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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Nicholl-Higginson Planchette

In my realm of collecting, it is incredibly rare to acquire items with any sort of significant provenance. Talking boards seem to come along with disclaimers of "this was my grandfather's board" far more often than planchettes, and given that there's a 2-generation gap between the initial popular peaks of the devices, and that planchettes faded into obscurity after their very-last-gasp in the 1930s, that should come as little surprise. And while my peers in the talking board world are often able to locate surviving family members with some recollection of their forebears' manufacturing activities, equivalent discoveries for an industry stretching back many decades further into the 1860s proves exceptionally problematic--there's just too much time and distance between the people and events--and the memories died with those who carried them a generation or two before I arrived to archive them.

But not all is lost. This past June, I managed to acquire a very special piece--one of a fantastic set of planchettes--with verifiable provenance, a rich family connection, and ties to Spiritualism in the UKand famous mediums of the pre-and-post-WWII period. And I must thank series regular Glenn Rinker for his recent astute observations that jarred me to the historical potential of this item after I'd shelved away the keywords for future follow-up. Thank you, Mr. Weatherman!
The Nicholl-Higginson planchette as solicited, its assigned name preserving both its family and Spiritualist associations.
When Mr. Nicholl-Morris first contacted me about the purchase of his family's planchette, there was no initial cause for excitement beyond that which a collector feels when they first see a new discovery. Exuberance, yes, but not the awe and reverence that comes with a provenanced item. In fact, it wasn't anything Mr. Nicholl-Morris felt obliged to pitch as part of the purchase, beyond the hints that the planchette had been in his family for some years.

In fact, my initial assessment of the planchette was that it was most likely handmade, though possibly a manufactured item, but if it was a production piece, I guessed from afar, the original castors had long been replaced with the sturdier and bulkier ball-bearing castors more commonly found in the furniture trade. If that were the case, I predicted the original castor holes would be visible beneath the newer encasements, and I'd be able to confirm if it was a production or homemade piece. Given the classic shape and seemingly-exquisite construction, my opinion was split.

And that remained, at least initially, the biggest question the planchette posed, and I otherwise acquired it with my usual zeal and gratitude to Mr. Nicholl-Morris.
The Nicholl-Higginson planchette on arrival, with Mr. Nicholl-Morris' letter behind.
When the planchette arrived from overseas, it contained a few surprises. Not the least of which was the discovered absence of other hardware marks or holes from previous castors hidden beneath the oversized ball-bearing housings, whose retention screws just barely protruded through the top-piece where they were cut or filed down. In other words, this was most likely a handmade item, and not a manufactured piece. But with the exception of the near-overlong screws, it was lovingly constructed--perhaps professionally so--with the bulky hardware seemingly betraying it as such.

But the box contained another surprise: the personal recollections of Mr. Nicholls-Morris and the history of the planchette, lovingly scripted in a 4-page letter. It recounts a fair bit of family history centered on his grandmother, Mrs. Lois May Nicholl (nee Dixon, b. 1877) who passed away at the grand old age of 81 in 1959. Mrs. Nicholl was a "life-long enthusiast" of Spiritualism, spirit communication, and psychic phenomena--a quality she implanted in her grandson, who remains a member of the British Society for Psychical Research. Mr. Nicholl-Morris's letter recounted how he recalled that the planchette had been in his family from at least 1942, and that he clearly remembered his grandmother "getting messages off it, but my mother, another, and brother mainly obtained only scrawl!"

Accounts of a planchette specimen's use are rare enough, but the letter contained other intriguing details of the item's history and Mrs. Nicholl's spiritualist involvements. The seance circle attended by Lois May was one hosted by famed trance medium Fanny Higginson at London, Stock-on-Trent, in the area of Staffordshire known as the "Potteries" for its established ceramics industry. Fanny Higginson is, of course, the mother and mentor of famous British medium Gordon Higginson, and a famous medium in her own right, so well-known for her accuracy that a large British mining company would not dig test bore holes without her consultation. Fanny was inspired to mediumship as a teenager when she attended a seance held by Annie Brittain at Longton Church, who insisted despite Fanny's protests that the young girl's still-living mother's spirit was there with them; Fanny returned home with her Aunt to discover the medium was right after all, and that her mother had died while she was away. This event (and the medium's prediction that both Fanny and her future son would lead the church into a new era of spiritual communion) sparked not only a lifetime of devotion to Spiritualism and mediumship, but also a strict relationship in the upbringing of her son, Gordon Higginson, who's ascent would eclipse that of his mother's and who would eventually assume the role of President of the very church whose visit inspired his mother toward mediumship.
The trance medium Fanny Higginson
Gordon Higginson manifesting ectoplasm.

It is in this context that Lois May Nicholl displayed her automatic writing talents. Her grandson recounts her enthusiastic involvement throughout the 1930s and '40s, until her participation was cut short in 1945 with the family's move to North Wales. While she remained in Staffordshire, it is said she "received messages at Mrs. Higginson's circle to pass on to relative of military personnel who had lost their lives--sometimes carrying resentment!" And there, in her hands to receive these messages, was this planchette. And for all these years since her passing, her grandson has kept the device, before seeking a good home for his family's history and heritage in the vaults. And we are thrilled and honored to be able to provide that assistance and share his memories of this enigmatic device that has such close ties to Spiritualism in the UK! As our research into the life of Lois May Nicholl continues, so too will her unfolding story.
The Nicholl-Morris Planchette on display.
As a side note to our arrangement, Mr. Nicholl-Morris immediately offered another planchette--this one belonging to he and his wife, and purchased some 15 years prior when he temporarily misplaced his grandmother's planchette and was in need of an automatic writer. It, too, is a fine specimen, and this time immediately identifiable as a Two Worlds Ball-Bearing Planchette, offered by the eponymous magazine in the 1930s onward. They are among the finest planchettes ever constructed or offered by any firm, with smooth-rolling ball-bearings and as thin and fine of construction as one might hope--and likely manufactured by the scientific-instrument makers Weyers Brothers.  I am proud to display the pieces in tandem, and leave the leaves of history here so that the contributions of the Nicholl family to the research and dialogie of spirit communication devices, automatic writing, and Spiritualism will be remembered as long as I'm able to carry the torch.

Two Worlds Planchette Ad, 1938.