“Makeshift mortuaries were opened in chapels for fathers to identify their children”

How the Aberfan disaster prompted one psychiatrist to launch a nationwide search for ‘seers’ who could predict the future
by Fiona Sturges  /  4 May 2022

“On 20 October, 1966, 10-year-old Eryl Mai Jones, from Aberfan in south Wales, told her mother about a dream she’d had the night before. “I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there,” she said. “Something black had come down all over it.” The next day, at 9.14am, a colliery waste tip came crashing down the hillside, smothering the village school and the surrounding houses.

“116 children and 28 adults were killed when coal waste collapsed on the school”

Eryl Mai was among the 144 dead. Visiting Aberfan in the days after the tragedy was John Barker, a 42-year-old psychiatrist and superintendent of a large mental hospital in Shropshire who had an interest in “psychiatric orchids”, or unusual mental conditions. Barker had conducted studies on Munchausen syndrome, sufferers of which are known to feign illness, and was in the midst of researching Scared to Death, a book about people who accurately foretold their own deaths.

Eryl Mai Jones wasn’t the only child to anticipate the tragedy at Aberfan: the day before, an eight-year-old boy, Paul Davies, had drawn a picture of a mass of figures digging at a hillside accompanied by the words “The End”. Barker was so struck by their portents that he wrote to Peter Fairley, science editor at London’s Evening Standard, and asked him to publish an appeal requesting that anyone who had experienced premonitions of Aberfan to get in touch.

They received 76 replies. In The Premonitions Bureau, a strange and gripping account of Barker’s adventures in precognition, the journalist Sam Knight writes: “Premonitions are impossible, and they come true all the time. The second law of thermodynamics says it can’t happen, but you think of your mother a second before she calls.” His book – an expansion of a New Yorker article published in 2019 – blends history and popular science with biography as it plots the career of Barker, a highly respected doctor who was also a member of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882 to investigate paranormal happenings.

“Local men and emergency services dig through the mud for survivors at the Pantglas Junior School, Aberfan on 21st October 1966”

The rational response to premonitions is that they are a coincidence. We tend to make predictions and look for patterns, since the idea that life is random is just too bleak to countenance. Yet, Knight observes, “we resist meaning almost as often as we insist upon it. We refuse its presence to make life simpler and to spare ourselves … Letting things go, surrendering to chance, is its own narrative act but we talk about it much less.” Another rational response to premonitions is that they are based on the most likely outcomes.

During the public inquiry into Aberfan, it was revealed how the disaster had been preceded by other tip slides in the area. A local government engineer had twice written to the National Coal Board about the danger posed by tip number seven on the village school below. But this doesn’t account for the dreams and drawings of young children, or indeed the experience of Kathleen Middleton, a music and ballet teacher from Edmonton in London, who, on the morning of the disaster, “awoke choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in.”

“The 1966 disaster led to the creation of Barker’s Premonitions Bureau”

After their initial inquiry about Aberfan, Barker and Fairley decided to broaden their study. In early 1967, they opened the Premonitions Bureau, where people would be able to send their dreams and forebodings, which would then be monitored for accuracy. They received hundreds of replies, most of them clearly bogus; most, but not all. Middleton, for whom portents were a regular occurrence, was one of the Bureau’s star correspondents – whenever her premonitions proved correct, Barker would write and congratulate her.

Another, Alan Hencher, a post office telephone operator, successfully predicted a plane crash in Cyprus right down to the number of the dead. Hencher and Middleton separately foretold a fatal rail crash in Britain days before a train from Hastings was derailed on its way to London, killing 49 passengers.

Barker and Fairley’s ultimate plan was to present the Bureau’s findings to the Medical Research Council, with a view to setting up an official national early warning system, though their proposal had an obvious flaw: if a catastrophe is foretold and then fails to materialise, any visions that might have preceded it would appear to be fantasy.

