On the Side of the Angels

Sheffield Hallam University journalism lecturer David Clarke will present his research on the origins of some of the First World War’s best known legends at a public event in Leicester on 11 November.Cover

New Perspectives of the First World War commemorates the lives of soldiers who fought in the 1914-18 conflict and features a stunning piece of music and narration based on one of the war’s most mysterious events.

Dr Clarke’s talk at de Montfort University’s Research Festival will examine the role played by newspapers and military propagandists in the creation of three iconic legends of the war: The Angels of Mons, the phantom Russian Army and the German ‘corpse factory’.

His research on WW1 newspapers was funded by the British Academy and first appeared in Folklore journal and later in a book, The Angel of Mons (Wiley 2004).

This presentation be followed by An Angel at Mons: Immersive Electroacoustic Music created by Professor of Composition, John Young. This provides a unique sound experience framing the recorded words of an Irish soldier who described his experiences at Mons to the BBC on his 101st birthday in 1980.

The evening also includes a talk by DMU journalism lecturers John Dilley and David Penman who have embarked on research to investigate how local newspapers in the UK manoeuvred around Lord Kitchener’s draconian wartime press censorship laws to produce articles that rivalled the war poets for powerful imagery.

Dr Clarke said: ‘With the deaths of the last surviving veterans, the First World War is now outside living memory. But the testimony of those who fought and sacrificed their lives for their country live on today in books, poems, newspaper archives and other media.

‘Public interest in the more mysterious aspects of the conflict remains as strong today as it was a hundred years ago.

‘This event will engage the public with the latest research into the origins of some of the best known rumours and legends of the war.’

New Perspectives of the First World War is part of a free festival celebrating research at DMU that runs from 9-13 November. The evening runs from 6-9.30 pm on Wednesday 11 November at The Venue@DMU, booking details here.

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Happy birthday, Crying Boy!

Thirty years ago this month the British tabloids were full of stories about mysterious fires breaking out in houses across the north of England – and the only survivor was a mawkish print of a crying boy.

The Sun's version of the story, 4 September 1985

The Sun’s version of the story, 4 September 1985

The legend began in September 1985 when my former paper, the Sheffield Star, sent reporter John Murphy to follow-up a routine calls story about a fire that badly damaged a terraced house in a South Yorkshire mining community.

A cheap, mass produced painting of a crying toddler was found in the remains, perfectly intact.

Murphy did a bit of digging and discovered fire fighters at Rotherham’s Erskine Road station had compiled a list of 50 similar fires where the painting had been found.

In each case the kitsch prints – attributed to an obscure Spanish artist known as Bragolin – were left unscathed by the devastation around them.

The Curse of the Crying Boy was born and Kelvin McKenzie, who was editor of The Sun, was soon fanning the flames with a string of stories telling of families fleeing from the evil painting.

It emerged that more than 50,000 versions of the print were sold in the UK at branches of Boots and Woolworths.

Some were crude copies of sentimental portraits of children with sad, big eyes painted in the 1960s by American artist Margaret Keane, the subject of Tim Burton’s 2014 biopic, Big Eyes.

News of the ‘curse’ led scores of people to report house fires where the painting, or versions of it, survived. By October the tabloid was encouraging worried readers to send their prints to Sun HQ for destruction on a Halloween bonfire.

But the urban legend was too good to die and from the mid-90s the Curse of the Crying Boy became an internet phenomenon. Elaborate versions of the legend have appeared online, seeking to explain who the boy was and why the paintings were cursed.


John Murphy’s story for the Sheffield Star that started an urban legend

In 2010 comedian Steve Punt quizzed McKenzie for an episode of his BBC Radio 4 series Punt PI. In suitably playful mood, he admitted the Crying Boy was born on a slow news day when a filler from a regional news agency, based on Murphy’s story, caught his eye. The fact that fire fighters – credible witnesses – appeared to confirm the story was enough for him.

When asked if there was any truth to the story, McKenzie responded:

“Who knows…[but] there comes a point when you research a story too deeply – as you keep on asking more and more questions about it – the story actually disappears and before you know where you are we are all sitting there, it’s ten to five, and we haven’t got a front page lead and the story’s just collapsed. So some stories are just too good to check.”

Too good to check? Read more about the Crying Boy legend here.


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The Warminster Syndrome

It is 50 years since the Wiltshire town of Warminster, 15 miles west of Stonehenge, first became a centre of pilgrimage for British UFO watchers.

Opening titles from 1951 sci-fi chiller 'The Thing' (credit: moria.co.nz)

Opening titles from 1951 sci-fi chiller ‘The Thing’ (credit: moria.co.nz)

As flying saucerers gather for a convention and skywatch to mark the anniversary of the mysterious ‘Warminster Thing‘, this extract from my book, How UFOs Conquered the World, explains the genesis of this modern legend:

During the late 1960s, on weekends and bank holidays, the 11,000 population of Warminster was swelled by hundreds of UFO enthusiasts. Pilgrims were forced to camp in fields as there were not enough hotels. As night fell the hills around the town were thronged with expectant sky-watchers all hoping for a personal sighting of ‘The Warminster Thing’.

They were undaunted by the fact that one of the key skywatch locations, Cradle Hill, sat alongside the largest military training zone in the UK. Large areas of Salisbury Plain are used by the British Army for weapons testing and many square miles are closed to the public even today.

The Warminster phenomena began late in December 1964 when a curious news item appeared in the weekly newspaper, The Warminster Journal. A woman on her way to church early on Christmas morning was startled by an unearthly sound like ‘branches being pulled over gravel’. This was followed by an eerie droning sound.DC14c

One week later, the town’s postmaster came forward to say he heard a similar bone-chilling aerial noise. This prompted an ‘amateur scientist’, David Holton, to sent a long letter to the paper. Holton claimed the mysterious noise had been heard for years and had once ‘disturbed a flock of pigeons from their roost’. The birds flew across its path in terror, many dropping dead to the ground.

