Following the stars and taking spiritual guidance from the universe around us has been part of human existence from time immemorable. But in the 1920s, with several generations having moved into the industrial cities, many people were starting to feel a disconnect from the natural world.
The time was ripe for the early beginnings of popular astrology, reading fortunes from the stars – which could still mostly be seen in city sky scapes. Of the back of this growing interest, the 1920s saw horoscopes included in daily newspapers for the first time. Those with less conventional religious views, and an interest in esoteric matters started to grow with the changed and slightly more open society created after the first world war, and one woman who was particularly active in those circles was Esmé.
“Esmé Swainson” was really a stage name, initially, and rather than any sort of mystical or occult background she came from quite traditional British roots. She was born Emilie Alice in the early 1880s at Headington in Oxfordshire. Her father was Charles, a warehouseman who sometimes called himself a merchant, and her mother was named Sarah. She was the eldest of three kids. Her family background was wealthy – their household in 1891 had three servants.
The family had moved to Lewisham in London by 1901, and Esmé said she was a student artist at the age of 19. This probably meant that she was studying various creative arts, which included music. There are also a couple of references to her performing in concerts, as Esmé Swainson, around this time. She is known to have been a singer, and to have played piano.
In the autumn of 1908, Esmé married Harold at West Bromwich, and went to live in Birmingham with him. He worked in advertising. Although she was now in “the provinces”, as theatreland outside London was known, she kept her music up, and worked as a music teacher. They originally lived in the Spark Hill area of the city. She advertised her services as a music teacher in a trade directory of Birmingham in 1908, and appeared on the 1911 census as a professional musician. She and Harold had no children.
Harold signed up for the Royal Air Force in 1917. At that stage he was working as a stage manager. He gave his next of kin as his wife Emilie, at a Birmingham address. However, he noted that they had separated on his sign up form.
Divorce at this time was still fairly difficult for a woman to achieve. She had to prove that her husband had been adulterous, and also that he had been cruel/violent or deserted her, or committed rape/incest/bigamy. In contrast, the husband only had to prove that his wife had committed adultery. Therefore, if Esmé and Harold’s marriage had broken down with no-one else involved, or as a result of his adultery, they had no grounds for a divorce, and Esmé would have remained tied to Harold financially, even though they were separated.
Given Howard was a stage manager, and Esmé a performer, it is likely that the circles they moved in were slightly more bohemian than general society at that time, and separation and divorce would have carried less stigma.
Round about this time, Esmé began a new relationship with William, an electrical engineer. He was a few years older than her, and due to him nearing 40 at the outbreak of World War 1 he probably didn’t serve in the forces.
William was also technically married, however, though it appears that he’d also separated from his wife. They’d married in Yorkshire, and had had two sons, but appear to have split by 1915.
They moved away from Birmingham at some point between 1917 and 1923, and set up house in a sizable villa just outside Bath, in Somerset.
If Esmé’s marriage breakdown was merely due to Howard’s adultery, or he had had a relationship with someone else since their split, 1923 was the first possible year that Esmé could have gained a divorce. The private members bill introduced in this year meant that women no longer had to include additional causes, which was brought into law as the Matrimonial Causes Act. The move to Somerset may be a direct consequence of this.
Esmé, by 1923, called herself Mrs Swainson on this document. Divorced women would still often call themselves by their married title at this time, but the fact that she is using her middle/stage name as an official name indicates that there has been some shift in her status.
In Somerset, Esmé appears to have stopped working as a music teacher, and gained an interest in writing and lecturing. Her subjects were usually more fringe religious matters, and astrology. She was quite involved in the Theosophical Society, and gave various different lectures, including one in 1925 in Melksham which looked at destiny and free will in the context of astrology and reincarnation.
Today, we see astrology as something quite separate from Christianity, as it would seem to be quite different from the belief system in the Christian church. However, Esmé’s beliefs seem to mention God and Christ as part of her practice. Certainly, at this time when most people in the UK were still nominally Christian, even though church-going was starting to change, the ideas offered by astrology and the occult carried more traction with the public if they were linked to wider accepted beliefs. So, even if Esmé was not nominally Christian, she linked much of her work to that belief system, at least in a general sense.
She also advertised her services in more esoteric publications of the age, like “The Occult Review”, from which this advert is taken in 1926.
At this time, the monthly publication offered various insight into esoteric matters and ideas present in psychology. A sample contents list for one of the 1926 editions included Magic of the Mantra, Some Evidential Clairvoyance, Sorcery in France and Africa, Reincarnation in English Poetry, and The Influence of Personality on Leadership. All are subjects that would not feature in mainstream newspapers, but are clearly of interest to the clientele that Esmé was appealing to with her work.
In around 1933, Esmé wrote and published a book on the basics of astrology. This was aimed at children, but also provided an introduction to the subject for a general readership. A review said that it “serves a two-fold purpose; it can be read merely as a fairy tale for children, yet its narrative contains many facts of occult life (on which the authoress is an expert) in its fairy tale guise, and is true in its Zodiacal symbolism”.
The text of the book, alongside some of Esmé’s illustrations, can be found here: https://rosanista.tripod.com/courses/razeng01.htm
The 1939 register has Esmé still living at her villa. On this document, she says that she is divorced, and working as a market gardener, writer and lecturer. This would indicate that she drew some living from the agricultural land around the house, and this probably subsidised her other work. William is living with her too, but says that he is still married. This indicates that he has not legally separated himself from his former wife, who in fact was living nearby with one of their sons at the time.
She continued to lecture on various occult and esoteric subjects for the next few years, taking in venues around Bath and in Bath itself.
William died in the summer of 1956, and left a considerable amount to both Esmé and his son Joseph, who was working as an accountant. Esmé was referred to as a widow on the probate document – meaning that her former husband Howard had died. Being a widow was considerably more respectable than being a divorcee, and many divorced women would change their status to widow as soon as they could.
Three years after his death, at the very end of the 1950s Esmé left the UK for India. She sailed from Southampton, heading for Mumbai. She said that she was an author, and that she intended to live in India. This may just have been for travel, or for furthering her knowledge of eastern philosophy matters.
Whether that worked out or not, she returned to the UK at some point after 1960. Esmé died in the early summer of 1966 back in Somerset, aged 84.