Alan Leo is commonly thought of as being the first modern astrologer and is revered the world over amongst astrologers. Born William Frederick Allan in Westminster in 1860, Leo was cared for by his mother, a member of the Plymouth Brethren after his father, a Scottish ex-soldier, left when Leo was nine.
The Brethren was one of many strict Christian sects that had sprung up in the early years of the nineteenth century. There was no paid ministry and the words of the Bible were taken literally. Brethren rules were, and are, extremely strict. The man of the family rules the home and women must be submissive. Contact with non-Brethren members is discouraged and the group practised exclusion, cutting off those who refused to adhere to their rules. Calling each other sister and brother, the Brethren were constantly alert to the Second Coming. So much so that it was forbidden to make any long-term plans, such as signing a lease, in case that be viewed as a lack of confidence in Christ’s imminent arrival. The occultist Aleister Crowley’s family were Brethren as was that of Sir Robert Anderson the Scotland Yard detective, known for his involvement in the Jack the Ripper case.
Leo’s father had been unable to cope with the lifestyle his wife wanted, and Leo himself left home as soon as was practical. His strict upbringing him made him an eager and willing participant in the newly emerging occult world of the late nineteenth century.
Leo’s working life began when he was sixteen. He had a variety of jobs working as a draper, chemist’s assistant, grocer, sewing machine salesman and shop manager. His many jobs alternated with periods of unemployment.
By the time he became involved in astrology in 1885, Leo had already tried and failed at a number of professions. He was managing a grocer’s shop in Manchester when he met a Dr Richardson who taught him astrology. Noting that any astrologer who was worthwhile adopted a nom de plume, he decided to call himself “Alan Leo” and later changed his name by deed poll.
Leo was already at this time a member of an occult society, The Celestial Brotherhood, run by the Welsh seer and mystic John Thomas (Charubel). Thomas had originally trained as a Methodist preacher, but by his early twenties had become a curative mesmerist, later progressing through herbalism, astrology, mediumship, and occultism. He was renowned for his healing skills, and often relied on precipitated letters from the spirit world for his methods of treatment. Thomas prepared hundreds of horoscopes in his time, taking the trouble to draw them in parchment. He also did a roaring trade in talismans.
Each member of the Brotherhood adopted a mystical name derived from astrological significators, numerology, and geometry. Alan Leo became known as Agorel. Although the society was never the success that Thomas had hoped, it had members all over the world and for much of his life he kept up lengthy and frequent correspondence with its members. Leo was a regular writer for the Brotherhood’s magazine, The Occultist, which appears to have had a connection to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. In the mid 1880s, Leo spent much of his time travelling in the north and west of England, and took the opportunity to spend time with Thomas when he could.
In 1888, Leo was living in Peckham, London as a salesman for a confectionary firm when he met the astrologer Frederick Lacey (Aphorel), also a member of Thomas’ Brotherhood. Leo made contact with Lacey after seeing his letter in Astrologer magazine, which asked for astrologers to contact him so that they might meet. Leo, JC Green, C Baddley, Mr Smarry and a man whose name later escaped Lacey’s memory began meeting at Lacey’s home in Brixton every Friday evening. Before long, Leo, Green and Lacey also began to meet for lunch every Wednesday.
Lacey led a busy life. He was a freemason, a songwriter, and played the organ on Sunday afternoons. Considering that he also led a double life, having two wives and two sets of children, it’s hard to see when he had time to fit astrology into his schedule. However, he did, and was responsible for introducing Leo to the astrologer Walter Old (Sepharial, and later Walter Gornold). Old was already a theosophist at this time, and a member of Blavatsky’s inner circle. He introduced Leo to theosophy in the summer of 1889 by taking him along to one of the many gatherings held at the Society’s headquarters in Lansdowne Road. Leo took to theosophy like a duck to water, as it was only a short step away from the studies he had already undertaken with Thomas. Leo finally joined the Theosophical Society in May 1890.
The magazine that had led to Leo and Lacey meeting, The Astrologer, had begun to flounder. Sales had dropped and its editor, P Powley, began to include material on horse racing and betting systems to try and attract more readers. Unfortunately, this did the opposite. Lacey came up with the idea of producing a new astrology magazine with no horse racing. Everyone was enthused until Lacey began to talk money. Lacey and Leo agreed to split the costs between them and review the situation in a year’s time.
