See caption
Eleanor Sidgwick painted by Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1889
Wikimedia Commons

Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, (née Balfour; 11 March 1845 – 10 February 1936), known as Nora to her family and friends, was born in Whittingehame, East Lothian, Scotland, daughter of James Maitland Balfour MP and Lady Blanche Mary Harriet Gascoyne Cecil , daughter of the second marquess of Salisbury; Eleanor was the eldest of their five sons and three daughters.[a]One of Eleanor’s brothers, Arthur, was prime minister from 1902 until 1905.[1] She was educated at home and given advanced instruction in mathematics, for which she showed a particular aptitude.[1]

In 1876 Eleanor married Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), who was then teaching philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge; he had also been one of the founders of Newnham College for women in 1871. Their marriage, although it may not have been consummated, seemed like a perfect match, the couple sharing as they did a devotion to the cause of higher education for women and a deep interest in the paranormal. In 1880 Eleanor became Newnham College’s vice-principal, and went on to succeed Anne Clough as principal on the latter’s death in 1892. Eleanor and her husband lived together in the principal’s flat at Newnham until his death in 1900; she remained there alone until her retirement ten years later.[1]

As well as her administrative duties at Newnham, Eleanor taught mathematics. The physicist Lord Rayleigh – professor of experimental physics at Cambridge and Eleanor’s brother-in-law – was a regular visitor to the Sidgwick’s home. He and Eleanor collaborated with his work on the measurement of electricity, and her name appears jointly with Rayleigh’s on three papers published by the Royal Society.[1]

In 1894 Eleanor was one of the first three women to serve on a royal commission, the Bryce commission on Secondary Education.[2]

Psychical research

Eleanor’s husband Henry was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical ResearchRegistered charity founded in 1882 to conduct scientific investigations into psychic and paranormal phenomena. (SPR) in 1882, and was appointed its first president;[3] she herself was elected president of the society in 1908.[4][b]Eleanor was named President of Honour in 1932.[4] She stirred up some controversy among the society’s members with a series of papers she co-authored with S. J. Davey and Richard Hodgson Published in the society’s journal in 1886 and 1887, they exposed the slate-writing tricks of the medium William Eglinton.[5] Their conclusion that he was nothing more than a clever conjurer led to the resignation of several prominent spiritualist members from the SPR, including Stainton Moses.[6][7]

To account for the phenomenon of apparitions that seemed to be associated with distinct locations, Eleanor proposed in 1888 that there was “something in the building itself” that had recorded the experiences reported, an idea that became known as place-memory.[8] Her idea re-emerged in the following century under the guise of the stone tape theoryIdea that recurrent hauntings are produced by the replaying of recordings stored in the physical environment, analogously to tape recordings. .

Later life and legacy

Eleanor continued as a member of Newnham College’s council after her retirement, until her death in 1936. In 1916 she had moved to live with her brother Gerald and his family at Fisher’s Hill, near Woking, where she died convinced of the existence of an afterlife, and that she would once again be united with “my Henry”. Her last words were said to be “that is a very bold hypothesis”.[1]

In the words of her biographer, Helen Fowler, “Her [Eleanor’s] spirited stance in the struggle for fairness, truth, and informed help for the world is a large part of her legacy to Newnham College and to the University of Cambridge”.[1]


a One of Eleanor’s brothers, Arthur, was prime minister from 1902 until 1905.[1]
b Eleanor was named President of Honour in 1932.[4]