And how can an event that doesn’t happen yield a vision in the first place? Knight tells Barker’s story in lucid, no-nonsense prose, portraying him as compassionate and progressive, with a clear stubborn streak and a taste for the limelight (his research made eye-catching headlines and he was a regular on BBC science programmes). That the author neither endorses the claims of seers (or “percipients” as Barker called them) nor dismisses them as cranks, is exactly as it should be.

Though it means the book’s underlying inquiry – can the human mind really see into the future? – is yet to be put to bed. Nonetheless, the most hardened sceptic can’t fail to be electrified by the stories of ordinary citizens assailed by visions of earthquakes, tornadoes, collapsing buildings and planes falling out of the sky, and the eminent physician in their thrall. The final chapter brings a doozy of a plot twist that stretches all rational responses to breaking point. If there is something to be understood from the Premonitions Bureau, it’s that not everything can be explained.”

John William Dunne (1875-1949), pioneer aviator, aeronautical engineer, author”

Dreams, Time and Serialism

“… Dunne’s dreams of the future are perhaps his most well-known legacy. Deeply affected by their mixture of commanding voices and glimpses into his own future, he struggled to rationalise what was happening to him. At the age of nine he was already chewing over the nature of Time – was its foundation the waypoints of yesterday, today and tomorrow, or was it the travelling between them, the moment of “now” in which we feel eternally trapped? He began to document his dreams with scientific thoroughness, keeping a notebook and pencil under his pillow so that he could write them down before they were forgotten.

Then he analysed them with the same scientific objectivity, developing rigorous methods that even today can stand as a classic example of how to do parapsychology (though few workers would admit it since Rhine stamped his mark on the field). He concluded that somehow the dreaming mind could access the future much as it accessed the past and it jumbled everything up together. Some of his close friends tried it too and found much the same. The next step was to roll in his developing ideas about Time.

Einstein had turned the waypoints of Time into a dimension, mapping out the Universe in a four-dimensional “spacetime“. Dunne did the same for the movement of “now” across this landscape, creating a new time dimension in which its pace could be measured. But that led to the same question over again, how to measure the pace of movement through this fifth dimension, and so on in an infinite regress, an endless series of time dimensions. The self experiencing the moment followed similarly in an endless series of higher and higher selves, all effectively immortal.

The whole thing he dubbed Serialism and wrote up in his bestselling book, An Experiment with Time, elaborating on it in more books as the years went by. Serialism soon became an immensely popular topic of discussion, touching as it did so many areas of thought, with greater or lesser success in different places. Philosophers of Time and of Science discarded his infinite regress. Dunne was willing to do so too if they could produce a better explanation for the moment of now, but they could not do so then, any more than we can today. Rather than admit to ignorance, he clung to his regress as the best idea available, and in this he made too many enemies in the worlds of philosophy and science, ever to be accepted.

The fact that he built upon it a metaphysical proof of the existence of God, at a time when materialism had become the fashion among leading philosophers, certainly did not help dispel the atmosphere of scepticism. Even his old friend, that ardent materialist HG Wells, turned against him. Dunne’s infinite regress was in fact merely the first of many to invade the New Physics and they are today ten a penny. Had he come along after phase spaces, renormalisation, black holes and parallel universes, his own infinity might have been found more acceptable. Yet, the rejection having been lodged in the establishment’s mind along with its religious association, it would not be undone.

Meanwhile psychologists delighted in the first rational theory of dreams to compete with Sigmund Freud’s sexual mumbo-jumbo. It was as if a lid had been taken off and the field could at last progress once more. Inspired by Dunne’s idea that fragments of one’s future can appear in a disassociated mind and by his emphasis on rigorous method, workers such as Rhine went on to develop the field of experimental parapsychology. The problem of eliminating subjective bias from what is essentially a subjective evaluation of a dream record is immense.

So too is the problem of deciding what effect you are actually testing for. Despite the enormous pains taken by Dunne and his successors to develop sophisticated and watertight methods, the best predictor of any experimental outcome remains whether or not the lead researcher’s inclination is to acceptance or scepticism. And I have to say, having by now investigated a good few research examples, I have come to realise that the average sceptic is as bad at science as the average believer. Making any sense at all out of any of it is a nightmare. Frankly, science has not made the slightest progress since Dunne first published in 1927 and we remain as ignorant as ever.

