Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

Does Dowsing Work?

An old investigation into dowsing, also known as ‘water divining’.

Let’s us start with an interesting extract on the subject of dowsing, or water-divining, from an antiquarian book, Memories of the Months, by Sir Herbert Maxwell:

Lord Jersey had employed Mullins, the celebrated water-finder, to discover springs on this property at Middleton, in Oxfordshire, and had been not only gratified, but astonished at his success. I ventured, without questioning Mullins’ undoubted skill and usefulness, to express some doubt as to the part played by the divining rod. It seemed so much easier to credit the man with experience and quick powers of observation, enabling him to detect the presence of subterranean springs by means of signs invisible to less practised eyes.

That Mullins was an expert was beyond doubt: dozens of people had reason to be grateful to him for finding water for them after all other means had failed. The only question was whether he was not a bit of a humbug also. It was determined to invite him to submit to certain simple tests. He accepted Lord Jersey’s invitation to examine the ground at Osterley Park, near Isleworth, in the presence of certain persons accustomed to scientific inquiry.

Now in describing what took place, there is no intention of reflecting unfairly on Mullins proceedings, or of imputing to him any intentional dishonesty. There may have been a degree of suspicion in the minds of some those present; probably there was; but Mullins got perfectly fair play, and people must be left to draw their own conclusions from an accurate report of the proceedings and their result in the only serious attempt on record to test the virtues of the divining rod.

Mullins arrived at Osterley in the forenoon. He was at perfect liberty to go about and inspect the field of operations, and I think I remember being told he had done so. After luncheon he presented himself to the visitors and set to work. Sir James Crichton-Browne took command of the inspecting staff.

Mullins, having a supply of light, forked hazel rods, rather thicker than an ordinary drawing-pencil, and about a foot or fifteen inches long, seized one of them with a prong in each hand, and began to move about with the point of the rod about a foot above the surface of the ground. At two places on the gravel sweep in front of the house the rod turned up, Mullins stopped, and told us that a spring would be found at those points. The same happened at more than one place in the park, where the surface was grassy.He showed us how the rod twisted so violently that, when he held it tight, it broke in his hand. Asked what his sensations were he replied that when the rod turned up he felt a ‘kind of shivering’ passing upwards along his spine. He stood on a plate of thick glass, and explained to us that the rod then gave no sign, which, in his view showed that the influence was electricity. Sir James then proposed that Mullins should go through his performance blindfold, to which the operator made no objection. A large handkerchief was tied over this eyes, and he made ready to begin again.

“I don’t call that blindfolding at all!” cried Sir James, and produced some cotton-wool, which he proposed to stuff under the handkerchief; upon which Mullins tore off the handkerchief, vowed that he had practised his profession for thirty years without once having had his honesty called in question and would not submit to have it doubted now.

“Don’t you believe my word? said he.

“I believe nothing but what I see!” returned Sir James – a sentiment, which, though it precisely defined the proper mental attitude of a scientific critic, brought the seance to an abrupt conclusion; for Mullins, so deeply wounded in his self-respect, refused to undertake any further experiments.

The question, therefore, so far as we were concerned remained exactly where it was when we took it up. Personally, I disbelieve in the rod except as a ‘parergon’ (Greek lettering, meaning an ’embellishment’), but I suspect some people are abnormally affected by the vicinity of water, just as others are by that of a cat. Were I in straits to find water, I should employ without hesitation a professional water-finder – rod and all – if there remains one so successful as Mullins was.

Sadly Mullins died shortly after these events.

And now, here is my take on the situation, from the book How to Read Water:

In my experience, dowsers are passionate and honest people, but there is a common, fundamental misunderstanding about dowsing and underground water.

Water that falls as rain will gravitate down through the ground until it is stopped by something, typically impervious rocks, where it will collect. This forms an underground reservoir, known as the water table.

The water table refers to the level of saturated ground. It can be visible in the case of rivers, but usually refers to the invisible reservoir of waterlogged porous rocks in the land. The level of the water table rises and falls with rainfall. The water table will be found above underground impervious rocks almost everywhere, even in deserts. This means that you are likely to find water almost anywhere you choose to drill down, the only pertinent question is usually: how deep is it? So when dowsers successfully find water with divining rods or any other device, this is only impressive if they have specified the depth of the water. Blindfold yourself and throw a dart at a map, then start digging where it lands and you will likely find water if you go deep enough.

Excerpt from How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley, published by Sceptre 2016.