Alan Leo

(1860-1917) – Astrologer fined for fortune telling

Alan Leo was the father of modern astrology and inspired Gustav Holst to write the 'Planets Suite'. In 1917 Leo cast a horoscope for a policeman and was accused of fortune-telling, a serious offence in wartime. Heavily fined under the Vagrancy Act, Leo died on holiday at Bude.

Credit: Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle

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William Frederick Allen, who later took the name Alan Leo, was raised in a strict Plymouth Brethren household in London.  Regular chapel attendance and fireside readings from Foxe's Book of Martyrs imparted on the young boy a strong belief in a Creator God, but this was tempered with a growing dissatisfaction with the Brethen's theology and binding morality.  ‘I was made to take life seriously’, he wrote, ‘Sunday was just a dreadful day in our home’. 


He was educated in Edinburgh, but returned to London to work in the family grocery business and later ran a shop in Manchester. He soon became ill from overwork and, sceptical of the medical profession, Leo visited a local 'cunning man' known as Doctor Richardson.  Richardson correctly diagnosed a kidney complaint using only the time, date and place of Leo's birth.  From this time forward, Leo was convinced that astrology - or divination by the celestial bodies - was 'God's Law'.  Tutored by Richardson, he started to gather information about his grocery-store clients, cast their horoscopes and read their characters. 

It is from these humble beginnings that commercial astrology began.  He took the name Alan Leo (from his own sun-sign), and began a successful postal horoscope service.  He founded three societies, a magazine and published many books, including The Art of Synthesis (1912).  This work was read by the famous composer Gustav Holst, who drew upon Leo's creative descriptions of the planets in his famous orchestral suite. 

The Vagrancy Act of 1824 stipulated that all fortune telling was illegal, even if the intention of the fortune-teller (or astrologer) was not to deceive.  In 1917, Alan Leo was prosecuted for the second time under this Act.  He had drawn up a horoscope for an Inspector Nicholls and unfortunately included the remark: ‘at this time a death in your family circle is likely to cause you sorrow’.   Fortune-telling, which could lead to a loss of public morale, was regarded very seriously in wartime.  Leo pleaded not guilty but the magistrate did not allow him to defend the legitimacy of astrology; he was found guilty and fined £5, plus £25 costs.

Leo and his wife Bessie went to Bude to recover from the ordeal, but Leo died of a cerebral haemorrhage on the 30 August – many of his friends blamed the trial and the legal system.  Leo's lasting legacy was the re-popularisation of astrology in the popular press, and setting it on more commercial and accessible footing.

Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle