Gardner and the New Forest Coven

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Terminology: I’m using the terms Wicca and Wiccan with capitals to indicate the path publicised by Gerald Gardner, witchcraft and witch in lowercase to indicate anything before that. These aren't universally accepted but hey, it’s my article. I’m also contracting ‘Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship’ to ‘Crotona Fellowship’, in order to save electrons.

It’s dusk on Beltaine eve 1941 and I’m walking out from the dock area of Southampton to the countryside a few miles north. I’m one of the Mason family and I’m with a bunch of my family, heading out to celebrate the festival with our relations at the little hamlet of Toothill, as we've done for generations. A little thing like a war isn't going to stop us, and in any case the feared invasion hasn't come, perhaps because of the ritual at Lammas last year. In my basket are a dozen bottles of brown ale from the pre-fabricated pub that was hastily erected where the bombs took out a block near my shop. Ludicrously expensive but it doesn't give you a fierce hangover like the muck Uncle George brews. I’m in high spirits: soon, within the hill-fort, Aunt Emily will lead off the meeting dance. Then there'll be the traditional rituals, a feast, and potentially a dalliance in the woods with Cousin Anne - we’re to be wed next year, all things being equal.- before the fires are lit at dawn.

It's a nice story, but unfortunately there's not a shred of evidence to support it. When you read what follows, you may feel that putting my own myth at the top of the page and then knocking it down (a 'straw man' attack) is unfair to one of the major players in what follows. If so, you're entitled to your opinion: if I agreed with that point of view I wouldn't have done it. It's a myth, but it's often worth chasing a myth because the underlying truth may be even more interesting.

Okay, having hopefully got you on the edges of your seats, let's take a step back. Gerald Gardner is almost universally regarded as the father of modern Wicca. When he wrote about it, he described his initiation into a coven of hereditary witches in the New Forest, on the South Coast of the UK, in 1939: from 1949 to 1963 he progressively documented changes to the material he encountered, eventually ending up with the system that gave rise to a great deal of what is now modern Wicca. The existence of the New Forest Coven is disputed, viewpoints ranging from its being a tenet of faith to being utterly rubbished.

At the time of writing, there are two major sources regularly cited online: Philip Heselton and Prof Ronald Hutton. Heselton's work is documented in two books; 'Wiccan Roots' and 'The Cauldron of Inspiration'. Hutton's main argument is documented in 'The Triumph of the Moon'. When reading their publications (or even critiques of them), it's important to recognise that Hutton, even with tenure, has less freedom as to what he can put in print. Heselton has more freedom to extrapolate: his research is meticulous and with a couple of minor exceptions I agree completely, although I side with Hutton here and there. I simply draw a different conclusion from Heselton's data: one that appears to me to fit equally well, and one which 'feels' right to me. Now read on.

In summary, Heselton's story revolves in part around the Crotona Fellowship. This was a Rosicrucian group founded in Liverpool by one Gerald Sullivan, which moved its focus to the Christchurch area (just west of the New Forest) in the mid 1930s. The group had members from the Southampton area (just to the east of the forest), many of them members of the extended Mason family, and their friends. Amongst other things, the group staged plays written by Sullivan, and it was this theatre group that Gardner encountered in 1939, eventually taking part in at least one of their plays. This much is copper-bottomed, primary-sourced, fact. From here on, the story gets hazier.

Gardner says that a woman whose craft name was Dafo, who was later identified by Doreen Valiente as Dorothy Clutterbuck, initiated him into a group of hereditary witches, the 'New Forst Coven'. For a while there was argument as to whether Dorothy Clutterbuck existed, but she most certainly did: the questions are whether Dafo initiated Gardner and whether Dorothy was involved. Heselton finds circumstantial evidence that she was, whilst Hutton disagrees. Here I side with Professor Hutton, but as you'll see, that doesn't mean that I disagree with what Gardner actually said. Heselton also seeks to link the Mason family with hereditary witches in the Southampton area, and as you'll see from my intro, I disagree here, too - I think that even Philip would agree that it's the weakest link in his chain of evidence.

Let's start with the witches, and then move on to Dorothy.

Heselton admits that he doesn't have a clear link between the Masons and the witches, but I think that even if the main part of his evidence were correct, it still points to a different conclusion. He relies on a single source, printed in 1965, quoting an un-named informant, for Toothill's links with witches. Now this is the only source I've ever been able to turn up for witches at Toothill, and in fact the whole area is light on witchcraft stories - dragons, Templars, all sorts of such things in profusion, but very few witches. (For that reason I also feel his reference to the Rufus Stone, basically from the same source, is also dubious, but I have other, more significant doubts about that one). Now for Toothill to have been a secret meeting-place and left no folklore traces for several generations, requires a great degree of secrecy. Several correspondents have suggested that that's possible, but to explain the dynamics I'd like to tell a story (and this one's true).

In researching Toothill, I took to stopping off at a particular pub, which was a convenient half-way house on my walks. I no-one chatted and the locals always got served first: no big deal, I'm an outsider and I've played this game all over northern Europe. Then on one visit, a guy who I'd helped out over a court case in a different context spotted me. He bought a drink. I was introduced to auntie, who also bought me a drink (sadly for me a sweet sherry, but one must be 'willing to suffer to learn'). In half an hour I was 'the guy who got him off' - a gross exaggeration, of course. Now, had I been researching outside my own area that would have been that and I'd have gone away with an impression of a really secretive society. But here I was on home turf. Almost home I passed my local and a friend dashed out. 'What were you doing drinking in the Bell?'. In fact it's almost impossible to keep a secret - the news beat me home - and the only reason my whereabouts hadn't been telegraphed all over the area for the previous month was that no-one at the other end knew my name.

So the link doesn't work for me sociologically, and there are the reasons of internal pagan politics for doubting its veracity. But it gets more tenuous still. Heselton relies on census material to point out that in the late 1800s Toothill had a statistically higher than normal incidence of the surname Mason. True, but probably because the sample size is 74. The same number in the city of Southampton would have gone un-noticed and the spread at Toothill is entirely consistent with a single extended family occupying three dwellings. Even assuming that there actually was an undocumented link between the Masons and witches, for me the link doesn't work geographically either. Why would the Southampton group travel all the way to Christchurch for rituals if they had connections in their own area. Sure, covens split, but for me, either the Toothill-witches link or the Mason-Christchurch link has to go, and since the latter is well-documented...

Now as to Dorothy Clutterbuck. As I've said, she certainly existed, but Doreen Valiente was the one who linked her with Gardner's initiator, Gardner never named her (publicly at least). In the main the argument here revolves around whether she was simply the pillar of the community that the records imply, or whether she was a closet pagan. Heselton's main evidence is 'the diaries', three volumes of a common-place book meant to be read by visitors, containing daily entries, mainly of poetry and folklore. Heselton has read the diaries, so has Hutton. Heselton feels she was pagan, Hutton disagrees. I've only read the extracts reproduced by Heselton, but if these are his strongest evidence then I find his case wanting. Just because a poet writes about fairies doesn't mean she believes in them - Anne McCaffrey writes about dragons but I doubt she believes that Pern really exists.

In his second book, Heselton investigates a second lady in the area who also kept a common-place book. Here, he reproduces some correspondence where Professor Hutton suggests that Heselton is underestimating the effect of a background of the classics and the romantic poets on people's writing. Heselton admits that Hutton may be right, but says that he finds it odd that two women who knew each other would write in the same style, unless they were in fact pagan. My own suggestion is that they were both well-off, leisured ladies with the same upbringing including a classical education of the period, an interest in nature and a need to express themselves in poetry (had they had input into Gardner's early material it would surely have been rather better structured. In any case I find it curious that anyone would go to such lengths to disguise a double life, and then 'out' themselves in a book kept in the hall for visitors to examine.

Note that Gardner's claims don't rely on Dorothy being a member of the group. She owned two large houses in the area, so it is entirely possible that she loaned one of them to the group on a regular basis. She may have known what was going on or may simply have assumed that the place was being used for theatre rehearsals. Someone else could easily have initiated Gardner in Dorothy's house.

Now I'll cut to the chase. Here's my own hypothesis, one that I believe fits the evidence as well as 'Gardner was indeed initiated by hereditary witches' and certainly better than 'Gardner made it all up'. Note, however, that it's an hypothesis, and either of the other explanations is at least possible.

Since I first wrote this article I've been through all of the Sullivan material in more detail, and engaged in voluminous correspondence with various sparring partners: the article got longer and longer, so what I've decided to do is present the bones of my hypothesis as supported by the evidence here, and move the musings into a separate fable under 'experiences'. The link is at the bottom.

My preferred hypothesis runs as follows. In 1920, Gerald Sullivan formed the Crotona Fellowship in Liverpool, probably as a revival of the earlier 'Circle of Twelve'. The group held regular meetings in Liverpool and also ran a correspondence course, which appears to have been written by Sullivan. It's reasonable to suppose that he became a member of the (English) Folklore Society some time before 1935, because some elements of his writing from that period mirror publications in 'Folklore'. In writings from this period Sullivan rails against the then state of Masonry, and argues in favour of Priestesses having equal status with Priests.

A nucleus of members formed in Christchurch, meeting in a pub, and attracted some members from Southampton. Eventually, the annual get-together took place near to Christchurch, and the south coast group build a meeting hall and then a theatre. The focus of the Crotona Fellowship moved to Christchurch. The Southampton members travelled regularly to meetings in Christchurch. They took part in the Rosicrucian rites and also perform in the Sunday plays.

One of the women started to teach a sub-group within the Christchurch group. There's plenty of precedent for this, possibly the best publicised being that of Dion Fortune (Violet Firth). Since Edith Woodford-Grimes has been well and truly outed, I'll say here that she's the most likely candidate for group leader, but there are (at least) three other contenders. When, according to Gardner, he latter talked with Crowley about the topic, the latter said that he wasn't interested in being bossed around by a woman.

By 1935 the entire focus of the Crotona Fellowship was Christchurch, where Gardner met them in 1939. In course of his involvement with the theatre group he became aware of the sub-group and he describes them as being set apart (and having to work for a living). Allowing for the maximum doubling of parts, the surviving plays indicate that the group must have had at least fifteen members (over thirty attended the 1935 national get-together), so this sub-group need not have been just two or three standing in the corner. It's possible that Sullivan's move to Christchurch was at least in part due to his feeling that he was losing control of the Fellowship.

The sub-group were comfortable with ritual and with drama, and some at least were entirely comfortable with group nudity. It's fair to suggest that by adding a little readily available folklore to the material published by Sullivan the group could have had a basic system that 'worked'. It's certainly possible that some of the sub-group were solitary 'cunning-folk', or their descendents, who could have added some of their local lore as well.

In 1939, Gardner was initiated into the group. He says that he was cycling around and noticed the theatre, where eventually he took part in at least one play, The Demon Monk. He describes the initiation taking place in Dorothy's house and there's no reason to doubt that. However, I don't feel that Dorothy herself was involved. Gardner had studied magic abroad and had received some initiations in ceremonial magic since his return to the UK. Gardner says that he was 'amused' to be stripped naked, and that the word 'Wica' took him by surprise. He adds that he then realised that he was in contact with the Old Religion. This cannot have been the initiation as later published by Gardner - either he would have been familiar with much of that material, or he would have needed coaching in the words; neither scenario is mentioned in his description.

I believe that the initiation was part of a proto-Wicca derived from material originated by Sullivan prior to 1935. Gardner carefully never says that the coven was ancient - although he does word his claims so that an average reader will assume that's what he's saying - he merely claims that the material (and hence the religion) is old. When one reads what Gardner actually writes, rather than what other people say that he wrote, it becomes clear that he is good at phrasing things so that the reader is invited to assume that he's sayoing more than he actually is.

The group's teachings gradually drifted away from those of the main Crotona Fellowship within which they worked and eventually they split. Gardner began to 'help out' with drafting the group's rituals. The rest is once again verifiable history. As I said at the start, it's often worth chasing a myth because the underlying truth may be even more interesting.

One speculation that makes an interesting thought experiment is to wonder what might have happened if Doreen Valiente, rather than Gerald Gardner, had been cycling past the theatre on that pivotal day in 1939. However, she wasn't. My own personal version of the myth involves some different, though no less remarkable, women, and you can read it here.

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