Gerald Gardner is perhaps one of the best known and talked about figures in modern witchcraft to date. An English hereditary Witch, he was the founder of contemporary Witchcraft practiced as a religion. Some consider him a man of great vision and creativity who had the courage to try outrageous things during difficult times. Others look on him as a con man, deceitful and manipulative. He authored the now famous books “Witchcraft Today” and “The Meaning of Witchcraft”, both he wrote in the 1950’s. These two classic books inspired the growth and development of many traditions of modern Witchcraft throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States.
Gerald Gardner was born on the 13th June 1884 in a small northern town called “Blundellsands” near Liverpool, England. Born of Scottish descent into a well-to-do family, his father was a merchant and justice of the peace. His grandfather is reputed to have married a witch, and he claims others of his distant family had psychic gifts. Gardner believed himself to be a descendant of “Grissell Gairdner”, who was burned as a witch at Newburgh in 1610. Of his ancestors, several became Mayor’s of Liverpool, and one “Alan Gardner” a naval commander, was later made a Peer of the Land, he had distinguished himself as commander in chief of the Channel Fleet and helped to deter the invasion of Napoleon in 1807.
Gardner was the middle of three sons, but was kept distanced from his two brothers as he suffered severely with bouts of asthma. As a result his parents employed a nanny “Josephine 'Com' McCombie" to raise him separately. Com persuaded his parents to allow her to take him traveling during the winter months to help alleviate his condition. Traveling across Europe, Gardner was often left alone to his own devices, but was content to read and study academic subject such as History and Archaeology. Later when he became a young man, his nanny married and went to live with her husband in Ceylon. Gardner went with her and started work on a tea plantation. He then moved on to Borneo and finally settled in Malaysia.
There with his interest in history and archaeology, Gardner became fascinated with the local culture and its religious and magical beliefs. Gardner also had a keen interest in all things occult and was particularly drawn to ritual knives and daggers, especially the Malay “Kris” (a dagger with a wavy blade). He made a name for himself in academic circles with his pioneering research into Malaya’s early civilisations. He also gained respect as an author, and had some of his writings published in the journal of the Malayan branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. After 20 years of study he wrote his first book on the history and folklore of the Malay called "Keris and other Malay Weapons – Singapore, 1936", and became the world's foremost authority on Malaya's indigenous people and their weapons.
From 1923 until he retired in 1936, Gardner worked as a civil servant for the British government, first as a rubber plantation inspector, then as a customs official and inspector of opium establishments. Gardner made a considerable amount of money in his dealings with rubber, which allowed him to indulge in his favourite pastime, Archaeology. On one expedition he claimed to have found the site of the ancient city of Singapura. In 1927 he met and married an English woman called “Donna”.
After his retirement in Malaya in 1936, Gardner and his wife returned to England and settled in the New Forrest area of Hampshire. Gardner continued to indulge his archaeological interests and spent much of his time travelling around Europe and Asia Minor. In Cyprus he found places he claims to have dreamed about, and was convinced he had lived there in a previous lifetime. In 1939 he wrote and had published his second book, A Goddess Arrives. It was based in Cyprus and concerned the worship of a goddess called “Aphrodite” in the year 1450 B.C.
By now the Second World War was looming and Gardner, anxious to do his piece for King and Country, turn his thoughts to Civil Defence. He wrote a letter publish in the Daily Telegraph stating that, “As decreed in the Magna Carta, every free-born Englishman is entitled to bear arms in the defence of himself and his household”. He further suggested that the civilian population should be armed and trained in the event of invasion. The German press picked up the article and front-page headlines appeared in the "Frankfurter Zeitung", they where furious, raging against the man who had made such a “medieval” suggestion. Shortly thereafter the famous “Home Guard” came into being, known first as the “Local Defence Volunteers”. We shall probably never know if the “Magna Carta letter” was the impetus that instigated it?
Having settled in the New Forrest area of Hampshire, one of the oldest forests in England, Gardner began to explore its history. He soon found that local folklore was steeped in Witchcraft, and curiosity ignited he began to seek out involvement. Through neighbors he became acquainted with a local group of occultist Co-masons, a fraternity that called themselves “The Fellowship of Crotona”. A “Mrs. Besant-Scott” the daughter of “Annie Besant” a Theosophist, and founder of the women’s Co-Masonry movement in England had established it. (The order was affiliated to the Grand Orient of France, and therefore not recognized by the Masonic Grand Lodge of England.). They had built a small community theatre called “The First Rosicrucian Theatre in England”, and there they used to meet. Gardner joined them and helped to put on amateur plays with occult and spiritual themes.
