Gardner, Gerald Brouseau

Enlarge picture
Gerald Gardner, considered the founder of modern Wicca. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.
Enlarge picture
Monique Wilson and Gerald Gardner. Courtesy Raymond Buckland.

Gardner, Gerald Brouseau (1884-1964)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Gerald Gardner was born on Friday, June 13, 1884. He was born into a well-to-do family at Blundellsands, near Liverpool, in the north of England. His father, William Robert Gardner, was a justice of the peace and his mother was a member of the then-fashionable Browning Society. The family timber business had been founded in 1748. The Gardners were of Scottish descent and traced their lineage back to Simon le Gardinor in the fourteenth century.

Gardner had one younger and two older brothers. From a very young age, Gardner suffered from severe asthma. When he was four years old, a new children's nurse was hired, a young Irish woman named Josephine McCombie. She had only been employed for a short time when she suggested that the asthmatic boy might be much better off if he were to winter abroad—accompanied by his nurse, of course. This was thought to be an excellent idea, and soon Gardner and "Com," as she came to be called, set off for Nice, France, to start what was to become, for Gardner, a lifetime of globe-trotting.

Within a week of leaving England, Com showed her true colors. She was searching for a husband, and she had very little time for her young charge. Her idea of wintering abroad was simply to give herself a chance to chase young men and hopefully find a prospective husband. From Nice, Gardner was taken to the Canary Islands, then on to Accra. After a short stay, they moved to Madeira.

On their brief stops back in England, Gardner made no mention of Com's many affairs to his parents. In fact, he was quite happy. In Madeira, in 1891, he taught himself to read and discovered a whole new world. He read, indiscriminately, everything on which he could lay his hands. About this time he bought his first knife. This was to be the precursor of a vast weapons collection he would gather from around the world.

Nine years and a dozen countries later, Com found her man and decided to settle down. His name was David and he lived in Ceylon. Gardner traveled there with Com and took his first job, working on a neighboring tea plantation called Ladbroke Estate, which had many hills covered with low tea bushes, surrounded by jungle slopes. Gardner stuck with the job for two years and then moved on, alone, to a similar position at the Noupareil Estate.

Gardner was very much a loner and spent a lot of time in the jungle, which was unusual for a white man at that time. He became friendly with the local natives, studied their beliefs, and took a part in their lives. Continuing his avid reading, he came across Florence Marryat's books on Spiritualism, and read all of them. He accepted the view that there were many local gods and spirits and found himself unable to accept the usual Christian concept of deity.

An American relative named Jennie Tompkins visited him one time, along with his parents. While there, she gave him a copy of the Bible. "Read it," she said. Then she added, "I read the whole of this when I was young and I've never believed a word of it since!"

By 1908, Gardner moved to Borneo, where he worked on the Mawo Estate at Membuket. It was there, in the jungles of Borneo, that he came to know and respect the Dyaks, a tribe that had once been headhunters. He was especially fascinated by their weapons, especially their deadly blowpipes, the sumpitan. Gardner attended their tribal séances and was surprised to find that they were in many ways similar to séances held by English Spiritualists. About this time Gardner became ill with malaria, as did most Caucasians who visited the Far East at that time. While recuperating, he took a short vacation in Sarawak. While there, he met with his friend, the Rajah of Sarawak, and told him about his experiences with the Dyaks.

Gardner next took a job as an assistant on a rubber plantation at Sungkai in central Malaya. There he was struck down with blackwater fever. This should have killed him, as it did to several others in the local hospital, but it didn't. He somehow managed to find the strength to recover.

The year 1923 found Gardner working as an inspector of rubber plantations for the government. He worked hard for several months and enjoyed his job, but he once again ended up in the hospital, this time suffering from synositis in his knee. During his very long stay in the hospital, he discovered the wonderful therapeutic powers of the sun. That discovery later lead him to become a member of several nudist clubs when he returned to England; one was located at Highgate, and another at Bricketts Wood.

Soon after his return to work, Gardner was promoted to principal officer of customs. Life now became very exciting for him, with occasional raids on contraband hideouts. He also frequently took part in offshore patrols in the Indian Ocean, which entailed trying to intercept smugglers running guns, ammunition, opium, and hashish out of the Muar and Batu Bahat rivers.

In Gardner's next position as inspector of opium establishments he found himself with a lot more spare time. He studied more and spent time thinking about the Malays and the Saki, even examining the sites of those society's ancient cities. He became particularly interested in the keris, or kris, a wavy-bladed dagger on which, at that time, there was virtually no literature. Over a period of about twenty years, Gardner studied two magical daggers called the kris majapahit and the kris pichit and wrote a paper on them for the Malayan branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. When he finally produced his book, Keris and Other Malay Weapons (Progressive Publishing, Singapore, 1936), he was established as the world authority on the subject. He later received an honorary doctorate from the University of Singapore.

Among Gardner's archeological finds was the site of the ancient city of Singapura. He also proved that the ancient civilization used ocean-going ships, and he reconstructed models of them. One of his models is in the Singapore Museum and another is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. For a period, Gardner joined J. L. Starkey, Director of the Wellcome Archeological Research Expedition, digging at the ancient city of Lachish, in Palestine.

On Gardner's retirement, in January 1936, he started back for England. He had wanted to retire to Malaya, but the climate did not agree with his wife Donna (he had married Donna Rosedale on one of his few trips to England, in 1927). On the way back to his homeland—which was hardly home to Gardner after so many years away—he stopped in Istanbul, Athens, Budapest, and Germany. It was still necessary, because of his asthma, to spend the winter months out of England. The first winter after his return he visited Cyprus. It was there that he found the exact place he had seen many times in his dreams. The site was at Kyrenia, and many things there turned out exactly as he had dreamed them, to the point that Gardner concluded he must have lived there in a previous lifetime. He attempted to establish a temple to the Goddess on Cyprus, purchasing a beautiful site that included a ruined temple. Unfortunately the local authorities did not care for his idea, and Gardner was forced to leave and once again return to England. There, in 1939, he published his first novel, A Goddess Arrives (Arthur H. Stockwell, London), set in the year 1450 CE and dealing with the worship of Aphrodite.

Throughout his travels and his many and varied jobs, Gardner maintained an interest in the occult. In 1905, while on one of his leaves, he met the Surgensons, distant relatives who were considered "a little odd." This was because one of the daughters in the family had a reputation as a palmist and crystal gazer, and the whole family firmly believed in reincarnation. Gardner noticed that some other relatives, also friends of the Surgensons and also named Gardner, were sometimes teased and asked if they had been to any Witches' sabbats. Gardner then discovered (from his brother Bob) that his grandfather Joseph's second wife, Ann, had supposedly been a Witch. The relatives Gardner now met were Ann's descendants and supposedly followed in her footsteps. However, it was not until 1938 that Gardner came into direct contact with the Witch cult.

Just before the start of World War II, Gardner was living in Highcliffe, England. In nearby Christchurch, he contacted an organization started by Mrs. Mabel Besant Scott, daughter of Annie Besant. Mrs. Scott had taken up Co-Masonry after the Theosophists had chosen Bishop Leadbeater as their leader, when Annie Besant died. Mrs. Scott's group was known as the "Rosicrucians."

Gardner became very friendly with a small "group within the group" called the Fellowship of Crotona. He was somewhat surprised when one of his new friends said he had known Gardner in a past life. The man went on to describe the location of Gardner's recurring dream, which had turned out to be Kyrena, Cyprus. Other group members were intensely interested when Gardner mentioned that one of his ancestors, Grizell Gairdner, had been burned at the stake as a witch at Newborough, Scotland, around 1640.

A short time later, Gardner took part in the group's initiation ceremony, which was led by the coven's leader, Dorothy Clutterbuck-Fordham. Gardner finally realized that these new friends—and now he, himself—were in fact Witches. For the first time since he had left the Far East, Gardner felt wonderfully happy. He knew from reading books by Dr. Margaret Murray that Witches were not Satanists or devil worshipers, as had been charged by the church for so long. In fact, he soon learned many wonderful things about the true nature of Witches, so much so that he felt he wanted to share them with others. He asked if he might write a book about Witchcraft and what it really was, but was told that he should not do that. "Old Dorothy," as the High Priestess was known, pointed out that Witches had survived only by remaining secret.

Gardner's approach to the study of the occult followed the same pattern he had employed so successfully with archeology. With the end of World War II, he started to travel again. He visited America, where, among other things, he went to New Orleans to study voodoo. In 1951, and again in 1952, he traveled to West Africa.

In 1946, a stage magician friend of Gardner's, Arnold Crowther, was going to visit the infamous Aleister Crowley, who was then living in Hastings. He offered to take Gardner with him. Afterward, Gardner continued to visit Crowley until Crowley's death the following year. The two became friends and Crowley gave Gardner a charter to start a branch of his magical order, the Ordo Templi Orientis. He also gave him honorary membership at the grade 4-7. Gardner never did utilize the charter, but a few years later he put it into his museum collection.

After a great deal of persuasion, Gardner did manage to get his coven to agree to let him write about the true face of Witchcraft, but in the form of a novel, a fictional account of three young ceremonial magicians in search of a Witch. It was published as High Magic's Aid (Michael Houghton) in 1949 and written under his Craft name of "Scire," although his mundane name also appeared on the title page.

Gardner broke away from the New Forest group and started his own coven in Bricketts Wood, St. Albans, in 1947. They met in what was called a "Witch's Cottage," on the grounds of a nudist club. Gardner had obtained the Elizabethan-style cottage from a man named Ward, who had run the Barnet Folklore Museum at Barnet.

A year later Gardner moved to the Isle of Man and lived there with Cecil Williamson who, four years earlier, had established the Witchcraft Research Centre in the old 1611 mill at Castletown. This was known as "The Witches' Mill" and was the site of the Arbory Witches' meetings in 1850. Williamson helped Gardner purchase a cottage on Malew Street. Gardner had first met Williamson in 1947, when they both happened to be in the Atlantis Bookshop in London. Williamson also knew Mrs. Woodford-Grimes, one of the elders of the Clutterbuck coven. Gardner would sit at Williamson's museum, with a pile of his High Magic's Aid beside him, and bask in the glory of being "Resident Witch." When Williamson decided to sell the museum and move back to England, Gardner purchased the property and installed his own collection.

In 1951, the last law against Witchcraft in England was repealed. That same year "Old Dorothy" Clutterbuck, Gardner's original High Priestess, died. Gardner felt the time was right to at last publish a factual book about Witchcraft. The book appeared in 1954 and was titled Witchcraft Today (Rider, London). In 1959, he followed his initial work with a companion volume, The Meaning of Witchcraft (Aquarian Press). These books established Gardner as the spokesman for the Old Religion. He initially suffered from popular ignorance and superstition and was persecuted by the locals, but he persevered and considered it to be his mission in life to try to clarify the misconceptions that existed concerning Witches and Witchcraft. His museum at the Witches' Mill aided that effort, and it soon became a clearinghouse for those who were sincerely interested in the Craft and eager to learn more of its ways.

By 1955, lectures on the survival of Witchcraft as a religion were being held at Paris University. The instructor, Professor Varagnac, based his Sorbonne course on Gardner's works. Also in 1955, the Ethnographical Society accepted the reality of the Witch faith, under the title of "Contemporary Witchcraft in Britain, and the Survival of Celtic Cults." In 1959, Dr. Serge Hutin, of the Ecole Practique des Haute Etudes (Sciences Religieuses), wrote about the Craft and named Gerald Gardner as the "most qualified specialist in the field." In New York, in 1964, the New School for Social Research offered a course on "Witchcraft, Magic, and Sorcery" that was taught by Dr. Joseph Kaster (with this author as guest lecturer) and that included Gardner's books as required reading.

In 1953 Gardner initiated Doreen Valiente into the Craft. She became very influential in shaping what was to become known as Gardnerian Witchcraft. Gardner had found the Book of Shadows, or ritual book, of his original coven sadly lacking. Over the many generations of Witches through whose hands it had passed, items had been added while other sections had been lost. Gardner felt that it was woefully incomplete and decided to "correct" it. He did this by drawing on his own knowledge of religio-magic and by borrowing heavily from a wide variety of sources. Valiente recognized much of what he had used—in particular passages from Aleister Crowley's works—and worked with Gardner to give the whole a better balance that was more in keeping with the feelings and philosophies of the Old Religion. As an accomplished poet, Valiente added a number of inspired, original passages that have since become classics of Wiccan ritual. The resulting Gardnerian Book of Shadows has now been in use for several decades in many countries around the world.

In 1960, in recognition of Gardner's distinguished work in so many fields of ancient beliefs, he received a prestigious invitation to a Buckingham Palace reception and was presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The year before, his wife Donna had passed away. Gardner himself had been suffering more and more from asthma. The British climate hindered him, and he invariably traveled to the continent for the winter months. The winter of 1963 Gardner left, as usual, for a warmer climate, traveling to one of his favorite spots, Lebanon. He was returning home on board the Scottish Prince when he died at sea on February 12, 1964. His body was taken ashore and buried at Tunis. His museum and cottage on the Isle of Man were left to Monique Wilson—Lady Olwen, his High Priestess—with other bequests going to other Priestesses.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.