Robert Palmer Thomas was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at its Isis-Urania temple in London on 7 November 1896. He chose the Latin motto ‘Lucem spero’. Several other people were initiated as part of the same ritual: Henry Edward Colvile and his wife Zélie, Marion Cunningham, and Sarah Rowe (known as Sissie); but I don’t think Robert knew the other initiates before that evening.
Because he was a freemason and member of Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), Robert was excused some of the study-work expected of new initiates. He worked through the rest of the required texts quickly, despite working full-time, and had the second initiation, into the 2nd or inner Order, in 1898. He was a keen member of one of the late-1890s Egyptian/Sphere Group and took an active part in the GD’s debate about them in 1901. However, he had left the Order by July 1902.
Robert’s name does not appear on any list of members of the GD’s daughter order, the Independent and Rectified Rite (IRR). However, there’s uncertainty as to how complete they are; and other evidence shows Robert was a member of IRR at least in its early years.
BEFORE WE START – A NOTE ABOUT HIS SURNAME which has made finding the right man rather difficult.
It was a typically Victorian scenario to start out with one surname and end up with two. Robert began life as Robert Palmer Thomas but by the 1890s he was preferring to be Palmer-Thomas though he couldn’t always get record-keepers to agree with him, especially offical ones. There is some excuse for him – he married someone called Palmer.
The sources I’ve found are as confused as me:
Robert listed with surname ‘t’ not ‘p’:
Times 27 November 1895 p5 Court Circular: report of Royal Geographical Society meeting with list of newly-elected fellows.
Census entries to 1901; which were completed by a government official. UGLE lodge records 1870s, 1880s.
Robert listed with surname ‘p’ not ‘t’:
The Geographical Journal 1896: p105 report of the same meeting of the RGS which was covered by the Times; the one at which Robert was elected.
Ars Quatuor Coronati volume XV 1902 and earlier: p69; endpapers p50.
Annual reports of the Order of the Temple (the knights templar) which Robert joined in 1902.
Census 1911 which Robert completed himself, as head of household.
His wife as ‘p’ - she was Palmer to start with:
Times 5 March 1929 Wills and Bequests: “Legacy to YMCA”:
Sitting on the fence:
Probate Registry 1918, entry for Robert Palmer Thomas or Palmer-Thomas; the details are at ‘t’ but with a cross-reference to ‘p’.
ROBERT IN THE OCCULT
Robert Palmer Thomas explored a range of occult approaches during his life. In all cases, his involvement was a very start/stop affair with gaps, often years long, in which he would neglect some occult organisations while being active in others.
1877 to 1909 (though with gaps): FREEMASONRY
Although he lived in London virtually all his life, Robert’s first initiation was into The Invicta Lodge 709, based in Ashford in Kent. He may have been working in the area at the time – for more on Robert’s working life, see the biographical section at the end of the file. The initiation took place in 1876; he was in his 20s at the time and that was quite a young age at which to be offered lodge membership. He paid one year’s subscription to that lodge and then let a few years go by before getting a second initiation, into Campbell Lodge 1415, in June 1880.
Campbell Lodge 1415 met at Hampton. Robert never worked there and I think he owed his introduction to it to men closer to home. An important member of 1415 in the late 19th century was James Lewis Thomas, who might have been a relation of Robert. Thomas was one of the men who signed the petition to the United Grand Lodge of England to allow 1415 to be set up; and he may have been its Worshipful Master (WM) when Robert joined – Thomas’ 12 months covered 1879-80.
If James Lewis Thomas was not the man who put Robert forward for initiation, there are two other candidates, who were neighbours of Robert and his parents in north London: the Levander brothers, Henry Charles and Frederick William, who lived at 30 North Villas Camden Square from the 1870s. It’s an odd connection on the face of it: Henry and Frederick were more Robert’s parents’ age than his own. Frederick was married but the eldest children of him and his wife Susannah were quite a lot younger than Robert. However, Frederick taught classics at University College School; perhaps that’s a clue to where Robert had his education. In addition, on the 1881 census at least, both brothers were listed as earning money from private tuition; so perhaps Robert’s parents sent him for individual lessons with them. Henry Levander died in 1885 but Frederick’s connection with Campbell Lodge 1415 continued until his death in 1916. He was the lodge’s WM twice, in 1877 and in its 21st-birthday year of 1894, and its secretary from 1883 to 1904.
Robert stayed an active member of Campbell Lodge 1415 for at least three years: in 1882-83, he was the lodge’s director of ceremonies. But then he stopped paying his yearly subscription.
After those two false starts, in 1881 Robert began a longer relationship with Mozart Lodge 1929. It met in Croydon, firstly at the Masonic Hall, and from 1885 at the Greyhound Hotel. Robert was one of 1929’s founder members and joined its Royal Arch chapter as soon as it was founded, in 1885,. He served as the lodge’s WM in 1886, and as the chapter’s Zerubbabel (I couldn’t find out which year) before being excluded from both of them in August 1887. He rejoined 1929 in 1899, and paid his subscriptions regularly over the next few years; but then resigned in December 1908, a period when he seems to have been bringing to an end quite a few of his commitments.
In 1891, on the strength of his membership of Mozart Lodge 1929, Robert was able to become a corresponding member for life, of Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076. 2076 had been founded as a forum for the study of the history and symbolism of freemasonry. It had only a small number of full members – GD founder William Wynn Westcott was one – but the number of corresponding members was huge: individuals and libraries, all over the world, who were entitled to receive 2076’s journal, Ars Quatuor Coronati. Though they could not hold office, corresponding members were welcome to attend the lodge’s meetings at the Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden, and its rare social events. 2076 held a conversazione evening on 28 November 1895 to celebrate its first ten years. It took place at the King’s Hall of the Holborn Restaurant, a popular choice for freemasons’ dinners, and Robert took his wife Frances to it. Also at that conversazione were current or future GD members Frederick Crowe, William Wynn Westcott, Frank Ellis, Charles Lloyd Tuckey, and Francis William Wright.
Robert hardly ever went to Quatuor Coronati 2076’s monthly meetings – the talks were always published in the journal, that was the whole point of it, so there was no real need to listen in person. He went to meeting in 1894, and then not again until 1902 when he attended the meetings of May and November. The November meeting was the lodge’s biggest of the year, known as the Four Crowned Martyrs, at which the officers for the next 12 months were installed. GD member Marcus Worsley Blackden, who had only been a corresponding member for a few months, also went to the May and November 1902 meetings and I presume the two men went together: they and A E Waite (also a GD member) were on the lookout for ideas for masonry-like rituals at the time (see the section below on the GD for more on that).
For most of the 1890s Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076 was Robert’s only lodge, as far as I can see. At that time he was more involved in other occult areas of enquiry including, of course, the GD; but also in some areas where you could not go without being a freemason. His signing-on again at Mozart Lodge 1929 in 1899 marked a move back into more orthodox, craft freemasonry; and in 1906 he was one of the founder member of another craft lodge, Anglo-Colonial Lodge 3175. A E Waite was another of its founders. Membership of this lodge was quite expensive: the initial subscription was set at 8 guineas a year, talked down from an original suggestion of 10 guineas. Robert must have been at the consecration ceremony, in the Mark Masons’ Hall Covent Garden in July 1906, but according to the lodge’s histories, he didn’t serve as a lodge officer. He did, however, give the lodge a piece of glass for its Inner Guard (IG) to use during rituals. Robert’ds donation was described as a stiletto, and as “a fine piece of highly tempered Venetian workmanship...of undoubted antiquity”.
Anglo-Colonial Lodge 3175 was the last craft lodge Robert joined, as far as I know. Throughout his life he kept his involvement in freemasonry at a very local level: I haven’t found any evidence that he spent time as an officer at provincial or national level. However, in his post-GD period he was initiated into the Order of the Temple – the knights templar. In order to be considered for membership, a candidates had to be a Royal Arch freemason – that is, he had to have taken the first step beyond basic craft masonry involvement. And whereas craft freemasonry only asks for a belief in God the Supreme Architect, part of the templars’ initiation ceremony requires the candidate to be a Christian, and to swear to protect and defend the Christian faith. Robert took the knights templar initiation in 1902; so did A E Waite and Marcus Worsley Blackden and that was part of a plan they were working through. The knights templar equivalent of a craft lodge is called a preceptory. Robert, Blackden and Waite all joined one set up that year, King Edward VII Preceptory 173. I think they were all founder members and by 1905 Robert had already served a year as its Preceptor, the equivalent of a craft lodge’s Worshipful Master.
