Photograph of Pickingill taken in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Owned by Lillian Garner, it was first published by Maple; in 1977 the original copy was given to Michael Howard
|Occupation||Cunning man, farm labourer|
Pickingill was brought to wider public attention by the folklorist Eric Maple in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as part of his research into beliefs in folk magic and witchcraft in nineteenth-century Essex. Collecting oral history from local residents in the area – most notably an old woman named Lillian Garner – Maple established a number of stories about Pickingill and his reputation as a cunning man. Although it has been suggested that local people were inventing claims to please Maple, subsequent research by historian Ronald Hutton has confimed the folklorist's original accounts.
In 1974, the occultist E.W. Liddell began sending articles to British occult magazine The Wiccan on the subject of Pickingill. Switching to rival magazine The Cauldron in 1977, Liddell claimed to have been born into a witch family and to have been initiated into three traditions of English witchcraft. He asserted that the Elders of two of these traditions knew much more about Pickingill, and that they were using him as a vehicle through which to publish their claims. Liddell claimed that Pickingill was not simply a rural cunning man but that he was a major figure in the nineteenth-century esoteric scene. According to Liddell's account, Pickingill was a member of a hereditary witch-cult who led a coven in Canewdon and formed nine others across southern England, reforming the established English witch-cult by introducing new concepts from French and Danish witchcraft and from Classical sources. In doing so, Liddell claimed, Pickingill created the structure from which Gardnerian Wicca emerged in the 1950s.
Liddell's claims have been discussed in print by prominent Wiccans like Doreen Valiente and Lois Bourne, and have also been analysed by historians and scholars of Pagan studies like Ronald Hutton and Aidan A. Kelly, who have rejected Liddell's claims as erroneous.
Life and family
George Pickingill's parents were Charles Pickingill and Susannah Cudner, the latter of whom was also known as Hannah Cudmore; they were married on 17 September 1813. Charles had worked as both a labourer and a blacksmith. According to parish records, George Pickingill was baptised on 26 May 1816 at the church in Hockley. The year of Pickingill's birth is however in question, as he would make differing claims regarding this in different censuses; in the 1851 census, he claimed to be 26, meaning that his birth would have occurred circa 1825, while in the 1861 census, he claimed to be 46, which would have placed his birth c.1815. By the time of the 1901 census, he was claiming to be 95, making his birth at c.1806; it has been suggested that he made himself appear older to ease the process of collecting parish assistance from the church. Throughout his life, Pickingill would also use a variety of different spellings of his name on official records, including Pickengill, Pickingale, Pickengal, Pettingale, Pitengale, and Pittengale. George Pickingill had a younger brother and three younger sisters who survived infancy.
It is apparent from census data that Pickingill lived with his parents from 1816 until the 1830s, although it is not stated where he was living at the time of the 1841 census. By 1851, he is recorded as lodging in the household of David Clemens in Little Wakering, Essex, and described his profession as that of a farm labourer. On 18 May 1856 he married Sarah Ann Bateman at St George's Church in Gravesend, Kent according to the marriage rites of the Church of England. In that record, both described themselves as residing in Gravesend, and Pickingill declared that he was working as a labourer. Described on the record as a "spinster", Bateman was born c.1831 in Tillingham, Essex, as the daughter of Joseph Bateman and his wife Mary Ann Aggus; throughout married life, she identified as "Mary Ann Pickingill" and appeared as "Sarah Ann Pittengale" in her burial record.
On 22 June 1858 the couple's daughter, Martha Ann, was born in Hawkwell, Essex, however they had moved to Eastwood, Essex, by 1861, when they were recorded in that year's census. Here, Pickingill described himself as an agricultural labourer. That same year, their son Charles Frederick was born. The following year, Pickingill's wife was caught stealing two pecks of potatoes, and subsequently fined ten shillings. In 1863, a second daughter, named Mary Ann, was born to the couple.
At some point in the coming four years, the Pickingill family moved to Canewdon, where another son, George, was born in 1876. The couple and their four children were then recorded in the 1871 census, where Pickingill was again recorded as working as an agricultural labourer. In the 1881 census, the couple were recorded as living with two of their children, Mary Ann, and George, and Pickingill was again identifying as a labourer. On 17 August 1887, a homeless man named James Taylor stole a jacket and pair of leather gloves from Pickingill. Taylor was arrested and brought to trial in Rochdale on 24 August, in October pleading guilty to the theft of the jacket only. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour.
On 13 September 1887 Pickingill's wife died in Canewdon; her death, aged 63, was attributed to a disease of the liver by the certifying doctor. She was buried at Canewdon's St. Nicholas Church on 17 September. According to the 1891 census, he was still employed as an agricultural labourer, and was living in Canewdon with his married daughter Marry Ann and his grandaughter, Emily Wood. Records show that he was living in a rented cottage with an adjacent garden, and that in July 1899 the owner sold the property at auction. By 1901 he was listed as living on parish relief, with his two sons back living with him.
