WICCAN ROOTS - Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival
By Philip Heselton, published by Capall Bann at £14.95. 338pp. ISBN: 186163110-3 (Reviewed by Jeremy Harte)
September 1939 was a significant month in world history, if only because it was then that Gerald Gardner became a witch. Or maybe he didn't. Sixty years on, with a gathering number of historians on his trail, the old fox still keeps a step ahead of the pack. On the evidence of this book, Philip Heselton has got a bit closer than most.
There's nothing odd about occult leaders making dozens of outrageous claims about their past. But Gardner only made one: and in all other respects he seems to have been a practical, modest man. For some reason his family, though reasonably well off, never bothered to find him an education or a job, so he picked up the first for himself and found the other in a series of colonial postings. He retired early, and at the outbreak of war he was in Highcliffe, a genteel suburb of Christchurch.
Back in the 30s, the south coast retirement zone was alive with nudists, vegans, psychics and other seekers after truth. They awarded themselves honorary degrees in occult studies, and wrote and starred in each other's mystical dramas. Luckily, the Crotona Fellowship had a friend on the staff of the Christchurch Times, thus guaranteeing them a degree of publicity that they might not have earned by their own efforts, but even his support couldn't get the public to attend performances at the Rosicrucian Theatre. It closed down after a few years, but not before Gardner had found it, and found some very interesting people there.
Story-telling and performances… who can we trust? Heselton believes we can take Gardner at his word. There were at least three hereditary witches - Ernest and Susie Mason, and their sister Rosetta Fudge - among the members of the Crotona Fellowship. They initiated Dafo when she lived near them in Southampton; then on coming to Highcliffe, they encountered another hereditary witch, Dorothy Fordham (née Clutterbuck) and with her help formed the coven that initiated Gardner.
Now Clutterbuck studies have become an accepted sub-genre of Wiccan historiography. We know that she called her gardener a wizard with a wand, and that she had ram's horns on her fireplace, neither of which really adds up to much. Her poetry survives - Heselton has read all of it, which sounds like hard going - but although there is a lot in it about Nature, it's still what you might expect from a pillar of St. Mark's church and the local Conservative Association.
And yet Gardner's own testimony seems so convincing. Witchcraft Today doesn't read like a manifesto for a new religion: it is just the sort of account you'd expect from a man who'd stumbled on a very old one. But then if Gardner is capable of leading us up the garden path about old Dorothy, why trust him about Dafo and the Masons? They might be just what they seem to be in the records, spiritual seekers with an interest in Rosicrucian rituals.
Gardner was more than that. By September 1939, he had already written A Goddess Arrives (Heselton shows that it was published that December) and this has a High Priestess, lights and circles, ritual nudity, and wand and sword. Swords and nudity were of particular interest to Gardner. He was already in touch with Margaret Murray by the summer of 1939. Of course, all these things may have been his contributions to the fragmentary rituals of a pre-existing New Forest group. But take away the Murrayite language - take away the athame and the circle and the skyclad working - and what is left that you can call Wicca?
Maybe Gardner was discovering witchcraft in a different, less anthropological sense: discovering it in himself. Heselton suggests that there really was a coven, but that they initiated him by stages, letting him work it out as he went along. Paganism can be seen as a timeless philosophy, one which can grow from the most unlikely sources - including, presumably, Dorothy Clutterbuck's nature poetry. That's a powerful myth to live by, but it doesn't really dispel the mystery over what happened at Highcliffe in 1939. Perhaps that's just as well. New religions, like mushrooms, seem to grow best in the dark.