Robert joined a second preceptory in 1902, Empress Preceptory 178 and again, A E Waite and Blackden joined with him. Robert had served as 178’s preceptor by 1908 and Waite was doing his 12 months as preceptor that year.
Robert, Waite and Blackden then all joined the new Sancta Maria Preceptory 183, consecrated in 1906. By 1909 another ex-GD man, Robert William Felkin, had also joined, and Waite had already served as preceptor. There is no list of 183’s founders but I think Waite, Blackden and Robert were founders. Robert may have been its first preceptor – in 1906 he prepared a set of Notes on the Order of the Temple for its members.
It was in the Order of the Temple that Robert made his only effort to serve at national level. He set his foot on the ladder of the Order’s national hierarchy by serving as its Great Chamberlain from December 1906 to December 1907. This involved attending meetings the Order’s national meetings - two a year, both held in London, in May, and in December when the new officers took up their posts. He seemed set to climb further, but instead he stepped back. Having served at that level he was entitled to attend the May and December meetings as a Past Great Chamberlain but only attended one, that of December 1908. And in 1909 he resigned from the Order altogether.
Robert’s resignation from the knights templar meant that he was no longer an active freemason.
1881-?: the occult group known as AUGUST ORDER OF LIGHT but also by names like ORIENTAL ORDER OF LIGHT. There’s a lot of confusion about this.
Most freemasons were content to leave their involvement at the level of craft masonry. However, for those who were interested, it was possible to explore the origins, mythology and symbolism of freemasonry; though it did help to make the acquaintance of the right people. By 1886, Robert was involved with some of these people, as a member of the August or Oriental Order of Light.
The AOL or OOL was launched in November 1881 by the publication of a document containing its rules and rituals by the Order’s founder and Grand Hierophant, Maurice Vidal Portman. The document was not all Portman’s own work: in a letter written in 1886, Portman said that the AOL’s ritual had been “entirely drawn up by Palmer-Thomas” (and note the use of the hyphenated surname; an early instance of this). Later, Portman explained that he had had the help of western occultists in setting up the AOL; I presume that Robert was one of them.
Portman announced the AOL in England during a period of leave. When he returned to work, as an officer in the Royal Navy, stationed at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, he left control of his new Order in the hands of antiquarian and iconoclast of freemasonry John Yarker, almost certainly another person Portman had taken advice from. It’s not clear from the documents that have survived, whether the AOL ever held any meetings, how long it could be said to have been in existence, or exactly what aspects of occult knowledge it focused on. In his letter of 1886 Portman said that – despite his knowledge of Indian occult orders – he and his collaborators had used only western occult sources; other information I’ve seen suggests AOL’s focus was the Kabbala – something the GD also featured. The AOL was still functioning on some level in 1886. In May of that year John Yarker wrote to his fellow-antiquarian Francis George Irwin suggesting a new direction for the AOL to take, in which it would concentrate on divination using tarot, western (that is, not Indian) astrology and other similar techniques; and would perhaps even allow non-freemasons to be members. I take it that Irwin, as well as Yarker, was a member of the AOL; otherwise Yarker shouldn’t have been asking Irwin’s opinion on it. Also a member of AOL by May 1886 was future GD member, Rev William Alexander Ayton.
If AOL ever got organised enough to have administrative records, none seem to have survived. Robert must have at least heard of Yarker and Irwin and perhaps even Rev Ayton as fellow members of it; though if AOL didn’t hold meetings he might not have met them personally. Yarker and Irwin were members of quite a few orders on the fringes of freemasonry and beyond, but I didn’t find any evidence that Robert was involved in any except AOL.
1877-?; and then 1895-?1902 or 1903: SOCIETAS ROSICRUCIANA IN ANGLIA (SRIA)
A great many craft freemasons looked askance at such orders as the AOL/OOL. A more orthodox move from craft freemasonry into its occult fringes was provided by SRIA. This was an organisation set up by F G Irwin’s friend Robert Wentworth Little in 1866 to study the connections between freemasonry and the Rosicrucian (or Rosy Cross) myths. It was organised in colleges rather than lodges and was more about the theory of the subject than the practice. GD founder William Wynn Westcott was an important figure in SRIA and one of the objects he had in setting up the GD was to develop rituals based on Rosicrucian ideas, and to do some practical magic rather than just reading about it.
James Lewis Thomas and Henry Levander of Campbell Lodge 1415 were important figures in SRIA in its early years, but Robert’s route into SRIA didn’t come directly through either of them. On 17 December 1877 Robert went to a meeting organised to discuss the founding of a new SRIA college, which would have been its second in London. The meeting was not restricted to men who were already in SRIA and when nothing came of the proposed new college, SRIA’s Metropolitan College decided to do something for the non-members who had taken the trouble to go to the December 1877 meeting. At its meeting of 3 April 1879, the Metropolitan College officially admitted them all, without the need for a ballot on each of them. Robert attended his first Metropolitan College meeting on 9 October 1879. Future GD members Eugène Thiellay, Robert Roy and John Collinson had all been elected to the College recently; Thiellay and Collinson were already active members and Robert could have met them at that meeting.
The information on the meeting of 12 December 1877 and what happened afterwards appeared in the Rosicrucian and Masonic Record, a magazine published intermittently between 1875 and 1879. Then there’s a gap with no SRIA records, until the Metropolitan College’s first issue of its Transactions, in 1885. Each issue of the Transactions listed the SRIA’s current membership but Robert’s name does not appear in any of them until he was elected a member of the SRIA Metropolitan College at its meeting of 10 January 1895. There’s no reference to his having been a member before, so I think he had dropped out of SRIA quite soon after 1879.
The Metropolitan College held regular meetings, with (during Robert’s time in it) the one in April regarded as obligatory, as it was the one at which the officers for the next 12 months took up their posts. Robert rarely went to more than one meeting a year, not necessarily the April one; and only once did he send apologies for absence. However, there was a short period when he went to meetings quite often – 1897 and 1898, during the time in which Robert was preparing for his second GD initiation.
A talk was given by an SRIA member at most meetings, with discussion of his subject afterwards; Robert didn’t give any talks during the two periods in which he was a member.
In 1899 and despite continuing to miss most meetings, Robert put his foot on the lowest rung of the College’s ladder of hierarchy, by serving as herald for the next 12 months. In 1900 he took the next step up and became torch bearer for the year; GD members John Hugh Armstrong Elliot and George Frederick Rogers were slightly further up the ladder as 3rd Ancient and 5th Ancient. During 1901 Robert was 7th Ancient. He attended the obligatory meeting of 10 April 1902 and was named 5th Ancient for the coming 12 months; all the officials took two steps up that year rather than one, as one man on the ladder had dropped out. He had a second purpose in going to that meeting however – he helped elect GD members A E Waite and Marcus Worsley Blackden as new members of SRIA, which again was part of a plan made by the three of them.
Getting Waite and Blackden into the SRIA in 1902 was the last action Robert took as a member. From then on he is not mentioned in the Transactions. He disappears from the lists of College officers and did not attend any more meetings. It’s not possible to tell from the Transactions whether he was still paying his annual subscriptions. I suppose he wasn’t.
Membership records of the United Grand Lodge of England to 1921; now on Ancestry.
Campbell Lodge 1415:
At FML GBR 1991 P 10/17/39 is a carte de visite of William Robert Woodman, photographed c 1875. Woodman was one of the founder members of of Campbell Lodge 1415 in 1872; but resigned from it in 1874. Around the time Robert joined the SRIA, Woodman became its most senior official.
The Campbell Lodge 1415 1873-1973 by A G Myhill and H Hughes: on pp2-3 a photocopy of the original petition with its list of petitioners including Woodman; and James Lewis Thomas (died 1904) described as a surveyor employed by the War Office; resident of Gloucester Street. On p4 Hampton’s two stations in the 1870s are mentioned; neither was on the South Eastern Railway. On p9 the importance of F W Levander. There was no mention of Robert in the book’s account of the lodge to World War 1 and (p20) he was never the lodge’s WM; but on p23 he is in its list of directors of ceremonies.
At the FML there’s an account of Frederick William Levander’s life, in the catalogue entry for his cabinet photograph, one of a set taken for Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076. Like Robert, Frederick Levander was a corresponding member of 2076 for many years. Unlike Robert, he was elected a full member, in 1912, and was its WM in 1916. He was a keen astronomer, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and secretary of the British Astronomical Association.
