- Alan Gauld
Podmore, Frank (1856–1910), writer on psychical research, was born at Elstree, Hertfordshire, on 5 February 1856, third son of the Revd Thompson Podmore (1823–1895) and his wife, Georgina Elizabeth, daughter of George Grey Barton and Sarah Barton. After attending Elstree Hill School from 1863 to 1868, Podmore won scholarships to Haileybury College (1868–74), and to Pembroke College, Oxford (1874–8), where he obtained a second in classical moderations (1875) and a first in natural science (1877; BA, 1877; MA, 1883). In 1879 he was appointed to a higher division clerkship in the London post office. He developed an early interest in spiritualism, and during his undergraduate days contributed to the spiritualist periodical Human Nature. He joined the newly founded British National Association of Spiritualists, and was profoundly impressed by a sitting which he had in September 1876 with the notorious slate-writing medium Henry Slade. But disillusion gradually set in (see his address to the association in The Spiritualist, 26 March 1880) and he turned to other related interests.
At a spiritualist séance in 1881 Podmore met Edward Pease, a young stockbroker. They discovered a mutual interest in socialism, and joined the Progressive Association, founded in November 1882 to promote 'moral awakening' in a secular context. The following year they were captivated by the utopian philosophy of Thomas Davidson, a visiting Scottish sage, and with a few others formed a society, the Fellowship of the New Life, to promote Davidson's ideals. However, in January 1884 those who, like Pease and Podmore, had more concrete political aims formed a breakaway group which, at Podmore's suggestion, was named the Fabian Society. Podmore drafted the founding resolutions, and became secretary. But although he collaborated with Sidney Webb on a Fabian tract, Government Organisation of Unemployed Labour (1886), his energies were soon transferred elsewhere.
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) had been founded in February 1882 to investigate certain kinds of ostensibly paranormal phenomena 'without prejudice or prepossession' and in a scientific spirit. Podmore and Pease joined at once, and shortly became council members. Podmore devoted himself especially to the collection of first-hand testimony concerning apparitions, poltergeists, and the like. His name was added as a co-author to Edmund Gurney's immense Phantasms of the Living (2 vols., 1886). Thereafter Podmore developed in numerous contributions to the SPR's Proceedings a position best described as minimalist. He accepted telepathy, but beyond that he would not go. ‘Veridical’ apparitions or correct mediumistic communications, where not otherwise explicable, might be set down to telepathy with living persons. Paranormal physical phenomena, such as poltergeists or the more notorious phenomena of the darkened séance room, were all fraudulent. This minimalist position Podmore defended with considerable (some thought excessive) ingenuity for the rest of his life.
On 11 June 1891 Podmore married Eleonore Oliver Bramwell, the sister of his SPR colleague Dr J. Milne Bramwell, a well-known hypnotic practitioner. Over the next two decades Podmore published a series of books on psychical research which, whether aimed at the general or the more academic reader, maintained a consistently high standard. Apparitions and Thought-Transference (1894) follows the lines of Phantasms of the Living, while Studies in Psychical Research (1897) deals with a wider range of topics. Modern Spiritualism: a History and a Criticism (2 vols., 1902) exhibits a wide-ranging scholarship, a force and lucidity of exposition, a coolly critical judgement, and a dry humour that have left it still unsuperseded. The same qualities are evident in his only extensive contribution to the literature of social reform, Robert Owen: a Biography (2 vols., 1906).
In 1907 Podmore was compelled to resign without pension from the Post Office because of alleged homosexual involvements. He separated from his wife, and went to live with his brother Claude, rector of Broughton, near Kettering. In quick succession Podmore published The Naturalisation of the Supernatural (1908), a wide-ranging exposition of his views; Mesmerism and Christian Science (1909), which, though in part drawn from Modern Spiritualism, constituted the most scholarly history of mesmerism and its offshoots to that date; Telepathic Hallucinations: the New View of Ghosts (1909), a brief but well-constructed popular book; and The Newer Spiritualism (1910), a thoughtful attempt to explain in his minimalist terms the cross-correspondences and related automatic writings which were occasioning great interest in the SPR.
Podmore died by drowning in the New Pool at Malvern on the night of 14 August 1910. Despite certain odd circumstances, a verdict of 'found drowned' was returned. He was buried in Malvern Wells cemetery. There is no description of him, though a photograph has been a number of times reproduced from E. R. Pease, The History of the Fabian Society (1925). He seems to have been a cheerful and sociable person. He was survived by his wife.
E. J. Dingwall, introduction, in F. Podmore, Modern spiritualism: a history and a criticism, 1 (1902)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; repr. asMediums of the 19th century (1963)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat
- E. M. Sidgwick, ‘Frank Podmore and psychical research’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 25 (1911), 5–10
- G. W. Lambert, ‘Frank Podmore’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 40 (1959–60), 1–4
- T. H. Hall, The strange case of Edmund Gurney (1964), 200–06
- J. Oppenheim, The other world: spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850–1914 (1985)
- N. Mackenzie and J. Mackenzie, The first Fabians (1977), 18–27
- E. R. Pease, The history of the Fabian Society, 2nd edn (1925), 28–35
- private information (2004)
- CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1911)
- b. cert.
- d. cert.
- Wellcome L., report on seances
- CUL, Society for Psychical Research archives
- Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to Thomas Davidson
- photograph, repro. in Pease, History of the Fabian Society
Wealth at Death
£155 6s. 4d.: probate, 16 Jan 1911, CGPLA Eng. & Wales