When Cecil Williamson died in 1999, one obituary described him as “a strange mixture of showman, investigator and convinced witch”. His career was varied to say the least: having been a film director, he became, during the Second World War, a spy for the British Secret Services, gathering information on German occultists. As a child on holiday in North Bovey, he had witnessed an elderly woman being set upon by some irate locals and, intervening, discovered that this was the local witch. He later visited her and she instilled in him the sense that perhaps everything we see and hear in the material world is not all there is. “Look up, look up, young man, there are other places and other things!” He went on to establish the Museum of Witchcraft, which houses the largest collection of artefacts relating to witchcraft and magical practice in the world.
When I became director of the Museum last year, it was a life-changing event.
In many ways it feels as if it was inevitable, mapped out from an early age, but of course that’s easy to say in hindsight and pleasing as an idea, given the content of the museum. But there are so many things that could have altered the events that led up to it. If I hadn’t spent my early childhood drawing witches, and if certain freak weather conditions hadn’t hit the village of Boscastle in 2004, things could have turned out very differently.
Cecil Williamson originally established the Museum on the Isle of Man in 1951, and it moved to Boscastle in 1961. It wasn’t his first choice for relocation: he tried other towns and villages but was met with hostile reactions everywhere he went. In one instance, a dead cat was nailed to his door. But Cornwall has rich history of magical practice, and in Boscastle he found a home for his collection in a group of 18th century cottages in the harbour. It’s remained there ever since.
he liked semi-clad female mannequins draped over altars
In 1996 a man called Graham King heard of Cecil’s desire to retire and sell the collection. King had a successful business developing camera rostrums to document rare books, but felt enormously stressed by the work. One day he met a group of travellers whilst out walking in Wiltshire and, on a whim, sold everything he owned to buy the museum. He signed the deeds on the 31st of October that year. During Graham’s 17-year tenure, he worked hard to bring a more scholarly eye to the subject, altering Cecil’s often rather lurid displays (he liked semi-clad female mannequins draped over altars) and establishing an order of sorts to the collection.
Visitors to the Museum are now shown that the popular image of the witch as a crazed evildoer is totally untrue. Before the persecution of witches began, most villages would have a wise, or cunning man, or often woman, who would be responsible for healing and midwifery. They developed charms and potions for ailments, and helped to find lost possessions. Of course the church and state didn’t care for the people having any kind of power, least of all women, and during the mid 1400s the tide began to turn.
The book fuelled witchcraft hysteria and mass executions across Europe. In Geneva in 1515, five hundred suspected witches were either burned or hanged
In 1487 a German Catholic clergyman, Heinrich Kramer, wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise on the persecution of witches known in the UK as The Hammer of the Witches. Kramer’s work outlined what he imagined witches did, and suggested ways to find and convict them. He described witches collecting human penises: “What is to be thought of those witches who collect … as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members and eat oats and corn?”
What indeed? But the book fuelled witchcraft hysteria and mass executions across Europe. In Geneva in 1515, five hundred suspected witches were either burned or hanged. Between 1500 and 1660, Europe saw between 50,000 and 80,000 men and women executed as witches. Germany had the highest record and Ireland the lowest (with only four). In England there were around a thousand deaths.
An increasingly paranoid King James VI of Scotland wrote his Daemonologie in 1597. The book had a similar effect to Kramer’s work, legitimising the torture and death of suspected witches. The result was the largest witch-hunt in British history. We have a copy of the book in the Museum.
Even in the UK, it wasn’t until 1951 that the 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed
The English Civil War created an atmosphere of unrest, in the midst of which witch hunters such as the notorious sadist Matthew Hopkins appeared. As the 1640s came to an end the number of trials started to dwindle, and in 1682 England executed its last “witch”, a frail, senile woman from Bideford called Temperance Lloyd. Thankfully, with the advent of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, the witch craze abated, although things changed more slowly in the United States, which was yet to have the famous case in Salem in 1692. And even in the UK, it wasn’t until 1951 that the 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed.
Reports described the flash flood that had sent an enormous torrent of rainwater surging down the valley, destroying buildings, uprooting trees and tossing cars into the sea
I had known about the Museum for many years, first having read about it in an esoteric magazine in the 1980s, but never visited – its extremely remote location made it difficult. I didn’t get to Boscastle until 2004, a trip which came about via an “act of God”. I happened to be watching the news that August when reports described the flash flood that had sent an enormous torrent of rainwater surging down the valley, destroying buildings, uprooting trees and tossing cars into the sea. My heart sank as I imagined the Museum irreparably damaged. Driven by an urgent desire to help, I acted as the middle man between the Museum and a friend who worked at the Natural History Museum, and who was in the process of decommissioning some beautiful old Victorian display cases which I thought could be useful to replace the ones smashed to pieces in the flood.
It may seem strange to describe developing a “relationship” with a Museum collection, but that’s exactly what I felt I had to do. Graham King suggested that I not only work at the museum for a month, but also live in the flat directly above it. Over the years, I had heard tales of the many knocks and crashes which occurred late at night in the Museum – as well as stories of a phantom cat. The bed in the flat sits directly above the cursing exhibit, and Graham told me that whenever things down there had started to get a little too rowdy at night, he would simply go downstairs and tell them to quieten down. Would I now find myself tiptoeing down to do the same?
In recent years there has been much debate within academic and institutional circles regarding the nature of objects once they’ve been placed within a museum. Many feel that, divorced from their context, they can become dead and their meaning artificial. The difference at this Museum is that so many of the objects here are still fizzing… I have to say that during my month in the museum I didn’t hear a murmur – but I most certainly felt something.
Before I started my internship, I’d been given a warning by a supporter of the Museum, who brandished a finger at me: “If the collection doesn’t like you, it will spit you out!” So I was prepared – prepared to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, and that this really wasn’t for me. Instead it felt like coming home. It was the start of a love affair which culminated with Graham kindly donating the entire Museum and archive to my Museum of British Folklore. I was appointed as the new director, once again aptly, on 31 October last year. Deeds were signed (sadly not in blood) and promises made. It felt like a marriage and in a sense it was.
A finished museum is a dead museum, and a dead museum is a useless museum
Almost a year on and I’m more excited than ever to have been passed the reins. A friend of mine, Steve Patterson, who has recently written a book on Cecil Williamson, reminded me of a quote from the onetime director of the British Museum, Sir William Henry Flower, who said, “A finished museum is a dead museum, and a dead museum is a useless museum.”
The Museum of Witchcraft is far from finished.
I’m now in the position where I can help to develop and enrich the collection. We are changing one of the rooms into a temporary exhibition space, where we can tell stories not currently possible due to lack of space. I felt, too, that the museum’s current title is not really representative of the collection, and so, as of next year, it will be known as the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.
Most recently, I’ve begun an oral history project, touring the UK to meet magical practitioners and to learn their stories and how they might contribute to our current understanding of what is, after all, something quite universal and not just confined to these shores. The collection – along with an archive of over 6,000 books, letters and manuscripts – represents layer upon layer of magical knowledge, drawing from the UK’s rich history of astrologers and alchemists, mystics and witches, necromancers and sages.
I hope that my love affair with the Museum and its collection will grow and mature over the years and that I will go on to be as good a custodian of it as Cecil Williamson and Graham King before me. C
*Collection number 198: Skull. Classification: Spells & charms.Cecil Williamson claimed that this skull was from ‘Old Granny Mann’ of North Bovey area. Its elaborate star-shaped stand would however be more fitting on the altar of a ritual magician. Witches and magicians use the skull as a symbol of death and rebirth and to aid communication with the ancestors. Original text by Cecil Williamson: ‘This iron strapped human skull, secure on its star shaped stand, has been with me for over forty years. It came from a witch or wise woman. Living in the north Bovey area, and she kept “her friend” as she called this relic in a secret place upon Easdon Tor. Old Granny Mann always used to say when presented with a problem or a situation by her clients, “well me dear, I don’t rightly knows what I a do – till I have asked me friend. I’ll let thee know later.”‘ Mentioned in Doreen Valiente’s description of the exhibits at Cecil Williamson’s ‘House of Spells’ at Polperro (Transcripts from Doreen Valiente’s Diaries 1959-1966, in the museum library (133.43 VAL), pp.29-34).