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Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches Hardcover – 2 Apr 2001

3.0 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 402 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; 1st edition (2 April 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841151092
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841151090
  • Package Dimensions: 20.8 x 16 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 513,275 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description


The 1735 Witchcraft Act, charging that spirits of the dead had been raised by conjuration, was used for the last time in Portsmouth in 1944. The accused was Helen Duncan, a plump Scotswoman, convicted as a fraud yet believed by hundreds to possess the power to speak to the dead. This is her extraordinary story, and of religion and superstition in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. Helen Duncan was born in Callander in 1898 and developed mysterious powers during the World War I when she correctly predicted the guise of the soldier she would marry. Having refined these powers she became increasingly celebrated following her own near death from pneumonia when she was informed of her vocation by a shadowy white figure. She went on to produce spirit forms from ectoplasm that, she said, flowed through her. She was accompanied by a spirit guide named Albert and a young girl spirit named Peggy. Or was she? The Psychic community was divided in two fiercely opposing camps - followers and sceptics.

The government of the day got involved (Churchill was said to be more than a little interested) when, during World War II Helen appeared able to tell relatives of the deaths of their loved ones even before offical announcements had been made. And so in 1944, absurdly, anachronistically, she was charged with witchcraft, prosecuted and jailed for the duration of the war. Her life is an amazing glimpse into the spritiual and psychological mood of the times, a story of bathos and absurdity, of credulity and cruelty, and of England's last witch.

From the Author

Explaining Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches
My new book Hellish Nell is a work of social cultural history. Specifically, it is an attempt to recapture something of early 20th-century attitudes and ideas through the subject of Spiritualism, and, in turn, to understand something of Spiritualism through the life and times of the infamous materialization medium, Helen Duncan. In particular, her trial under the 1735 Witchcraft Act at the Old Bailey in 1944 reveals a cross-section of opinions: legal, journalistic, religious, scientific and so on.

Although I hint at my true feelings about psychical phenomena, my main intention has been to suspend judgement in order to allow the reader to glimpse a strange world of religious fantasy. For the purpose of understanding the characters in the story, and through them to recover a taste of the past, I have tried to establish this world temporarily an an alternative reality.

The book tells a strange story, full of spectral visitations and gruesome events, and it should be read as such. But hopefully it also demonstrates that the truths upon which we rely are generated by institutions and the labels those institutions attach to people. In this case, the use of the Witchcraft Act makes it inevitable that Helen Duncan was seen as a witch, even though she was nothing of the sort in a religious or even legal sense. Such was the strange influence of Hellish Nell Duncan over British society sixty years ago.

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9 March 2015
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21 September 2003
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26 June 2002
Format: Paperback
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11 February 2005
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15 November 2016
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22 April 2001
Format: Hardcover
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