The curious case of Dr Cannon

Sean Stowell
Sean Stowell
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A new book sheds light on a Yorkshire doctor with an interest in the paranormal and the role he played in Edward VIII’s abdication and Britain’s war effort. Chris Bond reports.

IT was while sitting watching The King’s Speech at a cinema in Headingley that Sean Stowell decided he would write his book. “It’s a very good film but I sat there thinking ‘I’ve got a better story than this.’”

The story he was researching revolved around a Yorkshire doctor called Alexander Cannon, a man with an interest in the paranormal who during the 1930s treated members of the aristocracy and became embroiled in the abdication crisis of 1936.

His new book, The King’s Psychic, examines this and the alleged plot to oust Edward VIII, as well as Dr Cannon’s role in the early part of the Second World War when he began experimenting in telepathy.

Stowell, a BBC producer based in Leeds, has been working on the project on and off for the last 14 years. It started when he got a call from his father who lives on the Isle of Man. “His friend is an archivist and came across a file found in the back of a police filing cabinet where it had been for decades. Had it been found in London it probably would have just disappeared but because it was the Isle of Man it went into a public archive.”

The file in question was Dr Alexander Cannon’s MI5 file. “My dad said ‘you should have a look at this’ because he remembers Dr Cannon him from the 1950s, by which time he’d become something of a showbiz figure of fun.”

The file showed that Dr Cannon ran a lavish, if slightly odd, clinic at Ballamoar Castle on the Isle of Man where wealthy members of the upper classes came to see him with their various psychological ailments, ranging from battle stress to impotency. “Rich and famous people, those on the periphery of royalty would go and see him. There was all sorts of gossip on the Isle of Man about who would come for treatment,” says Stowell.

It piqued his curiosity and over the years he pieced together information about Dr Cannon’s links with Edward VIII. “It became my little hobby,” he says.

His research took him to the Church of England archive at Lambeth Palace. “It was here that I found the contact between Edward VIII and Dr Cannon was used by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Dr Cosmo Lang, as one of many levers to persuade him to step down.”

The official story behind Edward’s abdication is that he gave up the throne for the love of Mrs Simpson, but Stowell’s book uses documents and recordings to show there was a plot to oust Edward. “His love for Mrs Simpson was just a veil. If you listen to the footage he says it was his decision, but it wasn’t. If you look at the archive Dr Lang hatched a plot.”

Stowell says Dr Lang and others were concerned by the king’s support for Hitler and his heavy drinking, which is the reason he went to see Dr Cannon. “Dr Lang saw the Royal Family as very much part of the Church of England and if there was dysfunction in the monarchy there would be dysfunction in the church.

“Even if the contact between Edward and Cannon was five minutes or five months, the fact is that Dr Lang started to use it as a lever against the king.”

Cannon himself was born in Leeds before moving to Bridlington. He fought in the First World War and studied medicine at Leeds University. “He was a star student and went off to the Far East to continue studying medicine.”

He worked as a prison doctor in Hong Kong and while there married a fellow Leeds University student.

It was while in the Far East that he became interested in mysticism and developed his own psychiatric theories such as telepathy. “He claimed that he rode on a magic carpet across the Himalayas,” says Stowell.

The marriage didn’t work and the couple returned to England where Cannon set up a clinic in London’s Harley Street where he built up an impressive list of wealthy clients. “He was into the paranormal but he was also bit of a preacher and he could mix it up with mysticism and self-help. People went to him to reaffirm their ability and right to rule and for guidance about how to live well and deal with their fears about the future.”

Following the abdication crisis he might easily have slipped off the radar, but instead he became an influential figure with the Admiralty for a time. “He convinced them there was value to be had in the paranormal.”

Stowell says Dr Cannon promoted himself as a kind of psychic guru and employed two sisters, who he made change their names to Joyce and Rhonda da Rhonda, to become his ‘psychic’ assistants. He set up a clinic on the Isle of Man where he continued practising his highly lucrative and mystic brand of medicine.

He acted as an unofficial and very secret “psychic guru” to a select group of people, including some based at the Admiralty and engineered some bizarre experiments in telepathy. One such attempt involved encouraging a love affair between an aristocratic Special Operations Executive (SOE) commander and one of his young assistants, as he believed telepathy would work better if the subjects were in love.

The commander, who was also an SOE commando trainer, tried to deploy his new telepathic ‘skill’ during a raid on a Nazi base in Norway. An Enigma code machine discovered during the mission was brought back to England to help break German codes. Dr Cannon claimed the glory and the commander was called to celebrate the find at Downing Street.

It sounds far-fetched to us today, but Stowell points out that there were people within Whitehall willing to at least consider his ideas. “British military leaders were under such stress at that time that they were prepared to give things a go that we might dismiss now.”

Not everyone was convinced by Dr Cannon and there were those who thought that he might be a German spy. “He had such a curious set up, you had admirals and other military men getting therapy from this man and there were fears that Dr Cannon was hypnotising high-ranking patients to get military secrets out of them.”

There was no evidence to support such claims but in 1941 Ballamoar Castle was taken over by the RAF and Dr Cannon’s influence waned. He remained on the Isle of Man where he died in 1963.

But for Stowell this chapter of his life, in particular, makes for an intriguing story and he’s already had interest from a company about doing a film adaptation.

“It’s a take on two big moments in British history. People are still fascinated by Edward VIII’s story because here’s a man who gave up his throne for his love. Dr Cannon was a peripheral character in all this and a peripheral lever, but nevertheless he was a lever and he was part of an important slice of history.”

• The King’s Psychic, published by Great Northern Books, is out now priced £9.99.