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Barbara Vickers - Gerald Gardner's First Initiate?

Philip Heselton

 

Gerald Gardner, 'the Father of Modern Witchcraft', initiated many women into the Craft. Some, like Doreen Valiente, Lois Bourne and Patricia Crowther, have written extensively about their experiences, but others remain comparatively little known, including one of the first, Barbara Vickers.

In a letter to the editor of this journal in 1997, Doreen Valiente wrote:

"When I knew Gerald and first started working with him, there was a very pretty blonde girl in his coven called Barbara Vickers, whom Gerald had evidently known for quite some time." [1]

And in her notebooks, Doreen refers to Barbara's husband, Gilbert and strongly implies that he was a member of the Craft as well.

I took up the challenge of trying to find out what I could about Gilbert and Barbara. Small items of information came my way over a period of several years, culminating recently in my making contact with Barbara's daughter.

Barbara was born Kathleen Marie Blake on 13th July 1922 in her parents' home just off Acton High Street in West London. Thomas and Elsie Blake were strict Catholics, Thomas having been born in County Cork, Ireland.

I get the impression that her early life was rather restrictive and that she was seeking every effort to escape. As a teenager she rebelled against Catholicism, firstly joining Oswald Mosley's movement and then abandoning that and joining the New Socialists. She was clearly someone who could think for herself. A greater opportunity to escape presented itself when the Second World War became imminent and she joined the Army a year before she should have done, becoming a corporal in the Signals Corps.

It was while stationed at Catterick in Yorkshire that she met her future husband, Gilbert. He had been born in 1907 into a family of Manchester industrialists, Hedley Vickers and Co., Meat Manufacturers. 

They married on 23rd December 1944 in Kingston, Surrey, where they were stationed at the time.

The Vickers family were strongly Protestant and Gilbert persuaded Kathleen to change her name to something more Protestant-sounding. So Kathleen Marie became Barbara Kathryn! She was also persuaded to take elocution lessons.

When the war ended, the couple moved north to the family home of Barnfield, Prestwich, Manchester. It was a large house and, in the days of austerity just after the war, they couldn't afford to heat it and just lived in the kitchen area: the rest of the house was closed off. They later tried to run it as a hotel, but it was not a success, partly because of the difficulty of getting staff. 

It was here that Barbara first saw a ghost. She was searching for Gilbert one day and she entered one of the closed-off corridors, looking in all the rooms. She entered one and noticed a group of people dressed in very old-fashioned clothes, toasting crumpets by the fire. None of them looked up as she opened the door. She closed it quickly and then, suddenly realising that there should be no-one else in the house, opened it again, to the view of dust-sheets covering all the furniture.

This is in many ways an unremarkable account, but it does indicate some psychic ability on Barbara's part. This ability seems to have survived her death, since a sťance message from Barbara could well have saved her daughter from being murdered!

It is not clear when Barbara first met Gerald Gardner. From 1945 to 1953 Barbara and Gilbert were living "up north" and were members of the North Western Sun Bathing Society, a naturist club that had woodland premises between Macclesfield and Congleton in Cheshire, by at least mid-1951. It is possible that they could have met Gerald there or, alternatively, that he introduced them to naturism having first met them in some other context.

My assessment is that the first meeting probably took place following the publication of Gardner's novel "High Magic's Aid" [2]  in July 1949. What is certain is that by November 1950, Gerald had initiated Barbara into the Craft, as two photographs have survived showing her skyclad, holding ritual objects in characteristic pose. Barbara's witch name was Morven, which is the witch name of the heroine of "High Magic's Aid".

During the whole of the period that she and Gilbert were living "up north", Barbara came down to London on a regular basis to visit her parents. Because of her interests in spiritualism and the occult, she probably also visited Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street, close to the British Museum. The proprietor, Michael Houghton, had published "High Magic's Aid" for Gerald Gardner and copies would probably have been displayed prominently in the shop, which was well known as specialising in the occult generally. She may well have been sufficiently attracted to have bought a copy and later made contact with the author.

So, her initiation is likely to have been some time between, say, autumn 1949 and autumn 1950. Barbara told her daughter that Gerald had told her that it was a very important event historically, which she took to mean that she was one of the first, if not the first, to be initiated by Gerald.

The photographs are interesting. They were taken by Gilbert. In one, there is what looks like a dark mirror, circular, about 3ft 6ins in diameter, surrounded by a frame on which the names of the four archangels are painted, possibly in Gardner's own hand. Barbara is holding a two-handled metal cup. 

In the second photograph she is seated, hands crossed and holding what look like a scourge and a wand. She is wearing a large metal bracelet similar to those which Gardner made for his other priestesses. She is also wearing a pendant on a necklace which contains what her daughter describes as "a lovely green stone". Beside her, on the bed on which she is sitting, is a book, page size possibly 8ins x 5ins, which appears to be handwritten, and could well be what we would now describe as her Book of Shadows. We know that she did have such a book, since in the typed version of what is commonly known as 'Jack Bracelin's Book of Shadows' we have a handwritten annotation at one point reading "from B.V.'s book". 

These photographs are of immense significance in that they are the earliest so far identified of anyone involved in what Gardner described as 'the witch cult', characteristically skyclad with 'regalia' and postures.

From press reports it seems likely that there was a coven which met at Fiveacres Club in Bricket Wood by late 1951 and Barbara was certainly a member of a coven which met there and at Gerald's flat in Holland Road in early 1953 when Doreen Valiente was first involved. Presumably she managed to fit in coven meetings with her visits to her parents in Acton.

Gilbert and Barbara's daughter was born in Cheshire in March 1952, but by September 1953 the couple had separated and Barbara returned to London with her young daughter to live with her parents.

This left her in an awkward situation: her parents were strict Catholics and would not condone their daughter being involved in what they called 'hocus pocus' while living with them. 

Barbara managed as best she could, and when her daughter was old enough to leave with her parents, she got a flat in Knightsbridge, which was the venue for what seems to have been some sort of group which held sťances on a regular basis. She also continued her membership of Gerald's coven, which by that time was meeting at his flat in Holland Road.

By the end of 1954 it seems as if she had ceased to attend meetings of the coven, because in mid-November of that year, in a letter to Gilbert, she mentioned that she had seen Gerald and that he had become very thin, which suggests that this was the first time she had seen him for quite a while. The occasion was probably a launch party for his new book, "Witchcraft Today" [4], which had been published on 1st November. Barbara's daughter still has the copy of that book which Gerald inscribed "To One from another. To Barbera with the Authors Love. Gerald. Nov 2nd 1954. Blessed Be." together with the usual scourge and pentagram symbols.

Probably the last time that Barbara ever worked with Gerald's coven was at the initiation of Jack Bracelin and Thelma Capel, whose witch name is Dayonis, probably at the Full Moon in March 1956. I think she came as a special favour to Gerald as Doreen Valiente, the coven's High Priestess, was not available for some reason. Barbara wrote another letter to Gilbert on 4th April 1956 [5] in which she refers to her recent meeting with Gerald (which was obviously a rare event) and commenting again that he was looking very thin.

I think that Barbara probably felt that bringing up her daughter in the Catholic faith, which she agreed to do, was incompatible with remaining a member of the coven. Indeed, in later years she rather took against the Craft. In 1959, she saw an apparition of Gerald Gardner at the foot of her bed (probably this was during a period when he was very ill) and, for some reason, although she had seen ghosts before and attended sťances regularly, it frightened her so much that the following day she took all her witch 'regalia' and gave it to the dustmen, who happened to be passing. One can only hope that the dustmen were as perceptive of items of value as they are reputed to be and that somewhere the 'regalia' still survive! 

Barbara died in 1973 and Gilbert in 1978.

There are still several unanswered questions about Barbara Vickers. We still don't know exactly how she and Gerald met and the role which Gilbert played. We know that he was also an initiate, since Gerald, when writing to Cecil Williamson in 1953/54, says: "You quite agreed that you could not be told all the secrets of Witchcraft unless you joined + took the oaths. Barbara + Gilbert were willing at the time, but you would not." [6]

And what is the truth of Gerald's claim that Gilbert and Barbara were members of a traditional coven in Cheshire? There is really no evidence for this that has so far come to light and I am inclined to believe that this was just another little invention of Gerald's. We certainly have the precedent of Doreen Valiente, Thelma Capel and Lois Bourne all having long witch lineages claimed by Gerald to try to add authenticity to the Craft, and I am inclined to think the claims on behalf of Gilbert and Barbara fall within the same category.

But we still know too little about the history of 'the witch cult', as Gerald always referred to it, and it is good to be able to write, albeit briefly, about those who have until recently been just names to historians of the Craft.

Notes

My thanks go to Barbara's daughter, Miranda Vickers, who has given me every encouragement to write this article and who has provided much of the information contained therein and given permission for the reproduction of the photographs.

[1] Letter from Doreen Valiente to Mike Howard dated 24th March 1997 in the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft Collection

[2] Scire (G.B. Gardner) "High Magic's Aid" (Michael Houghton 1949)

[3] Letter from Barbara Vickers to Gilbert Vickers 11th November 1954 - copy in the author's collection

[4] G.B. Gardner "Witchcraft Today" (Rider 1954)

[5] Letter from Barbara Vickers to Gilbert Vickers 4th April 1956 - copy in the author's collection

[6] Undated letter from Gerald Gardner to Cecil Williamson in the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft Collection

 

Many thanks to Philip Heselton for his permission to reproduce this article.