Gerald Brousseau Gardner (1884-1964), an English hereditary Witch and allegedly responsible for reviving Witchcraft in the modern Western world, was born in Blundellands, near Liverpool, England, on June 13, 1884. His father served as a justice of the peace, being a member of a family in the timber trade business. The family was of Scottish descent, tracing its roots to a woman named Grissell Gardner who had been burned as a Witch in 1610 at Newburgh. Gardner’s grandfather marred a woman who was supposedly a Witch and some of his distant relatives assumedly possessed psychical abilities. Gardner’s family tree included as well mayors of Liverpool, and Alan Gardner, a naval commander and later vice admiral and peer, who later earned distinction as the commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet who helped to prevent the invasion of Napoleon in 1807.
Gerald was the second of three sons, and suffered severely with asthma when young. To alleviate his condition his nurse Josephine “Com” McCombie convinced his parents to permit him to travel with her in Europe during the winter. During this time young Gerald found much time for reading since he was often by himself while Com roamed Europe. She eventually married a man in Ceylon and took Gerald with her. There he worked on a tea plantation. Later he worked in Borneo and Malaysia.
While in the Far East Gardner became acquainted with the natives and familiar with their spiritual beliefs, which influenced him more than Christianity. He was fascinated by the ritual daggers and knives, especially the Malaysian kris; a wavy blade dagger, and wrote Kris and Other Malay Weapons, which was published in Singapore in 1939. The book established Gardner as the world authority on the kris. It remains the standard on the subject, and was reprinted posthumously in 1973.
Between 1923 and 1936 Gardner was employed by the British government in the Far East as a rubber plantation inspector, customs official and inspector of opium establishments. He made considerable money in rubber which allowed him to dabble in his great interest of archaeology. He claimed to have discovered the site of the ancient city of Singapura.
In 1927 he married an Englishwoman Donna who returned to England with him upon his retirement from working for the government in 1936. Then much of Gardner’s time was spent on archaeological trips throughout Europe and Asia Minor. It was in Cyprus that he saw things which he had previously dreamed about which convinced him that he had previously lived there in another life. (see Reincarnation)
In England, before World War II, Gardner met people who introduced him into Witchcraft. He and his wife lived in the New Forest region, where Gardner was involved with the Fellowship of Crotona, an occult group of Co-Masons, a Masonic order established by Mrs. Besant Scott, daughter of the Theosophist Annie Besant (see Theosophical Society).This group had established “The First Rosicrucian Theater in England,” which presented plays having occult themes. In this group Gardner met a member who claimed they had been together in a previous life in Cyprus and described a site that Gardner had envisioned when dreaming.
Within the Fellowship of Crotona was another, secret group, which took Gardner into its confidence. Members in this group claimed to be hereditary Witches, whose family members had practiced a craft for centuries, and such practice had not been interrupted by the witch hunts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This group met in the New Forest, and just days before World War II began in 1i939, Gardner was nitiated into the coven by the high priestess Old Dorothy Clutterbuck.
The coven, including Gardner, joined with other Witches in southern England on July 31 (Lummas Eve), 1940, to perform a ritual to prevent Hitler’s forces from invading England.(see Cone of power). Five members of the coven died shortly afterwards. Their deaths were blamed on the power drained from them during the ritual. Gardner, himself, felt his health had been adversely affected.
Through the introduction of Arnold Crowther Gardner met Aleister Crowley in 1946. Crowley made Gardner a honorary member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), a magical order of which at one time Crowley held leadership. Crowley had once practiced Witchcraft, presumably in one of the Old George Pickingill’s covens. There is speculation that Gardner asked Crowley information about Craft rituals, which he might incorporate into his own. According to Patricia C.Crowther, wife of Crowther, it is known that Gardner admired and was influenced by Crowley, but there is no evidence suggesting that Crowley gave him any specific Craft material.
Gardner desired to, but was kept from publicly writing about the survival of Witchcraft, because at the time Witchcraft was still against English law. So his novel High Magic’s Aid concerning Witchcraft was published in 1949, under the pseudonym Scire. The work included rituals which he had learned from his coven, and the worship of the Horned God, but the Goddess was not mentioned.
When the law against witchcraft was repealed in 1951 Gardner broke from the New Forest coven to form his own coven. In the same year he traveled to the Isle of Man, on which was a Museum of Magic and Witchcraft which had been established by Cecil Williamson and housed in a 400-year-old Craft farmhouse. Williamson had originally named it the Folklore Centre and intended it to become a center for currently practicing Witches. Gardner became the “resident Witch” and added his personal substantial collection of ritual tools and artifacts. Gardner purchased the museum from Williamson.
It was in 1953 that Gardner initiated Doreen Valiente into his coven. The coven’s rituals were virtually identical to those that Gardner described in High Magic’s Aid. In his coven Gardner reworked his material since the material which he inherited from his first coven was only fragmentary. He freshen rituals with his own work, adding quotations and extracts from Crowley’s work. Valiente somewhat discouraged this, advising Gardner that Growley’s material was inappropriate because it was “too modern,” thus most of Crowley’s work was subsequently deleted through rewriting of the material. Gardner and Valiente collaborated through the years of 1954 to 1957 on writing ritual and nonritual material. The body or work, or Book of Shadows, became the authority for what is currently known as the Gardnerian tradition.
In 1954 Gardener published his first nonfiction book about Witchcraft, Witchcraft Today. The book supports the theory of the British anthropologist Margaret A. Murray, that modern Witchcraft is the surviving remnant of organized Pagan religion which existed during the witch hunts. Murray wrote the introduction to the book.
The book’s immediate success gave emphasis for new covens rising up throughout England. Gardner suddenly found himself in the spotlight. Due to his numerous media appearances the press referred to him as “Britain’s Chief Witch,” a title he did not seek. He was not interested in exploiting his fame for money and personal glory. In 1959 he published his final book, The Meaning of Witchcraft.
In 1960, at a Buckingham Palace garden party Gardner was recognized for his distinguished civil service work in the Far East. During the same year his wife died, and he began suffering from asthma. In the winter of 1963 he met Raymond Buckland, an Englishman who had moved to America. This was shortly before Gardner was to leave for Lebanon. Buckland was initiated into the Craft by Gardner’s high priestess Monique Wilson (Lady Olwen). It would be Buckland who would introduce the Gardnerian tradition to America.
Gardner died aboard ship when returning from Lebanon on the morning of February 12, 1964.His burial was in Tunis, February 13.
In his will, Gardner bequeathed the museum, his ritual tools and objects, notebooks and the copyrights to his books to Wilson. Other beneficiaries of his estate were Patricia C. Crowther and Jack L. Bracelin, who authored an authoritative biography of Gardner, Gerald Gardner: Witch (1960). Wilson and her husband kept the museum opened for a short time while holding weekly coven meetings in Gardner’s cottage. Eventually the museum was closed and most of its contents were sold to the Ripley organization, which dispersed the objects to various museums.
Doreen Valiente described Gardner as a man “utterly without malice,” who was generous to a fault and who possessed some real, but not exceptional, magical powers. Those in the Craft knowing him called him “G. B. G.”
One of his missions, Gardner felt, was to attract young people to the Old Religion. He felt Witchcraft was primarily to older people who when dying would let the Craft die with them. In Witchcraft Today he said science was replacing reliance on the old ways
I think we must say good-bye to the witch. The cult is doomed, I am afraid, partly because of modern conditions, housing shortage, the smallness of families, and chiefly by education. The modern child is not interested. He knows witches are all bunk…
He died before he saw how greatly his own writing inspired the revival of Witchcraft. The Craft continues to grow and spread more than he ever could have envisioned. The “Gardnerian tradition” continues to be the dominant tradition of modern Witchcraft. A.G.H.