By this time, Pickingill was increasingly inflating his age, eventually claiming that he was 105 years old. This attracted attention from other areas, including London, and in September 1908 a journalist visited Canewdon; he arrived by automobile, the first that Pickingill had ever seen, and allowed the old man to ride in it. The journalist subsequently wrote an article about the alleged centegenerian, in which he claimed that his name was "Frederick Pickingale"; it is possible that Pickingill gave the false name so that no one would be able to look up the parish records and discover his real age. Maple described Pickingill as "a tall, unkempt man, solitary and uncommunicative. He had very long finger-nails, and kept his money in a purse of sacking". He also noted that he worked as a farm labourer and that he was a widower with two sons.
The first printed account of Pickingill as a cunning man appeared in 1959, fifty years after his death. This was provided by the folkorist Eric Maple, who was making a systematic study of nineteenth-century traditions regarding witchcraft and magic in south-eastern Essex. His initial findings were published in the scholarly journal Folklore, produced by The Folklore Society. He subsequently produced a sensational popular history of witchcraft, The Dark World of Witchcraft (1962), in which he repeated many of the claims regarding Pickingill. In this work, he erroneously described south-eastern Essex as the last bastion of English witchcraft belief, and ignored scholarly convention, resulting in a critical reception from folklorists; nevertheless the book was popular and sold well.
In his role as a cunning man, the folklorist Eric Maple noted that Pickingill unusually did not charge for his services, but did receive some money from visitors, and his recorded roles included restoring lost property and curing minor ailments, both of which were common practices amongst British cunning folk. Maple also noted that Pickingill was known to use cursing and malevolent magic on occasion, something that he contrasted with the activities of other contemporary cunning folk that he had studied, such as James Murrell. Pickingill was also known for his ability to control animals, namely horses, and it was believed that when he struck a hedgerow with his stick, game animals would run out that could then be caught, killed and eaten. It was also rumoured that he could do things faster than ordinary human beings, and that he could do an hour's job in only a few minutes, with some believing that he got his imps - which were his familiar spirits - to do the job for him. Maple also noted that "Those whom he permitted to visit his cottage said that the ornaments could be seen through the window rising and falling, one after the other, in a kind of dance", something he believed had its origins in a Dutch folkloric tradition that may have been imported to Essex when many Dutch migrants settled there in the seventeenth century.
According to Maple, Pickingill was sufficiently well known in Essex as an accomplished cunning man that people came to visit him from outside the village of Canewdon in search of magical aid, sometimes "from great distances", including men from the Essex village of Dengie, who sought his advice in a dispute that they were having over wages. Meanwhile, as Maple noted, the agricultural village of Canewdon had developed a reputation associating it with witchcraft and magic by the end of the nineteenth century, when it was often thought of as "The Witch Country". This was possibly due to its relative isolation from neighbouring settlements, as it was surrounded by marshland, and the insular nature of its community. Maple recorded that in this period there was a rumour that there were either six or nine elderly women living in Canewdon who were malevolent witches who used their magic to harm others. It was believed that whilst they were not known to one another, they all owed their allegiance to a singular wizard or master of witches, and there was a rumour in the local community that Pickingill himself was this figure.
Subsequent researchers also travelled to Canewdon to meet with Maple's informants and confirm his account for themselves. In April 1967 Ronald Hutton, later to become a noted historian, visited the village where he met with Lillian Garner. He also found an informant that Maple had not encountered, an old man named Jack Taylor, then living in a retirement home. Taylor claimed that as a young man he knew Pickingill, and that the latter had the power of horse-whispering. On the whole, Hutton asserted that the account of Pickingill which he discovered among local people was entirely consistant with that provided by Maple. In 1977 Hutton was followed by the Gardnerian Wiccan initiate Michael Howard, who met with Garner, then eighty-seven years old. On this occassion, she recalled Pickingill being photographed with the first car to arrive in the village, and also gave Howard the original copy of a photograph of him that was in her possession. She then added the information – which she had not given to Maple or Hutton – that her own mother had talked of Pickingill leading a local coven, and that he received "many visitors" from "a long way away" who sought his magical knowledge.
A different account was provided by Charles Lefebvre, an American author of the sensationalist potboiler Witness to Witchcraft (1970). Here, his use of sources was unclear, although he asserted that Pickingill had had an ageless body, was a relative of Roma people, was the last survivor of an old witch family, held Black Masses and orgies in the church yard, and was visited by "black magicians" from across Europe. According to Lefebvre, Pickingill was finally killed when confronted by the sign of the cross. Hutton later described these as "fantasies" which served to support Lefebvre's view that witchcraft should be criminalised.
However, claims have since been made that Pickingill was not a cunning man or involved in folk magic at all. Local Canewdon historian Sylvia Webster expressed her view to Howard that tales regarding Pickingill's magical practices had been invented by the locals of Canewdon to impress Maple. As evidence, she highlighted that there was no evidence to suggest that Pickingill was a cunning man prior to Maple's publications. Similarly, Richard Ward asserted that the contemporary obituaries and interviews conducted with Pickingill had shown no evidence of any magical activities, when such might have been expected. Ward suggested that many of the stories regarding Pickingill's magical activities were adopted from those of a genuine Essex cunning man, James Murrell. Hutton responded critically to Ward's assertions, highlighting his own investigations into the local folklore and his interview with Taylor to express the view that there "seems little doubt" that Pickingill was a cunning man, although "there are still questions over what sort of one he was". At the same time, Hutton also accepted the possibility that some of the legends associated with Murrell had come to be associated with Pickingill, although lamented that this seemed to be "incapable of solid proof".