Historical Notes on the Mozart Lodge number 1929 Province of Surrey prepared for its 100th anniversary by J E Godfrey Harwood,. Printed by Arthur W Clowes Ltd of Macclesfield. Harwood was able to use the lodge Minute Books when preparing the book: p2, p4, p5; inside back cover. The book didn’t list and give dates for the zerubbabels of its chapter, unfortunately.
Robert donated to the Freemasons’ Library the jewel he’d been given as one of the founders of Mozart Lodge 1929; it’s still in the FML collection.
Ars Quatuor Coronati volume VII 1894 p143.
Ars Quatuor Coronati 2076 volume VIII 1895 p1; [p42] of unnumbered pages at the back listing the corresponding members.
Ars Quatuor Coronati 2076 volume XV 1902: p69, p177; and p22, p58 corresponding members’ list.
Ars Quatuor Coronati volume XXIII 1910 p63.
still printed Margate but now by W J Parrett Ltd; eds W H Rylands and W J Songhurst. A/cs of
The First Twenty-One Years of the Anglo-Colonial Lodge number 3175 compiled by T J Oldland, J H Hack and H Corp: p3, p19, p32, p35.
Anglo-Colonial Lodge 3175: To Commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Lodge. No author. Undated but must be 1956: p5, p7 for the Venetian glass, p11, p19.
Order of the Temple:
On candidates’ requirements: wikipedia and Liber Ordinis Templi issued by Great Priory of England and Wales 1905. 1906-10 p20.
Liber Ordinis Templi issued by Great Priory of England and Wales 1905. 1900-05:
- p162 founding of King Edward VII Preceptory 173: permission given meeting of 9 May 1902
- p659 in list of current members: Robert Palmer-Thomas (sic)
- p715 in list of current preceptories: King Edward VII 173; it meets at the Mark Masons’ Hall Covent Garden. Robert, A E Waite and Marcus Worsley Blackden are all members, all having joined in 1902.
Liber Ordinis Templi issued by Great Priory of England and Wales 1910. 1906-10.
- p20 account of meeting of December 1905: permission granted to set up Sancta Maria Preceptory 183
- p533 in list of current members
- p589 in list of current preceptories: Empress 178; it meets at the Mark Masons’ Hall and A E Waite is preceptor 1908; Robert is a past preceptor
- p704 in the list of Order members at December 1909: no entry for Robert Palmer-Thomas
- p679 for Blackden, in 173 and 183; p705 for A E Waite in 173, 178, 183. They are both still members at December 1909.
- p764 in list of current preceptories: Sancta Maria 183.
Robert as Great Chamberlain:
- p143, p279, p443.
Robert’s resignation: piv just confirming he was not expelled from the Order.
Robert’s resignation: Ordo Templi – List of Great Officers 1846-1915 compiled by W Tinkler, in which Robert is listed under ‘t’, and not ‘p’ as he is in the annual reports: p45. On p46 A E Waite had been an officer at national level: First Great Captain of Guards 1912.
The FML has two copies of Robert’s Notes on the Order of the Temple. Addressed to the Members of the Sancta Maria Preceptory  by R Palmer-Thomas. London: 1906.
AUGUST or ORIENTAL ORDER OF LIGHT
There’s a wiki on Maurice Vidal Portman (1860-1935). It states that he was on sick leave from December 1880 to December 1883.
Masonic Curiosities compiled by Yasha Beresiner, edited by Tony Pope. Published Melbourne: Australian and NZ Masonic Research Council 2000: p190.
Freemasons’ Library Irwin Letters Collection call number 4/8/22: letter John Yarker to Francis George Irwin 16 May 1886
Robert Palmer Thomas’ involvement:
FML GD collection call number GD 2/5/4/1: letter M V Portman 22 January 1886 at Port Blair Andaman Islands; to Rev William Alexander Ayton. Portman was replying to two letters from Ayton in which Ayton was trying to find out something about the order he knew as the “Oriental Order of Light” and perhaps – though Ayton was not much given to being this cautious – to check out its credentials. For more information on Ayton, see my biography of him.
Encyclopaedia of Occultism and Parapsychology by Lewis Spence; google is using the 2003 edition but I spotted one from 1920: on p70 Order of Light Spence says that the AOL focused on the Kabbala.
SOCIETAS ROSICRUCIANA IN ANGLIA
The Rosicrucian and Masonic Record in which Robert appears as ‘thomas’. New Series volume 1 issue of 1 January 1876 p97 for H C Levander and James L Thomas in the SRIA. NS volume 1 issue of October 1879 p133 report of the Metropolitan College meeting of 9 October 1879; William Stainton Moses also went to that meeting as his first in SRIA; he too had been at the meeting of December 1877. NS volume 2 issue of April 1879 p45 for Thiellay, Robert Roy and John Collinson. Robert and John Collinson had something in common: Collinson worked for the Great Northern Railway. On p46 an explanation of how Robert, Stainton Moses and the other non-SRIA members who had been at the meeting of December 1877 were now in the SRIA’s Metropolitan College. Their seniority date was 9 January 1879.
The post-1885 Transactions volumes, in which Robert always appears as Robert Palmer-Thomas:
Transactions of Societas Rosicruciana Metropolitan College 1893-94 p5 his election; actually in 1895 at the meeting of 10 January. And p5 at the meeting of 10 October 1895.
Transactions… 1896-97 p5 Robert at the meetings of 14 January and 14 October 1897.
Transactions… 1897-98 p1 listing of members; now at 8th Grade.
Transactions… 1898-99 p6 he’s at the meeting of 12 January 1898; p1 for the first time Robert attends the April meeting seen as obligatory for all members: 14 April 1898; p3 he’s at the meeting of 14 July 1898;
Transactions… 1899-1900: p1 he’s at the obligatory meeting of 13 April 1899 where he gets elected herald for the coming 12 months; the first step up the Metropolitan College’s hierarchy. He still doesn’t go to many meetings.
At this point the Transactions go from starting in April to starting in January.
Transactions... 1900: p3 Robert is torch-bearer for the coming 12 months; however, p5 the only meeting he attends during that time is that of 12 July 1900; p7 shows that during 1900 he had 5th grade status conferred on him; no reason was given for the promotion but it probably had something to do with his now being in GD’s 2nd Order.
Transactions… 1901 p1 Robert is amongst those sending apologies for missing the meeting of 10 January 1901. However, he does attend the obligatory meeting, 11 April 1901, when he is confirmed as 7th Ancient for the coming 12 months.
Transactions… 1902 p2.
Transactions… 1904 and onwards: Robert has dropped out of the SRIA hierarchy and no longer goes to any meetings.
End freemasonry sources.
1880, 1894, 1897: SPIRITUALISM
Researching people’s interest in spiritualism is a tricky business. Most séances were local, private affairs with a neighbour or family member as medium, and no record of them ever existed except in the minds of the people who went to them. In addition, though the British National Association of Spiritualists (BNAS) and its descendant the London Spiritualist Alliance (LSA) did organise a regular programme of events in London and publicise some held elsewhere, there was no one over-arching British membership organisation. The sources I’ve used are the main spiritualist newspapers – The Spiritualist; and Light. I read through The Spiritualist in the 1880s, and Light in the 1880s and 1890s to see if I could spot my GD members either going to meetings; writing articles; attending seances with the well-known or professional mediums; or commenting on articles by letter. Robert never had an article or letter published either under his own name or using his GD motto. His name appears three times between 1880 and 1897; once seeking election to office; twice attending a particular kind of talk.
Robert’s 1880 appearance was in The Spiritualist in spring 1880, after a rowdy meeting at which the BNAS had agreed to reduce the size of its ruling Council. Elections to the smaller council were held in June. Only current members of BNAS were eligible to stand in them. 91 out of the 300 members did stand and Robert was one of them, so at least in 1880 he was a member. Future GD member Isabel de Steiger also stood – there was no bar on women participating in the BNAS’s decision-making. Isabel was well-known in spiritualist circles: she had been going to BNAS meetings for several years and had given several talks. The talks had been printed in The Spiritualist and Isabel regularly had letters published in it too. Isabel was elected; Robert was not and perhaps that was because the members didn’t know him.
The next months saw some very unsavoury goings-on at the new, smaller BNAS Council: the ousting of its secretary, Miss Burke, by a faction headed by Rev Stainton Moses and spiritualist artist Georgiana Houghton. If Robert had been elected to the Council he might have been able to prevent Miss Burke being manoeuvered out; but the anti-Burke faction were very determined and not very scrupulous. Many BNAS members resigned over the issue and Isabel resigned from the Council though not from the Association. Robert was not listed as having resigned, but he was one of a group that tried to help Miss Burke, who lost her home as well as her job – she had been living in rooms at BNAS headquarters. A concert was held at the Dilettante Rooms, 7 Argyll Street on 10 January 1881 with the proceeds going to Miss Burke. Robert collected the money and issued the tickets.
Within a year or two of the furore over Miss Burke the BNAS was wound up. The LSA was formed by some of the BNAS’s ex-members. It did much of what the BNAS had done – it held meetings with speakers, questions and time to socialise afterwards; and generally defended spiritualism against the many individuals and organisations that attacked it. A group within the LSA formed the Eclectic Publishing Company and started the magazine Light, which was still being published in 2018. If Robert continued to be involved in spiritualism in the 1880s and early 1890s it was at the same level as before 1880: he was not a shareholder in the firm that published Light; he was not mentioned again in The Spiritualist before it ceased publication in the mid-1880s; and he wasn’t mentioned in Light until 1894. On 27 September 1894 the LSA held a conversazione at its usual meeting-place, the Banqueting Hall of the St James’s Hall rooms just off Piccadilly. This was a bigger occasion than the normal monthly meeting, as the speaker was W F Barrett, professor of experimental physics at the Royal College of Science in Ireland, and his subject was Science and Spiritualism. Robert went to hear Professor Barrett’s talk and might have been introduced afterwards to several GD members (though ideally, of course, he wouldn’t have known they were GD members). The traveller and spiritualist author Emily Katharine Bates, and the three Wright siblings Henry, Margaret and Charlotte, were all at the talk. A E Waite and his wife Ada Alice were also there and perhaps Robert had gone with them to the meeting.
The only other time that Robert went to a meeting of the LSA in the late 1890s was to hear the views of another scientist: on 29 March 1897 he went to a talk by Professor Oliver Lodge, a convinced spiritualist himself, on The Attitude of Scientific Men to Psychical Investigation in General and to the Spiritualist Hypothesis in Particular. Robert was now a GD member. There was a big audience for the talk but only one other GD member was listed as having gone to it: Charles Lloyd Tuckey, a qualified doctor who used hypnosis to treat people with addictions.
Because of changes in the GD I didn’t look at Light beyond 1900 but I didn’t see Robert’s name again in any of the issues between 1897 and 1900.
Sources for SPIRITUALISM
The Spiritualist volume 16 1880: p245 issue of 21 May 1880; p234 issue of 18 June 1880; p297 issue of 17 December 1880; p306 issue of 24 December 1880.
Light: A Journal of Psychical, Occult and Mystical Research. Published London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi.
1894: Volume 14 1894 p470 issue of Sat 6 October 1894.
1897: Volume 17 1897 p162 issue of Sat 3 April 1897.
End spiritualism sources.
1878 to ?; then 1898 to 1904: THEOSOPHY
A note on his entry in the Theosophical Society membership registers records that Robert was one of the TS’s earliest members in England, admitted into it by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (in person) in 1878. Like freemasonry, theosophy was organised into locally-focused lodges and Robert must have been a member of London Lodge then, because it was – for a few years at least – the only one that existed. Future GD member Isabel de Steiger was a member of it and Robert will also have known fellow members C C Massey and Dr George Wyld, both frequent contributors to the magazine Light. The record of Robert’s early membership says that later – I presume that means the early 1880s – he acted as secretary of the British branch of the TS. In May 1887 Blavatsky took up residence in north London and the Blavatsky Lodge was founded; another note on Robert’s membership record indicates he was a member of Blavatsky Lodge for a time.
Then, though, Robert must have dropped out of theosophy; perhaps he left after Blavatsky’s death in 1891. He was gone for quite a while. His official entry in the TS membership registers records him joining (presumably for the second time) London Lodge “about 3 years ago, 22 August 1898"; just after his initiation into the GD’s 2nd Order. There’s only the one address for correspondence on Robert’s entry in the membership records: the Notting Hill house he’d probably lived in only since around 1890. He paid his annual subscription from 1898 for five years, until he resigned in April 1904.
Source: THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY
Theosophical Society Membership Register June 1898-February 1901 p23 with notes on his early membership in the ‘Remarks’ column.
End sources TS.
ROBERT AND THE GOLDEN DAWN
Robert’s initiation into the GD came several months after he joined SRIA for the second time, and was probably made possible by William Wynn Westcott, SRIA’s most senior figure. Joining the GD led Robert to drop back into occult organisations he’d dropped out of years before: between 1897 and 1899 he rejoined the TS and Mozart Lodge 1929.
The GD Collection at the Freemasons’ Library has several notebooks in which various GD members made entries that were probably part of their study-work. One contains notes thought to be written by Robert, on some of the Flying Rolls; the Flying Rolls were texts on particular occult themes issued by the GD for new initiates. With his wide – though not necessarily deep – experience of the occult he would have found them easier going than most people new to the GD.
Robert’s initiation into the GD’s inner 2nd Order in 1898 was timely: it enabled him to join the group within the 2nd Order that was being formed by Florence Farr to study the magic of Ancient Egypt – the group originally called the Egyptian Group, but best known as the Sphere Group.
According to Group member Robert Felkin’s contemporary account of it, there were 12 ‘mortal’ members in the Sphere Group, plus members from the astral and other planes. The group did meet at the 2nd Order’s rooms a couple of times but according to Felkin, actual face-to-face meetings weren’t really needed. The members could all do their practice in their own home, though it does seem that they all had to do it at the agreed time of Sundays at noon. Each member had their own globe and concentrated their minds to project particular images onto it; in the middle of the sphere was a “certain Egyptian astral form”. Each of the 12 mortal group members had one station assigned to them around the sphere. In 1901 Florence decided to retire the Egyptian astral form and replace it with a simple sphere; but the actual practice was the same after the change as before.
The practice took one hour and began with each member of the group focusing their mind on the members of the group. Then their thoughts would gradually reach further out into the cosmos – planet, stars - before drawing in again. The psychic energies thus raised were to be concentrated on spiritual growth and purification.
Perhaps the Egyptian/Sphere Group was what Robert had been searching for and not finding in his forays beyond freemasonry and into spiritualism and theosophy. He – like most of the other members of the Group – was so enthusiastic about it that it became his main reason for staying in the GD through some trying times. I think the Egyptian Group was what he wanted to talk about when he invited A E Waite to dinner, probably in 1898 or 1899 (for more on this and the problems with it, see my section on Waite and Robert below). And when the very existence of the Group and others like it within the GD came under attack in 1901, he leapt vigorously to their defence – too vigorously, it turned out.
Robert took no part in the events of February to April 1900 which ended in GD founder Samuel Liddell Mathers and others being expelled from the GD and the return of Annie Horniman to the Order, three years after Mathers had expelled her. To replace the one-person rule of Mathers, a Council was formed, led by Florence Farr, to administer the GD’s Isis-Urania temple. W B Yeats was appointed the temple’s Imperator; and he made Robert his vice-Imperator.
Annie Horniman became the GD Council’s scribe. She soon found out about the existence of the groups like the Egyptian Group, and condemned them on the grounds that they broke the general rules of occult societies, and the specific rules of the GD. Yeats had spent most of the last few years in Ireland. He didn’t know about the new groups until 1900 either, and he also was against them. However, most of the London-based members of the 2nd Order were in one or other of them and they wanted them to continue. A meeting was held on 1 February 1901 to discuss the matter of the groups; and another contentious issue - Annie’s new proposals for secret ballots for Council posts. The case for keeping the new groups was led by Robert, who also gave Annie a very rough ride when asking her for more information on her secret ballot ideas. Neither side gave any ground, so a second attempt to reach agreement was scheduled for 26 February1901
In between the two meetings, Yeats expelled Robert from the GD. Before he went, Robert made one last effort to save groups like the Egyptian Group from being outlawed. As Lucem spero and acting on behalf of the majority of the GD’s Council, he typed a four-page Statement of the case for the groups. It put in writing their supporters’ belief that they had been given permission to exist in a note entered on 1 April 1897 in the GD Minute Book. The Statement went on to say that the members of the groups permitted by that note preferred “to exalt the expert at the expense of the senior”; and that they would not be “controlled...by seniors simply because they have passed examinations”. At the end of the Statement Robert typed a separate page headed “To Sum Up” in which he and the other signatories of the document announced that if the new groups were not allowed to continue, they would resign.
