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Researchers help uncover Stoke’s hidden Spiritualist past       AN OPEN UNIVERSITY team has been working with Spiritualists in the Staffordshire city of Stoke-on-Trent to reveal their “hidden past” and share it with others.
Sara MacKian, Open University senior lecturer   Picture courtesy of Stoke Sentinel (Photo: Lizzi Lathrop)

Sara MacKian, Open University senior lecturer
Picture courtesy of Stoke Sentinel (Photo: Lizzi Lathrop)


The wide-ranging and very successful study of the city’s long history of Spiritualism began in October 2014 and is now drawing to a close.

“Spirited Stoke”, sub-titled SpELS (Spiritualism in the Everyday Life of Stoke-on-Trent), which was funded by a £244,000 grant provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council  (AHRC), ends in March.

Researchers Dr Sara MacKian, from the university’s Faculty of Health and Social Care, Professor Steve Pile, from the Faculty of Social Sciences, and research associate Dr Nadia Bartolini have interviewed many Spiritualists in the area, known as “the Potteries”, and have attended Spiritualist services and demonstrations of mediumship and healing.

Three local Spiritualist churches – Fenton, Burslem and Longton – have been actively involved since the project was launched (see PN February 2015).

Its early focus was an exhibition in the Gladstone Pottery Museum, devoted to Stoke’s Spiritualist history. Of special interest was a decorative plate, loaned by Longton Spiritualist Church, depicting the Seven Principles of Spiritualism.

The inner courtyard of Gladstone Pottery Museum (Photo: NotFromUtrecht)
   The inner courtyard of Gladstone Pottery Museum
(Photo: NotFromUtrecht)

Medium Gordon Higginson, the longest-serving president of the SNU, was born in Longton in 1918. Both he and his mother, Fanny Higginson, served the church for many years.

The Gladstone exhibition was given the title “Talking With the Dead”, and drew this observation from a Stoke Sentinel reporter:

“The thought-provoking exhibition shifts the focus from the city’s industrial heritage to its spiritual legacy, which is no mean feat considering the display’s proximity to Gladstone’s bottle ovens, dusty workshops and bungs of saggars [stacks of ceramic containers].

“However, Gladstone is no bad place for such an exhibition. I often hear tales of ghostly goings-on when I visit, though some of the staff can be a tad coy on the subject.”

A Walk Through the Exhibition

A walk through the exhibition (Photo: Facebook)

So great was the interest in this exhibition that its run was extended by three weeks. Sara MacKian told Psychic News:

“Gladstone Pottery was used as the focal point to get people to come in and share stories with us.

Gordon Higginson
Gordon Higginson

“We had an artist working with us, Daniel Sambo, who went to participants’ homes and took portrait photographs. He also took pictures at various events and also on the Spirit Trail, which revealed the history of 40 locations, from churches to family living rooms, used as places of worship by Spiritualists from 1870 to the present day.

“These images will be published as an art-based book, together with our commentary.”

“It has been a fabulous project – the best experience of my career. The project took on a life of its own, which was great. It was a fantastic, positive experience.

Spiritualists were a little reticent when first approached by the three academics, “but once we had established a relationship with them they welcomed us with open arms”, said Sara MacKian, who is the author of Everyday Spirituality: Social and Spatial Worlds of Enchantment.

The interior of Longton Spiritualist Church
The interior of Longton Spiritualist Church

 “One or two of them had tears in their eyes when they saw the Gladstone exhibition for the first time, which confirmed we had achieved our objective of celebrating a hidden history. It was a recognition of what they believe in.

“A woman visitor recognised a relative in a photograph on the wall of a living room that formed part of the Gladstone exhibition,” said Sara MacKian. “We were able to put her in touch with the living relatives who had provided the photograph. That was wonderful.

“I expect the project to be a springboard to future things because we’re very interested in a model of caring, and Spiritualism is of great interest to us as it is centred on different forms of healing.”

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