Helen Salter (née Verrall) (1883 − 1959)

by Elizabeth Valentine, Royal Holloway University of London

Family and Education

Helen Woollgar de Gaudrion Verrall was born in Cambridge, England in 1883, the only surviving child of Arthur and Margaret Verrall, Cambridge classicists. Her father was a lecturer and later professor at Trinity College and a gifted teacher; her mother was a lecturer at Newnham College, a post she maintained throughout marriage and motherhood. Margaret Verrall was greatly interested in parapsychology; she was a prominent member of the Society for Psychical Research, and a well-known medium.

Helen Verrall was educated at home, going up to Newnham College with a scholarship in 1902, where she took first class honours in both parts of the classics tripos. However, she was not awarded her MA until 1949. Cambridge University did not grant full rights to women until 1948. Her circle of friends included liberal intellectuals, many of whom were later to distinguish themselves in politics and the arts. She then attended a year’s course in psychology at London University. In 1913 she was appointed Demonstrator in Psychology at King’s College London, a post she held for three years, and the following year she was elected a member of the British Psychological Society. In 1915, she married William Henry Salter, who also became an active member of the Society for Psychical Research. They had one daughter, Imogen, and one son, Martin. Thereafter Salter applied her talents, time, and energy to the work of the Society for Psychical Research and to local government.

Psychical Research

Salter began “automatic writing” in light trance states in 1903. With her mother, she was one of the four mediums involved in the celebrated Palm Sunday case of so-called “cross-correspondences.” The 3,000 scripts collected over three decades showed remarkable agreement and continuity, which have not been fully explained. Though motivated by a desire to fill the vacancy left by a decline in religious belief and hoping for scientific evidence of the immortality of the soul, psychical researchers were intent on viewing the evidence dispassionately and rationally.

Salter served the Society for Psychical Research for 40 years — as research officer, council member, vice-president and editor of the Journal and the Proceedings, work she undertook with imagination and strict integrity. She contributed many articles to these publications. In 1934, she published a book, Evidence for telepathy: The response to a broadcast request for cases. Of the 400 letters received in response to the appeal, 58 were deemed worthy of further enquiry. The project had two aims: to outline the kind of evidence required for telepathy to become a generally accepted scientific fact; and to examine its varieties and any recurring factors. In relation to the first, Salter pointed out that those untrained in psychology were rarely aware of how inaccurate memory frequently is, especially when emotion is involved. She stressed the importance of recording experiences fully at the time of their occurrence and the value of corroboration by witnesses. She concluded that many of the cases reported did not conform to the standard of evidence required by scientific research. With regard to the second aim, death experiences, illness, hallucinations, waking impressions and dreams were listed; telepathic experiences were four times more common in women than men.

Public Service

Helen Verrall Salter played a prominent role in local affairs. She was a member of Saffron Walden Rural District Council from 1925−1949 and its chairman and an ex-officio Justice of the Peace from 1937−49. She was the chairman of the Public Health and Housing Committee, billeting officer for her local town, and a member of various other committees of Essex County Council. She was a member of the Council of the British and Foreign School Society and took a particular interest in Saffron Walden Teachers’ Training College, of which she was a governor for 38 years and chairman for over 20. She fought hard to uphold standards and gave much thought and time to its finances. In appreciation, a new extension wing in 1955 was named the “Helen Salter Wing.”. Those who knew her described her as a shining example of mens sana in corpore sane, of sound reasoning and good judgment, a great lady of impressive presence, who knew how to get the best out of people.

Conclusions

Helen Verrall Salter may not be a typical psychologist, but her case illustrates several points. Firstly, it was not necessary to have a relevant qualification for employment as a psychologist in a British university in the early 20th century; possibly personal contacts were more important in securing a job. Secondly, women who married and had children found ways of using their skills and expertise indirectly. Salter applied her scientific approach and psychological knowledge to psychical research. Thirdly, many upper class women devoted their energies to philanthropic work. As Alice Woods, the great British advocate of co-education, remarked on attending a reception in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she met Professor and Mrs William James: “I was rather confirmed in an opinion that is growing on me that the best American women do not go into teaching and educational work so much as into philanthropy.” (Letter to her sister, November 1907; Brunel University Archive: MGC/1/7/1)

Palm Sunday was the day on which one of the supposed communicators had died.