The Premonitions Bureau, by Sam Knight

Sam Knight’s short 2022 book The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold is an expansion of an article he wrote for the New Yorker in 2019.  It is only partially about the British Premonitions Bureau established by psychiatrist, and Society for Psychical Research, member John Barker and Evening Standard science editor Peter Fairley, much more about Barker and Fairley themselves.

The Bureau was set up following the Aberfan disaster (a tragedy movingly described by Knight) in October 1966, which a number of those affected apparently foresaw.  At the time, Barker was deputy superintendent at Shelton Hospital, a decaying asylum near Shrewsbury which he was trying to modernise with little success.

He had visited Aberfan in the immediate aftermath of the disaster as he was researching a book on being scared literally to death and had heard of a boy who had escaped the slide but later died of shock.  Barker had an interest in topics on the edge of mainstream psychiatric practice, such as Munchausen Syndrome.  Some of his ideas were very much of their time, believing infidelity could be ‘cured’ by aversion therapy using electric shocks, and performing a lobotomy on an intractable patient.

Barker got in touch with Fairley to ask him to print an appeal for anyone who had had a premonition of the Aberfan disaster to write in.  Premonitions could take the form of a dream, waking impression, telepathy or clairvoyance.  Initial results were encouraging so they decided to broaden the scope.  Using the Standard to publicise the project, members of the public were encouraged to send in general premonitions.  These were logged and assessed with a numerical score, using unusualness, accuracy and timing as criteria, to see if they were fulfilled.  Barker was not the only person intrigued by premonitions of Aberfan.  Celia Green’s Institute of Psychophysical Research also made a newspaper appeal, as did the News of the World.

The initial plan was to run the Bureau for a year, but this was later extended, the bulk of the administration being carried out by Fairley’s assistant Jennifer Preston, a remarkable person judging by the brief pen portrait Knight provides.  Both Barker and Fairley considered that some of their contributors had a high hit rate.  Particularly noteworthy were Alan Hencher, a Post Office switchboard operator, and Kathleen Middleton, who taught piano and dance.  Barker, though, proved to have a lower critical threshold than Fairley when it came to fitting premonitions to possible fulfilment, and was quicker to proclaim a hit.

So when Hencher issued a warning to Barker himself that he faced danger and should take care, Barker took him seriously enough to write a four-page memo he titled ‘Some Interesting Predictions and a Possible Death Sentence’ in which he recounted his alarm.  ‘Having recently written a book on people who were “scared to death,” I am perhaps beginning to feel what this would be like,’ he wrote.

Barker died in August 1968, aged 44, his death receiving a three-sentence notice in the SPR’s Journal.  Fairley moved on to other things, and while according to Knight the Bureau was kept alive by Preston into the 1970s, eventually it fizzled out.*  Of the more than 3,000 submissions, only some 1,200 had been checked, and just over 3% were linked to an event: not a notable success rate for the effort expended.

Knight describes a number of disasters and shows how they fitted in with a prior warning.  Barker speculated that there might exist a ‘pre-disaster syndrome’, individuals who experienced bodily sensations in advance of significant events.  His hope was to establish an early warning system, the Bureau collating predictions using computers to detect patterns in a mass of data with sufficient specificity that alerts could be issued, and disasters averted or mitigated.

However, it proved impossible to determine precise outcomes in advance, and premonitions could only be fitted to a disaster retrospectively.  Significantly, nobody predicted a serious fire leading to loss of life at Shelton in February 1968.  Evaluating the submissions, any potential signal was obscured by the noise of the many which failed to predict anything.  That though did not stop exaggerated newspaper coverage of premonitions claiming the Bureau had produced hits.

Barker thought he was on the verge of a substantial scientific breakthrough that would alter our conception of time.  While noting precognition seems to contravene scientific principles, Knight concedes that curious events do happen which indicate a broader meaning to life.  While he delves into counter-explanations, he could have gone much further.  He notes the obvious paradox when assessing premonitions.  If a premonition occurs and as a result an intervention is made altering the occurrence to which the premonition referred, how is one to know the premonition was accurate?  There was also a toll on the seers, who could find them a burden, feeling obliged to share their foreknowledge yet fearing ridicule if they did.  Such abilities did not make Hencher and Middleton happy.

While maintaining a critical distance, Knight writes sympathetically about Barker, whose research often brought him into conflict with the hospital’s administration.  However, anyone actually wanting a history and analysis of the British Premonitions Bureau is going to be disappointed by the misleading title because Knight interweaves it with biographical details, though he misses out Fairley’s work on the spin-offs of Arthur C Clarke’s television series Mysterious World (1980) and World of Strange Powers (1984), and Chronicles of the Strange and Mysterious (1987), all co-written with Simon Welfare, while including numerous tangents of dubious relevance (for example I learned that mediaeval death expert Philippe Ariès had spent his working life at a research institute specialising in tropical fruit, and a young Robin Gibb attributed his survival in a train crash to the fact he could afford to travel first class).

Knight spends a great deal of time describing conditions at Shelton and we learn about Fairley’s successful career as a science writer, focusing largely on the remarkable development of the space programme in the 1960s.  These details, with information on their personal lives, round out the characters of the two protagonists and may engage the general reader who might find a book solely about psychical research dry, but are of lesser interest to those who primarily want to know about the premonitions.  There is so much more to be said about the Bureau and the reports it received, but that would have made it a different, and non-New Yorker, type of book.

Having spent some time describing the nocebo effect in relation to Scared to Death and the phenomenon of people thinking they are going to die seemingly as a result of their attitude, one wonders if Knight is hinting this might have been the cause of Barker’s own premature death.  Psychic News made the connection, though his wife pooh-poohed the idea.  But who knows; perhaps it was the Bureau in general, and Alan Hencher in particular, that killed him.

By chance I came across a novel by John Barker, not the same one, though.  It is set in London in 1987 and is about dealing cocaine.  Its title is Futures, and the cover features a photograph of an aeroplane high in the sky, both aspects that would have fitted nicely with the British Premonitions Bureau.

On a personal note, I remember the Aberfan disaster: it made a big impact on me because I was the same age as many of the victims and, living in leafy south London, I struggled to understand how this terrible thing could have happened to children doing what seemed the safe activity of going to school.  Perhaps the tragedy made me aware for the first time of my mortality.  While I already knew something about death, having watched the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill the year before, I became conscious, as I doubt I had been before, that life could be snuffed out in an instant, and death wasn’t something that only happened to old people.

*kitt price spoke at the Society for Psychical Research’s 2018 conference on ‘Uses of Media Technology in Precognition Research’ in which she gave the dates of the British Premonitions Bureau as 1967-1983.

Further reading:

Barker, J C. ‘Premonitions of the Aberfan Disaster’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 44, No. 734, December 1967, pp. 169-181.

Barker, J.C Scared to Death: An Examination of Fear, its Causes and Effects. London: Frederick Muller, 1968.

‘Doctor who Studied Premonitions Dies – A Year After Receiving Death Prediction’’, Psychic News, No. 1891, 31 August 1968, pp. 1,3.

Knight, Sam. ‘The Psychiatrist who Believed People Could Tell the Future’, The New Yorker, 25 February 2019.

Murdie, Alan. ‘Foreseeing a Disaster? Forgotten Dreams of Aberfan’, Fortean Times,Issue 350, February 2017, pp. 44-51.

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