Walter Firth was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at its Horus Temple in Bradford, in November 1888. He chose the Latin motto ‘Multum in parvo’. He was still a member several years later but never did any of the study necessary to progress to the GD’s inner, 2nd Order. He resigned from the Order, or was possibly expelled from it, late in 1892 or early in 1893.
BEFORE WE START
This is the biography of a GD member who lived in Bradford. I’m based in London and can’t justify the expense of going to Bradford to look at records kept locally and not yet on the web. Particularly with Walter Firth, this is a pity - he worked in local government and there are probably records of his career in the local record offices. If any reader fancies starting on Walter Firth where I leave off, be my guest.
THE FIRTH FAMILY
The surname ‘Firth’ is quite a common one in the West Riding and the GD had two other members called Firth - Oliver Firth, and his wife Florence. Although Oliver Firth had an older brother called Walter, the GD’s Walter Firth was someone else, perhaps related in a distant, tribal way, but not a close relation. In the infinite gradations of the Victorian class system, Oliver Firth and Walter Firth were not really out of the same drawer. Oliver Firth’s father owned a worsted spinning business and a big mill at Horton. Walter Firth’s father was a skilled or possibly semi-skilled labourer.
Walter Firth was born in Bradford in 1859 or 1860, the son of Henry Firth and his wife Mary. Henry Firth worked as a sawyer - that is, he sawed wood for a living. I couldn’t find much information on Henry’s working life; which probably means he was working for wages, perhaps in the local iron works, or a Bradford sawmill or as a self-employed man. If he had set up a company or a partnership it would, I think, have shown up on the web.
Henry and Mary Firth’s family was a very small one by mid-Victorian standards: just Walter and his elder brother Archibald. On the day of the 1861 census the family was living at 17 St John’s Terrace Bowling. Until the late 18th century, Bowling - still known as Bolling at that stage - was mostly parkland; but from the 1790s the work of the Bowling Iron Works had a drastic affect on the district so that by the time the Firths were living there, there were terraces of houses surrounded by hundreds of acres of slag-heaps. However, there were compensations: the profits of the foundry had financed not only a fancy parish church in the new Gothic style; but also a National School which is almost certainly where Walter and his brother were educated.
By the 1871 census the Firths had either moved a few streets or had their street renamed and their house renumbered: their address on census day 1871 was 12 St John’s Lane. Walter’s cousin Annie Patterson was living with them on that day: aged 19, she was working in a worsted spinning mill. Archibald was also working, in a warehouse. Walter, aged 11, was still at school.
Perhaps the reason why Henry Firth and Mary had such a small family was Mary’s poor health. She died in her early 40s, probably in 1874. I can’t find any trace, either, of Walter’s brother, after the 1871 census; perhaps he too died although there is no death registration on freebmd. By 1881, further trouble had come to the family - Henry Firth was out of work. Walter, however, had been able to take advantages of the times he lived in - getting a better education than would have been available to his parents, and consequently being able to get trained, and work in an office, the kind of job where the threat of unemployment is less, and you are also less liable to get ill or injured through the work you do. Office work also had the advantage of being thought of as middle-class.
Walter began his working life in the office of an accountant. On the day of the 1881 census, he was still with that employer, as an accounts’ clerk. He was still living in Bowling, at 163a Hey Road, and was the major breadwinner in the household. He was earning enough to support not only his father, but also his wife, her sister, and his two-month-old daughter; though his wages didn’t run to paying for any live-in servants and in fact, the Firths never did employ even the basic maid-of-all-work.
In 1879, Walter had married Mary Isabella Carrodus. Mary Isabella had grown up in Keighley, where her father Thomas was secretary of the Mechanics’ Institute and School of Science and Art. Mary Isabella (born 1856) was the eldest child in a large family. Thomas Carrodus’ census entry for 1871 isn’t complete - he’s the only member of the family whose occupation is filled in. And by 1881 Mary Isabella was married and a mother, at home with her baby, housework to do and a household to run. So I haven’t been able to find out whether she went to work when she left school. She probably did, though - on the day of the 1881 census her sister Anne (aged 21 and not yet married) was working as a worsted weaver.
Walter and Mary Isabella had six children: Mary Ann the baby on the 1881 census; Archibald Patterson, born in 1883 and named after Walter’s elder brother; Carrodus Verdon (what a magnificent name!) born 1886; Nelly born 1890; and Sydney born 1897 or 1898; and another child, probably born in the early 1890s, who died young.
The censuses aren’t good at the little details of people’s working lives - like exact job titles or qualifications. However, I think it’s safe to say that Walter was gaining some qualifications during the 1870s or 1880s, either at his work or by study in the evening at a place like the Keighley Mechanics’ Institute. I think that eventually he was qualified in book-keeping at the very least if not accountancy, because by 1888 he had landed a very good job with Bradford City Council, working in the cashier’s office of the magistrates’ court. The new job financed a move to Manningham - compared to Bowling, a more pleasant and more recently built suburb - where Walter and Mary Isabella lived (I believe) until Walter’s death. On the day of the 1891 census the they were at 214 Hollings Road off Whetley Lane; in 1901 they were at 57 Leamington Street near Lister Park; and in 1911 they had moved to Athol Road, the next road north-east from Leamington Street. And it was at this time of change for the better that Walter agreed to be initiated into the GD.
In terms of the GD in Bradford, Walter Firth is almost unique: nearly every member of the Horus Temple was either a freemason (that’s especially true of the earliest members) or a member of the Theosophical Society’s Bradford Lodge. But Walter Firth was neither, so it must have been through other connections that he knew those men who in early 1888 obtained permission from William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell Mathers in London, to set up a GD offshoot. Getting to know customers who came into the cashier’s office to pay fees and fines doesn’t strike me as a likely way in. More likely is an invitation from an old school friend, a work colleague or client. I don’t know where Walter Firth went to school, or who with, and no one else in the GD in Bradford worked for the City Council but perhaps it was someone Walter had met through his job at the accountant’s firm. Another possibility is that Walter Firth was a friend - or his wife was - of one of the many TS and GD members who lived in Manningham. During the early 1890s in particular, Manningham was the centre of theosophical activity in Bradford, and it’s likely that Walter and Mary Isabella knew people who were in the TS. Perhaps they had both been asked to join, but had declined with thanks. Somebody persisted, however, and it ended with Walter Firth - though not Mary Isabella - deciding to give the GD a try.
It didn’t work out. Walter just wasn’t interested in the occult and if he is the ‘Frater Firth’ mentioned in a report sent by Annie Horniman to Samuel Liddell Mathers late in 1892, he thought study of the occult was not worthy of his best efforts. It’s a pity that Annie wasn’t a bit more specific in her report as to which Frater Firth she meant: she probably didn’t realise there were two of them. However, something Annie did tell Mathers makes me think that the ‘Frater Firth’ she was writing about was Walter, not Oliver.
The GD members in Bradford had always been an independent-minded bunch, disinclined to take orders from above, and in September 1892 Annie was sent by Westcott and Mathers, to restore rule from London. She attended the Horus Temple’s equinox meeting and was dismayed by what went on there, singling out two of its members in particular for condemnation - Frater Firth, and Frater Harrison (Frank Drake Harrison - unlike Firth, there’s only one of him so he’s easy to identify). The meeting had been a mixture of business and ritual and at the business stage Frater Firth had been asked to act as the Temple’s auditor. Oliver Firth had no accounting background that I know of, which makes it more likely that it was Walter Firth that Annie was referring to when she told Mathers how rudely Frater Firth had said that he would do no such thing. Annie was a great believer in students of the occult having the proper attitude towards those who occupied senior positions by dint of knowing more. Frater Firth’s lack of respect in declining to take care of the Temple’s accounts caused her to note his name down as a symptom of the Temple’s general lack of discipline; though of course, Walter - if it was him - may just have been expressing himself bluntly, like a stereotypical Yorkshireman. It didn’t end there, though. Annie was made very angry when Frater Firth started to speak with a lack of respect about the GD’s rituals. He refused to apologise for making clear his views - perhaps it was Annie who had asked him to - and said that he (to quote Annie’s report) “would laugh if he chose, even if turned out for doing so”. Frater Firth went further, describing the astrology he should have been studying, as “mere divination”. Walter Firth, of course, spent his working days in an atmosphere of cash and human frailty. Perhaps this had made him suspicious of those who were sure they could second-guess the future. He might have prided himself on his rationality. Annie, however, suspected Frater Firth of wanting to pick and choose which occult subjects he would deign to spend his time on; a privilege which she thought no initiate should expect.
