The journalists who predicted the future

The true story of the Evening Standard’s Premonitions Bureau is full of jewels
May 12, 2022
The Premonitions Bureau
Sam Knight
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After the Aberfan mining disaster in 1966 killed 116 children and 28 adults, the Evening Standard set up a dedicated department to collect readers’ predictions of catastrophe. A collaboration between journalist Peter Fairley and psychiatrist John Barker, the department’s purpose was to establish a psychic “early warning system” that would prevent other tragic events.

The Premonitions Bureau, journalist Sam Knight’s first book, tells the story of this peculiar desk and the way that psychic phenomena tap into our need to impose order on disorder. It is a compendium of reflections on chance and the gullibility of the human mind, dotted with asides on Munchausen’s syndrome and Freud’s interest in telepathy.

Of 723 predictions collected in their first year, Fairley and Barker considered only 18 successful. Yet despite the statistics, they were encouraged that 12 of the 18 successful predictions came from just two individuals: Lorna Middleton and Alan Hencher. Accounts of events predicted by the pair speckle Knight’s book. They include plane crashes and several climactic events—as well as Barker’s own death.

The book is filled with jewels of journalistic detail. Lord Snowdon arrives in Aberfan with a “small suitcase and a shovel,” in case he should be needed to dig out the deceased. At a dinner hosted by Fairley and Barker, to which Fairley invited several psychics, the food consisted of “parma ham and melon, filet de boeuf and pineapple surprise.” 

The breeziness of Knight’s narrative can be frustrating: one wants deeper explanations. Still, the storytelling is a real achievement. You can try to put Knight’s observations into a coherent picture—or you can simply enjoy the tale.