Long before Rowling, Potter and Hogwarts, the Isle of Man could itself, if only for a brief period, boast a position as the focal point of British witchcraft. Many of the leading figures in witchcraft were attracted to the disused mill on the outskirts of Castletown where they came to meet, learn and practice with one of the leading figures in the modern witchcraft tradition, or Wicca, Gerald Gardner. Despite being one of the most (in)famous individuals in post-war Britain, Gardner has been largely been forgotten in the Isle of Man. More memorable was Gardner’s other legacy, The Museum of Magic and Witchcraft.
The mastermind behind the project was Cecil Williamson, a former assistant film producer. Williamson, with his keen interest in witchcraft and the occult, had been employed by the British Government to investigate occult practices in Nazi Germany. After the war Williamson went on to open a folklore museum in Stratford-on-Avon, although this was a short lived enterprise with increasing local opposition leading to its closure in 1947. The following year (1948) Williamson bought the dilapidated Witches’ Mill in Castletown (Isle of Man) where, with the support of the local authorities who welcomed the prospect of another tourist attraction, he created the Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft which opened in 1951 (Howard 2009). Keen to give the venture an air of authenticity Williamson’s associate Gerald Gardner, who was fast becoming one of the most recognisable public faces of modern witchcraft and actively involved in its revival of the tradition, became ‘resident witch’ and ‘master of magic’ (Howard 2009, Andrews 1951). More than this both had amassed large collections of witchcraft paraphernalia which formed the backbone of the exhibits; Gardner had an assortment of swords and edged weapons, whilst Williamson had assembled a collection of talismans and amulets (Heselton 2003). For Williamson the
activities at the museum came under three headings: the exhibition of objects to the public relating to witchcraft and folklore, a visitor’s restaurant, and a membership scheme. Interested visitors were invited to become members of the Folklore Center and in return for their subscriptions they received a journal with views about the museum, articles written by members and non-members, and answers to correspondence queries. In addition the member had access to the museum’s library, were encouraged to collect and donate objects for display, and could join a study group to discuss the practical aspects of magic (Howard 2009: 100).
It is easy to see how tensions between the two developed. Williamson’s interest was purely antiquarian being “primarily interested in the history and ongoing practices of folk magic”, with only passing interest in contemporary practices, for him the museum was an attraction that funded the collection of material for the archive (Cornish 2005: 366). In contrast Gardner’s focus was more on the revival of the tradition, his philosophy manifest in Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), with the ‘museum’ acting as hub for this resurgent religion and a place where he could recruit new members (Howard 2009). With these opposing objectives the situation became untenable and when, in 1954, Williamson could not pay back a loan, Gardner offered to buy the museum from him. Gardner‘s guidebook, produced in the aftermath of the change in ownership, clearly outlines the new agenda contending that the museum “shows how witchcraft, instead of being extinct, or merely legendary, is in fact still a living religion” (my emphasis Gardner nd: 6).
Gardner used the opportunity to ‘rebrand’ the attraction renaming it The Museum of Magic and Witchcraft, simultaneously ‘creating’ a history that embedded the museum within a local tradition and actively promoting a tradition that the ruined mill had been used by local witches for many years prior to the foundation of the museum (Gardner nd) . Like his vision of modern witchcraft, which he proposed could be traced in an unbroken tradition from the European prehistory (Gardner 1954) Gardner recognised that a deeply entrenched historiography gave credence to the museum. Gardner had himself based this historiography on contemporary academic research, particularly the work of Margaret Murray, an action intended to give veracity to the tradition (Hutton 2000). He proposed that witchcraft was also deeply embedded in the local tradition, contending that “[f]rom time immemorial the people of the Isle of Man have been believers in fairies and witches” (Gardner nd: 6). An emphasis was placed on the infamous Manx ‘witch’, Margaret Ine Quane, burned at the stake at Castletown in 1617, who also featured in his Meaning of Witchcraft (1959). Gardner also drew upon the work of local folklorists W. W. Gill and David Craine to substantiate his claims, both of whom had interpreted folk tradition and magic as evidence of witchcraft. For Gardner this tenuous evidence substantiated his claims for a deeply embedded witchcraft tradition. More tangible proof of a native Manx witchcraft tradition came from the “large collection of Manx bygones” within the collection (ibid.). How ‘real’ the connection these objects had with the island was debateable; letters written by Gardner at the time of the reopening certainly attest that a certain degree fabrication was involved (Heselton 2003). Certainly such practices were attested in the revival of witchcraft generally (Cornish 2005).
There seems, almost certainly, to have been an air of commercial exploitation evident within the museums often hackneyed and stereotyped vision of the witch. Reconstructions included “a ‘medieval sorcerer’s temple for the working of art magic’ based on one that might have been used by the Elizabethan astrologer and magician Dr. John Dee”, a replica of a Golden Dawn temple and a witches cottage (Howard 2009: 101). With a restaurant called the ‘Witches Kitchen’ serving a ‘witches brew’, a mock ‘wishing well’ and a shop selling postcards of nude witches. As Hutton observes, the museum was “set up to exploit Man’s booming tourist Trade”; its success was attested by visitor numbers reaching 18,000 in its first year (Hutton 2010: 163, Howard 2009).
No doubt aware of the theatrics at the museum Gardner used his own residence at 77 Malew Street as the meeting place for his ‘real’ witchcraft rituals. Here,
[t]he top floor was converted into a temple, complete with incense burners, antique lamps, an old oak table as an altar, and a magical circle on the floor. It was in this converted room that meetings of the Isle of Man Coven were held in the 1950s and initiations took place. (Howard 2009: 103)
One of Gardner’s main aims in opening the museum was to use it as an innocuous introduction to the tradition, but it also attracted like-minded individuals; as Gardner contended “[m]y Directorship of the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft… brings me a great deal of correspondence from all parts of the world” (1959: 1). Gardner had been a member of a coven (the New Forest Coven) for many years, but following disputes over the negative publicity that he attracted his influence became much reduced and he lost interest in the group. The museum, as it always had, continued to be a magnet for those interested in witchcraft with Gardner using this popularity to initiate new members and create new covens in his loft temple in Malew Street. Initiates included Dorien Valiente, Patricia Crowther, Monique Wilson, Eleanor Bone and others who went on to play important roles in the fledgling Wiccan tradition. While vague references exist to a ‘Manx Coven’, which functioned under the leadership of Gardner and Monique Wilson, little evidence now survives suggesting it was either driven underground or broke up.
The museum continued to function until Gardner’s death in 1964 when ownership passed to Monique Wilson, one of his initiates and a High Priestess. Wilson kept the museum as a going concern until 1973 when she sold the collection to Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and the collection was shipped to San Francisco where it was put on display in several of locations before it was broken up. The museum buildings and Gardner’s cottage in Malew Street were sold.
Andrews, A. (1951). ‘Calling all Covens’. Sunday Pictorial, 29/07/1951.
Cornish, H. (2005). ‘Cunning Histories: Privileging Narratives in the Present’. History and Anthropology 16: 3 (pp. 363-376).
Davis, J. (2000) ‘The Witches’ Mill Today’. Isle of Man Family History Society 22 (pp. 30-3).
Gardner, G. (1954) Witchcraft Today. Rider & Co: London.
Gardner, G. (1959) The Meaning of Witchcraft. Aquarian Press: London.
Heselton, P. (2003) Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration. Capall Bann: Milverton.
Howard, M. (2009) Modern Wicca: A History from Gerald Gardner to the Present. Llewellyn Publishing: Woodbury.
Hutton, R. (2000) ‘Paganism and Polemic: The Debate over the Origins of Modern Pagan Witchcraft’. Folklore 111:1 (pp.103-117).
Hutton, R. (2010) ‘The Changing Faces of Manx Witchcraft’. Cultural and Social History 7:2 (pp. 153-157).
Truzzi, M. (1972) ‘The Occult Revival as Popular Culture: Some Random Observations on the Old and the Nouveau Witch’. Sociological Quarterly, 13:1 (pp. 16-36).