The greatest impact of Serialism has been literary. For a decade until the outbreak of WWII it was the talk of the town, a sure icebreaker at many a society evening. HG Wells, TS Eliot, JB Priestley, John Buchan, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Graham Greene, Agatha Christie, Robert Heinlein, Phillipa Pearce and Vladimir Nabokov are among the greats who have drawn inspiration from Dunne, some even namechecking him in their tales.

The most enduringly popular of these are probably Priestley’s time play An Inspector Calls and Pearce’s children’s book, Tom’s Midnight Garden (though you might also like to check out my essay, The Last Battle: J W Dunne in Narnia). Films too have borrowed from Dunne: Escape from the Planet of the Apes, third in the film franchise, features Dunne’s drawing of an artist painting himself painting himself painting… in a Hollywood hocum explanation of time travel.

Serialism made a special impact too on Dunne’s own life. An ardent rationalist, he was also by inclination an equally ardent Anglican Christian and agonised a great deal over the clash between reason and faith. As a teenager in South Africa he had encountered a spiritualist medium who proclaimed him the greatest prophet the world had ever seen. This mixed with his precognitive dream visions to further disturb him. Imagine his delight on discovering that his soberly rational Serialism furnished him with a path to the immortal Infinite – we all of us dwelt within the God of his heart’s desire. His last dream vision seemed to tie up his own personal loose ends as best could be done, and he died believing that he had mathematically drawn Serialism and God into the scientific framework of Einstein’s relativity…”

J. W. Dunne: a snapshot, by Lawrence Harvey

“As Augustine famously put it, we think we know what time is until someone asks us for a definition. Although labouring on the peripheries of mainstream academic philosophy and physics, the Anglo-Irish philosopher J. W. Dunne (1875-1949) attempted to define the ineffable with his own highly influential theory of time. In the words of the playwright and novelist J. B. Priestley, “those of us who are Time-haunted owe him an enormous debt.” John William Dunne was the son of an Irishman General, Sir John Hart Dunne and his English wife, Julia Elizabeth Dunne. Serving as a trooper and infantry officer, he fought in the Boer War. Like Wittgenstein, he was also originally an aeronautical engineer, designing early tailless swept-wing aircraft — his designs being secretly tested by the War Office as early as 1907. As officially witnessed by Orville Wright, Dunne’s D.5 was certified as the first aircraft to achieve aerodynamic stability in flight.

“Burgess teamed with British designer J.W. Dunne to produce the Burgess-Dunne Navy A-55, largely for the military. The design of Burgess-Dunne hydro-aeroplanes netted Burgess the 1915 Collier Trophy. Months later, he sold out to Glenn Curtiss.”

This unassuming eclectic also wrote children’s books and was something of an authority on angling, credited with inventing a new approach to dry-fly fishing. And yet it is his challenge to the so-called dogma of chronological unidimensional time which marks Dunne out as a philosopher of note; his work constituting, as he put himself, “an extremely cautious reconnaissance in a rather novel direction.”

A seemingly precocious child, Dunne questioned his nurse as to the true nature of time; she obliged, explaining how we are travelling from yesterday to today and are moving onwards to tomorrow. Unconvinced, the young John William asked her, “which did she mean was time: yesterday, to-day and tomorrow: or the time which it took us to travel from the one to the other?” From that point onwards, Dunne was unable to rid himself of the conviction that time flowed; but without, as he later put it, replicating “Newton’s error of supposing that the ‘flow’ was ‘without reference to anything external.’” These early thoughts coalesced into a full-fledged theory in 1927 when Dunne published what became a somewhat unlikely best-seller, An Experiment with TimeTherein, Dunne outlined the two central tenets of his philosophy: Pre-cognitivism and Serialism.

