Dr Eric Dingwall – "A Sceptical Enquirer"

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Dr Eric Dingwall (1891?-1986) was a psychical investigator, anthropologist, author and librarian. His notebooks and scrapbooks are held in the Senate House Library archives and present a fascinating opportunity to understand his personality from materials and artefacts he used.

For example, he would often re-use envelopes and write letters on the reverse of another one – this is evidence of his frugal nature. Dingwall himself made a self-mocking reference to his frugality, suggesting that he had inherited such parsimony from his Scottish ancestors. These reused letters also reveal interesting background information for the biographer. Several such letters were written on the back of share dividend statements from his brokers, giving evidence of his private income which enabled him to work for the British Library (keeper of their ‘Private Case’) on an honorary (i.e. non-salaried) basis. One letter had re-used a wartime communique from a government intelligence agency, intercepting and translating Axis leaders’ speeches. This gives us some indication of Dingwall’s wartime work in an intelligence capacity (but one which he remained tight-lipped about).

Dingwall collated his papers, press cuttings, notes and letters and pasted them into large folio-sized scrapbooks. These were not purpose-bought, but  again, had originally been produced for another purpose. A multi-volume history of the First World War was employed in this way, as was a large Bible – indicating his irreverent and atheistic attitude. Dingwall was a humanist and a rationalist. He regarded the continued popularity of religion in the twentieth century as a regrettable state of affairs. Religious belief was but one manifestation of ‘occultism’ (a pejorative term for him, mere superstition), which held back humankind’s intellectual and scientific development.

Dingwall today – if remembered at all – is better known as the author of works on unusual subjects such as ‘The Girdle of Chastity’ (1923), a medico-historical study of chastity belts and ‘Artificial Cranial Deformation’, a contribution to the study of ethnic mutilations. He is also remembered for his custodianship of the British Library’s ‘Private Case’ (obscene / erotic / banned literature). To the student of the history of psychical research, he will be remembered as a fine and scientifically-minded investigator. His approach and methods were rigorous; lacking in credulity, whilst still being open-minded to the possibility of some genuine phenomena. Dingwall stated his belief that the phenomena produced by, for example, the medium Willi Schneider, could not be explained by normal means.

His ‘How to go to a Medium’ (1927), a manual of instruction, was a concise masterpiece of practical advice for the would-be investigator. “I have,” wrote Dingwall “tried in this book to provide the novice with some useful hints which he may find of service when visiting mediums.” (Preface, p.xiii). His ‘Box of Necessities’ (containing essential equipment for the investigator of the séance room) gives us an illustration of the nature of this practical man. In this box, amongst other things, we find luminous pins to be affixed to the medium’s clothing (to determine movement in the dark) and cotton thread to “control” the medium by connecting their arms or legs to those of the investigator.

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Dingwall’s ‘Box of Necessities’ – his séance investigation kit
(Eric Dingwall archive, Senate House Library, University of London/Charles Harrowell)

Unlike his more publicity-hungry colleague, friend and rival, Harry Price, Eric Dingwall was an elusive figure and reluctant to be photographed. This was ostensibly because he wished to remain anonymous when infiltrating séances for the purposes of investigating the fraudulence (or otherwise) of the medium giving the sitting. Consequently, few photo portraits of him exist – a rare example was found in the Harry Price archive at Senate House Library, one of Price’s glass lantern slides which Price used for lectures. It depicts a young Dingwall in a Munich café some time in the 1920s, enjoying a drink with his German counterpart, psychical researcher Albert von Schrenck-Notzing.

Dingwall (left) photographed with Albert von Schrenck-Notzing
(Harry Price archive, Senate House Library, University of London)

My two-part biographical article on Dr Eric Dingwall (1891?-1986), “Dr Dingwall’s Casebook: A Sceptical Enquirer”, by Christopher Josiffe, appears in the Fortean Times, April and May 2013.

Dr Dingwall’s published works and his extensive archive of notes, press cuttings, manuscripts, correspondence and photographs, which formed the basis of the article, are held at Senate House Library.

Cataloguer, Senate House Library

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