Thomas Walker Coffin was initiated into the Golden Dawn very early on, in June 1888, taking as his motto the Latin phrase ‘Per angusta ad augusta’. At the time of his initiation he was living at 22 Upper Park Road in the Haverstock Hill part of Hampstead, north London. By the end of the following year he had tendered his resignation.
Thomas Walker Coffin was born in 1840 in the Devonport district of Plymouth in Devon. My knowledge of his early life is a bit sketchy. It’s particularly annoying that I couldn’t find him living at home with his parents on any census, but other evidence I’ve found has made me confident that he was the son of another Thomas W Coffin and his wife Elizabeth. The elder Thomas Coffin worked for the Post Office, possibly spending time as the postmaster in Stoke Damerel, on the outskirts of Plymouth; but definitely also doing at least two tours of duty as the postmaster of Malta. I can’t find the family on the census in 1841 so I guess they were in Malta at that time and the younger Thomas Walker spent some of his childhood abroad. However, he was sent home to go to school - on the 1851 census, now aged 10, the GD’s he was a boarder at a small school in Tiverton.
The younger Thomas Walker Coffin (the future GD member) will have left school in his mid-teens. In 1862 he was working for the navy as a civilian clerk, based at the dockyards at Devonport; in 1864 he was listed as working there again, in its Victualling and Transport department. He doesn’t appear on the 1861 census and I’ve found some evidence that makes me wonder if he was already working for the navy and had been sent to do a tour of foreign duty, either in Hong Kong or in China. In 1864 he gave a talk called ‘The Chinese: Sketches of their History and Customs’; the imperial British were very arrogant about their understanding of the rest of the world, but I can’t believe Thomas Coffin would have attempted that talk without actually having observed, or even met, some Chinese people in their home environment. However, I haven’t found any direct evidence that he spent time in the Far East.
Thomas Walker Coffin senior was a devoutly religious man, a stalwart of the British and Foreign Bible Society for thirty years. When living in Plymouth during the 1850s and 1860s he was secretary of the Society’s Devonport and Stonehouse branch; back on Malta in the 1870s and 1880s, he collected donations to the Society from wealthy English residents. The young Thomas Coffin inherited this serious Christianity, becoming a member of the Royal Naval Scripture Readers’ Society which held its meetings in the Temperance Hall in Devonport. However, he had other interests - he learned photography; he made scientific studies of the weather; he went to meetings of the Plymouth Institution (that’s where he gave the talk on the Chinese); he became a freemason (more of that later); and he served in the 12th Devonshire Artillery, a local volunteer militia, reaching the level of captain in 1869 but rising no further before his resignation in 1879.
Early in 1868 Thomas Walker Coffin married Mary Augusta Tause, in Plymouth. On the day of the 1871 census, he and his wife (who is always called Maria on the census, not Mary) and their two eldest children Ernest and Ethel, were living in Stoke Damerel. Maria’s brother Hector was boarding with them and two servants were employed, a cook and a housemaid. So far, then, Thomas Walker Coffin’s life had followed a rather conservative pattern, and there didn’t seem to be any particular reason why it should not continue on the course already laid down until he retired or died. But in the early 1870s he departed from it radically, to qualify as a surgeon. Perhaps he was inspired by the work of his brother Richard James Coffin, who - though younger than Thomas - qualified as a doctor earlier than he. I cannot find out where Thomas Coffin studied; I’ve been hampered in my web-based searches by Lucretia Mott’s family (she was the daughter of a Thomas Coffin) many of whom were doctors. I couldn’t spot the Devon-based Thomas Walker Coffin amongst them. By the mid-1860s some universities, but not all, were publishing the results of their students’ medical exams; Thomas Walker Coffin’s name didn’t come up on any of these bulletins via the web. So I am rather at a loss to explain how and where he qualified; perhaps he did so in the manner that was already rather old-fashioned, by working an apprenticeship with a practitioner. Nor do I know how the family managed for money during this time; surely Thomas couldn’t have continued to work as a clerk while he studied medicine.
In another departure from what might have been expected, the family moved to London, perhaps so that he could study and do the necessary work in a hospital. They did not return once he had become eligible to practice. The move was made around 1874, between the birth of Hugh (who died in 1873 aged only a few months) and of Thomas and Maria’s last children, the twins Algernon and Claud (born in 1875 in Fulham).
Thomas Walker Coffin had qualified as a surgeon by August 1877 and been received as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons by 1879. From 1879 to 1903 he was listed on the General Medical Council’s register of doctors and surgeons in practice. He seems to have been based in the new suburb of Clapton, just north of Hackney, around the time he qualified, in 1877; and then moved to Marylebone. For a while he was in a business partnership with John May Andrew, as surgeons, apothecaries, accoucheurs (doctors who advised on childbirth) and general practitioners. The practice was based at two addresses, 140 Haverstock Hill; and 81 Queen’s Crescent Marylebone, Thomas Coffin’s home address on the day of the 1881 census. However, the partnership only lasted until October 1884 and after it was officially ended, Thomas Coffin worked alone. Why did the partnership with Dr Andrew last such a short time? Perhaps Dr Coffin wanted to concentrate on general practice and surgery. That’s how he’s described in later censuses; no mention is made in them of the midwife or pharmacy work although that may just be an over-simplification by the census officials. But perhaps Dr Coffin was not good at money, to his partner’s annoyance. Perhaps he could not find enough patients, in a very competitive profession. Or maybe he just over-reached himself, trying to impress future patients by employing too many servants, for example: in 1881 a cook, housemaid and a nurse; in 1891 a cook-cum-housekeeper, a parlourmaid and a housemaid. Somehow or other,Thomas Walker Coffin lost control of his budget and was declared personally bankrupt in 1895. The official notice of the bankruptcy appeared in the Edinburgh Gazette, but not the London one where it might have been more useful to those he owed money, but would also have been more embarrassing. Perhaps because his patients and would-be patients didn’t know about it, he was able to continue in medical practice after this financial disaster, but seems to have retired in or shortly after 1903, when all his children were off his hands; in that year, he and Maria, and Thomas’ mother, moved to 31 Maldon Crescent Haverstock Hill. Though by as late as 1906 he was still active as a volunteer fireman in London.
In London, Thomas Walker Coffin’s leisure activities reflected his new career. He joined the Obstetrical Society in 1879 and the Linnean Society in 1883, focusing on the zoological side of its interest in species classification. It’s likely that, in due course, he became acquainted with Sydney Turner Klein who was elected to the Linnean Society in 1887. Klein was initiated into the GD, but long after Coffin had come and gone. Thomas Coffin had much closer links with the Golden Dawn through north London medicine and freemasonry, both of which would have brought him into contact with William Woodman and William Wynn Westcott.
Thomas Walker Coffin had accepted an invitation to become a freemason during the first phase of his life, being initiated into the Plymouth’s Lodge of Sincerity, number 189, where the most senior figure was the important local landowner the 4th Earl of Edgecumbe. By 1870 Thomas Coffin was climbing the ladder towards doing a year as the lodge’s master, though I haven’t found out whether he actually served his year before he moved away. When he moved to London, he would have been able to use his status as a freemason as an introduction to freemasonry circles in the city. He could also have met William Westcott in medical circles as early as 1881, when Coffin was living in Marylebone and Westcott was working as deputy coroner for that part of north London. Woodman and Westcott were both active freemasons, and Woodman was another man with family in Devon; so I think they were THE PEOPLE COFFIN KNEW IN THE GOLDEN DAWN because - by the late 1880s - Thomas Walker Coffin had became a member of Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA). As its name suggests, SRIA was a group of freemasons who were particularly interested in the legend and rituals of Christian Rosenkreuz. In the 1880s William Woodman was SRIA’s Supreme Magus and Westcott its secretary; Samuel Mathers also attended its meetings from time to time, though he was never a member. Westcott and Mathers invited several members of SRIA to join the Golden Dawn in its first few months; the early date of his initiation makes me think that Thomas Walker Coffin was one of them. At that time Thomas Coffin was working his way up the ranks in the SRIA’s London group, known as its Metropolitan College. He reached the top and served as its Celebrant (the most senior official) in the year from April 1892 to April 1893; though he seems to have let his membership lapse by 1898, probably because - with his financial troubles - he couldn’t afford to pay his yearly subscription.
On the day of the 1881 census the Coffin household included a young assistant surgeon who was presumably employed by the Andrew-Coffin partnership. I should imagine Thomas Walker Coffin hoped that, eventually, one of his sons would join him in the business and in 1891 that seemed destined to be Ernest Coffin, who was doing his medical training. However, the best-laid plans went quite arigh, and Ernest doesn’t seem ever to have practised medicine and may never even have qualified. Instead he became an artist; there are a few examples of his work on the web, particularly a pencil drawing of the interior of St Bartholomew’s church. He married a woman called Almeida Roberts who may have been an actress. Neither Algernon nor Claud practised medicine. I can’t find Claud on any census after 1891 so I don’t know what he did for a living. Algernon continued the family commitment to active Christianity by becaming a baptist minister. And Ethel married Hubert Royse (later Russell-Royse) who worked in a bank.
Thomas Walker Coffin’s mother Elizabeth lived with him and Maria after he retired. It might have been a coming-home for her, moving to London in her widowhood - she had been born in Southwark. She died in 1908 aged 90. Thomas only lived 18 months longer, dying in 1910.
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.
Family history: freebmd; ancestry.co.uk (census, probate and GMC records); findmypast.co.uk; familysearch; Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage; Burke’s Landed Gentry; Armorial Families; thepeerage.com; and a wide variety of family trees on the web. There was also an entry for Thomas Walker Coffin and his children at genforum.genealogy.com/coffin/messages/2686/html; and more or less the same information on familysearch.org.
Famous-people sources: mostly about men, of course, but very useful even for the female members of GD. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Who Was Who. Times Digital Archive.
Catalogues: British Library; Freemasons’ Library.
Wikipedia; Google; Google Books - my three best resources. I also used other web pages, but with some caution, as - from the historian’s point of view - they vary in quality a great deal.
SOURCES FOR THOMAS WALKER COFFIN:
Thomas Walker Coffin senior:
British and Foreign Bible Society annual reports from the period 1850 to 1880.
Dietrichson and Hannay’s Royal Almanack 1868 p91 in the section on The British Colonies: T W Coffin as postmaster in Malta.
The Royal Kalendar...for England, Scotland, Ireland and the Colonies 1879 p498 lists T W Coffin as postmaster in Malta.
Thomas Walker Coffin junior, the GD member:
As a naval clerk:
Navy List 1862, Googlebooks’ snippet didn’t show the page number. A list of clerks working at HM Dockyards all over the world included T W Coffin, currently based at Devonport.
Navy List 1864 p247 list of clerks working at the Victualling and Transport departments included T W Coffin currently based at Devonport. NB that as at 24 May 2012 these 2 navy lists were the only ones on Googlebooks that had his name in; I think putting the navy lists onto google is an ongoing project.
His leisure time:
Photographic News for Amateur Photographers volume 3 1860 p12 issue of 9 September 1860 has a list of current members of the Stereoscopic Exchange Club; it includes T W Coffin jnr with address c/o the Post Office Devonport. The editor of Photographic News... at that time was the chemist William Crookes who was a member of the Golden Dawn though not at the same time as T W Coffin was.
The British Flag issue of 1 September 1862 p71 had a report on the meeting of the Royal Naval Scripture Readers’ Society held on 17 January at the Temperance Hall, Devonport. T W Coffin made a short speech in front of several senior naval officers and Sir Thomas S Pasley, baronet, who was chairing the meeting. Rather brave of him, I think.
Annual Report and Transactions of the Plymouth Institution volume 1 1864 p8 in a list of recent events: T W Coffin jnr had given a talk on 19 January entitled The Chinese: Sketches of their History and Customs.
Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall issue 14 part 2 1873 p177 mentions a report in the Western Morning News (published in Plymouth) of a lecture by T W Coffin at the Plymouth Institution on 1 March: British Storms.
Freemasons’ Magazine and Masonic Mirror issue of 30 July 1870 p93 covered the dedication ceremony of Tiverton’s new masonic hall, held on Monday 21 July; T W Coffin was there as junior warden of lodge 189.
For a general summing-up of the rise of the medical profession during the 19th-century, see chapter 1 of Shattered Nerves: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England by Janet Oppenheim. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press 1991.
GMC records (see Ancestry) and Calendar of the Royal College of Surgeons 1875.
London Gazette 24 Oct 1884 p4606 notices dissolving business partnerships included one of the dissolving by mutual consent of the partnership John May Andrew and Thomas Walker Coffin. Partnership dissolved as of 29 September 1884; document signed by both partners, and witnessed on 21 October 1884.
Edinburgh Gazette of 17 July 1896 p6996 list of people recently declared bankrupt included Thomas Walker Coffin on 22 Upper Park Road Haverstock Hill “surgeon”.
The Linnean Society:
Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society volume 17 1884 p7 Thomas Walker Coffin is in a list of people who’d been elected as members at the Society’s latest mtg.
Linnean Society’s database of members held at their offices in Burlington House Piccadilly: Thomas Walker Coffin was elected a Fellow of the LS on 19 April 1883; he’d been nominated by R Bentley, T S Cobbold and H C Rose and declared his main interest to be zoology. Other memberships held by him: FRCS.
Proceedings of the Linnean Society 123rd session November 1910-June 1911 p12 death of T W Coffin is in a list of fellows who’d died since the last anniversary of the Society; the list was announced at the LS meeting of 24 May 1911. There was no obituary of Coffin in the volume.
Obstetrical Society: Transactions of the Obstetrical Society 1879.
SRIA:Transactions of Societas Rosicruciana Metropolitan College, particularly volume for 1892-93 p1 which shows that, having worked his way up SRIA’s metropolitan college’s official hierarchy, at its obligatory meeting of 21 April 1892 Coffin became the Celebrant for 1892-93. However, the Transactions of 1898-99 p3 minutes of the meeting of 14 July 1898 show that the membership of someone called Coffin - I presume that it’s Thomas Walker - was declared lapsed after he had failed to pay his annual subscription or go to any meetings for three years on the trot.
As a volunteer fireman: Insurance Year Book: Fire and Marine volume 34 1906 p B-6 a list of items in a particular fire depot ends by naming Thomas Walker Coffin as the chief volunteer fireman; I couldn’t see where this depot was on Googlebooks’ snippet.
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
24 May 2012