The former idea stemmed from a series of supposedly precognitive dreams that Dunne experienced, many of which were mundane in nature and soberly recorded. Dunne “did not feel he was about to become a prophet” nor did he take leave of his rational faculty and ascribe such puzzling experiences to astral wanderings, telepathy or clairvoyance. Buoyed by the corroborating testimonies of others, he inquired as to whether it was possible that such phenomena were not abnormal, but normal.

As he asked, were dreams “composed of images of past experience and images of future experience blended together in approximately equal proportions?” This line of inquiry led to a radical and influential reformulation of the concept of Time itself. It was just conceivable, he argued, that “the universe was, after all, really stretched out in Time” — the “lop-sided view” we have of it, “a view with the ‘future’ part unaccountably missing, cut off from the growing ‘past’ part by a travelling ‘present’ moment — was due to a purely mentally imposed barrier which existed only when we were awake.”

Distancing himself from any accusations of occultism, Dunne developed his notion of Serial Time (or Serialism) as a means to rationalise this precognitive vision, armour-plating his account with appeals to mathematics, science and psychology. Despite its complexities, he claimed that his central thesis was “considerably easier to understand than are, say, the rules of Contract Bridge”. With a nod to both Einstein and burgeoning quantum theory, Dunne argued that there was no place for the individual observer within the orthodox scientific paradigm of his day.

By way of redress, he argued that whilst we experience time in a chronological manner when awake, there is, by necessity, a higher dimension of Time which serves to frame the lower — a time that times the linear passage of Time so to speak. Happy to invite into the equation that bugbear of philosophers, the infinite regress, he argued that if Time “passes or grows or accumulates or expends itself or does anything whatsoever except stand rigid and changeless before a Time-fixed observer, there must be another Time which times that activity […] and so on in an apparent series to infinity.”

In this manner, Dunne added what he termed a sensory centre of observation to the fourth dimension of Time, beckoning in its wake a seemingly infinite series of self-observing selves. In light of Dunne’s systematic study of flight, this serial schema can perhaps be metaphorically mapped on to the vantage point of the pilot. Whilst by terrestrial day we move forward in time (one-second-per-second), from the lofty perspective of sleep, we are freed from the fetters of linear temporality.

In other words, from the vantage point of eternity, we are able to travel both forwards and backwards, looking down, as it were, upon our alter-ego, that plodding time-bound pedestrian labouring within a set chronology. Flying at a still higher altitude, another pilot (or serial observer) looks down upon the first and so on and so forth in perpetuity. Interestingly, prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Dunne helped facilitate H. G. Wells’ first flight in an aeroplane. Yet unlike the author of The Time Machine, Dunne set aside the need for fanciful mechanical contraptions: open to all, sleep being the medium of temporal liberty.

In J. B. Priestley’s estimation, Dunne’s An Experiment with Time was “one of the most fascinating, most curious, and perhaps the most important books” of the age. Priestley’s early enthusiasm for Dunne’s philosophy gave shape and form to his seminal time play, Time and the Conways (1937). The First Act, set in 1919, depicts the joys of a post-war family reunion. In the Second Act, set in Priestley’s present, the self-same characters appear, albeit twisted by time and disenchanted with their lives.

Act Three marks a return to 1919, a return tempered by the pre-cognitive vision of future anguish and disillusionment. There is even a direct reference to Dunne’s text in the play: “No… it’s hard to explain […] there’s a book I’ll lend you — read it in the train. But the point is, now, at this moment, or any other moment, we’re only a cross-section of our real selves.” But more than this, in Priestley’s play, Dunne’s Serialism is peddled as something akin to an ethical panacea: “You know, I believe half our trouble now is because we think Time’s ticking our lives away. That’s why we snatch and grab and hurt each other […] as if we were all in a panic on a sinking ship.”

