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Codnor’s ‘head man’ - the intriguing life of phrenologist Joseph Severn

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 February 2016

What will the boy become? A painting of Joseph Severn reading a young man's bumps

What will the boy become? A painting of Joseph Severn reading a young man's bumps

as submitted by P Seddon

Derbyshire’s celebrated ‘Professor of Phrenology’ Joseph Millott Severn (1860-1942) - a former Codnor pitboy-turned-professor who read the ‘bumps’ on the heads of Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Ernest Shackleton

Archetypal Professor Joseph Millott Severn in his senior yearsArchetypal Professor Joseph Millott Severn in his senior years

Familiar as we are with ubiquitous ‘alternative therapies’ and cutting edge ‘medical procedures’ we like to consider ourselves ‘advanced’ and ‘innovative’ – but so did our forebears. The Victorian and Edwardian eras in particular spawned countless new ideas in ‘medical science’. But for every genuine advance there were many more which proved only passing fads which today retain few adherents in serious circles.

One of the most popular ‘fancies’ of yesteryear was the curious discipline of Phrenology – the reading of ‘bumps’ on the skull. In its heyday ‘bump-reading’ was sufficiently regarded for both ordinary folk and many celebrities to submit their craniums for examination. Qualified Phrenologists claimed to divine the character and even the destinies of their subjects – rather like palm-reading but more cerebral. Even Winston Churchill had his head read.

His honoured examiner was the celebrated ‘Professor Severn’ – then dubbed ‘Prince of bump-readers’ – a proud native of Derbyshire. But what a curious route to fame – how many former Codnor pitboys became eminent Phrenologists can only be guessed at. But it’s a fair bet the answer is one – take a bow bump-reader extraordinaire Joseph Millott Severn.

Joseph Millott Severn was born on 20th May 1860 in a modest cottage, 23 Nottingham Road, Codnor. His father Joseph was a silk stocking weaver from Codnor and his mother Elizabeth Barrett Millott came from a Derby Quaker family. The boy’s early childhood was difficult, his father resorting to heavy drinking amid frequent domestic quarrels. His mother left the family home when Joseph was three years old and only returned three years later. During this hiatus Joseph lived with his Uncle William and Aunt Rhoda in Codnor and later Waingroves. In his 1929 published memoirs Joseph remembered his uncle as ‘a miner, a very contentious man rarely agreeing with anyone, much less his wife.’ The young lad missed his parents and would visit his father most Saturdays and sometimes have clandestine meetings with his mother.

An original Phrenology bust of the kind now often sold as decorative reproductionsAn original Phrenology bust of the kind now often sold as decorative reproductions

Unsurprisingly his early education at Jessop Street School in Codnor proved unproductive. He often played truant to wander the local countryside and although progressing better at two further schools Joseph seemed firmly destined for a life of hard physical work rather than erudition.

When only eight he helped his father part-time in silk winding and at ten worked as a farm hand. He left school the day before his twelfth birthday and spent three years as a gang lad down No. 2 Butterley Park pit, an ironstone mine, working twelve hours a day for six shillings a week. Later he moved to the Forty Horse coal mine at Ripley where he was once buried beneath a roof collapse. Although freeing himself without serious injury Joseph decided life below ground was not for him.

He tried and failed to become a stockinger, then at seventeen joined the building and joinery trade as apprentice to a well-known Codnor builder. Between times he began to regret neglecting his learning and acquired a thirst for education, joining the church Mutual Improvement Society at Codnor and also paying a penny a night for private tuition. Here was the first germ of enlightenment.

Meanwhile his interest in the science of Phrenology began about the age of fourteen. Studying personality and behaviours by ‘reading the bumps and fissures of the skull’ was then well-established, the idea first promoted by German physicist Franz Joseph Gall in 1796.

The craze of Phrenology gets the humorous treatment from Punch as a novel idea for a fancy dress costumeThe craze of Phrenology gets the humorous treatment from Punch as a novel idea for a fancy dress costume

Young Severn picked up the interest from his mother Elizabeth who had been taught the skill by Dr Spencer T Hall of Derby. Her intelligent side was perhaps ‘inherited’ for she was said to harbour a curious ‘secret’. The Derby Daily Telegraph of 27th November 1940 revealed: ‘After losing both parents young she was adopted by the parents of Derby’s eminent polymath and philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and subsequently brought up in that learned family.’

But Phrenology for Joseph Severn was not yet a paying proposition. At the age of twenty he left Codnor to work in London as an apprentice joiner, duly progressing to a fully-qualified journeyman. When in 1889 he married Catherine Haywood his life seemed set on a steady if somewhat routine course. But fate then took a hand – only nine months into the marriage ‘Kate’ died of tuberculosis aged just 22.

Joseph quickly remarried in 1890 at the age of 30 to his second wife Alice Maud Thwaites. They remained together for over 50 years and had two sons, Adolphe who became a doctor and Donovan, a journalist and accomplished linguist. Those flamboyant christenings suggest Joseph and Alice shared an ‘artistic’ streak, but it was their novel manner of becoming acquainted that signposted their unusual future together.

Alice had been a fellow student at phrenology classes. Although Joseph knew her only casually he tracked her down and suggested purely from a photograph that their ‘delineations’ were perfectly compatible. When they met up again Joseph proposed within a day and they married two months later.

Winston Churchill as Prime Minister during World War Two. Codnor-born Phrenologist 'Professor Severn' considered the leader had a very sound head but his assessment of Adolf Hitler was less kindWinston Churchill as Prime Minister during World War Two. Codnor-born Phrenologist 'Professor Severn' considered the leader had a very sound head but his assessment of Adolf Hitler was less kind

That unconventional coupling heralded a change of direction for the former miner and joiner. Now buoyed by the support of a fellow enthusiast Joseph Severn set up business in London as a qualified Phrenologist with his wife as partner.

Phrenology at that time had a split ‘persona’ – a serious medical side and a ‘popular’ one more akin to fortune telling. Victorian and Edwardian seaside resorts generally boasted a ‘bump-reader’. As such the Severns wisely embraced all facets of the discipline and gravitated to the coast. Although they practised briefly back in Derbyshire at Ripley and Ilkeston – and had spells in Southsea, Ryde and Bournemouth – by 1894 they had settled in Brighton and established the practice which was to endure until Joseph’s death.

It was no easy ride, and there were lean times, but Professor Severn doggedly made a name for himself. It helped that he and his wife had a particular flair for publicity – not least self-publicity – utilising leaflets and the press to great effect.

But Joseph never neglected the ‘serious’ side of Phrenology, writing books, delivering lectures and contributing to professional journals with unstinting energy. This was eventually rewarded and recognised by his peers – in 1905 Professor J M Severn became President of the British Phrenological Society whose foundation in 1886 he helped to foster.

For a lad born in Codnor – serial truant, farm-hand, child miner, joiner – his life had been a remarkable journey. Professor Severn might well have claimed it was all in his own ‘bumps’ – but in truth a drive for self-improvement, sheer hard work and the courage to take unconventional ‘risks’ had made his ‘second’ life so much different from the one he was born into.

This new existence brought him into contact with many personalities that a Codnor boy could never have realistically envisaged, for the self-styled ‘Professor Severn’ became ‘bump-reader to the stars’. Among the personalities he interviewed and phrenologically examined were Prime Minister David Lloyd George, celebrated author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, music hall stars George Robey and Harry Lauder, fabled psychiatrist Dr Sigmund Freud, and Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

He also produced ‘readings’ purely from photographs or film and in 1902 had added ‘By Royal Appointment’ to his credentials after analysing the newly-crowned King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra by such methods.

But it was one of his very last ‘delineations’ which earned Severn his greatest publicity when in 1940 soon after the outbreak of the Second World War he gave a detailed reading for new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Severn, then aged 80, not surprisingly pronounced Churchill ‘a man of great intellect, shrewd and knowing and a master of strategic planning’. He finished the glowing assessment with a firm flourish – ‘He has a mature understanding and knows that might must be countered by might. The Nazis realise this, and fear him.’ For good measure the patriotic Professor also ‘delineated’ Hitler from photographs as ‘the most ruthless murderer of all time’!

Professor Joseph Millott Severn died aged 82 on 20th July 1942 at Brighton Municipal Hospital without ever knowing that he got Churchill ‘spot on’. His widow Alice died in January 1946 aged 89. Professor Severn left a couple of legacies especially pertinent to Derbyshire – his book My Village Owd Codnor (1932) is a faithful evocation of a community long disappeared, while the Severn Almshouses – erected in 1922 by Joseph and two brothers in memory of their mother – are still a landmark in Codnor today.

But Severn – who claimed to have ‘read’ a quarter of a million heads – left a wider legacy too. Apart from advancing the science of Phrenology he was simply that ever-intriguing breed, a ‘real character’.

As for Phrenology, its popularity waned and the British Phrenological Society disbanded in 1967. Although ‘believers’ do still exist the wider consensus is that bump-reading is a mere curiosity of yesteryear. But who are we to judge? Perhaps only one conclusion is unequivocal. Were the shrewd ‘Professor Severn’ to scrutinise today’s troubled world he would surely advise for a suitable fee – ‘You all need your heads examining.’

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