The Astrologer’s Magazine (renamed Modern Astrology in 1895) was launched on 21 November 1889. Leo mentioned their plan to Old who wasted no time in producing a rival magazine Fate and Fortune in June 1890, one month before the first issue of The Astrologer’s Magazine. Fate and Fortune went the same way as many of Old’s projects, disappearing after only four issues. Old simply became a contributor to AM, which was successful enough to break even by June 1891. The success of AM was helped along by the attacks made on it by AJ Pearce (Zadkiel) and in The Daily News. However, the most attractive feature of the magazine for most readers was the offer of a free horoscope for new subscribers. In the first year alone, Leo and Lacey worked flat out to produce the 1,500 horoscopes ordered.
Although Leo and Lacey had no experience in publishing magazines, they did have experience in what astrologers wanted to read. Leo was ill-educated in comparison to his colleagues, and claimed not to have read many astrological texts. Lacey admitted that Leo –
…was always desirous of writing books; he rarely read much, but was a deep thinker. (Leo, Bessie, 43.)
– and pointed out that the only books Leo read when getting into astrology were Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, and Raphael’s Guides. It was a free horoscope that led to Leo’s marriage. One of Leo’s astrological and theosophical colleagues, HS Green, had persuaded a friend in the Bournemouth Theosophical Lodge to subscribe to AM. In turn, this friend of Green’s convinced a fellow member of his lodge – Ada Elizabeth Murray Phillips – to subscribe. Later to be known as Bessie Leo, Phillips was a palmist and phrenologist who lived in Southampton. Bessie’s father had separated from her Christian mother when Bessie was sixteen. She lived with her father and after her mother’s death when Bessie was twenty, she converted to Judaism and began to practice phrenology and palmistry professionally.
Bessie sent off for her horoscope in 1892 and was so impressed with the results that she arranged to meet Leo. In February 1893, Leo called on Bessie and they immediately hit it off.
Unfortunately, Bessie was already engaged to be married to a fellow phrenologist. In May she and her husband moved to Bournemouth though she continued to correspond with and meet Leo. Bessie’s husband became frustrated with their agreement to a platonic relationship, and she was concerned that he had married her for her inheritance so the marriage was annulled in 1895. Bessie soon discussed marrying Leo but as a Jew was worried about her father’s reaction. The other problem was Bessie’s avowed celibacy. Leo had no problem with this and the couple married 23 September 1895. Although celibacy was often recommended among theosophists, it would be an understatement to say that it was rarely practiced. However, Leo embraced the concept as eagerly as he did vegetarianism, teetotalism and non-smoking.
Lacey’s other commitments led him to resign from AM in 1894. Leo continued the magazine while combining his day job as a commercial salesman with giving lectures in astrology and theosophy, and rented an office off Fleet Street to run the magazine.
The year 1895 was a difficult one for AM. Over 4,000 free horoscopes had been sent out, many resulting in requests for more detailed work. Although a horoscope service wasn’t originally intended, it became almost unavoidable. From 1893, Leo charged for more than the most basic delineation. This was to become extremely profitable. Leo still sought to convert astrologers to his idea of astrology as a spiritual science and AM became Modern Astrology, and a theosophically oriented publication in July 1895.
With the success of his horoscopes and publications, Leo was able to found the Astrological Society, which opened on 14 January 1896 in London. Robert T Cross (Raphael) agreed to become its vice-president and HS Green its treasurer. Meetings took place on the first Friday of every month and the Society had one hundred members by the end of the year.
Although theosophical astrology claimed many adherents amongst middle class readers, especially women, other astrologers became more hostile as the Leos approach to astrology became more occult and popular. For example, Pearce continued to fight for a scientific astrology and Cross resigned from the Astrological Society.
Not that this would stop the Leos. In 1898 they bought a house in Hampstead, London and by the end of the year, Alan had wound up his commercial interests and become a full time astrologer. This was risky as MA was only just beginning to attract enough subscribers to cover its expenses. The solution came from Harold Scrutton, Leo’s clerk. He had noticed that the same text was often used for horoscopes and suggested simply reproducing the relevant sheets and clipping them together. Leo filled his study with lockers containing the delineation sheets and began his horoscope production line. The “test horoscopes” were widely advertised and not only brought in more subscriptions for MA, but also orders for detailed horoscopes which could cost as much as twenty-five pounds.