Yet despite influencing such literary greats as James Joyce, J. R. R. Tolkien, W. B. Yeats, Jorge Luis Borges and T. S. Eliot to name but a few, Dunne’s philosophy has not endured. In spite of stripping away any suggestion of the miraculous with his hardnosed reason and complex diagrammatical illustrations, his research into precognitive dreams is at best anecdotal. Moreover, Dunne’s invocation of an infinite regress is often interpreted as an act of ad-hocism perpetrated by an amateur philosopher delighting in the role of l’enfant terrible.

As J. B. Priestley put it: “Just as the medieval map makers, once they had left behind them a known coastline, filled in the great blanks spaces with dragons and other monsters, Dunne rushed in his regress.” This said, Dunne also somewhat paradoxically invokes a “superlative general observer”— this observer being a final term set within a series, which, by the very nature of its internal logic, can abide no such final term.

“A Burgess-Dunne with pilot Clifford Webster, and its owner, circa 1915”

With a mind to the self-contradiction, Dunne concedes that he has wandered from his main task into “what appears to be a region for exploration by the theologian.” In later texts such as The New Immortality (1938) and Nothing Dies (1940), Dunne explored this latent aspect of his philosophy, developing a theory of serial immortality; at the higher levels of self-observation one cannot be anything other than immortal he argued.

Further expounding his ideas in a lecture with piano accompaniment recorded by the BBC in 1937, Dunne argued that whilst Observer 1 (the wakeful self) might be able to play the chromatic scale, andante, and Observer 2 (the dreaming self) ranges across the keyboard playing discords, crescendo, it is only the Observer at infinity that can play the individual notes (the events of a “lifetime of human experience”) with symphonic harmony: “Think of what you can do! The whole range of musical composition lies before you, and this with an instrument the keyboard of which is a lifetime of human experience of every description.”

Dunne even went so far as to proclaim that he was scientifically certain that the “Hand of a Great Conductor will become manifest, and we shall discover that we are taking part in a Symphony of All Creation” — all of which prompted H. G. Wells to comment that his aberrant friend had lost all sense of proportion.

But despite the fact that modern thought has falsified many of his broader and more outlandish claims, there is no denying the influence of Dunne’s pioneering philosophy of time. As J. B. Priestley put it: John William Dunne “has still to be praised and honoured as one of our great originals and liberators. I should like to think there was some way of conveying these thanks and a loud and affectionate Bravo to his Observer Two or Three.”

“Believed to be a photo of J.W. Dunne in one his craft”

J.W. Dunne and the popular promise of dreams
by Katy Price / September 8, 2014

‘We must live before we can attain to either intelligence or control at all. We must sleep if we are not to find ourselves, at death, helplessly strange to the new conditions. And we must die before we can hope to advance to a broader understanding.’ – J.W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time, 3rd edn. (London: Faber, 1958), 183.

“J.W. Dunne (1875-1949) was born on an Army base in County Kildare, Ireland, the son of John Hart Dunne and Julia Elizabeth Chapman. Dunne followed his father into the military, serving as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Second Boer War. He subsequently worked as aeronautical engineer, designing and testing a distinctive series of biplanes during the years leading up to the First World War1. His book on fly fishing, Sunshine and the Dry Fly (1924), was followed by five works theorizing about time and immortality, and two children’s books, The Jumping Lions of Borneo (1937) and An Experiment with St George (1939).

The first of the theoretical works, An Experiment with Time (1927), suggested that each of us may access the future while sleeping, and proposed a theory of ‘serial time’ to account for this capacity. Dunne urged training in dream precognition in order to develop neglected powers of humanity, and to prepare for ‘new conditions’ of the afterlife. Serialism was further articulated in The Serial Universe (1934), The New Immortality (1938), Nothing Dies (1940) and Intrusions (1955). An Experiment with Time and The Serial Universe were reviewed with cautious interest in British science journals such as Nature and Discovery, besides receiving plenty of attention in generalist periodicals and the popular press2 In the wake of such speculative and controversial developments as psychoanalysis and relativity, a strange new theory of time and dreams could not simply be dismissed out of hand. Comment ranged from the enthusiastic to the scathing, while readers of a philosophical persuasion found the infinite regress and reification of time at the heart of Dunne’s theory highly problematic3.

