Friday, 1 May 2015

Edmund Dawson Rogers and the Society for Psychical Research Website

Edmund Dawson Rogers

The May 2015 issue of Psychic News contains an article by Leslie Price (pp.31-2) on the Spiritualist element in the early Society for Psychical Research.  Part of Price’s article discusses the amendment of the SPR website’s history page in December 2014 to include a reference to Edmund Dawson Rogers, someone who claimed to have had the idea of the Society.  The article is headed boldly, 'Did the Society for Psychical Research deny its Spiritualist origins?: Psychical researcher and historian of Spiritualism Leslie Price sheds light on a disturbing "cover-up".'  Disturbing?  How so?

What happened was this.  Psypioneer, the online journal with which Price is associated, occasionally bangs on about Edmund Dawson Rogers, and the charge that the SPR routinely airbrushes him out of the narrative of its formation in 1882 because he was a Spiritualist, and the SPR wants everyone to think that only respectable people founded it, like Frederic Myers, Henry Sidgwick and Edmund Gurney.

In the November 2014 issue of Psypioneer, Price collated various items of correspondence that had appeared in the magazine Light with Rogers and William Barrett disputing who was responsible for the idea of the SPR (‘New Light on S.P.R. Origins? – LIGHT 1893’, pp.309-16).  At the beginning Price states:

‘When a project is successful, there may be rival claims to have started it. In the first issue of Psypioneer, we noted how the name of Edmund Dawson Rogers, a Spiritualist and mere journalist, had been omitted from the Society for Psychical Research web site – still the case today.  We are currently told only “The SPR, the first learned society of its kind, was founded in London in 1882.”’

The opening article in the premier issue of Psypioneer, in May 2004, is indeed ‘SPR conceived by a Spiritualist’, and is about Rogers and how his ‘name is not used in official SPR publicity’, though it is hard to imagine it being much of a draw.

I was not responsible for the historical text on the SPR website (‘History of The Society for Psychical Research’) that was proving so contentious, but as I had occasionally seen references to the omission of Rogers’ name in Psypioneer I thought that inserting his name into the text would calm down those voices which were keen to play this issue up as some kind of conspiracy to disavow the Spiritualist’ role in the SPR’s formation.  So just before Christmas 2014, with the permission of the original author, I added Rogers’ name, and also the 20 February date of its actual foundation, to the SPR website’s historical overview:

‘The SPR, the first learned society of its kind, was founded in London on 20 February 1882, following initial discussions between William Barrett and Edmund Dawson Rogers, and then a conference convened in London in January to discuss the viability of such a Society.’

I emailed Leslie Price to let him know, so that he could finally allow his Rogers fixation to rest.  Or so I naively thought.  Instead it merely gave him fresh energy to beat up the SPR.

In the February 2015 issue of Psypioneer, in an article triumphantly entitled ‘SPR recognises Dawson Rogers at last’ (p.56), he begins, ‘The Society for Psychical Research has acknowledged Edmund Dawson Rogers as a founder in 1882. This follows a ten-year campaign by Psypioneer.’  Somewhat miffed by the implication that it was solely Psypioneer’s fearless determination to see justice done which had finally overcome the SPR’s equal but ultimately futile determination not to allow any mention the name of Edmund Dawson Rogers to sully its website, I drew attention to the article on the SPR’s Facebook page, which I manage, on 22 March 2015:

‘The latest issue of the ever-excellent free online Psypioneer has just been released (Feb 2015). It includes a short article by Leslie Price ('SPR recognises Dawson Rogers at last'), about the SPR website's section on the history of the Society being revised to include a reference to Edmund Dawson Rogers's role in its formation.

‘The way that this has been posed by Psypioneer, especially referring to a 'ten-year campaign' to have Rogers' name included, suggests that somehow there has been a conspiracy to downplay Rogers' role, and fierce opposition to Psypioneer's valiant efforts to set the record straight.

‘I think the real, and much more mundane, reason for Rogers' omission from the original text (which I didn't write, though I did revise it to include him) is simpler – he just wasn't seen as that significant, in a highly condensed historical overview, to the development of the SPR. But anyway, he's now included, and Psypioneer are happy.’

I added a link to the Psypioneer website at the end.

If I thought that was the end of the matter I was mistaken, as Price has taken the opportunity to have another pop the SPR in the latest Psychic News, citing my Facebook comments (I need to emphasise that the SPR has no corporate views so that it is impossible to speak in the name of the Society and these comments are mine alone).  A box reproduces the February 2015 Psypioneer article, again with the heading 'SPR recognises Dawson Rogers at last'.  Price’s Psychic News article goes on:

‘The SPR’s Facebook editor [i.e. me] responded to this. (The SPR Facebook page serves as an informal daily newspaper for psychical research.)’

Price quotes the second two paragraphs of my 22 March Facebook post and manages to turn it into a concern that the SPR might have a cavalier attitude to evidence:

‘There is, however, a worrying implication from the SPR’s attempts over many years to put a more academic face on its early history.  Suppose in writing up cases and experiments, a similar attitude to the facts had been taken to what was felt to be not “that significant”?’

Sounds bad, doesn’t it.  Leaving something out that isn’t significant?  That’s not very scientific.  Everything should go in, just in case it turns out to be significant later.  So leaving out Rogers’ name from a potted history of the SPR covering 130+ years suggests that the Society could take a similarly slap-dash approach to research.  Price seems to have misunderstood the function of a brief introduction aimed at the general reader visiting the SPR’s website in what is clearly irritation at having Rogers referred to as someone who probably ‘wasn't seen as that significant’ in the eyes of the website article’s author.

It’s possible that even Psychic News’s editor thought that Price’s tone in his article was unfair to the SPR because ‘cover-up’ in the title is in inverted commas.  Why would you do that if you really thought it was a cover-up?  The implication is that it is Price’s phrase, and not one shared by the magazine.  But why is Price so keen to drum up Rogers?  There is a link.  Rogers was involved in the launch of the Spiritualist magazine Light in 1881.  Light is the magazine of the College of Psychic Studies.  Price is the archivist at the College of Psychic Studies.  That may be considered reason enough to want to defend Rogers from perceived slights.

So was there a cover-up, or even a ‘cover-up’?  While I agree that over the course of the SPR’s history there has generally been no great enthusiasm for acknowledging the presence of Spiritualists among its membership, what I don’t think happened was a conspiracy which said ‘let’s not refer to that ghastly Spiritualist and journalist Edmund Dawson Rogers’.  It's not as if he has been ignored in publications associated with the SPR.  He features in both Renée Haynes' centenary The Society for Psychical Research 1882-1982: A History, and the volume edited by Ivor Grattan-Guinness on Psychical Research: A Guide to its History, Principles and Practices, in Celebration of 100 Years of the Society for Psychical Research.

True, Rogers is only referred to a couple of times in each, but then that is to be expected if he was not a significant figure in the early SPR.  Alan Gauld in his The Founders of Psychical Research also fleetingly mentions Rogers a couple of times, in footnotes; that seems to be what his contribution to the SPR deserves, yet somehow he managed to become a cause célèbre in the pages of first Psypioneer and now Psychic News!  Let’s hope that finally Leslie Price has got this out of his system and will find some other interest to engage his attention, preferably one that does not involve the SPR.

Update 9 May 2015

Leslie Price has sent me a depressingly long email (7 May) discussing various items with which he disagrees in this blog post.  It came as something of a surprise because on the same day he linked to the post on his Facebook page with the words ‘My article in the May issue of the magazine Psychic News about SPR pioneer Edmund Dawson Rogers, has drawn adverse comment - and another photo of the man himself!’, which did not seem to suggest he had any problems with it.  Despite these mixed messages I feel that I should respond to the email, though I don’t expect the result to be of interest to many.  I appreciate that I am myself commenting on a communication not in the public domain, not something I would normally do, but Leslie raises some issues that require an answer, and he concludes: ‘Please have a think about your blog, and whether it should be amended.’ which to my mind gives me tacit approval to cite his email, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to explain any amendments made as a result of it.  On reflection perhaps what I wrote does need to be, if not amended (I’ve not touched what I originally wrote, and Leslie has not indicated that I have crossed a legal line), at least amplified to address his concerns.  I’m sure he appreciates that anything I write is my view alone, I do not, and cannot, speak for the SPR, and whatever roles I perform for the SPR are irrelevant to my opinions regarding Edmund Dawson Rogers and the extent of his involvement in the Society’s foundation.

To begin with, Leslie says that his Psypioneer note in the February 2015 issue – the one beginning ‘The Society for Psychical Research has acknowledged Edmund Dawson Rogers as a founder in 1882. This follows a ten-year campaign by Psypioneer’ – was intended merely to announce the alteration to the SPR website to include Rogers’ name, and express appreciation for it.  I’m sure it was both those things, but the conjunction of those sentences right at the start does, at least to me, imply a desire to take credit for having fought a successful decade-long campaign that had finally borne fruit against determined opposition (else why, it suggests, would it have taken ten years to accomplish?).  Psypioneer has, as I said above, referred occasionally since its inception to the omission of Rogers’ name from SPR literature and website, but if this can be called a campaign, the truth is that it was one with only a single combatant, and I suspect it barely registered outside the pages of Psypioneer.  I added Rogers’ name to the SPR website’s historical overview not because I felt any pressure to do so but because there seemed no particular reason not to, and I thought it would please the Rogers camp to see their man included; also I suppose to indicate that his previous omission was not through some cover-up but, as a reflection of his overall importance to the development of the SPR in a compressed online history aimed at the general non-specialist reader.

Leslie goes on to discuss my brief 22 March note on the SPR’s Facebook page, the bulk of which he included in his article in the May 2015 issue of Psychic News.  These were off-the-cuff remarks, in a medium that is by its nature transient, made after reading the Psypioneer article.  I wasn’t pleased to find them enshrined in a more permanent form, albeit semi-anonymously as by ‘The SPR’s Facebook editor’ (semi- because plenty of people know that I look after the SPR’s Facebook presence) in the pages of Psychic News.  He thought they might be construed as ‘condescending’, even though he had happily reproduced them, a charge which surprised me.  They were certainly not intended to be condescending, and probably only seem so to someone who is defensive about Rogers and his small part in forming the SPR.

Leslie claims that the Psychic News article was not designed to beat the SPR despite the reference in it to a cover-up. In any case, he says that the choice of ‘cover-up’ in the Psychic News’s sub-heading was not his but the editor’s.  I can accept that was the case, but even so the sub-heading takes its tone from Leslie’s article, a chunk of which deals with the SPR ignoring Rogers and focusing on ‘Cambridge scholars’.  That sounds like Leslie is accusing the SPR of a cover-up, so the magazine’s editor can be forgiven for thinking it a suitable expression to use.  He quotes the words in Psychic News which I found particularly inflammatory, i.e. the second sentence here:

‘There is, however, a worrying implication from the SPR’s attempts over many years to put a more academic face on its early history.  Suppose in writing up cases and experiments, a similar attitude to the facts had been taken to what was felt to be not “that significant”?’

I interpreted this to mean that a morally dubious wish to impose an academic face on its early history (something which was bogus because it wrote out the likes of Rogers) meant that it would be happy to similarly manipulate ‘the facts’ in other instances to suit its own purpose.  The result of that would be that the Society’s voluminous publications could not be trusted because the results of such cases and experiments had been manipulated to present a particular stance, one that was in particular ill-disposed towards Spiritualism.  Leslie brings up Madame Blavatsky in this context, alluding to the Hodgson Report which has been heavily criticised for bias in recent years.  Such unfortunate things can happen, but while not wishing to get into a further debate about the rights or wrongs of Hodgson’s enquiry I will say that if you have to reach back to 1885 for an example, while making the vague accusation sound like it was the SPR’s standard operating procedure, then it just comes across as innuendo.

In my original blog post I referred to the volumes written or edited by Alan Gauld, Renée Haynes and Ivor Grattan-Guinness, but I did not include Rogers himself.  How much did he have to say about his allegedly seminal contribution to the SPR?  Life and Experiences of Edmund Dawson Rogers: Spiritualist and Journalist, Editor of ‘Light’ and President of the London Spiritualist Alliance (from which the portrait of Rogers above is drawn) reprinted an article from Light as a memorial to him after his death in 1910.  The single page it devotes to the SPR cannot be bothered to get the name right, as it is headed ‘Origin of the Psychical Research Society’.  Even Rogers didn’t consider, on this evidence, that he had made a particularly significant contribution; he describes the famous meeting with William Barrett, but is vague about the date – ‘It so happened that in the year 1882, or perhaps in the last months of 1881 – I cannot now recollect the date – Professor W F Barrett was spending the night with me at my residence in Finchley … I suggested that a society should be started on lines which would be likely to attract some of the best minds which had hitherto held aloof from the pursuit of the inquiry.  Professor Barrett approved of the suggestion, and called a conference …’

I am sorry that Leslie considered me discourteous in my references to him.  Again, that was not intentional, but I can see that using the term ‘fixation’ was an unhappy one.  It simply reflected my bemusement that anybody would actually want to mount an effort over so many years merely to have Rogers’ name included in SPR publicity.  And I simply couldn’t see why he would want to keep worrying at it after Rogers’ name was eventually included on the SPR website, and thus the aim of the Psypioneer’s long lonely crusade achieved.  I certainly wouldn’t have written my original blog post if Leslie hadn’t seen fit to write the article for Psychic News (and sadly far more people read Psychic News and Psypioneer than ever read posts on this blog!).  He also objects to my linkage of him, Rogers, Light and the CPS, pointing out rightly that he was not CPS archivist in 2004 when Psypioneer began its championing of Rogers.  But I believe Leslie was the CPS’s librarian in 1969, so he has had a long association with the College, even if he did not hold a position with it for that entire period.  I don’t know why he should be unhappy with the association; to me it seemed some kind of reason for Leslie’s lengthy promotion of Rogers, and not an ignoble one.

Leslie’s last point relates to my final sentence: ‘… find some other interest to engage his attention, preferably one that does not involve the SPR’, asking if I am suggesting that he should not involve himself in SPR matters.  Of course I was not saying that, I was thinking of this exercise, particularly the Psychic News article, one that has served to reinforce barriers between psychical researchers and Spiritualists rather than break them down.  If Leslie wishes to engage in SPR matters it is to be applauded, but I hope that they are positive efforts.  I was making the point that I did not feel that this particular intervention was a constructive one.

My overall conclusion is that this business has escalated out of all proportion to the original issue, and bad feeling has been engendered.  The saga is best categorised as a good deed gone awry (and if that is felt to be patronising I apologise in advance), but it’s done now.    An irony is that I have previously found myself in Leslie’s shoes, criticising authors in book reviews for omitting Rogers’ name from their examination of the SPR’s origins.  I have never been dismissive of Rogers’ contribution to the SPR, while keeping it in perspective, so it seems odd to find myself in some kind of dispute over him.  I suspect that Leslie will return to this issue in one form or another in either Psypioneer or Psychic News, but I don’t think I will wish to add anything further.