In 1900 Com married the owner of a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and it was agreed Gerald would go to live with them and train in the business. Here he immersed himself in nature, taking longs walks in the forest, which somewhat compensated for him not enjoying the monotonous work on the tea plantation. He later moved on to become the manager of a rubber plantation. During this time Gardner took an interest in the beliefs of the locals, including importantly the belief of an afterlife and reincarnation, which was very different to that of the Christian idea of heaven. He also mingled with spiritualists and folklorists on his visits to Britain and began to assert that there were witches in his family history. Whether this is true or not, it clearly indicates the direction he was heading towards in terms of the formation of his own spiritual beliefs. In 1910 he was initiated as an apprentice freemason in Sri Lanka. He embraced this enthusiastically and moved quickly through the initiatory stages but left the following year. However, it obviously had a huge influence on him. Throughout his life Gardner was somewhat of a magpie, picking up and utilising interesting ideas he obtained from the various fascinating people he met, as well as the organisations and spiritual orders he joined. These ideas all went into the melting pot (or cauldron if you will) that formed his Wiccan practice.
In 1911 Gardner moved to Borneo to work on a rubber plantation. He was fascinated with the indigenous people and their beliefs and intrigued by their tattoos. There are photos of him where we see large snake and dragon tattoos which were probably done at this time. Gardner told his first biographer that during this time he attended rituals and seances.
He went on to work as a civil servant in Singapore where he again befriended locals and absorbed information about their unique religious customs. He was particularly fascinated with the Malay ritual knife called a kris and later wrote a book about it and other Malay weapons. Throughout all his travels we can see that Gardner developed an interest in native religious practices and we can clearly see the influence of Eastern mysticism, as well as freemasonry, in his development of Wicca, itself a Western Mysteries tradition.
In 1927 Gardner returned to Britain when his father became ill. He began going to spiritualist churches and meeting with mediums, but he kept a healthy scepticism until one medium made contact with Gardner’s cousin. His first biographer writes that this made a huge impression on him and helped determine the direction his spiritual journey was to take.
The same year, Gardner married Donna Rosedale and they returned together to Malaysia. Gardner again became briefly involved in freemasonry, as well as continuing to develop his interest in folk magic and ritual. He also took a strong interest in archaeology and was involved in a dig at a hitherto uninvestigated site (Johore Lama), among other places. He began to turn his back on his work as a civil servant and set off on the (arguably more exciting) path of archaeologist, anthropologist and folklorist.
In 1936 Gardner retired and, at the request of his wife, they returned to England and rented a flat in London. However, Gardner soon went to Palestine to join a dig there and became fascinated by the temple of the Goddess Ashtoreth. This was not the first time that the images and mythology of pagan goddesses had intrigued and impressed him.
He travelled widely in this period and when he did eventually return to Britain, he became ill. His doctor at the time recommended he try nudism which began a lifelong passion. He at first joined an indoor nudity club in Finchley and was convinced it had cured his illness. He then began to frequent the nudist club in Bricket Wood, Hertfordshire.
Gardner spent some time in Cyprus and came to believe that he had lived there in a previous life. This belief inspired his first novel, ‘A Goddess Arrives’, which was published in 1939.
Back in London, Gardner was involved in preparing for the war. However, fearing attacks on the city, the Gardners left London and moved to Highcliffe-on-Sea, near the New Forest. Here Gardner became involved in Rosicrucianism, joining the order who ran the ‘First Rosicrucian Theatre in England’. Eventually he became disillusioned with the group and its leader and left. However, he remained in touch with some members who Gardner believed to be more sincere and to hold a genuine interest in the occult. Gardner fostered some strong friendships in this group, in particular with Edith Woodford-Grimes (aka Dafo). Gardner records that in 1939 he was taken by this group to the house of Dorothy Clutterbuck and initiated into a group of witches, known as the New Forest Coven. Having read Margaret Murray’s book on the witch-cult, Gardner was sure that this coven was an unbroken line from pre-Christian times, an assertion that is somewhat questioned these days. Academics now believe the coven was probably formed in the mid-1930s, based on folklore practices and inspired by Margaret Murray’s work. Gardner described one ritual in detail, the now famous ‘Operation Cone of Power’. On Lammas Eve, the coven met in the forest and performed a ritual to raise a powerful energy aimed at repelling the Nazi invasion. They chanted “You cannot cross the sea, you cannot cross the sea; you cannot come, you cannot come.”
During this time Gardner continued to visit nudist clubs and in 1945 bought some land near Bricket Wood and became a major shareholder of what became the Five Acres club. Gardner had a 16th century ‘witch’s cottage’ transported here from an open-air folk museum which then became the meeting place for the coven and the location of rituals and ceremonies. Around this time it seems Gardner was still exploring his beliefs. He became interested in Druidry, attending rituals at Stonehenge, but he also continued his interest in folklore, magic and psychic studies. In 1947 he was introduced to Aleister Crowley and Gardner became a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). At this time Gardner and his wife travelled in America.
In 1949 ‘High Magic’s Aid’ was published which contained descriptions of ceremonial magic. He also began working on what would become known as the Book of Shadows, which incorporated the Wiccan calendar made up of eight seasonal festivals. This describes the core rituals, tools and code of practice for Wicca and its teachings are still in use today, having been faithfully copied by each new initiate and passed down through the years this way. Between 1949-1950 Gardner himself initiated his first few coven members. Gardner’s aim was to revive witchcraft in his own manner, influenced by his experiences in the Far East, freemasonry, ceremonial magic, and the writings of Margaret Murray and Aleister Crowley, among others. It became his ambition to spread this ‘new’ religion of Wicca and he used works of fiction and the ensuing media interest to achieve this. His claims that it was the continued practice of an ancient religion were probably aimed at validating it in the face of widespread criticism and misunderstanding. Although it is equally possible he truly believed it. It is indeed an alluring idea.
Professor Ronald Hutton described Gerald Gardner as “a man of extraordinary charm and mischief, generous and with warmth of heart, but something of a trickster”. In common with other leaders and pioneers, he was clearly charismatic, as well as more than a little eccentric, determined and strong-minded.
In the early 1950s Gardner and his wife moved to the Isle of Man where he worked with Cecil Williamson on setting up a witchcraft museum, then called the Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft. By now Gardner was openly describing himself as the resident witch. In 1954 Gardner bought the museum from Williamson, the two men having fallen out. Williamson moved back to England and eventually opened the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall. It is a very informative and interesting museum that is well worth a visit.
In 1952 Gardner met Doreen Valiente who requested initiation into the coven. Having got on well with Dafo, she was initiated in 1953. She soon became High Priestess of the coven and helped to rewrite the Book of Shadows which many regard as a good thing due to her great talent for poetry and evocative writing style.
Possibly against the wishes of the original coven, Gardner was keen to spread the word about the Craft and wrote ‘High Magic’s Aid’, ‘Witchcraft Today’ (published in 1954 with a foreword by Margaret Murray) and ‘The Meaning of Witchcraft’ with the intention of doing so. Gardner began to increasingly seek out the media attention these publications attracted, although much of this resulted in negative newspaper articles. He believed he was serving the ‘Old Religion’ by keeping it alive in people’s minds, attracting new members and preventing it from slowly disappearing and dying out. However, several coven members, including Doreen Valiente, strongly believed that the Craft should be kept secret, for initiates only, and this eventually led to a split in the coven.
In 1960 Gerald Gardner’s story began to be told and the first biography about him was published, entitled ‘Gerald Gardner: Witch’. It has been followed by countless articles, television programmes and academic works, including most recently the magnum opus ‘Witchfather’, a two volume, extensively researched biography by Philip Heselton.
Whilst returning from Lebanon in 1964, aged 79, Gardner suffered a fatal heart attack and was buried in the ship’s next port of call, Tunisia. His wife Donna had died four years previously. In his will, Gardner gave the majority of his artefacts, museum pieces, ritual items and the copyright of his books to one of his High Priestesses, Monique Wilson. She and her husband later sold the collection to Ripley’s Believe it or Not!. After being displayed, the collection was dismantled, separated and sold off which is a sad loss for the history of Wicca and Gardner himself.
The coven continues to grow and flourish, keeping alive the spirit of Gardner’s work and remaining true to its traditions, while also adapting to the times, opinions and strengths of its members. We honour and recognise the incredibly important legacy of our own Witchfather, Gerald Brosseau Gardner.
Gerald Gardner: Witch – Jack Bracelin
Witchfather – Philip Heselton
The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft – Ronald Hutton
50 Years of Wicca - Frederic Lamond
The Rebirth of Witchcraft – Doreen Valiente
Dancing with Witches – Lois Bourne
Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964) is considered the father of modern Wicca. He is responsible for spreading the beliefs and teachings of modern witchcraft through works of fiction such as ‘High Magic’s Aid’ and through the media, but also of course through his coven, the Bricket Wood Coven, which has continued to walk in his footsteps. The coven still works today using the text from his original Book of Shadows, with certain modifications and additions made over the years, and the rituals and practices have been spread by initiates throughout the world.
Gerald Gardner was born into a wealthy, upper-middle class family in Lancashire but spent much of his life abroad. A large part of his childhood was spent in Madeira where he lived with his Irish nursemaid, Com. There he lived quite independently and was happy to explore and learn about foreign cultures. Before Madeira they had also travelled widely in warmer climes, in the hope of curing Gardner’s asthma, to no avail. These bouts of illness in his childhood resulted in him obtaining very little formal education.