This is a second file in my biographies of GD members William Alexander Ayton and his wife Anne Ayton née Hempson. Because William Alexander in particular was so involved in the 19th century English occult, in various ways, I though it deserved separate coverage - with this proviso, that I’ve never studied the occult myself and I leave in-depth coverage of what he might have been doing to those with more experience. I’ll just give an overview of the Aytons’ life in the occult and try to identify some of their occult acquaintances.
UPDATE APRIL 2017
I originally sent my work on the Aytons to our web pages in 2013. However, a wide-ranging update is now needed, for two reasons:
1) in March 2017 I was contacted by Chris Bennett of Vancouver BC. Chris has written extensively on the use of drugs in esoteric practice, particularly focusing on cannabis but also covering the more deadly stuff. Many thanks to Chris for sending me lots of information and extracts from his publications and others, on this interesting subject, and making me look with new eyes at what really went on in esoteric circles in the mid-to-late 19th century.
2) information on William Alexander Ayton as a freemason is now available on Ancestry, to which I subscribe. He turns out to have joined more lodges than I knew about before.
TO START WITH
If you didn’t bother with the first Ayton file: William Alexander Ayton was born in 1816 and died in 1909. He was a priest in the Church of England - probably not a very zealous one though he took his parish duties seriously enough - and while he was a member of the GD he was vicar of Chacombe, just outside Banbury. Anne Hempson was born in 1820 or 1821, daughter of John Hempson, farmer, of Ramsey in Essex; she married William Alexander in 1862 and died in 1898 after several years of ill-health.
A WORD ABOUT SOURCES
The occult insistence on secrecy gives historians a lot of trouble. Involvement in the occult is governed by two fears:
- of revealing to the unworthy details of the Divine Plan/secrets of the universe - however you like to think of it; and
- being ‘outed’ as an occultist yourself.
In the past, being outed as possessing occult knowledge might have resulted in charges of blasphemy, heresy or treason. By the 19th-century the consequences were not so serious, though if William Alexander had been found out by his Church of England superiors he probably would have lost his job. Secrecy was still the watchword, however - it was part of the game.
William Alexander’s relationship with the occult obsession with secrecy was actually rather ambivalent. On the one hand, he appreciated the need for it and fretted about his activities being found out; and he was a man who worried about doing the correct thing, about keeping the rules. On the other hand, he wanted to talk about his occult work to people who showed an interest, and to share his knowledge with them; he was naturally an indiscreet talker and writer; and he was not a good judge of character in choosing who he blabbed to. Caught between these conflicting character traits, he came over to people who met him as a rather nervous, even highly-strung, man - Yeats and other GD members comment on it - and we know more about his occult activities than we might have done if he’d been more careful!
Freemasonry is a forum where the occult and the world of business and the professions can meet. Individual freemasons have always been free to go more deeply into the occult side of freemasonry if they wish, but it’s not a requirement. Despite his involvement in the occult, I think William Alexander thought of being a freemason more as a useful adjunct to his position as a working representative of the Church of England. He was a member of several freemasons’ lodges, but kept his involvement at a very low level, acting as a lodge official in only one of them, and being appointed to a provincial rank but never a national one.
ST JOHN’S LODGE 601 was the lodge where William Alexander received his first initiation as a freemason, on 5 January 1866. The lodge was based at Wellington in Shropshire and was meeting at the Bull’s Head in New Street when William Alexander was a member. It was probably the nearest lodge to the village of Oakengates, where William Alexander had been curate since 1863. He may have been offered membership of it as part of a recruitment drive undertaken by the year’s Worshipful Master, S J Fellows. His name doesn’t appear in the account of the lodge’s history during those years, and I imagine that he let his membership lapse when he left Oakengates to take up an appointment in Edingale Staffordshire, in 1868.
Again, it took a while for the Aytons to embed themselves sufficiently at Edingale for William Alexander to be offered initiation into a nearby lodge. It was May 1871 - three years after their arrival - before he joined the MARMION LODGE 1060. This was a relatively new lodge (founded 1865) and was based in Tamworth in Staffordshire, a few miles south of Edingale. There’s no history of this lodge in the collection at the Freemasons’ Library, so the date of his initiation is all I know about William Alexander’s time as a member.
At the end of 1871 William Alexander became a member of CHURCHILL LODGE 478, a lodge more in keeping with his educational background and personal interests. Churchill Lodge 478 had originally been based in Henley-on-Thames, but it had been meeting in Oxford - where William Alexander had been a student - since 1851. During the 1870s and 1880s, when William Alexander was living near enough to be an active member, a number of aristocrats joined it including (inevitably, given its name) Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill (father of Winston Churchill) and the Duke of Marlborough. Prince Leopold became a member; in 1875 Oscar Wilde was initiated; and in 1885 Rev Henry Sayers joined the lodge - chaplain of Christ Church Oxford choir school and future father of Dorothy L Sayers (born 1893). Lodge fees were high - £5 at initiation, £10 per annum subscription during the late 19th century - but William Alexander probably thought of them as a good investment. It was during his active membership of this lodge that he undertook his only county-level role in freemasonry, serving as Provincial Grand Chaplain.
The lower the lodge’s number, the more prestige it has within freemasonry. It must have been through contacts he made at Churchill Lodge 478 that William Alexander was offered membership of a very prestigious lodge indeed, WESTMINSTER AND KEYSTONE LODGE 10, founded (though with a different name) as early as 1722. He was initiated in February 1872 as a joining member and current Provincial Grand Chaplain of Oxfordshire. There was a close connection between Lodge 10 and Oxford at the time, the result of a bringing together - in 1855, by the United Grand Lodge of England - of Lodge 10's current members with a group of freemasons from Oxford who were looking for a freemasons’ base in London. As a graduate of Oxford University William Alexander was charged only £5 (instead of the full £15) initiation fee, and the lodge’s annual subscription at this time was quite modest - £1 without banqueting, £4 with it. William Alexander was able to afford to remain a member until December 1894, when he resigned as part of his preparations for retirement. While he was a member, on his visits to London he could have gone to the lodge meetings at the hub of freemasonry in England, the Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street. However, he didn’t serve in any official capacity as a lodge officer.
In becoming a member of CHERWELL LODGE 599 William Alexander was continuing his policy of involving himself with the freemasons near where he was working. In 1873 he was appointed vicar of Chacombe, a village just outside Banbury in Oxfordshire. Cherwell Lodge 599 met in Banbury and William Alexander was initiated into it in 1875, as a visiting member. The lodge was emerging from a long period in the doldrums - very few members attending meetings, few volunteers willing to serve as lodge officials. Perhaps this was the reason why William Alexander agreed to climb the ladder of official posts within the lodge; though it hadn’t persuaded him in other lodges suffering from the same lack of committed members. He reached the point of serving his 12 months as the lodge’s Worshipful Master in 1878. He isn’t mentioned in any other capacity in the history of the lodge that I read, so he didn’t play a major role in the effort to raise funds for the lodge’s own masonic hall (opened in 1883), and he didn’t become a member of the lodge’s chapter (founded in 1887). The information I’ve found doesn’t say for how long William Alexander remained a member of Cherwell Lodge 599 but he would certainly not have been active there after he retired from Chacombe vicarage and went to live in Surrey, in 1894.
It’s difficult to know whether William Alexander introduced any friends to the lodges he was a member of, as potential recruits; and how many times an acquaintance made through freemasonry turned into a friendship. I’ve found evidence of one friendship which extended to the wives of both men and other family members as well. Henry John Lay joined Cherwell Lodge 599 in 1876 and was a visitor at - though not a member of - Westminster and Keystone Lodge 10 between 1855 and 1878. It’s not clear from the records I’ve found whether William Alexander knew Henry Lay before his initiation, but by 1889 he and Anne were sufficiently friendly with him, his wife Isabella and their daughters to spend part of the summer with them at Staverton Court, their house near Cheltenham. Henry Lay was one of the network of occultists that William Alexander knew; see below for more details of the network and some other names.