Much of the text used for the test horoscopes was plagiarised from elsewhere.
The whole of the mimeographed sheets comprising his test horoscopes were copied, in many cases verbatim, from Sepharial’s Prognostications from the Rising Sign and HS Green’s Planets in Signs and Houses, while the greater part of the other sheets of his system were copied and paraphrased from Butler’s Solar Biology. (Bailey, Destiny, 20.)
Almost all of the profits from the test horoscopes were ploughed into publishing books, including the cheap manuals in the Astrology for All series, which began to appear in 1901. The next year, Leo resigned his presidency of the Astrological Society. Shortly afterwards, he established the Society for Astrological Research, which was run by the Leos, HS Green, Old and Bailey. Pearce refused his invitation. That society was also short lived.
By 1903, Leo employed nine members of staff at the Modern Astrology offices, including the astrologer Edward H Bailey, who was later to become the editor of Modern Astrology’s archrival The British Journal of Astrology. Leo’s employees had become restless about their workload and the increasing commercialism of their work and Bailey led a walk out – the only known astrologers strike. The next year, Bailey issued his own astrological magazine Destiny, in which he wrote a fictional account of his relationship with Leo. Bailey continued to rail against Leo for the rest of his life, most notable in The British Journal of Astrology, which he edited. Unfortunately for Bailey, his proposed college of astrology came to nothing.
Other assistants soon came forward to replace those who had followed Bailey’s lead. By 1909, Leo had established the Astrological Society, which soon gained two hundred members. However, the Leos attention was directed elsewhere that year, when they found themselves in court as Bessie’s right to the £80,000 she had inherited from her father was challenged on the basis that the Leos had unduly influenced Bessie’s father. In the end, the Leos won the case.
The court case may have been instrumental in prompting the Leo’s trip to India later that year. As all good theosophists would, they joined the then president of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, at the Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras.
By now, the concept of duplicated horoscopes had taken off in a big way. When Leo returned to London, he was shown a copy of an article that had appeared in the journal Truth, reporting on the popularity of the horoscopes and suggesting that the law should be involved. In the next issue of MA, Leo announced the end of the shilling horoscopes.
The Leos returned to India in 1911, returning on 5 May with Annie Besant and Krishnamurti. They were the first to join the new theosophical organisation that revolved around Krishnamurti, The Order of the Star in the East.
The astrological work continued and Leo’s next project was the founding of the Astrological Institute in 1912. Unfortunately, things started to go a little downhill from then.
In 1913, Leo’s Esoteric Astrology appeared, described by Charles Carter, whose view appeared to be representative of many astrologers, as “…a big volume containing virtually nothing worth reading.”
There had always been a problem relating to the legality of practicing astrology, which astrologers were well aware of. Horary astrology was a particularly risky venture as its practice could also be included under the Witchcraft Act, no doubt one of the reasons why Leo was so ambivalent about its practice.
By 1912, the number of fortune tellers in London had risen rapidly and it was estimated that between six and seven hundred were operating at that time. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner issued an order that fortune tellers of all types within his jurisdiction must remove all words such as “palmist”, “clairvoyant” and “astrologer” from their doorplates, window signs and other public advertisements, and public concern was heightened enough for questions to be asked in the House of Commons in 1911 and 1912.
The last major case against an astrologer under the Act was that against Alan Leo in April 1914. Leo pleaded not guilty and gained the support of numerous of his peers. The case attracted enough public interest for the press to attend.
Leo was charged with fortune telling and received a summons to attend the Magistrates court at Mansion House, London. Leo had been completing his jury service when he received the summons and had assumed that the visit on 29 April from two “gentlemen” who had called “from the Jury” was related in some way. Although Leo didn’t consider himself to be in any particular danger, he decided to consult his solicitor. On 6 May, he turned up at Mansion House ready to fight the charges. Journalists and a large crowd of character witnesses, including Annie Besant and AJP Sinnett, were in attendance.
