A Surprise Encounter with David Carstairs: Dion Fortune, Spiritualism, Occultism and the SOL School


A Surprise Encounter with David Carstairs: Dion Fortune, Spiritualism, Occultism and the SOL School


Dion Fortune wrote the following sentences in an important article called: “The Secret Tradition, Occultism and Spiritualism” that she wrote for the Spiritualist periodical “Light” in 1942:

“Yoga, spiritualism and the psychology of the unconscious are the three keys that open the gates of the Ancient Mysteries to modern thought.” 

“Personally, I think that occultists could profit by an acquaintance with the method of developing mediums used in well-conducted “home circles,” which would enable them to cut away a great deal of the traditional ritualistic paraphernalia.”

Dion Fortune was a formidable trance medium, although she had a complex relationship with the Spiritualist movement. At times she was highly critical of it, whereas in her later years she revealed the debts she, and the teachings of the Society of the Inner Light that she founded owed to her work with Spiritualist teachings and techniques of working with awareness of the aura and subtle ‘etheric’ body in altered states of consciousness.

I read the article reprinted in the book “Spiritualism and Occultism” by Dion Fortune and Gareth Knight (Thoth Publications, Loughborough, 1999, pp 41-49) after I had begun to practically explore Spiritualism myself in the autumn of 2017.

The medium who led the development circle that I had begun to attend, Peter Wilson CSNU, started to speak to us one day about his guide while he was teaching us in one of his classes. He said: “he took the appearance of a WWI soldier and used to work with a medium called Violet Mary Firth, who was also known as Dion Fortune.”

 I was taken aback and quite shocked as Peter knew nothing of my esoteric interests, that I was at that time the Assistant Director of Studies of the Servants of the Light School working closely with Dolores Ashcroft Nowicki who had been trained by one of Dion Fortune’s personal students who was also an initiated member of her Fraternity of the Inner Light: Walter Ernest Butler.

We magicians do not take such “coincidences” lightly, but on the other hand, we are astutely aware that fraudsters and manipulators often weave glamour in our path to ensnare or mislead for their own egotistical and exploitative purposes. Was Peter tricking me, I initially thought or was I led to Longton Spiritualist Church to have a live encounter with David Carstairs while brushing up on my psychic skills and beginning to develop as a Spiritual Medium?

I discussed the matter with Peter and told him that Dion Fortune’s work was very significant in my life and work. He told me that he knew nothing of Dion Fortune until David Carstairs presented himself as his new teacher and guide one day while he was sitting (meditating) in the Silence.

Carstairs had appeared in Peter’s subjective clairvoyant vision as a soldier and Peter said he was very concerned with the souls of those who are impacted by the calamity of war and how peace and healing might come to those who suffer in or through war. Carstairs was very interested in working with all aspects of “remembering the dead” in healing ways, Peter said. He also told Peter that he had worked with others as a “guide” and one medium, in particular, had been in his care and she was called “Violet Mary Firth who wrote some books.”

Peter then researched Violet Mary Firth and discovered “Dion Fortune” but told me he had not read any of her books because they were all about “magic and stuff” and he was not really into that.

I still thought that Peter might be manipulating me and that he could have searched my name on the internet and discovered my links with the SOL school, that has historical links with Dion Fortune the trance medium, magician and occultist.

David Carstairs has been in my awareness for decades through my studies of Dion Fortune’s life and work and Gareth Knight and Rebecca Wilby’s work on the “Abbey Papers” that I had worked with too. 

 I felt guilty in some ways for doubting him and was aware my ego could be surfacing too. Why would Peter want to “google me” when I was just “Steve Critchley” to him who had turned up in his development circle for beginners in October 2017.  

 Then I found out that in 2010, several years before we met in 2017, Peter had published a small book about how he developed as a medium following the death of his beloved wife, Pauline. The book is called “Pauline’s Gift: Know that Life is Eternal.” In the book, Peter discusses how “David Carstairs” came into his life and changed it as his teacher of mediumship.

So, “by chance” and following my intuition, I had begun to attend a Spiritualist church near where I live, found out it was one of the best known in the country with a grand history, and then when I attended a beginners class in the development of psychic and mediumistic awareness I was taught, initially, by a medium who said his primary teaching guide was “David Carstairs” who used to work with Dion Fortune!

When I told Dolores about my surprise encounter with “David Carstairs” on the phone, she nearly had kittens laughing about at first. But then she also recognised that this was an essential aspect of my work because: “Ernest also worked on the platform, of Spiritualist churches as a clairvoyant and medium and Robert King first teacher was also a medium of some renown.” Robert King was one of the mediums on staff at Julia’s Bureau in London that was founded and managed by the Spiritualist pioneer W.T. Stead. 

My Development as a Spiritual Medium

During the last year of my working as the Assistant Director of Studies of the SOL, I started having curious dreams. When falling to sleep at night, or when waking in the morning, I would see faces floating past my mind’s eye. The people I saw were from a host of different backgrounds. Some images were still and could be in either black and white or in colour, like detailed photographs. Sometimes I saw them in little movie-like clips: an old lady sat knitting; a mother bouncing a baby on her knee; a man stood in a bus stop; a carpenter working etc.…  

I also began to feel an insistent tug on my heart: “find a Spiritualist church nearby and visit it.”

One day I asked my partner, Ed: “when you are drifting off to sleep or waking up do you see pictures of people’s faces floating through your mind, or see them doing everyday actions for a second or two, like little movie clips?”

 “No,” he said, emphatically, smiling and rolling of his eyes.

Following my intuition to check out a local Spiritualist church, I explored the website of the SNU (Spiritualist National Union), and they had a postcode checker to help find the nearest church. We live in quite a remote spot in the hills of the English Peak District, but I found that Longton National Spiritualist Church in nearby Stoke-on-Trent was the nearest to me, as the crow flies.

I decided to give it a visit one Sunday evening for the Divine Service. I had no idea that Longton is one of the most renowned Spiritualist Churches in the world with a rich history. The church was led for many years by Gordon Higginson who had an international reputation as a great medium and teacher. Before Gordon’s time, the church had been built up by his mother, Fanny Higginson who was also a profoundly respected medium. Gordon was president of the Spiritualist National Union for many years and also the Principal of the Arthur Findlay College for decades. The Arthur Findlay College was also to be a place where I would go on to practically study mediumship at a future date. 

I enjoyed the service at Longton and decided to try their Thursday afternoon development class for beginners. I already had a wealth of esoteric experience and was familiar with psychic work and inner experiences with “Contacts.” But I had never thought of myself as a medium.

I never thought that I might work on the platform publicly in Spiritualist churches as an evidential Spiritual Medium; I certainly had no ambition for that work. I was keen to learn how psychism and mediumship worked though from a Spiritualist perspective.

Mindful that one is “always a neophyte,” and there is always something new to learn I was happy to attend the beginners class.

First, Peter put me through my paces testing psychic abilities: reading fellow students, psychometry, reading pictures he brought in to class and asking me to tell him things about the people in the photographs who were strangers to me etc…

Following the psychic work, Peter said that he would now help me to make a link with Spirit and see how different it was to work as a medium rather than on a purely psychic level. A saying he used that I have heard repeated many times now is: “all mediums are psychic, but not all psychics are mediums.”

What does that mean? A psychic reads the aura of living people, objects or atmospheres they encounter, a medium makes a link with a discarnate person, living in the ‘spirit-world’ also sometimes called the etheric world and relays information from them.

Genuine mediumship is Divine work that always has healing potential within it, and it is best expressed as an act of service.

I made my first contact as a medium under Peter’s tutelage in the library at Longton Spiritualist Church. Later I would train with Kath and Mitch Shirley in the church and with other mediums in the wider Spiritualist community, including training at the Arthur Findlay College.

At the time of writing, I have begun working publicly as a medium in Spiritualist Church services. In private, I have also been working with aspects of trance mediumship.

The SOL school practically teaches the Mystical Qabalah in the context of the western esoteric tradition. We do not teach from the perspective of any one religious or philosophical belief system.

There are no plans to promote Spiritualism, as a religion, in the SOL. Students from a variety of faith backgrounds continue to work in the school and in our lodges. My personal esoteric, occult, and mystical experience has led me through several systems of belief as part of my ongoing personal quest. My continued work as a Spiritual Medium and what I have learned practically through my development and the methods employed in it will undoubtedly impact my ability to teach about the etheric body and awareness within the aura. 

In her article “The Secret Tradition,” Dion Fortune wrote:

“For many years I have inveighed against occult secrecy as not only outworn but dishonest; more and more clearly has widening knowledge taught me the value of rapprochement between occultism and spiritualism, and I am convinced that the time is now ripe for such a development.” (P. 46)

My personal work and teaching will certainly continue in light of what I have learned, and the experiences I have had, since my surprise encounter with David Carstairs. In many ways, it does not even matter if the “David Carstairs” Peter worked with is indeed the same person who worked with Dion Fortune, Margaret Lumley Brown (the trance medium who served in the Society of the Inner light after DF’s death), Rebecca Wilby and others. Though it was inspiring thinking that the medium who led me through the process of making my first mediumistic link with the world of spirit was being guided by David Carstairs and this association had been made spontaneously and without predetermination at least on mine and Peter Wilson’s part.

Peter Wilson passed into the world of Spirit himself earlier this year, and I was very touched to receive a text message from him a few days before his physical death. He knew I had demonstrated mediumship in a Divine Service at Longton Spiritualist Church on Sunday 7th April and shortly after (on the 9th April 2019) he wrote: 

“Well done on the service, I am proud of you. Very best wishes, Peter.” 

It is also interesting to note that the pioneer Spiritualist medium Emma Hardinge Britten (1832-1899) was one of the founding members of the Theosophical Society in New York on the 7th September 1875, but that is another story!

© 2019, Steven Critchley & Servants of the Light

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