Robert did not attend the meeting of 2nd Order members held on 26 February 1901. During that meeting, Yeats’ decision was overturned and Robert was reinstated as a GD member. Those present also recorded in the minutes of the meeting their sympathy for the way Yeats had treated him. On the subject of groups like the Egyptian Group, a compromise Robert would have been angry about was reached: they were allowed to continue but under such restrictions as to make them almost impossible to run. Fallout from the two meetings continued to sour relationships within the GD for the next two years. Annie Horniman complained to the Council that Robert had, amongst other things, called her dishonest; and that Florence Farr – supposedly in charge of the meeting – had allowed him to do so. In July 1902 a meeting of the 2nd Order was held to investigate Annie’s complaints. It ended with them all being dismissed. It was held in the absence of Annie, Florence and Robert, all now ex-members of the GD. The resignation of Florence Farr from the GD ended the Egyptian/Sphere Group.
It was in the wake of his expulsion from the GD that Robert was initiated into the knights templar – the Order of the Temple; perhaps this new involvement was why he didn’t bother to fight Yeats’ decision. A E Waite GD member Marcus Worsley Blackden also joined the knights templar, in what was the start of their plan to take over of the GD and refocus its rituals to be more like those of freemasonry. Blackden had been another member of the Egyptian/Sphere Group. Waite and Blackden were not the only people planning big changes to the GD but their plan was more organised than most. Probably as part of the plan, in September 1901 they had both become freemasons for the first time, joining Runymede Lodge 2430, to which they had been introduced by GD member William Forsell Kirby. Membership of that craft lodge gave both men some understanding of basic craft masonry. At some point during 1902 the two plotters asked Robert to join them and he did so.
A meeting of all three men together was held at Robert’s house in December 1902, to plan the next few months. By April 1903 they were working on a new constitution for the GD, preparing to launch it at the GD’s main meeting of the year, the Whitsun one. They were also sounding out 2nd Order members to vote for it at that meeting. The meeting did not end with the acceptance of their ideas; instead it ended with the GD forming two camps. Those who agreed with Robert, Waite, Blackden and issued a manifesto in July 1903 for what became the Independent and Rectified Rite. The IRR’s members held their first ritual as a new order on 7 November 1903. A number of GD members who disagreed with them, led by Robert William Felkin, initially thought of themselves as staying in the GD. Eventually they named their group Stella Matutina (SM). And many others, of course, just gave up on magical orders altogether.
Fourteen people signed the IRR’s manifesto; but Robert wasn’t one of them. Nor is he named in a list of 15 GD members who joined the new order between July 1903 and its first ritual. Yet he must have been in the IRR early in 1906. In March 1906 Robert was taking an active role in the ongoing negotiations between IRR and Stella Matutina, as the two groups struggled to find a way to co-exist. On 20 March 1906 the two roberts – Felkin and Palmer Thomas – met so that Palmer Thomas could hand Felkin a draft Concordat, a basis for future relations between IRR and SM. On the following day, Felkin typed a careful letter which, he hoped, would nip certain proposals in the bud without being too confrontational. He asked Palmer Thomas to go back to his “friends” for further discussion, particularly on the proposed Concordat’s clause 6, which assumed that IRR and SM would operate completely independently of each other. Felkin could see that the clause would – if left unchanged – prevent him continuing to do magic with John William Brodie-Innes, one of his oldest collaborators and a personal friend since the 1880s in Edinburgh.
That letter of Felkin’s is the latest evidence of Robert Palmer Thomas’ involvement in the daughter orders of the GD. At the time of the Concordat and letter he was very committed to the Order of the Temple – the knights templar. He was a member of two of its preceptories; and a founder-member (probably with Waite and Blackden) of a third, due to be consecrated in a month or two. He was probably also already planning to seek national office. How long he continued to be a member of IRR is unknown. The Order continued until Waite closed it down in 1914. Blackden had not been an active member for several years by then and Waite was able to do the closing-down without apparent comment from Robert either, so I presume that by 1914 Robert was no longer going to its meetings and rituals.
I hope I’ve managed to show that Robert Palmer Thomas had an interest in the occult from the late 1870s to around 1908/1909; and that his period in the GD (1896-1901) came at the time in his life when his interest was most concentrated. Though I don’t know exactly when he left the IRR, it seems likely that it was in 1908 or 1909, as he was stepping back from so many other occult commitments at that time. He could still have been an active occultist and spiritualist afterwards, of course; but only as a private enquirer.
Sources: GD AND AFTER
In the Freemasons’ Library’s GD Collection:
GBR 1991 2/1/22: a notebook some of which has been dated at 1898, with entries in a variety of handwriting; some of the writers are as yet unidentified. Lucem spero is thought to have written the section on the Flying Rolls.
GBR 1991 GD 2/4/6/1: Statement… with a typed signature ‘Lucem spero’ and probably typed by Robert. Four pages of typescript plus an extra half a page. Not dated, but probably prepared shortly before the 2nd Order meeting of 26 February 1901.
GBR 1991 GD 2/4/6/2a-c – signed minutes of the meeting of GD’s 2nd O held 11 July 1902.
The Egyptian/Sphere Group:
Cauda Pavonis was the newsletter/journal of the Hermetic Text Society., published by the Department of English, Washington State University at Pullman; though it is not being issued any longer. At www.alchemywebsite.com/cauda.html there is a list of articles published in it, beginning 1982. Volumes 11-16 1992 pp7-12 article by Sharon E Cogdill on Florence Farr’s Sphere Group
Collected Letters of W B Yeats Volume III 1901-04 p32 note 4 and p33.
Both sources give the same list of members, based on Felkin’s notes, though the editors of the Yeats letters suggest Reena Fulham Hughes may also have been a member: Florence Farr; Robert Felkin; Ada Waters; Cecilia Macrae; Marcus Worsley Blackden; Helen Rand; Florence Kennedy; Henrietta Paget; Robert Palmer Thomas; Edmund Hunter; Dorothea Hunter; Fanny Hunter.
The arguments about groups like the Sphere Group, and Annie’s plans for secret ballots:
George Mills Harper’s Yeats’s Golden Dawn published USA: Harpers and Row Publishers Inc 1974. Of course, it is an account from Yeats and Annie Horniman’s side of the argument. Essentially the sources are ibid but the meeting of 1 February 1901 is covered in pp37-42; p68 for Robert’s reinstatement; and Lucem spero’s Statement is reproduced beginning p59.
Florence Farr changed the name of the Egyptian Group to Sphere Group during 1901; so Robert won’t have known it as the Sphere Group while he was a member.
After the GD:
Planning the IRR: seen online, Ars Quatuor Coronati 1986, the transactions of the Quatuor Coronait Lodge 2076 1986. Article by R A Gilbert: The Masonic Career of A E Waite. Sources include Waites long diary for 1902-03 and diaries 1909-42.
GBR 1991 4/4/1 is a series of comments by members of Stella Matutina, on the Concordat Robert Palmer Thomas handed to Robert William Felkin. Felkin’s letter is 4/4/1/1. It doesn’t have Felkin’s name typed on it – he signed it by hand – but he typed his address in the top right hand corner: 12 Oxford Gardens.
End sources GD.
ROBERT and A E WAITE
I thought I’d just mention here that A E Waite’s forenames – hardly ever seen – are Arthur Edward. However, I imagine the two men called each other by their surnames. I think Arthur called Robert ‘Thomas’ rather than ‘Palmer-Thomas’; that’s how he is in Waite’s memoirs.
Because most GD members left no private papers or published works at all, investigating the relationships between them can be difficult. I’ve had to read between the lines of minutes of meetings and lists of who was at which social event; and in many cases I’ve probably misjudged relationships entirely. But it’s been fun!
In the case of A E Waite and the people he particularly knew, there’s a memoir; but it hasn’t been much help. It is in the nature of memoirs to exaggerate the writer’s part in anything, to the detriment of all others involved. A E Waite was writing his account of his life in the occult 40 years or more after many of the events in it; and after a lifetime of denigrating the occult involvement – practical or intellectual – of any occultist other than himself.
Three problems in Waite’s memoirs with regard to Robert:
- Waite got the sequence of events all wrong in the one section in which Robert is mentioned in connection with the GD
- Waite wrote that it was Robert who arranged for him and Marcus Worsley Blackden to be initiated as freemasons in Runymede Lodge 2430; Robert was never a member of that lodge
- Waite he left Robert out completely from the account of the events in 1902/1903 that led to the formation of the Independent and Rectified Rite.
That said, and taking Waite’s memoir with a large pinch of salt, the acquaintanceship – I don’t think I’d call it a friendship – seems to follow Robert’s pattern within the occult as a whole: there were periods when the two men saw each other quite often, followed by periods – longer periods, I’d say - when they had no contact whatsoever.
Trusting Waite’s memoir for once, he and Robert must have known each other by the early 1880s, because one of the fallow periods in their acquaintanceship ended in 1887 when Waite got in touch with Robert while he was working on his The Real History of the Rosicrucians. It was during another fallow period – Waite thought it lasted about three years and ended in 1896, but I think it was probably rather longer and ended later – that Robert joined the GD. According to Waite, it was Robert who ended the fallow period that time, sending Waite a note. As Waite’s memoirs describe it, Robert was already GD member and was inviting him to dinner so that he could communicate his excitement over what was going on in the Order and recommend Waite to join it.
Waite’s own relationship with the GD was a chequered one, and the GD records don’t bear out his memories of it. When the GD was set up in 1888 Waite was already known as an occultist, and you would have thought him an obvious candidate for membership. But his book on the Rosicrucians had quoted from the SRIA’s rules without permission; and as a non-member and non-freemason he shouldn’t have been looking at them anyway. I wonder if he was lent the copy he saw by Robert? The SRIA had demanded and received an apology from him but I’m surprised Waite was let into the GD at all. However, he and his wife were both initiated in January 1891. Ada Alice Waite dropped out almost at once and, either unimpressed or short of money, Waite didn’t pay his yearly subscriptions and was deemed to have left the Order in 1893. Late in 1895 or early in 1896 he asked to get back in again and was readmitted, after a ballot on the issue, in February 1896 – a few months before Robert joined.
So Waite’s memories of the resumption of the acquaintanceship in the mid- or late-1890s can’t be right. I daresay he was right in general, though, about going to dinner with the Thomases, and Robert’s excitement. He also mentioned that Robert had a room in his house given over entirely to his occult work. I think I can trust that memory too; after dinner with Robert and his wife, I expect Robert and Waite sat in Robert’s occult room while they chatted about the GD.
Perhaps Robert was excited not about the GD in general, but about the Egyptian/Sphere Group in particular, and that was what he was suggesting Waite try and join. If the dinner invitation came in 1898, Waite was not eligible for the Egyptian Group. He was not in the 2nd Order, and was in no hurry to get there; three years passed between him rejoining the GD and his second initiation in March 1899, by which time the Egyptian Group had been going for several months and no new members were wanted.
Robert’s dinner invitation did restart the acquaintanceship and over the next few years he and Waite and their mutual acquaintance Marcus Worsley Blackden acted as a group of three in the GD as they plotted a downfall that didn’t quite work out; and in the knights templar where they joined several of the same preceptories. Then Robert seems to have dropped out of the acquaintanceship; and Waite duly more or less forgot him.
Sources ROBERT and WAITE:
Transactions...of SRIA 1887 p8. The full text of Waite’s The Real History of the Rosicrucians is at www.sacred-texts.com including the title page: published George Redway 1887.
The unreliable memoir:
Shadows of Life and Thought: A Retrospective Review in the Form of Memoirs by Arthur Edward Waite. London: Selwyn & Blount of Paternoster House EC4 1938: pp159-162. On p162 Waite actually names Robert as the man who arranged for him and Blackden to get their first initiations as freemasons. He seems to have forgotten William Forsell Kirby was the only GD member of Runymede Lodge 2430.
Waite’s initiations into the GD: RAG p146.
Runymede Lodge 2430: Seen online, Ars Quatuor Coronati Transactions of 2076 1986. Article by R A Gilbert: The Masonic Career of A E Waite. Sources include Waite’s long diary for 1902-03 and diaries 1909-42.
End sources Robert and A E Waite.
FINALLY, ABOUT LEISURE TIME: A SOCIETY AND A CLUB
Robert’s spare time was mostly taken up with whichever occult line of enquiry most occupied him at the time, but I did find one other organisation that he was a member of, and one club.
In November 1895, Robert was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. I couldn’t find any obvious reason why the RGS should make him a member. Zélie Colvile – initiated into the GD on the same evening as Robert – was elected, as many were, after undertaking a journey to far-off lands and publishing a book about it. I haven’t found any evidence of Robert as a great traveller; as he was working, he won’t have had more time to travel than his employer allowed for holidays, and so won’t have been able to go far. There are also no travel books with him as author; I suppose he could have published one anonymously, but it seems very unlikely.
I don’t know how long Robert remained a Fellow of RGS. In 1896 he used his membership of it to join a gentleman’s club founded for members of learned societies: the Royal Societies Club, which existed from 1894 to 1941 in St James’s Street. Siegfried Sasson became a member in 1908 and was soon bored and embarrassed by what he called the Old Nonentities Club. Its dining-room, photographed in 1896, looks pretty swish though! And Sassoon did admit that the club’s Library was good.
FRGS for which there’s a lack of them: as I’m not a member of RGS myself I can’t get at their membership records, or more than the odd one or two of their annual reports.
Times 27 November 1895 p5 Court Circular: report of RGS meeting with list of newly-elected fellows.
Via archive.org to The Geographical Journal 1896: p105 report of meeting of RGS held 25 November 1895. Amongst those elected Fellows at that meeting was Robert Palmer-Thomas. Some of those elected had an indication by their name of why they might be deemed suitable members; Robert didn’t.
Royal Societies Club.
At www.british-genealogy.com an entry says its address was St James’s Street.
The Club issued several booklets with its rules, history and members; I saw two on the web, from 1915 and 1925: The Royal Societies Club founded 1894. The one at //wellcomelibrary.org was searchable and was the 1915 edition. In the Club’s list of members p123 Robert is amongst the ‘p’ group: Robert Palmer-Thomas.
At viewfinder.english-heritage.org a photo taken May 1896 of its dining room, classical decoration and very high ceilings. Reference BL 13583, Historic England Collection.
Sassoon’s jaundiced view of the club: Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870-1918 by Philip Waller: p495.
End sources leisure.
ROBERT PALMER THOMAS: THE REST OF HIS LIFE
Robert’s father, Arthur Ralph Green Thomas, was a Church of England clergyman. He worked in parishes in Chichester and the Isle of Sheppey before being appointed perpetual curate of St Paul’s Camden in 1846, in which post he remained until 1881. St Paul’s was a new church, in one of several parishes created out of the old St Pancras parish to serve the rapidly-expanding suburbs north of Euston Road. As far as I can tell, the parish didn’t have a vicarage, so Rev Thomas and his family lived in one of the new houses nearby.
Rev Thomas was very dedicated to his job, having given up a career in the army to go to Cambridge University and be ordained. In the 1850s two books of his sermons were published. Probably in 1862, a book of hymns he used regularly at St Paul’s Camden was published which sold so well it went into three editions.
Rev Arthur Thomas was married twice. He married Mary Griffiths in 1838 and they had three sons: Arthur Edward; Charles Keate, who died before Robert was born; and Francis Rhys – his second forename probably a nod to the Welsh origins of his parents. Mary Thomas died young and in 1850 Rev Arthur married Helen Tennent, at St Pancras old church.
The 1851 census was taken before the GD’s Robert was born. Rev Arthur and his new wife Helen were living at 99 Camden Road; with Arthur’s surviving sons the younger Arthur, and Francis. The Thomases were employing two live-in servants. Both – as you’d expect – were women; their duties weren’t written down by the census official but a likely combination would be cook and general servant; or general servant and nurse – though the boys were perhaps a bit old for the second combination.
The GD’s Robert was born on 1 September 1851, the eldest child of Rev Arthur’s marriage to Helen Tennent. He was baptised and registered as Robert Palmer Thomas. So the ‘palmer’ element was in his name from the start; and was not his mother’s original surname. Arthur and Helen had two more children: Mary, born 1857; and Charles, born 1858.
