Balfour, Gerald William, second Earl of Balfour 1853-1945, politician and psychical researcher, was born in Edinburgh, 9 April 1853, the fourth son of James Maitland Balfour, of Whittingehame, East Lothian, by his wife, Lady Blanche Mary Harriet Cecil, daughter of the second Marquess of Salisbury. He was the brother of Arthur James, first Earl of Balfour [qv.], and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick [qv.]. He was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a scholar and gained the fifth place in the classical tripos in 1875. He was elected a fellow in 1878 and he lectured in classics, but finding teaching uncongenial he left Cambridge in 1881 and resided in a villa at Florence for two years, studying metaphysics, but without satisfaction to himself. He therefore turned to politics, and in 1885 he was elected Conservative member for Central Leeds, and acted as private secretary to his brother Arthur who from 1885 to 1886 was president of the Local Government Board. In 1895, strengthened by experience on parliamentary committees in the intervening Parliaments, he was appointed chief secretary for Ireland. In that office he carried in 1898 the Local Government (Ireland) Act, establishing county and district councils, which in no small degree accustomed the Irish to govern themselves. In 1900 he was transferred to the presidency of the Board of Trade, and sworn of the Privy Council. He supported the export-tax of a shilling per ton on coal imposed by the chancellor of the Exchequer, and was responsible for the Sugar Convention Act of 1903. For a few weeks in 1905 he was president of the Local Government Board, but on being defeated at the general election in 1906 he retired from politics. He never approached the political stature of his brother, whose incisiveness in debate he lacked. His talents lay rather in the careful weighing and presentation of evidence, and this fact led to his being depicted by caricaturists as a schoolmaster in cap and gown; he was often described as an academic chief secretary
Balfour therefore in 1906 turned to other interests. He accepted directorships of public companies, with varying success. His great interest, however, lay in psychical research, in which he was probably inspired by his sister, Mrs. Sidgwick, and as life went on he became more and more absorbed in this study. He had been one of a group at Cambridge which included the Sidgwicks, his brother Frank, and his brother-in-law, J. W. Strutt, third Baron Rayleigh [qv.], A. W. Verrall [qv.], and others. His approach to the subject was through metaphysics and psychology; he paid little or no attention to the physical phenomena supposed to occur in the presence of spiritualistic mediums. A more promising line, he thought, could be found in the trance utterances of mediums which seemed to reveal knowledge which could not have been acquired by normal means; and in interpreting the utterances or the scripts, many of which contained recondite classical allusions purporting to come from dead scholars, his knowledge of the classics proved useful. In his presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research in 1906 he maintained that if communication with the dead was by word of mouth, gesture, or physical contact, it was not unreasonable to conjecture that telepathy might play a part; he suggested that the impressions which keep streaming through the mind without obvious external impulse might be telepathic in origin and come from one or more extraneous minds, and that telepathy might be a commoner activity than was recognized; and he propounded the idea that the human organism might have many souls which communicate with each other by telepathy
In A Study of the Psychological Aspects of Mrs. Willett's Mediumship, and of the Statements of the Communicators concerning Process (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, part 140, vol. xliii, May 1935) Balfour revealed his complete confidence in the good faith of that medium's scripts, and this confidence was shared by other investigators whose names carried weight in the academic world. He thought that the automatic communications came in some cases from a dissociated self, in others from an external agent, and in others again from both agencies acting in co-operation. His interpretations did not admit independent clairvoyance as a source of knowledge; they depended on assuming communication from one mind to another, without excluding the possibility of one or both of these minds being discarnate. He described his sensations as like listening in to a telephone conversation where it was not always clear who was speaking or whether there was not interference from other speakers owing to imperfection of the machine at the exchange. Moreover, he felt that some of the speakers might be repeating at second hand what they had imperfectly heard or grasped, or what might be scarcely intelligible without specialist knowledge. In interpreting Mrs. Willett's scripts a knowledge of the classics was essential, for they purported to be communicated by dead classical scholars such as A. W. Verrall [qv.], S. H. Butcher [qv.], F. W. H. Myers [qv.], and Edmund Gurney [qv.]
A more definite contribution to psychical research is to be found in his paper entitled The Ear of Dionysius (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, part 73, vol. xxix, March 1917) in which he studied four automatic scripts or utterances of Mrs. Willett of four separate dates in 1914 and 1915. His researches made him a convinced believer in survival after physical death, but the evidence on which he rested this belief has never been fully published, for it was in part derived from words in the Willett scripts concerning confidential matters which he was not free to publish or discuss because of their concern with people's private lives. It must always be remembered that the natural bias of his mind was sceptical rather than credulous
In private life, Balfour was a most kindly and genial companion and the centre of a devoted family circle. In 1887 he married Lady Elizabeth Edith Bulwer-Lytton (died 1942), daughter of the first Earl of Lytton [qv.] by whom he had a son, Robert Arthur Lytton (born 1902), who succeeded him in the earldom in 1945, and five daughters. He himself succeeded his brother in 1930 under a special remainder. In personal appearance he was gifted with a classical profile of an intellectual cast, which lasted unimpaired, as did his faculties, into extreme old age. He died at Whittingehame 14 January 1945. A portrait by G. Fiddes Watt is in the possession of the family. A cartoon by Spy appeared in Vanity Fair, 10 December 1896.
The Times, 15 January 1945
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, part 169, vol. xlvii, May 1945, and passim
Blanche E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, first Earl of Balfour, 2 vols., 1936
Contributor: Rayleigh., Guy Strutt.