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Barbanell – or “Barbie” as he was affectionately known to all those who knew him – was undoubtedly a modern Spiritualist pioneer. What gives his contribution greater significance is that it was not confined to a single activity.
He became a publisher, an editor, a compelling speaker, a Spiritualist author and also a trance medium through whom a spirit entity, known as Silver Birch, communicated. The words of wisdom uttered by this highly evolved guide were conveyed with such simplicity and clarity that they touched the hearts and souls of thousands of people and books of his teachings are still in print and available in many languages.
Nothing about Barbanell’s upbringing even hinted that he would make a name for himself in the world of Spiritualism.
Manel Barbanell had married Rifka Groblen in Russian Poland and moved to London around 1899 with their daughter and set up in business as a barber who also practised dentistry. They had five more children, one of whom, Maurice, was born in London’s East End on 3 May, 1902. His first job involved sweeping up hair and acting as lather boy for his father.
In his teens, Barbanell became unpaid secretary of the Ghetto Social and Literary Club in his neighbourhood and one of his roles, as well as obtaining the services of famous literary and artistic figures without a fee, was to act as the speaker’s adversary in order to stimulate a lively discussion.
“During my secretaryship,” he later wrote, “some friends invited me to be present at the séance, the first I had ever attended. Only when it ended did they tell me it was a mock affair staged for fun. Nevertheless, as a teenager it produced subconsciously an antagonism to Spiritualism.
“Like so many young men I had abandoned orthodox religion. My mother was devoutly religious. My father was an atheist who steadfastly refused to accompany her to any orthodox services despite her lament that his absence would shock their friends.
“In my youth I heard so many arguments about religion between my parents, in which incidentally my father always won, that I adopted his atheism, which later changed to agnosticism.”
However, when the club booked a talk on Spiritualism by a young man named Henry Sanders, Barbanell, although antagonistic towards the subject, felt that only those with personal experience could venture any worthwhile opinions and he expressed that opinion to the meeting.
When challenged by the speaker as to whether he was prepared to back this position by undertaking a six-month period of personal investigation of Spiritualism, Barbanell agreed. He was introduced to a home circle where the medium, a Mrs Blaustein, was controlled by various entities who spoke through her while she was in a state of trance.
He attended but was not impressed with her “performance”. But he persevered and returned the following week. What happened next was to change the course of his life. He fell asleep, either through boredom or tiredness. At least, that’s what he thought had happened, and when he returned to a waking state he apologised to the other circle members.
They assured him that apologies were unnecessary. “You have been a Red Indian,” they explained. Today, of course, the correct description would be North American Indian.
“It was my first mediumistic trance,” he explained later, “but what happened was a complete blank to me. Nevertheless the guide known as Silver Birch had broken formidable earth barriers and spoke a few words in a husky and almost guttural voice. It is far different from what I am assured are the simple but eloquent tones that so many have now heard.”
Campaigning journalist Hannen Swaffer speaking at one of the huge propaganda meetings he and Barbanell addressed
In fact – and this was known only to the circle members and guest visitors – the spirit who controlled Barbanell gave his name as “Big Jump” and that name was always used within that setting.
The sequel of that trance event was the formation of Barbanell’s own home circle in which the entity gradually developed his control of the medium and his command of English until “it became a seemingly simple process of merging his individuality with mine”.
Barbanell was not keen on the trance condition, probably through his curiosity in wanting to know what was said and done through his bodily mechanism. But news of the spirit guide’s words of wisdom eventually reached the ears of Hannen Swaffer, one of the most influential journalists of his day.
Impressed with the results of his own investigation of Spiritualism, Swaffer, a natural propagandist, became a high-profile advocate. Indeed, his focus on mediumship, after-death communications and spiritual development in his regular newspaper columns, led to him being described as “the Pope of Fleet Street”.
Barbanell came to know Swaffer intimately. “Our association began when we spent three years addressing public meetings all over Britain, to audiences totalling 250,000, at weekends. Sometimes there were two and even three meetings on one day.”
In tandem with his efforts to make people aware of spirit truths, which included visits to Hyde Park to address crowds at Speakers’ Corner, Barbanell was establishing a commercial career for himself. But that changed when Swaffer’s accountant, Jack Rubens, seeing the thirst for knowledge displayed by the huge attendance at their public meetings, suggested the launch of a Spiritualist newspaper with which he would help financially.
Ernest Oaten, editor of Two Worlds, was asked if he would bring that publication to London and work with them to enlarge its sphere of influence, but he did not want to leave Lancashire.
So Jack suggested that Barbanell – who had no journalistic experience – should launch a new newspaper. Barbanell was unsure, but that night he was having a regular sitting with Estelle Roberts, as a member of her private direct voice circle, and was astonished when her spirit guide, Red Cloud, told him that he had been told what he should do – “start a Spiritualist newspaper”.
To do that, Red Cloud added, he would have to abandon all his commercial activities and give his earthly life to expounding Spiritualism. However much he trusted Red Cloud, it was such a big step that Barbanell decided to seek confirmation through a medium who was unknown to him and so he booked an anonymous sitting with Kathleen Barkel at her south London home, which provided instant proof.
White Hawk, her guide, entranced her and told Barbanell that spirit of Lord Northcliffe (the famous newspaper owner) was present “because of the Spiritualist newspaper which my brother, Red Cloud, had told me about”.
Barbanell did not tell Estelle Roberts about this sitting, yet at the next direct voice circle Red Cloud asked him: “Are you satisfied now that you have been to my brother, White Hawk?”
He was then given instructions from both Northcliffe and W. T. Stead, another famous journalist who was also a Spiritualist, about the new newspaper’s policy, with stress being put on its independence.
From their earliest association, long before Psychic News was mooted, Red Cloud had called Barbanell “John the scribe”. Barbanell gave the reason for this when he gave the first Arthur Findlay Memorial Lecture at Stansted Hall, Essex, in 1973, almost 45 years ago:
“When I asked why I had to embark on this task, Red Cloud said that in a past life I had promised to return to do so.” White Hawk told him exactly the same.
“This has made me have an open mind on reincarnation, which I cannot prove,” Barbanell added. “Why should Red Cloud, always so accurate in presenting survival evidence, be wrong about my having a past life?”
So Maurice Barbanell agreed to start Psychic News with Swaffer and Rubens, each contributing a third of the start-up costs of £1,000. Swaffer changed his mind before the launch, however, concerned that his critics would accuse him of making money out of Spiritualism if the newspaper made a profit. So it started with capital of just £666 13s 4d in those predecimal days.
A little later, Red Cloud told Barbanell that he had that day sent him “the man who is to supply the money” – a reference to the on-going need for finance as the new venture got established.
That man was Arthur Findlay, a wealthy businessman and Spiritualism’s best-known and most successful author. He called at Psychic News’ offices that day to discuss writing an article on his book, On The Edge Of The Etheric. When Barbanell told him of Red Cloud’s message, Findlay agreed to invest in the newspaper. He put up £1,000.
“Lacking practical experience, our capital did not last very long,” Barbanell said in his memorial lecture. “We were soon in debt. On press days I was afraid to go to the printers in case someone said there would be no newspaper the next week unless we had paid what was owing.
“When we discussed this financial problem with Findlay he expressed willingness to increase his shareholding to £3,175 but insisted on having voting power and control. Jack and I tried to resist, but we had no option. What I secured, even though I never had any contract as editor, was a promise from Findlay, which he kept, that there would be no editorial interference.”
Psychic News was launched in 1932 and at Swaffer’s suggestion, Barbanell’s spirit guide’s teachings appeared regularly. Until then, they had been heard only by the handful of invited guests to what had become known as “Hannen Swaffer’s home circle”. The famous journalist felt the spiritual philosophy communicated through Barbanell’s mediumship deserved a much wider audience. Barbanell agreed on two conditions.
The first was that he should not be identified as the medium, since some would accuse him of using his editorship to promote his own mediumship. The other was to give Big Jump a new name. Swaffer suggested Silver Birch. Next day, a postcard arrived in the office from Scotland without a sender’s name or address but with a beautiful picture of silver birch trees. It was clearly a sign of approval.
The identity of Silver Birch’s medium was not disclosed for many years but had become an open secret among the many who were invited by Swaffer. By the time it was revealed, the teachings of Silver Birch had established themselves on their own merit, regardless of who was the medium.
Barbanell continued at the helm until this curt announcement appeared in March 1946:
“The Directors of Psychic Press Ltd announce with regret that Mr Maurice Barbanell has resigned his editorship of PN. Mr Stuart Martin has been appointed in his place.”
Barbanell did not tell the full story behind this announcement until 27 years later, during his Stansted Hall lecture.
At the end of World War Two he had asked Findlay what he proposed to do with his controlling shares in PN. “I thought I ought to know,” Barbanell explained, “because its success was largely due to my work. He shocked me by saying he proposed to leave these shares to the SNU. His idea was also to bequeath Stansted Hall to the same body....
“I pointed out that official newspapers had no chance of being viable. They had to follow the party line, were usually dull and thus ceased to be bought except by a few.
“I offered to buy his shares. His reply was to place a highly exaggerated figure as their value, and to say this must be provided within seven days. We parted company after I ended the year’s notice I had given.”
Barbanell’s move out of the editorial chair was premature. It was 10 years later before Findlay passed his shares to the SNU and when he did so he published in PN his expectation that certain provisions must be respected. They included the need for the newspaper to be independent, the issue over which Barbanell had left.
Barbanell went off to establish another publication, Psychic World, and also took over Two Worlds, as well as writing numerous books on Spiritualism. And then, 16 years after his departure, he returned as Editor in June 1962, coming to Psychic News’ rescue at a time when it was in financial difficulties.
He remained at the helm until his passing, at the age of 79, on 17 July, 1981, leaving a widow, Sylvia Barbanell, who had whole-heartedly supported his efforts as well as making her own contributions not only to Spiritualism but also to animal welfare, in which her husband was also active – they were both vegetarian.
This summary of Maurice Barbanell’s life and work as a modern Spiritualist pioneer may reflect only a few of his achievements but it will leave no one in any doubt that the SNU decision to honour him by naming the Stafford conference centre after him is richly deserved.