Leo was charged with having told fortunes on both 27 February and 8 April 1914. He pleaded not guilty. In February 1914, Hugh MacLean of the City of London Police had written to Leo under the name of William Hammond asking for a list of charges for horoscopes. He received in response a letter and a booklet entitled The Stars and How to Read Them. McLean then sent off for a ten shilling horoscope. For his money McLean received a Delineation of Nativity, and the advice that he could either purchase a more detailed judgment or add to it himself by studying Leo’s books The Key to Your Own Nativity or The Progressed Horoscope.
The section of the report entitled Future Prospects was read out in court. It was shown that when the letter was sent, Leo was abroad and couldn’t have written it. The case was dismissed, but costs were refused.
By 1915, Leo had authored or helped produce about thirty astrological books. During that year he set up the Astrological Lodge of the Theosophical Society, which despite having gone through many incarnations and changes, as well as separating from the Theosophical Society, still meets today. According to Charles Carter, Leo founded the Lodge to give Bessie something to do.
Eventually the fuss revolving around the court case died down and it seemed that everyone could simply get on with the business of supplying horoscopes – except that in 1917 Leo was again summonsed to appear at Mansion House and again pleaded not guilty to the charge of fortune telling.
The case was broadly similar to the one brought in 1914 but this time the case against Leo was treated more seriously. Despite the efforts of Leo’s defence, the magistrate refused to allow discussions as to the validity of astrology. Leo’s defence was that his report showed only tendencies and shouldn’t be defined as fortune telling as that involved making a specific statement about the future. This approach may have succeeded if it weren’t for one sentence:
At this time a death in your family circle is likely to cause you sorrow. (Times, 7 May 1917.)
Was the death a tendency, or was there a tendency towards death? The prosecution wasted no time in asking this question. Although the remainder of the hundred-page report adhered to the tenet that the stars inclined rather than compelled, this sentence lost the case for Leo. The hearing, which was adjourned for a week, ended in a nominal fine of £5 and £25 costs, over £1000 in today’s terms. At that time, the maximum sentence possible was three month’s imprisonment – including hard labor, so Leo got off a lot more lightly than he might have done. Leo originally planned to appeal against the decision, but decided against it as his chances of success were low. Instead, Leo travelled with his wife Bessie to Bude in Cornwall for their annual holiday. While there, he was taken ill and died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 30 August 1917. Lacey read of Leo’s death in his newspaper. Many of Leo’s supporters blamed the case for his death and viewed the authorities as murderers. Bessie lived until 1931 and continued to publish MA with the help of astrologers such as Vivian Robson.
Alan Leo’s intention, as outlined in the first issue of Modern Astrology, was to establish a more spiritual and psychological form of astrology, concentrating on the delineation of character rather than prediction. It is this approach that has led to him being called the father of modern astrology.
His life work was to cleanse the Augean stables of astrology, and only those who worked in close touch with him know what an accumulation of filth there was in those stables, and what slime he waded through… (Annie L Barley, in Bessie’s biography.)
If we regard the life of Alan Leo we shall admit that he was of that noble race. To set out to purify Astrology from dross and superstition, to rescue maiden Urania from the dragon as it were, was an heroic enterprise for one who had neither money, backing nor education. Like many Leos, he had a saving common sense and a sense of the practicable. He was an idealist, but no dreamer. (Carter.)
Carter’s comment reflects the legend of Leo more accurately than the reality as we are aware that although Leo may not have had the formal education of other astrologers, he was widely read and with Bessie’s legacy and an army of loyal supporters, it was hardly true to say he had no money or backing.
Many of the changes Leo advocated were derived from elsewhere, for example his discussion of aspects in the Astrologers Magazine advocates using aspect, and not planetary, driven orbs.
Another vexed question is the planetary orbs, some say that it is absurd to give 17° as the orb of the Sun, 12° the Moon’s orb and so on. We hope in our next issue to take this “orb question” in hand and thoroughly thrash it out and say what we find about it, and as we before remarked, we shall be glad to hear what our fellow students have found out to the number of degres [sic] to which their power is limited. (AM Vol 1 No 2 Sept 1890.)
It was indeed thrashed out, and the recommended five degree orb for major aspects continues to be used widely, at least the use of moieties as was the established way of dealing with aspects in Leo’s day, has only relatively recently been resurrected. However, Leo’s lack of originality is as clear here as elsewhere in his work. The original concept can be traced back to William Chaney’s work, which Leo was undoubtedly familiar with.
