During a lifetime when the term psychic gained as much widespread acceptance as a variety of definitions and practitioners – often caricatured on film and not always so far removed from real life – Betty Balcombe could be relied on to give the profession a good name.
Betty’s way of working was un-fanciful and earthed in common sense. For nearly 40 years her self-taught philosophy benefited an audience of thousands, all of whom she treated, taught and charged in exactly the same way. She arrived at her personal notion of being a psychic by a long searching of her inner self and “questioning avidly” everyone she met who had a theory about psychics and spiritual awareness.
Her definition of psychic was the ability to give healing energy to people and to tune into their aura field, translating what was received to help anyone in trouble understand and realise their choices in life. People would often come to her mentally in tatters and she “would sew them up again”. Her proviso was that rather than heal people, she merely helped them heal themselves. She was extremely effective at it, but she was neither a showman nor had any interest in fame.
The concept of celebrity was not within her radar for others either. Seldom did she recognise famous people. When an outstanding member of rock royalty came for a reading and she asked what he did, he modestly ventured, “I’m a drummer”, so she said, “That’s nice”, and they carried on from there. When actual royalty visited, Betty did engage animatedly, but only to insist that the waiting chauffeur move from waiting conspicuously outside to around the corner.
Politicians, actors, entertainers and people of all kinds came to see her – often in waves of professions as her reputation spread by word of mouth – and many flew in especially, while others came from ordinary walks of life. Her diary was full for months in advance and luckily she didn’t like going on holiday. When she travelled it was to see friends or family who lived abroad. One of her later trips was to the US early in 2001, when she had lunch in the World Trade Centre, hinting afterwards said that it smelled of decay.
An important part of her creed was psychic responsibility: not venturing an opinion or message unless it was asked for. She knew instinctively when to hold back from giving clients information that they were not ready to receive. Instead she waited for another time to present itself. She would then seize the moment and tell them what they needed to know and were ready to hear.
Each person was given an hour for their reading. More was not an option, as she felt it would only be a diluted repetition of whatever insight had already been given. During that hour there would be plenty of humour, because laughter was for her a great conduit to healing and she was apt to see the funny side of life.
The force of her energy occasionally astonished first-time visitors who’d only spoken to her on the phone, because from her frail telephone voice, they expected some little old lady to open the door. Instead, a tall, good-looking figure with raven hair would arrest them with a kindly blast of her penetratingly dark eyes. Easy in her movements, she appeared far younger than she was. “Forget about the numbers and live the year you’re in” was her advice on ageing and sitting on the floor was as comfortable to her as a chair.
She was partially deaf from childhood measles, but a botched ear operation later exacerbated the condition. She had an antipathy to doctors – who were often less effective at diagnosis and healing than she was – that was often apparent, although her deafness wasn’t, because she had learnt to lip-read. A simple summation of her philosophy was to turn “shit into sugar” or to create harmony and growth where there was none. In 1984 she was instrumental in setting up the GAIA Foundation, intent on restoring a respectful relationship with the Earth.
For many years Betty opened up her psychic philosophy to weekly learning classes, and everything she taught had been tried out and tested by her, although she was always keen to debate. One of her many hundreds of pupils, was the astrologer and prize-winning novelist Reina James, who said the experience was a turning point in her learning. She recalled being the recipient of Betty’s “Order of the Frog” which meant being dubbed with a toy frog – of which Betty had a vast collection – in response to having gone mute in fear of answering some question.
Betty termed fear as “the great destroyer” where knowledge was “the bridge to understanding.” The myriad frogs were received as gifts and were an example of how people hung on to her words – she’d once mentioned that she liked them and it snowballed.
She had to be very careful about what she said. Her two books As I see It and The Energy Connection – guides to developing people’s psychic abilities – were written in clear, unadorned language that allowed for no mistake in understanding. She was asked by an admiring prospective publisher of one of them if she would only re-write it to claim that the information it contained had been “channelled” by an ancient native American spirit guide, because it would then sell thousands of copies. She refused. Piatkus eventually published both books. Writing later became more of a passion – she co-wrote several screenplays – and helped to combat her increasing deafness.
Born in 1936, Betty was brought up in Pimlico, London, the daughter of a master carpenter and a lampshade maker respectively. Her childhood ability to “read” the world around her was what distinguished her in an otherwise unremarkable upbringing. She left school early and worked as a secretary, married her husband when aged 20 and had her first child at 21.
In 1968 she started tapping into her psychic abilities. Before she had started to see clients after work, she booked to see two psychics to see how it was done: the first was dressed in a turban with hoop earrings and Betty was perplexed by her choosing theatrics like that. The second she grew concerned about, because she sensed there was something wrong with the so-called psychic and the whole situation reversed so that Betty was the one giving the reading. Her first proper client was a nurse, and it grew by personal recommendation from then on. She never advertised.
After her husband died suddenly in 1992, Betty moved to north London to three consecutive flats, moving uphill to Hampstead. She liked moving house. She also liked living on a busy road and traffic noise didn’t bother her. A more relaxed lifestyle prevailed. She formed a new relationship with a young musician and evenings were spent in jazz clubs: loud, smoke-filled and dark.
A number of good years followed, but in 2006 she was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She moved to Greenwich to be nearer her eldest daughter. Her teaching had already stopped, but now she could no longer give readings. The extraordinary and free-ranging intellect that could approach any subject, however complex, with a pure and productive insight, was stilled. Luckily her books remained, concisely written about psychic development and spiritual awareness. They were partly written for those who had attended the classes and might pass on her knowledge, but for others the books helped to remove fear and prejudice about a natural and normal phenomenon – the giving and receiving of energy.
Betty Balcombe both raised the bar and the profile of psychic work. She used to say that the most anyone can hope for from the ending of a human life is to be remembered with a smile.
Betty Frances (nee Tancock), born Blackfriars, London, 30 October, 1936. Married Douglas H Balcombe (died 1992) and had two daughters. Died 9 July, 2016.
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