William Hope Spirit Photographer Portrait

William Hope

Lifespan: 1863 - 1933

Hometown: Crewe, England

Studio: 144 Market Street, Crewe, England; 15 Queen's Gate, London, England

Alias: William Hope, The Crewe Circle

William Hope was a British spirit photographer who operated in Crewe, England during the early 1900s to the 1930s and claimed to have photographed over 2,500 spirits. He established a group of six spirit photographers, known as The Crewe Circle. He was described as an intelligent and hardworking man, with a high forehead, aquiline face, large honest blue eyes, and a gray mustache. He had a pleasant North country accent and his hands were those of a carpenter not suited for sleight-of-hand tricks.[1]

Hope took his first spirit photograph in 1905. He was capturing an image of a colleague when, during the developing process, he noticed an additional figure in the photograph. The figure was recognized as the spirit of his colleague’s sister, who had recently passed away.

Hope began taking spirit photographs and formed a group of mediums and spirit photographers known as The Crewe Circle. The group originally operated in secrecy, destroying all negatives out of fear of being accused of witchcraft. However, when Archdeacon Colley joined and endorsed their work, the group went public.[1]

Hope’s studio was located in a humble building at 144 Market Street in Crewe, England. The camera he used was known for its worn-down appearance, featuring a battered box and a wooden stand with a broken leg. He charged 4 shillings 6 pence for a dozen prints of the spirit photographs he obtained. He determined the price by calculating the average time he spent on the photographs, at the rate of his own earnings as a carpenter.[1] By 1921 Hope moved to London and established himself at the British College of Psychic Science where sitters would pay upwards of 30 shillings.[2]

Famed author Arthur Conan Doyle visited Hope in Crewe in 1919 and was impressed by the spirit photographs he obtained. He described them as follows:

Such were my three results at Crewe, and I should, I hold, have been devoid of reason had I not been deeply impressed by them. Here was a message in Archdeacon Colley’s own handwriting. Here was a test from my own dead sister which seemed to be beyond all possible coincidence, apart from the extraordinary way in which the picture was obtained. Neither sleight-of-hand nor transference of plates could have any bearing upon such results as those. Their full significance was not realised until I had made enquiries, but after that time I felt it impossible to doubt the super-normal nature of the powers which had produced such effects.

The Case for Spirit Photography – 1923

Hope was known for beginning his spirit photograph sessions with the phrase “And now, my friends, we will warm up with a hymn”.[1] A 1969 article described him as “undoubtedly a schizophrenic.” It noted that on one side of his character, he was an alert, witty, and honest north countryman, while on the other side, he was a fraudulent medium who used prayers and psalm-singing as a cover for his fraudulent operations.[3]

On February 4, 1922, The Society for Psychical Research sent psychical researcher Harry Price to investigate William Hope. Unbeknownst to Hope, Price had secretly marked Hope’s photographic plates and also provided him with a packet of additional plates that had been covertly etched with the logo of the Imperial Dry Plate Co. Ltd, in the hope that the logo would appear on any images created by the plates. However, when Hope developed the images, none of them contained the logo or even the marks that Price had covertly placed on the plates. Price concluded that Hope had switched the plates and performed a ‘double-exposure’ trick. Price’s findings were published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, which was highly damaging for Hope, who insisted that both he and his process were genuine.[4]

Imperial Dry Plate described the plates used in the experiment as follows:

These six plates have been specially dealt with by us, and have been put through an exposure for a small portion of each under our x-ray apparatus so that when the plates are developed parts of the design of our rampant lion trademark will appear upon each of them. Four of the plates when put together will complete the whole design, whilst the other two will only form a portion of the design, whilst we have the remaining two to complete the figure in our possession, which we are retaining until you. communicate with us again.

Light – July 1922

Hope was also accused of fraud in 1933 by a former friend, Fred Barlow, when Hope requested that he send a luminous chemical, calcium sulphide, to his personal home and not to The Crewe Circle studio. Barlow stated, “I do not for a moment suggest that Hope used it for all his fakes but an examination shows that he could have used it for numerous effects. All one has to do is to paint a little of this on a small positive, press it in contact with the surface of the plate and it gives a perfect image.”[5]

Despite facing accusations, Hope retained support among Spiritualists. Arthur Conan Doyle defended Hope, even threatening to evict Price from his lab and writing a book in support of spirit photography titled The Case for Spirit Photography, which included a section on Hope and the Crewe Circle. Hope continued to conduct spirit photography until his death in 1933 at the age of 70.[6]

[1] The Case for Spirit Photography – 1923
[2] My Psychic Adventures – 1924
[3] The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography – 1969
[4] Skeptical Inquirer – July 2011
[5] Journal of the Society for Psychical Research – 1933-34
[6] The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero – 2006