Two of the lodges William Alexander was a member of have published lodge histories with detailed lists of lodge members - St John’s 601 and Westminster and Keystone 10. That’s quite unusual - most lodge histories confine themselves to naming those who served the lodge as officers. The Westminster and Keystone 10 lodge history is particularly thorough, listing all those freemasons who were semi-official visitors to the lodge in the mid-19th century as well as all the full members. On the evidence of those two lodge histories, it seems that William Alexander did not know or get to know through freemasonry anyone who was later in the GD, or with whom he was involved in the non-GD groups I discuss below. Many of those men were freemasons; but not in the lodges William Alexander was a member of. It might be coincidence or just a lack of surviving evidence, but to me it looks like William Alexander kept his life as a freemason carefully separate from his other occult involvement and the contacts that brought him.
SOCIETAS ROSICRUCIANA IN ANGLIA (SRIA)
SRIA was a Rosicrucian study-group within freemasonry. GD founders William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell Mathers were both members of it; many of its members joined the GD; and it is one organisation you would think William Alexander would be bound to have joined. A couple of sources I’ve come across even say that he was a member. I don’t think he was, at least, not after 1890. I’ve looked at SRIA’s membership lists from the time they were first published (around 1890) to 1909, and can’t find William Alexander’s name on them.
THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY (TS)
The TS was founded in the United States in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott. It’s better known now as one of the main routes by which Eastern philosophy became known in the West, but during its early years, Blavatsky and Olcott were more interested in western esotericism: they read the Kabbala; they studied the techniques of astral travelling and using mirrors for seeing the future (scrying); and Blavatsky acted as a clairvoyant. William Alexander and Anne Ayton were amongst Blavatsky and Olcott’s earliest acquaintances in England. The four had met during a stop-over Blavatsky and Olcott made in England between December 1878 and February 1879, on their way to settle in India. Future GD member Isabel de Steiger also met Blavatsky and Olcott during that stop-over, though it’s not so clear whether she also met the Aytons then.
At the end of the 1880s, with the TS undergoing a period of rapid expansion, an effort began to keep proper administrative records. Old members had to be signed up anew, and William Alexander and Anne Ayton appear on the TS membership registers with a joining date for each of them of July 1889. Anne remained a member until her death in 1898. William Alexander continued as a member until May 1907, when he became one of many people who decided that they no longer wanted to stay in the Society once Annie Besant was elected its leader-for-life.
The problem with the TS for the Aytons and people like them, was that while she was in India, Blavatsky’s occult interests began to move away from the western esotericism towards a more Buddhist-influenced set of views. By as early as 1884 William Alexander was seeing this change in Blavatsky’s thinking as a betrayal of the TS’s principles. As he often did with occultists he’d fallen out with, he accused her of using occultism for her own evil ends.
Their entries in the TS membership registers describe William Alexander and Anne as members of Blavatsky Lodge in 1889. As its name suggests, during her lifetime it was dominated by Blavatsky and her hand-picked inner circle. It’s not very likely that the Aytons were welcome there, by the late 1880s, and when William Alexander wrote to Frederick Leigh Gardner in May 1889, he mentioned that he was trying to set up a TS lodge in Banbury. Nothing came of it, however, and maybe it no longer mattered much to the Aytons, as they were now in the GD, whose emphasis was very much on the western magical tradition.
Despite the fact that Blavatsky was no longer interested in western esotericism and was not a member of the Golden Dawn, she found out about the GD’s existence shortly after the Aytons had been initiated into it. She set up a rival to it within the TS - the TS’s Esoteric Section - and issued an order that its members could not belong to any other occult organisation. There’s no evidence that Anny Ayton ever joined the Esoteric Section, but William Alexander did. Then he began to worry - as usual - about breaking the rules even by accident, and wrote to Blavatsky to tell her what he’d done. She ordered him to give up the GD, and he did so. Other members of both organisations were less meek - they went to Blavatsky and argued. Probably the gist of their argument was that the two organisations were complementary - the Esoteric Section studying western occultism, and the GD putting study into practice. Blavatsky never really saw it that way, but she backed down; a large group of GD members joined the TS’s Esoteric Section including William Wynn Westcott (one of the GD’s founders); and William Alexander rejoined the GD.
In the years 1894 to 1896, the TS was - torn apart is not over-stating it - by arguments about who should lead it, and which direction it should go in (east or west) after Blavatsky’s death. The dispute became very bitter, very public and caused all the lodges in the USA to cecede and probably over half the TS’s English members to resign. Many of the TS’s most active lodges in England closed down. The Aytons took no part in the arguments and accusations, and they did continue as members, but the Esoteric Section was one of the dispute’s casualties - it held no meetings after 1895 - which must have saddened William Alexander.
HERMETIC ORDER OF THE GOLDEN DAWN which originally was meant to be as much a secret as any other occult order
Both William Alexander and Anne Ayton were initiated into the GD in its very early stages, in July 1888. However, as an alchemist and translator of occult manuscripts, it was very definitely William Alexander that GD founders Westcott and Samuel Liddell Mathers were most anxious to have on board. Anne was a good spiritualist medium, and she could also bring to the GD her experience at scrying and (perhaps) at astral travelling; but the skill of a medium was both more widespread and (particularly in Mathers’ eyes) less desirable amongst members of the GD.
Perhaps the most important single thing that William Alexander did for the GD was to pronounce as genuine a cipher manuscript handed to him by Westcott for his opinion as to its authenticity. I shall discuss this more in a section below on frauds in occultism that took William Alexander in.
As I’m not a magician I’m not going to discuss the other work that William Alexander did for the GD. You can get a flavour of it even without being able to see R A Gilbert’s GD collection, now in the Freemasons’ Library, by using the FML’s catalogue search: follow the links at Instead, I’ll just discuss some techniques that William Alexander and Anne were using on a regular basis, while they were members of the GD but almost certainly from long before they were asked to join.
William Alexander and Anne were using a mirror to do scrying work by the 1880s if not before; I can be fairly sure of the date for reasons I’ll attempt to explain when we get to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. A biography of the black American occultist Pascal Beverly Randolph mentions William Alexander having a magic mirror specially made for him to a design by a French occultist which involved two mirrors being clamped together so that there was space between them for - say - ink, for writing notes on your visions; or hashish, for helping you get your visions in the first place. This device was made for him by watchmaker T H Pattinson of Bradford, a leading TS and GD member.
The Aytons may have used a magic mirror for six weeks of concentrated invoking that they undertook around Christmas 1891; though William Alexander calls the aid they used a “crystal” so the device might have been a crystal ball rather than a mirror. Each of them took a turn each evening, except for about five days when Anne was ill or away. A summary of what they saw during the sessions was written up by William Alexander and is now in the GD collection at the Freemasons’ Library, in the notebook entitled Grade of Geburah.
William Alexander didn’t ever write down what he and Anne were actually trying to achieve with this focused programme, which continued right through one of their busiest times of the year as Church of England clergyman and clergyman’s wife. However, from his notes I have deduced that it involved invoking a pentagram and placing it in a particular setting; though Anne seems to have departed from that aim quite early on, and gone with the flow more, just to see if she could interpret what did appear.
William Alexander seemed to be wanting to use his invocations to construct a cathedral building, and put his pentagram inside its east window. Perhaps he’d have wanted the east window to be a rose window, like that at Chartres and other cathedrals known to have a lot of magical symbolism in their architecture; that would fit nicely with the Rosicrucian organisation he understood the GD to be. But he just couldn’t get the whole of what he wanted, to form! Both he and Anne saw colours in the crystal - William Alexander usually saw strong blue and red - but yellow and ultra-marine smoke would often blow across what he was really trying to invoke (fumes left over from his alchemy perhaps!) He struggled even to create the cathedral building in the crystal - sometimes he got a temple instead, usually the cathedral had no roof - and he also couldn’t quite en-vision the full pentagram, he could get two points of it, or a triangle, but never the whole symbol with all its points linked by lines in its interior. And in the whole period he never managed to put more than two points of a star, let alone the full pentagram, into his east window. He did get better at invoking part at least of the cathedral building as the weeks passed - it began to appear almost as soon as he had finished doing the invocation ritual at the beginning of each session - but by New Year he was discouraged and I think, in the end, he was quite glad to bring the whole experiment to a halt.
William Alexander never saw a human figure in his visions; but then, he wasn’t trying to invoke any. Anne, on the other hand, saw more and more figures. At the beginning of the six weeks, she was having as little success as her husband with the pentagram, though she did get six- and five-point stars quite quickly. But she always got figures, even in the second session, when a cauldron that appeared first was replaced by what Anne described as a Tudor gentlewoman (if you’ve read the first part of this biography of the Aytons, you’ll know that Anne thought of herself as a gentlewoman). The figures, and the landscapes they inhabited, soon took over her visions. At one rather telling point, she saw a woman standing at a desk with a man stooping over her as she worked; Anne identified the stooping man as Samuel Liddell Mathers. The next night he was there again and the female figure was creeping past him trying - Anne told William Alexander - to escape. Perhaps the female figure (which Anne later identified as GD member Anna Blackwell) did escape, because Anne didn’t see Mathers again in her visions. Instead she saw Anna Blackwell once more, continuing to work at her desk, without anyone looking over her shoulder. More and more people began to appear in Anne’s visions. She had a nasty one where “all sorts of elementals” tore at the hair of a male figure Anne identified as a teacher (but not Mathers); apparently she viewed the teacher as hostile, because in her vision she squeezed past him and his attackers and “left him to his fate”. Her visions then took an outdoor turn, with increasing numbers of people in beautiful green landscapes. She saw woodland, flowers and lovely sunrises, heard bees buzzing and music playing, and was aware of “a presiding spirit” and a “long ugly thing from the North” which kept interfering with what she was trying to invoke. Anne was eventually to see the presiding spirit she had at first only sensed; she saw it sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman. Several times, Anne tried to build a cathedral in her vision, but she never got further than a few ruined arches in the midst of her green landscapes.
On the last two evenings of the programme, Anne saw William Alexander in her visions. The first time he was looking on in astonishment at the presiding spirit, which was sitting in the east of Anne’s landscape surrounded by mathematical symbols. The second time Anne had invoked something she hadn’t seen before in all the previous evenings - the arms of England, then a lion and a unicorn, and then a battle at sea. William Alexander appeared on the shore, watching and listening to the battle, and to the sound of the victors rejoicing. The sea-battle scene was replaced by a huge head, asleep. It rose up and disappeared into the clouds - and that was the last vision seen by Anne that William Alexander recorded. On the final night she tried hard, but couldn’t invoke anything at all.
I’ve looked in detail at the Aytons’ six weeks of scrying and departed from my practice of leaving the GD’s magical practices to the experts for several reasons:
- the source for it isn’t on the web and is therefore not easy for most people to see
- it illustrates the kind of magical work GD members were required to do
- there are a lot of websites featuring the GD on the web but they do concentrate on rituals and a few - usually the same few - personalities. I think the work of invocation and focusing your visions has been rather overlooked in comparison.
There’s no explanation of why the Aytons brought the programme to an end. Perhaps they were just too busy to carry on. Perhaps the appearance of William Alexander in Anne’s visions had disconcerted them. Perhaps Anne, like William Alexander, was becoming weary of not being able to invoke the symbols they wanted.
I think the visions that the Aytons saw during these evening sessions reflect their gender, and their views of their gender, rather well: William Alexander’s full of stonework and symbol, definitely the work of Man (not the work of Woman); Anne’s full of the natural world, of people, and of the process of learning. Was Anne perhaps conscious of lacking learning? - having never really had the opportunities to learn that the people in her visions were having?
The figures that Anne was able to identify from her visions are interesting. The appearance of Samuel Liddell Mathers, as a teacher-like personality peering over the student’s shoulder as she worked, suggests that Anne was in awe of Mathers, even intimidated by him as a man much younger than herself but very learned, at least in the field of the occult. Anne worried about Mathers’ affect on new GD members. The en-visioning sessions took place around the time that Anna Blackwell was initiated into the GD, to become its oldest woman member - like William Alexander, she had been born in 1816. Anna had spent most of the last 30 years living and working in Paris, so it’s hard to see how she and Anne Ayton might have met; but Anne probably knew of Anna as a fellow-spiritualist and translator of books by the French spiritualist Allen Kardec, who tried to reconcile spiritualism with reincarnation. I think Anne was aware that Mathers regarded the skills of the spiritualist medium as too passive to make them successful magicians.
Living outside London, William Alexander and Anne were not suited to holding any of the administrative posts in the GD. Nor were they able to attend the monthly teaching-meetings and informal get-togethers that Isis-Urania temple’s locally-based members could. However, until Anne’s declining health made it impossible, they did go to London to attend the major rituals-plus-administrative meetings (held at Whitsun, and the two equinoxes) as often as they could. In 1900, two years after Anne’s death, William Alexander moved to west London to be closer to his occult friends. Although he was now in his 80s he will have hoped to be able to play a more active part in the GD than he had previously. However, his arrival coincided with the beginning of a period of upheaval within the Order that ended with its break-up at the beginning of 1903.
INDEPENDENT AND RECTIFIED RITE
The Isis-Urania temple’s annual meeting of spring 1903 ended with such dissent amongst the people that attended it that one group of senior members, led by A E Waite, decided to go its own way. A month or two later the group announced that it was going to form a new order. William Alexander was in that break-away group, and accepted an invitation from Waite to be one of the three chiefs of the Independent and Rectified Rite, which was consecrated in November 1903. The administrative records of the IRR haven’t survived. I would suppose that William Alexander remained a member until his death in January 1909; though he may not have been very a very active chief - living on the Uxbridge Road made his bronchitis worse and after a year or two of poor health he moved to Saffron Walden.
The rest of this file concerns William Alexander Ayton only. I haven’t found any evidence for Anne Ayton as a reader or translator of occult documents; as an alchemist; or as a member of any of the occult organisations I shall mention below.
TRANSLATION OF OCCULT DOCUMENTS
If you’ve read the first part of this biography of William Alexander and Anne Ayton, you will know that William Alexander was a graduate of Trinity Hall Cambridge, and that he had won a prize while an undergraduate there, for Latin translation. This gave him a very good basis from which to begin to translate occult manuscripts and books, which even into the 19th century were still written in Latin. He also understood enough French to be able to read books and manuscripts in it, and some of those that he possessed are now in the Freemasons’ Library.
Unfortunately, the secrecy of the occult means that there’s no list - probably never was a list - of the translations that William Alexander did. If I were an occultist I could probably put together a list of good guesses as to what might have been on the list, had there been one. As I’m not, I’m just going to list below a few that he definitely translated (and some that he definitely didn’t) that I found being mentioned in books.
A translation William Alexander did do: in 1898 Helena Petrovna Blavatsky wrote in her diary that William Alexander had sent her a copy of a translation he’d done of Abbot Trithemius’ Prophecies.
And another: a text referred to in letters written by William Alexander as Ms 476. Googling on the web, this was not as easy to identify as I’d supposed: I found several manuscripts numbered 476, and none of them looked more likely to be the one William Alexander meant, than any of the others. I’ll suggest that he meant Harleian Ms 476, because it’s easy to get at: all the Harleian manuscripts are in the British Library. The BL’s Ms 476 is volume two of the diaries for 1641-42 written by John Moore, MP and one of the signers of Charles II’s death warrant. One source I found said that there were references to astrology in it. It’s in English but might well have needed a translation as apparently the writing is so awful it’s almost impossible to make any sense of it.
And another, though less details were given about this one: an unidentified manuscript formerly owned (but probably not written) by the French occultist d’Éspagnet.
