A 1925 phrenological report on Veronica Villiers

by Tara Daly, BA History Student

The Glin Papers, on loan at the Special Collections and Archives at UL, date from 1801 to 1993 and contains 26 boxes of archival items. The collection comes from the Knights of Glin, a Geraldine family that can be followed back to the year 1260. The title ‘Knights of Glin’ can be credited to the Gaelicising of the Anglo-Normans of Desmond. The history of the family exposes the effort of a Catholic established family in opposition to English rule and its submission when the Penal Laws came into force. The Glin Papers, regrettably, do not hold the entirety of the family’s items due to countless older manuscripts and texts apparently being damaged in an outburst by the ‘Cracked Knight’, or John Fraunceis Eyre FitzGerald, the 25th Knight of Glin.


Postcard from the Leonard Collection, depicting the south elevation of Glin Castle, late 20th century.


Veronica FitzGerald (née Villiers, later Milner) (1909– 1998)

A particularly intriguing item among the Glin Papers is a report of a phrenological examination conducted on Veronica Villiers in 1925. Veronica was sixteen years old when this examination took place. Her parents were the one-time Liberal M.P. for Brighton, Reverend Ernest Amherst Villiers (1863–1923), of the aristocratic Villiers family, and Elaine Augusta Guest. Elaine was the daughter of Ivor Guest, 1st Baron Wimborne, and Lady Cornelia Henrietta Maria Spencer-Churchill, making Veronica a cousin of Winston Churchill, later the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.


Veronica Villiers in 1954 (P1/513 (3))


In 1929, just before her twentieth birthday, Veronica married Desmond Wyndham Otho FitzGerald, the 28th Knight of Glin, and had three children with him including Desmond John Villiers FitzGerald, who would later become the 29th and final Knight of Glin. In 1954, the widowed Veronica, aged 45, married Horatio Ray Milner (1889–1975), a Canadian lawyer and businessman.


Photograph of Desmond Windham Otho Fitzgerald



Phrenology, recognised today as a pseudoscience, derived from the work of a German physician, Franz Josef Gall (1758–1828), who believed that mental faculties were located in various parts or ‘organs’ of the brain, and could be investigated by feeling the surface of the skull, with the size of an organ being an indication of its power.

Phrenology attracted scholars who recognized the view that genomic determinism facilitated individuals to be able to read and comprehend the personality of other people by assessing their bodily form. For example, it was thought that having a strong memory was a trait that came from having very outstanding eyes. It was also thought that other physical qualities such as the shape of one’s head or its size were associated to personality or special talents such as painting or music.

The bumps and crevices of a person’s head were viewed as a type of topography of the skull. It was all based on the theory that the ‘brain was the organ of the mind’ and therefore certain brain areas were thought to have localised, particular roles or elements.

Though phrenology was mostly discredited as a scientific theory by the 1840s, there was a revival of interest in the early 1900s because of interest in criminology, which was then suggesting that criminals could be distinguished from non-criminals by physical anomalies.


Veronica’s phrenological report, 1925

This is a six paged ‘medical’ report based on a phrenology examination undertaken on Veronica on 18 January 1925 in The Brighton Phrenological and Mental Science Institution. It discusses her personality, ‘character and capacities’ based on the topography of her skull.


Cover Page of Phrenological Report of Veronica Villers, 1925 (P1/532(1))


It concludes that Veronica is mostly an artistic, empathetic, logical girl, and has very good memory of faces and features. She likes to accomplish things and get things done but she will often hold herself back by procrastination. She usually has multiple interests on the go which ultimately leave her unfulfilled. She tends to be quite sensitive which ends up with her feelings wounded, regardless of the intentions. She is friendly, sociable, and more than able to hold her own in conversations with people she does not know well. The report discusses her love of small, vulnerable things, be it children or animals. She has a very curious mind and likes to get to the bottom of things, only when it interests her though. She has a good sense of judgement which enables her to know who to trust and who to avoid. It also mentions that she is very conscientious, empathetic, spiritually inclined, and acquisitive.

Some of Veronica’s weaker attributes consisted of her habit of getting bored easily, procrastination, being overtly wary and indecisive and pessimistic. Throughout the report, advice is given in order for Veronica to get a better grasp on what she can do to better her character. It is advised that she have a happier outlook on life, to try and make decisions quickly, to be careful not to let het good nature cloud her judgement. It is also advised that she seek further study of phrenology as it is thought it would strike her interest to know more about the ‘science’. She is told to face issues rather than avoid them. Because she tends to get ‘nervy’ which would cause her stomach problems, she is advised to watch what she eats in order to avoid indigestion, as well as to get more fresh air.


Page six of the phrenological Report of Veronica Villiers (Glin Papers P1/532(1))


The report ends by suggesting potential careers to Veronica. The physician suspects that she would be well suited to a career as a professional musician if she was to get enough training, or a musical composer. She is also prompted towards a career in literary writing that could be profitable too. In some form or another, Veronica would most certainly be capable of being an ‘art mistress’. And that all of this can easily be accomplished with a little bit of mental effort, independence, and a more optimistic outlook. It is thus noteworthy that Veronica was surrounded by artistic people throughout her life. Among the Glin Papers is correspondence to Veronica from Artists and Musicians including: Mary Bernhard, Charlene Dilling, Mildred Dilling, Wolf Craig Haimisch, Mary Hughes, Charles Lamb and Seán O’ Sullivan. (P1/485-491)