I am currently rereading The Meaning of Witchcraft by Gerald Gardner. I know I read his book Witchcraft Today about 30 years ago, and I am pretty sure that I read The Meaning of Witchcraft around that time too. His theory of the survival of witchcraft must have seemed pretty convincing to his earliest readers; and provided we do not assume that what survived was a full-blown Pagan religion, or an organized cult, then a lot of his ideas still hold water: namely, the impulses behind the earliest forms of religion and and magic, and how and why people might resort to magical practices even when they were officially frowned upon and then persecuted.
Whilst reading it, I came upon a passage that I found intriguing; it was a reference to a discussion of witchcraft and black magic in Parliament, together with the date and who said what. Here it is (page 13):
As you might imagine, I was curious to find out what was the context of the discussion which gave rise to this attempt to define “black magic”. So I looked it up in Hansard, the official record of the British Parliament, to find out. The interesting thing is that Hansard records other MPs’ interruptions, but it does not record the laughter and ironical cheers; so I would imagine that it was recounted in a newspaper of the day and Gardner must have kept a press cutting. The relevant section is about halfway down the linked-to page, under the heading “House, Brixton (Police Visit)”.
Lieut.-Colonel Lipton asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department why the police called at the home of Mr. Henry Charles Hanks at Grove-way, Brixton, on 22nd February last.
Major Lloyd-George: “Normally, the reasons for police action in the course of their duty are not given, but in the circumstances of this case I am willing to state that I am informed by the Commissioner of Police that on the evening of 22nd February the police received information purporting to come from this address about a black magic circle proposed to be held there that evening. As the practice of black magic is an offence at common law the police called to inquire whether there were any grounds for police action.”
Mr. K. Thompson: A Labour Party committee?
Lieut.-Colonel Lipton: This is a serious matter for my constituent. Is the Home Secretary aware that my constituent, a man of good character and a spiritualist for over 30 years, justifiably resents the unwarrantable intrusion of the police, who alleged black magic and witchcraft, and who stayed on his premises almost a quarter of an hour? Is he not, in all the circumstances, entitled to something in the nature of a public apology?
Major Lloyd-George: I am not sure that I agree. As I have mentioned, black magic is an offence at common law. [An HON. MEMBER: “What is it?”] It is the opposite of white magic. I cannot go further than to say that this is magic performed without the aid of the devil; therefore, I assume that the other kind is with his aid. In any case, it would not be under that, I should have thought, that action would be taken, but under the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951. The fact is that there was a 999 call sent to the police—[An HON. MEMBER: “Black magic?”] It nearly turned out to be so. Obviously, they had to respond to that call and they went there. After interviewing a lady they came away perfectly satisfied that nothing wrong was going on.Hansard, Volume 549: debated on Thursday 1 March 1956
Note that Gardner quotes nearly verbatim from the debate, but does not give the context (it was not relevant to the point that he was making).
It is interesting that the Conservative Gwilym Lloyd-George (son of the more famous David Lloyd-George, last Liberal Prime Minister of the UK) thought that it was justifiable to prosecute someone for black magic even after the repeal of the Witchcraft Act. As he was Home Secretary at the time, he must have been very familiar with the law. The leader of the government at the time was Winston Churchill, who was opposed to prosecuting people for witchcraft. So Lloyd-George’s response to Lipton’s question seems rather bizarre in the context of the legislation that was on the statute books at the time.
The K Thompson who interjected with the quip about the Labour Party committee appears to have been Kenneth Pugh Thompson, a Conservative MP, as he was the only K Thompson in Parliament at the time.
Marcus Lipton (1900-1978), who asked the question, was an interesting person. He started his parliamentary career in 1928 as a Liberal and then became Labour MP for Brixton from 1945 to 1974. Lipton, together with Councillor Jack Simpson, Mayor of Lambeth, greeted the first group of Windrush immigrants at the Astoria Cinema with tea and cakes, followed by a free film. Lipton told the new arrivals that they should see Britain as their second home, saying: “When I heard of your coming here, I was moved. A journey like yours does not take place without good reason.” It was reported that Lipton’s generosity contributed to the migrants’ positive perceptions of Brixton, influencing their decision to settle there.
The other items that were debated on 1 March 1956 provide a fascinating snapshot of the issues of the day: the death penalty, residence conditions for foreign students, the depreciation of the currency necessitating higher maximum fines, the Cold War, child neglect, corporal punishment in remand schools, hackney carriages, court transcripts, the granting of free pardons, West Indian residence numbers, prison welfare officers, Welsh constitutional arrangements, education, school milk supplies, youth service, maladjusted children, the employment of Welsh language graduates, teachers’ pensions, the building of schools, Commonwealth relations, and more.
I Googled to try and find the newspaper article that was the source of Gerald Gardner’s quotation, but found instead two recent articles relating to the incident, one from The Sun (a right-wing tabloid) which is available from another site called Eminetra (the story is pretty scary and creepy), and the other, which is behind a paywall, from The Telegraph (a right-wing broadsheet). These two articles specifically mention Gwilym Lloyd George’s parliamentary remarks about black magic and link the incident to the Hansard transcript quoted above. It turns out that the Spiritualists were trying to exorcise a poltergeist that was plaguing a young girl called Shirley Hitchings. Her story is told in a BBC podcast, The Story of the Battersea Poltergeist, and she has written a book about the haunting. She even moved to Sussex to get away from it. The spiritualist in whose home the exorcism took place was Henry Charles Hanks, or Harry Hank, depicted in a photograph in this article. The police were called, and spent 15 minutes interrogating Shirley and her father in two separate rooms, as someone had thought that the aim of the attempted exorcism was to summon the devil.
Well, that was the most bizarre internet rabbit-hole I have ever been down. It was not at all what I expected to find.
Spiritualism and Witchcraft
It is fairly well-known, I think, that the reason that the UK’s 1735 Witchcraft Act was replaced with the 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act was that Spiritualists had frequently been prosecuted under the old Witchcraft Act and had campaigned to have it repealed. The last person to be prosecuted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act was Helen Duncan, a spiritualist medium who had been giving people messages from their loved ones who had been killed in the Second World War. The government of the day was afraid that she might give away information that would prejudice the war effort. There was also concern that she was defrauding vulnerable bereaved people. After the trial, Winston Churchill sent a memo to the then Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, complaining about the misuse of court resources on the “obsolete tomfoolery” of the charge. The campaign to repeal the 1735 Witchcraft Act was led by Thomas Brooks, a Labour MP, who was a spiritualist. The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 was promoted by Walter Monslow, Labour Member of Parliament for Barrow-in-Furness. (The 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act is no longer in force, as it was repealed by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.)
In 1949, Gerald Gardner published High Magic’s Aid, a novel about witchcraft in the 12th century. It is frequently said that this was in novel form because he could not publish a non-fiction work on witchcraft because it was still illegal. He went on to publish Witchcraft Today in 1954, and The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1959.
Spiritualism has a lot in common with witchcraft, in that it involves direct communication with spirits (although the emphasis in Spiritualism is on communicating with the dead, and the emphasis in Wicca is on communicating with Nature spirits and Pagan deities, although the dead can also be contacted). There is also a considerable overlap in beliefs, values, and techniques.
Spiritualism was in its heyday from the 1840s to the 1920s. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a lot of infant mortality, and then there was the American Civil War and the First World War, which meant that people desperately wanted to contact their relatives who had been killed in these wars. It declined after the Second World War but there are still spiritualist churches and organizations.
Witchcraft and Wicca in all their glorious variety have grown exponentially since Gardner and Valiente began promoting it, followed by Cochrane and Sanders, and numerous others, helped by the rise of the counterculture, feminism, and environmentalism.
Featured image credit: Dark Gothic Fantasy, by darksouls1 on Pixabay.