1899, 675). A supporter of Abraham Lincoln, she spoke in favour of his re-election in 1864. She was struck by illness soon after the election and spoke about him again only after his assassination in April 1865. Her funeral oration was delivered to over 3000 people in New York, copied by shorthand and published in a pamphlet. With her mother she returned to London in autumn 1865, intending a quiet life, but British spiritualists pressed her to continue her work. She appeared before the London Dialectical Committee, investigating spiritualism in 1869, and in 1870 published an account entitled Modern American Spiritualism. She returned to New York and married William Britten (1820/21–1894) on 11 October 1870 in Jersey City. Her husband became her strong support and the manager of her speaking and writing career, by booking halls and organizing her tours. They had no children.

Emma Hardinge Britten (as she was now known) and her husband returned to England in 1871. In May 1871 she spoke on the subject of the spiritualists' ‘creed’ at Cleveland Hall in London. At the end of the lecture she revealed that she had been given the ‘ten commandments of spiritualism’ by the late socialist and philanthropist Robert Owen. These formed the basis of what became known as the Seven Principles of Spiritualism. In 1877–88 she travelled with her husband to Australia and New Zealand. In 1882 they settled in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. She continued to write and speak about spiritualism, publishing her history of spiritualism, Nineteenth Century Miracles, in 1883, and becoming the editor of the Two Worlds when it was relaunched in 1887. She became involved with the work of the spiritualist lyceum movement—for the education of children—meeting and corresponding with Alfred Kitson, the chief organizer of the lyceum movement, and Harry Kersey, who published the movement's journal, the Lyceum Banner. She described her life after William Britten's death in November 1894 as a ‘sad and suffering one’ (Autobiography, 263). She died of ‘general decay’ (d. cert) at 473 Chester Road, Stretford, Lancashire, on 2 October 1899, and was buried at Manchester general cemetery, Hapurhey. Her sister, Margaret Wilkinson (1830–1912), edited her autobiography, published in 1900.

Emma Hardinge Britten had given to spiritualism its creed, written its history and shared in the development of its younger minds. She was, according to a later chronicler of the movement, an ‘eloquent but gushing’ historian (McCabe, 107), and she could be hazy about dates in her autobiographical accounts, but she was a courageous woman, who used her speaking and poetic talent in seeking to give credibility and structure to spiritualism.

Georgina Byrne

Sources  

M. Wilkinson, ed., Autobiography of Emma Hardinge Britten (1900) · J. McCabe, Spiritualism: a popular history from 1847 (1920) · G. Byrne, Modern spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850–1939 (2010) · J. Oppenheim, The other world: spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850–1914 (1985) · ‘Emma Hardinge Britten’, Psypioneer, 3/2 (2007) · The Two Worlds (13 Oct 1899), 675 · baptismal register, St Matthew's Church, Bethnal Green · census returns, 1851, 1871 · d. cert.

Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Wilkinson, ed., Autobiography of Emma Hardinge Britten, frontispiece · photograph, Mary Evans Picture Library, London; repro. in E. H. Britten, Modern American Spiritualism (1870) · photographs, Mary Evans Picture Library, London · photographs, priv. coll.; repro. in www.ehbritten.org [see illus.]