Continuing popular belief in the supernatural in the 19th century

Continuing popular belief in the supernatural in the 19th century

by Stephen Dewey

This essay examines the continuing popular belief in the supernatural in the nineteenth century. The topic of the supernatural is a large one, and could encompass everything from spiritual healing to telepathy, via mesmerism. To keep this essay within reasonable bounds, I examine in particular fairies, ghosts, and witches. We shall see how – whatever their phenomenological reality – the popularity of particular beliefs has moved up and down the cultural elevator. So while we may agree with Janet Oppenheim that ‘every age in human history has felt the lure of the occult’(1), what occult beliefs we maintain seem as much a whim of fashion as the music we listen to.

James Olbevich states that Britain was, for much of the period between 1750 and 1950, a remarkably religious nation.(2) However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, official religion was accompanied by a variety of beliefs, including pagan. Even in the eighteenth century, however, we already see the cultural elevator in action. For, while it is part of fairy lore itself to believe that fairies always belong to the past, there is no doubt that, apart from at the wilder fringes of New Age beliefs, most people no longer believe in them. Fairy lore was, according to Keith Roberts, dying out by the Elizabethan era, and neglected in the eighteenth century, although he concedes that evidence of living fairy-beliefs was assembled by nineteenth-century folklorists.(3) Yet this might simply indicate that the magic of the fairy-tale still resonated with what remained a largely rural and oral society; that is, what the nineteenth-century folklorists were collecting were living fairy stories, rather than living fairy-beliefs.

While the fairy itself might have vanished in the Elizabethan era, the ghost continued to haunt the centuries. In medieval Britain it was possible that the dead might sometimes return to haunt the living. Given that the blessed were already in Heaven, and the damned in Hell, the Catholic church thus had to provide a space within which ghosts could operate. It was thus taught that such apparitions were the souls of those trapped in Purgatory, unable to rest until they had expiated their sins.(4) However, the rise of Protestantism led to a certain scepticism, certainly among the elite, and ghosts were treated as the product of Popish fraud and deception. This did not, of course, stop people seeing ghosts, but they were ‘assiduously taught not to take them at their face value’.(5) By the end of the seventeenth century many educated people were sceptical of the existence of ghosts and haunted houses. However, as atheism came to present more of a threat than Catholicism, theologians began to allow a belief in ghosts, as such a belief:

“did at least constitute a bulwark against the atheist. It [became] more acceptable to believe in ghosts than to be a total sceptic. The possibility of ghosts was a reality in the eighteenth century for many educated men, however much the rationalists laughed at them.(6)

If the ghost continued to haunt, then the witch also continued to spell and enthral. But it was an emasculated witch. The witch of the Middle Ages, usually (although not exclusively) female, practised harmful magic, flew by night and obtained her powers from dark forces. Much has been written on the persecution of the witches during the Middle Ages, and it is not necessary to recount it here. Suffice to say, the reasons advanced for the persecution of witches presents a complex cultural picture of Christian dissent and heresy, and the popular attribution of misfortune to the witch. The worst of the witch persecutions had finished by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The heretical and demonic witch was replaced by something more prosaic, akin to a wise woman or herbalist. The cultural elite:

“finally ceased to believe in the reality of witchcraft, to the wrath of scriptural fundamentalists … the torchbearers of Enlightenment argued that so-called witches were just lonely, isolated, deluded old women.(7)

Various statutes against witchcraft that had been enacted in previous centuries were repealed in the eighteenth century. Yet this did not imply that the majority of people no longer believed in witchcraft. For many, unexplained misfortune and illness could only have once source, the witch; and educated people persevered in their belief, for the Bible spoke of witches, and authoritative voices in previous centuries had believed in witchcraft.(8)

We can see the relative popularity of belief in witches, ghosts and fairies reflected in my own locality. In 1924 a local teacher, Victor Strode Manley, published a selection of folk tales he had recorded from local inhabitants in a booklet Folktales of Warminster. As these tales were collected at the beginning of the century, this indicates that these stories were current in the Victorian era. It is significant that though the booklet contains a lively collection of ghost stories, it only contains one fairy tale, and no stories of witches. The story Manley relates is, he avers, ‘full of authentic touches which appear in all stories of visits to the Realm of Faerie’.(9) The story relates to a large oak tree that once stood near a small village on the outskirts of Warminster. Sometimes here at night elves could be seen gambolling. If a child came upon these elves, the child would be invited into the elves’ home beneath the tree. The child would see the elves playing games, be given something to eat, and then a fairy bath. This was a test – if the child tried to leave the bath by climbing up, it would be warned of an evil spirit; if down, it would become an angel and never return home. After a time the child would be shown the proper way out of the elves’ home. As it was by now dark outside the tree, and the child confused, the elves lead the child to the road, but the child would never be able to find the elves’ home again.(10) A charming tale that makes little sense, but it is the only one Manley relates. Yet ghost stories proliferate. Manley lists a spectral funeral at Bugley; ghosts that tried to steal a farmer’s sheep; the ghost that bothered an old man who lived on Warminster Common, by grinning and dancing in the coat drying on the washing line; the farmer who found an anvil, that clanged with a ghostly hammer during the night after he had got it home; and the ghost that lived in the well at Bugley, who ate a crippled woman that had fallen into the well.(11) So there were plenty of ghost stories, but few relating to fairies, and it seems, none relating to witches.

Kathleen Wiltshire’s Wiltshire Folklore gives some indication of the changed attitudes to witches. She recounts how in her grandmother’s youth. witches had been looked upon as quite usual members of society, but recognises that these witches were little more than the village wise-woman.(12) The only story Wiltshire relates that captures some of the popular fear that had existed in previous centuries is this:

“Less than a hundred years ago [that is, in
the Victorian era] a part of the Wiltshire Downs where racehorses had their gallops was constantly troubled by a local witch. … Finally some of the braver local spirits caught the witch and lashed her with a horse whip until they drew blood, thereafter her power was gone.(13)

Although ghosts do not feature at all in Kathleen Wiltshire’s book, that is because they deserve more space to themselves; this is allotted in another of her books, Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside.

It can be seen then, that the ghost story still had a particular popular appeal to local people, whereas tales of witches and fairies did not. The question then becomes: why did the ghost retain its appeal, when the witch and the fairy did not? We have already seen that the fairy story and the demonic witch were in decline by the start of the Victorian period. So what was special about the ghost that ensured its popularity?

If education, literacy, rationality, and changes in culture had so obviously affected belief in fairies and witches, why did it not effect ghosts? In part, it can be argued that this is a reflection of the shift in the population from countryside to towns and cities, and the change from agricultural work to industrial work. While fairies, goblins, imps, and wood and water spirits are creatures of the countryside, ghosts are not necessarily so. They are a remnant of the dead, and the dead are everywhere; they exist in both town and country. With the gradual movement of the rural population from country to town, the rationale for fairy belief diminished, while the rationale for belief in ghosts remained. Yet perhaps the ghost’s biggest saviour was the belief of those with cultural hegemony – the intellectuals and the middle classes, and their Gothicism and Romanticism, their secularism, and their belief in wandering souls, purgatory and spiritualism.

A preoccupation of the Romantic movement was with the supernatural, and in particular with ghosts, haunted castles, and fairies. From the Romantic movement evolved Gothic fiction, in which ‘the reader passes from the reasoned order of the everyday world into a dark region governed by supernatural beings, a region that inspires dread and horror, where decay abounds and death is always at hand’.(14) A consequence of this Gothic writing was the late nineteenth-century phenomenon of the ghost story. Such was the popularity of ghosts that even Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, cannot avoid introducing one. The works of authors such as M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu are testament to the popularity of the ghost story. It is difficult to judge whether, in this case, culture was influencing literature, or literature culture. However, the ghost story helped keep the notion of the ghost, death and the beyond, before its Victorian audience.

The nineteenth century was also witnessing the secularisation of society. While the arguments as to the causes and extent of secularisation continue, there is no doubt that the hold of established religion on the minds of both the middle-classes and working-classes was faltering. Peter Washington points out that the:

“Nineteenth century brought serious new difficulties. Long-standing doubts about Christian doctrine and arguments about institutional status were intensified by the growing prestige and authority of natural science and the increasing sophistication of biblical exegesis.(15)

The causes of secularisation have variously been attributed to industrialisation, urbanisation, and changes in the intellectual climate. For example, Owen Chadwick states:

“The statistic is ineluctable. Larger the town, smaller the percentage of church-goers, Therefore, some people at least who went to village chapel or village church failed to do so when they moved into [the city].(16)

The intellectual ferment of the Victorian era – Marx and social organisation, Darwin and evolution, anthropological and sociological explanations of religion – provided the middle classes with alternative explanations of the world. And although these new ideas might not have been enough to cause the middle-classes immediately to abandon all they had learnt and felt about religion, it was enough ‘to persuade that the Bible is not what it was thought, that we cannot therefore be so confident over the precise expressions of religion’.(17) Such doubt enabled a space to open in which alternative beliefs could flourish, from atheism to agnosticism, from Hinduism to Theosophy, through to the occult revival at the century’s end. However, the average Victorian still clung to his or her Christian religion; their faith shaken a little, perhaps, their eyes opened, perhaps, to more personal interpretations of their faith. Yet despite this secularisation, the one problem that haunted the Victorian mind was that of death and after.

The Victorian era was one in which people were obsessively interested in death. For Michael Wheeler, evidence for this:

“is as widely available in the imaginative literature of the period as it is in the theology. The deathbed scene, for example, was a familiar literary convention not only in prose fiction but also in narrative poetry and biography; and a remarkably high proportion of the lyric poetry of the period, particularly by women writers, addressed the themes of death and dying, bereavement and mourning.(18)

As a corollary, the Victorians were equally interested in postmortem existence, and ‘what heaven was like’.(19) The ghost seemed to be evidence of a postmortem existence; however, the Protestant church was loathe to reintroduce the Catholic concept of Purgatory, preferring to believe that sinners went straight to hell and the righteous straight to heaven, leaving the ghost no room to wander. Churchmen such as F. W. Farrar, who in 1878 was Rector of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, and Canon of Westminster, regarded this as ‘the greatest of all stumbling-blocks from the path of faith’, and sought to restore, ‘the ancient belief in an intermediate state’.(20) Indeed, while theologians argued over the reality or otherwise of Purgatory, for the layman ‘belief in some kind of spiritual progress in an intermediate state was remarkably widespread among nineteenth-century Protestants of widely differing theological positions’.(21)

It should be no surprise, therefore, that spiritualism, which allowed direct communication with the dead, was enthusiastically endorsed. Spiritualism began with the Fox family of Hydesville, Rochester, New York, when:

“The two daughters of the house – Katherine (twelve) and Margaret (thirteen) – began receiving what they claimed were spirit messages in the form of rapping and knocking sounds.(22)

While we can agree with Richard Noll that ‘in all eras of human history, and at all levels of societal complexity, there have always been individuals who have been regarded as specialists in communicating with the … dead’(23), there does seem to have been something exciting and novel about spiritualism that caught the Victorian imagination. It seemed to provide a way in w
hich the Victorians’ fundamental questions could be answered. As Janet Oppenheim says, it was:

“In an effort to counter that insecurity [from secularisation, rationalism, and changes in social culture], to calm their fears, and to seek answers where contemporary churches were ambiguous, [that] thousands of British men and women in the Victorian and Edwardian eras turned to spiritualism and psychical research.(24)

Yet perhaps there is more to it. Spiritualism seems to fit the Victorian technological world-view. The Knoxville rappings perhaps echoed with the wonder of speaking around the world by telegraph; the validity of the spirit world seemed to be endorsed by the spirit photographs taken on the relatively new negative camera. Indeed, Edison tried to create in the 1890s a phonograph-like device to speak- to the dead.(25) Spiritualism was also inclusive, and enabled direct experience of the spiritual to those who were often excluded by traditional religions, such as women or those who lacked education. In particular, as Peter Washington notes:

“It was thought that women were naturally more sensitive to spirit communications, especially if they were uneducated or even slightly subnormal. It was also said that lack of intellectual power cleared the channel for messages to “come through” at a deeper level.(26)

The allure of spiritualism was its simplicity and egalitarianism, in that ‘almost anyone could … attempt direct communication with the dead’.(27) Many members of the working classes turned to spiritualism after 1850′, perhaps inspired by the conversion of Robert Owen to a belief in spirit communication.(28) But it was middle class housewives in particular who discovered ‘powers of trance communication, clairvoyance, and furniture relocation during the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s’, and ‘mediumship could be, in its fashion, as domesticated and feminine an art as embroidery’.(29)

The decline in belief in the supernatural powers of fairies and witches can be seen as a victory for education, literacy and the Enlightenment:

“The elite liked to think of themselves as pioneering more rational, liberal and humane values. They condemned folklore as silly cruel and vulgar, and pooh-poohed traditional proverbial wisdom …The intelligentsia smiled at vulgar belief … in hobgoblins and ghosts.(30)

Indeed, part of the rationale behind literacy projects was ‘the question of doing battle with the accumulated growth of folk wisdom and folk ignorance which separated the uneducated from their natural environment’.(31) If the labouring classes were to exercise any control over the forces which shaped their existence, superstitions and irrational explanations of their environment needed to be defeated.(32) This battle against irrationality was certainly having its effect in relation to witches. Although in the absence of support from the legislature, trial-by-water continued to be used to expose witches until early in the nineteenth century(33), ‘changes in the cultural environment in which witchcraft functioned was undergoing a profound transformation’. Changes in agricultural processes, such as mechanisation, the opening of global markets, and the separation from the home of the production of staples such as bread, butter, milk and cheese, divorced people from traditional agricultural rhythms. Science and medicine better explained misfortunes such as natural disasters and illness. As a result, as Owen Davies says:

“The impact of those misfortunes which had often led to accusations of witchcraft was lessened. Witchcraft gradually ceased to serve a function for those who believed in it, and although stories of witches continued to be told and believed in, fewer and fewer people attracted the reputation of being witches as the social circumstances which produced accusations dwindled.(34)

Equally, the realm of the fairies was to become a land fit only for children’s imagination. As we have seen, fairy belief had declined by the Elizabethan period; and, despite the collection of fairy stories by nineteenth century folklorists, it seems likely that these were tales rather than living beliefs. Indeed, at the end of our period, when Conan Doyle became involved in the Cottingley fairy brouhaha, he was ‘widely ridiculed for his credulity’.(35) However, ghosts became more tangible – if you’ll excuse the pun – in the Victorian era. Education and changed social structures did little to affect the belief in ghosts. Indeed, belief was heightened due to the hegemonic influence of the intellectuals of both the middle and working classes. Spiritualism endorsed the ghost, while the ghost, that had been sought to give answers on death and the afterlife, could be found through spiritualism. So the ghost continued to be real. Indeed, the history of the fairy and the fairy story in some ways sets the precedent for the ghost and the ghost story. With the diminishing influence of the spiritualist movement after the Great War, the plausibility or reality of the ghost has diminished, while the ghost story still continues to have a lively tradition.


1 Janet Oppenheim, The Other World, p. 3.

2 James Olbevich, ‘Religion’, in Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950: Volume 3, Social Agencies and Institutions, Ed. FML Thompson, p. 311.

3 Keith Thompson, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 726.

4 Ibid., p. 702.

5 Ibid., pp. 703 – 704.

6 Ibid., pp. 705 – 706.

7 Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, p. 278.

8 Owen Davis, ‘Witchcraft: The Spell That Didn’t Break’, in History Today, Volume 49(8), August 1999, p. 8.

9 Victor Strode Manley, Folklore of Warminster, p. 4.

10 Ibid., pp. 4-5.

11 Ibid., pp. 8-15.

12 Kathleen Wiltshire, Wiltshire Folklore, p. 1.

13 Ibid., p. 3-4.

14 Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia

15 Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, p .8.

16 Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century, p. 96.

17 Ibid., p. 175

18 Michael Wheeler, Heaven, Hell, and the Victorians, p. 28.

19 Ibid., p. 121.

20 Quoted in Wheeler, p. 73.

21 Wheeler, p. 77.

22 Washington, p. 10.

23 Richard Noll, The Jung Cult, p. 61.

24 Oppenheim, p. 1.

25 Noll, p. 65.

26 Washington, p. 12.

27 Noll, p. 63.

28 Oppenheim, pp. 39-40.

29 Ibid., p. 9.

30 Porter, p. 277.

31 David Vincent, ‘Reading in the Working Class Home’, in Leisure in Britain 1780-1939, John K. Watton and James Walvin (eds.), p. 215.

Ibid., p. 222.

33 Davis, p. 10.

34 Ibid., p. 12.

35 Chris Willis, ‘Fairy Tales for Grown-ups’, The Skeptic, Volume 10, Number 1, p. 15.



Davis, Owen, ‘Witchcraft: The Spell That Didn’t Break’, History Today, Volume 49(8), August 1999

Harpur, Patrick, ‘Goodbye Fairy, Hallo Spaceboy’, Fortean Times, Number 87

Willis, Chris, ‘Fairy Tales for Grown-ups’, The Skeptic, Volume 10, Number 1


Chadwick, Owen, The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975 [Canto repr. 1995])

Noll, Richard, The Jung Cult: The Origins of a Charismatic Movement, (London: Fontana, 1996)

Olbevich, James, ‘Religion’, in Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950, Volume 3: Social Agencies and Institutions, ed. F. M. L. Thompson, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990 [repr. 1991])

Oppenheim, Janet, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychic Research in England, 1850-1914, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985)

Ousby, lan, (ed.), Companion to English Literature, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1994)

Porter, Roy, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Penguin, 1982 [rev. ed. 1991])

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Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia