UPDATE OCTOBER 2021
When I originally wrote my biography of Oliver and Florence Firth, I couldn’t find any information on them as co-masons. Now a trustee of the Yarker Library has contacted me with information proving that both Oliver and Florence were active co-masons in Bradford, at least in the first few years of the 20th century. He also sent me details of the initiation of Florence Firth and her sisters into the Antient and Primitive Rite of Memphis; this was a big surprise as I had supposed the Rite did not allow women to be members. My thanks to the Yarker Library contact, for this and other information, including some on a surprising friendship between Annie Besant and the radical freemason John Yarker.
Oliver Firth was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at its Horus Temple in Bradford in November 1888. This was only a month after the temple was founded: he knew several of the founders. Oliver chose the Latin motto ‘Volo’. He did embark on the study of the occult that was expected of new initiates but - for reasons I’ll discuss below - didn’t progress very far with it.
Initially, Oliver Firth had encouraged his fiancée Florence Spink to become a member and she was initiated, also at the Horus Temple, in September 1890, taking the Latin motto ‘Volantia’. However, by 1892 Oliver and his friend Frank Drake Harrison, and possibly other Bradford-based members too, were so outspoken in their criticism of the GD that the Horus Temple’s senior officials asked the GD hierarchy to intervene. When Annie Horniman was unable to quell them (I discuss that below), William Wynn Westcott - one of the founders of the GD - stepped in. He failed like Annie had. Harrison was expelled from the GD and both Oliver Firth and Florence Firth had resigned from it before the end of that year.
In 1894 the text of a talk Oliver had given was published which indicates that his brush with the GD’s magic had left him deeply troubled. It suggests reasons why some of those initiated into the GD might have chosen to walk away. Oliver’s talk was called ‘Spiritual Occultism’ and Oliver started from the viewpoint that the word ‘occult’ included both the good and the bad, and sources from both west and east. Oliver defined ‘Spiritual Occultism’ all-embracingly but with a clear bias towards theosophy rather than magic: he described it as a search for self-knowledge through “self-renunciation”, higher aspiration and loving service; and specifically as not a selfish craving for power. In a phrase that’s definitely a reflection on how he saw the GD, he said that in his view, occultism was not necessarily “the practice of the Occult Arts”; and that occultism without ethics was nothing more than black magic.
THE FIRTHS OF BRADFORD
I found several people with the surname ‘firth’ in the Bradford area in a gazetteer issued in 1822. There was a Sarah Firth, in business as a dealer in chinaware in the Old Market Place. I mention her not because she might be a relative - though she might be - but because GD member Joseph Clayton was also a dealer in chinaware, in the 1880s and 1890s and it’s clear from my research into the GD’s Bradford members that their families were often business acquaintances, friends, or relatives by marriage. The 1822 gazetteer also included a John Firth, a worsted manufacturer living in Heaton, who is probably Oliver’s grandfather though I haven’t been able to confirm this. The earliest relation of Oliver that I am sure of is his father Thomas Firth, born in Bradford in 1818, the son of a John Firth and his wife Elizabeth.
In the 1850s and 1860s Thomas Firth ran a worsted spinning business - worsted spinning was a specialism of Bradford - and also received income from patents for improvements to spinning machines. His business was based at Shear Bridge (or Shearbridge) Mills, Horton, and in 1861 it employed 101 boys (the work of spinning being relatively simple, and children being cheaper than adults, of course). He also rented out different floors of the three-storey Mill and its outbuildings: Briggs Brothers; Charles Turner spinner and manufacturer; and a Mr Brook, also running a spinning business, were all sub-tenants at the Mill. In July 1866, all the buildings at the Mill were completely destroyed by fire with losses to the firms involved estimated at £30-40000 in contemporary money. Over the next five years the Mill was rebuilt, even bigger, but it seems that the Firth family may not have been the owners by the time the new Mill was finished: Thomas Firth had retired by 1871 and let his second son Alfred take over the business on what seems to have been a much smaller scale; and by the 1880s the land on which the Mill stood had passed into the hands of William Dewhirst.
In 1843, Thomas Firth married Helen Gomersall. They lived near the Mill, at Ashfield Place Little Horton, and had the large family typical of the time: Walter, Alfred, Lucy Jane, Alice, Henry; and Oliver, the youngest, born in 1860. I haven’t been able to find out anything about how or where the children were educated. Walter at least may always have had poor health and may not have been able to go to school, though he and his siblings might all have been tutored at home. On the day of the 1861 census Walter (aged 17) was not at school or working either. He probably died later that year - I couldn’t identify him for certain on any census after 1861. Alfred and Oliver and possibly Henry as well had an education that fitted them to continue the family business.
On the day of the 1871 census all Thomas and Helen’s other children were still alive though they were not all at home. Thomas and Alfred were at Ashfield Place, with Lucy keeping house for them; while Helen had taken Alice, Henry and Oliver to Morecambe and was renting rooms in John Sill’s lodging house on Craven Terrace. There was nothing odd about that but perhaps Helen Firth’s health was giving concern: she died in December 1875, in her mid-fifties. Oliver was 15.
Thomas Firth was a widower for just over a year. In the spring of 1877 he married Elizabeth, either Elizabeth Jane Bowater or Elizabeth Dracup (my money is on Dracup for reasons I won’t go into). Lucy Jane had married John Waugh in 1873; Alice and Alfred had also married though I’m not so sure who Alice’s husband was; and Henry had left home or possibly had died; so that on census day 1881, only Oliver was still living with his father and step-mother in their new home at Langley Bank, Low Baildon.
On census day 1881 Oliver was working for the firm that his father had built up; but that’s about all I know for certain about the business after Thomas Firth retired from it. The census entry gives Oliver’s occupation as “worsted spinner” but even the owners of mills were described in that way and I’m sure he wasn’t working shifts on the factory floor. It’s possible that he was employed in the office; but in 1891 he described himself to a census official as an electrical engineer. I understand that the machinery of worsted spinning was not powered by electricity until the 20th century but Oliver could have been involved with the processes of maintaining and improving the machinery in the mill - inheriting his father’s abilities - while learning about electricity on the side. I think that around 1890 he was wondering if and how electricity could be made to power the spinning machines - at that time he did some experiments trying to improve the efficiency of magnetic dynamos.
