A Very English Ufology

John Rimmer
Magonia 95, May 2007

At last, it seems, the Warminster revival is getting underway. With the publication in 2005 of Dewey and Reis’s In Alien Heat (reviewed in Magonia 91) an almost forgotten aspect of British ufological history was brought back into focus. Two recent books also revisit the site of England’s biggest UFO flap. Andy Roberts and David Clarke’s Flying Saucerers: A Social History of Ufology (1) places Warminster into the broader context of UFO development in this country...
... and Kevin Goodman’s UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact (2) presents the place and the events associated with it into a more personal context. All three books, I believe, reveal Warminster as an intrinsically English phenomenon, and part of a very distinctive national UFO tradition.

Roberts and Clarke begin their survey with the usual brief account of the 1947 events in the USA, starting with Arnold’s sighting on June 24. Amazingly, it took just six days for the saucers to cross the Atlantic; Britain’s first UFO report came from a vicar’s wife in Kent who saw a `dark ring’ in the sky as she waited at a level-crossing near Sandwich.

Even in this pioneering report some of the classic characteristics of the mass-media UFO report were apparent: the immediate search for, then dismissal of, a prosaic explanation: “I am positive it was not a smoke ring from the passing engine”; the immediate linking with other reports: “Flying saucers were also reported yesterday as having been seen during the last couple of days over Denmark, Johannesburg and Sydney”; then as a clincher of authenticity: “The United States Army Air Force announced at Roswell, New Mexico last night that a ‘flying disc’ was found last week on a ranch near Roswell, and was now in the Army’s possession.”

So within days of Roswell, UFOs were already established in the UK. ‘Ufology’ as an organised pursuit began with the foundation of small clubs, mostly just groups of friends, like that founded in Hove by Richard Hughes, called simply The Flying Saucer Club. It was organised to the extent of issuing membership cards and publishing a magazine, Flying Saucer News.

Clarke and Roberts outline the development of the earliest years of British ufology in some detail, but there is clearly a great deal of material still waiting to be discovered. But what is very clear, even from the limited amount of material available to us, is that ufology in this country, even in the earliest years, developed differently from its American counterpart. Perhaps significantly ufology in Britain attracted a number of ‘establishment’ figures, and in the early years, like much else in Britain in the 1950s, had a distinctive class profile.

Early British saucer enthusiasts (‘ufologists’ is perhaps too strong a word) included a number of high-ranking RAF personalities, most notably Lord Dowding. For some reason the minor Anglo-Irish aristocracy were also to the fore in early British UFO research with Brinsley le Poer Trench (Lord Clancarty) and Desmond Leslie, with a castle in Ireland and family links to Sir Winston Churchill. The aristocratic connection even reached to the Royal Family, with both Lord Mountbatten and Prince Philip expressing keen interest in the subject. (Gordon Creighton claimed that Philip was a subscriber to Flying Saucer Review, but whether this meant more than just that Creighton sent him a copy of every issue is hard to say).

Class divisions characterised much of British ufology on a less rarefied level as well. Throughout its history BUFORA (now defunct but once Britain’s leading UFO organisation) was riddled with factional in-fighting, which often showed a class overtone. Many of the founders and senior figures in BUFORA were primarily occultists, to whom UFOs were a way of challenging scientific values; so that groups and individuals who wanted to bring a scientific approach to the organisation were seen as a hostile force challenging their own occult agenda.

A classic example of this attitude was displayed by BUFORA veteran John Cleary-Baker when involved in a spat with the scientifically-oriented Cambridge University UFO group, dismissing them as “these white-coated godlings of the laboratory”.

British ufology took some strange paths in the 1960s and 1970s, and Andy Roberts’s descriptions of the ufological foundation of the Findhorn Community (an early version of which appeared in Magonia 89) shows how the founder, Peter Caddy, was drawn into the flying saucer world through his involvement with the aristocratic, spiritualist Attingham Park Group, with included figures such as Sir Victor Goddard (a former Air Marshall) and Sir George Trevelyan.

Roberts’s description of the ‘hippie’-UFO connection (again outlined in a preliminary article in Magonia 87) shows just how much ufological ideas permeated the underground culture of the era, linking it with ideas about leys, Glastonbury and ‘the Matter of England’: and also how these ideas emerged into a broader culture of mysticism, occultism and anti-rationality, which has continued through to contemporary obsessions with crop-circles.

It is interesting that the development of the crop-circle community has followed the same class-based divisions that marked the early stages of ufology, with an elite of minor aristocracy and the aga-classes blithely lording it over the lower-middle-class foot soldiers; a situation hilariously described in Jim Schnabel’s Round in Circles and P. G. Rendall’s Cereal Killers.

But the British UFO story is not confined to an aristocratic clique. There are ordinary people in it too, and Clarke and Roberts tell their stories as well. People like Cynthia Appleton, the young housewife who gave birth to a star-child after meeting an Adamski-style alien in her terraced house in Birmingham. Where is the would-be Saviour now? Despite determined investigation the authors were unable to find any trace of him.

Unknown to me until I heard Roberts’s talk at the FT UnConvention last year, is the strange phenomenon of the Flying Saucer Vicars, in the great tradition of eccentric Church of England clergymen (and a few other denominations as well), like characters from an Ealing Comedy. Although some saw saucers as evidence of God’s omnipotence possibly offering, literally, new worlds for evangelising, others found evidence of the devil’s works of entrapment and picketed cinemas showing UFO films.

Britain has only ever produced one UFO cult worthy of the name, the Aetherius Society, and the account given here of its founding by George King is vigorously disputed by the current leadership; but there is something encouragingly English about the idea of it being conceived in a Soho drinking club and ending up at the less fashionable end of Fulham Road like some ‘fifties Chelsea-set demi-mondaine. The Aetherius Society is usually dismissed as a fringe organisation of no account to ‘serious ufologists’, who ignore the fact that it has a much higher profile to the public and the media than most ‘serious ufologists’ are prepared to admit. Clarke and Roberts are surprisingly sympathetic to it, finding its members genially eccentric.

And now to Warminster, that most English of UFO flaps. Clarke and Roberts devote a chapter to it, outlining the major stages in its growth, and look at some of the curious individuals involved. Greatest of all, of course, was Arthur Shuttlewood. The account of Warminster in Flying Saucerers is a straightforward account of the events in the small town, from the events leading up to the famous town-hall meeting in 1966, to the gradual fading away in the ‘seventies.

One thing that comes across clearly in this account, and which distinguished Warminster from American experience, is the almost total lack of military involvement, despite the enormous army presence in and around the town. The ufologists and the sky watchers were careful to distance the phenomenon from the military, which featured in their accounts merely as the source of a few (very few) UFO misinterpretations, and a minor nuisance to keen skywatchers who wanted to wander across the countryside at night. No crashed saucers in sinister hangers, no secret retrievals, no Men in Black.

The second new book gives us a much more personal, view of the Warminster phenomenon. Kevin Goodman started visiting the Wiltshire town in 1976, a few years after the ‘Great Days’, when establishment ufological interest had moved on and Warminster was being seen as a bit of an embarrassment to many British ufologists. The original stories of ‘The Thing’, strange noises and mysterious objects in the sky had developed into a complex of contactees, hoaxes and the semi-coherent New Age ramblings of Arthur Shuttlewood’s later books. But to the enthusiastic seventeen-dear old and his friends from the Midlands, Warminster still held the magic of the previous decade; it was a place where one could sit on a starlit hillside and be virtually guaranteed to see UFOs.

By the time Kevin arrived, the centre of the Warminster scene had largely moved from Arthur Shuttlewood, who was suffering from increasing ill-health, to Peter and Jane Paget at the Star Foundation in Fountain House. This was a full-on New Age establishment promoting meditation and spiritual healing more than ufology.

The contact events experienced by the author and his friends, are subtle and ambiguous. No blonde-haired Nordics striding down ramps from shining discs, but more a low-key ‘psychic’ contact, conducted through dream and meditation
 
The story of Kevin’s time at Warminster is told in UFO Warminster, Cradle of Contact. This is a fascinating account of the Warminster scene from the mid-seventies through to the late nineties, when most ufologists had given up any interest in England’s major UFO flap. It is also a very personal story of friendship, enthusiasm, trust and even betrayal, and gives a fascinating insight into the cultism surrounding organisations such as the Star Fellowship. And, as the title implies, it is the story of UFO contact.

Well, not quite. The contact events experienced by the author and his friends, are subtle and ambiguous. No blonde-haired Nordics striding down ramps from shining discs, but more a low-key ‘psychic’ contact, conducted through dream and meditation. Although the ‘contactees’ receive messages and images that suggest an extraterrestrial connection, Goodman and his friends are too intelligent and self-aware to take this all at face-value. They are as puzzled by what is happening to them as we are, reading about it.

I have spoken to a number of English contactees and abductees, and have in every case found that they are aware of the ambiguity of their experiences – there is none of the evangelical zeal, the ‘believe me or else’ attitude that comes across from many American contact accounts.

There has recently been a movement to write the contactee experience out of the ‘real’ UFO narrative, claiming it is not a suitable subject for ‘serious ufologists’. But it is clear from stories such as that of Kevin Goodman that there is no real division between the contact experience, the abduction experience, and the UFO experience in its widest form. The simple ‘abductees good; contactees bad’ dichotomy which is being promoted is hopelessly crude.

Too often now, especially on the Internet, we see ‘ufologists’ who have little or no knowledge of the history of the subject, and who are constantly trying to re-invent the wheel. These two books are an invaluable antidote to that ignorance. Clarke and Roberts give a sound social and historical description of ‘ufology in one country’: Kevin Goodman gives an account of someone who explored one facet of that history, became a part of the experience, but retained the objectivity and self-awareness to give us a fascinating account of a journey to Magonia.

These are important books, please read them.


References:
  1. David Clarke and Andy Roberts. Flying Saucerers: A Social History of UFOlogy Alternative Albion, Heart of Albion Press.
  2. Kevin Goodman. UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact [2nd edition] Swallowtail Books.