Widely regarded as the father of modern witchcraft and the founder of Wicca, now one of the world’s fastest growing religions, with his shock of wiry white hair, barbiche beard, exotic tattoos, tanned complexion and ardent naturism, Gerald Gardner was an easy fit for the role. But to the young Ian Stevenson, he was simply an eccentric old man whom he and other village lads would see out and about in Highcliffe.
‘You couldn’t fail to notice him,’ says local historian Ian. ‘He was certainly striking to look at with his hair and beard, but he’d wear shorts right up into autumn and in those days – this was during the War – we only ever saw tattoos on sailors’ forearms, perhaps an anchor, but he had these very distinctive tattooed symbols. He didn’t trouble me, but I knew at least one boy who would cross the road to avoid him.’
Gerald Gardner was born into an upper middle class family in Lancashire in 1884 and lived most of his childhood in Madeira before working as a tea and rubber planter and colonial civil servant in Ceylon, Borneo and Malaya. While in the Far East, he developed an interest in the occult and his tattoos are thought to have been from the once-feared head-hunters, the Dayak people.
In 1938 Gardner bought a house, then named Southridge, on the corner of Highland Avenue and Elphinstone Road in Highcliffe. The motivation for his move to the south coast of England in general and Highcliffe in particular has long been the subject of conjecture, but war was in the air and, London being an obvious target for enemy bombs, they wanted to leave the city. On retiring in 1936, he and his wife, Donna, had moved to London before Gardner went on to visit Palestine, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Germany and Denmark. ‘When he came back to London, he found he was suffering from skin complaints,’ explains Ian Stevenson. ‘His doctor advised him to get as much sun on his body as he could. That drew him to naturism and through that he found the New Forest Club, a well-established and widely advertised nudist club at West Moors.’
It is possible that the New Forest Club with its genteel clientele was a factor in the move to the coast. The club was run by Leonard Lloyd, who then moved it to a large house in Rushford Warren, by the sea at Mudeford, where patrons enjoyed a swimming pool and outdoor tennis, but were advised to wear clothes if they used the public beach. Leonard Lloyd attained a degree of local and national notoriety in 1950 after buying Highcliffe Castle from the Stuart Wortley family and turning it into a children’s convalescent home, only to close it after a few months following a court case resulting from allegations, subsequently dismissed, of indecent assault. Having uncovered this hotbed of nudism, Gardner established his own nudist colony at Elphinstone Road, prompting a tongue-in-cheek article in the Christchurch Times suggesting that such activities were causing locals to abandon their fishing rods and reach for their telescopes the better to observe the saucy shenanigans in the grounds.
Around the same time – quite by chance according to his own account – Gardner discovered Highcliffe’s recently opened Rosicrucian theatre. Purpose-built, it was in the garden of a house on the corner of Somerford Way and Somerford Road that was also home to the Ashrama Hall, the headquarters of the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, devotees of a blend of arcane quasi-religious magic, Freemasonry and esoteric philosophies. Intrigued, Gardner attended performances at the theatre and was drawn to a knot of players who practised pagan rituals. He claimed this was the New Forest Coven and in particular he grew close to Edith Woodford-Grimes, a drama teacher who earned her living providing elocution lessons to the children of well-connected local dignitaries, and through her was initiated as a witch at Mill House, the home of Dorothy Clutterbuck, later named by Gardner as a leading light of the coven.
Ian Stevenson is not so sure, though. ‘Dorothy was a highly respected member of the local community and a practising Christian,’ he says. ‘After she fell victim to a bigamous second marriage, the Bishop of Winchester told her she could no longer receive Holy Communion, which greatly upset her. She persuaded the local vicar to administer it to her and rewarded him with a bequest in her Will. Now, would a practising witch have cared so deeply as to seek Holy Communion elsewhere?’
Ian, who has Dorothy’s personal Bible in his extensive archive, points out that Gardner only ever refers to ‘Old Dorothy’ in his writings and although Gardner told his friends it was Dorothy Clutterbuck, he thinks the allusion might have been a mischievous one to act as a smokescreen for the involvement of Edith Woodford-Grimes. Certainly, until the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, those involved with such pagan practices had to act under a veil of secrecy and Gardner’s witch, or craft, name was Scire, while Woodford-Grimes was known as Dafo. Indeed, her involvement in the Wiccan faith was not widely known outside Wiccan circles until the late 1990s.
‘Perhaps inevitably, there is some suggestion the relationship between Gardner and Edith was more than platonic, but we’ll never know,’ says Ian. ‘Although it does add some weight to the assertion that Gardner’s involvement in naturism wasn’t only for the good of his health. I think he got a kick out of being in the company of naked younger women and there are accounts that he liked to lie with a female companion after their ceremonies. Donna obviously knew about the witchcraft, but it’s not clear to what extent, if at all, she was involved.’
At the outbreak of World War 2, Gardner became an ARP warden and his house assigned as an ARP post. In 1940 he tried to sign up for the Local Defence Volunteers, as the Home Guard was called at that stage, but as an ARP warden he was turned away. Ever resourceful, he circumvented the ruling by being recruited locally as a member of technical staff, an armourer, and set about arming his comrades with weapons from his own collection. ‘It was real Dad’s Army stuff,’ says Ian Stevenson. ‘He had a display of armour and swords at his home and handed them out to the members of the Home Guard.’
But Gerald Gardner’s contribution to the war effort was far from over. Having learned about the Nazi interest in the occult, he was determined to fight like with like and convened a coven to raise a field of psychic energy known as a Cone of Power to repel any Nazi invasion. Deep in the woods, the naked group danced in circles around a centre point, holding hands and chanting to the beat of a drum while performing rituals designed to magically transmit telepathic thoughts to Hitler and his generals to stay out of England. According to Gardner they commanded: ‘You cannot cross the sea, you cannot cross the sea, you cannot come, you cannot come.’
Did they succeed? ‘Well, the Germans didn’t invade, did they?’ laughs Ian. ‘However, Gardner said that several members of the coven were so overcome by their exertions that they died. His biographer, Philip Heselton, and I have researched deaths locally during August 1940 and found that Walter Forder, the editor of the Christchurch Times, which had always been very favourable to Gardner, died at that time. Whether or not he was involved with the coven we don’t know.’
After the war, Gardner returned to London and formed a nudist colony at Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire. In 1949 he published a novel, High Magic’s Aid, setting out many of his beliefs and including various scenes of ceremonial magic. He also completed his Book of Shadows, a scrapbook of spells and rituals that became the basis of the Nature-worshipping, neo-pagan religion we now know as Wicca. From 1951 until his death in 1964, he ran the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man, where BBC’s Panorama filmed him in 1958, in one scene brushing the road with a witch’s broomstick between denials of devil-worship and orgies. ‘He was an ardent self-publicist and wanted to answer his critics. He would have known exactly what he was giving them with that shot,’ says Ian.
More than 12 million people watched the Panorama programme at a time when barely 16 million homes had television, a statistic that neatly encapsulates the enduring fascination with Gardner – a man who never shied away from the media and yet whose followers remain resolutely secretive.
Wicca: A brief guide
Wiccans call themselves witches and are typically duotheistic, worshipping a God and a Goddess. Many, but not all, practise ‘skyclad’ (naked) and preferably outdoors to emphasise their connection to the land. Their celebrations encompass the cycles of the Moon and the Sun and they seek to develop the power of the heart (intuition), using crystals, incense, herbs and oils in rituals that can incorporate magic.
Many Wicca beliefs are open to interpretation but at the heart of its teachings is the Wiccan Rede – ‘An it harm done, do what ye will’ – from a 1964 speech given by High Priestess Doreen Valiente who had been initiated by Gardner in 1953 and is considered the mother of modern witchcraft.
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine