Search for Truth  by Harry Price  (1942)


Chapter 5  .  Some Youthful Ambitions

A YEAR or so ago I was lunching at the Spanish Restaurant with the genial editor of John O' London's, Frank Whitaker (1) - that most delightful of companions - when we got on to the subject of 'ambitions.'  I suggested that it would be interesting to learn something of those careers that well-known people had mentally planned for themselves in their youth, and to know whether such early aspirations had been realised.  This gave Frank an idea, and in due course a very interesting series of articles by prominent writers on their early hopes and fears appeared in John O' London's.  During the conversation I mentioned my own ambitions when I was twenty-one years old.

Long before leaving school I wanted to be a writer.  Perhaps my early successes in English and composition were the cause of this.  Even as a schoolboy I wrote 'poems' to - and about - my girl friends.  Fortunately for posterity, no copies of these were kept.  After leaving school I wrote considerably, principally playlets, and, as the reader has seen, I actually wrote and produced a three-act psychic play before I was eighteen years old.

By the time I was one-and-twenty other interests, in addition to 'psychic' ones, were competing for my attention.  I had become an amateur archæologist.  This was the result of several visits to the ruins of the Roman city of Uriconium, near Wroxeter, Salop, where I did some excavating and found many coins.  I became a numismatist in consequence.

In 1902 I helped to excavate the Roman villa urbana (a residence in the country or in the suburbs of a town, not to be confused with the villa rustico, or farm-house) in Greenwich Park.  The site (known to have existed for many years) lies midway between the Magnetic Pavilion and the Vanbrugh entrance to the Park.

Excavating Roman villas is one of the most exciting jobs imaginable.  We had thrill after thrill as the excavators turned up relics of a bygone age.  The villa itself was probably the residence of one of the Triumviri Monetales, or Mint Superintendents, or the ofice of a military paymaster, because so many coins were found.  The villa must have been directly in touch with the making or handling of money, as there were discovered the coins of no fewer

1. Now the Editor of Country Life.


than forty emperors or rulers, thus proving that money was either stored or collected at that spot.  If the villa was the residence of a Mint official, he must have taken a lot of home-work back with him of a night!

Chronologically, the coins ranged from Claudius I (A.D. 41-54) to Honorius (A.D. 395-423).  But a single specimen of a denarius of Mark Antony, struck at Alexandria about B.C. 35, was unearthed.  This money was struck for paying the soldiers of the 14th Legion (Germina), who probably dropped the piece at Greenwich whilst camping on the site of what was afterwards the villa.  So, roughly if we can take the coins as a guide - the Roman villa at Greenwich was occupied for something like 400 years.

Many other objects besides coins were discovered at Greenwich.  Roman and pre-Roman pottery; glass beads and the handle of a glass jug; the life-size arm of a stone statue of a woman holding up her dress, beautifully carved ; inscribed marble fragments; roofing tiles; whetstones; figured Samian ware; ivory and bone carvings; fibulæ; box hinges, keys, spurs, hooks, knives, nails and spikes; portions of highly-decorated plaster walls, and many other interesting objects.  There was even a nail-cleaner.  So that the villa was obviously a flourishing and domesticated station.  The place was probably abandoned about A.D. 410, when the tie that had bound Britain to Rome for more than three centuries was broken. (1)

My work at Uriconium and Greenwich turned me into an ardent coin collector, and I specialised in the coins of Kent and Shropshire - our native heath.  I formed very complete collections of the trade tokens of these two counties, and put endless work and research into the task of ascertaining the history of the issuers of these interesting trade pieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  I recorded more than 700 varieties of Kentish tokens alone, issued in about one hundred towns and villages.  These traders' tokens were issued - principally by shopkeepers and merchants - because small change was not supplied by the Government: the traders coined their own small change.  These old farthings and halfpennies (principally) are of the utmost value to the genealogist and the topographical student.  Love and passion, hate and admiration may be delineated from the signs and superscriptions on these old pieces, and in many instances villages have been located, towns identified, and the names and doings of public worthies handed down to posterity.  Many of these tokens were made by itinerant minters who travelled from village to village, setting up their press in some

1.For a fuller account of the excavations, see my article 'The Roman Villa at Greenwich,' in The Askean, December, 1902.


old barn, engraving the dies and striking the coins on the spot.  I have a rare Pulborough farthing token issued in 1667 by Richard Haines.  It was probably struck in our village.

The result of my interest in numismatics was the writing and publication of my first serious work: The Coins of Kent and Kentish Tokens.  This was published in serial form in The Kentish Mercury, and the articles ran for more than two and a half years, viz. from May 23, 1902, to December 30, 1904.  I was twenty-one years old when this work was published.  During this same period my Shropshire Tokens and Mints appeared in the Wellington Journal, where the book ran serially for several months.  I also wrote many articles on coins for The Askean (a school magazine) about this time, and even commissioned an artist to draw a design - complete with portrait - for my own private token.  As a result of my books and articles on coins, I was invited (May 18, 1904) to become 'Honorary Curator of Numismatics' to Ripon Museum - a post I hold to this day.

As my interest in psychical research became keener, I am afraid that I collected fewer and fewer coins - except, of course, coins of the realm!  What finally put an end to my serious numismatic activities was the fact that I had a fine and rare collection of the ancient gold coins of the Sussex princes (most of them washed up at Selsey), stolen from Pulborough church.  The coins included those of Tincommius, Verica, and others.  Some were unique.

I had nearly completed (1923) my Numismatic History of Sussex, and all the plates had been engraved.  It was during this year that I placed my collection of Sussex coins on loan for exhibition in our local church.  The coins included traders' tokens, Anglo-Saxon pieces struck at Sussex mints, the pre-Roman gold coins I have mentioned, medallions, etc.  On September 26, 1923, a telegram was handed to me in London saying that the gold coins in the church had been stolen - probably by a collector, as visitors were allowed to go in and out of the church as they pleased.  They were never recovered.  All the satisfaction I received was a polite note from the Church Council expressing their 'sincere regret' for my loss.  I received no compensation.  If the loss had occurred anywhere except in my own village, I would have taken drastic action in the matter.  It was an unfortunate business.  My book on the Sussex coins remains unfinished to this day, as I lost all interest in it.  I lost interest, too, in coins generally, except those pieces struck by mediums, conjurers, etc. of which I have a large collection.

To continue my early archæological adventures, in the summer of 1902, when my interest in things antiquarian was still keen, I made an important discovery: I unearthed the remains of a pre-


historic cave, complete with fireplace and flue.  This was at Cherrington, near Newport, Salop.  I say 'discovered' advisedly.  Actually, the place was known to exist, as it was used at one time as a cattle-pound or 'penfold,' and the public stocks were formerly kept there.  But the origin of the place was quite unknown until I stumbled across it.  The back of the cave and fireplace (a semicircular cavity and flue, cut in the red sandstone), was completely hidden by thorn and bramble.  But, armed with a sickle, I finally exposed the cave-man's handiwork and photographed it.(1)

I have been consistently fortunate in finding relics of Roman or prehistoric origin, and this is a good opportunity of giving a list of the principal ones, as they are of absorbing interest.  I have been 'fortunate' for two reasons: (a) Because I happen to live in a district very rich in Roman remains; and (b) because I have looked for them.

The most interesting thing I discovered was a perfect specimen of a Roman silver ingot which I picked up in 1909 on the surface of a ploughed field on top of Park Mount, Pulborough.  This 'mound,' or high hill, is artificial, and was constructed by the Romans west of the present railway in order to guard the great military Stane Street that ran from Londinium to Regnum (Chichester). An armed camp or mansio was stationed there.

The ingot, weighing one and a half Roman pounds (seventeen ounces avoirdupois), is an oblong measuring 34 inches by two inches, and is half an inch thick.  On a sunken label are the words: Ex Offici Hono Reg.  The inscription means perhaps that the ingot was 'from the workshop of Honorius or Honorinus.'  It was probably lost in transit on its way to Bosham or Chichester harbours, en route to Rome to be turned into money.  Its date is between 395 and 423 A.D.(2)

Another interesting find I made (in 1908) was a beautiful bronze statuette of Hercules, 3¼ inches high, complete with club, lion's skin, etc.  I saw its legs sticking out of the river bank at the bottom of my garden, where the current had probably dislodged it.  It most likely belonged to a Roman villa in the neighbourhood, and is one of the familiar household gods or lares which were kept 'for luck.'(3)

Of the prehistoric relics that I discovered in the Pulborough district none is more interesting or rarer than the beautiful Early Bronze Age flint dagger, one of only three perfect specimens found

1.For full details, measurements and illustration, see my 'A Prehistoric Fire-Place,' The Askean, Mar. 1903.

2. For a very full description, see my article 'Roman Silver,' in the Southern Weekly News, April 9, 1910, one of a series of articles I wrote on antiquarian subjects.

3.This is fully illustrated and described in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Jan. 14, 1909.


in Sussex (and only 145 in the whole of Great Britain).  I found it on the South Downs near Springhead Clump, in the parish of Parham.  It is lanceolate in shape and beautifully flaked on its two flat surfaces.  It is six inches long and one and a half inches across at its widest point.(1)  Not far from where I picked this up, I discovered, many years previously, a perfect bronze hatchet-head of the Early Bronze Age.

Of still greater antiquity is the inscribed bone that I found after a field had been newly ploughed.  It is inscribed with eight characters, probably Runic.  The bone appears to be a portion of a rib of an ox, and in addition to the characters has two semi-circular lines deeply engraved on it.  It has been suggested that one of these curves represents the contour of the South Downs (near where it was found) and the other, a bend of the River Arun, close by.  In addition, there is a triangular mark or Greek delta, which may represent the mound or camp where the bone was found.  If this theory is correct, we have quite the earliest pictorial representation ever made of Sussex scenery.(2)

The Roman villa at Greenwich was not the only one of its kind that I assisted to unearth.  Quite near my home is the site of a Romano-British house which I helped to excavate in 1909.  It is at Borough, three-quarters of a mile from the Stane Street.  We turned up the footings of several long walls enclosing a suite of rooms, and a great number of interesting objects was found in the debris.  Coins, potterv, Samian ware, brooches, pins, red-tile tesseræ, cinerary urns, roof tiles, a bronze adze-hammer, coloured wall-plaster, Neolithic flint implements, oyster shells, and other indications of an inhabited house were met with in profusion.  Many of these objects have been illustrated in the official account (3) of the investigation, on which I based my popular lecture Roman Pulborough, illustrated with 100 lantern slides.

I appear to have wandered from what my ambitions were when I was one-and-twenty.  But I think it is necessary that the reader should be acquainted with my youthful activities.  Though I had many hobbies - and they were nothing more- such as photography, archæology, amateur theatricals, and mechanics, my real leisure persuits were collecting books on 'magic,' and the unravelling of the apparently miraculous.

Well, then, here are some of the 'ambitions' that foolishly possessed me when I attained my majority, as confided to Frank

1. For description and illustration, see Sussex Notes and Queries, Vol. VIII, No. 3, Aug., 1940.

2. For account and illustration, see my article in the West Sussex Gazette, June 17, 1909.

3. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Mar. 10, 1910.


Whitaker. (1) I wanted to be a writer and to write especially for the Encyclopædia Britannica; (2) I wanted to appear in Who's Who; (3) I wanted to collect the largest magical library in existence; (4) I wanted to be offered a doctorate, honoris causa, of some university; (5) I wanted to possess a Rolls-Royce car.  Later, when the radio was in its infancy, I wanted to broadcast.  There were several other things that I wanted to do or be.  I was already a 'psychical researcher' in a modest way.

Let me say at once that in due course most of my early ambitions were realised, with no conscious effort or intention on my part.  My literary work began very early indeed: almost before I left school.  But I was not content with writing for school magazines and provincial newspapers.  I wanted to write for journals of consequence.  My choice of the Encyclopædia Britannica arose in a curious way.  At home, my father had, for months, subscribed to the ninth edition (twenty-five volumes), and I would take a volume up to bed with me, and read one or two articles each night.  I was thrilled with the wonderful things and people I read about and mentally resolved that I, too, would some day contribute to this great work.  Thirty years later I was writing for the Encyclopædia Britannica and for the Encyclopædia Italiana too.

Above all, I remember, I wished to experience the thrill of being 'interviewed,' and I wanted to collect Press-cuttings about myself.  I must have been very vain!  I could not then visualise that some day I should be compelled to tie up my telephone in order to stop newspaper men from worrying me; or that I should eventually collect 20,000 Press-cuttings about myself (some abusive; these from the spiritualists!) in forty folio volumes.

