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Cromwell Fleetwood Varley (6 April 1828 – 2 September 1883) was an English telegraph engineer and electrician, named after his claimed ancestors Oliver Cromwell and General Charles Fleetwood. A member of the London Sandemanian congregation and a self-proclaimed medium, Varley also took an interest in investigating the claims of SpiritualismSystem of beliefs and practices intended to establish communication with the spirits of the dead..[1]

Varley was born in Kentish Town, London, the second of ten children, to the artist and inventor Cornelius Varley (1781–1873) and his wife, the former Elizabeth Livermore Straker.[1]

Telegraph engineer

Varley joined the newly founded Electric Telegraph Company in 1846, becoming chief engineer for the London area by 1852 and for the entire company by 1861. He devised many techniques and instruments for fault-finding and for improving the performance of the telegraph. The first transatlantic telegraph cable failed in 1858, and Varley was appointed to an investigative committee established by the Board of Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company.[1]

The committee reported in 1861, which led to a second cable being installed in 1865, when Varley replaced Wildman Whitehouse as chief electrician; despite some operational difficulties, the second cable was ultimately a success. Varley developed many technological improvements in the field of telegraphy, among them the Varley loop test for detecting faults in the insulation of underground cables and the cymaphen, patented in 1870, which could transmit musical tones, and in later versions speech, over a telegraph wire. He was also an astute businessman, and the partnership that he formed with the 1st Baron Kelvin (1824–1907) and Fleeming Jenkin (1833–1885) to exploit their respective telegraphic inventions yielded significant profits for the three men.[1]

Psychic investigations

Like many others of his time, Varley was a committed Spiritualist, but he was also a self-proclaimed medium who claimed to possess mesmeric powers. His conviction that spirits were in some way related to electrical currents and magnetic forces led him, in partnership with his friend William Crookes, a chemist and member of the Society for Psychical ResearchRegistered charity founded in 1882 to conduct scientific investigations into psychic and paranormal phenomena., to develop a type of galvanometer,[a]A device for detecting small electric currents.[2] to detect such forces during a séance.[3] In 1874 they used their device to investigate the materializationsGelatinous substance that exudes from the body of a spiritualist medium during a seance, which the spirits being communicated with are able to mould into shapes allowing them to communicate with the living. of the medium Florence Cook (1856–1904).[1] Their results were inconclusive, and Varley went on to argue that spirits might be attracted by other electromagnetic forces, such as the odic forceFundamental force in nature claimed to have been discovered by Carl von Reichenbach in the mid-19th century, but now widely recognised as pseudoscience. proposed by Carl von Reichenbach.[3]

For believers like Varley and Crookes, the spirit world would one day be proven; all that was necessary was time, human ingenuity, and the advancement of scientific technology.[3]

Scandal and death

Varley had two sons and two daughters with his first wife, Ellen Cayley (née Rouse) (1837–1920), whom he had married on 4 October 1855. Upon returning from a trip abroad, he discovered that his wife had left him to live with Ion Perdicaris, a wealthy Greek-American. After their divorce was granted in 1873, Ellen and the children settled with Perdicaris at Tangiers, Morocco. In 1904 Varley’s elder son, also named Cromwell, was abducted along with Perdicaris by the Moroccan national activist Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, precipitating an international incident.[1] Raisuni demanded a ransom of $70,000, equivalent to about $2.5 million as at 2021,[b]Calculated using the consumer price index.[4] which was apparently paid to secure the men’s release, unharmed.[5]

On 11 January 1877 Varley married Heleanor Jessie Smith of Forres, Scotland. After several years of failing health, he died at Cromwell House, Bexleyheath, Kent, on 2 September 1883, and was buried on 6 September at Christ Church, Bexley.[1]


a A device for detecting small electric currents.[2]
b Calculated using the consumer price index.[4]



Butterfield, Andrew, and John Szymanski. “Galvanometer.” A Dictionary of Electronics and Engineering, Online, Oxford  University Press, 2018, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198725725.001.0001/acref-9780198725725-e-1918.
Hunt, Bruce J. “Varley, Cromwell Fleetwood (1828–1883).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online, Oxford University Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/28114.
MeasuringWorth. Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present. 2020, https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ukcompare/.
Simon, Jeffrey D. The Terrorist Trap: America’s Experience with Terrorism. 2nd ed., Indiana University Press, 2021.
Walter, Brenda S. Gardenour. “Phantasmic Science: Medieval Theology, Victorian Spiritualism, and the Specific Rationality of Twenty-First Century Ghost Hunting.” Jefferson Journal of Science and Culture, no. 2, 2013.