Telling the Future in the Past

You might not have needed a fortune teller to predict the country’s performance in some of this summer’s sporting events but, if you’re still looking for a little old-fashioned advice from Destiny, the Local and Family History department at Leeds Central Library can certainly help you out.

Mother Shipton's Wheel - book cover
Mother Shipton’s Wheel – book cover

Mother Shipton’s Wheel of Fortune was printed in the 1860s by the Leeds-based publisher, C.H. Johnson, as part of the popular Royal Pocket Library range. According to the pamphlet’s instructions, the oracle is best consulted in the evening, when the enquirer should first don a blindfold and then make a stab at the diagram below using a pin.

Wheel of Fortune diagram
Wheel of Fortune diagram

We don’t advise trying this at home unless you want to risk serious damage to your computer screen but, depending on the number nearest to your resulting pinprick, Fate may have various different events in store for you… Land on the number 4, for instance, and you can expect “a speedy journey of great importance”. Poke number 21 and “you will soon fall desperately in love”. At all costs, try to stay away from number 26, which indicates “you will marry an ill-tempered person”.

Space prevents us from providing a full guide to the mysterious Wheel here at The Secret Library, but those wishing to consult it in person can do so in Local and Family History, where they’ll also find plenty of information about Mother Shipton and her prophecies. A less celebrated mystic was Zadkiel, whose Universal Dream Book, or Night Visions Fully and Correctly Explained, was also published by Johnson’s of Leeds, and survives 150 years later in the library.

Zadkiel’s Dream Book, front cover
Zadkiel’s Dream Book, front cover

You may have come across dream dictionaries like this one before, the idea being that you can look up the symbols haunting your subconscious to find out what they might mean or predict. Zadkiel’s is actually more of an interesting insight into what the Victorians spent their nights dreaming about, which includes butter-churning, locomotives, ague, lutes, imps and, surprisingly, parrots. Dreaming of the latter apparently held quite specific meaning, indicating that the dreamer would move to a foreign country to marry, cultivate land and secure great dignity. Zadkiel goes on: “You will only have two children, a boy and a girl; the latter will be married to a rich man; and the former will become an official character, and be very useful and highly esteemed” – all of which seems like a lot of prophecy for one parrot.

Personally, we prefer something a little more scientific here at The Secret Library, so that’s why we turned to A New Illustrated Hand-Book of Phrenology, Physiology and Physiognomy, printed in  Leeds in the 1880s and authored by R.B.D. Wells, one of Yorkshire’s most noted experts on human head-shapes.


Portrait of R B D Wells
Portrait of R B D Wells

Relating the various bumps and indentations of a person’s skull to character traits like secretiveness, self-esteem and spirituality was one of the top scientific disciplines of the nineteenth century – not to mention a great parlour game. You can try it for yourself with the help of Wells’ handbook (or should that be headbook?), from which we’ve extracted the following handy diagram:

Conscientiousness diagram
Conscientiousness diagram

So how “conscientious” are you? If the crown of your head pops outward like the yolk of a fried egg then, sadly, you must possess a very feeble sense of moral duty. If, however, it turns pleasantly inward, surrounded by mountainous mounds of Prudence and Dexterity, you can count yourself as scrupulously exact in matters of right. Give yourself a pat on the back – and then check your scalp to see how big your Pride bump is.

Various other vintage fortune-telling tomes are available from the library’s lending and reference collections, including Bonaparte’s Book of Fate and How to Read Character by the Aid of Pathognomy, as well as studies of the esoteric arts dating back to the 1700s. We’ll see you here next Thursday… according to our crystal ball, anyway.

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