Joseph Horton and the Astrologers

Joseph Horton, miller, flour merchant and ship-owner of Hythe was a businessman, hard-working and honest. The success of his enterprises allowed him to build a fine family home, ‘Rockdean’ in Hythe’s Hardways End (now St Leonard’s Road). He and his wife Fanny had three sons and Joseph became a Hythe town councillor.  They were a respectable non-conformist family, but the conventional façade hid a rather more unorthodox aspect of Joseph’s life and belief system:  astrology.

‘Rockdean’, still standing today

According to his youngest son, Joseph’s several childhood experiences of ‘narrow escapes from Death by accidents’ and then being struck by lightning when he was 17 led to a fear of the unexpected. Then, when he was 21 in about 1815. a friend lent him some books by Dr Sibly.  

This was Ebenezer Sibly, surgeon and astrologer of London who had published the New and Complete Illustration of the Celestial Science of Astrology in four volumes in 1784. Astrology was undergoing something of a renaissance after years of neglect, but now, reflecting the spirit of the Age of Reason, it was presented as being a rational science. 

Dr Sibly

Joseph was convinced by Sibly’s arguments and when he became a father, some years later  he must have wanted to spare the family the constant fear of unexpected calamity. He therefore had the boys’ horoscopes drawn up. Sibly had died in 1800, so Joseph turned to the celebrity astrologer of the day, ‘Zadkiel’.

James Morrison aka Zadkiel

‘Zadkiel’ was actually Richard James Morrison, a former Royal Navy lieutenant. After leaving the navy through ill health, he devoted himself to the study of astrology, naming himself after an archangel. In 1831 he published The Herald of Astrology (price 2 shillings) which became an annual publication under the title  Zadkiel’s Almanac. In it, the astrologer made predictions for the coming year.   Starting out as ‘Zadkiel the Seer’, by 1836 Morrison was signing himself  ‘Zadkiel Tao-Sze’. He presented himself as the Grand Master of Tao-Sze, a secret society whose aims were, appropriately, secret. The ‘Athenaeum’, in its obituary of Morrison in 1874, suggested that his death had  reduced the society’s membership to two. 

Thanks to Zadkiel’s horoscopes of the Horton offspring. we know the exact details of the births of Joseph’s sons: 

Joseph Tilbe Horton at 0947 on 24 June 1830

Benjamin Bassett Horton at 0434 on 27 May 1836

William Brown Horton at 0724 on 4 April 1839 

The horoscopes are detailed astrological charts, incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but William’s also has a narrative: 

He will have a straight & well made body, his hair will be very dark brown and his complexion rather dark and gloomy looking. He will suffer from acidity of the stomach and should take no sugar or sweets at all. He will have few children who  are likely to be cut off by sickness or sudden accident in their infancy.

Fortunately, the Horton family  still have a photo of William, and though not very clear, we can make out a slightly-built (but very straight) man with dark hair and beard. William married Anna Oldfield and together they had no fewer than eight children. Four of them were indeed cut off in their infancy: two little girls of five and two who died in August 1871, and two boys died aged  five and three in March 1876, all probably of infectious illness. The infant mortality  rate in the early nineteenth century was falling, but parents could still expect that one in three of their children would not to see their fifth birthday, so the predicted deaths of William’s children only reflects the reality of the time.  The other children grew up, though two more did die as a result of accidents: George, who drowned in the sea aged eighteen and Milly, who died as the result of a fire aged fifty-nine. 

William Brown Horton

Joseph continued to worry and his anxieties were not helped by another ‘very narrow escape from a serious accident’ in 1844, which was witnessed by his son William. 

He now consulted another  astrologer but not about his chances of being cut down in his prime. He enquired as to the advisability of insuring his ships and land property and the man he trusted to  advise him went by the name of ‘Raphael’ or more exactly ‘Raphael III’ as he had succeeded two earlier incarnations. This man was actually a Mr Medhurst  who had published Raphael’s Pythoness of the East; or, Complete Key to Futurity. It was, he claimed ‘translated from the original manuscript of the celebrated mystical divining book, formerly in the possession of Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Josephine. This extraordinary work was consulted by Prince Puckler Muskau and others, during his sojourn in England, with the most astonishing success’.  

Joseph Horton in later life

Having considered Joseph’s birth date and time and the positions of the planets, Raphael advised him to insure all his property on land, as he feared that Joseph might be the target of an incendiary attack or of  ‘lawless persons’ in an ‘excited mob’. He did not see any evil indicated with regard to the ships and did not think that there was any need to incur the expense of insuring them . 

The advice seems counter-intuitive, and it is to be hoped that Joseph ignored it. In 1845, one of his ships, the ‘Three Brothers’, coal-laden, was driven high and dry on the beach at Sandgate during a storm, though it did outlive Joseph and was finally lost on the Goodwin Sands in 1882. There are no recorded incidents of mob violence or arson attacks in Hythe in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Joseph himself died in 1873. His sons grew to adulthood and prospered. We hear no more of astrology – though it may have been a well-kept family secret. 

Sources: Kent History and Library Centre, H/U18/35/1, Horton papers

               Hythe library, Horton file, undated document annotated ‘Written by Wm, Brown               Horton ‘