Quizzed about this sensational story on a local TV news bulletin, Holton said he believed ‘The Thing’ came from outer space (a reference to the 1951 science fiction thriller, The Thing from Another World). It was only a matter of time before the source of the noise showed itself.

By the spring of 1965 stories about unexplained sounds were replaced by sightings of ‘bright, cigar-shaped objects’ in the sky. A bright light, dubbed the ‘amber gambler’, roamed the hills above the town. As rumours spread Elwyn Rees, chairman of the town council, called a public meeting ‘to allay fears that the happenings were a danger to the Earth’.

On Friday 27 August 1965, just before the Bank Holiday, two hundred residents squeezed into the Town Hall Assembly Room. Hundreds more gathered outside. Inside, John Cleary-Baker, the Chairman of the British UFO Research Association, the UK’s premier UFO society, reassured townsfolk they had nothing to fear from their visitors. They should ‘welcome their arrival in the sky’. He went on to link UFOs with fashionable New Age ideas about ley lines and suggested aliens could be using an ancient earthwork nearby as a ‘homing beacon’.

Graffiti spotted on Cradle Hill in 2005 (David Clarke)

Graffiti spotted on Cradle Hill in 2005 (David Clarke)

Six people at the meeting declared they had seen ‘The Thing’ but only four of these were Warminster residents. The debate almost descended into farce when Rees was handed an urgent telegram. He opened it and found a message that read: ‘Investigations completed. Invasion fears are unfounded [Signed] Dr Who.’

The public meeting failed to untangle fact from fiction but attracted TV cameras and national media to the town. Local businesses were overjoyed. Hotelier Hugh McLaren told reporters ‘this could do us as much good as the Loch Ness Monster did for Scotland.’

The Warminster Thing might have been quickly forgotten after the summer ‘silly season’ was over. The man who ensured it continued to run was Arthur Shuttlewood who, at the time, was chief reporter for the town’s newspaper.  He kept the rumours alive in a stream of articles for the Journal. By the summer of 1966 Warminster was firmly planted on the map as the place to see UFOs.

Journalist Arthur Shuttlewood, who transformed a silly season story into a modern legend (credit: BBC)

Journalist Arthur Shuttlewood, who transformed a silly season story into a modern legend (credit: BBC)

‘As a local journalist I have to report every item of news as it comes in and this was such extraordinary news,’ he told the BBC documentary Pie in the Sky. ‘Reputable people were coming forward: the head postmaster of the town, a vicar and his three children, a hospital matron, an army major who said his car was virtually stopped in its tracks at 40 mph. These sorts of people have to be trusted for their integrity’.

Shuttlewood depicted himself as a hard-bitten, cynical journalist. But his cynicism and objectivity evaporated when he went looking for UFOs.  He attributed this conversion to personal experiences with ‘The Thing’. Shuttlewood had lost the sight in one eye following a wartime accident. But despite this disability he saw UFOs on average twice every week and went on to rack up a total of 800 ‘experiences’. He told the BBC: ‘When one sees for oneself that’s it. Nothing will deter you from your absolute belief from that moment onwards’.

In 1968 he published a book, The Warminster Mystery. This was the first in a series that combined colourful accounts of his and others’ sightings with new age mysticism. Shuttlewood was a deeply religious man and believed UFOs were a sign of the approaching apocalypse. He had a way with words and quickly became a media celebrity. Visitors to Warminster regarded him as a kind of saucer guru and sought him out to experience UFO magic.

Cradle Hill, Warminster, once the centre of Britain's UFO syndrome (credit: Kevin Goodman)

Cradle Hill, Warminster, once the centre of Britain’s UFO syndrome (credit: Kevin Goodman)

Night after night he could be found on the hills above the town, skywatching with groups of visitors from across Britain and the world. One of his promises was that ‘if you stand on Cley Hill from around 9.30 at night you’ll see something unusual by midnight’. By 1967 Warminster’s reputation as the UK’s UFO spotting capital was at its height…

Seasoned UFO-watcher Kevin Goodman summarises the origins of the mystery for BBC Wiltshire here (this magazine item includes a link to the 1966 documentary Pie in the Sky).

Kevin also maintains the UFO Warminster website and Facebook group. Two excellent recent books on the phenomenon are Steve Dewey and John Ries In Alien Heat and Dewey and Goodman’s History of a Mystery.

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The Bowmen of Mons and Mars

Originally published in Fortean Times 319 (October 2014) this blogpost ponders the origins of the phantom bowmen imagined by two fantasy authors at the outbreak of the First World War.

The Bowmen and other legends of the war, 1915 (author's collection)

The Bowmen and other legends of the war, 1915 (author’s collection)

They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout, their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German host…the singing arrows darkened the air; the heathen horde melted from before them.’ [Arthur Machen, The Bowmen, September 1914]

….our giant minds…defend us, sending out legions of imaginary warriors to materialise before the mind’s eye of the foe. They see them – they see their bows drawn back – they see their slender arrows speed with unerring precision toward their hearts. And they die – killed by the power of suggestion’ [Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thuvia: Maid of Mars, 1916]

One hundred years ago the great European powers were drawn into the first war to be fought on a truly global scale. Four years of conflict produced an outpouring of literature and art and many caught up in the carnage found sustenance in religion and other types of supernatural belief. There were national calls to prayer and the notion of ‘God With Us’ encouraged the idea that troops had divine protection. Others reverted to what Paul Fussell has called ‘a medieval mindset’ that encouraged belief in a variety of apocalyptic prophecies, superstitions, wonders, miracles, rumours and legends (1).

The greatest legend of the war, The Angels of Mons, emerged from the first battle fought by British troops in Europe since Wellington’s forces defeated Napoleon at Waterloo a century earlier. At the time the Belgian battle had a symbolic importance that far outweighed any strategic significance. For the British Army the First World War ended where it began, with the first and last English soldiers both killed on outskirts of Mons in 1914 and 1918 (2).

On the morning of 23 August 1914 the professional soldiers of the small but well trained British Expeditionary Force collided with the advancing German army along the Mons-Conde canal. The BEF were heavily outnumbered, but they managed to hold back the German First Army long enough to allow their French allies to regroup on the Marne and save Paris.

The retreat from Mons inspired the Welsh-born author of fantasy fiction, Arthur Machen, to write The Bowmen. He dismissed his short story as an ‘indifferent work’ but spent the remainder of his life insisting it was the genesis of the Angels of Mons. But his protests made little impression upon those who came to believe that real angels had intervened on the Allied side, not only at Mons but elsewhere in the war.

Why was he disbelieved? The ferocity of the battles that followed the retreat and their uncertain outcome encouraged an expectant atmosphere on the Home Front that was receptive to all kinds of supernatural ideas. During 1915 rumours spread that Machen had been tipped off by a military source, or the idea for The Bowmen had been placed in his hand by ‘a lady in waiting’ sent by a highly-placed source in the British Royal family. There was also Harold’s Begbie’s theory that Machen had received a telepathic impression of ‘the vision’ from the brain of a dying soldier on the battlefield (3).

Arthur Machen (author's collection)

Arthur Machen (author’s collection)

Speculation about Machen’s source continues in the present day. In 1992 Kevin McClure wrote in Visions of Angels and Bowmen that Machen’s explanation was ‘not the whole story’ and ‘the men of the BEF, or a number of them, anyway, were aware of reports of a cloud or of angels before the publication of The Bowmen’ (4). But was that really the case?

In The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War Machen provides a clear account of his inspiration. It took one week for news of the battle of Mons to reach London. On his way to mass on the morning of Sunday, 30 August 1914, he saw billboards that told of ‘heavy losses’ and the desperate need for reinforcements at the Front.

As the priest sang and incense drifted above his gospel book, he saw: ‘…a furnace of torment and death and agony and terror seven times heated, and in the midst of the burning was the British Army’. During the ritual he imagined the archers who fought for Henry V at Agincourt invoking the Celtic saints for protection. Thinking of the BEF, he saw ‘our men with a shining about them’.

In writing The Bowmen, Machen admitted he dipped into a deep well of legend and myth that stretched far beyond Agincourt.  His story drew upon a range of sources, from Herotodus’s account of supernatural intervention in the Persian Wars to Kipling’s Lost Legion. In The Bowmen a ‘Latin scholar’ amongst the BEF is encouraged when he sees an image of St George before they leave England. During the retreat from Mons he calls out Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius (St George help the English!) in desperation when his pals are cut off and face imminent death.

Suddenly ‘a shudder and an electric shock’ pass through his body and the roar of battle dies down. A chorus of voices cry out ‘St George! St George!’ and a long line of ‘men who drew the bow’ appear beyond the trenches to reign arrows on the advancing German infantry. As the enemy soldiers crash to the ground the he knows ‘St George had brought his Agincourt bowmen to help the English.’

Whether by accident or design, the editor of the Evening News published The Bowmen on 29 September 1914, the feast day of the archangel Michael. In Victorian art and iconography, St George and St Michael were interchangeable. Both appeared as shining warrior angels that protected Christian soldiers and slew dragons. The clincher for those who knew was the reference to ‘a long line of shapes with a shining about them.’

In 1915 Machen wrote that ‘in the popular view shining and benevolent supernatural beings are angels and nothing else and so, I believe, the Bowmen of my story have become “the Angels of Mons”’ (5).Cover

During my research for The Angel of Mons (2004) I was unable to locate a single reliable eye-witness account of a vision of either bowmen or angels that could be confidently dated before The Bowmen. But one odd literary coincidence has led me to reconsider whether Machen’s imagination really was the only source for the vision of phantom bowmen.

Before he gained employment as a journalist, Machen was fond of exploring the slippery boundary between fact and fiction but he was not the only wordsmith to produce tales of magical armies from the cauldron of war.  During the summer of 1914, as Europe stood on the brink of war, the creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was at work in Chicago expanding his trilogy of Martian novels. In his first story, A Princess of Mars, former Confederate soldier John Carter is transported by astral projection to the red planet where he is drawn into a series of magical adventures.

Mars is known as Barsoom to its warring tribes and the alien warlords and creatures he meets mirror those from ancient mythology (6). The fourth novel in the Martian cycle, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, appeared in 1916 and The Phantom Bowmen of Lothar appear in chapter seven. The Lotharians are an ancient race who have become trapped in their city surrounded by mountains. The few remaining Lotharians have developed extraordinary psychic powers to defend their isolated city from attacks by hordes of green barbarians, the Torquasians.

When the Torquasians lay siege to Lothar they encounter the bowmen, ‘a fantastic army of mentally projected phantoms created by the sheer willpower of the few living Lotharians’.  Richard Lupoff’s biography of Burroughs describes the bowmen as being so realistic ‘….a vast number of casualties are inflicted on the Torquasians… and the green men are repeatedly driven off.’ (7)

His 1976 study of the Martian cycle makes the link between the bowman of Lothar and The Bowmen of Mons and drops a bombshell: Burroughs’ notebooks show that Thuvia, Maid of Mars, was written between April and June 1914 (8).  According to Irwin Porges, Burroughs completed the story during a furious writing schedule that took him from California to New York during the summer of 1914 (9).

The finished typescript was sent to his editor at All-Story Weekly soon after 20 June. If these dates are accurate his story was completed at least two months before Machen’s fantasy was inspired by news of the BEF’s stand at Mons. Lupoff maintains ‘there was no possible way for Burroughs to have read Machen’s story before writing his own tale or vice versa’. Even if this was a coincidence he described it as ‘one of the most remarkable such in modern literature’ (10).

Did the idea for phantom bowmen at Mons and on Mars occur independently to two authors separated by the Atlantic Ocean? If so this may be an example of literary synchronicity: an idea that was simultaneously visualised by powerful minds during the world crisis. The concept of synchronicity was first described by Carl Jung who, by coincidence, refers to the Angels of Mons in his 1958 book Flying Saucers as ‘a visionary rumour.

Perhaps the two ideas were, as Jung opined, examples of a type of rumour that was told in different parts of the world ‘but differs from an ordinary rumour in that it is expressed in the form of visions, or perhaps owed its existence to them in the first place and is kept alive by them’.


  1. Paul Fussell, The Great War in Modern Memory (OUP 1975)
  2. Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment died at Obourg, near Mons, on 21 August 1914. He was 15 or 16 and had lied about his age on enlistment. George Ellison, 40, of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, died nearby one and a half hours before the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918. His grave in the St Symphorien military cemetery faces that of Parr.
  3. See my book The Angel of Mons (Wiley 2004) for a full discussion of Machen’s sources and his clashes with those who believed in divine intervention such as Harold Begbie, author of On The Side of the Angels (1915).
  4. Kevin McClure, Visions of Bowmen and Angels (Harrogate, 1992).
  5. Arthur Machen, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (London 1915).
  6. The first Barsoom story was serialised as Under the Moons of Mars in the pulp magazine The All-Story during 1912. It appeared as a novel in 1917.
  7. Richard A. Lupoff, Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure (Canaveral Press, 1965).
  8. Richard A. Lupoff, Barsoom: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian Vision (Mirage Press, 1976).
  9. Irwin Porges, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Brigham Young University Press, 1975)
  10. I am grateful to Thomas Miller and Alan Bundy, members of Caermaen, the newsgroup of the Friends of Arthur Machen, for drawing my attention to Lupoff’s biography of ERB.


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Special Branch and Mars Sector 6

Special branch operatives tailed a UFO cult leader who said he was in telepathic contact with aliens, it emerged today’, announced London’s Daily Express on 28 July.

‘The bizarre high-level decision saw Scotland Yard’s finest infiltrating rallies and meetings of George King’s secretive ‘space society’ amid fears it was a front for Russian spies. ‘

George King interviewed by a 'consultant psychiatrist' on the BBC programme Lifeline, 1959 (credit: BBC)

George King interviewed by a ‘consultant psychiatrist’ on the BBC programme Lifeline, 1959. (credit: BBC)

The source of this story is a dossier released by the Metropolitan Police in 2005 in response to a Freedom of Information request ‘for information on George King and the Aetherius Society‘.

A summary of the contents was published in my book with Andy Roberts, Flying Saucerers: a Social History of British UFOlogy, published by Heart of Albion Press in the following year.

Here is an abridged version of the section dealing with the Special Branch papers:

…members of the Aetherius Society distrusted existing political and scientific establishments. They wanted to see the end of all wars and believed that by challenging the status quo a utopia could be realised. This wasn’t what middle England, now in the post-war economic boom really wanted to hear. In a decade as politically and socially paranoid as the 1950s, it was only a matter of time before George King’s activities would come to the attention of the intelligence services.

Sure enough, that time came on 26 May 1957, heralded by a headline in one of the major newspapers of the day, The Empire News.  The paper’s headline read ‘Flying Saucer Clubs Probe: Peace Messages “from outer space”. The article was uncompromising, opening with:

KingFOI1 001

One of the Special Branch memos that refers to King’s activities and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (copyright David Clarke)

‘‘Warnings’ from space against Britain’s H-bomb tests published in a flying saucer magazine take a similar line to Moscow-inspired propaganda. The ‘warning’ – in a special issue of the magazine – is being scrutinised by Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. It is suspected that a number of flying saucer clubs – and some spiritualists as well – are unwittingly being used by the Communists.’

The idea that anyone involved in a group which held marginalised beliefs, whether political or occult, could be manipulated by communists was widely held.

Flying Saucers and unusual health kicks were bad enough but any suggestion of appeasement or agreement with the Soviets was beyond the pale. The Empire News reporter went on to quote from Cosmic Voice:

‘Have not the latest peace moves come from Russia. You in the West blame Russia and say it is necessary to make these weapons to protect yourselves from them. YOU IN BRITAIN ARE IN A FAVOURABLE POSITION TO SHOW THE LARGER COUNTRIES THE WAY.’ 

It’s easy to see why this message – ostensibly from ‘Mars Sector 6’, and voiced by King in a trance – was seen as barely-concealed communist propaganda.

King was incensed when he read what he saw as an attack on his personal freedom and immediately dashed off a letter of complaint to New Scotland Yard, demanding to know what sort of scrutiny the Aetherians were under, and why. His letter was brief but indignant. In it King states that he is unaware of any scrutiny by Special Branch and states the Aetherius Society is not a club but a ‘religious and occult society, which has contact with Intelligences on certain of the other Planets. We are non-political and non-sectarian’ (letter dated 26 May 1957, Special Branch files).

KingPIC3 (Express)

George King, the self-styled Mental Channel Number One, prepares to contact Mars Sector 6 (credit: Daily Express)

King requested a prompt reply, following this up four days later when his secretary, Grace Abercrombie telephoned Scotland Yard asking when they would hear from the police. It would be tempting to believe, in view of the prevailing Cold War tensions, that Special Branch had been monitoring King and his disciples since he went public with his beliefs, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.

A Metropolitan Police telegram dated 27 May 1957, recording Ms Abercrombie’s phone call notes, ‘No trace Aetherius Society’ and ‘Unable to identify George King in S. B. Records’. Special Branch documents indicate that the Aetherius Society first came to their attention two days prior to the Empire News article, on 24 May, when a member of the newspaper’s editorial team brought a copy of Cosmic Voice to Scotland Yard and complained it showed a ‘bias to communism’.

This was a classic example of a tabloid newspaper inventing a story as they proceeded to use this visit to claim Special Branch was conducting an investigation of the society!  Of course, the Empire News had a stake in trying to ‘expose’ the Aetherius Society, as it was a notorious right wing paper. In keeping with other media in the fifties, it may also have had staff on its payroll that had contacts with police or intelligence community.

Following King’s complaint an inspector from Special Branch, under instructions from the Chief Superintendent, was sent to interview King at his Fulham home on 31 May. In what must have been a surreal meeting for both parties the Special Branch officer firstly took King to task for complaining the Aetherians were being studied by Special Branch when in fact the Empire News had merely stated the ‘warning’ in Cosmic Voice was being scrutinised by them. King apologised, but requested written assurance from the Commissioner of Police to the effect that they were not being scrutinised by Special Branch.

The Special Branch officer put King at ease telling him that he had ‘…been instructed to inform him that the Aetherius Society was not being investigated by this department.’ The interview then proceeded amicably, although King didn’t seem to grasp that by even being interviewed he, and the Aetherius Society, were under investigation.

During the lengthy interview King claimed the Aetherius Society had about one hundred members worldwide and that issues of Cosmic Voice were sent to the Prime Minister, Buckingham Palace, President Eisenhower and many other politicians and religious authorities.(Metropolitan Police Memo, June 1, 1957)

The officer’s report opined that King was, ‘…obsessed with his work on behalf of the society and is the guiding force behind it. He appears to be sincere in his beliefs but a brief perusal of his writings can leave no doubt that he is a crank, albeit a harmless one.’

Special Branch may have been initially satisfied that King and his acolytes posed no threat in 1957 but the Aetherius Society now had a profile and Special Branch officers began to collect newspaper clippings referring to the society, highlighting any references to their anti nuclear warfare stance.

In May 1958, they once again came to the attention of Special Branch, ‘during recent activities into communist activities in the Fulham area’. This brief report noted that the Aetherius Society was still, ‘…active in its campaign against nuclear weapon tests, and in this respect its policy is closely allied with that of the Communist Party.’. Yet another investigation took place but again police could find ‘….no evidence of open Communist association with the Society’ (Metropolitan Police Memo, 7 May, 1958).

But Special Branch now had the Aetherius Society firmly in its sights and when George King announced a demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square on 23 August 1958 they immediately decided to monitor the event. The demonstration was intended to explain the reason why the British government were, according to the Aetherians, ‘suppressing’ information about flying saucers’.

A copy of the Aetherius Society pamphlet used to advertise the 'disclosure' rally in Trafalgar Square in 1958 (Special Branch file)

A copy of the Aetherius Society pamphlet used to advertise the ‘disclosure’ rally in Trafalgar Square in 1958 (Special Branch file)

Aetherius Society members started out from Speakers Corner (Marble Arch), parading through the West End of London before congregating in Trafalgar Square at 3 p.m. Although Special Branch claimed that only twenty Aetherius Society members were present, several hundred passers-by took an interest in the event. Several speakers addressed the crowd, regaling them with tales of saucer sightings and the afternoon concluded with a tape recording from Interplanetary Intelligence, Mars Sector Six. Unfortunately, the ponderous tones of the ‘intelligence’, allied with a collection for donations drove most of the crowd away.

George King however was disheartened, saying: ‘I am satisfied with this as a start. Most great movements begin gradually’ (Reynolds News, 24 August 1958).  The Special Branch report concluded that ‘the general atmosphere was of quiet, amused tolerance’ and gave a detailed if cynical, outline of the major beliefs of the Aetherians noting:

‘A point of some significance was that all speakers were careful to point out that Christ, Buddha, Mahomet (sic), and other ‘great men’ were all Venusians. Elijah did not ascend to Heaven in a chariot – he was taken to Venus in a ‘Flying Saucer’.’

The Special Branch operatives also noted that:

…it can thus be seen that the Aetherius society is moulding its preposterous claims to conform with the popular concepts of religion…There is a possibility that all this high-sounding talk of ‘Karma’ and ‘Cosmic Parliaments’ is simply a system of financial gain for certain individuals and George King in particular’. (Metropolitan Police Report, 23 August 1958)

King may have enjoyed being the centre of what was as much a cult of personality as it was a flying saucer religion but whilst King did effectively make a living from the Aetherius Society, he lived a relatively modest lifestyle until his death in 1997.

Another Aetherius Society demonstration took place in London during August 1959, which Special Branch also attended. This time the demands for world governments to reveal their knowledge of flying saucers and to work together to prevent the coming nuclear conflagration were made to about two hundred people.

Belief in a government cover-up expressed by King and his followers were in essence no different to those held by the members of today’s Disclosure Movement. The only point of divergence is that King’s society described itself as a religion. At the 1959 demo amplified tape recordings of one of King’s extraterrestrial contacts, Mars Sector 6, were played and a petition calling for the British government to make an official statement about flying saucers was circulated.

Another pamphlet from the Special Branch file. The beliefs express by this UFO religion in 1958-59 are similar to those promoted by members of the 'Disclosure Movement' founded by Steven Greer in the 1990s (Special Branch files)

Another pamphlet from the Special Branch file. (Special Branch files)

As the 1950s faded into the 1960s, Special Branch began to lose interest in the Aetherius Society. Their investigations had showed that whilst they shared many fundamental ideas, neither the organisation nor any individuals within it were overtly communist.

