This article presents a brief overview of Sepharial's life and work based on the extensive research Kim undertook for her biographical book The Astral Tramp.
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"My friend Sepharial is, I am afraid, a terrible iconoclast … I plainly foresee that we shall have the
whole astrological edifice about our ears directly. Nothing is sacred"
- Ralph Shirley
On March 20th, 1864, Walter Richard Old was born to Amelia Old and her husband George, a haberdasher in Handsworth. At this time Handsworth was an area of West Bromwich. Few houses existed here although in the next twenty years he would be able to watch a whole community grow around him. It would be a long time before Handsworth became a suburb of Birmingham and even longer before it gained the reputation it has today. The family did not originate from this area and in later years Walter delighted in establishing his pedigree as having been descended from the Danish conqueror Gorm Eld in the 10th century. At the age of four his father died and the household comprised Walter, his mother, his four brothers, his sister, his grandmother and what appears to be a severely overworked servant. Though the family was not by any stretch of the imagination rich, they were wealthy enough to send him away to school where he received a classical education.
On leaving school, Walter was briefly apprenticed to a chemist in Birmingham and spent his leisure time attending medical lectures. Due to this tentative connection with medicine he was able to dispense drugs. It was during this period that he began to study mystical and astrological texts. Shortly before the age of sixteen he began a serious study of the Scriptures, and works of authors such as Swedenborg. He may well have continued this life as an academic intellectual working in his leisure time if it weren't for the events of 1886 which were to totally change his life.
Early in 1886 Walter was engaged to be married to a girl in Birmingham. He could have been expected to marry, produce a few children, keep his family and have a few intellectual interests on the side. His life was set out before him. Then his fiancée broke off the engagement. He threw himself into his intellectual work and in his own words, "I had little taste for anything but the mystical. I haunted the second hand bookshops during the day in search of curious literature... I burned the candle pretty evenly at both ends".
One evening he was sitting puzzling over a problem, talking to himself and becoming more and more feverish and restless. Looking at his ephemeris did not help him out of his predicament so he decided to use the crystal which had been gathering dust on his desk. It was late at night and after gazing into his crystal, he said "suddenly a peculiar sickly sensation came over me; my brain grew hot and throbbed . . . a cold shiver ran down my spine; my heart jumped, faltered and stopped; my sight failed and nothing but silence and darkness seemed to be and I was somehow absorbed in them."
He felt himself fall into the crystal and pulled towards a figure ahead of him who turned and revealed that he was looking at himself. Coming back to reality, Walter noticed the door of his room opening although no-one entered. He had to get out of the house and went to sit by a nearby river until he had calmed his nerves. Walking alongside the river a little later he met a youth and after exchanging a few words heard him say "I am yourself, your unremembered self. I was in sleep when you called me, but I heard you, and have come a very long way to find you; and now I have found you I am happy, inexpressibly happy; oh let me stay with you for ever!" Walter lost consciousness.
Some hours later he came to in his room and after going downstairs convinced himself that he had never left the house. Though he did not discuss his experience with anyone he was ill enough for a doctor to be called who prescribed complete bed rest. For two weeks he wept, slept, could only see clearly in the dark and then suddenly recovered. "I had discovered the secret which I was in search of, myself, my misremembered self. I have found that happiness does not lie in the memory of the past, but in the life which now is, with all its golden possibilities in our very hands." He was to spend the rest of his life seeking his true self and trying to unravel the possibilities of the future. Astrology was one method he used.
Immediately after this experience, Walter set to and began the writing which was to dominate the rest of his life. The first book I have found reference to, Astrological Judgement Upon the Great Solar Eclipse of 1887, was published that year. Whilst Walter was isolated in a provincial town, great things were happening on the occult scene. Spiritualism, including all the attendant frills and fancies of table tapping, etc., was all the rage, and the world was buzzing about Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. Walter began corresponding with Blavatsky in 1887. After a long correspondence he managed to meet her at her home in Notting Hill. She rolled him a cigarette, settled down for a chat and began the relationship which was later to see him a member of her household. "I would have gone anywhere to have come more directly under the pure strong influence of HPB's example and teaching".
During the next years Walter was a rising star in the TS. He was to become Vice President of the Blavatsky Lodge, General Secretary of the British Section, and librarian, undertaking innumerable roles. He threw himself into this work with boundless enthusiasm.
In January 1891 Blavatsky asked Walter about the chances of her living out that year. He said she might pull through. Then she said "You are not being frank with me. You are hiding the truth". After a short argument he said "Well, HPB, if you live through this spring it will be a miracle". On May 8th when she died Walter was present. Holding her hand and kneeling at her bedside, he sat with her until she drew her last breath. Shortly afterwards he was to hear of his mother's death which took place on the same day. What Walter would remember, however, was the forget-me-not which HPB pressed into his hand as she died.
Walter did not allow Blavatsky's death to lessen his involvement with theosophy. He lectured frequently at the Blavatsky Lodge, amongst others, and was always on hand to help a new Lodge set up. In 1892 he travelled to India and joined Colonel Olcott, a co-founder of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, the Society's headquarters. He took with him documents relating to the recent activities of W.Q. Judge, another co-founder of the Theosophical Society and then Vice President, resident in the US. He claimed to have received precipitated letters from the Mahatmas confirming his claim to the presidency. Throughout Blavatsky's life she had relied heavily on precipitated letters from the Mahatmas (or Masters) in Tibet to help her decisions in taking the TS forward. These letters manifested in a variety of ways: they appeared from thin air to drop into her hand, they were found hidden in a pile of papers or up a tree, etc. Now Judge was claiming to receive messages in the same way and Walter was highly suspicious of his motives.
He took the precaution of making copies of all the documents in his possession before handing them over. A long and complicated series of events led to the holding of a judicial inquiry into Judge's conduct and to Walter's suspension from the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society. To Walter's horror the finding of the inquiry was that, as belief in the Mahatmas was not a Theosophical tenet, the inquiry had no power to determine the veracity or otherwise of the letters. As the charges made by Annie Besant of 'misuse of the Masters handwriting' did not relate to Judge's conduct as Vice President, the matter was not subject to the Committee's jurisdiction. It immediately dissolved itself and it was expected that the matter would rest there.
In 1894 Walter returned to England and contacted an old friend of his, Edmund Garrett, who was a journalist on the Westminster Gazette. He told him that he had resigned from the TS and explained what had happened. In October of that year a number of eminent theosophists choked on their tea when the Westminster Gazette began publishing a series of articles entitled 'Isis Very Much Unveiled - The Great Mahatma Hoax'. It was clear where the information must have come from. Walter never denied having supplied the papers to the Gazette but claimed he did so in the interests of truth. The net effect was to break his connection with the TS and force the secession of the American Branches. Lodges all over the world joined in the argument. The Theosophical Society was torn into fragments and it would be years before it could regain the power it had held in the Blavatsky days.
Telling the truth did not make Walter popular. He was obliged to move out of London and decided that a new identity needed to be born. In April 1895 he changed his name to Walter Gornold. The Judge affair kept Theosophists busy for months yet and was only really over in March 1896 when Judge, then President of the Theosophical Society in America, died. By June, Walter had eloped with, and married, Marie Moore and begun a life as astrologer and family man.
Arguments with friends and colleagues in the interests of truth were by no means a theosophical failing. Long, drawn-out fights with Raphael and George Wilde were played out in the astrological press. In 1888 Frederick Lacey, the astrologer 'Aphorel', had written to 'Sepharial' requesting help with his astrological studies. He mentioned meetings he was having with Alan Leo and others, and suggested that Sepharial might want to join them. Never one to miss an opportunity, he called around and met Leo and Lacey. At this time the only astrological publication in existence was the magazine Astrology, which was failing miserably. Leo and Lacey decided to bring out their own publication and mentioned this to Sepharial. One month before the Astrologer's Magazine appeared Sepharial published the first issue of his own Fate and Fortune. It was to be short lived - "if left to myself I could wreck the best business that was ever founded inside of twelve months". However, Leo and Lacey had no idea of Sepharial's track record with failed publications and, in a panic, decided to offer free horoscopes to subscribers. During the first year 1500 horoscopes were sent out and the success of the magazine was ensured. Leo announced in the Astrologer's Magazine: "It having been found that two periodicals on astrology must be somewhat antagonistic, upon a meeting being held between the proprietors it was decided.... that the interests of the scene would be best served by only one periodical... Sepharial has agreed to transfer his services to our work.
Still a staunch theosophist during this period, Sepharial took Lacey and Leo to meet Helena Blavatsky and also introduced them to Colonel Olcott and WQ Judge. This led to the two founding the Philalethian Lodge in Brixton. The Judge affair was finally to break the relationship between Sepharial and Leo. By October 1896 Leo stated in AM "Owing to the fact that letters addressed to Sepharial continue to come into this office, it becomes necessary for me to announce that he is no longer connected with this magazine.., in future letters addressed to this office will therefore be returned." The weak friendship was never to be re-established.
Sepharial - as he was known from this time - was mainly focused on astrological work. He maintained his occult connections, but his relationship with the Theosophical Society meant he was excluded from many organisations. He had always been a staunch supporter of the idea of an astrological society. A meeting in 1896 led to the Astrological Society being formed with Alan Leo as President and Sepharial as Secretary. It would not be until 1921 that the British Astrological Society came into being with Sepharial as President. By 1922 it was resolved that the Presidency would be offered to Ralph Shirley with Sepharial second choice should Shirley refuse. He didn't.
By 1905 Sepharial was firmly established in the astrological world. After meeting E.H. Bailey in 1902 he became a contributor to the British Journal of Astrology and continued to write for it until his death. He became the editor of Old Moore's Almanac and was producing books and articles at the rate of knots. Clearly he retained his interests in the occult world, for in 1913 he was a founder member, along with A.E. Waite, of the short-lived Alchemy Society. The first world war in no way held Walter back. Although a member of the Home Guard he found time to travel and lecture in Skegness as the guest of Isabel Pagan, a rising star in northern theosophical circles.
As well as producing six children, some of whom were to gain fame in their own right, he spent most of this time as a working astrologer. During his life he produced at least 58 books, edited a number of magazines and wrote for innumerable publications, including the local and national press. Unfortunately, most of this work did not make much money. At times he was obliged to take on jobs to make ends meet. A great deal of his income derived from private work, in particular the sale by private subscription of his Arcana or Keys. These were analyses of commodities markets and various systems sold on an annual basis. The infamous Golden Key was one of these publications. They were sold on a non-publication basis through an agent and were highly expensive, costing in 1917 between £5 and £10 per report. He also produced private astrological reports for clients through which he gained a reputation for being highly unreliable.
During his life Sepharial had his finger in a whole variety of astrological pies. He produced work on analysis of Neptune in the natal chart, named and analysed the use of Lilith, and produced numerous articles on the pre-natal epoch. This was eventually to lead to E.H. Bailey's book which was a standard text for many years. He also wrote extensively on the Kabbala and its connection with astrology, as well as producing translations of oriental works. He is most remembered for his speculation theories, especially in connection with horse racing. He was convinced that astrology could be used to find winners. He also attempted to apply his theories to lotteries and roulette and it is rumoured that his methods are still used in the US for lottery speculation. He also sold magic mirrors, calculating machines, astronomical tables and a number of other gadgets to make money.
In 1927 the Elim pastor, George Jeffreys, made his first visit to Hove. This was the start of a series of crusades on the south coast. The Elim Pentacostal church had been started by George Jeffreys in 1915. The Gornold family were, at this time, living in Brighton. In the summer of 1929 Walter and family attended a tent campaign in Worthing. They were to leave that meeting a member of the Elim church after being baptised by immersion along with four of his children. The scripture read at this service was Isiah 33 v 17 "Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty; they shall behold the land that is very far off." This was to be the end of Walter's search.
On 23rd December 1929, in Brighton, Walter Gornold died of a cerebral haemorrhage brought on by undulant fever. He reminded his daughter, Cynthia, in July of that year, that he had told her that his work would end in 1929. Obituaries were published in the national press as well as in the astrological and occult press. Tributes poured in from all over the world.
Memoria in Eterna: To 'Sepharial'
Thou crescent moon, clipped from the fuller brim,
A slip of silver on the foil of night,
Bent languorous back to catch the eternal hymn
Of planets shining bright,
What was his art to draw within the sense
The music of the spheres, the symphony
Of orbs angelic, rolling songs intense
With God-like sympathy?
We loved one whom we did not wish to die;
The stellar anthems charmed his ears one night;
He took the pathway through the Galaxy
And passed along its light.
Hamish MacHuisdean: British Journal of Astrology
Birth data: Although there is no dispute as to the date of Sepharial's birth, the time is in debate. Originally the time given was 1.30 pm. This was later amended to 1.30 am, with the claim that he had been muddled up with a younger brother. Later the time was rectified by him by use of the pre-natal epoch and his own theory of directions which gave a time of 2.03am. According to contemporary magazines the chart he used gave an ascendant of 24.32 Sagittarius. It is unclear what co-ordinates were used but it is worth remembering that the area of Handsworth was not regarded as part of Birmingham for most of his life and he would most likely have used data for West Bromwich. Work continues to verify his chart at the time of writing.
A variety of books and periodicals have been consulted in the course of this work the main ones being:
Old Moore s Monthly Messenger
British Journal of Astrology
Fate and Fortune
The Christian Parapsychologist
In Memory of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky by Some of Her Pupils.
has been a professional astrologer since 1990. She has taught astrology and lectured extensively in the UK and overseas. She was previously the Vice Chair of the Astrological Association of Great Britain and has been editor of its Newsletter, Transit
, both as a print magazine and online. Kim has also been on the Executive Committee of the British Astrological and Psychic Society and was editor of its newsletter, Mercury
for two years. She has written sun sign columns for a number of magazines and websites and is presently the horoscope columnist for Bliss
Magazine. She also writes for Enhancing Your Mind, Body, Spirit
magazine and had articles published in numerous astrological periodicals all over the world. Kim is the author of The Astral Tramp: A Biography of Sepharial
(Ascella 1998). Her books Reading the Runes
and The New Illustrated Guide to Astrology
were published in 2003. Her CD book Astrology and Sex
is due to be published in 2004 as are Reading the I Ching
and One Mystic Vampire: A Biography of Mabel Collins
Kim is available for written work, TV and radio. Visit her website at www.kimfarnell.co.uk
or email email@example.com
© Kim Farnell
This article was first published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, published by Ascella Publications, Issue 14, May 1997; pp.33-35.