“Little did we know it at the time but we had hit upon an essential ingredient of today’s popular press, the star-sign horoscope,” the Sunday Express’s current editor Martin Townsend observes. Following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the Princess’s birth gave Britain’s popular press the perfect opportunity for a “good news story”. Being a weekly newspaper though, the Sunday Express needed a new angle and, in a eureka moment, its then editor John Gordon had the inspirational idea of publishing a horoscope foretelling the young royal’s future.
The paper first approached the colourful Cheiro, the undisputed superstar astrologer of the age. Born plain William Warner, he had learned his craft on a trip to India before reinventing himself as Cheiro (the name derives from the word cheiromancy, meaning palmistry).
However, Cheiro was unavailable so the job of drawing up the world’s first newspaper horoscope went to one of his assistants, Richard Harold Naylor, or R.H. Naylor as he preferred to be known. The result was a Sunday Express article headlined “What The Stars Foretell For The New Princess”.
So on August 24, 1930, Naylor predicted that the young royal’s life would be “eventful” and he wasn’t wrong, what with her ill-fated romance with Group Captain Peter Townsend, her champagne lifestyle and subsequent affairs with playboys like Roddy Llewellyn. Perhaps most significantly, Naylor went on to forecast that unnamed “events of tremendous importance to the Royal Family and the nation will come about near her seventh year”.
That ground-breaking column aroused enormous interest, triggering many requests from readers for further forecasts, so a second article was published a week later looking at the horoscopes of those born in September.
The following month Naylor forecast: “A British aircraft will be in danger” between October 8 and 15.” On October 5 the passenger airship R101 was wrecked in a storm near Paris and 48 were killed.
Initially, Naylor’s forecasts were by birth date rather than star sign but by 1937 he was also giving weekly predictions for each of the 12 sun signs (aka star signs) and calling his column Your Stars.
Before long every big-selling national newspaper was running its own horoscope column, although Naylor was the undisputed king of newspaper astrologers, receiving up to 28,000 letters a week.
By the end of the Thirties reading your “stars” in the papers had become a way of life and social research organisation Mass Observation reported: “nearly two-thirds of the adult population glance at or read some astrological feature more or less regularly.”
A wartime (and post-war) shortage of paper resulted in many of the Sunday Express’s regular features, including the horoscope column, being temporarily axed. By popular demand, Naylor returned in 1952 and after his death later that year his column was taken over by his son John.
Dr Max Blumberg, a research fellow at Goldsmith College, University of London, specialising in psychology says: “In the days of subsistence agriculture, everything you needed to help you survive, be it the sun or the rain, came from the sky so it was a short leap to look to the stars for guidance.”
He believes that the reason newspaper horoscopes took off in the Thirties was the straitened economic circumstances following the Wall Street crash. “The desire to know what fate might bring is exacerbated in adverse times, be it in the Thirties or today, when there is so much anxiety among people about losing their jobs,” he says. “You can be sure that the newspaper horoscope hotlines were red hot during the most recent credit crunch.”