Within the fellowship another but secret group operated, a member of which spoke to Gardner and claimed to have net him in a previous life, he went on to describe the places Gardner had found in Cyprus. Soon after they drew Gardner into their confidence, claiming to be a group of hereditary Witches practicing a craft passed down to them through the centuries. The group met in the New Forest where he was introduced to Mrs. Dorothy Clutterbuck. Old Dorothy as she was affectionately known, accepted Gardner for initiation and in September 1939 at her own home, a big house in the neighborhood, and he was initiated into the old religion.
Old Dorothy’s coven was believed to have been the last remains of a coven directly descendant from one of the famed “Nine Coven’s” founded by Old George Pickingill some forty years earlier. In the following year 1940, while working with this coven, Gardner claimed to have helped with and took part in the now famous “Coven Rites”, aimed at and against the Nazi High Command and the threatened invasion of Hitler’s forces. This we now know was not true. The “Coven Rites” against Hitler had been orchestrated by Cecil Williamson, the founder of the Witchcraft Research Center, and was performed by Aleister Crowley the famous occultist. It’s possible though and more probable, that they performed some sort of rite of their own recognizance.
Just before the outbreak of war, Gardner met with Arnold Crowther, a professional stage Magician and Ventriloquist, he and Gardener formed a friendship that would last for many years. It was after the war in 1946, that Gardner first met Cecil Williamson. They met at the famous Atlantis Bookshop in London, where Gardner was giving an informal talk. Gardner had been eager to meet Williamson in order to extend his network of occult contacts. While they would meet frequently thereafter, their relationship was strained and would later end on bad terms. Williamson describes Gardner as a “Vain, self-centered man, tight with his money, and more interested in outlets for his nudist and voyeuristic activities, than in learning anything about authentic witchcraft”.
In 1947, his friend Arnold Crowther introduced Gardner to Aleister Crowley. Their brief association would later lead to controversy over the authenticity of Gardner’s original “Book of Shadows”. Crowley had allegedly been a member of one of Old George Pickingill’s original Nine Covens in the New Forest, and Gardner was especially interested in the rituals used by that coven, so to augment the fragmented rituals used by his own. He asked Crowley to write down what he could remember and implement them with other magical materials. Crowley by this time was in poor health and only months away from death, but he acquiesced to Gardner’s request. He also made Gardner an honorary member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), a Tantric sex magic order at one time under his leadership, and granted him a charter to operate his own lodge. Crowley was also an acquaintance of Cecil Williamson.
In the mean time, Gardner had moved from the New Forrest, to Bricketts Wood, outside St Albans. There he had bought a cottage on the grounds of a nudist club, from where he ran his own lodge. Not having a car or able to drive, Gardner would prevail on Williamson to drive him down to Crowley’s lodgings in Hastings for consultations. Williamson later claimed to have participated as an observer in some of Gardner’s, new lodge activities. The alter he said, was made up of an old “Anderson” air raid table with a metal top, and was used to perform the Great Rite (A rite involving sexual intercourse.). The lodge he say’s, had far more men than women with about 80 to 20 percent splitting the difference, this because many of the women who joined his lodge, didn’t favour the sexual rites. At one point Gardner had to resort to hiring a London prostitute to play-act the role of High Priestess, and engage in the sex act.
Over time Gardner accumulated a vast amount of knowledge on Folklore, Witchcraft, and Magic, and had collected many artifacts and materials on magical procedures and ceremonial magic. Much as he wanted to write about and pass on this knowledge, he was prevented from being too public. Witchcraft was still against the law in England and he was cautioned by Old Dorothy to remain secretive and not to write. Later she reluctantly allowed him to write in the form of fiction. The result was an occult novel called “High Magic’s Aid”. It was published in 1949, by “Michael Houghton” who was also known as “Michael Juste”, the proprietor of the famous Atlantis Bookshop in London. The book contained the basic ideas for what was later to become “Gardnerian Wicca”.
In 1951 there was a resurgence of belief and new interest shown in the Old Religion, brought on by the repeal of the last antiquated witchcraft laws still being enforced in England. Gardner was now free to go public and breaking away from the New Forest coven, he began to establish his own. This change in the law also made it possible for Cecil H. Williamson to open the famous “Museum of Magic and Witchcraft”, (formerly called the Folklore Centre) at Castletown in the Isle of Man. Later that year after a dispute with his trust fund, Gardner turned up on his doorstep in financial trouble. Williamson took him in as the museum's director, and soon he became known as the “Resident Witch”.
Through his association with the museum, Gardner became acquainted with everyone there was to know in occult circles at that time. His reputation as a leading authority on witchcraft began to spread. A year later in 1952, with his financial problems resolved, Gardner bought the museum buildings together with its display cases from Williamson. Gardner’s collection of artefacts and materials were not as extensive as Williamson’s, and he found that he hadn’t enough objects to fill all the cases. He asked Williamson to loan him some of his talismans and amulets. By now weary, if not openly disliking Gardner, Williamson reluctantly agreed but took the precaution of making plaster casts and imprints of each item. Gardner reopened the museum and operated it on his own.
In 1953 Gardner met Doreen Valiente, and initiated her into his coven. Doreen proved to be his greatest asset, it was she who helped Gardner rewrite and expand his existing “Book of Shadows”. Collaborating together, they embellished the numerous text and rituals he had collected and claimed to have been passed down to him from the New Forrest Coven. Doreen also weeded out much of Aleister Crowley’s materials on account of his black name, and put more emphasis onto Goddess worship. So it was between them, that Doreen and Gardner established a new working practice, which evolved into what is today one of the leading traditions of the Wicca movement, “Gardnerian Wicca”.
In 1954 Gardner wrote and had published his first non-fiction book on witchcraft, “Witchcraft Today”. In it he supported the theories of anthropologist Margaret A. Murray who purported that modern Witchcraft is the surviving remnant of an organized Pagan religion that had existed before the witch-hunts. Murray also wrote the introduction to the book. The book on its release was an immediate success and because of it new covens sprang up all over England, each practicing its dictates. The Gardnerian tradition had been born.
Gardner soon became a media celebrity and courted their attention. He loved being in the spotlight and made numerous public appearances, dubbed by the press as “Britain’s Chief Witch”. However not all the publicity was beneficial. Gardner was a keen naturist and his penchant for ritual nudity was incorporated into the new tradition. This caused conflict with other hereditary witches who claimed that they had always worked robed. Many also believed he was wrong to make so much public, what had always been to them considered secret. They believed that so much publicity would eventually harm the craft.
Gardner became difficult to work with, his egotism and publicity seeking tried the patience of his coven members, even that of Valiente, by now his High Priestess. Splits began to develop in his coven over his relentless pursuit of publicity. He also insisted on using what he claimed were “ancient” Craft laws that gave dominance to the God over the Goddess. The final revolt happened when he declared that the High Priestess should retire when he considered her to old. In 1957, Doreen Valiente and others members having had enough of the gospel according to Gardner, left and went their separate ways. Undaunted, Gardner continued on, he wrote and had published his last book “The Meaning of Witchcraft” in 1959.
In May of the following year 1960, Gardner was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, this in recognition of his distinguished civil service work in the Far East. A few weeks later on the 6th June, he initiated Patricia Dawson into his coven and she in turn initiated his old friend Arnold Crowther. On the 8th November, Patricia and Arnold were married in a private handfasting, officiated by Gardner, and followed the next day with a civil ceremony. That same year his devoted wife Donna died. While she had never taken part in the craft or his activities within it, she had remained his loyal companion for 33 years. Gardner was devastated and began to suffer once more his childhood affliction of asthma.
In 1962, Gardner started to correspond with an Englishman in America, Raymond Buckland. Buckland would later be responsible for introducing the Gardnerian tradition into the United States. They met 1963 in Perth, Scotland, at the home of Gardner’s then High Priestess, Monique Wilson (Lady Olwen). Monique initiated Buckland into the craft, just shortly before Gardner left to vacation the winter months in the Lebanon. Gardner would never get to see the impact of his tradition in America. Returning by ship from his vacation, Gardner suffered a fatal heart attack. On the 12th February 1964, he died at the breakfast table on board ship. The following day he was buried on shore in Tunis, his funeral attended only by the Captain of the vessel he had travelled on.
In his will, Gardner bequeathed the museum in Castletown to his High Priestess, Monique Wilson, together with all its artefacts, his personal ritual tools, notebooks, and copyrights to his books. Monique and her husband continued to run the museum, and hold weekly coven meetings in Gardner’s old cottage, - but only for a short time. When they could, they closed the museum down and sold its contents to the “Ripley’s, Believe It Or Not” organization in America. They in turn dispersed the many artefacts amongst its various museums, some they sold on to private collections. Many of Gardner’s supporters were dismayed, even angered by these events and Monique was forced from grace as High Priestess. Other beneficiaries of Gardner’s estate were Patricia and Arnold Crowther (his old friends), and “Jack L. Bracelin” the author of his biography written in 1960 entitled, “Gerald Gardner: Witch”.
Witchcraft for Tomorrow - by Doreen Valiente.
Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft - by Raven Grimassi.
An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present - By Doreen Valiente.
The Encyclopedia of Witches &Witchcraft - by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.