In his short story ‘The Great Return’, which adapts several of the Revival phenomena, Arthur Machen makes use of the incidence of mysterious sounds. I imagine that he was aware of the SPR investigation, because it mentions several cases. Perhaps because there aren’t many ways to describe a sound, all the reports are quite brief.
Reports of incidents in Montgomeryshire -
“D.D., J.J. and R.J. during the service at the Parish Church, heard bells chiming on 29th January. The sound was over their heads. There were many by them, but they were the only ones that heard it.”
“E.B., on wednesday previous, heard about four o’clock what appeared to him to be a thunderclap, followed by a lovely singing in the air.”
“E.E., on Saturday evening, between seven and eight, while returning home from his work, heard some strange music, similar to the vibration caused by telegraph wires, only much louder, on an eminence, the hill being far from any trees and wires of any kind, and it was more or less a still evening.”
“J.P. heard some lovely singing on the road, about half a mile from his home, on Saturday evening three weeks ago, which frightened him very much.”
“A report from the Rev.J.M.E., Vicar of —-
A few days before Christmas, 1904, I was riding to see some parishioners. They lived about three miles up the hillside. as I was gradually ascended I fancied I heard voices singing. I took little notice for the moment, believing it was pure fancy. Gradually, the voices seemed to increase in volume, until at last they became quite overpowering. I was trying to imagine it could be nothing outside myself, as it were, but the wonderful harmony seemed to be borne on me entirely from the outside, and was as real to my senses as anything I have ever heard. I could distinguish the words distinctly. (Here follows four lines of a type of hymn in Welsh – the percipient had never heard it before).
The moment the refrain would come to an end it would be restarted, the volume becoming greater and greater. To me it was an exquisite sensation. When about arriving at my destination the voices suddenly ceased. I have had no trace of the recurrence of such a thing, and never had such an experience previously. I am not given to study or dwell upon any such manifestations.”
I must stress that the above oddments are only the product of one man’s postal enquiries, following up leads. It is likely that many other experiences occurred during the Revival, that some would have occurred anyway, and that some occurred because of the effects of faith, and the sense that it was permissible, even proper, to make such reports. It is not always so. As it is, this selection of accounts from the latter part of 1904 to mid-1905 covers most of the prominent motifs of mythology and folklore, with some hints of later UFO reports. It is a microcosm of claimed anomalous experience.
The Strange Case of the Cambrian News
The Barmouth Advertiser maintained an objective approach to Mary Jones throughout the Revival in North Wales. The latest mention I can find in the Advertiser is a brief report of her conducting a service in May 1905. The Aberystwyth-published Cambrian News, however, responded differently.
Up to 17.2.05 its weekly reports concerning Mrs Jones, as we have seen, were intelligent and intrigued. And the paper had previously given vigorous support to Evan Roberts in a vehement dispute with the Rev.Peter Price over criticisms of Roberts’ mystical and dramatic approach to his mission. Yet in the editorial content of the weekly issue dated 24.2.05, a distinct, incomprehensible change in attitude becomes apparent. The news report concerning Mary Jones is calm and informative -
“At Tre’rddol, several state that they saw the lights which are associated with Mrs Jones’ mission. Mrs Jones was followed by a number of journalists and photographers, and it is noteworthy that, unassuming a person as Mrs Jones is, she succumbed on Wednesday to be photographed for the first time since she has become so prominent. She is reported to have stated elsewhere that she was glad that none of the ‘snap-shotters’ had been able to photgraph the Lights . . Mrs Jones has evidently been the means of spreading the Revival to a great extent.”
However, in three other parts of the same paper the following, surprising commments appeared -
“The Lampeter rappings (a poltergeist-type phenomenon seemingly unrelated to the Revival. KM) and the Merionethshire light-flashings are so elementary and so obviously indications of individual mental disturbance that it is not an easy matter to write about seriously. If the ALMIGHTY wants to give manifestations he can hurl this earth into the sun, and can throw the moon so far into infinite space that it would not return in a million years, and yet mentally-upset revivalists of the feebler sort represent God as playing at rappings, and as flashing about tricky fireworks among the hills of Merionethshire. This is absurd . . .
We have no shadow of belief in the rappings, or the visions, or the flashings, or in the miraculous insight. There is no need for them . . . the tendency of the Revival is to lower the average religious tone . . .
The Revivalists would be wise, if they do see ghosts, and hear knockings, and voices, and see strange lights, to say nothing whatever about them. When a person sees flashing lights he may take it for granted that he has jim-jams. Jim-jams are really dangerous, and when he hears knockings as well he is in a fair way to find himself locked up in a padded room . . . The Revivalists are killing the movement by their own superstitions and imaginings. The laws of the world are not altered. How conceited the individual who thinks that God communicates specially with him.”
And so it goes on. 3.3.05, in the ‘Up and Down the Coast’ section – ‘Merioneth Lights’ -
“There can be no doubt that the people see lights and hear sounds. A buzzing in the ears is a very common complaint. When the buzzing begins to sound like voices the case is getting dangerous. The Towyn star has gone out. How credulous people are.”
10.3.05 (Editorial Notes) “The worse than silly talk about revival visions and flashes and spirit compellings goes on. The revival is being discredited and the neurotics are monopolising attention.”
17.3.05 (Editorial Notes) “The individuals who begin to see visions, hear voices and rappings cannot be too carefully tended by their friends. Mr Evan Roberts and Mrs Mary Jones must take care of their stomachs and nerves. They may be upset . . . God is not reduced to conjuring tricks of a very low order.”
17.3.05 (‘Up and Down the Coast’)
Have you seen the lights that shine
Have you heard almighty tappings
Do there come commands divine
Are you sure of Angel flappings
If these things you see and hear
Sometimes distant, sometimes near
Don’t you seek to reconcile ‘em
They’ll do that in the Asylum.
Some historical material emerged from enquiries made because of the Revival phenomena. The only ‘high-strangeness’ event was reported in the Barmouth Advertiser of 26.1.05 from a geography and Atlas of Wales by Robert Morden, published over 100 years previously -
“‘Tis creditably reported that in the year 1692 a fiery exhalation was seen to cross the sea, and to set fire to the ricks of hay, corn, and barns near Harlech, and to infect the grass, but was not mischievous to men, though they were in the midst of it. It proceeded in the night from the same place for some months, commonly on Saturdays or Sundays. The only remedy to extinguish or drive it away was to sound horns or trumpets, or to discharge guns.
As it was natural in those days of dark superstition, all this was attributed to witchcraft. Bishop Gibson contended that it was caused by the corrupted bodies of a great number of locusts that had visited these parts about that time. This, however, cannot be regarded as a satisfactory explanation. All agreed that this was a luminous mist, but as to its origin scientists do not agree.”
The remainder of the historical material either relates, pretty clearly, to marsh gas, or to places away from the Barmouth to Harlech coast, the centre of the ‘Egryn Lights’. The Occult Review mentions several possible explanations – the planet Venus, Marsh Gas, St Elmo’s Fire, the Aurora Borealis, the ‘Fata Morgana’ (the seaborne fairy of the Bretons) astral projection and more. It discounts most, and apparently favours none.
The Barmouth Advertiser presents a number of historical cases from all over the world, primarily of ‘phosphoric lights’, but gives the impression that it would really like most to believe that the Holy Spirit was walking abroad among its regular customers.
The Rev.A.T.Fryer’s introduction to his collection of reports in the SPR Proceedings is an excellent work in itself. Explanations were not his priority – which was to present the best of the available source material – but the summary of possible explanations given in his introduction warrants quoting in full -
“It is important to note that the coast in the neighbourhood of Dyffryn has been favoured or disfavoured with lights of many shapes and sizes in former times. Pennant, in his ‘Tour in Wales’, gives a full account of the appearances of mysterious blue flames that alarmed people and did material damage near Harlech in 1694 (or 1692, as above). Lights of a blue colour appeared also in the neighbourhood of Pwllheli in 1875, and the publication of Mr Picton-Jones’ account of what he then saw elicited from a correspondent the relation of a similar occurrence in 1869 or 1870. Again in 1877 lights of various colours were seen moving over the estuary of the Dysynni . . .
I am not satisfied (Fryer continues) with the investigations that have taken place, and I think now, as I did at the first, that the Society might well employ a geological expertto go over the district and discover, if possible, what conditions are favourable to the natural production of incandescent vapours. Mr B.Redwood was sent down by the Daily Mail in February 1905, but his report is not to me conclusive. He planned his investigation on the supposition of electrical disturbance, and I was not surprised that he was disappointed at the result. He says, with more approximation to what I think is the cause of some of the lights, that it is just possible that there may have been some lights caused by spontaneous ignition of phosphuretted hydrogen generated at the marsh at Egryn and distorted by mist. He adds that, ‘Methane, or marsh gas, is never self-ignited, and may be left out of the question.’ With his personal opinion of Mrs Jones I am not inclined to agree; but granting its truth, we still have to reckon with the witnesses as to the reality of both subjective and objective lights.
The evidence received I propose to give, first, however, stating my conviction that Merionethshire has been the scene of a large amount of exaggeration and misconception, and perhaps trickery. But having made all allowance for persons who mistook meteors, brightly shining planets, farm lanterns, railway signals, and bodies of ignited gases for tokens of heavenly approval, there remain sufficient instances of abnormal phenomena to encourage further enquiry. Evidence of misapprehensions I have received.”
Conclusions – 75 + 15 years on
I started researching this material in 1978, and published the booklet in its original form in 1980. I chose this subject because Mary Jones and the Egryn Lights were appearing regularly in the ‘new ufology’ books of that period, written by people like Jerome Clark, Loren Coleman, and the late D.Scott Rogo, of fond memory. Egryn was being presented alongside the Fatima visions, and the ‘Dance of the Sun’. I wanted to see what it really amounted to, and expected to be taking on the role of debunker. To my surprise, I found myself trying to investigate a genuine mystery, though the 75 years that had passed since the original events meant that what I could do was limited.
A lot of the research was done at the British library at Hendon, digging through endless volumes of old newspapers. The SPR, in the form of the wonderful Eleanor O’Keefe, was kindness itself, and ideas and background knowledge came freely from one Brynmor Williams, at that time working for BBC Wales. He even tried to find me some eyewitnesses, but the one good soul he traced for me just didn’t want to be disturbed. However, the family had a super holiday on the caravan site now built round Mary Jones’ house, and I still love the stretch of coast between Barmouth and Harlech. If wonderful events could happen anywhere, it would be there.
I wrote a long, reasoned, quite affirmative conclusion to the first edition of ‘Stars’. Fifteen years on I have scarcely altered the content thus far, apart from excising some of the more flowery language, and trying to correct the spelling mistakes. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s best to leave conclusions to others. The great bulk of the significant cases and reports are together in one place – I’ll limit myself to a few suggestions as to how these reports might relate to others.
The strongest of these accounts are perhaps those from journalists, some of them from national papers. I don’t think they were making up their accounts, and the one involving the carriage ride, and the light where “some large body between earth and sky had suddenly opened” is, particularly in 1905, quite remarkable. This was no earth light; there were no street lamps, no areoplanes. If we think in terms of UFO research, we cannot dismiss the usual 90%+ on the grounds of ‘misapprehension of conventional events’. If the reporter told true, it is an extraordinary matter. There are also accounts of absolute clarity from several ordained ministers. I would not readily dismiss them.
There is significance in the contemporary understanding that some people would see a light while another did not. How often does any anomaly researcher encounter that situation? And I have no doubt that the ‘religious mania’ that drove some to a form of insanity and to the Asylum, led others to the visions and experiences of divine figures that I have recounted. They probably had no objective reality, but they were as real to their percipients as are most apparently paranormal events. If I learned one thing from putting ‘Stars’ together, it was the near-continuity between fringe religious experiences, and fringe experiences of many other kinds. I’m still working on that one.
I’d like to stress one important factor – the simple geographical one of the location of the Egryn Chapel. The area is, even now, sparsely populated. The only main road is that linking Barmouth and Harlech and on its east side lies the Egryn Chapel. While there in 1979, I spoke to a few local people who had heard the stories of the lights, but the only explanations I heard were ones involving ‘men carrying lanterns in the fields’ and ‘moonlight on broken glass’. I have heard of another relating to the lighted windows of houses. The hills do rise steeply behind and, visually, around the chapel, but unless the lanterns were of immense power, deftly controlled, and the bearers choreograpphed, there are several of the Egryn reports, let alone those away from the chapel itself, which simply do not adapt to this theory. The distance from the observer to the ‘lanterns’ would have been too great to produce the reported effects, and as to houses, there hardly are any, they had no electricity supply, and clearly could not have moved. Whatever explanation there may be, I do not think it is this simple.
I would like to know how Mary Jones’ fame and reputation developed. We have only a handful of reports prior to February 1905, yet by then she was already known as the ‘Merionethshire Seeress’, and had a reputation for being the centre of apparently paranormal events. To know how that reputation was earned would, perhaps, be vital to our understanding of the reality, or otherwise, of the lights. I doubt that it is now possible to cast further light on the matter, but I would be happy to revise my views, and this text if that, or any other matter of significance, could be clarified. On the face of it, the ‘Egryn Lights’ appear to be the most remarkable anomalous phenomena in British history.