The FOI papers reveal an underlying disdain for King and the Aetherians, one of the final memos stating: ‘The Aetherius Society is a crank, pseudo-religious, pacifist society…founded by George King who claims to be a spiritualist medium…’.

For his part, George King remained aloof and didn’t let the Special Branch investigations hinder the development of the Aetherius Society. King and his members, however naïve their beliefs, were sincere and greater things were afoot.

Note: You can watch the entire Lifeline programme interview with George King, that was originally shown on BBC TV in May 1959, on Adam Curtis’s blog ‘Mental Channel Number One – The Man from Mars’ – here.

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Sky at Night reviews ‘How UFOs Conquered the World’

Writing in the August 2015 issue of BBC Sky at Night Mark Bowyer, an expert in the US manned space programme, says:Sky@Nightcover 001

‘…As the introduction makes clear, this book is not about UFOs themselves, but the people who see and believe in them. It examines the rise in the modern UFO myth, distilling decades of detailed research and interviews into a fascinating account.

How UFOs Conquered the World re-examines some of the most famous alleged encounters with extraterrestrials – for example, the sighting made by Kenneth Arnold that led to the term “flying saucer” being coined in 1947.

‘Noting that Arnold was describing the movement rather than the shape of whatever he had seen, the book shows how this simple mistake in the original press report influenced many future sightings. It goes on to explore how UFO reports reflected the concerns of the times, the imagery of science fiction and the expectations of the viewer.

‘The reportage style is both entertaining and informative. Those who believe in the “extraterrestrial hypothesis” – that some UFOs are indeed spacecraft helmed by aliens – are never ridiculed, even when the sighting turns out to be a hoax.

‘This is rounded off with full references as well as bibliography and index, making it easy for readers to delve further, should they wish. 

‘Indeed, this is a refreshing perspective on a wide range of UFO-related experiences. Don’t be put off by the word “UFO” in the title – there is much to recommend within.’

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Apocalypse then…The Met’s X-Files

In May the tabloids revealed that detectives from Scotland Yard ‘kept dossiers on The X-Files and Star Trek, fearing the television series could cause riots and mass suicide’.

Special Branch HQ: Scotland Yard (credit: express.co.uk)

Special Branch HQ: Scotland Yard (credit: express.co.uk)

The story emerged from two briefing documents I obtained from the Metropolitan Police using a series of Freedom of Information requests in 2005.

Their contents are summarised in my book How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth (Aurum Press).

One deals in detail with the events surrounding the mass suicide in San Diego, California, by thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate movement on 26 March 1997. The second – the sixth enclosure in a series of papers contained in the file – links Heaven’s Gate with a range of pre-millennial popular beliefs and obsessions including conspiracy theories, alien abductions and the UFO myth.

Although the documents are undated the context suggests they were produced in 1997-98 in the aftermath of the mass suicide and the impending 50th anniversary of the birth of flying saucers and the Roswell incident.

My FOI request asked for ‘information on police investigations into people…with an interest in flying saucers and UFOs’. The Metropolitan Police responded on 28 February 2005 saying ‘there are only two reports that may be relevant’. The first report is transcribed in full here:

Briefing Note          

New Religious Movements (NRM’s)

(UFO NRM’s and the Millennium)

1. The purpose of this note is to draw attention the risk posed by UFO NRM’s, in relation to the millennium. It should be remembered that UFO NRM’s are new, and draw inspiration from sources one would not normally associate with religious devotion, particularly rock music, television drama and feature films.

2. Over the past decade, there has been an increase of interest in alleged government conspiracy theories. The spectrum of topics is wide ranging, particular interest is shown in UFO sightings, alien abductions, political assassinations (particularly John F. Kennedy), the Vietnam war, aeronautical and computer technology.

3. Most groups are based in the United States, and, not surprisingly, their concerns relate to events there. What should be appreciated, is the area of interest ranges from idle curiosity, to absolute, unquestioning belief. Furthermore, although some are in distinct groups, many are in isolation, but appear to embrace a general orthodoxy as to what events have taken place, and that the governments of the leading nations are conspiring to keep the truth from the general public.

4. What is of interest, is the cross fertilisation of ideas between the UFO movement, and elements of the Pentecostalists, with their interpretation of the Book of Revelation. This has particular relevance at this time, with the approach of the millennium. Certain factions attempt to give the areas of interest expressed by the UFO movement credibility, as having been predicted in Revelation.

5. Fuel is added to the fire, by television dramas and feature films, mostly produced in America. These draw together the various strands of religion, UFOs, conspiracies and mystic events, and put them into an entertaining story-line. It is not being suggested, that the production companies are intentionally attempting to foment trouble. However, the producers of the programmes, including…


The X-Files, Millennium, Dark Skies and Stark Trek know what psychological buttons to push, in order to excite interest in their product. Obviously, this is not sinister in its self, what is of concern, is the devotion certain groups and individuals ascribe to the contents of these programmes.

6. With the millennium in mind, various groups are showing an unhealthy interest in microchip technology and bar codes. It is being seriously propounded that microchips will, in the future, be implanted into hands to provide immediate screening identification, and bar codes all contain the number 666. The relevance of 666 is an obvious reference to the mark of the beast as mentioned in Revelation. Surgically implanted microchips, are being interpreted as references in Revelation to a mark being placed in the right hand or forehead, of followers of the Anti-Christ, again predicted in Revelation 13:15-18 (See Appendix A).

7. There is justifiable concern, that the millennium could precipitate an act of extreme violence, by one of the many religious apocalyptic groups. However, given their antipathy and suspicion towards areas of modern technology, it may be prudent to broaden our view of what such an attack might constitute. An obvious area of interest to UFO/Pentecostalist factions is, as previously stated, microchip and bar code technology. This could have implications for various industries, most notably international banking, as some groups appear to be interpreting their computer systems as tools of the Anti-Christ.

8. It is easy to dismiss those who adhere to these beliefs as being mentally deranged, and therefore of no consequence. Recent events, most notably the mass suicides in California by members of the Heaven’s Gate group, (who were ardent followers of the X-Files and Star Trek), and David Koresh, founder of the Branch Davidians, (who believed the feature film Lawnmower Man, was an interpretation of the Book of Revelation), indicates that their views can, and do influence others. In essence it does not matter that we do not believe, what really matters is, they do.

In the second document the anonymous Special Branch author says members of Heaven’s Gate, like many other UFO-related NRMs, drew inspiration from science fiction.

‘Much of the genre is concerned with governmental conspiracy theories. Indeed, programmes and magazines such as The X-Files, Dark Skies, Roswell and UFO Reality cite large-scale conspiracies and cover-ups as being “factual”. The problem is that growing numbers, are not treating this as entertainment, and finding it impossible to divorce fantasy from reality.

‘It is virtually impossible to disprove a negative, and the more attempts to do so simply adds fuel to the fire. The worrying aspect is that as some elements, as in the case of Heaven’s Gate, take extreme measures. On that occasion the group imploded, we cannot be certain that other groups in the future will take such ‘limited’ action. Although an American phenomenon, it is being imported into the UK’.

The Metropolitan Police have, more recently, denied access to additional files requested under FOI on groups and specific individuals linked to UFO and conspiracy-related beliefs.

‘To confirm or deny that any information is held [on individuals] would harm law enforcement functions of the MPS by disclosing operational techniques used over a significant number of years,’ a denial response dated 19 January 2015 stated. ‘This would compromise the future law enforcement capabilities of the police’.

In their response the Met cited a series of absolute exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act including  section 23 (information supplied, or relating to, the security services MI5, MI6 & GCHQ), section 24 (national security), section 31 (law enforcement) and section 40 (personal information).

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The Visit: an alien encounter

My personal highlight from the 2015 Sheffield’s International Documentary Film Festival is an experimental film that poses a fundamental human question – if aliens were to land on Earth, what would happen?

Sir David Attenborough might be used by the UK government to break the news of an alien visitation to Earth (credit: Rex Features/Daily Telegraph)

Sir David Attenborough might be used by the UK government to break the news of an alien visitation to Earth (credit: Rex Features/Daily Telegraph)

What plans do governments and other agencies have in place to deal with such an epoch-changing event?

The surprising answer is none, according to a group of experts from the United Nations HQ in Vienna who appear in the European-made film.

Among those interviewed are Vickie Sheriff, a former spokeswoman for Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, and Lord Boyce, Admiral of the Fleet.

The former British Chief of Defence Staff confirms the ‘there is no contingency plan’ at the Ministry of Defence to deal with alien visitations.

But he says in the event of an alien spacecraft landing on Earth the CDS would advise the Prime Minister to consult with other the members of the P5 United Nations Security Council.

Sheriff says the question ‘what do we tell the public?’ would loom high on her list of priorities if information was in short supply.

What are the dangers?: ‘Our greatest fear would be of losing control’ and mass anxiety, in that ‘they will panic and think we are hiding something…people have fantastic imaginations and rightly so because this is an unprecedented situation,’ she says.

Admiral Lord Boyce, former UK Chief of Defence Staff (credit: leadersweserve.wordpress.com)

Admiral Lord Boyce, former UK Chief of Defence Staff (credit: leadersweserve.wordpress.com)

Sheriff and defence analyst Paul Beaver says they would advise the Prime Minister to ‘keep it political…no military uniforms’.

But with no established rules or procedures and no obvious spokesman for humanity, they might be forced ask a trusted broadcaster like Sir David Attenborough to break the story to the public ‘because he knows about wildlife’.

For his part, Admiral Lord Boyce says that despite the UN’s leading role, the default position of some countries might be to launch a pre-emptive attack.

‘When confronted with the unknown we want to bring it into the known and conquer it. My view is this would constitute a threat to world stability and peace.’

Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen‘s The Visit: an alien encounter is both thought-provoking and unsettling in the way it grapples with the theoretical possibility of an ET visit as a philosophical question.

It includes contributions by experts from the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the French Space Agency CNES and from social scientist Doug Vakoch who is employed by SETI to compose interstellar messages ‘of the kind that one day may be sent in reply to a signal from ET.’

The Visit is a refreshing change from the tired approach adopted by documentary makers who insist on trying to examine the issue in the context of beliefs about UFOs and alien abductions.

Unusually for a documentary on alien encounters it begins with a direct statement of fact: that, as far as we know aliens have never landed on Earth.

The Visit subverts the rules by turning the spotlight back upon humanity, asking the viewer to consider not whether aliens exist, but ‘who are we, as an Other might see us?’ and, ‘if you are truly alien, will we ever understand you?’





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UFOs Conquer The World

My new book How UFOs Conquered the World was published on 14 May and is reviewed by The Sunday Times here.

Alien encounters as depicted in Thrilling Wonder Stories 1948 (credit: MEPL)

Alien encounters as depicted in Thrilling Wonder Stories 1948 (credit: MEPL)

In his review James McConnachie says UFO believers will not like this book, ‘it is not a classic debunking. David Clarke is too subtle and warm for that’ but it is ‘a good book…it pulls off being sceptical, respectful and dry…’

‘Clarke, who has a PhD in folklore, insists that everything is “perceived through the distorting prism of popular culture”. Before flying saucers there were phantom rockets, winged airships and fiery celestial chariots, as seen by the biblical prophet Ezekiel. Postwar UFO sightings aped prewar science fiction. In the 1950s and 1960s, everyone saw saucer-like shapes. (The “saucer” image derives from a misreporting in a newspaper: ‘”Why would aliens redesign the appearance of their craft,” Clarke demands, “to conform to a mistake by a journalist?”) From the late 1970s, people saw huge, hovering black triangles with pulsing corner lights, “strikingly similar” to the opened image of the 1977 film Star Wars.’