There’s a more or less complete lack of other information on Robert’s childhood. I couldn’t find anything about where he might have gone to school – though a private school in London, as a day-boy, is the most likely. And the family was not in the UK on the day of the 1861 census. I did find their address in 1868 noted in Crockford’s Clerical Directory: they were living at 20 Camden Square by then. Robert’s first census appearance, then, is from 1871, when he was 19. His older half-brothers had both left home and the family had moved to 7 South Villas Kentish Town. No occupation was listed for any of the children on the 1871 census form. I think if Robert had been working his father would have given the census official some details; so I suppose Robert had left school but not yet found a job. As far as I can tell, he never went to university. Rev Arthur and Helen were still employing two live-in servants; once again, the census official didn’t note down exactly what each of them was doing.
ROBERT AT WORK
On the day of the 1881 census, Rev Arthur and Helen were living at 74 St Augustine’s Road Camden. Mary (now 24); and Charles (now 23 and apparently not working) were still living at home, but Robert had started work, probably several years before. He had also moved out by January 1881, to 3 Murray Street Camden Square.
As with his early life, so with his working life – I’ve found almost no information about what Robert did for a living. If it hadn’t been for the probate registry official that signed off the Will of the Rev Arthur Thomas in 1898, I would not know who Robert’s employer was; but that official – may he be blessed – wrote very specifically that Robert was a clerk in the cashier’s department of the South Eastern Railway. Census information, though very bald, tends to confirm that he worked for a railway company; so I shall assume that Robert’s working life was typical of the Victorian period – that he worked for one firm the whole time.
South Eastern Railway (SER) was one of the first railway firms to be set up: it was founded as early as 1836 to speed up travel to the Continent by building a railway line from London to Dover. Later, it did develop some lines into London from the city’s expanding suburbs in Surrey and Berkshire. In general, though, it failed to take advantage of the opportunities to provide a service for commuters, and those commuting lines it did build gave what their users thought was a poor service (nothing new there then!). The SER had three stations by 1866: London Bridge; Charing Cross; and Cannon Street. During the first years that Robert was working for the company it was poorly managed and was seen as favouring its London to Dover services to the neglect of its other lines. All of this was not Robert’s fault as he never held any post at the level of that kind of decision-making. In 1895, he will have been caught up in an upheaval within the firm after its chairman left and new, better management practices were introduced (sounds like a very modern corporate history, really).
See the section on freemasonry for more information but here I’d like to say that Robert’s earliest initiation was into a lodge based at Ashford in Kent (1877) and from 1881 to 1887 he was an active member of a lodge in Croydon. Though of course there were other ways for Robert to have met the members of these lodges, one way for him to know them, was through his work.
By 1881 Robert may have been working long enough to earn a few days’ holiday. On census day 1881 he was amongst the guests at the Belle Vue Hotel in Cheltenham’s High Street. The census official scrawled Robert’s ‘occupation’ column so I couldn’t read all of it; but I think it only said that he worked in the office of a railway company.
In 1881, Rev Thomas retired from his curacy at St Paul’s Camden. The family moved to 80 Wharton Road Kensington Park; where Robert’s sister Mary died, aged 20, in April 1888. Robert – by this time living at 14 Woburn Place – was her only executor.
In 1872, Robert was one of the three executors of Francis Roger Palmer. He was only 21 – a very young age to be acting as executor; he was also the only one of the three to be called ‘palmer’. The recently-dead man, Francis Roger Palmer, was the younger son of an Irish baronet. He had joined the army and had worked mostly in India. He had been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in the 60th Foot regiment for his service during the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence. He retired from the Company early in 1872, a few months before he died; so how did Robert come to know him? I’m going to suggest that they had only met in person when Colonel when retired, but that there was some connection between Francis Roger and Robert’s father: they had been school-friends, perhaps, or had met as very young officers in the short time that Rev Arthur had spent in the army. Francis Roger Palmer might have been Robert’s god-father; that would explain a lot.
In 1890, Robert married a woman called Frances Anne (or Annie) Palmer; which surely can’t be a coincidence though I haven’t been able to prove a relationship between her and Francis Roger Palmer.
Frances was descended from families who had lived and worked in India for several generations. Her grandfather, Samuel George Palmer, had been born there and later worked for the East India Company. He married Frances Udny, after whom Robert’s Frances must have been named; I could see men called ‘Udny’ in the same lists of East India Company employees that I found Samuel Palmer in. Samuel’s wider family were equally far-flung: his sister-in-law, Charlotte van Budon, who was keeping house for him at 9 Cromwell Place South Kensington in 1881, had been born in the Cape of Good Hope.
Frances’s father Conolly O’Brien Palmer was Samuel George and Frances’ only son, born in Calcutta in 1826. He had served in the Indian Army and married Annie Bayley MacTier. Frances was their oldest child, born in 1860 at Mooltan in Bengal. She had two brothers – Arthur Steuart and Guy - and one sister, Katharine, who died as an infant. On census day 1871, Annie Palmer, Frances, Arthur and Guy were all in England, living in John Brett’s lodging house at 57 Grand Parade Brighton. Annie may have taken her children back to India but by 1881 they were back in England: on the day of the 1881 census Arthur was at Sandhurst military college and Frances and her mother were in lodgings at 11 Bentinck Street Cavendish Square. Conolly Palmer was probably still in India on census day 1881 but he retired from active service that year. He died in London in November 1881 aged 55.
Conolly Palmer left very little money though of course his widow was entitled to an army pension. Probably more important for the family’s financial security and social standing was the estate left by Samuel George Palmer, who died in 1883. He was a wealthy man – on the day of the 1881 census he could afford to employ a butler, a cook/housekeeper, a housemaid and a kitchen-maid; and at his death his personal estate alone was worth nearly £13000, which the website measuringworth equates with over £1million in income, in today’s terms. I think Frances was amongst his heirs.
Robert Palmer Thomas married Frances Anne or Annie Palmer in Dover – at the other end of the South Eastern Railway’s favourite line – in the summer of 1890. I couldn’t find them on the 1891 census. When Robert joined the GD in 1896 his address was 5 Horbury Crescent Notting Hill. This was a big house – it had (in official parlance) 10 habitable rooms - and Robert and Frances and their servants were the only occupants of it in 1901 and 1911. I think this was where they set up home when they got married. They had the money I suggest Frances inherited from her grandfather; and Robert’s salary which might not have been high but was reliable.
In early 1898, Robert may have inherited something from his parents, both of whom died within a few weeks of each other. It was perhaps with a feeling of having lost links with the past, as well as in excitement at what was going on in the GD, that – probably in 1898 - Robert contacted his old acquaintance A E Waite and asked him to dinner. Events in the GD were not something he could discuss with Frances: she was not ever a member of the GD, nor of the TS, and if she was interested in spiritualism she kept it at a very local, private level. She had told the 1881 census official that she was an art student. When looking for my GD members in the catalogues of the main exhibitions of the period I didn’t come across her name; but she may have been a keen amateur and had friends with similar interests.
Robert’s invitation was probably for dinner with him and Frances, though A E Waite doesn’t mention Frances’ presence in his account of it. He does describe what sort of man Robert was at the time of the dinner, though; which will have been when Robert was in his late 40s and had been married for several years. Waite described Robert as “very fair company” and – under the right circumstances - “an incessant talker”. The wrong circumstances, Waite seems to imply, were when Robert got on his hobby-horses of what Waite described as the decline of standards and the rise of bohemianism. Waite noted that Robert – and presumably Frances – dressed for dinner every evening, and always had wine with the meal: formal dining, Victorian style. Though Waite doesn’t express it that way, the two men probably left Frances to her own devices while they went off to discuss occult and other matters on their own: that also was formal dining Victorian style.
Waite doesn’t mention the staff the Thomases were employing but at least on the census days of 1901 and 1911, though the costs of employing servants were rising, they could afford the two servants that Robert’s father had been able to afford at least until the 1880s. They had a cook; and a housemaid/parlourmaid who will have waited on them and Waite at the dinner table. Waite also doesn’t mention having invited Robert or Robert and Frances to his home for a reciprocal dinner; perhaps he didn’t have the desire or the money to entertain in that style. And by this time, Robert and Frances as a married couple were definitely thinking of themselves as Palmer-Thomas; more sources for Robert were using both surnames, hyphenated together, after 1890 than before. Though their bureaucracies were not keen on surnames being cobbled together with a hyphen without legal or royal sanction, the Victorians at large definitely knew the caché of a hyphenated surname.
The style in which the Palmer-Thomases lived was more or less the only thing A E Waite could remember about Robert several decades later; probably because so few of his friends lived that way. It was a choice, of course, to spend their money on fine dining and evening clothes, but Robert and Frances had more freedom to make it because they had no children to think of and plan for.
When Robert, as head of the household, filled in the 1911 census form, he hyphenated the two surnames, and described himself as living on private means. He left the box for his wife’s source of income blank, so I can’t be absolutely certain that Frances had her own money. By describing his income as ‘private means’ Robert was using the term which was usually code for an income from investments. I think he had retired from the South Eastern Railway with a pension; which might come to the same thing, of course, but it was just a pension, he hadn’t made his money by speculating on the stock-market. Exactly when he retired from work it’s difficult to say. On the petition to form the craft lodge Anglo-Colonial 3175, in 1906, he called himself a “gentleman”; which I don’t think he was at the time if he meant to give the impression that he wasn’t doing paid work. I think he may have been moving towards retirement in the years 1908/09. In those two years he resigned from all his freemasons’ lodges except Quatuor Coronati 2076 (he had paid to be a life member of that many years before), and from the knights templar. Particularly if you served as an officer, lodge or Order of the Temple membership could be expensive.
At some point after census day 1911 – when their lease was up, say 1915? that would make it a 25-year lease - Robert and Frances moved from Norbury Crescent to 38 Sinclair Road Kensington. Robert died there in January 1918. After his death, Frances moved in with her brother Arthur Steuart Palmer, who had retired with the rank of Major. They lived at 18 Russell Road Kensington. Frances’ mother lived until 1924. Arthur died in 1925 while on a trip to South Africa; he had never married so Frances was the only one of the family left. She died in January 1929. She left most of her estate to the YMCA, for improvements to its hostel in Hornsey, a short distance from where I now live.
Sources: ARTHUR RALPH GREEN THOMAS
London Gazette Part 2. Seen via google so no full date but definitely 1833 pp1463 issued by War Office. Announcement that Lt Arthur Ralph Green Thomas had retired from the 32nd Foot Regiment as of 24 August 1833.
The Christian Remembrancer 1838 p438 University and Parochial intelligence. Arthur Thomas of Corpus Christi College Cambridge is in a list of men ordained during year by the bishop of Chichester.
Wikipedia for the bishop who ordained Rev Thomas: it was William Otter, previously Principal of King’s College London. He was appointed in 1836 and died, in-post, in 1840.
Crockford’s Clerical Directory 1868 p645 entry for Arthur Ralph Green Thomas, which doesn’t mention any curacy held by him before St Paul’s Camden. The dean and chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral were patrons of the living, as the church was on their land. The current income of its incumbent was £350 pa.
Survey of London published by the University of London for London County Council. Volume 4 1952: historic buildings: p139.
Wikipedia page of St Paul’s Camden says that for his first three years Rev Thomas didn’t have a fully-operational church: the building was finished in 1849. See also its at website posp.co.uk/st-pauls-church
Rev Thomas’ publications in the British Library catalogue:
1850 Sermons on the Parable of the Prodigal Son etc. London: Baisler.
1856 Sermon’s on the Lord’s Prayer. London: Warren Hall and Co
1862 a 2nd edition of Hymns for Public Worship used in St Paul’s Church Camden New Town. London: Warren Hall and Co. BL also has a 3rd edition from 1871.
Parliamentary Papers 1873, schedule to an act of Parliament probably about new parishes though this was a google snippet and I couldn’t see what the Act was called. On p42 A R G Thomas is in a list of incumbents getting extra annual income under the Act. He was awarded £10 pa which I think was to cover work in the new parish of St Luke’s Kentish Town.
Crockford’s Clerical Directory 1880 p 983 didn’t have an entry for Rev Arthur Thomas and within a few months of this issue being published, he had retired.
Rev Arthur’s first marriage:
Familysearch England-EASy GS film number 413291: 31 March 1838, in Lewisham: Arthur Thomas to Mary Griffiths. Familysearch had information on three children born to them:
- Arthur Edward Thomas, 1839 Chichester
- Charles Keate Thomas, 1842 Sheppey; I think this boy died as an infant
- Francis Rhys Thomas, 1844 Sheppey.
I’ve assumed that Arthur and Mary’s three sons were born where Rev Arthur was working at the time.
Familysearch England-ODM GS film numbers 598341-48: marriages at Old Church St Pancras. Marriage of Rev Arthur Thomas to Helen Tennent 13 June 1850.
Familysearch England-ODM GS film numbers 598168-171: baptisms at Old Church St Pancras. Robert Palmer Thomas born 1 September 1851 baptised 19 December 1851. Familysearch also had the baptisms of his two full siblings Mary Wright Thomas born 1857; and Charles James Thomas born 1858.
Robert and Frances:
Sources: census 1871-1911; probate registry entries 1888, 1898.
South Eastern Railway 1836-1922: see its wikipedia page.
The Palmers in Robert’s life: census 1881, 1873, probate registry entries 1881, 1883
Francis Roger Palmer:
Times 24 February 1873 p14 legal notices: re Francis Roger Palmer deceased of Stranraer Place Maida Vale.
Though I didn’t note the source, Familysearch had a baptism for him: born Dublin 1811, parents William Henry and Alice Palmer.
At www.britishmedals.us there’s a brief biography of him; he had retired as Colonel of the 60th Rifles. He was a son of Sir William Henry Palmer, 3rd baronet, of county Mayo. He’d fought in the Indian Mutiny and the 2nd China War and had retired a few months before he died.
At www.findagrave.com, a note that there is a memorial to him in Winchester Cathedral.
At www.stirnet.com there’s a Palmer family history which unfortunately wasn’t detailed enough to establish whether Frances was related to Roger Francis Palmer. If she was, the relationship goes back to the 18th century.
Samuel George Palmer:
East India Register and Directory 1824 p15: Samuel George Palmer is in a group listed under the year ‘1820’, presumably the year they were taken on by the East India Company. In 1820, Samuel was at the Company’s college in England.
East India Register and Army List 1849 p5: Samuel George Palmer’s first job in India began in 1821; he was commissioner for the superintendence of the Abkaree revenue.
Conolly O’Brien Palmer:
Though I didn’t note the exact source, Familysearch had a birth record for Conolly: born Calcutta 1826; parents Samuel George Palmer and Frances née Udny. There were also records for several sisters of Conolly.
At Ancestry there’s a very limited family tree for Frances’ mother, Annie Bayley MacTier: born 1838 daughter of Anthony MacTier and wife Maria née Binny. Frances was the eldest of Annie’s four children. The others were Arthur (another Arthur) born 1862; Catherine Isabel born 1864; and Guy 1865-88.
Harrow School Register 1800-1911 1st edition published 1894 has an entry for Conolly. He left the school in 1840 or 1841.
Familysearch India-ODM GS film number 499001: baptism of Frances Anne or Annie Palmer Mooltan Bengal. Date of birth 18 November 1860. Parents: Conolly O’Brian Palmer; and Anne Bayley.
Robert’s retirement: 1911 census, probate registry entries 1918.
Last address and death of Frances:
Times 5 March 1929 Wills and Bequests under heading “Legacy to YMCA”.
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.
For the history of the GD during the 1890s I usually use Ellic Howe’s The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923. Published Routledge and Kegan Paul 1972. Foreword by Gerald Yorke. Howe is a historian of printing rather than of magic; he also makes no claims to be a magician himself, or even an occultist. He has no axe to grind.
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.
For the GD members who were freemasons, the membership database of the United Grand Lodge of England is now available via Ancestry: it gives the date of the freemason’s first initiation; and the craft lodges he was a member of.
To take careers in craft freemasonry further, the website of the the Freemasons’ Library is a good resource: //freemasonry.london.museum. Its catalogue has very detailed entries and the website has all sorts of other resources.
You can get from the pages to a database of freemasons’ newspapers and magazines, digitised to 1900. You can also reach that directly at www.masonicperiodicals.org.
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.
To put contemporary prices and incomes into perspective, I have used www.measuringworth.com/ukcompare which Roger Wright found for me. To help you interpret the ‘today’ figure, measuringworth gives several options. I pick the ‘historic standard of living’ option which is usually the lowest, often by a considerable margin!
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
15 February 2019
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: