Frank Podmore—the scandalous private life of a ghost hunter

In his autobiographical Everyman Remembers ( 1931), the litterateur Ernest Rhys recalls his friendship with Frank Podmore, one of the more colourful members of the late nineteenth century Spiritualist community, a co-founder of the Fabian Society and the author of a fat biography of the proto-socialist Robert Owen.

Like Anthony Trollope, the Oxford-educated Podmore, was a writer who held down a day job with the Post Office. But unlike the Victorian novelist, he was, to quote Rhys, ‘unimaginative’ and  ‘practical to a degree, but cultured and full of intellectual curiosity ‘—ideal qualities for a paranormal investigator. But although Rhys touches on his friend’s investigations, he seems more interested in the odd personal lives of Podmore and his wife Eleanor. Here, for instance is his impression of the odd couple in their Hampstead home:

They set up house in Well Walk, and furnished it with extreme taste and a touch of virtuosity.

They gave pleasant Sunday-night supper parties in a small green-panelled room, for Eleanor Podmore was a witty hostess, and something more. She had Highland blood in her, and her father was a physician said to have the ‘healing touch’, while she herself possessed a faculty akin to second sight…The Podmores had no children, and Eleanor Podmore, having become godmother to our small boy, Brian, every Christmas they devised gifts , surprise visits and pantomimes for him and his small sister Megan.

Later, the Podmores moved house and it was soon after this event that Rhys called on the couple at their new home for a house-warming. The poet Clifford Bax was there, but Podmore was absent, and his wife seemed mentally distracted. She was reciting bizarre verses and waving her hands about. When Rhys asked after her husband she replied 'with a curious laugh' that he had gone to the Post Office to play cards. A year later, in 1907, Podmore reappeared at Rhys’s new Hampstead home. This time, he had the air of a ‘man under sentence’. Announcing that he had left the Post Office and was looking for a new post, he asked his host if he might succeed him as the editor of the literary magazine Camelot. Rhys was taken aback at this news, and Podmore, sensing that his friend might ask some awkward questions, abruptly turned on his heel and left the house. That was the last that Rhys saw of him. Later, he discovered that the ghost hunter had been ‘cashiered ‘by the Post Office for ‘sadist' practices. He left London  to live with his brother in Northants and while in exile, earned an income by publishing four important works on spiritualism In August 1910 his body was found in a pond near Malvern, not  far from his father’s home. Three years after his death Podmore’s estranged wife Eleanor was spied by Rhys on Hampstead Heath. She died the following year.

Rhys described Podmore as a sadist, but it turned out that he was gay and had been discovered in homosexual activity, possibly at the so-called card-playing sessions at the Post Office, where he had private rooms. So ends this strangely compelling story of the disgraced ghost hunter and his untimely death. [RMH]

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