Witchfather by Philip Heselton is only the second biography of Gerald Gardner ever published and is the only one published since the subsequent growth of Wicca in the four decades since he passed over in 1964. The previous biography, Gerald Gardner: Witch by J. L. Bracelin, was published in 1960 and was reprinted in 1999 with relatively little fanfare. Heselton asserts that Bracelin’s book is pretty much a hagiography, and so part of Heselton’s goal in this new biography is to present a more balanced view of Gardner and verify to the extent possible the various facts asserted in the previous biography. Heselton’s new biography also expands greatly upon its predecessor and has been published in two volumes. It is a thorough, careful and professional investigation, and this first volume, at least, succeeds at being the definitive record of Gardner’s life through the point at which he was initiated into witchcraft.
Heselton has clearly done his homework in preparing this biography. It is fairly clear from the text that Heselton has delved into a wide variety of records to document and support, to the extent possible, the facts of Gardner’s life. Heselton has dug into birth records, passenger manifests, local newspaper archives, club membership rosters and records, voting registrations, and private correspondence and journals. I guess it is possible that there might be some primary source that he missed, but it seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, Witchfather, Vol. 1 is not a dry recitation of the facts of Gardner’s life. The prose is engaging and lively, and Heselton presents a fairly unbiased view of Gardner and his journey into the Craft. It is plain from the records, for instance, that Gardner was a political conservative, and that he had a transparently untutored grasp of English spelling and orthography. Heselton does fill in various gaps in the record with plausible conjectures and opinions, but, crucially, he explicitly delineates those conjectures as such. For instance, it is clear that Gardner was, by the time he retired at the age of 52, a bit wealthier than one might expect given his years as a civil servant and the comparatively modest inheritance from his father. Given that Gardner was a government inspector of opium dens in Malaysia at the conclusion of his career, Heselton gently posits that Gardner might well have been on the take. There is no direct evidence of any such malfeasance, of course, but it certainly would fit the circumstances of Gardner’s subsequent life back in England.
Two of my criticisms of Witchfather, Vol. 1 are entirely minor and petty. Heselton has one small stylistic quirk: he overuses exclamation points to indicate his excitement with the material! Perfectly unremarkable discoveries and conclusions are embellished with the device! It gets a little annoying!
This first volume also ends rather abruptly and even jarringly. The book comes to a stop at the end of a chapter and a section, but there is no sense whatsoever of bringing the volume to a close with any kind of conclusion or summary. I cannot really begrudge a $20 price tag for the e-version of this two volume work since Heselton’s investigations are exacting and thorough, but the ending of the volume is so arbitrary that it underscores the fact that the decision to publish this work in two volumes was purely a matter of marketing and pricing particularly since the bibliography is confined to the end of the second volume.
A more somewhat more substantive criticism can made in regards to two of the more controversial aspects of the history of modern Wicca. Was Gardner initiated into an unbroken lineage of witchcraft which preserved elements of an indigenous, pre-Christian religion? The tone of this biography is clearly on the affirmative side of that question, but is only able to muster hearsay and speculation to support that conjecture. I tend to lean towards “probably not”, and if you are staunchly against the idea, you will probably find the book’s presumption of that conclusion to be annoying.
That being said, this book is a substantive step forward in the scholarship on this issue. If I am remembering Triumph Of The Moon correctly, Hutton was not able to confirm the existence at all of “Old Dorothy” Clutterbuck who supposedly owned the house where Gardner was initiated, but Heselton convincingly makes the case that she was Dorothy Fordham née Clutterbuck to the point where he managed to gain access to and read her private journals. Heselton also makes some progress on identifying some of the people who likely were in the coven that initiated Gardner. Even if you do not agree with the plausibility of unbroken pre-Christian survival, Heselton makes a fairly strong case that Gardner was initiated into a group a people that were both acquainted with Murray’s writings on the topic and believed that they were part of such a tradition. The position that Gardner made up the entire tradition is untenable at this point given the evidence presented by Heselton.
The second controversial episode covered by this first volume is the magical working by the New Forest coven against Germany’s potential invasion of England during World War II. Heselton spends an entire chapter conjecturing how and when such a working could have occurred and who might have participated. Both Gardner and Crowley claimed to have participated in such a ritual, and the evidence is probably more favorable here in the case of Gardner. The fact that such a working occurred seems entirely plausible given that the evidence for the existence of the New Forest coven is pretty strong now. Heselton is rather credulous about the effects of the working, speculating both that it effected the minds of Hilter and the Nazi command and that it resulted in a few of the participants in the ritual dying shortly thereafter as Gardner later asserted. I find it somewhat anglocentric to presume that only English magicians were active during the war. Yes, there were probably rituals performed at New Forest and elsewhere in Great Britain, but then there were probably similar rituals performed on all sides of the conflict.
In general, however, this first volume is a welcome exposition of Gardner’s life and character. Pause for a moment to consider that Gardner barely evinced any interest in the two things he became known for (witchcraft and naturalism) prior to his retirement at the age of 52. In fact, Heselton makes a convincing case that Gardner was interested in wide variety of topics prior to that point, and had a wide-ranging but reasonably skeptical approach to his interests. Because he had asthma, he was placed in the care of a governess and sent to warmer climes during the school year in his youth. His governess was so disinterested in tutoring him, that he became an autodidact to the point where he literally had to teach himself to read. Nevertheless, he later became a dedicated and reputable amateur archeologist, and later, of course, the published author and writer whose works we still can enjoy.
Heselton has thoroughly investigated the area around New Forest at that pivotal moment in history when Gardner came to live there. Heselton tends to conjecture that anyone in the area that he can find in the records whose interests seem to lean that way were probably in the coven. Other than the strong evidence in the case of Edith Woodford-Grimes, I tend to be a bit more skeptical. I suspect that most of the small coven probably left no trace in the public record that could mark them as members of the New Forest coven. Nevertheless, Heselton’s evidence does make it probable that Highcliffe and Christchurch had attracted a population of people with similar interests in similar way that Paganistan in Minnesota later did here in the US, and the particulars of who was actually in the coven are probably less important that the fact that there was a relatively large population of like-minded individuals around in which the tradition could form or continue whatever the case might have been.
Witchfather, Vol. 1 is a step forward in the study of our history as Pagans, and should be credible source upon which future research will be built. I expect the second volume will be equally enlightening, and I will continue this review when I have finished working my way through it.