Thomas Charles Lethbridge, described as a a man who cared little for the rules laid down by his profession, a maverick who detested the orthodoxy and dogma that surrounded him. He is remembered today for a series of books he wrote on controversial subjects such as ghosts, ghouls, psychokinesis, and dowsing; venturing into the world of parapsychology, the science of the mind.
Born 112 years ago today in the West Country on 3rd March 1901 into a family that had produced a number of adventurous sons. Indeed, following in the footsteps of his great uncle, the explorer John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) associated with the search for the source of the Nile and the discovery of Lake Victoria, Lethbridge had embarked on three Arctic expeditions and two voyages to the Baltic in square-rigged sailing ships.
At the age of eighteen Lethbridge moved to Cambridge University where he discovered an interest in archaeology. It was as an undergraduate that he had seen a ghost and discovered at a fairly early stage that he was a good dowser. On completion of his degree, he began as a Cambridge archaeologist, working as a voluntary digger for Louis Clarke, the curator of the Archaeological Museum in Cambridge, but he also had a private income and this enabled him to remain a ‘free-spirit’ and not tied to the flatline thinking of academia.
He remained in Cambridge until 1957, becoming keeper of Anglo-Saxon antiquities and was Director of Excavations for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society and The University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology for 30 years, an honorary post which allowed him to retain his independence. During his time as Cambridge Lethbridge became well known in the world of archaeology through a series of stimulating articles and lectures, such as Recent Excavations in Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk (1931). During this time he wrote a series of books about Early Medieval Britain, commencing with Umiak: The European Ancestry of the ‘Women’s Boat’, self-published, in 1937.
The publication of his first major work was anticipated by his peers and the media when in 1948 Methuen & Co. Ltd published Merlin’s Island: Essays on Britain in the Dark Ages. But this book challenged the orthodox views of his peers with his interpretation of the change from Roman Britain to Saxon England. The tone of Merlin's Island provided a glimpse of the future direction his writing career would take.
However, he went on to write several 'conventional' books; Herdsmen and Hermits (Bowes & Boews, 1950), Coastwise Craft (Methuen & Co. Ltd , 1952), Boats and Boatmen (Thames & Hudson, 1952), The Painted Men (Andrew Melrose, 1954). But evidently he became bored with what he called “the academic trade-unionism” that existed within his profession and in a complete change of direction authored nine controversial 'occult' books at his home, Hole House, in Branscombe, South Devon, between 1961 and 1971, for which he is better remembered, overshadowing his earlier 'academic' works.
Lethbridge's first step away from academia started with Gogmagog, The Buried Gods (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957) in which he gives his account of his discovery of three lost chalk figures under the turf by probing the ground with canes near the Iron Age encampment known as Wandlebury, south of Cambridge, after analysing the story of Gervase of Tilbury.
"When the turf was lifted it became clear that the group consisted of a woman on horseback, possibly Magog-Epona, the horse goddess of the Celts, a man with a sword and another man with lines radiating out from his head"2
Lethbridge left Cambridge and moved to the 14th century Hole House in Devon to delve further into the hidden powers of the mind. The subject had probably fascinated him since childhood as his mother had been interested in fortune telling and during his first marriage he had shown interest in the powers of a clairvoyant who was able to see things from the past. In Devon he became acquainted with an elderly lady with knowledge of pendulums, pentagrams and such like matters. This lady was apparently able to project her astral body and and wander around and visit acquaintances at night. Lethbridge tried his hand at dowsing with a pendulum and found immediate success. The pendulum, in its simplest terms a weight on a string, is an instrument used in much the same way as the divining rod but provides much more information. It can be used to detect buried objects and provide precise information as to the objects age. The pendulum can also be used to answer questions which led Lethbridge to the conclusion that it actually serves as some form of contact between a part of the mind that already knows these things, perhaps tapping in to the 'Superconscious', and our limited everyday consciousness. Lethbridge believed at least of a third of mankind were gifted, or cursed as some might say, with this ability and for them the pendulum can produce positive results.
There is insufficient space here to discuss what makes the pendulum move. Sceptics of course claim is it involuntary movements by the dowser but in skilled hands the pendulum can be remarkably accurate in detecting the correct colour of a number of playing cards placed face down when asked back or red for example. The dowser cannot possibly know the answer. Divining rods are known to be particularly accurate in detecting water.
Now unshackled from academic restraints and experienced with a pendulum, Lethbridge wrote his first 'occult' book. In Ghost and Ghoul (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961) he advanced his theory that many ghosts are a form of 'tape recording' that playbacks for sensitive people. This developed from his use with the pendulum which he found responded to different, lengths, or rates. He found a slingshot used in a battle two thousand years ago still provides a reading for 'anger' when a 40 inch pendulum is suspended above it. A 'ghoul' was something Lethbridge described as the nasty, unsettling feeling that is experienced in certain places. Lethbridge's first recorded experience with a ghoul was in 1924 when in a chorister’s school in a cathedral close, he encountered a 'wall of icy cold' at the bottom of the stairs where he and a friend experienced an atmosphere laden with a feeling of misery. When they stepped towards it the ghoul retreated up the stairs. They followed it step by step up to the roof, wondering if it would suddenly materialise and confront them. Instead it reappeared behind them and ventured back down the staircase to the hall. Lethbridge thought this ghoul had been projected from the subconscious mind of a person that was afraid of a ghost that was reputed to haunt the end room in the corridor.