And one group of translations William Alexander definitely didn’t do... In the late 1880s A E Waite was working on the publication of esoteric texts in the collection of a man he identified as Lord Strafford (I think he means Edward Stafford-Jerningham, 11th Baron Stafford). Waite knew that Lord Strafford had employed someone to translate the texts for him; and the translations had been so well done that Waite assumed they were William Alexander’s work. However, when Waite asked him, William Alexander said that he was not the translator this time.
By the time the GD was founded, William Alexander’s reputation as a translator and interpreter of (often impenetrable) occult manuscripts was well-known in occult circles. He did a lot of copying work for the GD. And he became the central pivot of a kind-of lending library for the texts he had in his possession, lending them to members of the GD and others for them to copy and return. GD members Percy William Bullock and Frederick Leigh Gardner were two of the borrowers and Bullock, at least, was still borrowing after the GD had collapsed: in 1904 William Alexander lent him the manuscript once owned by d’Éspagnet to Bullock.
In the 1880s, William Alexander also gave advice on how to study and interpret these difficult and obscure texts (see more about that below, in the section on the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor) and he continued to help GD members with their studies in the 1890s and 1900s.
It’s a pity there isn’t more information on this very important part of William Alexander’s life as an occultist.
There’s not much more information either for William Alexander’s experiments with alchemy. Of course, part of the reason he was translating occult documents at all was to learn alchemy, to find out what equipment was needed and to try for himself experiments carried out by alchemists in the past. The main source for him as an alchemist is some references by W B Yeats; who was never convinced by alchemy and disparaged it, citing William Alexander’s claims as an example of why it should be treated with caution.
W B Yeats and William Alexander were introduced by mutual acquaintance Samuel Liddell Mathers; probably in the British Museum reading room. Yeats wrote about the meeting over thirty years later - so he may not have remembered it accurately. He also didn’t name the man Mathers had introduced him to; though the details Yeats gives about him make it clear it’s William Alexander. Yeats’ account of their first conversation was that William Alexander had told him that he had an alchemical laboratory in the cellar. As far as I can see, Yeats never actually visited the Aytons and saw the laboratory, so he couldn’t describe what it looked like and what was in it; and in fact there is no description of it. Yeats asked William Alexander if he had ever been successful with his alchemical experiments; whereupon William Alexander told him that he’d once made the elixir of life, approved as the genuine article by a French alchemist he’d shown it to. However, he had never tried it, because the French alchemist had warned him that the first thing that happened to you after you took some was that your nails and hair fell out. (Isn’t that defeating the object a bit?) Instead of swallowing it down, therefore, he had put it away for when he was old; but “when I got it down the other day it had all dried up”! William Alexander didn’t name the alchemist he’d gone to, to have his elixir assessed. Yeats thought it might have been Eliphas Lévi but William Alexander knew a couple of other French alchemists so it might have been one of them instead.
The conversation probably took place in 1887 or 1888, just before the GD was founded. In 1902, Yeats wrote to his Irish friend Augusta, Lady Gregory, that he’d heard through the GD grapevine that William Alexander had made what he thought was the elixir of life for a second time, and was trying it out on rabbits to see if it worked.
I’d love to know whether William Alexander’s recipe for the elixir of life was going the rounds of the GD members who were interested in alchemy. I wonder if any other GD members made any?
That he should go to the trouble of finding, buying and having made the equipment and materials necessary for a laboratory suggests that William Alexander saw alchemical texts as describing real techniques, not as allegory - a more modern interpretation of their contents. That being so, I would suppose that he didn’t just concentrate on brewing the elixir of life. I would suppose he tried the other, time-honoured aims of alchemy, particularly making gold out of base metal. Without more records, though, it’s impossible to say.
There’s quite a lot of evidence in the Freemasons’ Library and elsewhere for a network of men who were involved in the occult in mid-19th century Britain, studying old texts, investigating symbolism, resurrecting or inventing ritual or any combination of the four. It was inevitable, really, that William Alexander should get to know many of these men and be invited by them to join the occult societies and orders they founded (the GD being one, of course), though I haven’t found any evidence that William Alexander ever founded an order or society himself. I use the word ‘men’ here advisedly: even after the founding of the GD, none of the networkers William Alexander knew were women; and although the rules of one or two organisations that were founded accepted women members in theory, none of them seem to have had any women initiates in England.
This won’t be a full list, but below I give the names of some of the other men who were in the network. How many of them William Alexander actually met - rather than knowing them by letter or repute - I really wouldn’t know.
The first group were freemasons, though in different lodges from the ones William Alexander was a member of:
Benjamin Cox, who was initiated into the GD (died 1895)
Frederick Holland, chemist and metallurgist and mentor of Samuel Liddell Mathers
Frederick George Irwin (1828-93)
Henry John Lay
Kenneth MacKenzie who worked at the United Grand Lodge of England; compiler of the Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia amongst other works on freemasonry
Samuel Liddell Mathers, ritualist and translator of esoteric texts, a founder of the GD
John Yarker (1833-1913)
William Wynn Westcott physician, coroner, member of both the Theosophical Society and Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, a founder of the GD
The next group were probably not freemasons:
Peter Davidson (1842-1916) violin maker; he knew Paschal Beverly Randolph in the 1870s
Frederick Hockley (died 1885), spiritualist
Julius Kohn, a doctor (died 1934)
Thomas Moore Johnson (1851-1919), president of the Brotherhood of Luxor in the USA, lawyer, publisher of the esoteric magazine The Platonist
The next group is of men who later joined the GD (though not necessarily at William Alexander’s instigation); I don’t think any of them were freemasons though I haven’t investigated all of them:
Percy William Bullock, a legal clerk who later qualified as a solicitor
Dr George Dickson, a doctor, of Edinburgh
Frederick Leigh Gardner, a stock-broker and cataloguer of occult books
Frederick Jabez Johnson of London
Robert Palmer-Thomas who worked in the offices of a railway company
Thomas Henry Pattinson, who ran his own watch-making and jewellery business in Bradford
A E Waite, occultist and publisher
Thomas W Wilson, of York and then of Bradford; a pharmacist
And finally, a group of men that William Alexander knew OF, but probably only through their writings; it’s not clear to me whether he had any personal connection with them, even by letter:
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, author of the ‘occult’ novel Zanoni
Eliphas Levi, influential writer on the history and practice of magic
Jean-Marie Ragon (died 1862)
There’s something on most of those men on Wikipedia; and plenty elsewhere on the web on some of them. The Freemasons’ Library has plenty on Yarker, Irwin, MacKenzie and their circle.
Through these male occult networks, William Alexander was invited to become a member of several occult orders:
William Alexander may have been a member of the SAT B’HAI ORDER OF SIKHA. I haven’t found very much evidence for existence of this Order but it seems to have pre-dated the August Order of Light before later being equated with it or even amalgamated with it. Records of membership, if there were any, haven’t survived but a copy of a ritual used by the Order, now in the Freemasons’ Library, belonged to William Alexander at one time. The Sat B’hai Order was founded by John Yarker and incorporated some rituals that Yarker believed had a Jewish origin.
AUGUST ORDER OF LIGHT which apparently is also known as the Mysteries of Perfection of Sikha and Ekata.
The best source I found for the August Order of Light says that it was launched in November 1881 when its founder, Maurice Vidal Portman, issued a document of rules and rituals and announced himself as the August Order’s Grand Hierophant. The document was sent, possibly to William Alexander himself but definitely to acquaintances of his like John Yarker and F G Irwin, both well-known personalities on the wilder shores of 19th century freemasonry.
M V Portman was a naval officer, normally stationed in the Indian Ocean as officer-in-charge at the Andaman Islands; but in 1881 he was in Europe in the middle of a long period of sick leave. In late 1883, he was passed fit and returned to the Andaman Islands, leaving those men who had joined his Order in a state of confusion about what would happen now.