From the tiny amount of information I’ve found on the Firth family firm after Thomas’ retirement, I haven’t been able to work out whether Oliver was in partnership with his older brother Alfred, or taking orders from him as the youngest brother. I take Oliver’s description of his source of income in 1891 to mean that he was not working in the family mill any longer; but I may be wrong about that. However, I am sure that by the late 1880s his work was no longer the focus of his best efforts if, indeed, it ever had been.
OLIVER’S LEISURE TIME
Oliver Firth had broad interests, and from several sources I’ve received the impression that when his interest in something was aroused, he pursued it energetically and thoroughly. One person who knew him slightly in the early 1890s, described him as “indefatigable”. The evidence I’ve found for what Oliver did in his spare time - membership of societies, books published - tends to come from the 1890s and later, rather than the decades before, but I think it’s still reasonable to say that his interest in the geology and botany of Yorkshire and Lancashire began in his teens; a letter to a journal in the 1890s, about the affect of tidal waves in rivers, suggests he’d spent a lot of time studying them. As he got older and had less spare time for walking and observation of natural processes in the wild, he began to grow and study ferns, and developed an interest in the old (and fast disappearing) dialects of Yorkshire.
Oliver was also a keen stamp collector by the early 1880s. A rather unhelpful obituary in The London Philatelist of 1913 gave the information that Oliver had joined the Royal Philatelic Society around 1883. Meetings of the Society were held in London and Oliver didn’t attend one until 1898. Consequently he was never a very well-known member though he did have some letters published in the Society’s journal during the 1890s, on particularly interesting items in his collection. During the mid-1890s, in addition to all his other commitments, he found time to work on a guide to stamp collecting. This was published in 1897 and was a major contribution to the subject, at 187 pages.
These widely divergent pastimes led to Oliver making friends with varied interests. One who joined the GD, probably at Oliver’s suggestion, was Robert Elliott Steel who shared Oliver’s interest in geology and geomorphology but doesn’t seem to have had much interest in stamps. However, by the late 1880s at the latest, Oliver had been diverted into a completely new area of study and impassioned commitment: he had discovered theosophy, almost certainly by reading Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (published 1877) and The Secret Doctrine (published 1888). During the early 1890s theosophy was the main focus of his interest, the place on which he focused most of his considerable energy. He travelled all over the north of England to attend theosophy meetings, and was also a regular visitor to theosophy conferences in London, for several years before he turned up at the Royal Philatelic Society.
OLIVER AND THEOSOPHY
Blavatsky had taken up residence in London in 1887 in the house owned by Countess Wachtmeister in Regent’s Park, from which the TS worldwide was run. Oliver might have gone down to London and met Blavatsky there but I haven’t found any mention that he did. He definitely met the co-leader of the Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott, in 1889, but that was in Bradford when Olcott gave a talk there on The Awakening of Japan (to theosophy, that is). In his memoirs Olcott described Oliver at that time as “joyous-hearted” and “keen-brained” in the cause of theosophy. Olcott had been invited to speak in Bradford by one of several groups of people meeting informally in the city to discuss theosophy and the meaning of The Secret Doctrine. In 1891 the group that Oliver and Florence Firth were involved with took the next step and applied to TS headquarters to found a TS lodge, Bradford Lodge. I give the names of the lodge’s other founders because I’ve mentioned several of them before, and because all of them were members of the GD as well, either initiated already or about to become so: Joseph Clayton (the chinaware dealer); Bogdan Edwards and his brother Stanley Jastrzebski; Oliver and Florence’s friend John Midgley; Thomas Pattinson (the founder of the GD’s Bradford temple) and his wife; Oliver, his wife and his sister-in-law Kate Spink; and another of Oliver’s friends, Frank Drake Harrison. Bradford Lodge’s official contact at TS headquarters was Isabel Cooper-Oakley but when she was away (as she often was) GD founder William Wynn Westcott - a leading light in the TS and an old friend of Thomas Pattinson and Bogdan Edwards - came to visit in her stead; and so the close ties already in existence between the GD and the TS continued.
For men, the links between the TS and the GD in Bradford encompassed freemasonry. Baildon Lodge number 1545 was founded in 1875 and Thomas Henry Pattinson was a member of it from its early years: it was he who supervised the decoration of its first rooms with a mural of ancient Egyptian figures which became well-known amongst Yorkshire freemasons. Frank Drake Harrison was also a member in the 1890s. In 1885 Oliver Firth had been initiated as a member of 1545. However, he had a rather chequered relationship with the lodge. He served as its Worshipful Master in 1892, the year after Pattinson had done so; resigned in September 1896; joined it again in May 1902; and resigned for good and all in October 1909. While still a member of the lodge in 1891, Oliver was able to become a corresponding member of the London-based lodge Quatuor Coronati number 2076, set up as a forum for the study of the history of freemasonry. A Harrie Firth of Baildon, another member of Baildon Lodge 1545 had joined QC2076 in 1889; this might be Oliver’s brother Henry, whom I’ve had trouble identifying after he left home.
Theosophy does seem to have meant more to Oliver than either magic or freemasonry, however. With Thomas Pattinson, he had done a lot of the form-filling the TS in London required before it would give permission for the setting up of a local lodge. This willingness to get involved in the committee-work and administration side of theosophy meant that Oliver was particularly busy during the early 1890s when interest in theosophy was expanding at a rapid rate. He was elected Bradford TS Lodge’s president in 1892 and was still in post in 1894; with Thomas Henry Pattinson as secretary.