His next book Witches: Investigating an Ancient Religion (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962) dealt mainly with Margaret Murray and her theories on witchcraft as an ancient religion as part of his search for the ancient gods of Britain, a field which he first ventured into in 1957 in Gogmagog, The Buried Gods.
Ghost and Diving Rod (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963) saw him back on track with further development of the theories he discussed in Ghost and Ghoul. In the earlier work Lethbridge had mentioned seeing the ghost of a seventy year old woman in a garden near Hole House. In Ghost and Diving Rod he advanced the theory that she was the projection of somebody's mind. An underground stream ran under the lane where he was standing, 'imparting to the atmosphere above it a tingly feeling'.
This was typical of Lethbridge's style throughout the nine 'occult' books in which he was constantly expanding and advancing theories from previous books. Sometimes changing his mind completely, yet more often modifying a theory discussed in an earlier book. None of the books attempt to present a complete system of ideas but each often leads into further discussion of themes perhaps merely mentioned in a previous work. For example the theme of precognition and dreams briefly mentioned in in Ghost and Ghoul are more fully developed in The Power of the Pendulum.
With ESP. Beyond Time and Distance (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965) Lethbridge entered a new realm. In the preface he mentions an occasion where he fell through the ice during an exploration to Greenland. He states that something similar seems to have happened to him again, yet on this occasion he felt as though he had fallen through into a world where there are more dimensions. Lethbridge’s findings suggest that the mind of man is immortal and outside both space and time. In A Step in the Dark (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967) he recalls his constant experiments with the pendulum which led to all kinds of discoveries, notably that the pendulum 'rate' for death appeared to be 40 inches, and that dead objects also responded to 20 inches, speculating that the 40 inch pendulum may represent a life force on a higher plane. All earthly objects, including danger and time, have rates between 0 and 40. But he found that by extending the pendulum beyond 40 it responds once again, the new length being the earthly rate, plus 40. For example the rate for carbon is 12 which can also be detected at 52 but the pendulum now swung at a 'false position' to one side of the object. He concluded that there is another realm beyond death. By extending the pendulum by another 40 the same thing happened again but now the pendulum gives no rate for 'time' on the second level, as if this realm is somehow timeless. Lethbridge suspected the pendulum was revealing a realm on the other side of death, perhaps several. He returned to the theme and developed this concept further in The Power of the Pendulum.
In the first part of The Monkey's Tail: A Study in Evolution and Parapsychology (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969) Lethbridge, using his study of extra-sensory perception, explores the concept of genetic memory and devolution in opposition to the accepted theories of Darwin and Wallace. It seems quite clear that this theory unravels in front of both author and reader; as Lethbridge writes, a theory evolves with no real notion of where the final outcome will take him. Part Two of the book covers ground already mentioned in previous books and on completion, the reader is left, perhaps intentionally, without a conclusion.
Unfortunately for Lethbridge his book covered much the same ground as von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods: Was God An Astronaut? First published in Britain in 1969, the book popularised paleocontact and the ancient astronaut hypotheses arguing that human evolution had been manipulated through means of genetic engineering by extraterrestrial beings.
Many of von Daniken’s claims turned out to be based on inaccuracies and half truths. Consequently most of the scientific community have ignored or dismissed his hypotheses. But it captured the public imagination and became a bestseller.
But is was hardly a new theory; Peter Kolosimo argued for the possibility that human civilisation developed under the influence of beings from outer space when he wrote such books as Disowned Planet (1959) and Timeless Earth (1964). In 1960 French authors Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier published Le Matin des Magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians). Three years later it was published in Britain under the title The Dawn of Magic, in which the authors cover objects falling from the sky, objects found in rock, people with strange powers and so on, their sole aim to demonstrate that ‘science has got it wrong’.
There is little doubt that the seminal work by Pauwels and Bergier became the spring board for authors Robert Charroux and Erich von Daniken in the 1960’s. Charroux wrote about lost civilizations, secret societies, ancient astronauts and lost technologies in One Hundred Thousand Years of Man's Lost History in 1963, often referred to as the forerunner of Chariot of the Gods. For many of these authors the huge megalithic structures around the globe were cited as evidence of extraterrestrial contact.
In the introduction to the paperback edition of The Legend of the Sons of God Lethbridge explains that his book had appeared independently of von Daniken's; his wife had nearly finished typing the manuscript when a friend, Group Captain Guy Knocker, sent him a copy of Chariots of the Gods. He says that the books were so similar in many ways that he was tempted to destroy his own, but saw there were points of difference between the two works, comparing the remarkable coincidence to Darwin and Wallace who shared the theory of evolution in 1859. But there was a huge difference between Lethbridge and von Daniken; the former was doing, as he did, kicking a theory about in his book, or as he termed it 'throwing a stone into the pool and see what comes up', whereas the latter's work was based on many errors on the author’s part and unfounded speculation lacking any hard evidence, referred to by some as 'outright fraudulent claims', in the longterm probably doing the theory more harm than good, with its supporters considered the lunatic fringe.
It's tempting to wonder how much conviction Lethbridge actually had in this book himself? He conceded that although he might have seen a couple of ghosts he had never seen a UFO and introduced a couple of the later chapters discussing the possibility of spacecraft as time machines as only really fit for the television program called “Dr Who” and, perhaps inevitably, brings the question of different time dimensions back to pendulum rates.
In his earlier books Lethbridge often remarked that all over the world there seem to be traces of customs and beliefs which appear to indicate that mankind as a whole once knew many things which he has now forgotten; a species with amnesia? This theme shares much more commonality with the likes of Pauwels and Bergier than von Daniken. But the mysteries of the megaliths remains unanswered.
My initial attraction to The Legend of the Sons of God was not the possibility of alien contact in the distant past but Lethbridge's experiments with the pendulum at stone circles and standing stones. My fascination with megaliths had been seeded by a school visit to Stonehenge in the 1960s so that by my late teens I was eager to read anything I could find in an effort to understand the origins of these structures. Shortly after this I first tried dowsing – with a pendulum of course! I remember being quite amazed to read how Lethbridge had estimated the date of the construction of Stonehenge with the pendulum and six little bluestone fragments to a date of 1870 BC, when the official date at the time of his writing was 1650-1500 BC. Later research has pushed that date back even further now. However, the story of the bluestones is still being written with fragments found in the Stonehenge Layer not represented in the extant monoliths at the monument. Lethbridge does not make it clear where Newall obtained the bluestone fragments that he sent to Lethbridge; directly from stones at the monument or elsewhere. It is known Newall recovered some bluestone chips from the Cursus, for example, and this may prove significant in the date derived with the pendulum.
Lethbridge then goes on to tell us about his dowsing over a map which indicated that the Stonehenge bluestones had indeed come from Ireland as Geoffrey of Monmouth had claimed. Modern research disputes this. However, Lethbridge concedes that although Geoffrey's work is a mixture of fairy tale and legend, he knew a thousand years ago that the stones of Stonehenge had been imported to Salisbury Plain.
At the Merry Maidens, near the village of St Buryan in Cornwall, which unlike most stone circle appears to be complete, comprising nineteen granite megaliths, Lethbridge set the pendulum at 30 inches, the rate for age, putting one hand on a stone and with the other set the pendulum swinging. As soon as the pendulum started to swing, his hand resting on the stone received a tingling sensation 'not unlike a mild electric shock' and the pendulum shot out until it was circling nearly horizontal to the ground. The stone, which he estimated must have weighed over a ton, felt as if it was rocking and almost dancing about. However, he stuck to his counting, ten for each turn of the pendulum. At 451 turns it stopped gyrating and returned to a back and forth swing. This provided a figure of 4510 from which he subtracted the current year which supplied an approximate date of 2540 BC.
The next day he sent his wife Mina up to the Merry Maidens on her own to see if she experienced the same thing. She did. The experience has happened nowhere else which Lethbridge attributes to most circular monuments now being incomplete and muses that perhaps something has gone from them.
In is final book, The Power of the Pendulum (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976), published from his notes and compiled by his wife Mina after his death on 30 September 1971, he developed further the mysteries of dreams, particularly dreams that foreshadow future events, as a theme briefly mentioned in Ghost and Ghoul, aiming to determine whether the whole question of the world can be described in terms of scientific materialism or if something nearer to the 'religious' view is more correct.
Lethbridge believed he had accidentally stumbled upon a way of establishing that there are other realms of reality beyond this by the power of the pendulum. Lethbridge determined through his studies that each earthly object appears to have at least two pendulum rates, before and after death. This led Lethbridge to speculate on the two worlds revealed; worlds in a different time and different dimension, coming to the conclusion that dreams are another road to this mysterious world.
The Power and the Pendulum is a fitting conclusion to Lethbridge's life-long study of the worlds of magic, mystery and the occult. Yet, the final paragraph from The Legend of the Sons of God perhaps equally sums up his lifetime's work:
“I shall finish now. Many people will think it all rubbish.
Others will see some sense in it, even if I have produced no hard and fast theory.
Others will see some sense in it, even if I have produced no hard and fast theory.
At least I hope I have given a few something to turn over in their minds,
to see whether they can produce anything more satisfactory than I have been able to do.”
1. Colin Wilson, foreword to T C Lethbridge, The Power of the Pendulum, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
Wilson describes Lethbridge’s books as a kind of working journal into which he poured fresh discoveries and insights year by year. Wilson suggests that they in fact share this ‘fault’ with the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and other important discoverers. There is no complete ‘system’ in any of his books but collectively they portray an intuitive, developing mind.
2. Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain, Sutton, 2002.
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