Another change promoted by Leo was to make the Sun more central to astrological character analysis. This was born out of the cosmology of the theosophists, which gave the Sun a prominent role. Blavatsky was profoundly influenced by the Hermetic heliocentric cosmology of the first and second-centuries BCE, the structure of three heavens, and the centrality of the Sun. She was equally aware of, and influenced by, the works of writers such as Max Müller who argued a solar basis for all religions. In referring to the “central Spiritual Sun,” she echoed Hermetic teachings.
(our) spirits…incorruptible and eternal, both emanate from the eternal central sun and will be reabsorbed by it at the end of time…” (Blavatsky, Isis, 502.)
In fact, Leo wrote a Sun sign book in 1909. The first edition of Everybody’s Astrology, Volume 1 of Leo’s Astrological Manuals, comprised chapters on the Sun in each of the twelve zodiac signs with no discussion of other astrological factors. In the second – and subsequent – editions, material was added to include Sun sign combined with Moon signs as well as short chapters on the other planets.
Leo argued that as life giver, the Sun is the single most important factor in the zodiac and therefore the birth chart. He gradually discarded almost the entire list of zodiacal attributes, which had accumulated from the first to seventeenth centuries. He ignored physical characteristics to focus on inner character. His descriptions of the signs set the tone for future Sun sign descriptions – or arguably, Butler’s descriptions repeated through Leo’s work did so. For example, he wrote that Aries:
Represents undifferentiated consciousness. It is a chaotic and unorganised sign, in which impulse, spontaneity, and instinctiveness are marked features. Its vibrations are the keenest and most rapid, but without what may be called definite purpose, except towards impulsiveness and disruption. It signifies explosiveness, extravagance and all kinds of excess. Its influence is more directly connected with the animal kingdom, in which life is full and without the directive power of fully awakened self-consciousness. (Leo, Nativity, 17.)
By far the most major influence of Leo’s was to make astrology accessible to the masses. The most popular basic guides when Leo began his astrological life were those of Raphael, substantially cheaper and easier to follow than many texts available at that time. Leo took this idea forward and published a set of cheap pocket manuals pitched at a very basic level.
Whether or not it was an achievement to invent esoteric astrology is open to debate. However in 1913 Leo published Esoteric Astrology, described by Charles Carter as “a big volume containing virtually nothing worth reading.” This was theosophical astrology taken to its logical extreme, and provided the baton that would be later picked up by Alice Bailey.
We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Leo’s approach to astrology was universally accepted in his lifetime. Sepharial gradually divorced himself from all things theosophical after his split with the Theosophical Society, and that included Leo’s brand of astrology. Raphael was never a theosophist and was frustrated by the high level of theosophical content creeping into astrology, EH Bailey had what amounted to a mission to discredit theosophical astrology, but his extreme right wing political views lost him some of the support he may otherwise have had. Leo’s most vocal opponent was AJ Pearce. Many of his criticisms of Leo and his ilk would seem to include almost all modern astrologers today:
The leader writer appears to have judged of the merits of the science by the “Modern Astrology” put forth by a certain astrological society, the President of which is so imperfectly versed in the art that he could not compute the primary directions on the Placidean system! (Starlore.)
The final words here are given to Charles Carter, who succeeded Leo as president of the Astrological Lodge.
Once upon a time, long long ago when I was a young astrologer, it seems as if we used to make fun of Leos rather a lot. I wonder what the reason was! Perhaps it was because Alan Leo did in those days so overshadow all the other astrologers and thus became sort of Headmaster Image and we, like naughty schoolboys, enjoyed making oblique passes at him. (The Classical Astrology Series.)
Leo’s chart and data
Birth data: Alan Leo was born 7 August 1860 in Westminster, London (51N30 00W09).
Varying times have been given for his birth:
The Astrologer, February 1890 – 6:10 am.
Esoteric Astrology – 05:49 GMT.
The Progressed Horoscope – 5:49 GMT “approximately.”
The Life and Works of Alan Leo – “about 6 am.”
Sepharial’s rectification: 5:51:28.
The earlier given times give a Virgo ascendant and appear to be why the time was later rectified to 5:49.
Bessie Leo was born 5 April 1858, Salisbury. The time as rectified by Alan Leo is 6:47:12.