Quite what the upshot was, of Frater Firth’s performance at the GD’s equinox meeting, isn’t absolutely clear. Ellic Howe’s account of the GD in the 1890s says he was expelled. R A Gilbert’s Golden Dawn Companion says that both Oliver and Walter Firth resigned, Oliver doing so very soon after Annie’s visit to Bradford. One way or another, Frater Firth ceased to be a GD member. Oliver Firth, an enthusiastic TS member, made speeches and wrote articles criticising magic and the GD (though not mentioning the Order by name). Walter Firth - who had done no occult study during four years in an occult organisation - probably never gave magic another thought.
By 1901 Walter and Mary Isabella’s children were growing up. Mary Ann, Archibald and Carrodus had all left school. In true middle-class fashion, Mary Ann was at home helping her mother - she wasn’t out at work. Archibald (now 18) was working in a bank. Carrodus was an office boy - a usual point of entry into administrative work, for youngsters leaving school. Carrodus may have already been working in Bradford’s cloth industry - by 1911 he had shown enough flair to have been promoted to designing worsted coatings. Nelly was at school; and the baby Sydney was only three. Mary Ann may have married in 1905; if I found the right Mary Ann (there are several Mary Ann Firths who are her contemporaries) her husband was Edward Copley. Carrodus married Annie Isabel Swift in 1908 and Archibald married Mabel Rose Hainsworth in 1910. So on the day of the 1911 census, only Nelly (now in the helping-her-mother role) and Sydney (still at school) were still with their parents at 61 Athol Road. Walter was still working in the cashier’s office, and could expect to continue doing so until he retired. Or died. I believe Walter Firth died in early 1915; aged only 54.
I haven’t been able to find out anything about Sydney Firth after his appearance on the 1911 census. Nor have I been able to identify a death registration for Mary Isabella. I think it might be Walter’s daughter Nelly who married Harold Hirst in Bradford in 1919.
It’s likely that Nelly and her sister Mary spent the rest of their lives in England. Archibald and Carrodus emigrated to the United States. Archibald, Mabel Rose and her mother arrived in the USA in 1920; in 1930 they were living in Pennsylvania. In 1942, draft papers for Archibald were issued in Manhattan despite his age - he was 49. Then he disappears from Familysearch’s records so I don’t know when or where he died. Perhaps Carrodus and Annie Isabel left for the USA in 1920 but I haven’t found any evidence for when they arrived. Carrodus died in North Carolina in 1969. I don’t know whether Walter and Mary Isabella have any descendants.
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. On p134 new recruit Walter Firth’s address is given as c/o Bradford City Council, with a note about his occupation there.
Gilbert’s 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 WALTER FIRTH - alas! Not very many.
The History and Topography of Bradford by John James. Published 1841 so only covers until then: p311-12.
Wikipedia page, which led me to Manningham: Its Historical Development to the Early Twentieth Century by K Keith, 2003 for the West Yorkshire Archaeological Advisory Service. Based on old maps, tithe and planning records.
WALTER IN THE GD
The Magicians of the GD: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923 by Ellic Howe. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1972: p111.
GBR 1991 GD 2/3/3/5 copy of a report written by Annie Horniman for Samuel Liddell Mathers 29-30 September 1892.
AFTER WALTER’S DEATH assuming 1915 to be the correct date for that (Walter Firth had several contemporaries with the same name, living in the Bradford area:
ARCHIBALD PATTERSON FIRTH
Familysearch census records for Pennsylvania 1930
Familysearch GS film number 228 3703 draft cards State of New York, borough of Manhattan, 1942 have a A Patterson Firth DOB 6 Jan 1883.
CARRODUS VERDON FIRTH
Familysearch Ref ID v38A cn38466 GS film number 198 33 95: death registration
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
11 October 2014
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: