In March 2015 I outlined the reasons why I did not feel it sensible to leave money to the Society for Psychical Research in my will. The Society had been the beneficiary of a significant bequest from late Nigel Buckmaster but was not in my opinion using it wisely. Since writing that, my attitude towards leaving money to the SPR has not changed. What has changed is that in mid-2015 the organisation moved from its rented premises in Marloes Road, having purchased a three-story building in Vernon Mews, West Kensington. The move was forced on the Society by the landlord at Marloes Road ending the tenancy, and it made sense to buy rather than carry on renting. The choice of suitable property was limited but, while far from perfect, the new premises are definitely better than the old cramped office and library.
The latest issue of the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review has an interesting article by the Hon. Treasurer Dr Richard Broughton on the formidable logistics of the move, which had to be done in a very short period to meet the date the landlord had set. It was a stressful operation, and fitting out the building to suit the Society’s needs was lengthy and expensive. Broughton’s article states the cost of the move, which is fairly eye-watering: the purchase price was £1.2m, with another £100,000 for fees and the necessary refurbishment.
The Hon. Treasurer concludes by launching an appeal for funds, noting: ‘Our first donor was Mr Nigel Buckmaster who, you might say, foresaw our needs and allocated a portion of his generous bequest to the Society that amounted to £263,000. That leaves a little over a million pounds to raise and we need your help.’ To facilitate the appeal a ‘Building Fund Committee’ has been established, and a couple of days ago a ‘New Home Campaign’ donate button appeared in a prominent position on the website, though a new home campaign sounds more like something you do to get a new home than start after you have obtained it (and paid for it). There are enticements to donors in Broughton’s pitch: opportunities to name the library and lecture hall, though no figures are mentioned.
Mr Buckmaster certainly referred to the purchase of a building in his will, but did not specify any particular amount; he could hardly have known precisely how much his estate would be worth after his death. That £263,000 was what was left after other Buckmaster projects had been allocated from the bequest which, with growth, amounted to some £750,000. To put it in perspective, from the Buckmaster funds the SPR will have spent more on the new website and online encyclopaedia – a budget of £350,000 – than was allocated to new premises.
The back page of the magazine is devoted to the appeal under the call ‘Help Build Your Society’, noting the symmetry between the £1.3m spent and 1.3 centuries of the SPR’s existence (134 years). ‘To be able to realise this dream [i.e. a new home] in London’s heated property market we had to dig deep into our financial reserves. Now we need your help to recoup this ‘advance’ and help us pay for our new home.’
I’m all for the SPR having a healthy financial position of course, but less sanguine about how it spends its money (including how little it spends on supporting research). It’s good news it has its own spacious property, both a valuable asset and a base to provide a better service than was the case at Marloes Road. But the appeal subtly suggests that having spent this large sum on the Vernon Mews property, the Society is now a bit strapped for cash. It doesn’t mention that the last building the SPR owned and rented out for many years, 1 Adam & Eve Mews, just off Kensington High Street, was sold for £800,000. Nor does it refer to the difference between the proportion from the Bucknmaster bequest allocated to the new home and the amount the bequest was worth in toto, which comes to nearly half a million pounds.
My attitude is still that it would have been better to have used the money the Society already had more wisely than squander it and have to replenish it. For example, to simply replace the Buckmaster money given to Council member Dr David Rousseau for personal projects yet to show their worth will necessitate raising £78,000. Perhaps the appeal will bring in the required million, but I am doubtful in the present financial climate, not to mention the fact the Society actually already had the £1.3m necessary without having to ask. On the other hand someone may fancy having the rather elegant library named after them.
Broughton, Richard S., ‘The Society for Psychical Research’s New Home’, Paranormal Review, Issue 80, Autumn 2016, pp. 8-10.
‘Help Build Your Society: 1.3 Centuries of History … £1.3 Million’, Paranormal Review, Issue 80, Autumn 2016, p. 36.