Astrology in 20th Century Britain
The late 19th and early 20th century saw a revival of interest in mysticism and the occult throughout Europe and in the USA, too. This can be traced at least partly to the advent of the Theosophical Society, which was founded in 1875, and rapidly attracted adherents from all strata of society.
The Theosophical Society, in principle at least, represented a pathway to reconciliation between ‘science’ and ‘religion’. Astrology had suffered a great deal in the preceding centuries from the split between the new emerging paradigm of rational scientific empiricism and the waning stranglehold of religious authority in society.
And so a rather new breed or astrologers started to emerge early in the 20th century, practising and teaching a significantly transformed version of astrology. It is probably fair to say that this astrology that was to find a rebirth in the 20th century was but a caricature of the astrology that was thriving in Britain in the days of William Lilly and Elias Ashmole. The suppression of astrology, it’s alienation from both church and science, had effectively stunted astrology’s progress; it had been forced underground for many generations, and the natural process of transmission from generation to generation had been interrupted.
Alan Leo (1860-1917), dubbed the Father of Modern Astrology, is a towering figure in modern astrological history. Leo’s work is widely considered the earliest example of a more psychological approach to chart interpretation, laying the foundations for a less fatalistic astrological paradigm, which would come to characterize astrology later in the 20th century.
His dogged determination and organizational skills enabled him to bring astrology before the masses to a greater extent than had hitherto been achieved, and whatever one may think of his astrological methods, there can be no disputing the fact that his passion for astrology and the many useful textbooks he authored, made astrology more accessible to the common man.
Leo was an ardent Theosophist and founded the The Astrological Lodge of London as a special wing of the Theosophical Society in London. It remains active to this day as one of the leading astrological organizations in the United Kingdom.
Among his well known works are The Key to Your Own Nativity, How to Judge a Nativity, The Progressed Horoscope, Casting the Horoscope andThe Art of Synthesis.
Sepharial (Walter Gordon Old, 1864-1929) was a contemporary of Alan Leo, and was himself a prominent Theosophist, as well as a personal associate of the society’s extraordinary founder, Helena Blavatsky. She is said to have nicknamed Sepharial the ‘Astral Tramp‘.
While Sepharial was well known and highly regarded, “many of his books and other works were put together in a rather slapdash way, which made his reputation less enduring than it might have been…”. (7) Although he showed some industry in the writing of books, and through the creation of magazines and almanacs, he did not achieve the success and reach that Leo enjoyed. Nonetheless Sepharial was influential in his own day and highly regarded by his peers, and he was by all accounts a knowledgeable and capable astrologer.
Charles Carter (1887-1968) was drawn to astrology through the energetic marketing efforts of Alan Leo, and went on to carry the torch, ignited by Leo in the founding of the Astrological Lodge of London, into the latter half of the 20th century:
“As a young man Charles Carter trained as a barrister and served in the Army, during which time, at the age of 23, he wrote away for one of Alan Leo’s ‘shilling delineations’ and his interest in Astrology was born… In 1922, aged 35, Carter became President of the Astrological Lodge of London (founded by Alan Leo in 1915) and introduced and edited its quarterly magazine for over thirty years from 1926 to 1959.” (8)
Carter was a prolific author and penned several seminal books, such The Encyclopaedia of Psychological Astrology (1924) , The Seven Great Problems of Astrology (1927), Symbolic Directions in Modern Astrology (1929), The Astrological Aspects (1930), The Astrology of Accidents (1932), Some Principles of Horoscopic Delineation (1934), Essays on the Foundations of Astrology (1947), and An Introduction to Political Astrology (1951).
He was a central pillar of astrology in Britain throughout his long career. In 1948 he co-founded and became the first Principal of the Faculty of Astrology Studies. A diploma from this institution remains to this day a highly regarded and respectable astrological qualification, throughout the world.
Margaret Hone (1892-1969) was one of the co-founders of the Faculty of Astrological Studies, along with Charles Carter, and later became its second principal, after Carter. She wrote The Modern Textbook of Astrology (1950), to which Carter wrote the foreword, and which for many years served as the official textbook for the Faculty of Astrological Studies. Her other notable text is Applied Astrology (1953).
She was an important and influential astrologer during the mid-20th century and contributed to the founding of the the Astrological Association of Great Britain.
She was friendly with the American astrologers Dane Rudhyar and Mark Edmund Jones, who, on the other side of the pond, were likewise bastions of a new modern conception of astrology.
John Addey (1920-1982) is notable as a bold pioneer in the history of astrology in Britain, and indeed in the development of the more modern and scientific trends in astrology globally. He is most famous for his book Harmonics in Astrology.
Addey had been somewhat interested in philosophy and astrology in his teens, but he is also recorded as having been a very physically active young man, excelling in various sports, such as football, cricket and rowing. But then, he was tragically and suddenly struck with “Ankylosing Spondylitis” at the age of 23, and it was during his long convalescence, while forced to stay indoors, that he delved more deeply into astrology and other deep subjects. And so, as it often happens in life, apparent misfortune and suffering turns out to be the catalyst for finding one’s calling.
A few years later, in his early thirties, he studied through the Faculty of Astrological Studies and received mentoring and support from Charles Carter, who no doubt recognized him as a uniquely passionate and intelligent astrologer.
Addey contributed to the founding of the Astrological Association of Great Britain in 1958, which remains active to this day. He was the organization’s first Secretary, and later, in 1961, became its President. He edited the Association’s Astrological Journal from 1962-1972, and this publication, also, remains an active and vibrant platform for modern day astrological voices.
Dennis Elwell (1930-2014) taught himself astrology as a teenager and from a young age developed a distinct fascination with esotericism in general. He became an avid student of the works of such mystics as Rudolf Steiner and Gurdjieff. At the tender age of 19 Prediction magazine published an article on reincarnation penned by him. (9)
He was an eminently practical astrologer. Apart from all the usual accomplishments common to dynamic professional astrologers; such the publication of acclaimed books (like The Cosmic Loom) and numerous articles for astrological journals (he was in fact also a journalist), lecturing at major conferences etc., Dennis Elwell’s fame is largely attached to certain bold and accurate predictions he made.
In particular, he noticed a coming astrological configuration that bore notable resemblance to conditions present at the time of the catastrophic sinking of the Titanic, and formally warned certain shipping companies that disasters at sea were an immanent danger. His warnings were ignored, but they turned out to be truly prescient.
“Within days of forewarning two British shipping companies of potential trouble at sea, one of them met serious misfortune with the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise. Elwell’s attention to the prospect of shipping disaster was prompted by the March 1987 solar eclipse in Pisces” (9)
This strikingly accurate prediction brought Dennis Elwell considerable media publicity and could certainly be considered an event that brought astrology into the public eye, and in a positive light for a change. There were inevitably some sceptics, groping at straws, who attempted to undermine the validity of this prediction (and others that he made), but the fact that his prediction was so indisputably on record before the event, and the fact that the nature of the event was so specific, made it a compelling example of just how accurate, not to mention useful, astrology can be.
There’s nothing particularly British about astrology, it has to be admitted, in this nostalgic recollection of some notable chapters and characters of British astrological history. It is a language that transcends our familiar linguistic dialects, our cultural histories and even our cultural cosmological myths. But Britons have shown no lack of enterprise and ingenuity in their embrace and cultivation of the art, science and craft of astrology.
In Chaucer and Shakespeare astrology blossomed in poetry and prose with a grace that has seldom if ever been rivalled. In John Dee we glimpse something of the archetype of the medieval magician as an eccentric genius; quite literally a ‘007 secret agent‘ by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen. In Culpeper we meet an inspired if renegade English astrologer-physician; a Robin Hood figure one might say, in his determination to bring the wealth of medical and astrological knowledge within reach of the wider general public. By any measure, you could hardly wish for a more colourful collection of characters than the astrologers of Britain’s past.
Even such an illustrious historical figure of the orthodox scientific world-view as Isaac Newton had allegedly not, in private at least, disavowed the more esoteric aspect of astronomy, which is astrology (though ‘allegedly‘ is perhaps the operative word here; many scholars would dispute this). (10)
Anyhow, the story goes that:
“… when the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742), of comet fame, once spoke depreciatively on the subject of astrology, Newton is said to have berated him with the remark: “Sir Halley, I have studied the matter, you have not!” +
Contrary to common modern assumptions, astrologers are not invariably impractical raving lunatics. After all, Dennis Elwell did warn those shipping companies of coming disaster, didn’t he? That’s not particularly impractical or ambiguous, is it? It should give even scientific sceptics pause for thought.
John Addey’s work on ‘Harmonics in Astrology‘ stands out as an insightful attempt to bring a more scientific theoretical and technical approach to astrology, one that deserves to be more fully explored and developed by astrologers who seek to bridge the gap between the perception of astrology as stellar voodoo, and a language of astrology that can speak to sensibilities of modern science.
A debt of gratitude is owed to the industrious and enduring astrological organizations, such as the Astrological Lodge of London, the Faculty of Astrological Studies, and the Astrological Association of Great Britain, which were all established in the earlier part of the 20th century from a distinct lineage of British astrologers; spawned unsurprisingly perhaps, by a certain Leo. All of these projects remain active and highly engaged with the astrologically minded British public, and in fact with the wider world. That said, all across Britain there are newer and lesser known groups and astrological organizations that play a vital role in supporting astrological seekers, who invariably become tomorrow’s pioneers.
As always, there are many unsung heroes in great stories (and also probably glaring and unpardonable omissions in this document); talented individuals and inspired group projects that keep the flame of astrology ignited, but who don’t always make it into the popular narrative. These unsung heroes play a crucial role in the ongoing preservation and transmission of astrology, in all cultures, in all times.
In conclusion we can happily affirm that astrology is alive and well in Great Britain, and indeed astrology is alive and well in the world. This is due, in no small measure, to the dedication and enterprise of the astrologers of Great Britain’s past. Fortunately there are many current and living legends of British astrology too – Nick Campion, Liz Greene and Deborah Houlding are the first to come to mind- whose contributions will be valued, and whose influence will be felt, for generations to come. The history remains in the making in this living ancient tradition…
And so, to both the famous and the not-so-famous Keepers of the Flame, in ages past and those to come: We thank you and celebrate your inspired service!
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldhelm (see also: https://greekastrologer.com/2015/01/20/the-first-english-astrologers-were-greek-byzantines-and-oddly-enough-saints/)
- From The Art of Synthesis, by Alan Leo
- Charubel: image from The Art of Synthesis by Alan Leo