Uncle Austin and the case of the faked seances

It is 1942. As in cities across Britain, the people of Cardiff are suffering from repeated nightly attacks by the Luftwaffe, destroying homes and lives. Perhaps it is the chaos of war, the incomprehension towards a world being turned upside down, and the ever-present sense of death and loss, that attracts rising numbers of people to attend spiritual churches and private séances, in an attempt to draw comfort from the apparent confirmation of an afterlife, and for the chance to ‘speak’ to loved ones who have ‘passed over’. Perhaps it was for these, or similar reasons, that one Mrs Emily Libby of Cardiff attended a private sitting by a man named Austin Hatcher – my great uncle.

Uncle Austin had a bit of a reputation in the family, it’s fair to say. His marriage was unconventional  not least because of his ‘ladyfriend’, Emily,  with whom he seemed to spend much time, seemingly unbeknownst to his wife. Communication with the living was seemingly not his strong point. When, for example, he wanted a cup of tea, he would simply rattle his teacup, and expect Mrs H. to head straight for the kitchen. But Austin was a spiritualist, and a member of a Cardiff church, and ran séances (for which he charged). It was to one of these séances that Emily Libby headed in September 1942, and which led to a criminal case against Austin for “unlawfully using subtle means by pretending to hold communication with deceased spirits to deceive and impose upon certain of his majesty’s subjects”.

During the evening’s events, things were certainly happening. The lights were put out and, almost immediately, contact was made with a spirit identified by Austin as a man named ‘Colombo’. But Mrs Libby was suspicious, and became convinced that this was simply the voice of Austin, but in a slightly higher register.The séance went on for around 90 minutes, during which other things began to arouse her suspicion.  Quite tellingly, for example, she reported that a “human hand touched her and caught hold of her handbag”. Other voices spoke up throughout the session but Mrs Libby noted that she “knew someone was moving around the séance room in the darkness because luminous objects in the centre of the circle of chairs were continually being blotted out”! Austin, it seems, was none too subtle.

Mrs Libby had seen enough to tell her that something was amiss – “I was convinced it was an awful fraud” she later told the South Wales Echo. And so, on September the 27th, she returned to a second session at Austin’s house, this time accompanied by her husband (crucially, and unfortunately for Austin, “Police Constable Libby”) and two female police officers in plain clothes. Once again the spirits were not slow in coming forth. Another attendee at this séance, one Mrs Davies of Penylan, takes up the story.

“On one occasion, the “spirit” of a little black girl named “Topsy” appeared to make contact, who “said that another “spirit” named “Will” had given her sixpence because he was going to help her to come through”.

Other witnesses came forward, one of whom was PC Libby’s sister, Olive. More spectacularly in this episode, “she saw a luminous trumpet approach her and touch her on the knee. A voice said “it’s for the new lady”. Olive asked “Is it Uncle Tom?” to which a sepulchral voice answered “Yes, Uncle Tom on your father’s side”. Feeling brave Olive asked “How are you Uncle Tom?” at which the voice responded “one hundred percent and no bones broken”! At this point, it was clear that even the judge was beginning to see the funny side. When Olive revealed that she didn’t actually know anyone by the name of “Uncle Tom”, the judge quipped “it might have been Uncle Tom Cobley”. Perhaps it is a complete coincidence, but both “Uncle Tom” and “Topsy” are characters in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Was Austin cleverly able to manifest literary characters?!

Later on, a woman’s voice said “Elizabeth” and “bicycle”, which Hatcher interpreted as being a little girl killed when a car knocked her off her cycle. Again neither Olive nor any of the other attendees knew of any such story. When Austin claimed to manifest the voice of one of the attendees’ dead husband, the witnesses noted the distress caused to her, and the emotion in her voice as she replied. Perhaps the final straw came when Austin told the ladies present not to be afraid “even if the spirits kissed them”.

The outcome of the trial is unclear, but Austin certainly didn’t give up either his séance or his unconventional lifestyle. Not having a ‘regular’ job, he and his ‘ladyfriend’ made a good living by travelling around and knocking on doors, asking if people had antiques to sell, for which they offered a pittance and then sold on. Clearly, Uncle Austin was the progenitor of the many ‘cash for gold’ schemes operating today!

So how should we view Uncle Austin? A man who believed he had genuine gifts, or a heartless rogue who played on people’s emotions and loss to exploit money from them. I never met Uncle Austin, but I’m guessing that the jury weren’t out for very long.