Jane Elliott Stevens was a Unitarian, as were her father and husband. However, like many people of the period, she had an interest in spiritualism. In a notebook belonging to my grandfather, Frank Elliott Birks that has recently come into my possession there is a typed transcript of material written by his mother and describing her experiences of spiritualism. It is easy to make judgements about these experiences, but clearly these were strongly held beliefs.
An account of spiritual experiences (by my request) from my mother Mrs. J.E.Birks, from her letter of April, 1930
We take the Mail and the Western Despatch and are interested in the Spiritual Articles each Sunday. My own experiences are varied on the subject. I believe that I am considered a bit of a fool by the family to be even interested.
I certainly am NOT convinced but in this age of wonders am surprised at nothing. The first to interest me on the subject was your Uncle Richard who knew Dr. Clifford of Northampton at whose house séances were held. He had met this gent in social life and an intimate friendship followed; he attended these séances and assured me that he had SEEN wonderful things done without any apparent human agency, such as large oil paintings taken from the walls and furniture suspended in mid-air. Of course, I laughed at the whole thing, said I would not believe it even if I saw it. So he said, would you believe it if you see me move this table? I said NO, but you can’t do that. He said sit at it with me and I’ll try, so I promptly said I will when the children go to bed, and I did, putting my fingers lightly on the table and he did the same. In about a quarter-hour it was doing all sorts of funny things. I tried alone but could not get a movement. Some supposed to be my father came (he said), the rappings and the motion was most inpatient and the table tilted in my lap constantly. He said ask a question. It seemed absurd, but as it kept rocking I said “are you happy” and immediately the table gave three vigorous raps, which he said meant YES.
I am positively certain no person could have moved the table as it was moved, as our finger TIPS ONLY was touching it. After a while a gentle little motion as of a child came, and he said that is my little boy. He was very anxious when first interested to get in touch with his little boy lost in early childhood, and determined to try it on his own when alone, he said, and was very startled at the first movement he got.
We nearly fell out one day when I accused him of cheating about it, and he refused to sit anymore with such a sceptic. Since then I have seen a child’s double hinged slate fastened with a pencil put between and heard the pencil writing, seen it opened and all written on. That was in Aberdeen and I quite forget what it wrote. How it was done I know not, but it was done and by no one present, that we could at least all see.
We met in Aberdeen Dr. David Duguid a great spiritualist, at a lady’s house … I told her the Rev. John Page Hopps was coming to give a lecture on Unitarianism and would be our guest. She said “Do send him to us we will entertain him” so your father wrote and told him Mrs Bain was entertaining him.
At this lecture I saw what is a comparatively common occurrence I believe, and no doubt caused by light refraction or reflection or something of that sort – a hazy white light surrounding the whole body about a foot all around the lecturer the Rev. J Page Hopps. I moved my seat slightly and still saw it at different angles. A lady once told your father that after an evening service at High Street (Plymouth) she saw the same effect around him. No doubt any scientist could explain it but it looks curious. J.Page Hopps had a large church at Croydon, is dead now and was cremated at Golders Green …
At Sunderland Mr. Rutherford, sub-editor of the Newcastle Daily Something (I forget what) took Mrs Burnup and myself to a séance, because Mrs. Burnup wanted to go badly, and we some what they call “spirit lights,” heard music from a piano in the room, rappings etc., but we both left very sceptical.
There is one thing always strikes me as curious. At whatever house I sit at a séance, that impatient rapping comes and says it is my father – either at Aberdeen, Portsmouth or elsewhere it is always the same. I cannot account for it. I wish I could believe it as I am apt to think that God gives us this life to make the best of, but may not think us worthy of its continuation, and as I very much want to again meet many who are gone, it would be a great comfort to be SURE of its continuance…
… Mr. Mrs. and Harry Hodgson, Dora, Ethel and myself were sitting round the fire, when all at once Mrs. H. moved and said “Why, I thought I saw the cat or something” … I saw the outline of old Midget (the cat) go to the door too quite plainly. Another time was when one of the Pearce’s called to see us at Diss Mrs P, sat on one side of the fire in the rocking chair, I the other side. We were just talking over old times, when a faint shadow like a small animal left the floor at her side and went toward the piano. I did not stop speaking, but just followed it with my eyes, and she interrupted me with “Are you looking at my little dog? He has been sitting here, but has just gone away.” I just smiled, but did not own up that I had seen anything. It was funny, wasn’t it? I think I must have “tile loose” or something, but really there seems a lot of people in the same condition … There are so many wonderful things have happened such are wireless and telepathy etc. since my young days, it seems wrong to “Pooh, pooh” anything without investigation. But I do know that when I was young and strong I could move one of our chairs a little and used no force, but it makes you feel exhausted. Mrs. H. could do it also, and Mr. Hall said it was animal magnetism. All I have written here is perfectly true. I offer no explanation, as I have none to offer but I have an open mind on all points of every subject that I can at all understand. Of one thing I am absolutely sure and that is that prayer is answered, which prove one to be in touch with some spiritual force who cares for us. I have proved it over and over again, and consider that I have been wonderfully cared for by that force, call it God or what you will, all my long and varied life.<!–blockquote–>>
‘Uncle Richard’ is Jane’s brother-in-law, Richard Elliott Birks. Like his brothers, William and John, he was a Unitarian Minister. He was born in 1846 in Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire and died in 1925 in Bermondston, Massachusetts after a successful career in the USA. The son referred to is John William Birks, born and died in 1871.
David Duguid (1832-1907) was a famous Glasgow medium who appeared to channel a range of spiritual manifestations – rappings, moving objects and psychic painting. He was revealed to be a fraud.
John Page Hopps (1834-1911) was a radical Unitarian Minister, an ardent supporter of Irish Nationalism, a strong advocate of cremation, a supporter of secular state education and other radical causes. He had a controversial interest in Spiritualism, an interest that was maybe linked to his theological objection to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
Ethel is Jane’s daughter and Dora is Dora Painter, Ethel’s longstanding partner.