My first real Press interviews took place when reporters called upon me after I had succeeded in transmitting signals by wireless on Saturday, April 22, 1899, soon after my eighteenth birthday.  In my workshop I had made a portable transmitter and receiver, and these instruments I stationed on the tower of St. Peter's Church, Brockley, and Telegraph Hill (appropriately named!), Hatcham, respectively - about a mile apart.  The experiments were successful.  Not only did we receive signals, but we were able to transform these into sparks or flashes (the duration of which corresponded with the Morse code signals) and record them on a photographic plate.  The experiments caused some interest, and accounts appeared in the local Press, and in the Westminster Gazette(1) for May 2, 1899.  I believe my portable wireless set was one of the very earliest to be constructed.

1. 'Photographing Wireless Waves on the Wing,' Westminster Gazette, London, May 2, 1899.


My interest in space telegraphy was always profound.  I remember reading about the lecture (1) on wireless telegraphy that Sir Oliver Lodge gave at the Royal Institution on June 1, 1894, when I was not yet fourteen years of age.  Heinrich Hertz had just died, and Lodge not only outlined the principles of wave transmission through free space that Hertz had demonstrated, but detailed experiments of his own.  This was real magic to me, and I read all I could on the subject and, five years later, I had constructed my own instruments, with some success.  I have always regretted that I did not continue with my radio experiments.  Alas! I did not even trouble to preserve my home-made instruments, though I have some photographs of them.

The only reason that I can think of why I wanted to appear in Who's Who is that we possessed an early edition which I used to study with the greatest interest.  I used to amuse myself in tracing the careers of the distinguished men whose names appeared there, and wondered what was the secret of their success.  I concluded it was hard work!

As for my library, I shall have more to say about that in a future chapter; but I was always possessed by a desire to obtain every book on magic - British and foreign - and assimilate their contents.

As for the honorary doctorate, I am afraid that this very ambitious desire originated through my studying the careers of the great men in Who's Who.  Of course, the whole thing was rather ridiculous - but one is apt to be ridiculous when one is just out of one's 'teens.  Anyway, as we shall see, even this honour was offered me more than thirty years later.

There has been a great deal of nonsense written about Rolls Royce cars - or rather about the alleged opulent owners of them.  One does not have to be rolling in riches in order to roll in a Rolls.  I was first attracted to these cars when one stopped in front of our house, I think in 1897.  The driver had tyre trouble of some sort.  Any car was a novelty in those days, and I went out to have a look at it.  I chatted with the owner, who was good enough to explain everything to me.  As one interested in mechanics and precision work, I was amazed at the beautiful workmanship of this early model, and I at once coveted, not the car, but the engine.  I consider that the Rolls-Royce is the poor man's car.  You can get a used one very cheaply (I saw a magnificent specimen, ten years old, at a dealer's in South Kensington: it was marked £89 10s.); they never want repairing, and they never wear out.

So much for my youthful ambitions! I hitched my wagon to

1. Afterwards published as Signalling Through Space Without Wires, by Sir Oliver Lodge.


a star - or several stars - and; looking at these early aspirations in retrospect - however ridiculous they were - I feel, with the reader, that I must have been very vain in my young days, to say the least of it.  Even now I am occasionally accused of being egotistical.  Professor C. D. Broad, in reviewing one of my recent books, while praising both the work and its author, remarked: 'Mr. Price does not suffer from a shrinking modesty and is not inclined to wait for others to blow his trumpet.' (1) But psychical researchers do not, as a rule, blow one another's trumpets - far from it.  Most of them hate one another - in a nice way, of course - as the reader will see presently.  If Professor Broad discovered a lack of modesty in my Fifty Years of Psychical Research,(2) I do not know what he will think of the present volume!  How can a man write about his own work without appearing egotistical?  Anyway, according to A. G. Street, this 'first-person stuff,' as he puts it, is what the public wants, so we will let it go at that.

Well, the reader now knows how I occupied my leisure during the early years, and should have a good general idea of the background of my activities - scientific, antiquarian, magical and psychical - that formed the solid base on which my future career as a psychical researcher was afterwards built.  Without such experiences, I never could have conducted satisfactorily the hundreds of very diverse investigations, some of which are detailed in the following chapters, that have intrigued me for so many years.

1. The Listener, October 26, 1939.           2. Longmans, London, 1939.



Chapter Four              Chapter Six


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