25 April 2015


Steve Dewey and Kevin Goodman. History of a Mystery: Fifty Years of the Warminster Thing. Swallowtail Books, 2015.

Steve Dewey and Kevin Goodman are the two people who may reasonably claim to be largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in England's greatest UFO flap, once virtually forgotten except for a few hard-core old-timers.
Dewey's In Alien Heat (2006) and Goodman's UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact (2007) were the two titles which kick-started the revival, along with Goodman's 'Weird Wiltshire' events held in Warminster over the August Bank Holiday - that traditional highpoint of the Warminster skywatching year - in 2008 and 2009, and the post-pub skywatches that followed on Cradle Hill. Ironically, it was attending one of these events which finally persuaded me to close Magonia as a print magazine and to continue it in the form of the Magonia Review.

Dewey's Alien Heat is a broad historical account of the Warminster years which looks closely at the social and cultural aspects of the events, and sees Warminster as a part of the sensitivity of 'Deep England' and in tune with the 1960s revival of a native mysticism represented by the rediscovery of the mystical landscape, Stonehenge, the New Age Travellers, by writers like John Michel, and by the explosion of interest in leys, landscape mysteries and Arthurian legend. Of course all this was studiously ignored by the 'establishment' ufologists who fetched up in the town - at least in much of their published work, although rumours abound of muscularly scientific investigators sitting within patterns of candles on the various hills around the town.

Goodman's Cradle of Contact is a more personal account of his own discovery of the mystery in 1976, a few years after the height of the phenomenon. Much of it is centred on the Fountain Centre which continued the Warminster legend and moved it into a more occult direction. Here Goodman has experiences which lead him to conclude that whatever social and media dynamics there may have been shaping the events, there was something genuinely strange at the core of the Warminster Mystery.

These personal approaches have been mostly set aside in this book, which is a straightforward historical account of the events. It is largely a chronological account of Warminster from the proto-phenomenon - The Thing - in 1965 to the end of major ufological interest in the topic in the early 1980s.

At first the phenomenon was ill-defined, just accounts in the local newspaper of disturbing noises, and rumours of odd happenings. Many of these rumours seem to have centred around the rather enigmatic figure of David Holton, described as a surgical chiropodist, but also as a "naturalist, amateur geologist, homeopathic practitioner and medical herbalist". Many of us who hung around the UFO world at the time came across similar characters!

Holton crops up forty years later in 2005, writing to Shuttlewood's old paper, the Warminster Journal, claiming that he had started the Warminster Mystery - which he said should have been called the Crockerton Mystery after the village where he apparently cooked up his plans - as a psychological experiment. He seems he was certainly behind the tales of flocks of birds falling from the sky, and crucial to moving the 'Thing' from an auditory phenomenon to being experienced as something in the sky.

Dewy and Goodman's account gives us an overview of the media coverage of the phenomenon, describing not only the newspaper reports but also details of the TV and radio coverage of the mystery. Here I would add one criticism: the book is enlivened by a number of reproductions of interesting newspaper articles but no details are given of sources or dates. Perhaps this could be rectified in a future edition?

As well as the sightings from 'civilians' much of the phenomenon depended on the actions of a number of local 'faces'. Most prominently of course Arthur Shuttlewood, but when his presence faded as his health declined characters such as John Rosewear, Ken Rogers and Peter and Jane Paget of the Fountain Centre stepped into the vacuum. This Fountain Centre started to become the main focus for visitors after Shuttlewood's departure from the scene, and the enthusiasts' interests moved from a 'nuts-and-bolts' ufological level to a much more mystical and occultist standpoint, encouraged by the wayward movement of Shuttlewood's later books. This trend was perhaps one of the causes of Warminster being expunged from British ufological history for almost thirty years.

The most famous image linked to Warminster is the so-called 'Faulkner photograph' which was the centrepiece of Shuttlewood's major splash story in the Daily Mirror in 1965. Long suspected to be a hoax it emerged in 1992 that it may have been concocted by staff at the Warminster Journal to trick the then editor. However the authors have managed to track down the alleged photographer, and Faulkner's latest account puts a different spin on the story. I'm sure, as the saying goes, this one will run and run. Another notorious photographic hoax, not entirely unconnected with MUFOB-Magonia, is also touched upon.

You should read Dewey and Goodman's individual books for deeper and more personal accounts, but History of a Mystery is nicely written, easily devoured in one session, has a useful bibliography and a convenient time-line of the 1965 reports, and makes the perfect introduction to the Warminster affair, managing to be both open-minded and objective. 
  • John Rimmer.

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