The fortune-telling family that made Blackpool famous for psychics and clairvoyants

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The Ellis family were experts in palmistry, physiognomy, crystal gazing, fortune telling, graphology, hypnotism, and spiritualism

Ida Ellis giving a palm reading circa 1896

Ida Ellis giving a palm reading circa 1896 (Image: Courtesy of Wyre Archaeology)

The forecasting of future events and the assessment of one’s character by means not considered rational has been practised since as far back as 4000 BCE, with its origins in ancient Egypt, China and Babylonia.

By the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, the concept of fortune telling became rapidly more organized and sophisticated.

The practice began to flourish not in the country’s capital of London but in the ever-growing popular seaside resorts with Blackpool being the most influential.

The newly built and developed railway network to the town meant meant the middle and working classes could embark on better holidays and so the fortune tellers of the day followed this trend.

One infamous family in Blackpool however took this trade to its maximum potential.

Ellis Family advert circa 1896

Ellis Family advert circa 1896 (Image: Courtesy of Wyre Archaeology)

The Ellis family, who were qualified scientists of the time, established themselves in the town in 1891.

They were experts in palmistry, physiognomy, crystal gazing, fortune telling, graphology, hypnotism, palmistry and spiritualism.

The occultists were famous for their practice of phrenology which involves the observing and feeling of the skull and bumps on one’s head to determine an individual’s psychological attributes.

Although by today’s standards we could write the family off as quacks and charlatans, the Ellis’s truly believed in their methods and managed to successfully acquire a grand premises based on, not only their successful entrepreneurship of land and property, but also because of what we would deem as a good ‘business model’ today for their fortune telling.

Forget the notion of stripy pop up tents, candles and beaded curtains, by the early 20th century the Ellis’s occupied a house with 11 rooms, had a domestic servant and operated from a site that is where the current Madame Tussauds wax museum is today.

Queuing at the opening of Madame Tussauds on Blackpool promenade.

Not originally from Blackpool, husband Albert and Ida Ellis and brother Frank Ellis moved from Leeds and then briefly in Batley as the seaside’s town reputation for fun and entertainment grew.

In 1890 Albert and Ida had a son named after their uncle.

Albert, an insurance agent, had gained a lot of influence in the town when they arrived and became a town councilor.

He also established a partnership with butcher John William Outhwaite and established a thriving fairground alongside the gypsies and hawkers who traded on the seafront.

His family business however was ran like a true service and each family member having a specialty.

Frank’s was physiognomy, Ida’s was palmistry, crystal gazing, automatic writing and psychometry and Albert’s was graphology and phrenology.

The literature created by the family was incredibly sophisticated and provided stiff competition for the psychiatrists of the day mostly written by Ida and published by Albert.

The World War I veteran’s home sponsored Phrenology Booth at a fair. London, Ohio, Summer 1938. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) (Image: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images))

If you crossed the palm of an Ellis family member, they would then delve deep into your psyche asking complex and probing questions.

The height of scientific analysis, a calculation was made on paper in pencil of your ways to gain success, bad omens and pitfalls to avoid.

Although seemingly primitive, this “chart” was packed full of information from a personal reading where customers could take home and live by the prescribed advice.

Even babies could get their “charts” done to serve as a predicter of their personality, potential characteristics and where they would and wouldn’t excel in life.

Although more organised and sophisticated than the Gypsies and palmists who endured all weather out in tents on the beach, the family still lived with the suspicion and stigma of their beliefs.

Ida Ellis giving a palm reading circa 1896

Ida Ellis giving a palm reading circa 1896 (Image: Courtesy of Wyre Archaeology)

Their time in Batley saw them have their first brush with the law in 1891 when they were accused of writing and publishing “obscene” literature.

The trio were subjected to ridicule, contempt, fines and imprisonment and Ida herself had a short stint in Preston Gaol.

Despite this they successfully set up a publishing house and were very protective of their written work.

Their eye catching posters and charts of crystal balls and palms were incredibly eye-catching which help stay on top of the Blackpool fortune telling scene.

Being a “bump feeler” proved lucrative and even the stands on the beach that practised phrenology could earn them up to £10 a day which a lot of money at the time.

Although the family could be seen as making a quick buck from vulnerable people, their personality traits did express empathy and sympathy for the human condition and they appeared to have sincere intentions to help people.

A sign advertising a fortune teller's services on the central pier in the seaside town Blackpool, Lancashire, April 1987.

A sign advertising a fortune teller’s services on the central pier in the seaside town Blackpool, Lancashire, April 1987. (Photo by RDImages/Epics/Getty Images) (Image: Epics/2010 Getty Images)

Despite suffering controversy at times, Ida’s sensitivity and Franks’ political liberalism made the pair popular with those they met.

All three founded ‘The British Institute of Mental Science’ situated on Kent Road, Blackpool based on their principals though its overall success was questionable.

The 1920s proved a quiet periods for the Ellis’s and in the early 1930s they loved to Cornwall after falling in love with the resort.

Albert died in Trewinnard, Cornwall on October 3 1934 after being ill for some and Ida herself died later in 1940.

Albert’s brother Frank remained in Blackpool all his life and died in late 1939.