Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist temple under threat

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CAMDEN TOWN — An historic Spiritualist temple is under threat from developers. The building, whose foundation stone was laid by Sherlock Holmes’ author and noted Spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has become the subject of a debate spurred by a new proposal by development group UrbanLab. The company reportedly seeks to demolish the 90-year-old temple and replace it with nine flats and a gallery.

© Copyright Robin Sones

The building is currently owned by the Spiritualists’ National Union, which owns 350 spiritualist churches across the country. The Rochester Square temple is particularly historic. Conan Doyle not only laid the corner stone but also reportedly contributed to the initial cost of the building with a donation of £500.

UrbanLab’s proposal has garnered backlash.  Among the protesters is Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, who claims to have contacted the spirit of his grandfather in the temple. Coxon tweeted Aug. 14:

An important spiritualist temple for which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle laid the foundation stone is under threat! It makes me very sad. I have had beautiful experiences in the temple. It’s a very important building…its interior has incredible murals…and an amazing original wooden altar. The building is 6 yrs shy of being 100 yrs old so it’s tragic if it’s demolished now. Can you help?

There has been contention over the planning bid itself. According to Psychic News magazine, the Spiritualists’ National Union did not inform the temple’s president or organizational committee that the building was to be sold.  They were were under the impression that the building was to be refurbished.

The temple’s website, which has not been updated for some years, still refers to a refurbishment at the start of 2012.

One Camden Town resident told a local reporter: “I am appalled of the plans that have been submitted in destroying this old beautiful church.”

There are also issues surrounding the Camden Council’s rules for the preservation of buildings in the entire area, as well as concerns that people buried in the temple’s garden would be dishonored by new development.

The Rochester Square Spiritualist Temple officially opened April 15, 1927, with the help of several big names of the day. On Oct, 30 1926, the corner stones were laid by both socialist Hannen Swaffer, a journalist noted for his output of a million words a year, and famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Although he publicly announced his dedication to Spiritualism in 1916, Conan Doyle reportedly had been interested in the practice since the 1880s. It is said that, in those early days, he had attended at least one séance, as well as what would be termed today a psychic investigation in Dorset. During that experience, Conan Doyle was convinced that the reported psychic disturbance had been caused by the spirit of a dead child.

In 1893 Conan Doyle joined the British Society for Psychical Research, which included future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, the philosopher William James, the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace and scientists Williams Crookes and Oliver Lodge.

But it wasn’t until 1917 that Conan Doyle gave his first public lecture on the subject. It is believed that Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism increased after the death of his son during the First World War. And, he was joined in this by many people; the Spiritualist movement, which had a significant following during the mid-part of the 19th century, had lapsed in popularity by 1900 due to the exposure of fraudulent practices.

However, after the mass deaths in the ‘Great War,’ Spiritualism saw a resurgence as the bereaved sought to contact their loved ones.

As for the Rochester Square temple, controversy has engaged the building prior to the more recent threat of demolition.

In 2014, squatters of a rival spiritualist group, The Rainbow Family of Living Light, moved onto the premises. As reported by the Evening Standard, one of the group’s members commented at the time:

This is a wonderful spiritual place. We are living proof that people can live without property owners. People call us parasites, but it’s the property owners who are the parasites, feeding off and manipulating the poor. We are a community here, and society is losing its idea of community, their society is with their TV. We believe in love, life and peace, but there is no fixed doctrine. We want to express love for one another.

Graham Hewitt, assistant general secretary of the SNU, responded:

Our congregation has been there since 1926…don’t know what this group is doing here, all I know is I want them out. The police said they couldn’t do anything because it’s a commercial building so we’ve now had to look for a court order. It’s all very disturbing – the church was only temporarily closed for repairs. How would you like it if you had a shed and a group moved into it to live?

The squatters appear to have been evicted after a court order was obtained, and it is not clear whether that episode held up the building’s refurbishment to the point where it became not a viable option.

A commenter on a Camden Town blog remarked in early August:

I cannot tell you how many times, especially in times of grief, crisis or just plain curiosity I went there to listen to the Mediums and hope for my own spirit messages to come through! Mostly they did and often with a Medium who knew absolutely nothing about me! I am American, so even their references were from cities they never were in, people who I knew back then coming through from those cities. It was tattered and torn even back then (10 years ago) and it is such a shame to see it go…why can’t they keep it, restore it?

It would seem that Conan Doyle’s legacy continues into the present day, with many people who have benefited from the temple rallying together to save the structure. As part of the Spiritualist history of the capital, it is hoped that the temple can be restored to its former glory rather than subjected to the increasing tide of urban development.