Friday, July 24, 2009

The Boy Wizards of Snowdonia

When S G Soal published The Mind Readers in 1959 it caused a sensation. His academic study came to the startling conclusion that Welsh schoolboys Glyn and Ieuan Jones were telepathic. Between 1955-57, in Wales and London, Soal had overseen the testing of the Welsh cousins for ESP. The results flabbergasted scientists and observers. So high were the boys' test scores that the odds of them having occurred by chance were astronomical.

The Welsh-speaking lads lived in a remote village in Snowdonia. It had occurred to Soal that unsophisticated children from remote rural communities would make better subjects for testing than streetwise urban kids or university students. He chose Snowdonia to do his research, as the area was already familiar to him from having taken regular climbing holidays there.

The tests undertaken by the boys were varied. At their simplest they consisted of predicting which animal would appear next from a deck of cards. Other tests took place outdoors where the boys were placed 160ft apart with a screen between them. In another test they had to wear only their bathing costumes to ensure that no hidden radio devices were present.

It's obvious from their remarkable test scores that the Jones boys were either telepathic or cheating. Was Soal the victim of a schoolboy hoax? He was convinced that the results had not been achieved through the use of mirrors or reflections. No covert help from parents or relatives had been received either. He was certain that the boys hadn't been using a code, either audible or visual. Nor did he attribute their remarkable success rate to secret radio devices or "conjuring".

In fact, he called in Jack Salvin - professional magician, sceptic, and expert on bogus telepathy - to test the boys. Salvin was also chairman of the Occult Committee of the Magic Circle. This was his conclusion: "I am completely satisfied, after making all the observations I desired and having permission to do what I wished that no code or trickery took place either on the part of the boys or on the part of anybody else (including the fathers of the 2 boys); and, in fact, that code or trickery in the experimental conditions I witnessed was impossible."

So Glyn and Ieuan Jones had genuine telepathic powers then? Not according to C E M Hansel, Professor of Psychology at University College, Swansea. In 1966 he published a book entitled ESP: A Scientific Evaluation, in which he criticised Soal for a lack of rigour in his testing procedures. He suggested that the boys had probably cheated (with the possible collusion of their parents) using either silent dog whistles; Galton whistles, which are inaudible to adults; or by simply whistling through their teeth. Such methods would have been commonplace in the area of Wales where they lived. Furthermore whenever the boys had achieved a high score in their tests they had been given a financial reward. Over 2 years they would have earned about £200. Hansel also noted that when the testing (and the payments) stopped in 1957 the boys mysteriously lost their telepathic powers. Maybe these Welsh kids from the sticks hadn't been quite so unsophisticated after all.

Soal himself was a controversial figure. A member of the Society of Psychical Research he had employed mediums to attempt to contact his brother who had died during the war. He also practised automatic writing, even scribbling a paper under the 'authorship' of the deceased Oscar Wilde. And he wrote a survey on Spiritualism for the Dictionary of the Occult. After publishing The Mind Readers in 1959 he moved to Wales, settling in Caernarvonshire, where he stayed until his death in 1975.

The story of the Welsh boy wizards from Snowdonia is an intriguing one and two questions remain unanswered: are Glyn and Ieuan Jones still alive and, if so, are they prepared to spill the beans after all these years?

*In the above picture Ieuan Jones is on the left and his cousin, Glyn, is on the right.