William Alexander joined the August Order and a letter he wrote to M V Portman in January 1886 shows why: excited and intrigued by Portman’s long experience of life in the East, he supposed the August Order had oriental origins - the letter was asking Portman to send more information about them. He also asked on what authority Portman claimed to be head of the August Order - perhaps expecting a reply saying that Portman (like Blavatsky) was acting as agent for unnamed orientals of very high occult status; or naming a suitable deputy now that Portman was back at work. He must have been surprised and disappointed at the reply he got. M V Portman spent as much of his letter moaning about the extra work that would be falling on him shortly as a result of British conquest of Burma, as explaining the status and origins of the August Order. Portman said that the August Order’s main ritual was entirely English and that he hadn’t compiled it himself anyway, the work had been done by Robert Palmer-Thomas (who later joined the GD). He did admit to having drawn up some rituals of his own; but again, their origins were in the West not the East as he had asked advice from Western occultists. As to the question of who was the head of the August Order, Portman said that he still was, as he had founded it.
I doubt if William Alexander found Portman’s letter very satisfactory; and the August Order doesn’t seem to have been very active anyway, perhaps suffering from its founder’s absence.
HERMETIC BROTHERHOOD OF LUXOR
More is known about William Alexander’s membership of this group than about most of his occult involvement, for the simple reason that some manuscripts concerning the HBL have survived in France; and some letters still exist that were written by William Alexander to members of the HBL in the USA in the mid-1880s. No list of members has survived. It’s known that women could join, though there were more female members in the US than in Europe.
The HBL was founded by the man usually known as Max Theon, who had a past rather like Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, inasmuch as his life and true origins have been very hard to investigate. Theon was the HBL’s Grand Master, but did not take any part in its daily administration. Collecting the money, liaising between members, and distributing the teaching aids was the province (at least in the early 1880s) of Peter Davidson and the man the members initially knew as T H Burgoyne.
The HBL advertised its existence and willingness to accept new members in an occult publication late in 1884. William Alexander was contacted by T H Burgoyne at this time and agreed to be its Provincial Grand Master in England. The HBL published the Occult Magazine during 1885 and 1886, but was primarily a kind-of distance-learning organisation attempting (as one member put it) to teach divine love through psychism and the development of the intuition. Those who found out about its existence could pay to receive occult instruction on these matters. The HBL didn’t have meetings or rituals where all the members would gather together. Instead each member initiated themselves with paraphernalia and instructions sent by its administrators, with other members present at the initiation in astral form only. Members paid a fee to be sent occult texts which they studied on their own, though if they found the texts and instructions hard going: they could write to a more senior member for help.
The HBL’s self-initiation ceremony involved drinking “soma juice” - cannabis. William Alexander described the effect it had, in a letter to another member of the Brotherhood, in which he makes it clear that he hadn’t prepared the drink himself; I suppose it must have been sent from HBL’s headquarters. He also makes it casually obvious that he was a regular drug-user - though I imagine some of his use was for medical reasons rather than as an occult aid:
"[W]hat purported to be the real soma juice [was] drunk at a certain stage...I hesitated very much to drink this drug...I thought of omitting it. However, I opened the bottle & smelt of it. All my life, I have been used to drugs, & I at once recognised this. I knew its effects were most powerful, but I decided to take it. Whether it was hallucination produced by this drug I know not, but I was conscious of another presence... I was fully 3 hours at it from midnight. When over, I felt my pulse, & found just what I expected, that it was intermittent, which was what I knew to be the effect of the drug I thought it was."
Chris Bennett has sent me ample evidence that using drugs as an aid, in occult situations, was fairly typical at that time. I was confused by the reference to drinking the cannabis rather than smoking it but Chris suggested that whatever it was that William Alexander drank was based on cannabis prepared as a tincture.
I think it must have been through his teaching role in the HBL that William Alexander first got to correspond with future GD members like Thomas Pattinson. Originally just involved with his mentees as a guide and teacher, he was soon playing a more active role protecting them from the pitfalls that those new to the occult were all too likely to fall into; in the course of which he blackened several reputations. In 1884, for example, one of his mentees (he called them by the Indian term chela) sent him a manuscript and asked him his opinion of it. It wasn’t one that was on the HBL syllabus; the chela had bought it on the occult mail-order market and had paid the large sum of £10 for it. William Alexander later described the manuscript as containing “instructions of the worst kind of Black Magic by means of sexual intercourse”. You could see William Alexander as the stereotype of the easily-shocked English country vicar; on the other hand, accusing people of using black magic was something that William Alexander did quite often, when he didn’t agree with them. And it seems that it was not the sex magic itself that alarmed him, but the dark purposes it was being used for and “the most devastating results” he feared it could have on inexperienced people who tried it out. The fact that such manuscripts were being sold (and at such a price as well) seems to have brought out the worst in William Alexander and he began to spread hostile stories about its author, Paschal Beverly Randolph, and his works. He later admitted that he’d said and implied things about Randolph that he didn’t know were true; but it was too late by then and the accusations have stuck, damaging Randolph’s reputation. Amongst the stories that William Alexander spread were: that Randolph had been initiated into the HBL and had then betrayed that trust; and that Randolph had died before the HBL was founded. He also claimed that Randolph had attacked the TS’s Colonel Olcott with black magic only to find that Olcott had “turned the circle back upon him”. And he said that Randolph had committed suicide - which was true, Randolph did kill himself; but William Alexander told the story in such a way as to make it seem that Randolph’s death was a direct result of Olcott’s fight-back against magical attack.
As to whether experienced occultists William Alexander and Anne Ayton used sex magic as part of their occult life together... I must say I find it hard to imagine, but that’s my problem. An experienced occultist like William Alexander would not have needed telling that the sexual or even symbolic union of male and female, in a ritual setting, raises powerful energies. So who knows?
The supposedly secret Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor managed to survive having T H Burgoyne publish a lot of its supposedly secret documents in 1889, but was moribund by 1909. In England, recruitment of new members had come to an abrupt end in 1886, when the real identity of the man calling himself T H Burgoyne became known; see the FRAUDS section below. However, William Alexander continued to write to other members of the Brotherhood for several years afterwards. He also continued to use the seal he held as its Provincial Grand Master, at least until 1890.
William Alexander was NOT a member of the SOCIETY OF EIGHT despite knowing virtually all the men who were. It was set up by Frederick Holland (an early mentor of Samuel Liddell Mathers) in 1883 and one of the sources I found suggested that Holland had wanted William Alexander to join it. Two books I found both gave lists of the members; not quite the same lists unfortunately, though most names were on both. William Alexander wasn’t on either list.
I’ll just say here that societies of occultists whose existence was supposed to be a secret; and whose members never met face-to-face; were a gift to would-be swindlers.
HERMETIC COLONY ASSOCIATION
In March 1886 a prospectus was issued by the Hermetic Colony Association Ltd, which was hurrying to raise £20,000 via 4000 shares at £5 each, to start a colony in Georgia USA. A site on which to establish the colony had already been found and inspected by one of the men listed as involved with the Association. The land was being held for the Association at a knock-down price, but not for long: time, therefore, was short and those wanting to buy shares had to pay for them in full within the next three months. In addition to six directors, the members of two working committees (one in the UK, one in the USA) were all named, and the names would have shown those in the know that the Association had close ties with the Brotherhood of Luxor: three of the directors were its two administrators - the man calling himself T H Burgoyne, and Peter Davidson - and William Alexander Ayton.
The Association was looking for “progressive minds” to fund and live at the colony, “advanced thinkers” who would pave the way for “the advancement of a new order of Society.” Consequently the Association was circulating its prospectus amongst hermeticists, theosophists and spiritualists. Shareholders in the Association would be given preference when choosing who would be allowed to go and settle in the colony. Unlike many such schemes, the Association’s colony would have a sound financial basis because the site in Georgia had good farmland - and gold underneath it.