In brief, Dunne proposed that time takes time to pass, so that the unfolding of ‘Time 1’ in our waking consciousness may be measured by an observer in ‘Time 2’, and so on in an infinite series. The series of times was inhabited by a series of observers, a concept illustrated in The Serial Universe by the image of a painter who paints himself painting into the foreground of a landscape, and then paints another picture in which the first picture is included in the scene, and so on4. Despite its awkward theorizing, heavy-handed expository style, baffling plane diagrams and talk of ‘cerebral substratum’ and ‘diagonal reagent’, An Experiment with Time was immensely popular, and has been frequently reprinted. In part, the book functioned as an antidote to the Einstein sensation: Dunne converted the inaccessible, abstruse fourth dimension of relativity theory into something that any reader might explore in their sleep5.

Readers were encouraged to collect examples of their own precognitive dreams, to further corroborate the theory. Dunne’s method of dream recording also restored the unconscious to readers, dismissing the symbolic content of dreams to focus on their literal enactment of past and future events6. Beyond these consolations, Dunne’s proposals established the reader as a self-experimenting subject, and it is this feature, I argue, that accounts for the enduring popularity of his book. Dunne uses newspapers and novels to show how he came to observe the dream effect in action.

Headlines from the Daily Telegraph are included in the text: a report of the successful Cape to Cairo expedition led by Lionel Decle in 1901, and the 1902 eruption of Mont Pelée on Martinique. Dunne’s dreams are the stuff of adventure stories: in the first instance, he dreams that a group of ragged and sunburned soldiers inform him that they have just crossed the continent of Africa, and in the second he himself attempts to save thousands of people from an island volcano. On waking, he reads about his dreams in the Telegraph, and wonders how he can have woken up with memories of the news he is about to read.

“1914 demonstration of a Burgess-Dunne No. 6”

Dunne’s military lifestyle and social milieu were inherently adventurous: years later, a dream involving an escaped lion includes elements of a prior discussion with his brother about what guns to take on a lion-shooting expedition, combined with future reading of Hatchways (1916) by Ethel Sidgwick, which features an escaped leopard. Precognition of an element from the novel prompts Dunne to investigate the possibility of accessing the future while awake, and he reports successful glimpses of detail from The Book of the Sword (1884) by R.F. Burton, Julia (1924) by Baroness van Hutten, Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps (1923), The House of the Arrow (1924) by A.E.W. Mason, and The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) by Lord Dunsany. These examples give Dunne a connection to his readership as a fellow consumer of popular fiction, across divides of class and occupation. Although the exposition itself quickly becomes dense and abstract, popular entertainment is emphasized as an equally valid means of contact with the truth. Readers could relax in the knowledge that escapism was in fact a way of participating in a grand experiment to help develop humanity’s higher powers.”


  1. On Dunne’s aeronautical work see William J. Claxton, The Mastery of the Air (Fairford: Echo Library, 2007), 68-9. 
  2. H. Levy, ‘Time and Perception’ Nature 11911 June 1927, 847-8;A.S. Russell, ‘Do Dreams Come True?’, Discovery 10 No 113, May 1929, 168-70; A.S. Russell, ‘Mr. Dunne’s Serial Universe’, Discovery 16 No 182, February 1935, 51-4. 
  3. See, for example, Ernest Nagel, review of An Experiment with TimeJournal of Philosophy 24 (1927): 690-692. 
  4. J.W. Dunne, The Serial Universe (London: Faber, 1955), 31. Dunne’s painter was described in the children’s story Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) by Philippa Pearce, and reproduced by J.B. Priestley in Man and Time (1964). 
  5. I have explored the struggle for access to relativity in Britain in Loving Faster than Light: Romance and Readers in Einstein’s Universe (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012). 
  6. On the relationship between Dunne’s theory and Freudian wish-fulfilment, see Victoria Stewart, ‘J.W. Dunne and Literary Culture in the 1930s and 1940s’, Literature & History 17 (2008): 62-81. 



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