Eric John DIngwall who died in 1986 at the probable age of 95, the official record of his birth in Sri Lanka was eaten by termites, was one of the best read men of his time. He had many unusual, somewhat esoteric interests, and was a keen collector of books, curiosa, objects d’art and automata as well as being a bibliographer, cataloguer and conserver of documents. Thanks to funding by the Wellcome Trust the documents and other material in the Dingwall collection, held in the archives at Senate House, have now been fully catalogued.
The collection comprises a series of scrapbooks and index cards that can be cross referenced, various notebooks and diaries and over three hundred folders of correspondence, closed until 2025 as per Dingwall’s instructions, that contain nine different languages, as well as photographic material and his “haunting and poltergeist” toolkit. The material reflects the subjects that interested him most deeply and reflect his vast knowledge of relevant European and American literature, old and new, and often of literature in classical languages.
There seem to be two principal areas of interest. The first, the study of sexuality, includes human sexual practices and the culturally conditioned attitudes to them, together with erotic literature in all languages. In connection to the latter he became better known in academic circles as the Honorary Curator of the British Museum Library’s “locked case” or as some said “the pornographer royal”. Dingwall added to the collection and bequeathed to it some of his own substantial holdings.
The second area of interest, and for which he was probably better known, was that of psychical research. He investigated many curious cases and had sittings with most of the European and American mediums in the interwar years. His conclusions were largely negative though he admitted witnessing events that greatly puzzled him. This interest was linked to his long-standing interest in conjuring (he was an honorary vice-president of the Magic Circle) and also with his interest in religions and religious beliefs. He believed psychical research could be an important weapon in the ongoing struggle between superstition and rationality. Allied to his interest in psychical research was his interest in, and wide knowledge of, the history of mesmerism and hypnotism, a subject about which his writing broke fresh ground.
It is hoped the cataloguing of the Eric Dingwall papers at Senate House Library will help facilitate research in area of psychical research and its related subjects as well as into the area of medical and scientific research into sexual behaviour. An electronic copy of the catalogue can be found on the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue and a printed copy is held in the Historic Collections Reading Room.