John COLLINSON was initiated into the Golden Dawn as one of its earliest members, in March 1888, taking the Latin motto ‘Servabo fidem’. A note on his GD papers says “resigned” but doesn’t give a date for his resignation.
At the time of his initiation John Collinson was living in the suburbs on the northern outskirts of London, at 5 Lightfoot Road Hornsey, but he was not a native Londoner. To several census officials down the years, he said he had been born in York. He gave an age to the officials that equates with his having been born in 1834 or 1835, making him one of the GD’s oldest initiates.
I couldn’t identify him for certain on the censuses of 1841 or 1851 so I don’t know who his parents were.
I think John Collinson must have had an education that was rather better than the majority of his contemporaries because he was able to take advantage of a new career, only open to those who were literate; and to undertake in his spare time a study only possible if you had been taught, or had taught yourself, Latin. By 1861 he was working as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway. The Ancestry.co.uk website now (June 2012) has some records of employees of railway companies but unfortunately these don’t include the Great Northern Railway so I haven’t been able to get the full details of John Collinson’s career. He stayed working for the company at least until 1891, probably until his retirement; and so he worked for the railways through the period of their most massive expansion and played his own small part in the huge changes they brought about in the British landscape and society. I am going to assume that he spent his whole working life in GNR’s employment.
In this paragraph I condense Wikipedia’s detailed article on the Great Northern Railway. GNR was created by an Act of Parliament in 1846 with an original brief to link London with York, with spurs to several other important towns near its main line. Construction began in 1846 with the London and the Yorkshire ends of the original line. As early as 1851 the GNR began to broaden its original remit, with a line to Manchester via Retford and from 1860 it was one of the partners in the East Coast Joint Stock Company which extended the main line from York to Edinburgh. The 1860s also saw the beginning of GNR’s involvement in suburban railways around London, working out from Farringdon and eventually threading throughout the northern Home Counties; in 1870s the Company concentrated on branch lines connecting to its main line.
John Collinson probably got in on the ground floor of GNR’s expansion (in both railway track and the need for office staff) and perhaps started in the company’s offices at York railway station, but he later in the Company’s relentless expansion he moved south. In July 1850 GNR opened a spur line from the main line to Nottingham and I think Collinson spent some years working in Nottingham, where - in 1856 - he married Julia Hall Reeve. Their eldest child, Nina, was born in Newark in 1856 (within six months of her parents’ wedding) but by the time her brother Abraham was born, in 1860, the family had moved to London. On the day of the 1861 census they were living in Islington. The nearest Great Northern Railway station to Islington at that time was King’s Cross, which had opened in 1852, and John Collinson was probably working there in 1861 although he might later have moved to Seven Sisters Road station, opened in 1861 and renamed Finsbury Park in 1868. If he was ambitious and wanted promotion, however, he would more likely have stayed at King’s Cross.
In the next decade John and Julia had three more children: Leonard (born 1863); Grace (born 1867); and Rosalind (born 1870). By 1871 they had moved out to Hornsey where, in 1873, their last child, Ernest, was born. The Collinsons had moved to 5 Lightfoot Road Hornsey by 1881, and they were still at that address ten years later. By 1881 Abraham had left home and Leonard was working, in the same office as his father. Leonard was still living at home in 1881 (though he’d left by 1891), so that if family finances had been tight for the past few years they were easing a bit; though John and Julia never employed any servants who lived in. In due course, Ernest also the Great Northern Railway, and Grace and Rosalind left home.
Outwardly, then, John Collinson was living the typical life of a Victorian clerk and family man. However, his horizons were rather broader than that. He was a freemason and in his leisure time, pursued the more esoteric side of freemasonry. If he had been born later he might have gone to university and become an academic, but even in his own time he was known amongst his circle of acquaintances for his work on late-medieval hermetic books and manuscripts (written in often-obscure Latin), especially those of Cornelius Agrippa (Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, 1486-1535). These studies led to his being recruited into the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA)’s Metropolitan College (based in London) at some time during the 1880s. Even if they did not recruit him themselves, John Collinson would have met William Woodman and William Wynn Westcott at the first SRIA meeting he attended and they were WHO HE KNEW IN THE GOLDEN DAWN. Samuel Mathers also went to SRIA meetings regularly in the late 1880s although he was not a full member. SRIA colleges were organised like freemasons’ lodges, with a hierarchy of offices in which you served for one year at a time until reaching the highest point and spent a final year leading the rituals and chairing the meetings. Once a member of SRIA, John Collinson climbed this hierarchy and would have been due to spend his year as its Magister Templi from April 1889 to April 1890. However, at the last minute he declined to serve, on the grounds that (according to that year’s Transactions written up by Westcott as the Metropolitan College’s secretary) “his energies were being devoted to another purpose”. The Transactions never give any clue as to what this other purpose was. Perhaps John Collinson just found that attending SRIA meetings and outings just took too much time away from his occult readings. Unfortunately, the purpose was not to prepare any of his research for publication: I’ve searched the catalogues of the British Library and the Freemasons’ Library but neither have any work by him - at least, not under his proper name. It does seem a shame that, if his work was good enough to be valued by his SRIA colleagues, none of it got into print.
It was almost certainly John Collinson’s knowledge of late medieval/Renaissance occult works that led to his being invited to join the Golden Dawn. However, he does seem to have stuck with his decision of 1889, to be less active in the SRIA, and after that year he did not attend so many of its meetings. I suggest he was never very active in the GD either, except as an advisor on (for example) astrology, which Cornelius Agrippa had written about - which might have been all that Westcott and Mathers expected of him.
John Collinson, after a working lifetime apparently with the same employer, was able to retire, with a pension and possibly even some shares in the Company; and I think he did so in or around 1896. Up until 1897 he was at least nominally a member of SRIA, but in 1900 he was struck off the list of its members on a rule (which I think Westcott also applied to the GD) which declared that you had forfeited your membership if you had not been to any meetings or paid your yearly subscription for three years. It doesn’t seem to have bothered him; he never told the SRIA that he had retired; and he never rejoined. By 1901 he and Julia and daughter Nina had moved to the Isle of Wight and were living at Delphi Cliff House, Culver Road, Shanklin. I hope John Collinson’s enjoyment of his retirement was not interrupted too much by his son Ernest going to court to divorce his wife Rosetta for adultery with one Charles Cox, in 1904. I was amazed myself when this information came up via google (in June 2012) because divorcing and being divorced were so scandalous and so expensive at that time that most miserably-married people preferred to suffer. Knowing that his son’s marital problems were being aired in court where any member of the public could go in and hear them can’t have been easy experience for this man who was born before Victoria came to the throne; but the divorce didn’t cause a breach between father and son: Ernest was named executor when John Collinson wrote his Will.
John Collinson died, at Delphi Cliff House, on 23 May 1906.
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 and probate); 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.
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.
On Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, whose published Transactions begin with those of 1888-89.
Transactions of Societas Rosicruciana Metropolitan College for the period 1888 to 1901: P9, minutes of the meeting of 10 Jan 1889 which Collinson attended. A typical meeting would be organised around a paper read by one of the members, followed by discussion of the issues raised. At this particular meeting, Edward Macbean (also a GD member) read a paper on A E Waite’s book The Real History of the Rosicrucians, which had caused such offence to the SRIA that its members considered suing him. Collinson took a part in the discussion, saying that he thought Macbean’s paper was “a fair criticism” of Waite’s “strictures on Christian Rosenkreuz”. Westcott’s minutes describe Collinson as very learned on the hermetical works of late middle ages and Renaissance, especially those of Cornelius Agrippa whose works were a very important part of SRIA’s rituals and research.
I also looked at History of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia by the MW Supreme Magus Dr William Wynn Westcott. Privately printed London 1900.
On Cornelius Agrippa: wikipedia, but there’s information rather more relevant to the Golden Dawn at www.renaissanceastrology.com/agrippa.html (seen 4 June 2012). He wrote on astrology, geomancy and talismans. This website considers these works by Cornelius Agrippa as particularly relevant:
1530 De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum et Artium ie The Vanity and Uncertainty of the Arts and Sciences
1532 but written 1509: De Nobilitate et Praecelentia Foemini Sexus ie Of the Nobility of the Female Sex and the Superiority of Women over Men ((no wonder he cldn’t get it pubd!!))
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
4 June 2012