The prospectus is now in the GD Collection at the Freemasons’ Library. It’s an impressive piece of work, well laid out and printed (a man who owned a printing firm was one of the directors) on very nice paper. The site’s agricultural possibilities, and the quality of its gold, are discussed in detail with a wealth of statistics. I haven’t been able to work out for sure, quite how the people involved with the Association came to realise it was an attempt at fraud; but a letter William Alexander sent to William Wynn Westcott in November 1888 named Thomas Pattinson as the whistle-blower. Somehow Pattinson had met, or seen a photograph of, the man calling himself T H Burgoyne and realised that as Thomas Henry Dalton, he had been convicted of fraud in Leeds in January 1883, a trial which Pattinson had attended. After serving his sentence Dalton and his family went to the USA. Dalton started calling himself Thomas Henry Burgoyne and with the writing name Zanoni, had articles published in occult magazines. He was thus able to involve himself with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor as its Secretary, and couldn’t resist trying another, grander, fraud scheme.
William Alexander was particularly bitter about being ‘had’ by Burgoyne/Dalton and his Hermetic Colony Association. If he had ever met T H Burgoyne in person, it would have been different. He would have realised that he’d had an encounter with him in 1881 when the man had contacted him as Thomas Henry Dalton and paid the Aytons a visit. During that visit, he had shocked William Alexander by his boasts of doing black magic. William Alexander had sent him away with a flea in his ear and expected not to hear of him again.
By 1888 William Alexander had come to regard the whole Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor as nothing more than a cover for Burgoyne/Dalton’s fraudulent schemes. At least he could take some comfort from realising that he was not the only one amongst his acquaintances to have been taken for a ride. Amongst the names on the Association’s prospectus are three other men who would join the GD in due course, probably all of them Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor members: Thomas W Wilson; Dr George Dickson; and Frederick Jabez Johnson. They had certainly all lost money like William Alexander had.
I think it is ironic that in his letter to Westcott of November 1888, William Alexander was warning him not to be taken in by the Hermetic Colony Association. Because Westcott had recently sent him one of the documents on which the GD was founded and had asked him to give an opinion on whether it was old and genuine. William Alexander had concluded that it was. The document was the one now referred to as the ‘Cipher Manuscript’; and as most GD historians are sure it was a fake, probably compiled by Westcott in the 1880s, what exactly was Westcott’s purpose in letting William Alexander assess it? William Alexander might have felt flattered to be asked to vet the manuscript by someone who was no slouch at these matters himself. He would have considered that Westcott was being appropriately cautious, seeking a second opinion about a manuscript of uncertain origin. However, what Westcott was really doing was testing to see whether his fake would pass muster, and passing on to William Alexander some of the burden of proof. If it was vouched for by so senior an occultist, it wasn’t very likely that anyone else would have the nerve to challenge it.
What would Westcott have done, I wonder, if William Alexander had raised any queries? Would he have admitted that he’d compiled the manuscript himself - that it was not the ancient piece of esoteric wisdom it purported to be? As it was, Westcott got away with it and the fraud went unacknowledged for a decade, during which every person who was initiated into the GD was a victim of it, including William Alexander. Eventually, Samuel Liddell Mathers’ announcement that the letters that went with the cipher manuscript were frauds, caused senior GD members to lose faith in the cipher manuscript as well. Curiously enough, William Alexander doesn’t seem to have been all that bothered by the possibility of fraud, when he found out that the Sprengel letters at least were under suspicion. Writing to Westcott in the midst of the controversy (1900), all he seemed to be worried about was whether he can still borrow a particular (unnamed) manuscript Westcott had promised to lend him; or whether he would have to wait until the hubbub had died down. Perhaps, as a long-time occultist, he was rather used to fakes.
BASIC SOURCES I USED for all Golden Dawn members.
Membership of the Golden Dawn: The Golden Dawn Companion by R A Gilbert. Northampton: The Aquarian Press 1986. Between pages 125 and 175, Gilbert lists the names, initiation dates and addresses of all those people who became members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or its many daughter Orders between 1888 and 1914. The list is based on the Golden Dawn’s administrative records and its Members’ Roll - the large piece of parchment on which all new members signed their name at their initiation. All this information had been inherited by Gilbert but it’s now in the Freemasons’ Library at the United Grand Lodge of England building on Great Queen Street Covent Garden. Please note, though, that the records of the Amen-Ra Temple in Edinburgh were destroyed in 1900/01. As far as I know, the records of the Horus Temple at Bradford have not survived either.
SOURCES FOR THE AYTONS’ LIFE IN THE OCCULT
The reference that I found to William Alexander’s only published book:
The Alchemist of the Golden Dawn: Letters of the Rev W A Ayton to F L Gardner and Others 1886-1905 edited by Ellic Howe. Aquarian Press 1985. It’s a translation from the Latin of Thomas Smith’s The Life of John Dee originally published 1707. Howe couldn’t find a copy of it in either the British Library or the Library of Congress.
I found Ayton’s translation via googlebooks: originally published by the Theosophical Publishing Society. I found several copies for sale on the web, at alibris etc. At Amazon.co.uk they had a facsimile edition published Pentacle Enterprises November 1999. Notes on the Amazon site said it was originally published in 1908.
Ayton’s only published article, which was published anonymously:
A mention of it in:
Pascal Beverly Randolph: a Nineteenth Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveny. Published 1997 by State University of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series. In footnotes section p508 Deveny identifies an anonymous article on the Chinese Taro (sic), published in The Platonist (editor Thomas Moore Johnson) as by William Alexander. Deveny didn’t give any more details but I found more information in:
Initiatic and Historical Documents for an Order of Practical Occultism. By Joscelyn Godwin, Christian Chanel and John P Deveney. York Beach Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc 1995 on p379: it was published in The Platonist volume 2 number 8 issue of August 1885. The magazine was published by Thomas Moore Johnson, president of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in the USA; and also a TS member from 1884.
Neither publication actually gives the source that they used to identify the article’s author as William Alexander.
Basic membership records from the United Grand Lodge of England now available through Ancestry.
For basic information on lodges founded during the 19th century see Lane’s Masonic Records via www.hrionline.ac.uk/lane or via the Freemasons’ Library website.
ST JOHN’S LODGE 601
In the collections at the Freemasons’ Library:
By-Laws of St John’s Lodge 601 printed Wellington Shropshire 1854.
A Brief History of St John’s Lodge 601 Meeting at Wellington Shropshire 1852-1925 by B C W Johnson who is a PM; appendices compiled by George Jeffs. The book is based on the lodge Minute books; in 1925, at least, the lodge still had a good run of them. Printed England 1952: p8; pp26-27, p31. Appendix 1 pp49-51. Lists of officials pp58-61. Meeting places p62.
THE MARMION LODGE 1060
The Freemasons’ Library has a history of the lodge’s chapter but not one of its lodge.
THE CHURCHILL LODGE 478 p
A Short History of the Churchill Lodge of Antient, Free and Accepted Masons 478 by H R Cooper Smith. Edited by its centenary committee and printed in Oxford 1949. Revision of by-laws 1873 pp9-10. Beginning on p29 it lists everyone who had been initiated since its founding in 1841. For distinguished members see p34, p38, p44, p48, p51, p54; for William Alexander’s initiation, p45. For its meeting places: p72, p82. Fees p77. Beginning on p25, a list of the lodge’s Worshipful Masters does not include William Alexander.
WESTMINSTER AND KEY STONE LODGE 10
The Freemasons’ Library has a large amount on this venerable lodge and its members. There are several lodge histories but I looked at the earliest:
History of the Westminster and Keystone Lodge 10...from date of its constitutions...to the year 1905 compiled by J W Sleigh Godding as a PM. Privately printed Plymouth: William Brendon and Son Ltd. Beginning p268 a list of all members listed in the lodge register between 1761 and 1906; with William Alexander on p269. Lodge meeting places: p267. On pp194-203 a list of lodge visitors. On p265 in a list of lodge members who achieved high rank within the UGLE: no mention of William Alexander. On pp262-263 Appendix B is a list of lodge officers; William Alexander isn’t on it. On pp173-174 fees from the revised lodge by-laws issued in 1873. On p191 in a list of members who were initiated or joined the lodge between 1855 and 1878: William Alexander as a member of 1060 [Marmion Lodge Tamworth], initiated as a joining member, 8 February 1872. I didn’t see any other GD members in the list for that period.
CHERWELL LODGE 599
William Alexander is not listed as a member of this lodge in the United Grand Lodge of England database of members. The source for his being a member was noticed by Roger Wright at
Sue Young researches biographies of homoeopaths. She doesn’t usually give the sources for her information but confirmation of William Alexander’s membership is in this lodge history in the Freemasons’ Library:
The Cherwell Lodge 599 1852-1952 prepared by John R Railton, now in the Freemasons’ Library. Based on the lodge’s Minute Books. Entry for William Alexander Ayton and Capt H J Lay: p31.
Re the Lay family as friends of the Aytons:
The Alchemist of the Golden Dawn: Letters of the Revd William Alexander Ayton to Frederick Leigh Gardner and Others 1886-1905 edited and with an introduction by Ellic Howe. Aquarian Press 1985. Letter Ayton to Gardner 25 July 1889 written at the Lay family’s house, Staverton Court near Cheltenham.
HENRY JOHN LAY
I’ve not had much luck finding this man using my usual family history searches. I did find him on the census of 1891, at Staverton Court; aged 55, born in Paisley Renfrewshire. His wife Isabella was 66, born in Liverpool. Also in the household that day was their daughter Elizabeth Lay, aged 35, who told the official she had been born in Montreal Canada. There were four live-in servants: a cook, a housemaid, a footman and a coachman. Henry John Lay described himself as a farmer but he hadn’t lived at Staverton Court very long:
www.british-history.ac.uk, on the parish of Staverton near Cheltenham, an on line version of A History of the County of Gloucester volume 8 published Victoria County History 1968. The Staverton Court estate was owned by the St Clair family for most of the 19th century; so the Lays were probably renting the house from them.
I couldn’t find the Lay family on the census in 1901; nor on Familysearch.
Theosophical Society Membership Register January 1889-September 1891 p92 W A Ayton: application dated 30 July 1889; resigned 8 May 1907. Branch = Blavatsky.
Theosophical Society Membership Register January 1889-September 1891 p97 Ann (sic) Ayton: application dated 30 July 1889. Handwritten note “Died June 29th 1898". Branch = “unattached”.
The Golden Dawn and the Esoteric Section by R A Gilbert. Published 1987, London: Theosophical History Centre. The mention of William Alexander is on p6; Gilbert is quoting Blavatsky’s article Lodges of Magic, which appeared in Lucifer’s issue of October 1888.
The Theosophical Enlightenment by Joscelyn Godwin. Published by the State Univ of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series 1994. The meeting of the Aytons with Olcott and Blavatsky: p307-08. The sources for it are The Spiritualist volume XIV January 1879: 41-42; and later Olcott’s memoir Old Diary Leaves volume 2 pp 4-9.
Initiatic and Historical Documents for an Order of Practical Occultism. By Joscelyn Godwin, Christian Chanel and John P Deveney. York Beach Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc 1995 and very much focused on the US connection: p35, p60, p166 footnote 1, p334.
Pascal Beverly Randolph: a Nineteenth Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveny. Published 1997 by State University of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series. About astral travelling: p295. About scrying: p297. About Blavatsky’s use of hashish in the 1870s: p298.
Pascal Beverly Randolph: a Nineteenth Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveny. Published 1997 by State Univ of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series. The mirror device made for the Aytons by T H Pattinson: p56 but unfortunately it doesn’t give a date for it.
Items in the Freemasons’ Library GD collection:
Most are Flying Rolls written out by William Alexander for the use of new initiates.
GBR 1991 GD 2/1/1 GD’s Grade of Geburah notebook, which is more of a motley crew than it sounds. There are a lot of hand-written rituals in it, some in William Alexander’s hand-writing. But it also has in it the GD members’ address book. In the middle is the diary of the Aytons’ invoking experiences; with page numbers in pencil added much later pp231-. The diary begins with the session of 4 December 1891 and ends with that of 23 January 1892. As I am not an occultist I don’t know how far the title of the whole notebook can be applied to the Diary. Geburah is a Kabbalistic term and is associated with the 6=5 Adeptus Major level.
Further thoughts on the invocation diary, after looking at it again in April 2017:
- I think the notes are too tidy to have been written down during the scrying sessions. They are also all in the past tense. I think that what is in the Grade of Geburah notebook is a fair copy, compiled from jottings and scribbles done during the sessions
- the fair copy is dated, but it’s not signed, even with a GD motto. A note in pencil on the top of the first page attributes it to William Alexander Ayton; and “Anne” is referred to several times in the text
- to me, the text begins in the middle! - it goes straight into descriptions of the visions, there’s no coverage of where they were seen - crystal ball, mirror or something else - and no description of how the Aytons (assuming it was them) prepared themselves for the sessions.
Some occult works owned by William Alexander, several of which found their way into the collection of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia after his death:
* La Clef, a key to the work of Abbot Trithemius, by Max Theon.
* Les Fables Egyptiennes et Greques by Antoine Joseph Pernety. Annotated “Wm Alexr Aytoun (sic) 1880".
* Maçonnerie occulte suivie de l’initiation hermétique... by Jean-Marie Ragon 1781-1862. Published E Dentu Paris 1853. Annotated “Wm Alexr Ayton 1861" and he’s made notes on it as well
* Manuscript Sat B’hai Order of Sikha dated c 1875-80
Items concerning other occult orders:
* letter Maurice V Portman to William Alexander 22 Jan 1886 in response to a letter from William Alexander
* prospectus for the Hermetic Colony Association dated 24 March 1886.
Two letters by Westcott:
* letter from Westcott to a recipient called Brown 17 April 1888.
* letter from Westcott to William Alexander undated but March 1900, originally from GD source known as Private Collection A
That the cipher manuscript was a fraud probably compiled in the 1880s:
A E Waite analysed its content and published his belief that it was a 19th-century compilation in his memoir, Shadows of Life and Thought. In The Magicians of the Golden Dawn, Ellic Howe’s investigations into the paper and the watermarks backed him up; pp2-3. By the time of R A Gilbert’s The Golden Dawn Companion p4-5 it’s an accepted fact that both the letters and the cipher manuscript were faked; Gilbert says that it’s almost certain that Westcott forged the manuscript himself or got someone else to do so.
Shadows of Life and Thought: A Retrospective Review in the Form of Memoirs by Arthur Edward Waite. London: Selwyn and Blount of Paternoster House EC 1938 .
The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923 by Ellic Howe. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1972. It was Howe’s work on the Sprengel letters that established that they were definitely fakes.
The Golden Dawn Companion by R A Gilbert. Wellingborough Northants: The Aquarian Press 1986.
AFTER THE GOLDEN DAWN - INDEPENDENT AND RECTIFIED RITE/ORDER
A E Waite: A Magician of Many Parts by R A Gilbert. Wellingborough Northants 1987. Appendix C on p178 Appendix C.
WILLIAM ALEXANDER AS TRANSLATOR AND ASSESSOR OF OCCULT MANUSCRIPTS
Pascal Beverly Randolph: a Nineteenth Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveny. Published 1997 by State Univ of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Trads series. Translation of Abbot Trithemius’ Prophecies: p508, original source Blavatsky’s Diaries volume 1 p421.
Collected Letters of W B Yeats Vol II 1896-1900. That Westcott asked William Alexander to authenticate the cipher manuscript: p543 note 14; original source is a letter now in the Warburg Institute (and therefore in the Yorke Collection) from Westcott to Gardner, undated but assigned by editors to spring 1900.
Shadows of Life and Thought: A Retrospective Review in the Form of Memoirs by Arthur Edward Waite. London: Selwyn and Blount 1938. William Alexander not the translator of manuscripts owned by Lord Strafford: p134.
The Alchemist of the Golden Dawn: Letters of the Revd William Alexander Ayton to Frederick Leigh Gardner and Others 1886-1905 edited and with an introduction by Ellic Howe. Aquarian Press 1985. The letters used for the book were all written by William Alexander Ayton, most of them to Frederick Leigh Gardner who was initiated into the GD in 1894. During the 20th century the letters to Frederick Leigh Gardner made their way into the occult collection of Gerald Yorke which is now in the Warburg Institute, University of London.
What little I know about Harleian Ms 476 I found on a website about the life of John Moore MP: at
WILLIAM ALEXANDER AS AN ALCHEMIST
The best known reference to William Alexander’s alchemical work is: The Trembling Veil by W B Yeats. I saw the original 1922 edition: London: Privately Printed for Subscribers Only by T Werner Laurie Ltd; pp69-70. That he’s still at it in 1902 is from Yeats’s Golden Dawn by George Mills Harper. Wellingborough Northants: The Aquarian Press 1974 p188 quoting a letter from Yeats to Lady Gregory January 1902.
OCCULT SOCIETIES HE WAS OR WAS NOT A MEMBER OF
AUGUST ORDER OF LIGHT
There’s quite a bit of coverage in books and on the web but the most intelligible account I found is in Masonic Curiosities compiled by Yasha Beresiner, edited by Tony Pope. Published Melbourne: Australian and New Zealand Masonic Research Council 2000: pp189-191. Source for the section is letters from John Yarker to Frederick G Irwin 1890.
Freemasons’ Library GD collection GD 2/5/4/1: letter from M V Portman to William Alexander, dated 22 January 1886 and written at Port Blair, Andaman Islands.
SOCIETY OF EIGHT
The best list of its members was compiled by Geraldine Beskin, curator of the Yarker Library, in 1989 and referred to in Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveny. 1997 by State University of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series: p508 in its footnotes section. The source is a talk given by Geraldine Beskin and R A Gilbert at the Theosophical History conference in 1989. According to Beskin’s list, the members were Walter Moseley; Frederick Holland; Kenneth Mackenzie; Yarker; F G Irwin; Westcott; Benjamin Cox; William Oxley; and Samuel Liddell Mathers. But NOT William Alexander.
The Theosophical Enlightenment by Joscelyn Godwin. Published by the State University of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series 1994. On p222 Godwin says that it was founded by Frederick Holland in 1883. Hockley died in 1885 and Mathers replaced him.
That Holland would have liked William Alexander to be a member: Godwin p405 footnote 66 quoting Ellic Howe’s article Fringe Masonry in England 1870-85, published in Ars Quatuor Coronati volume 85 1972 pp242-95.
HERMETIC BROTHERHOOD OF LUXOR
The Theosophical Enlightenment by Joscelyn Godwin. Published by the State Univ of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series 1994: pp353-356.
Initiatic and Historical Documents for an Order of Practical Occultism. By Joscelyn Godwin, Christian Chanel and John P Deveney. York Beach Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc 1995 and very much focused on the US connection. Hard to pick out any one page number in this volume, there were so many useful references. There are long quotes and complete reproductions of William Alexander’s letters, including his account of the Brotherhood’s self-initiation ritual.
On tinctures and how to make them. See wikipedia for an overview. There are plenty of web pages giving detailed instructions on how to make them yourself - I looked at //aromaticstudies.com.
You prepare a tincture by macerating leaves or roots of the plant in question in a solvent for a few weeks, to make a strong solution. The solvent used is often alcohol but you can use other things instead. When the tincture is ready, a few drops in (say) a glass of water is all that will be needed. At least, it is in modern herbal medicine but perhaps that wasn’t peppy enough for the 19th century!
I found wikipedia’s page on the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor not as clear as the books by Godwin and Deveny. It also contained some incorrect data, for example on Peter Davidson.
Influence of Randolph:
Pascal Beverly Randolph: a Nineteenth Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveny. Published 1997 by State University of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series. Brotherhood’s existence published in an edition of The Divine Pymander: p246. Brotherhood splitting up in 1886: p246. William Alexander on Randolph’s sex magic: pp508 quoting letters written by William Alexander to an unknown correspondents, one in May 1885 and one in August 1886. I think the letters are in the Yorke Collection, Warburg Institute but the author doesn’t specifically say so.
CANNABIS USE IN THE OCCULT with information and recommendations emailed to me by cannabis use expert Chris Bennett. He also sent me eye-popping details of the use of other drugs by some 19th century occultists - though not the Aytons - including such well-known killers as henbane, belladonna and aconite.
In 1995 Bennett published Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion. In March 2017, however, he told me that he’d amassed so much more information since then, that he was going to write another account. He is hoping to start work on it this summer (2017); its provisional title is Cannabis and the Occult. You can read its chapter on cannabis at www.alchemylab.com/cannabis
On cannabis as part of the Brotherhood of Luxor’s initiation ritual:
HERMETIC COLONY ASSOCIATION
Freemasons’ Library GD 2/5/4/2 is the prospectus issued p4 on 24 March 1886.
Pattinson’s involvement; and William Alexander warning Westcott against T H Burgoyne: Freemasons’ Library GD 2/5/4/3 letter 3 November 1888.
Blavatsky warns theosophists against T H Burgoyne:
Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine Volume V September 1889 to February 1890, published by the Theosophical Publishing Co of 7 Duke Street Adelphi. Volume V issue of 15 September 1889 p55 and editor’s footnote p55.
SOME SOURCES FOR OCCULTISTS KNOWN TO WILLIAM ALEXANDER:
Thomas Moore Johnson 1851-1919, earning his money as a lawyer in Missouri but also a student of platonism. Published The Platonist sporadically between 1881 and 1888. Website for Johnson, who left a library:
Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Eliphas Levi: in Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism by Wouter J Hanegraff and Jeffrey J Kripal. Pubd 2010. On p356 in a chapter by John Patrick Deveney, footnote 6 and footnote 7 quoting letters written by William Alexander in 1884 and 1886. However, the letters don’t say that William Alexander knew either man personally, only that he knew Bulwer-Lytton’s reputation, and Levi’s work. This is also the source for William Alexander knowing the work of other French occultists.
The Theosophical Enlightenment by Joscelyn Godwin. Published by the State Univ of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series 1994: p353.
Davidson’s connection with Randolph:
Pascal Beverly Randolph: a Nineteenth Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveny. Published 1997 by State University of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series: p208 quoting a letter written by William Alexander.
A publication by Davidson: Hidden Mysteries Unveiled: or Vital Christianity published by Christian Life 1895; 28 pp. There’s no copy of it in the British Library.
The Theosophical Enlightenment by Joscelyn Godwin. Published by the State Univ of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Traditions series 1994: p353 as a friend of F G Irwin, Frederick Hockley and Kenneth Mackenzie.
Frederick Hockley, F G Irwin, Benjamin Cox, Mackenzie:
Pascal Beverly Randolph: a Nineteenth Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveny. Published 1997 by State Univ of New York Press in its Western Esoteric Trads series: p34. On p253 Deveny calls William Alexander the “greatest occult gossip of the nineteenth century”. Also on p253: that Blavatsky and Randolph loathed each other.
Wellcome Library has some Manuscript items by him: their Mss 3127 and 3128, typescripts dated 1921 and 1929 on The Ancient Magic of Charming by Enchantment. The Wellcome may have bought the typescripts in this sale: via the web to Books Including the Library of Julius Kohn and Stock of G E Friehold a sale catalogue published 1934 by Hodgson and Co auctioneers; the sale was due 24 October 1934.
Also via google to:
Splendor Solis: Alchemical Treatises of Solomon Trismosin, Adept edited by Julius Kohn. 1920
A mention in Studies in the History of Alternative Medicine Society for the Social History of Medicine, published Macmillan/St Antony’s College Oxford and edited by Roger Cooter; on p88 footnote 20: Kohn was known to A E Waite
Copyright 23April 2017
Find the web pages of Roger Wright and Sally Davis, including my list of people initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn between 1888 and 1901, at: