Saturday, 10 July 2010

Jane Rebecca Yorke - Britain's last witch

A frail seventy two-year-old woman shuffled into the court room. She was being tried under the 1735 Witchcraft Act for "Pretending to Exercise Conjurations".
It was September 1944....

The medium grasped the brooch and gazed off into the distance, rolling her eyes.

"This belonged to your son, Ron who was killed,” she said.

Yes,” the woman sobbed.

Watch and you will see him.”

Screwing up her face, the psychic spoke in a deep unnatural tone: “I am alright Mum. I want to come and pat you on the back, but I can't get to you.”

He used to do that,” wept the bereaved mother.

The medium waved her arms about and intoned “One of your loved ones is going to meet with a serious accident.” The woman began to shriek...

Jane Rebecca Yorke was a confidence trickster, a sham medium who played on people’s fears for loved ones during the Second World War. After another medium, Helen Duncan, was arrested under the Witchcraft Act in January 1944, the police were vigilant against anyone performing séances for profit.

Duncan, a Scottish housewife had toured the country for several years claiming to raise the dead and producing ectoplasm. When she revealed that the HMS Barham had sunk at a séance, before the news had been made public, the War Office had her arrested.

Helen Duncan during a seance with one of her 'spirit manifestations.'

Duncan was convicted of "pretending to raise the spirits of the dead" under the Witchcraft Act and sentenced to ten months in Holloway. The 1735 Act held that magic was impossible, fraudulent and anyone who performed it could be fined or imprisoned.

A few months after Duncan's conviction West Ham police were investigating an elderly female medium in Newnham, Essex. Undercover officers visited her at her home in Romford Road several times and their accounts, now held at The National Archives, provide fascinating reading.

PC Ernest Holliwell went to Jane Yorke for a private sitting on the 16th May. She pocketed their two shillings and sixpence, then  studying the new recruit, she remarked on his "great healing powers" and offered to 'develop' him into a medium. 

PC Holliwell watched Yorke 'channel' her Zulu spirit guide. Shouting hysterically, she began chanting "Umba! Umba! Umba! He is my guide, Zulu!"

Then the visions started: "I can see you struggling in the water and a lot will get drowned but I see you hanging on to something...Do you wish to see your father? Concentrate and watch me and you will see my face change and the spirit of your father will appear.” All PC Holliwell saw was “Mrs Yorke's contorted face."

Holliwell went back to Romford Road on 18th May to a larger seance. The room slowly filled up with people, nearly all women. This time Jane Yorke used objects belonging to her clients. Fingering Holliwell’s signet ring, she said "This ring is owned by a foreigner...your brother Joe was shot down over Mannheim.” Then she switched to a male voice “'This is Joe speaking. It was so terrible. I was riddled with bullets and I could not get out of the escape hatch...I was burnt alive'.”
According to Yorke Joe was safe in Heaven with father, mother and Uncle Charley, who was still so proud of his mutton chop whiskers. PC Holliwell was an only child with no Uncle Charley and his parents were very much alive.

On the 25th it was WPC Constance Larner and Sub-Divisional Inspector William Watts’ turn. Mrs Chapman, Yorke's assistant "asked people to put a shilling in the saucer and a personal article on the book." Watts gave her his pen knife. The audience sang a hymn and then Yorke prayed to “the Guiding Spirit Zulu."

The spirits promptly
appeared and she knocked on the cupboard behind her, laughing, “'You must take your time dearies. You can't all come out at once!'” Then she announced that the spirits were ready to give messages, “‘Some may be good, others bad’.”

"She picked up something belonging to a woman on my left,” Watts observed “'You have lost a dear one. Was it three years ago? I am not getting her very clearly'...The woman replied 'I lost my mother three weeks ago'...Yorke said 'Oh! As recent as that? That accounts for her not being materialised, but she has this message for you, 'God bless you, Lily. Look after Dad. I am quite happy,'...the woman replied "My name is not Lily’...Yorke said 'Well it is a flower. Is it Violet, Rose or Daisy? For you were born in the spring when the flowers come' The woman commenced to sob.”

Jane Yorke then ‘read’ Watts's knife. “'You lost your Father in the last war. Your mother has passed over too...They are with us and speaking to me now...'.” Watts’ mother was in good health at the time.

WPC Larner, wearing a fake wedding ring, was also bemused when Jane Yorke started communing with the spirits of her departed husband and baby. “Mrs Y claimed she could see the baby crawling over the shoulders of WPC Larner, while clutching a bunch of roses,” wrote Watts.

WPC Larner returned again on 1 June. “I feel you will soon pass over,”  Yorke told her, offering another sighting of her dead baby – for a fee. Then Yorke offered “Would you like to see Queen Victoria? She went into a trance and adopted the pose of an elderly lady...'You are in great trouble my subjects, but it will soon pass’.” She then predicted a German invasion, “but not long lasting.”

Three weeks later, Yorke told an audience “Don't worry we will have the lights on and the war will be over by Christmas. I know, because I have contacted the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle and he has told me.”

The undercover officers recorded that while Yorke “appeared to believe what she was saying,” her audience were either more sceptical or left Romford Road “distressed and worried at what they were told.”

The police now had more than enough evidence to prosecute Yorke and they went to Romford Road once more, this time to arrest her. When presented with the warrant she protested, "Why this after 23 years?" "All I have to say is I'm a born medium!"

On 12th September 1944 Jane Rebecca Yorke was found guilty, despite her plea of innocence and was  fined £5 and made to promise not to hold any more séances. She was the final person to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act. Six years later Churchill replaced the Witchcraft Act  with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

Jane Rebecca Yorke's case file is at The National Archives in series CRIM 1/1617.

Malcolm Gaskill’s biography of Helen Duncan,
Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches
(Fourth Estate, 2001)
gives a good overview of the 40s witchcraft scare.

There were no images of Jane Rebecca Yorke published in the press or in her National Archives file, so I have illustrated this piece with gleanings from the internet.

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