Another important theatre for Oliver’s work in theosophy was the TS’s European Section, an umbrella group for all European lodges which held two or three days of lectures and socialising in a different European town each summer. Oliver and Frank Harrison were elected to the committee that ran it and organised those yearly meetings. Attending the yearly meeting of 1892, Oliver will probably have met John William Brodie-Innes, who gave one of the talks. Brodie-Innes was an old friend of William Wynn Westcott and had been a member of the GD and the TS since 1890. His involvement with the TS in Europe was probably what led, in 1893, to Oliver becoming a member of the group that the TS set up to give advice on theosophical matters to the World Parliament of Religions. The parliament of religions met from 15 to 17 September 1893 as part of the Chicago World’s Fair, and Oliver may have attended it.
Oliver’s greatest commitment of time and energy after Bradford Lodge was with the Northern Federation of TS lodges, which held several meetings each year between 1893 and 1895 in different cities each time. He and Frank Drake Harrison did a lot of the Federations’ administrative work, in the mid-1890s, organising the meetings and also public lectures in Bradford and nearby towns. The public lectures were often given as part of lecture tours by theosophy grandees like Annie Besant but less senior members of north of England lodges also gave talks at Federation meetings and to individual lodges. There seems to have been a list of TS lodge members willing to give talks. Oliver was definitely on this list and was particularly busy with lectures in 1893 and 1894. In 1893 he gave his talks Theosophy and Daily Life; and Karma, Free Will and Fate to the TS lodges in Manchester and Middlesbrough as well as Bradford. That year he was also asked to go to Wakefield to talk more generally about theosophy at a public meeting which resulted in the setting up of a TS lodge in the town. And 1893 was the year in which his article ‘Some False Concepts of Occultism’ was published in the English theosophical journal Lucifer in 1894, containing more of his reflections on the relationship between theosophy and the western occult. In it he stated that you didn’t have to study western esotericism and magic in order to get to grips with theosophy; if he had thought you had to once, he had since changed his mind.
1894 was the year in which Oliver spoke most often. He began 1894 in January with Some False Notions of Occultism at Harrogate and then at Leeds. A couple of months later, his subject was The Powers of Will, which he gave at Middlesbrough Lodge. In July his subject was the TS and its Three Objects, at Bradford and then Harrogate. In October it was Everyday Aspects of Theosophy, at Leeds and then at Harrogate. The following month Oliver demonstrated his familiarity with some Indian texts at least when he talked on The Vedanta Philosophy, at Athene Lodge Bradford, repeating it at Leeds Lodge in March 1895.
Oliver was also first to come out with the idea which became known as Friends Across the Sea - a kind of pen-pal scheme for lodges in different countries. In August 1894 the Northern Theosophist magazine published Oliver’s article explaining it, and then gave a talk at the Northern Federation’s next meeting, in Middlesbrough, to an audience which included Isabel Cooper-Oakley and Colonel Olcott. Olcott gave Oliver’s scheme his blessing and put Mrs Cooper-Oakley in charge of getting it organised; but it never really got off the ground, overtaken by events.
When not travelling the country in the cause of theosophy in the early 1890s, Oliver went to as many of Bradford Lodge’s meetings as he could (there were often several each week) and also to its theosophical study group. He sponsored new members of Bradford Lodge, 21 people between 1891 and 1894 including his sisters-in-law, and Harold Dunn whose brother Edward Dunn was another of the Northern Federation lecture-givers and joined the GD as well as the TS.
Florence Firth’s ability to commit time to theosophy was limited by her household and child-care commitments. She did what she could, however. She was a committee member in Bradford Lodge in 1892 but gave it up in 1893 after she had had her first child. A longer-term commitment was Bradford Lodge’s Sunday evening meetings, which she organised with the help of John Midgley’s wife Sarah. They were held in Baildon, probably in Florence and Sarah’s houses. Florence may also have been the Lodge’s librarian; a library certainly existed by 1894 and was open on Wednesday evenings at the rooms where the Lodge held its meetings at the time - 9 Osborne Chambers, New Kirkgate.
I hope all this coverage of the activities of Oliver Firth and Florence Firth in the TS is making clear why neither of them was particularly committed to the GD. The TS and the GD offered a choice between eastern philosophy and the western occult tradition; and also between study leading to enlightenment; and study followed by practising the precepts learned. In Oliver’s case, he seems to have begun his GD membership with the idea that it was impossible to follow one without studying the other; but had begun to worry about where the study of western occultism would take him, and changed his mind about the necessity of working at it. Florence seems to have agreed with him.
However, behind the great expansion in TS membership in the early 1890s there was trouble brewing between Annie Besant and the American William Quan Judge, its two most likely leaders now that Blavatsky was dead (she had died in May 1891). The struggle between them raged for about three years, and got very shrill and very public in November 1894 when an article about it was published in the Westminster Gazette under the headline ‘Isis very much unveiled’. In the weeks after its publication, everybody in theosophy was discussing the article and Oliver wrote to Lucifer saying that the TS must make an official response to it; but the organisation was in such disarray that no coherent reply to it emerged.
Oliver Firth knew both Annie Besant and William Quan Judge well, through his work for the TS’s European Section: Annie Besant was on its governing committee and Judge was its president-for-life. At first he was inclined to favour Judge rather than Besant. In his turn Judge counted Oliver as a friend as well as a supporter, and asked Oliver to be one of his “special delegates” at a meeting held in London in July 1894 to consider the claims Judge was making - that he should take charge of the TS as he was in touch with the mahatmas that until Blavatsky’s death had communicated with her alone. Oliver made a speech at this special meeting. I haven’t been able to find an account of what he said, which is a pity: depending on when during the meeting he made it, he may actually have spoken in Judge’s support. But as the meeting wore on, Judge’s arrogant behaviour turned Oliver against him; so he stood for, and was elected, to the committee that was set up at the end of the meeting essentially to get rid of Judge from the TS. In the months that followed, Judge was edged out, at least in theory; but the American lodges resigned en masse from the TS worldwide.
At the TS’s European Section congress of July 1895, some of Judge’s more determined supporters demanded changes in its constitution to keep it independent of interference from TS headquarters in London and allow Judge to be re-elected as its president. A committee to look into the possibility of constitutional change was elected, but it was dominated by Annie Besant’s supporters, Oliver Firth being one; and no changes were made, to my knowledge. Annie Besant reigned supreme and was the dominant force in the TS (other than in the USA) for the rest of her life.
The dispute between Annie Besant and William Quan Judge was a disaster for the TS in Britain and it has never really recovered. Hundreds of members resigned or just stopped paying their yearly subscription, including all those who strongly supported Judge; entire lodges closed for lack of support; others were divided - often quite bitterly - between supporters of the two candidates. As support for the TS fell away, the Northern Federation couldn’t continue; its magazine stopped being published and Oliver’s round of talks to its member lodges ceased. There were fewer public lecture tours by senior TS members and the charity work the TS had been doing in the early 1890s had to be stopped for lack of funds.
Bradford Lodge seems to have come very early to the stage of being split between the two candidates. In 1893 Thomas Pattinson, Bogdan Edwards, Joseph Clayton and Clayton’s daughters set up the Athene Lodge as a rival to the Bradford Lodge and they may have done this as supporters of Judge. Despite being a Judge supporter himself at this time, Oliver stayed in Bradford Lodge, as did Florence, and Kate and Gertrude Spink. So it’s possible that Athene Lodge’s break-away from Bradford Lodge was about sources of strife that were closer to home.
The Bradford GD and TS members were a very independent-minded bunch and many of them had a tendency to say what they thought, however tactless - perhaps even playing up to that reputation when senior officials arrived from GD and TS headquarters to quell restlessness in the ranks. Emissaries sent by the GD to keep the Horus Temple within bounds included Annie Horniman, no mistress of diplomacy herself. In September 1892, at the personal request of Samuel Liddell Mathers, she attended the Horus Temple’s equinox ritual and meeting to report on some gossip that had reached him. A letter she wrote to Mathers after her visit didn’t allay his concern: she told him that she had herself heard “Mr Firth” call astrology “mere divination”. It’s a pity Annie wasn’t a bit more specific about who it was that was doubting the usefulness of astrology as a magical tool. There were two Mr Firths in the Bradford GD (and Bradford TS Lodge) at the time, Oliver and Walter (who may have been a cousin). I think it was probably Walter Firth Annie was meaning (see the Sources section for the reasons); but there’s no absolute proof that she didn’t mean Oliver, who resigned from the GD shortly afterwards.
Oliver and Florence Firth gave up on magic and the GD very shortly after Annie’s visit to Bradford. But they didn’t lose their faith and interest in theosophy during the very difficult years of the mid-1890s, and theosophy did keep limping on. Instead, in 1896-97 it was the GD’s turn to have a bout of internal wrangling. I found a piece of evidence at the Freemasons’ Library that shows that Oliver at least was still in touch with some GD members at this time and - despite no longer being a member himself - knew a great deal that he shouldn’t have, about what was going on in the Order. Early in January 1897, he was one of those who tried to mediate after Annie Horniman was expelled from the GD by Mathers. Although Annie could be a difficult person to deal with, many GD members were aware that she had been ejected for reasons that had nothing to do with magical matters. A petition was organised on her behalf, requesting Mathers to reinstate her. Oliver and Florence didn’t sign the petition, but when Mina and Samuel Mathers visited London in January 1897, Oliver managed to have a meeting with Mina and - apparently - to speak on Annie’s behalf. After it, he wrote to Annie herself, telling her how sorry Mina now was, that the friendship she and Annie had enjoyed for so long had got mixed up with GD business and come to grief.
It was a surprise to me to find such a letter in the FML collection, and to realise that Oliver must have gone to London to try to help Annie Horniman, with whom he might have quarrelled himself in 1892. Annie’s reply - if she made one - has been lost; but it didn’t lead to either she or Oliver going back to the GD. Annie was only welcomed back in the post-Mathers era; and Oliver and Florence never did return, working on instead amidst the wreckage of theosophy in Britain.
The rise to prominence of Katherine Tingley, a new leader of theosophy in the USA, led Annie Besant to set out on a lecture tour of the north of England in 1897, a series of engagements which began the emergence of theosophy in Bradford from two years of complete inertia. On Annie Besant’s itinerary was an evening talk at Baildon’s Central Hall; and Bradford Lodge managed to organise a conversazione in her honour for the afternoon after the lecture. At the conversazione Florence and her sisters Kate and Gertrude Spink agreed to try to run a new theosophical study class - the first in Bradford for several years. As part of the effort to get theosophy in Bradford to rise from the ashes, Oliver started writing on theosophy again, and Florence wrote her first ever article on theosophy. Oliver’s article On the Theosophic Use of the Imagination appeared in Theosophical Review in October 1897 and in Lucifer in 1898. In it, Oliver considered the use of the mind in scientific research into theosophy. Florence’s article Theosophy and Education was also published in Lucifer in 1898. She chose a subject raised several years before in a talk by Oliver, probably one she and her husband constantly discussed: how to live your life according to theosophical principles. Florence focused on whether theosophist parents should bring up their children as theosophists or leave them to find their way to it as adults. She concluded that theosophist parents should tell their children about their beliefs.
Theosophy in Bradford was just not the same after Besant v Judge dispute, though: friendships had been sorely tried by it and some had come to grief; and by the time Oliver’s and Florence’s articles were published neither of its lodges had enough members to survive on its own. In 1900 Athene Lodge was wound up and Bradford Lodge was relaunched. Oliver and Florence Firth, and Kate and Gertrude Spink were amongst those eating humble pie in 1900: they all attended the meeting at which the factions represented by the two lodges began their reconciliation. Oliver chaired the meeting, had perhaps even organised it. Florence was the reconstituted Bradford Lodge’s new secretary and also agreed to be its librarian. The TS seemed fated not to have an easy life, however, and in 1906 it was overtaken by a scandal that in terms of the mores and fears of the age was the most serious that it had faced: one of its most active workers, Charles Webster Leadbeater was accused of encouraging young boys to masturbate to relieve sexual tension; and rumours started to go around that Leadbeater’s relationships with some of the sons of theosophists he knew were too close for moral comfort.
