We never really know what is happening behind closed doors, do we? And hidden away, on farmland in southern Wiltshire, a rural farmhouse became the home of Oxford-educated physicist and psychical researcher Benson Herbert in 1966, as a base for his unusual and interesting experiments into physical phenomena and the paranormal. This might include telekinesis, telepathy, teleportation, ’direct voice’ phenomena, and psychotronics.
Benson Herbert was director of Paraphysical Laboratory in London and a member of the Society for Psychical Research before world war two. Whilst living in London, Herbert and his friends conducted seances in the hope of creating mental and physical phenomena. It appears Herbert possessed some mediumistic ability of his own, having manifested a Chinese spirit who possessed healing powers.
Herbert believed all paraphysical events are caused by electricity in various forms. He found his home in Chelsea, London too busy and distracting for his studies due to the traffic vibration, electrical system and noise pollution there, hence he relocated to Wiltshire and set up in a quiet farmhouse up a track, halfway between the villages of Charlton-All-Saints and Whiteparish.
With his friend Manfred Cassirer, Herbert founded the Paraphysical Laboratory in Wiltshire. They conducted a series of unconventional experiments, occasionally aided by leading paraphysical researchers from around the world. In the Journal of Paraphysics, a photocopied publication founded by Herbert , he recorded his experiments.
The laboratory investigated all kinds of paranormal phenomena but specialised in physical phenomena. Through his experiments, both here and in Eastern Europe and Russia, Herbert uncovered some important evidence that show some people may possess psychic abilities.
I hadn’t heard of Benson Herbert or Paralab, until Stella got in touch with me. She’s a cartoonist, based in Bristol, and she sent me an email asking if I knew of the place, or of anyone that had ever been there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but Stella has been kind enough to write an account of what went on there during their investigations. We are hoping someone might one day come across this article and get in touch! It sounds like it was a very strange and unique place to have been able to visit.
As a teenager growing up in north Somerset in the 70s, and as a young adult in the 80s, I couldn’t avoid the ‘paranormal’. It was everywhere. The Warminster UFO sightings, Uri Geller, ‘Penda’s Fen’ on the BBC’s Play for Today. Books like Supernature by Lyall Watson, Chariots of The Gods by von Daniken, and Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World TV series, were the backdrop to my life. My mother was very interested in all this stuff, and we shared these books. I was very involved with a Sci-Fi club at the time, illustrating their publications. I remember the subject being discussed openly back then, in a way it isn’t today, unless you are involved in the sector as such.
I was an avid reader of Fortean Times, back when it was in newsprint, and you had to subscribe to it. I believe it was through FT that I saw an ad for the Paralab. They were inviting people to visit for a couple of days, with free food and lodging, if you took part in their experiments.
I decided to apply to go and by the time I was visiting this extraordinary set-up in the middle of nowhere, Benson was in his 70s; a jolly old guy with a scrubby white beard, as I remember.
He used to drive into Salisbury to the shops in a tiny Bubble car, just like this one. I volunteered to go with him, just for the fun of being in the car!
So, in my mid-20s, I visited the Paralab maybe three or four times, pottering down there on my 250cc MZ (ETZ). Motorbike. It was very much ‘bring a sleeping bag and share the communal curry’ deal. As someone who was not very sociable, communal living was something novel to me. Benson received grants from American Universities, and American students used to come and camp in the grounds in the Summer.
Privett Farm’s electricity was provided by a generator, so it wasn’t unusual on these weekends for someone to have to go out in the dark to fix it, when it went down.
The surroundings were quite a culture shock –the place was ramshackle, grubby, probably flea infested, with numerous cats, dogs, and VERY intense people. They ranged from New Age types, to what we now call ‘nerds’, to various eccentrics who were attracted to the place.
From Googling, I am pretty sure that one of the mad inventors I met there was this guy. I found this is in the Brighton Argus. Cecil Watkins, who was from Hove, went on to invent a radon extractor for homes with excess natural gas and a wheelchair that would climb stairs.
They needed visitors who were prepared to take part in the experiments, because of course you need them to be repeated thousands of times to get good sets of data. The ones I took part in were in precognition. You had to sit in front of a computer screen and hit the key when prompted, to guess the next shape the computer was randomly generating. Quite dreary, really, which is why they needed loads of new people, because they would easily get bored of it!
It was the first time I had ever SEEN a computer, never mind used one. It was all new to me, and they were using the latest tech they could get. Visiting Paralab introduced me to communal living and is something I have never forgotten. I wonder if there are other people out there that took part in any of the experiments? I’d love to get in touch.
I did manage to find a short message from Ian Stevenson on this website, Jot101, from someone who had spent some time there.
I had a friend, Deric James, now deceased, in Bournemouth who ran an occult magazine in his spare time. He took me to visit in December 1965. I was 19. There were some other visitors. We were shown a device called an octotron which consisted of four lathes of wood at right angels with a book sized piece of plywood on which to put one’s hand. It was positioned over a ouija board and supposed to be impossible for anyone to manipulate. It did produce messages.
Then we had a session of table turning. I had read about it but never seen it. It did demonstrate there are forces about which we know nothing. Benson was a very pleasant gentleman.
Whilst this blog is not a ghost story, it is a strange little account of some unusual activity in Wiltshire. For many years, and particularly in the Victorian era and onwards, a lot of research has been going on into the strange and unusual. Not always well known, or in fact well received, there are people out there who aren’t just writing about otherworldly activity, as I am, but they are trying to get to the truth. Conducting experiments and doing research. And for that, I salute them!
So, whilst this is a massive longshot, have you ever heard of Paralab or Benson Herbert? Or even better, did you ever go there? If you did, please get in touch!
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Stella for her story. Check out Stella’s work
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