The Man, the Myth & the Magick
by Mike Howard
It is over thirty years since Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) departed to the spirit world yet his influence still dominates the Craft. Gardner was on a Mediterranean cruise on the S.S. Scottish Prince when he collapsed at the breakfast table and died from a heart attack. He was nearly 80 years old.
Since his death Gardner has been both praised and vilified in the most extreme terms. He has been hailed as the father of the modem pagan revival, the messiah of a religion for the New Age and as a 'kindly, gentle old man'. In contrast he has also been vilified as a sado-masochistic voyeur, a homophobe, misogynist, 'dirty old man', 'a potty old Englishman', a manipulative old rascal', and 'a kinky old goat' ! His contribution to the increasing public awareness of the Craft in the second half of the 20th century has been both lauded and condemned. In the words of an (anonymous) correspondent in The Bridge magazine (Lugnasadh 1995): ' I feel that the Craft would not be in the mess it is in today if Gardner had kept his mouth shut, and practised the rule of silence. He dragged the Craft from the sacred darkness into the profane light'.
Writing shortly after Gardner's death, Justine Glass (1965) summed up this contradiction about him when she said: 'Opinions about Dr Gardner (sic) are so divergent that it seems the truth must lie somewhere between the extremes. He has been described to me as a brilliant scholar, and a man with a veneer of learning; as a loveable, delightful character, and a 'messy old man'. Some say he was a master of witchcraft, others that he had no real knowledge at all, and that he did more harm to the Craft then the persecutions.' The truth, as Glass suggests, must lie somewhere between the extremes, but it is not our purpose here to find it, even if that was possible. In fact, with the passing of the years, it seems very unlikely that the real truth about this controversial figure will ever be known.
Gardner was born in Lancashire on June 13th 1884, the son of a wealthy timber merchant. The family claimed descent from Simon le Gardiner in the 14th century, and another of Gardner's ancestors was baron Gardner of Uttoexeter. In 1807 he was commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet that faced Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet another ancestor was Grizell Gardiner, who was allegedly burnt as a witch in Scotland in 1640. Her significance was to mean more to Gardner in his later life.
As a young boy Gardner suffered from the 'occultist's disease' - asthma. The family's nanny, Josephine 'Com' McCombie persuaded Gardner's parents that sunnier climes than the North Country would improve his health. She took the young Gerald on winter trips to the south of France, the Canary Islands and West Africa chasing the sun. It was on these overseas trips that Gardner became fascinated by antique weapons. He also taught himself to read by perusing old copies of The Strand magazine. Gardner's education, or rather the lack of it, has always been a mystery. Although it seems he lacked any formal education, in later life he claimed the degrees of a M.A. and Ph.D. and called himself 'Doctor'. There is no evidence that he obtained these at a university in the normal way. It has been suggested that he may have acquired them in the 1930s through his friendship with the colourful, eccentric and controversial Father J.S.M. Ward, of whom more later.
In 1898 Com became engaged to the heir of a tea plantation in Ceylon. (Modern Sri Lanka). Incredibly it seems she obtained permission from Gardner's parents to take the fourteen -year old boy to the Far East. They agreed, providing their son was employed on the plantation and taught the secrets of tea growing. Com, her fiancee and the young Gerald finally set sail for Ceylon in 1900. Gardner was to spend most of his life in the East, in Ceylon and then Malaya and Borneo. He worked variously as a tea grower, rubber planter, government inspector and Customs officer.
During his colonial career in the East he cultivated his study of weaponry, writing a standard work on the Malay kris dagger, and he also became interested in anthropology, archaeology and native mysticism. In the 1930s he carried out archaeological excavations in Singapore, and travelled to China and French Indo-China (now Vietnam) in search of archaeological material. In 1936, after he had retired from the colonial service, Gardner was involved in excavations in Palestine (Israel) and Cyprus. In 1932 he spent some time with the famous archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie who was excavating a site near Gaza in Egypt. In the period 1933 to 1937 Gardner wrote several articles on his discoveries on the Jahore river for specialist European magazines. His investigations into the curved dagger known as the kris led him to a study of Malay folk magick, and an interest in European occultism and Spiritualism. It is tempting to see him as an Indiana Jones figure at this time.
In 1936 Gardner retired from the Customs Service and, rather reluctantly, returned to England via Cyprus and Palestine. He had previously been back to the 'Old Country' on leave and in fact in 1916 had served as an hospital orderly in Liverpool, before a bout of malaria sent him back East on doctor's orders. On one visit to England, in 1927, Gardner attended a Spiritualist seance and was given a spirit message about his future wife. She was Donna Rosedale, a nursing sister at a London hospital. It was Donna who persuaded him to return to England, rather then staying in the Far East and living out his retirement in Malaya. A decision which was to change his life, and thousands of others. Strangely Donna was never in the Craft, although she was sympathetic to her husband's beliefs and seems to have supported him in them.
In January 1936 Gardner became involved in an archaeological dig twenty-five miles outside Jerusalem. This expedition revealed the existence of a temple dedicated to both the Hebrew tribal god Yahweh and the Canaanite fertility goddess Astaroth. This find revolutionised the study of the Biblical period indicating how the Hebrew peoples had adopted the worship of native deities in addition to their allegedly monotheistic religion. From Palestine Gardner traveled to Turkey, Greece, Hungary and Nazi Germany, before returning to London. There he and Donna rented a flat in the Charing Cross Road, famous for its many antiquarian book shops.
It was during this period that Gardner was introduced to naturism by a liberal doctor who suggested that it might be good for his health. He subsequently joined a naturist club in Finchley, north-west London. In 1938 Gardner's search for the winter sunshine led him back to Cyprus again and on the voyage out he wrote his little known novel A Goddess Arrives. While on the island he also recalled a past life as a sword maker and purchased a piece of land that he would later give to Father Ward.
It is unclear from Jack Bracelin's biography (1960) whether the two men knew each other previously in the Far East. They certainly shared careers and private interests for Ward had been a Customs officer in Burma and was an expert on Chinese secret societies. Both men had also been initiated into Freemasonry while in the East. Ward had been the head of a Church of England school in Burma and in 1918 was appointed director of intelligence for the right-wing Federation of British Industries. When he returned to England in 1929 Ward founded the Confraternity of the Kingdom of Christ as a result of visions he and his wife had of the imminent Second Coming.
In 1930 they established an abbey at Barnet in Hertfordshire as a Christian community under the auspices of the Anglican Church and the Bishop of St Albans. Unfortunately, the Wards and the C of E soon departed company and Ward was ordained as a priest in the Orthodox Catholic Church, which was anything but orthodox. In 1935 he was given the title of bishop within this church. Ward was also a high ranking Freemason and wrote several seminal books on the subject. His theory, which was probably shared by Gardner, was that that Masonry was descended from the pagan mystery schools and had preserved their teachings into the post-Christian period.
During the 1940s Gardner was a regular visitor to Ward's Ancient British Church and his signature appears on one of its documents. He used to attend the services at the abbey wearing, to the amazement of those who knew of his involvement in the Craft, a clerical dog collar! Gardner was later to use the term 'Ancient British Church' to legally register his covenstead at Brickett Wood in Hertfordshire as a legal place of worship. In 1946, when an irate father accused Ward of luring his sixteen-year old daughter into the sect, the unorthodox priest had to flee England. Gardner allowed Ward to re-establish his community on the piece of land in Cyprus previously mentioned. Ward died in 1949 and the Rev. Mother Ward kept the community going until the Cyprus authorities started to cause problems. The Confratemity immigrated to Australia where a small group still survived in Queensland in the 197Os. Cecil Williamson, the original owner of the Witches Mill museum on the Isle of Man, has claimed that Gardner originally purchased the land with the view to establishing a temple of Aphrodite on the island. Unfortunately the locals were not happy about the idea and opposed the planning permission.
In 1938 there were rumors of war in Europe and Gardner volunteered to be an Air Raid Precaution Warden. At this period, through his contacts in naturist circles, he had met many interesting people who were involved in astrology, Spiritualism and the occult. With the threat of air raids if war broke out, the Gardners moved out of their London flat near Victoria Station and relocated to the New Forest area of Hampshire where they already had friends. While out cycling one day Gardner came across the Rosicrucian Theater in Christchurch. This was being run by a flamboyant character called Alexander Sullivan (Frater Aurelis), who was the founder of the Crotona Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. The CRF had began life in 1911 as The Order of Twelve, but had been disbanded during the Great War when many occult lodges and groups had been forced to close. It was revived in 1920 and in 1933 Mabel Besant-Scott, daughter of Annie Besant who had succeeded Madame Blavatsky as head of the Theosophical Society, joined it. Besant-Scott held high office in the Order of International Co-Freemasonry, an esoteric form of Masonry founded in France in the 1890s which admitted both men and women to its lodges and attracted the membership of many occultists. The group in the 1930s practised a combination of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, but it collapsed in the 1940s after the death of Sullivan who had claimed to be immortal! Gardner had become a Mason in the Far East, and letters allegedly exist showing that he was a Co-Mason around 1935.
In 1938 Besant-Scott and Sullivan founded the Rosicrucian Theater. It seems that Sullivan had aspirations to be, or may even had been, a Shakespearean actor and his role at the theater was as actor manager and playwright. As well as offering plays on subjects such as druidism and Pythagoras, the theater also staged lectures on hypnotism, practical occultism and Esoteric Christianity - a heady mixture that seems to have attracted Gardner and other people in the area who were interested in the occult. Gardner attended several of the plays and, if photographic evidence is reliable, may even had acted in one or two.
During his visits to the theater Gardener noticed a group of people belonging to the Fellowship who stood apart from the rest. According to Bracelin (1960), they had a more serious interest in the occult, held magical beliefs and recognised Gardner from shared past lives. They wanted Gardner to join their 'inner circle' and said : " You have belonged to us in the past, why don't you come back to us."
Gardner was to discover that in fact they were a coven of local witches in the New Forest who were using the theater as a recruiting ground. They further explained that they were Co-Masons who had followed Besant-Scott to Hampshire in the early 193Os. One of them was certainly Dafo (Mrs Woodford-Grimes), a private music teacher who lived in Christchurch and was at the time the Maiden of the coven. She is mentioned in the original programs of the plays at the theater and was later to become High Priestess of the coven. She also features in the list of shareholders of Ancient Crafts Ltd, a company Gardner formed in the 1940s when his own group met at Brickett Wood, and she was present at Doreen Valiente's initiation into Gardnerian Wicca in 1953.
Gardner was invited to join the Craft and Bracelin says: ' Thus it was that, a few days after the war had started [3 September 1939] he was taken to a big house in the neighborhood. This belonged to 'Old Dorothy' - a lady of note in the district, 'county' and very well-to-do.' (165). It was in this house that Gardner was initiated into the Craft.
Of course, not everyone believes this story. As late as 1980 Professor Jeffrey B. Russell boldly stated: 'In fact there is no evidence that Old Dorothy ever existed ... (153). Aidan Kelly, the scourge of modem Wicca, stated even more boldly that Gardner, Dafo and Old Dorothy invented modem witchcraft on the evening of the full moon of September 1939 over their Horlicks, although sadly he does not give the exact time! (Kelly 1991:30). Recent rumors from the States however hint that he may now accept the idea that Gardner was initiated into a pre-existing New Forest coven - but that it may only date from 1935! Doreen Valiente has at least established that Dorothy Clutterbuck-Fordham (1880-1951) was a real person and actually existed. She has also identified the house in the New Forest owned by Old Dorothy where Gardner was initiated (Farrar 1984).
Independent evidence for the existence of the New Forest coven also comes from the novelist Louis Wilkinson. In the 1950s he told the occult writer Francis King that in the late thirties he had become friendly with the members of a witches coven in the Forest. Wilkinson claimed that ' the social composition of the group was a peculiar amalgam of middle-class intellectuals with the local peasantry.' (King 1970:141). King, a sceptic about modem witch survivals, seems to have been convinced by the authenticity of the coven, especially because of Wilkinson's descriptions of their use of a 'flying ointment' and the fly agaric toadstool to induce Otherworldly visions. King however was of the opinion that Gardner did not find the simple ceremonies of the group to his liking and 'decided to found a more elaborate and romanticised witch cult of his own' (142), with the help of Aleister Crowley.
If this coven did exist, and the evidence seems to suggest it did, when did it originate and why did it have such a 'peculiar amalgam' of social types as members? One possible explanation is given by E.W. Liddell (1994). It is alleged that the group derived from a Hampshire coven founded by the Essex cunning man George Pickingill in the 186Os. The group disbanded during the Great War, but was resurrected by some of its elderly members in the 192Os. It is claimed that during the 1930s there was an influx of 'middle-class intellectuals' into the group and these were presumably the members of the Rosicrucian Theater encountered by Gardner. Liddell claims that the newcomers were influenced by the theories of Dr Margaret Murray and that, in common with other traditional groups, it was male orientated and exclusively worshipped the Homed God.
Recently another speculative theory about the origin of the New Forest coven has emerged from the shadows. According to the neo-druidic magazine Aisling 4 8 (1995), it was an offshoot of an organisation called the Order of Woodland Chivalry which was active in the area at the time. This Order was based on the ideas of an American called Ernest Thompson Seton, who combined woodcraft lore with Native American beliefs to produce an alternative scouting movement for boys and adults. In its English incarnation in the 1930s it met in the New Forest and allegedly practised rituals involving the casting of circles and Anglo-Saxon imagery. the group practised a 'back to nature' philosophy which allegedly also involved '...reading the poetry of Victor Neuburg in order to invoke pagan deities'. (Aisling 1995:13). This, allegedly, was the 'real' New Forest coven contacted by Gardner, who was (allegedly)a member of the OWC. At the time of writing (December 1996) we are still awaiting issue # 9 of Aisling which has promised further 'revelations'.
Kelly has attempted, with some desperation and with little knowledge of the British occult scene, to recreate (with the emphasis on 'create') a membership list for the New Forest coven. His dream team consisted of Dolores North (aka Madeline Montalban), George Watson McGregor ( Chosen Chief of the Druid Order), the Rev. J.S.M. Ward, Mabel Besant-Scott, George Sullivan, and Colonel Charles Seymour and Christine Hartley (of the Fraternity of the Inner Light).
Of these, Madeline Montalban certainly knew Gardner in the 1940s and seems to have revelled in the title of the 'Witch of St Giles' - the area of the West End of London where she lived. Madeline also told me that she had typed the manuscript of Gardner's occult novel High Magic's Aid. She seems to have had contacts with other witches in London during the war, who had nothing to do with Gardner, and she was also private seer to Lord Mountbatten, whose family home is in the New Forest area. Liddell (1994) claims that she sponsored Gardner into a Co-Mason lodge in 1945. Through this lodge Gardner allegedly gained an introduction to a hereditary coven in Hertfordshire (160). Kenneth Grant has also claimed to have attended a ceremony conducted by Dolores North at her flat in St Giles Circus (demolished to make way for Centre Point) at which Gardner was also present (Grant 1977:122124).
We knew Madeline from 1967 to her death in 1982, and were a student of her magickal school known as the Order of the Morning Star. and she had a poor opinion of Gardner. In fact she described him as a 'fraud'' and a 'pervert', relating lurid tales of how he liked to be tied up and have his genitals tickled with a feather! (Well, whatever turns you on, and let he who be without sin .... ) Towards the end of her life she seems to have been quite sensitive about any alleged witchcraft connections, and flew into one of her famous rages which lasted several days when a journalist described her in Man, Myth & Magic as the 'Witch of St Giles'. We also knew and worked with Christine Hartley in the 1970s and, while she was sympathetic to the Craft, she never gave any indication she had met or knew Gardner.
Gardner was certainly a member of the Druid Order, and a sword owned by Old Dorothy was used at their midsummer ceremony every year at Stonehenge, however it seems unlikely that their Chosen Chief was ever a member of the New Forest coven. Louis Wilkinson is said to have attended some of the group's rituals as a 'guest' (sic), but whether he was a formal initiated member is unknown. The other names are mere speculation.
The period around 1939-1940 is confused and muddled in the Bracelin biography. He mentions a letter that Gardner had published in The Daily Telegraph suggesting the formation of a citizen militia or guerrilla force to fight the Germans if they ever invaded England. This letter must have been written early in the summer of 1940 and Bracelin suggests that it was responsible for the creation of the Local Defense Volunteers, later to be renamed as the Home Guard. In fact such a force had been suggested by Winston Churchill as early as October 1939. The actual official announcement of its formation came on May 14 1940, following widespread public panic about fifth columnists and enemy paratroopers dropping into the English countryside at night. The Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, made a wireless broadcast asking for volunteers who knew how to use firearms to report to their local police stations and thousands turned up.
Gardner was an ideal recruit because he was an expert on all types of weapons. Before the Great War he had been the member of a private militia called the Legion of Frontiersmen, and in Ceylon he had belonged to the Planter's Rifle Corp. Bracelin's biography has a photograph of Gardner on his Custom launch wearing a revolver in his belt. However, Gardner was already an ARP warden and at first he was refused permission to join the new organisation. He responded by arming his wardens with pikes and coshes, while he carried a loaded machine pistol. Later he did manage to join the Home Guard. He held the rank of lance-corporal and acted as armourer to his local troop.
Wilkinson mentioned to King that in the summer of 1940 the New Forest coven were busy performing rituals to stop the expected Nazi invasion. The end result of this, Wilkinson claimed, was that the oldest and frailest member of the coven gave themselves up as a voluntary human sacrifice. They left off the 'flying ointment' used to keep their skyclad body warm on cold nights so that they might die of exposure. (King: 141-142) Bracelin also refers to this event and claims that Old Dorothy 'called up covens left and right' (suggesting there were other covens in existence to call up). Then in the New Forest a 'Great Circle' was created, a cone of power raised and sent across the Channel with the telepathic message "You cannot cross. You cannot come. You cannot come." A similar rite was allegedly performed by oldtime witches to stop the French and earlier the Spanish Armada. (Bracelin 1960:166-167).
Again, not everyone accepts this story as fact. One Gardnerian High Priestess dismissed it to me as 'one of Gerald's fairy tales', while Cecil Williamson (1993) claims that Gardner based it on a wartime ritual in the Ashdown Forest actually performed by Aleister Crowley and his chums in the British Secret Service............. to be continued.
In Part 2: Crowley, Commander lan Fleming of Naval Intelligence and anti-Nazi rituals; Gardner joins the Folklore Society and meets Dr Margaret Murray; Gardner in West Africa frightening the natives; a meeting with the Great Beast; and the witchcraft museum on the Isle of Man.
References: Witchcraft, the Sixth Sense & Us Justine Glass (Neville Spearman 1965), Gerald Gardner: Witch Jack Bracelin/Idries Shah (Octagon Press 1960), Inside the Brotherhood Martin Short (Grafton 1989), Gerald Gardner; Some Historical Fragments Gregory Tillett in The Australian Wiccan (#14 n.d), A History of Witchcraft, Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans Prof. J.B. Russell (Thames & Hudson 1980), Crafting the Art of Magic Aidan Kelly (Llewellyn USA 1991), The Witches Way Stewart & Janet Farrar (Robert Hale 1984), Ritual Magic in England Francis King (Neville Spearman 1970), The Pickingill Papers E.W. Liddell with Michael Howard (Capall Bann 1994), Scouting for Pagans by Terry Baker in Pagan News (May 1992), Woodcrafting the Art of Magic by Gareth J.Medway in Aisling # 8 (1995), The Nightshade of Eden Kenneth Grant (Muller 1977) and From Dusk to Dawn; Life in the Home Guard A.G. Street (George G.Harrap & Co 1942).