ACCORDING to Winston Churchill it was “obsolete tomfoolery” but Michael Colmer went much farther. It was, he asserted, “one of the worst miscarriages of justice in the 20th Century.”

The treatment suffered by a middle-aged woman at the hands of the British legal system, he said in 2008, his voice resounding with conviction and anger, was simply “brutal".

And he claimed the support – or at least, the interest – of more than 50 million people from around the world in his ongoing efforts to have her name posthumously cleared.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the death of mother-of-six Helen Duncan – the last woman in Britain to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act.

It is a strange and unusual tale that is laced with mystery, controversy, the paranoia of Britain’s war-time authorities – all shaken with a heady dose of the paranormal.

You couldn’t make it up. And when Wiltshire resident Michael Colmer several years ago published an e-book about it entitled Churchill’s Witch, following ten years of research, he didn’t need to.

Former Fleet Street journalist Mr Colmer was a spiritualist who lived in Devizes and edited a monthly magazine called Psychic World. He was convinced that some people, such as Mrs Duncan, are blessed with special gifts that enable them to contact the spirits of the dead.

Tosh and hokum you may scoff – but Mr Colmer and countless others would vehemently disagree.

“Spiritualists are no strangers to scorn, scepticism and stupidity,” proclaimed the website that he set up 19 years ago. “We face these regularly and deal with them appropriately.”

Until his death aged 70 in 2012, Mr Colmer was Mrs Duncan’s champion – the man who, from the 1990s, led the battle for her posthumous pardon.

Speaking to me eight years ago, he was full of confidence about the latest bid to clear her name which he launched on a wave of world-wide interest and – at least, from the psychic community – overwhelming support.

“This time we packed our submission with so much documented fresh evidence that the postage alone cost £20,” he enthused.

“When we originally launched our website to mark Helen’s centenary back in 1997 we had no idea it would appeal to so many people across the globe. The interest has been incredible.”

He went on: “Helen’s brutal conviction of a crime under Britain’s ancient Witchcraft Act has captured the imagination of people everywhere. I’ve just checked our site surfer stats for this week. In the last few days we’ve had people log on from...”

He proceeded the count them off: the UK, USA, Australia, Oman, Japan, Italy, Spain, Germany, Finland, New Zealand, Slovenia, Sweden, Belgium, Holland...

His site, ‘’ had received in excess of 52 million hits since its launch 11 years earlier, claimed Mr Colmer with no little pride. It was phenomenal, he declared.

So who was Helen Duncan?

Born 1897 Helen Duncan (nee MacFarlane) alarmed fellow pupils with her “dire prophecies” at school before becoming a clairvoyant (seeing things beyond normal human vision) and then a medium (transmitting messages between the living and the spirits of the dead.)

Travelling the country offering séances, the 20-stone Scot claimed to summon and communicate with spirits of the recently deceased – a process which involved dramatically emitting ectoplasm (a substance associated with the supernatural) from her mouth while in a trance-like state.

She attracted oodles of publicity, did Mrs Duncan, and after a high profile probe she was accused of regurgitating materials that she pretended to be ectoplasm that she had swallowed earlier – a mixture of cheesecloth, egg white and loo paper.

Despite being denounced in some corners as a fraud she continued to operate as a “spiritualist materialisation medium,” and in 1941 as World War Two raged she gave an infamous séance in Portsmouth. Having raised the spirit of a sailor with an HMS Barham hat-band, the voice from The Other Side told those present through Mrs Duncan: “My ship is sunk.”

HMS Barham, it transpired, had been destroyed shortly before with the loss of 859 lives but news of the disaster had been suppressed for the sake of morale, as Churchill later confirmed in his memoirs.

If she wasn’t a genuine medium then how did she know about the Barham catastrophe?

Years later it was suggested that family of the deceased had been notified but were sworn to secrecy. If Mrs D was a fake then perhaps she got wind of the sinking from a family member and cynically exploited the information.

Who knows?

She certainly came to the attention of the War Office who suspected her of liaising with the enemy, fearing she was a spy.

Ever suspicious, and with preparation for the Invasion of France ongoing, they finally arrested her after a séance in January, 1944, apparently nervous that she might be able to deduce details of the D-Day landings, and other classified information, and pass it on.

Charged under Section 4 of the 1735 Witchcraft Act, she was accused of “pretending to raise the sprits of the dead.”

At the trial she offered to undertake a séance from the dock to prove she was no phony. Much to the disappointment of the public at large, eager for details, her proposal was rejected. Mrs Duncan was found guilty and hit with nine months at Holloway. She died at 59 in 1956, a broken woman. However, her trial and the ridicule it attracted – not least from Churchill, who dashed off a note to the Home Secretary dismissing it as all “obsolete tomfoolery” – helped lead to the repeal of archaic Witchcraft laws.

Since her death four attempts have been made to clear her name – the last two orchestrated by Mr Colmer. But to no avail. They were all rejected as “not in the public interest.”

Was Helen Duncan a wily charlatan, shamefully peddling false hope to the newly-bereaved?

Absolutely not, according to Michael Colmer. Helen Duncan, he proclaimed with utter conviction, was “one of the country’s most gifted mediums” who dedicated her life to helping the grieving contact lost loved ones, bringing them immense comfort.

Whatever your views on this contentious subject, one thing seems certain – as a result of Mr Colmer’s passing Helen Duncan’s name will forever remain unpardoned.


  •  THERE is only one known photograph of Snap, the Wiltshire hamlet that vanished at the beginning of the 20th Century after 700 years of history, we said last month.
    Oh no there isn’t, a reader responded. Here’s another, published for the first time today of the very last structure left standing.
    Showing the ruins of a two storey home – presumably one of the hamlet’s two farmhouses – it was taken in 1930, just over 20 years after Snap was finally abandoned.
    Taken by whom, we don’t know. The snap comes from a remarkable photo album, a lovingly compiled travelogue of the West Country given to a reader from Nythe, who has asked not to be named.
    The album was acquired several years ago at a car boot sale in Swindon before being passed on and features scores of photos taken from the late 1920s to the late 1950s.
    At the front are a few marked ‘Snap.’ “I had no idea where Snap was until I saw the article in the Advertiser,” said the album’s present owner. 
    One of the tiny photos shows a pile of rubble that once served as a Snap cottage while this one depicts the still substantial remains of a large home.
    First recorded in 1268, Snap was located between Aldbourne and Ogbourne St George, around ten miles from Swindon.
    Life and work in the remote hamlet, where almost 50 people lived in the mid-19th Century, revolved around its two largely arable farms.
    But the community began to die in the late 19th Century as a result of cut price corn imports which saw Snap’s farmland used for sheep farming, depriving many Snapites of work.
    Rachel Fisher, the last person to leave Snap, died in 2010 at Aldbourne a year or so later at 96.    


    • Also in the album are some rare photographs of ice skating at Coate Water in 1935.