An investigation by senior TS figures didn’t find any absolute proof of what was being said about Leadbeater; but in order to damp down the scandal, he resigned from the TS anyway. However, in February 1909 Annie Besant - as the new president-for-life of the TS after Olcott’s death and as a firm believer in Leadbeater’s innocence - got him reinstated, prompting another crisis of membership. Members of the TS who had remained in the TS through the Besant v Judge struggle and its aftermath now resigned in large numbers, including Oliver and Florence Firth, and Florence’s sisters Kate and Gertrude Spink. Any interest they still had in theosophy as a spiritual path, they followed up in private. It was a sad ending to nearly 20 years of commitment to theosophy as a movement for personal development and social change in Britain.
Oliver and Florence’s involvement with theosophy, freemasonry and magic often caused them aggravation, but their belief in the importance of the teachings of theosophy will have helped them weather the storms of economic change in late 19th century Bradford, storms that will have affected Oliver directly if he was still involved in the family business.
Laws taxing imported British ‘finished’ textile goods began to be passed in European countries in the 1870s and there was some retrenchment in Bradford at that time although as the Firth family business produced yarn rather than finished goods, it may not have been badly affected. The USA’s McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 was a more serious challenge to Bradford: duty on imported woollen products was raised to over 90% and mills making finished goods were very badly affected. Local buyers of the Firth mill’s yarn will have begun to buy less, but exports of yarn continued to increase until just before the first world war. However, despite worsted spinners faring better than mills that used worsted to make finished goods, the Firths’ mill seems not to have still been in business by 1901, when Oliver told the census official that he was a man of independent financial means. He was never involved in the textile industry again but - a few years later - moved into a completely different line of work using skills that he may have learned helping his brother Alfred manage the family business.
Oliver Firth and Florence Spink had married each other in Baildon in August 1890 with lots of guests from both families. They had set up home at a house called Rushcroft, in Baildon, down the hill from Florence’s family. Their first child, Mary Alice, was born late in 1892. A change of address to Hawthorn House in Baildon followed, and two more children: Thomas in 1893 and Margaret in 1894, so it’s not very surprising that Florence didn’t play a prominent part in the upheaval in the TS in the mid-1890s.
Oliver’s father and step-mother had left Bradford and settled in Ulverston, probably when Oliver married, all Thomas’s children now being off their hands. Thomas Firth died in Ulverston in August 1897. I believe Elizabeth Firth died shortly afterwards - I can’t see her on the censuses of 1901 or 1911 - but I haven’t identified a death certificate for her. Oliver perhaps inherited something from his father, or from the sale of the worsted spinning business - an inheritance of invested money would explain how he could tell the 1901 census official that he had independent financial means. His and Florence’s income was enough for them to employ a cook and a nurse to help Florence run the household; it was these servant luxuries that enabled her to find time to write her article on children’s spiritual education and prepare a book for publication.
In 1904, Florence Firth and Annie Besant worked together to prepare a new edition of texts of interest to all occultists, The Golden Verses of Pythagoras and Other Pythagorean Fragments. The text is a set of moral phrases generally held to be the work either of Pythagoras himself or of his followers. Annie Besant’s Introduction to the work suggested theosophists might like to ponder them as part of their practice of meditation. I would be surprised if Florence’s education had enabled her to read the phrases in Latin, let alone Greek; and in fact her short Preface makes it clear that she used English translations. The little book was published by the Theosophical Publishing Company.
Sources on co-masonry that are in the public domain are very limited, and when I originally prepared this file on Oliver and Florence Firth (in 2015), I could only find glancing references to Oliver as a co-mason, and none to Florence as one. Now I can confirm that both of them were co-masons. The date or dates of their initiation are uncertain but must be between 1902 and 1905. The first English co-masons’ lodge was only set up in 1902, by Annie Besant and Ursula Bright; and information from 1905 makes it clear that Oliver was a senior co-mason by then.
According to information found by a trustee of the Yarker Library, Oliver and Florence – and possibly Florence’s sisters Kate and Gertrude Spink as well – were members of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky co-masons’ Lodge number 15, which met in Bradford. Both Oliver and Florence had served twelve months as Lodge 15’s worshipful master by 1908. In 1905, Annie Besant created an advisory council for co-masonry in England, and Oliver was one of its members. He may also have got involved in the efforts to promote co-masonry in other countries – there are some letters from him to Alfred Faulding, written in 1906. Faulding was the general secretary of International Co-Masonry. On Saturday 16 May 1908 Florence and Oliver both went to Leeds to play prominent roles in the consecration of Plato Lodge number 31: Oliver read the oration, On the Nature and Principles of the Institution; and Florence assisted ex-GD member Frank Drake Harrison to perform the consecration ceremony. Frank was general secretary of English co-masonry at the time. The ceremony took place at 8 Blenheim Terrace, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds; which sounds like the home of one of the new lodge’s members.
ANTIENT AND PRIMITIVE RITE OF MEMPHIS
By 1903 – possibly long before – Oliver had met John Yarker, an ex-craft freemason very critical of orthodox, contemporary freemasonry. Yarker had created a number of masonic orders which, he felt, represented the original tenets of the craft more accurately than the rituals permitted by the United Grand Lodge of England. He was also the most senior English representative of the Rite of Memphis, an order outside orthodox freemasonry in that it allowed women to be members. In July 1903, Oliver acted as sponsor at a ceremony in which Florence, Kate and Gertrude Spink, and prominent TS member Isabel Cooper Oakley were all made members of the Rite of Memphis. The ceremony, conducted by John Yarker, took place at Hawkswood, in Baildon, the home of John Spink. The women were then, presumably, eligible to take part in the Rite’s ceremonies and meetings; though I don’t know how active the Rite actually was at the time.
A NEW SOURCE OF INCOME
Oliver was looking around for an investment that would give him an administrative or managerial role. By 1903 he had bought or funded the building of Dean Head Sanatorium, a couple of miles east of Baildon in the village of Horsforth.
I wonder if Oliver’s brother Walter had died of TB? The disease was one of the scourges of the 19th century, a horrible, protracted way to die. The ‘open-air’ treatment for it was pioneered by Dr Otto Walther at a sanatorium in Nordrach-in-Baden in Germany, where he began taking patients in 1888. Within a decade there were many sanatoria run along Walther’s lines in Europe, including several in Britain. Most patients in sanatoria using the method pioneered at Nordrach did have to pay for their treatment and this was a heavy financial burden as the cure - if there was one - could take up to a year. However, fees for a TB cure in England were affordable by a larger number of families than treatment in places such as the Alps or Egypt.
There’s no suggestion that Oliver was involved in the clinical side of the sanatorium he owned. His role was as manager and he would have employed a doctor or doctors. Always willing to work long and hard at the projects he was committed to, Oliver was often at the sanatorium over the weekend, and he was in his own quarters there on the day of the 1911 census. He was also at the Sanatorium when he died, in February 1913, aged only 52.
On census day 1911 Florence, Mary and Margaret (Peggie) were at home; they had moved away from Baildon, perhaps after Florence’s father John Spink died in 1909; and were now living at 2 Cornwall Place off Manningham Lane. Florence Firth had never declared any source of income to a census official before. She had almost certainly not been asked before if she had any income of her own - women’s earnings and women’s work are notoriously absent from the 19th-century censuses. In 1911, however, she was able to complete the census form herself, as Oliver was away; and she wrote on it that she was employed as an embroidery designer, working at home on designs for a dress-maker. I have tried to follow up this interesting declaration, on the web and elsewhere, and not been able to find anything at all on this late-flowering career - it’s such a pity! Another point of interest to me on the 1911 census form is that despite Florence’s daughter Mary Alice now being 19, Florence wrote that she was still at school - meaning, I guess, that she was in some form of post-school education; Peggie was still at school too but at 16 that’s not quite so surprising, though it’s good to see evidence that Oliver and Florence thought their daughters’ education was important.
Quite a few men called Thomas Firth lived in West Yorkshire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thomas Firth, Oliver and Florence’s son, was not at home on the day of the 1911 census and I couldn’t spot him anywhere else in the UK. One source I’ve found lately (this is August 2014) suggests that he may have emigrated to New Zealand. His sister Mary Alice hasn’t been easy to track either, in fact I haven’t been able to identify her for certain, after census day 1911. Peggie, who didn’t marry, went to work as secretary and was appointed secretary of the Artificers’ Guild in 1928; recommended for the post by her aunt Gertrude Spink, a director of the Guild.
By 1909 Florence’s sisters Kate and Gertrude were both living in London; both were working though Kate at least was not being paid for it. I haven’t been able to discover when or why Florence made her clean break with the past. Whenever it was, she and Peggie left Bradford and all their family and other ties there, to move south. They didn’t join Kate and Gertrude in London but set up home at Beenhams Cottage, Railway Lane in Littlemore, a village just outside Oxford. Although Peggie must have moved to London to take up her 1928 appointment, Gertrude retired from London to join her sister in Littlemore; it was still her address when she died in 1947. However, Florence Firth was at 71 High Street Oxford when she died in September 1939. She might have been living in the rooms above the shop; or perhaps she was just visiting someone there.
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. I have recently (July 2014) discovered that some records of the Horus Temple at Bradford have survived, though most have not; however those that have survived are not yet accessible to the public.
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.
Useful source for business and legal information: London Gazette and its Scottish counterpart Edinburgh Gazette. Now easy to find (with the right search information) on the web.
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 OLIVER FIRTH AND FOR HIS WIFE FLORENCE MARGARET after her marriage - for her life before her marriage, see SPINK
FIRTHS IN THE BRADFORD AREA
Baines’s Directory and Gazetteer of Bradford issue of 1822 transcribed at www.genuki.org.uk.
who owns a worsted spinning firm.
THE FIRTH MILL AT SHEAR BRIDGE
At www.forgottenbooks.com, Newton’s London Jounal of Arts and Sciences volume 41 1852 p379 in a list of Provisional Protections ((by patent)) Granted. See Number 98.
Chronological Index of Patents Applied for and Granted issue of 1860 p6 number 96.
Rambles Around Horton by William Cudworth, a writer on the history of Bradford and the surrounding area. Published by subscription and printed in Bradford by Thomas Brear and Co Ltd 1886: p37; p149. On p37 there’s mention of a Samuel Dracup, resident of Idle and maker of shuttle machinery and harness. I think Thomas Firth’s second wife may be a member of this family.
The Engineer volume 22 1866 p23.
Via newspaperarchive.com to London Express of Wednesday 11 July 1866 p4 under the headline Great Fire at Bradford.
London Morning Post of 27 October 1855 p3 quoting a recent London Gazette: list of partnerships dissolved included two firms based at Shear Bridge Mill.
I did not find any evidence for the Firth’s business existing after the 1870s.
OLIVER FIRTH AS AN ELECTRICAL ENGINEER
I find his stated occupation on the 1891 census rather troubling as he doesn’t seem to have been a member of the society which already existed for electrical engineers. This may just mean that he was not working as a professional. He had definitely been working on experiments with dynamos: see
The American magazine Electrical Age issue of 1891 p31 and Dynamo Construction: A Practical Handbook by John W Urquhart, electrician. London: Crosby Lockwood and Son 1891 p305.
Oliver’s research don’t seem to have ended in his applying for a patent on any new piece of machinery.
THOMAS FIRTH AND FAMILY
Possible baptism of Thomas Firth: familysearch England-ODM GS file number 0990533-0990535: baptism 22 March 1818 at Bradford; parents John and Elizabeth. BUT there are several men called Thomas Firth in mid-19th century Bradford so this may not be Oliver’s father.
Familysearch England-EASy GS film number 1470405: marriage of Thomas Firth (b 1818) to Helen Gomersall (b 1822) took place 16 January 1843 at York.
MARRIAGE OF OLIVER FIRTH TO FLORENCE SPINK
Yorkshire Post and Intelligencer of 28 August 1890 though I couldn’t read the full guest list and account of the wedding as I don’t have a subscription to www.genesreunited.co.uk.
A THOMAS FIRTH WHO WENT TO NEW ZEALAND see family history website www.pickeringfamilyhistory.com.
FLORENCE FIRTH: BEENHAMS
The building still exists and is listed at zoopla: Beenhams Cottage, Railway Lane Littlemore.
The building next to it, now used as a garage, is Grade II listed, see www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk:
For what is known about the house at 71 High Street see www.oxfordhistory.org.uk. While searching with google I noticed on another website someone saying that while they were at Magdalen College (whose address is High St Oxford) they rented rooms at 71 High Street.
OLIVER AND YORKSHIRE DIALECTS
Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society volumes 1-4 1902 p62 in a membership list.
Transactions of the Yorks Dialect Society volume 2 issues 9-12 1907 pxi as a member.
Original Tales and Ballads in the Yorkshire Dialect by John Malham-Dembleby, 1912.
OLIVER AND NATURAL HISTORY
Transactions of the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union parts 17-22 published by the Union 1892.
Nature volume 53 1896 p198 letter from O Firth of Hawthorn House Baildon.
The British Fern Gazette volume 1 published 1909 by the British Pteridological Society: p222 in a list of members.
OLIVER AND STAMP COLLECTING
Website www.rpsl.org.uk is the home of the Royal Philatelic Society of London, established 1869 and thus the earliest stamp-collecting society in the world. The London Philatelist was the Society’s magazine, published monthly. Using its archive search came across a lot of mentions of Oliver, between 1894 and 1913 but with gap after 1904 until a one-paragraph note of his recent death (there’s not even a proper date) in volume 22 number 256 issue of April 1913 p87. The magazine’s editor in 1913 is the Society’s vice-president, M P Castle. The one-paragraph note has no author’s name, so I presume it is by the editor.
An article by Oliver in London Philatelist issue of 1898 in 2 parts volume 7 no 76 pp104-07 and volume 7 no 77 pp128-34: Dies Used on Registered Envelopes of Great Britain.
Oliver also had several letters on items in his collection published in the London Philatelist between 1892 and 1900.
Postage Stamps and their Collection: A Practical Guide to Philately for All Collectors by Oliver Firth. L U Gill 1897.
BLAVATSKY IN LONDON
See wikipedia on the history of Blavatsky Lodge; the publication of The Secret Doctrine; and Blavatsky’s death in London 8 May 1891.
FIRTHS AND SPINKS IN THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY
Theosophical Society Membership Register volume January 1889-September 1891 p107 Oliver Firth in a batch beginning with Joseph Clayton, all already very long-serving members; “Resigned March 11 1909".
Old Diary Leaves: the True History of the Theosophical Society by Henry Steel Olcott. Madras: Theosophical Publishing House in six volumes. Oliver is mentioned in Volume 4 published 1931 and covering 1887-92: pp219-221 and p350. And in Volume 5 published 1932 and covering January 1893 to April 1896: p210.
Seen 2013: A History of the Theosophical Society in Bradford at www.ts-bradford.org.uk/theosoc/btshisto.htm. Originally prepared in 1942 to celebrate 50 years of the re-launched Bradford TS Lodge, it includes a list of members.
The Theosophical Congress held by the Theosophical Society at the Parliament of Religions. World’s Fair 1893 Chicago Illinois September 15-17 . Report of Proceedings and Documents. Published at the TS American Section headquarters, 144 Madison Avenue New York City 1893: p10 in list of TS members who were in the Congress’ advisory council. Also on the advisory council: Colonel Olcott; Annie Besant; Bernard Keightley; and A P Sinnett. It isn’t clear from the text of the Proceedings how many members of the advisory council actually attended the Parliament of Religions. It was a long way to go just for a few days.
Oliver’s appearances in Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine. London: Theosophical Publishing Society of 7 Duke Street Adelphi
- volume X March-August 1892 issue of 15 March 1892 p80 news section
- volume XI September 1892-February 1893 issue of 15 September 1892: p81 news section
- volume XII March-August 1893 issue of 15 March 1893 p78
- volume XIII September 1893-February 1894 p254, p343, pp494 -502
- volume XIV March-August 1894 p449-55, pp521-23
- volume XV September 1894-February 1895 and almost entirely given over to the dispute and the claims of W Q Judge: p166, p254, p340, p384
- volume XVI March-August 1895 issue of 15 July 1895 pp358-360
Then there’s a two-year gap until his next appearance:
- volume XXI September 1897-February 1898: pp131-34 Oliver’s On the Theosophic Use of the Imagination; and p572. On pp466-469 Florence’s Theosophy and Education.
Lucifer ceased publication shortly after this, a victim of the Besant v Judge dispute.
NORTHERN THEOSOPHIST which was published from December 1893 to July 1895 is the best source for Oliver’s work for the TS.
Northern Theosophist price 1d. I saw the reprint of it issued 1997 by the TS in Edmonton Alberta Canada. It contains the best list of Oliver’s lectures; and dates of all the meetings of the Northern Federation of the TS, most of which I imagine Oliver attended though he’s not always mentioned in the accounts of them.
KATHERINE TINGLEY IN ENGLAND
Theosophy volume XI May-Dec 1896 pp130-31: Mrs Tingley and her theosophical crusaders were in England for about three weeks in June-July 1896, at a series of events organised for them in Liverpool and London by several ex-members of both the GD and the TS in Britain. Then they moved on into Europe.
OLIVER IN THEOSOPHICAL REVIEW
Theosophical Review volume 221 October 1897: p131. And volume 34 May 1904 p272.
FLORENCE’S WORK IN THE TS IN BRADFORD
Northern Theosophist ran from vol 1 no 1 Dec 1893 to vol 2 no 20 July 1895. Vol 1 ed by W A Bulmer. I saw the reprinted ed of 1997, pubd by the TS in Edmonton Alberta Canada. Vol 1 no 1 Dec 1893 price 1d. On p3 mention of mtgs held Sun evenings in Baildon, run by Mrs Firth of Bradford Lodge, w the help of Mrs Midgley. Mrs Firth was hoping to set up a library. Mention of a League of Theosl Workers, whose members all belonged to the TS; aims were to apply theosl principles to daily life, and to facilitate charity work by members. In Vol 2 number 13 December 1894 p3 reference to Bradford Lodge’s library; though the librarian’s name isn’t given.
FLORENCE’S THEOSOPHICAL BOOK
The Golden Verses of Pythagoras and Other Pythagorean Fragments selected and arranged and with a Preface by Florence M Firth. Introduction by Annie Besant. I saw the copy now owned by the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia and loaned by them to the Freemasons’ Library. Published London: Theosophical Publishing Co 1905. On pix in her Introduction Annie Besant explains why she thinks that the phrases of the Pythagorean school should be studied by theosophists: she states that Pythagoras (actually him, not his successors) translated some of the teachings of the Buddha into Greek, thus bringing Buddhism into western culture for the first time. My advisor on all things eastern, Roger Wright, was most surprised when I mentioned this to him: he had never heard of any evidence supporting this view. As far as he’s aware, the first Greek philosopher to come across any kind of eastern philosophy was Pyrrho (360-327 BC) who went to India with Alexander the Great. Modern dates for the lives of Pythagoras and Buddha show Pythagoras living and dying before Buddha was born.
OLIVER AND THE GOLDEN DAWN
Golden Dawn Companion p35 for the attempt William Wynn Westcott to curb dissent and disrespect at the Horus Temple. P128 for the initiation date of John William Brodie-Innes.
The Magicians of the GD: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923 by Ellic Howe. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1972. On p111 for the attempt by Annie Horniman to curb dissent and disrespect at the Horus Temple. In a letter to Samuel Mathers dated October 1892, Annie mentions that the Mr Firth who was dismissive of astrology had also refused to take on the job of auditing the Horus Temple’s accounts. This makes it much more likely that the disrespectful Mr Firth was Walter, not Oliver: Walter Firth was employed in Bradford City Council’s accounts office - just the sort of man you’d want to look over your accounts at year’s end. On pp135-136, p140, pp143-44 the account of Annie Horniman’s expulsion from the GD in December 1896 and the failed attempt to get her reinstated, via a petition asking Mathers to reconsider his ban. Very few GD members in Bradford signed the petition, possibly because it was organised by members in London who didn’t necessarily know members in Bradford very well; and possibly because Annie Horniman’s actions in October 1892 had caused annoyance which still rankled. No longer members of the GD in 1896, Oliver and Florence Firth, and Kate and Gertrude Spink were not eligible to sign the petition or even to know of its existence, which makes this letter all the more odd:
Freemasons’ Library under call number GBR 1991 2/4/1/13: a letter dated 24 January 1897 from Oliver to Annie Horniman
OLIVER FIRTH AS A FREEMASON
Members’ records, United Grand Lodge of England; now at Ancestry.
Ars Quatuor Coronati 2076 volume I 1886-89 unnumbered pages at end list the Lodge’s current officers and members. On [p11] number 176 a Harrie Firth of Baildon is a member; as a member of Baildon Lodge number 1545. Oliver first appears as a member in Ars Quatuor Coronati 2076 volume VIII 1895 unnumbered endpages [p26], Oliver Firth of Rushcroft, Baildon, Shipley. He’d joined QC2076 in May 1891 as a member of Baildon Lodge.
Baildon Lodge 1545 1875-1935 anonymous publication, a short history for the Lodge’s 50th anniversary: p3, p12 for Pattinson’s design of the lodge rooms; p28 list of WM’s.
I looked at Co-Mason Magazine from volume 1 1909 to volume 4 1912: I couldn’t find any mention of Oliver Firth or indeed Florence Firth as a member of any of Britain’s co-masonry lodges. The only mention of Oliver I found in connection with co-masonry was in Women’s Agency and Rituals in Mixed and Female Masonic Orders editors Alexandra Heidle and Jan A M Snoek. 2008 in Boston and Leiden: Brill, in their Texts and Studies in Western Esotericism series: p354 refers to some letters from Oliver Firth to Alfred Faulding in 1906, now at the co-masonic archive at Surbiton. Faulding was the London-based general secretary of International Co-Masonry.
Letters from Oliver Firth to John Yarker; 29 November 1905 and 3 December 1905, about the Helena Petrovna Blavatsky Lodge number 15; and the advisory council for co-masonry set up by Annie Besant. Now in the Yarker Library collection.
Summons to the consecration of Plato Lodge 31; now in the Pilgrimage Collection.
RITE OF MEMPHIS
Muster Roll Antient and Primitive Rite of Memphis, now in the Library and Museum of the Grand Lodge of Iowa.
Information passed on to me by a trustee of the Yarker Library.
NORDRACH TB TREATMENT
Below the Magic Mountain: A Social History of Tuberculosis in 20th Century Britain by Linda Bryder. Oxford Clarendon Press 1988. A helpful history with plenty of references to contemporary writing on TB and the Nordrach system.
THE NORDRACH TB CURE
For the East Anglian Sanatorium Co Ltd, of Nayland in Suffolk, see www.pastscape.org.uk and the archives at Suffolk Record Office - you can see brief details via www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
And a patient’s-eye view written by the Canadian artist Emily Carr who spent a year 1903-04 in the Nordrach sanatorium where GD member Dr Edith Collett had been a doctor, though it was known from the start that she was not suffering from TB: Pause: A Sketch Book by Emily Carr. Toronto: Clarke Irwin and Co Ltd 1953.
The Philadelphia Medical Journal volume 6 1900 p1040 has an account of a visit to Nordrach-upon-Mendip sanatorium near Bristol. This was owned and run by doctors Gwynne and Thurnam who had both contracted TB and been cured at Nordrach in Germany. Rowland Thurnam was initiated into the GD in 1895; it’s not very likely he and Oliver Firth knew of each other.
Hazell’s Annual issue of 1906 p104 in list of TB sanatoria, Rowland Thurnam is described as proprietor and resident physician at Nordrach-upon-Mendip sanatorium. Dr Gwynne has gone.
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
28 August 2014
25 October 2021
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