Philip Heselton. In Search of the New Forest Coven. Fenix Flames, 2020.
This book seeks to untangle the story behind Gerald Gardner’s initiation into a ‘witch cult’ in 1939, and to identify and explore the lives of the people in that cult, and the nature of the ‘cult’ itself. Although most people now accept that whatever the background to Gardner’s ‘coven’, it was not, as he claimed, “one of the ancient covens of the Witch Cult which still survive in England”.
However it was not something that was created out of whole cloth by Gardner, and has a history preceding his contact with it, if not as a ‘coven’, but as a network of people with a background, sometimes generational, in a variety of occult and mystical groups. Philip Heselton has attempted to find out as much as possible about the lives and beliefs of those people mentioned in Gerard Gardner’s books and papers as being associated with the ‘cult’.
This has involved a degree of research which would impress any student of family history, tracking down dates of birth, marriages, addresses, employment, and details of their associations with each other and with the worlds of occultism, esoteric societies and their interest in pagans, ancient and modern.
He describes a remarkable group of people, all living at some period of their lives in the area of the New Forest in Hampshire and around Bourrnemouth and Southampton, and in particular a concentration in the small village of Highcliffe-on-Sea, now a suburb of Christchurch.
It is a complex series of relationships, too involved to be described in any depth here, but it presents not only descriptions of the people who influenced Gardner’s development of Wicca and the many sources that influenced them, but also provides fascinating picture of a section of middle-class society in the first part of the twentieth century.
The members of the ‘coven’ were not the traditional ‘wise-men’ and ‘hedge-witches’ holding the secrets to long hidden traditions, but teachers, businessmen, military officers and prominent figures in politics and local society. The sort of people who would be leaders in the Bournemouth Rotary Club or the Soroptimists, and of course the Masons. Indeed some were prominent in Masonry, more particularly Co-Masonry, and this brought them into contact with more esoteric groups.
A figure that Heselton looks at in some detail is Elizabeth Rose Woodford-Grimes neé Wray. She was born in 1887 in the small North Yorkshire town of Malton. In 1911, she was working in domestic service, but in a senior role – a sort of female Jeeves – in Baildon, near Bradford, which seems to have been a centre for esotericism in its own right, with nine members of the Order of the Golden Dawn living in one small village.
On moving south to Highcliffe she found that many of her close neighbours shared her interests, and became a member of a number of esoteric organisations including the Crotona Fellowship, an offshoot of Rosicrucianism, as well as being a local magistrate, renowned for her marmalade tarts. Typically most of the members of the nascent ‘coven’ were figures of impeccably middle-class backgrounds and occupations.
The author has uncovered a sidelight to her background that will interest Magonia readers who are familiar with the Welsh Revival of 1904-5 and the mysterious light phenomena associated with it. Elizabeth was in service in the household of George Waud, who was involved in the woollen trade in nearby Bradford. According to a report in the Shipley Times and Express of 7th March. 1913, George Waud was someone “who enjoyed a practical joke”.
George Waud says he was living in North Wales at the height of the Revival when “all sorts of visitations were announced. My house was beautifully situated for the joke, so I had several black paper fire balloons made . . . all the local and Liverpool papers were full of these ‘mysterious lights’ for some time until I wrote to one of the papers and explained the hoax.”
One remarkable figure who seems to have had a major influence on Gardnerian Wicca, was Katherine Oldmeadow. She was born in Chester in 1878, the youngest of nine children and not untypically for the class of person involved in the ‘coven’ her father was the Deputy Chief Constable of the city. For reasons which are not clear she and a sister moved to Highcliffe some time after 1911, and not long afterwards the two women moved in with a third sister and her husband, in a house just a few doors down from Dorothy Clutterbuck, another major figure in the Highcliffe group.
Katherine was raised in the Church of England but converted to Roman Catholicism, but seemed to find conventional religion too constraining. She became a writer of twenty-three published books, mainly girl's school stories with titles like Madcap Judy and Princess Charming, also a non-fiction book, The Folklore of Herbs. Heselton notes that “All of them reveal the sort of interests that would provide a sympathetic environment in which a witch cult might be expected to thrive”.
The school stories often involved secret societies with rituals which clearly prefigures the ceremonies of the later Wiccan movement. Heselton asks if the themes presented in these stories were later “woven into a newly conceived and emerging witch cult”.
None of this proves the existence of a surviving historical ‘witch cult’ in the New Forest or elsewhere, which was suddenly discovered by Gerald Gardner, but it does show that there was a group of people, in a closely related grouping, who clearly felt that they were the successors to a quite wide range of mystical, philosophical and occult traditions that they were re-invigorating.
The history of modern Wicca is not a topic I have read in any depth, but even without that background, this book is in its own right a masterful piece of social history, analysing a narrow, but influential segment of upper-middle class life in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. The author’s depth of research is staggering, revealing a fascinating insight into the birth of a movement, and the lives of some extremely interesting people. – John Rimmer