My strangest (and spookiest) heirloom

When I watch ‘The Repair Shop’ or the ‘Antiques Roadshow’, I can’t help feeling envious of some of the treasures that people have received from their great aunt Phyllis or cousin Bert. Most of my ancestors were poor, so it’s not surprising that there aren’t any Fabergé eggs or Steiff bears gathering dust in the attic. A few ancestors did have some money several generations ago, but the silver spoons and carved coat of arms that they left in their wills certainly didn’t come down my line!

However, I do think I might have one of the strangest heirlooms: because 24 years ago I inherited a set of psychic drawings by a famous spiritualist! And as it’s not long until Halloween, this seemed like a good time to share them.

The pictures belonged to my great grand aunt, Margorie Pearl Fish née Underwood (1895-1986). Marjorie was the older sister of my great grampy — my maternal grandfather’s father (the only great grandparent I ever met). 

My relationship to Marjorie

Marjorie’s only child, Peter, was my grampy’s cousinm making him my first cousin twice removed. When I was 10 years old, I started to take an interest in my family history, and my sister and I wrote to Peter, since his mother was the only one of her generation still alive. At that time, Peter and Marjorie lived together in North Kensington. Marjorie was by then 90 years old and very hard of hearing. Peter was a retired school teacher and a very kindly man, who replied to us girls with several pages in beautiful handwriting, sharing lots of stories and facts about the Underwood family. It really was Peter’s letter (which I still treasure) that got me hooked on family history. I spoke to Peter once on the phone and remember how warm he was, and his enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge of the family’s origins with me, even though I was so young.

Peter invited my mum, myself and my sister to visit him and Marjorie in London. They had Underwood photograph albums he wanted to show us. However, my mum was a busy teacher with busy children, and we weren’t able to take up his invitation. Then, sadly, Marjorie passed away in December, just four months later.

In my teens I continued to research my family history, but as the years passed I didn’t get back in touch with Peter. Then, one day in 1997, I came home from university to a letter from his neighbour, who informed me that he had died two years earlier. She had had no idea that Peter had any relations, and although many of Peter’s things had gone to his close friends, some had been thrown away. Unfortunately, that included his photograph albums. We were also dismayed to learn that a family bible had been sold at auction. But, thankfully, the neighbour had held on to two items, and when she discovered my letter among Peter’s possessions, she was glad to forward them to me. The first was a scroll sent to my great great grandparents (Marjorie’s parents) when Marjorie’s brother Harold was killed in WW1. It’s very precious to me. The other was a very unassuming brown envelope addressed to Marjorie and postmarked June 1965. Inside it were seven drawings of faces, and a letter from the artist, Coral Polge — all of which I have scanned and shared below. On the back of each picture were Coral’s handwritten ‘impressions’ of that character, which I have added as captions (just click on the image to see it a larger view without the caption over the top).

Coral Polge (1924-2001) was a British psychic artist who was well known to those interested in spiritualism, and also known to anyone who watched popular TV shows about the unexplained. One of her cases was featured on the American show ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ in 1990. According to the Unsolved Mysteries fan wiki, ‘Coral first learned of her talent shortly after World War Two, when she met with a psychic medium who told her that she would become a famous psychic artist. Within a few years, she began to accurately draw deceased loved ones and friends. Coral claims that she has made over 10,000 accurate drawings.’ In 1991 Coral published her autobiography, ‘Living Images: The Story of a Psychic Artist’. In 1995 she appeared on the British programme ‘Beyond Belief’, presented by David Frost. In the 5-minute clip below, Coral demonstrates her drawings and shares her impressions of each spirit, while her frequent associate, the psychic/medium Bob Landis, receives additional information that helps audience members connect the drawings to their loved ones.

When it comes to spiritualism, I’m very much a skeptic, but a fascinated skeptic. I’ve been very interested in all things supernatural, especially ghosts and the afterlife, since about the time I got the family history bug. As a teen, I subscribed to the Fortean Times, and last year I became a subscriber again. In their January 2021 issue, Robert Weinburg, in his article ‘The Medium Is the Message’, wrote about one of the earliest British artists who produced spirit drawings, in the mid 1800s: Georgiana Houghton. Georgiana’s art, which was abstract rather than portraiture, was ‘automatic’, and she claimed that it was being channelled through her by a spirit called Angelo, who had been an artist in life. Tellingly, Georgiana had abandoned early art training when her beloved sister had died in childbirth, and she had also mourned the death of another young brother. These tragedies ‘had led Georgiana to search out comfort – as so many prematurely bereaved Victorians were doing – in spirit mediumship.’ A later spirit artist, Madge Gill, began to work ‘under the control of an ancient babylonian high-priest’ after her son died in the ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic of 1918.

Indeed, the immense losses from WW1 and its aftermath generated a huge wave of interest and belief in spiritualism. With so many young people dying suddenly, often far from home and without recent communication, the families they left behind were desperate to make contact with the spirit world. Sadly, many charletans were willing to take advantage of their grief.

Marjorie had certainly had more than her fair share of bereavement. She had lost four of her six siblings in young (or relatively young) adulthood; Harold, the eldest, was killed in the Great War aged 24; her older sister Lily died from cancer in her mid 40s, younger sister Ivy of heart disease at 40, and youngest sister Kathleen of TB at just 24. Between 1944 and 1953 Marjorie also lost both of her parents and then her husband, John. John was five years younger than Marjorie, and only 52 when he died, so his death must have come as a huge shock. Twelve years on, her grief may still have been sharp enough to drive her to seek communication, reassurance, or guidance from her family members beyond the grave.

However, Coral’s comment on one picture suggests that Marjorie may have believed she too had psychic abilities, and that this was part of her exploration of those powers. In 1968, Coral Polge was the speaker at a public religious service of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, which took place at 33 Belgrave Square. The SAGB is still based there today. I don’t know whether Carol was a regular speaker there, but I wonder if Marjorie was a member, had attended ‘services’, and had deep and long-held spiritualist beliefs. Or had she simply contacted Corol Polge in the spur of the moment?

Kensington Post – Friday 20 September 1968
Image © Reach PLC via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk

Whatever Margaret’s motivations, I hope that she didn’t pay a lot for the drawings, and that she found some comfort or inspiration in them. If she did recognise anyone, that information has gone with her to her grave.

But did I recognise anyone, you might ask?

OK, I’ll admit that I have looked at the pictures and descriptions with an eye to finding possible connections and similarities to my Underwood ancestors. Unfortunately, I have very few photographs to compare them with. One man was said to have been connected to a shop, and Marjorie had grown up in the family’s grocer’s shop in Tring, Herts. As a teenager she worked as a cashier’s apprentice in a department store in St Albans. The two older women’s faces seem oddly familiar, and the lady with the ‘iron grey’ marcel waves has features of Underwood women. Marjorie did not, as far as I know, lose a baby son or brother, though her uncle Hedley died just days after his second birthday. The key to a medium’s success (I believe) is creating names, faces or facts generic enough to resonate with many members in a willing audience. Still, it was fun to suspend my disbelief for a while!

I’ll always regret that I didn’t meet Peter and Marjorie and get to know them in person. However, I have Peter’s letter and Marjorie’s pictures in my possession, which gives me a lasting connection to them. I also have the life-long gift of a love of family history that Peter Fish inspired in me all those years ago. Although I don’t believe that I can commune with the spirits of people who’ve died, I would suggest that researching the lives of the ancestors who came before us, and empathising with the events that shaped their lives, is a different way of making a meaningful connection that transcends space and time, and helps keep their memories alive for generations to come.

But on a less serious note, I think these psychic drawings are just deliciously spooky and good fun. And I hope you enjoy them too!

If you have any thoughts on these drawings, and the beliefs that underpin them, please do add a comment or drop me a line.

And do you have an unusual or spooky heirloom? I’d love to hear about it!

2 thoughts on “My strangest (and spookiest) heirloom

  1. I’m definitely with you in the belief that researching our ancestors lives provides us with a connection to them. As a Christian, I do believe in the spirit world but I think one should steer well clear of any involvement. Obviously there will be many charlatans preying on vulnerable people in their loss too. Sad that you never got the chance to meet your cousin, Peter, but what a gift he inspired!

    Like

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