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Leonard, Gladys Isabel Osborne (1882–1968), spiritualist and trance medium, was born at 4 Beach Street, Lytham, Lancashire, on 28 May 1882, the eldest of four children of William Jocelyn Osborne and his wife, Isabel, née Abbey (1854–1906). She was a bookish girl with a vivid imagination, who saw visions appearing about her of what she called a ‘happy valley’, where people walked about in a state of quiet ecstasy and radiant happiness. She was discouraged from speaking about what she saw and gradually her visions faded (Leonard, 11).

The early years of Osborne's childhood were spent in relative affluence, but the death of her grandfather led to financial catastrophe for the family, the suicides of her uncle and aunt and the mental instability of her father—all of whom had been relying on a generous gift from the grandfather's will, which was unforthcoming. The family home and furniture were sold and she moved, with her mother, two brothers and sister, to live in lesser accommodation, relying on the goodwill of her mother's family. She was briefly reconciled to her father before his death.

In her early teens Gladys Osborne felt compelled by ‘an instinct’ to visit a spiritualist meeting she had seen advertised. Initially unimpressed by what she thought of as a ‘dreary’ performance, she nevertheless went a second time. On this occasion the medium spoke to her of her cousin Charley, who had drowned some years earlier. The medium also told her that she had powerful spirit guides assisting her and that she would have ‘work’ to do for them in later years. She left the meeting ‘elated’ to discover that the dead could communicate with the living and rushed to inform her mother of her discovery—to be met with her mother's strong disapproval of spiritualism.

Osborne began to train as a singer, but her singing voice was harmed by diphtheria so she turned to acting instead. On 18 December 1906 she travelled away from home. She described how she woke up in the night and saw her mother standing in front of her looking several years younger and with a flush of pink health and a smile of utter happiness. Her mother conveyed to her a sense of relief, safety, and well being. Gladys, who was wide awake, noted that it was just past 2 o'clock in the morning. The next day her brother sent a telegram to say that her mother had died at precisely that time. Not only was this her first experience of a direct communication from a departed person, she saw the experience as her mother's blessing on her desire for spirit communication.

Gladys Osborne met and married about 1908 (though no record of the marriage has been found) a fellow actor, Frederick Leonard (b. 1864/5), who was sympathetic to her spiritualist leanings. With two actresses she tried her hand at table-tilting during periods of waiting in performances. After twenty-six disappointing ‘sittings’ the trio made contact with the spirits and she met Feda, who became her spirit guide. The spirit's real name was long and complicated when it was communicated, so the sitters picked out letters and came up with the name. Feda was an Indian girl who had been married to Gladys Leonard's great-great-grandfather, William Hamilton, and had died aged thirteen, after giving birth to a son. Feda informed Gladys that she was to become a professional medium and that she, Feda, would ‘control’ Gladys when she went into a trance. Gladys was unwilling to be controlled and did not want to be a professional medium.

There followed a period of ‘deprivation’ for the Leonards, when both Gladys and her husband were forced to undertake manual labour in order to make ends meet until both found acting jobs again. In the basement of the newly built Palladium Theatre in London, with a couple of fellow actresses, Gladys sat to communicate with the spirits. On waking after taking a nap, she discovered that Feda had finally taken control and had been communicating through Gladys to her friends. This was a transforming moment for Gladys, who thereafter began to sit as an amateur medium alongside her acting career.

In 1914 Gladys Leonard abandoned acting and took rooms in Maida Vale to begin her career as a professional medium, prompted by the spirits who ‘deluged’ her with messages about ‘something big and terrible’ that was about to take place in the world (Leonard, 52). She sat for many people who had lost sons or husbands in the First World War, many of whom arrived anonymously. In the winter of 1914 she was visited by James Hewat McKenzie, the founder of the British College of Psychic Research. He was impressed by her and began to send her people—both clients and investigators.

Leonard's fame grew in this period for two reasons: in the first place she was examined extensively by the Society for Psychical Research. The general agreement among those who sat with her was that, when they tested her with questions, they received ‘information about matters outside her normal knowledge, and outside their own conscious knowledge as well’ (Salter, 26). Investigators included the writer Radclyffe Hall and Una (Lady) Troubridge, who sat with her between 1916 and 1917. In trance, she offered full descriptions of Radclyffe Hall's White Cottage at Malvern Wells. Hall employed a private detective to ensure that Leonard had neither visited the area, nor made enquiries about it, and found no evidence. Personal information, shared memories, and nicknames convinced Hall that Feda, through Leonard, was offering her evidence of her departed former love, Mabel Batten (known as ‘AVB’ during the sittings) (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 30).

In the second place, on 27 September 1915, Leonard met the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who visited her anonymously at the recommendation of a friend. Through Leonard, Feda communicated with Lodge's son Raymond, who had been killed at Ypres. Lodge and his wife sat with Leonard on a number of occasions and he detailed these sittings in his best-selling book Raymond, which brought her some celebrity. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a convinced spiritualist, described her as ‘the greatest trance medium’ of his acquaintance (Doyle, 195). He found her a pleasant, middle-aged and lady-like woman. Feda, he thought, was a sweet, amiable and intelligent child. She could also, from Leonard's accounts, be playful and mischievous, as well as rather controlling and determined.

Leonard's fame reached its peak in the period after the First World War, with the success of Lodge's book, but thereafter she continued to be visited by members of the Society for Psychical Research and allowed herself to be subjected to numerous tests until the late 1940s, with different conclusions being drawn by the investigators as to the exact origin of her spirit messages—although she was never accused of fraud or dishonesty. She gave up her mediumship in order to nurse her husband, who predeceased her about 1935. Her home for many years was at Marine Parade, Tankerton, Kent. She died at Brook House, 19A Granville Road, Broadstairs, Kent, on 10 March 1968.

Georgina Byrne

Sources  

G. O. Leonard, My life in two worlds (1931) · Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 45 (Sept 1969) · W. H. Salter, Trance mediumship: an introductory study of Mrs Piper and Mrs Leonard (1950) · Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 30 (Dec 1919) · O. Lodge, Raymond revised (1922) · A. C. Doyle, The history of spiritualism, 1st edn, 1926, 1 (2011) · census returns, 1891, 1901, 1911 · b. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

Photographs, 1923–31, Mary Evans Picture Library, London · photograph, repro. in Leonard, My life, frontispiece

Wealth at death  

£41,725: probate, 16 May 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales