Secret London: LSD experiments at the World Psychedelic Centre

Michael Hollingshead has been described as ‘an English trickster and con man of the first order’ by one commentator, but he described himself as ‘The Man Who Turned on The World‘.

Hollingshead was the British man who introduced LSD to Tim Leary in December 1961 on the recommendation of Aldous Huxley. Hollingshead was working in New York when he came upon a quantity of LSD. Huxley suggested he send it to Leary, who was already experimenting with administering psilocybin to patients during his psychological research at Harvard. Leary loved it. The LSD revolution began.

After working in America with Leary – he even lived in his house – Hollingshead was sent to London in September 1965 with enough Czechoslovakian lysergic acid to produce 5,000 trips, thirteen boxes of psychedelic literature – The Psychedelic Experience, The Psychedelic Review and The Psychedelic Reader – and plans for ‘a psychedelic jamboree’ at the Royal Albert Hall featuring the Stones, the Beatles and Leary himself. Although this is sometimes presented as Hollingshead playing the role of John The Baptist to Leary’s Psychedelic Christ, Barry Miles’s ‘London Calling’ suggests that Leary was just trying to get rid of the increasingly drug-addled Hollingshead and is said to have remarked upon his departure, ‘Well, that writes off the psychedelic revolution in England for at least ten years.’

Hollingshead promptly set up his base at his flat in Belgravia’s Pont Street, which he renamed the World Psychedelic Centre, and redecorated with the key elements needed for a good trip: bowls of fruit, handwoven cloth, open fire,  bread, cheese, wine, candles, incense and goldfish. A chill out space, basically.

This was one of only two reliable sources for LSD in London at the time, so visitors were plentiful and Hollingshead began welcoming key figures from the scene – including Roman Polanski, Alex Trocchi, William Burroughs, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Donovan and the Rolling Stones.

Guests were invited to take part in LSD sessions designed to make the most of the experience, with ‘lots of cushions, some excellent tapes and hi-fi equipment, a slide projector, and several chillums’. The LSD was dispensed after midnight inside grapes impregnated with 300 micrograms of the drug. The atmosphere was key. Hollingshead writes:

Shortly after dropping the acid, I played a tape of Buddhist Cakra music, followed by Concert Percussion by the American composer, John Cage. Next I played some music by Ravi Shankar and some bossanova. Interval of fifteen minutes. Then some music by Scriabin and part of a Bach cello suite. Interval. Some Debussy, and Indian flute music by Ghosh. Interval. Bach organ music and some John Cage ‘space’ music. Interval. The Ali Brothers and Japanese flute music. We also looked at slides projected on to the ceiling Tantric yantras, Vedic Gods, the Buddha, Tibetan mandalas.

There were also regular readings from Leary’s work

While Hollingshead dispensed LSD to his visitors in these carefully controlled conditions, he was soon self-medicating with cannabis, speed and heroin to control the fierce highs he experienced from taking strong doses of acid at least three times a week. The tabloids soon got wind of these experiments with the ‘killer drug’  and after hosting a party of 80 hippies at which two undercover police officers were dosed with acid after sampling the spiked punch, Hollingshead was busted. Naturally, he attended his trial while tripping and was sentenced to 21 months at Wormwood Scrubs. There he met spy George Blake, who promptly took a trip on some of the acid Hollingshead smuggled in to the prison, before escaping and going into exile in the Soviet Union.

Hollingshead didn’t make it quite that far himself, ending up in Cumbrae, a Scottish island, where he settled with a group of believers who treated LSD as a holy sacrament in quasi-religious services. He then went on his world travels.

Hollingshead was undoubtedly a key player in the scene. However, it’s notable that when a copy of his book, The MAn Who Turned on the World was sent to Timothy Leary in prison in the 1970s, Leary underlined only a single sentence – ‘…my taking of methedrine…’ Leary’s acquaintances believe that not everything Hollingshead said about his role in the psychedelic revolution could be trusted because of his addiction to opiates.
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8 responses to “Secret London: LSD experiments at the World Psychedelic Centre

  1. Some might say Hollingshead was the real thing and Leary was the con man.

  2. ,, Alas, both were “con men”, amoral and dangerous: witness :Learys devastated children and Hollingshead’s physical vicious episodes towards women. Charm can be powerfully deceptive in such-like. Followers are the “useful lemmings” following a going nowhere destiny. Oh., and Hollingshead premeditatively dosed a scottish retreat with speed, leading to chaos, ETC. Oh Well, This Too Shall Pass! .(Q.P.R.D.)

    shall Pass

  3. Is Michael Hollingshead still alive?

  4. No, he died some years ago. His full story is in my book Albion Dreaming.

  5. I’d be interesting in hearing more about the Scittish retreat episode, Mr Tse- was this on the Isle of Cumbrae?

  6. i was frederic gollong created of psychadelic reserch center in blaneim cressent near portobello

  7. Pingback: Leonard Cohen: Just the Facts | Auticulture

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