Arthur Conan Doyle's Spiritualist Visit to Belfast

Oscar Ross of the Northern Ireland Sherlock Holmes Society on the Christian backlash to the famed crime author's spiritualist lecture delivered at the Ulster Hall in 1925

In May 1925, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Belfast on the invitation of the Belfast Association of Spiritualists, a body which, according to the Northern Whig newspaper, was a numerically strong one. ‘It is undeniable that the cult has grown and is growing in this city,’ the paper added.

It was a controversial visit, but controversy was nothing new to Conan Doyle.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859, to an artistic Anglo-Irish family. Leaving his Catholic upbringing well behind, he publicly announced his conversion to spiritualism – the belief in an afterlife and the communing between the living and the dead – in 1916, having initially become interested in it 30 years earlier. From then on, he was consumed by the notion.

By the end of 1923, in fact, it has been estimated that ‘The St. Paul of Spiritualism', as the popular press dubbed him, had covered 50,000 miles and addressed a quarter of a million people in his determination to spread the word. The demand to hear him speak was huge.

It was the same everywhere he went – crowds thronged the halls in which he delivered his lectures, sometimes even blocking the streets outside. Headlines and hectoring followed Conan Doyle almost every step of the way, as he came under attack from the mainstream Christian press and the pulpit.

His visit to the Ulster Hall in Belfast in 1925 was peppered by preachers, pickets and press censorship. In a letter published in the Belfast Telegraph shortly after his visit had ended, Conan Doyle drew specific attention to ‘examples of the prejudice’ that he had encountered in Belfast.

In this letter, Conan Doyle mentioned the paper (though he did not name it) which had refused to advertise his lectures. He also referred to the doors of the Ulster Hall being picketed by distributors of abusive handbills. The fact that he drew attention to the pickets and this form of press censorship may suggest that these examples were unique to Belfast.

Far from the uproar ending with Conan Doyle’s departure, it was, in fact, only beginning. There had already been a vigorous round of correspondence in the press but now many sermons, given on the subject over the coming weeks, were added to the mix.

While most of these sermons – apart from those delivered by the three spiritualist groups who were active in the city – were preached against spiritualism, however, there are some examples of sermons that took a more open-minded approach to the subject.

The highpoint of all this sermonising was 'Spiritualism Judged by the Word of God; Its Facts and Fallacies. A Reply to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle', delivered by Pastor Tocher of Belfast's Templemore Avenue on Tuesday evening, May 26.

‘The remarkable interest which the controversy on spiritualism has aroused in Belfast was further indicated by a great meeting held in the Ulster Hall. The hall was packed to its utmost capacity, many people being turned away, and strong religious fervour characterised the proceedings,’ the Belfast News-Letter reported the following morning.

Despite all of this, the famed crime novelist’s spiritualist crusade continued unabated. Conan Doyle's health, though, was irreparably damaged by such exertions, and he passed away peacefully at his home at Crowborough, Sussex on July 7, 1930. Six days later, an estimated 6,000 people turned out for his Memorial service at London’s Albert Hall.

On October 11, 1991, the Belfast Telegraph carried a small notice about their commentator and columnist Alex Kane and his love of the Sherlock Holmes stories. On Saturday evening, February 29 the following year, The Crew of the S.S. May Day, Northern Ireland’s Sherlock Holmes Society, was launched.

Our name, for those interested, comes from the reference in The Adventure of the Cardboard Boxthe only tale in the Sherlock Holmes Canon to mention Belfast or, indeed, 'the north of Ireland'.

Alex Kane delivers a lecture entitled 'Sherlock Holmes and his Creator', while Oscar Ross talks about Conan Doyle's Belfast visit, during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Belfast: The 1925 Visit at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on May 14.