Meanwhile Marcus Berkmann, reviewing the book for the Daily Mail, said the great question ‘is, as it always has been, are little green men from distant planets visiting Earth or is it all a load of hooey?’ He goes on to say:

‘Dr David Clarke, academic and folklorist, has been asking himself this since he was a child. What he is interested in though, is the way in which the idea of the UFO has seeped into our lives and culture…the word he specifically uses is ‘myth‘ – not to mean that it’s untrue, but that it’s a story, unverified and possibly unverifiable, that millions of people have come to believe.’

Elsewhere Peter Rogerson in the Magonia Review of Books says, he ‘found this a really refreshing change after reading one naïve UFO book after another, and happy at last to read one which Magonia can wholeheartedly recommend.’

‘In this book…Britain’s leading ufologist, through his personal reminiscences and interviews provides a portrait of the rise of the UFO mythology. He recounts how seeing a (particularly dire) UFO documentary sparked his interest in the subject…In the end David Clarke comes down firmly in the psycho-social camp.. It’s important not to confuse this psycho-social approach with simple debunking. It does not take the view that because UFO reports are essentially human documents and are in some sense or another products of the human imagination they are of no interest and can be just thrown away. Rather it argues that their roots in the human imagination is exactly why they are interesting and important.’UFOs_HB_B

Blogger Andrew May makes a similar point in his review for Brian Clegg’s Popular Science. In How UFOs Conquered the World  May says ‘Dr Clarke focuses on what he calls the UFO syndrome: ‘the entire human phenomenon of seeing UFOs, believing in them and communicating ideas about what they might be’:

‘…This isn’t a book for UFO believers, who will see it as a systematic attempt to kick over all their carefully constructed sandcastles. The fact is, however, that Clarke doesn’t kick over any sandcastles at all – he simply looks at them with closer scrutiny than their builders would like. To continue the metaphor, it’s a book for people who are prepared to admire sandcastles without needing to make-believe they’re real castles. If you’re the sort of person who would never dream of buying a book with ‘UFO’ in the title – this is the one that ought to change your mind.’

Author Jenny Randles – a former director of investigations for the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA) – says of it:

‘….This book is primarily about the effect that the widespread belief in UFOs has had on our society – because whatever else is, or is not, true then that effect is profound. Since famed psychologist Carl Jung penned a book on the subject in the late 1950s we have been in need of a modern appraisal from someone who knows both the facts and how to read the signs. Now we have just that.
The world is awash with UFO books and the net an unregulated morass of web sites and chat forums dedicated to believing in six million impossible things before breakfast. This book is not one of these. It is free of jargon and is a highly intelligent look at a mysterious phenomenon that has insidiously invaded the consciousness of our world. It is one of the most illuminating and interesting books on the subject in years.
After you have read it then you may not find the UFO phenomenon to be quite so mysterious but you could very possibly consider it to be even more fascinating.’

In his reader review from Amazon, Andy Owens says:

‘A triumph of investigative journalism and logical reasoning. David Clarke is the John Pilger of ufology. Like Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux, the author reveals human nature to be far more fascinating than anything extra-terrestrial. Read any book about UFOs – but read this first. Should be on every ufologist’s bookshelf. One of the few books to have changed my way of thinking.’

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UFO New Religious Movements and the Millennium

‘It might sound more like a plot for The X-Files than a case for the real-life detectives of Scotland Yard but secret Special Branch files have revealed the Met regarded Mulder and Scully, not to mention Captain Kirk and his Star Trek crew, as threats to national security…’

Mark Branagan’s story published by the Sunday Express and followed up by the Daily Telegraph is based upon papers I obtained from the Metropolitan Police via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in 2005.

Two undated dossiers, one titled ‘New Religious Movements (UFO NRM’s and the Millennium)‘ were compiled by an unknown author to brief anti-terrorism officers.

A page from the Met Police Special Branch briefing on UFOs and the Millennium (copyright Met Police)

A page from the Met Police Special Branch briefing on UFOs and the Millennium (copyright Met Police)

The context suggests they were prepared in the aftermath of the Heaven’s Gate suicides and the fiftieth anniversary of UFOlogy in 1997-98.

The two-page memo on UFO NRMs opens by saying ‘the purpose of this note is to draw attention to the risk posed by UFO NRMs in relation to the Millennium…it should be remembered that UFO NRMs are new and draw inspiration from sources one would not normally associate with religious devotion, particularly rock music, television drama and feature films.’

Popular programmes such as The X-Files, Millennium, Dark Skies and Star Trek are listed as drawing together:

‘…the various strands of religion, UFOs, conspiracies and mystic events and put them in an entertaining story line…it is not being suggested that the production companies are intentionally attempting to ferment trouble. However [they] know what psychological buttons to press to excite interest in their products. Obviously this is not sinister in itself. What is of concern is the devotion certain groups and individuals ascribe to the contents of these programmes..’

The author said it was easy ‘to dismiss those who adhere to these beliefs as being mentally deranged, and therefore of no consequence.’

But the mass suicide by followers of both Heaven’s Gate ‘…indicates that their views can, and do influence others [and] in essence, it does not matter that we do not believe, what really matters is they do.

The briefing pointed out that members of the Heaven’s Gate group drew much of their inspiration from science fiction films and movies. Its followers spent their time watching TV programmes such as Star Trek and The X-Files, or reading UFO-related material online.

‘The problem is that growing numbers are not treating this as entertainment, and finding it impossible to divorce fantasy from reality,’ the Special Branch report continued.  Police were concerned that although the extreme type of outcome seen in San Diego was an American phenomenon, ‘it is being imported into the UK.’

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