According to Maple's account, in the last few weeks of Pickingill's life, when he had become very ill, the local people moved him to the infirmary against his will, where he declared that at his funeral there would be one more demonstration of his magical powers. Many locals interpreted this as coming true, when as the hearse carrying his coffin drew up to the churchyard, the horses stepped out of their shafts.  He was subsequently buried in the church's graveyard, whilst his house fell into dilapidation before falling down.
According to his death certificate, "George Pettingale" died on 10 April 1909; described as being 103 years old, his cause of death was recorded as senial decay and cardiac failure. He was then buried at Canewdon's St Nicholas Church on 14 April; although his stated age of 103 was recorded, the vicar added a note asserting that this was erroneous, for in reality Pickingill was "born at Hockley 1816 [and] was only in his 93rd year".
Pickingill's death attracted national press attention; both the Essex Newsman and The Times asserted that he was "believed to be the oldest man in England", recording his age as 106. It was also picked up by New Zealand newspaper The Star, which described him as "the oldest man in England".
Bill Liddell's claims
In 1974, a writer began sending articles to Pagan newsletter The Wiccan, then edited by the Gardnerian John Score, articulating an alternative account of Pickingill's life and relation to the British occult movement. First identifying himself only as "a well wisher", he later began using the pseudonym of Lugh, named for the Irish mythological figure. In 1977, Lugh ceased sending the articles to The Wiccan and instead began publishing them in a rival British magazine, The Cauldron, edited by Michael Howard, for the reason that it was deemed less dominated by the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca. Lugh later revealed his name to be E.W. "Bill" Liddell, describing himself as an Englishman born in Essex before relocating to Auckland, New Zealand circa 1960, later moving to Australia. He asserted that he had been initiated into a hereditary form of witchcraft in 1950, and that he had subsequently been initiated into both the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions of Wicca. His partner, Sylvia Tatham, had been one of those present when Alex Sanders was initiated into the Gardnerian tradition, and was subsequently heavily involved in Sanders' development of the Alexandrian tradition in the early 1960s. In 1982, Wiccan Publications collected together and published these articles as two pamphlets: Old George Pickingill and the Roots of Modern Witchcraft and Medieval Witchcraft and the Freemasons. The articles were republished in one single volume in 1994 as The Pickingill Papers, edited by Liddell and Howard.
Liddell's claims are not all consistent, and are sometimes self-contradictory. Liddell explains this by asserting that his claims have been passed on to him by three separate sources. The first is a hereditary tradition of Pagan witchcraft, the second a similar but separate tradition which Pickingill had greatly influenced in the nineteenth century, and third his experiences as an individual born into a witchcraft family, who had subsequently been initiated into both of these traditions and a separate "cunning lodge" prior to his emigration to New Zealand. He claimed that most of the information that he was publishing came from Elders involved in the first two of these traditions, and that as such he could not vouch for its accuracy, going so far as to state that he doubted the veracity of much of it.
Noting that these Elders themselves had very different opinions on Gardnerianism, he also stated that the Elders ceased providing him with new information in the early 1980s. He stated that these various Elders had chosen him to disseminate the information because he had been involved in both hereditary witchcraft and Gardnerian Wicca and because he was based in New Zealand, thereby making it hard for anyone to trace their identities. Despite Liddell claiming that the material he was putting forward came from various sources, the historian Ronald Hutton noted that it was all presented in a "single, dogmatic, authorial voice", with no indication of where the different pieces of information came from. Hutton also asserted that Liddell's changing claims would be entirely consistent with a single individual making up stories and changing them as he went along.
According to Liddell's initial claims in 1974, the Pickingill family had been priests of a pre-Christian, pagan religion devoted to the worship of the Horned God since the eleventh-century. In this, his claims fitted within the historical framework of the witch-cult hypothesis as propagated in the works of Margaret Murray. Later he added that the "medieval witch cult" was influenced by the "tenets" of the Iron Age druids, in particular their knowledge of ley lines which were maked out by the stone circles erected in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Conflicting with these ideas, in 1998 Liddell personally informed Hutton that the witch-cult did not derive from ancient pre-Christian religion but that it instead had been founded in fifteenth-century France, emerging from a union between Christian heretics, cunning lodges, and a cult of Lucifer founded by Islamic Moors to undermine Christianity.
Liddell claimed that the Pickingill family had many links to the travelling Romani population, and that Pickingill spent many of his early years in a Romani caravan. Liddell claimed that Pickingill faced persecution as a result, and that he "set out to terrify" the locals of Canewdon in retaliation. According to Liddell, Pickingill was trained in Romani magic, and thus in later life became "the most famous gypsy kako in England". Liddell also claims that Pickingill despised Christianity and wanted to see it overthrown; to this end he collaborated with Satanists and included Satanic elements within his ritual practices, something which horrified other members of the East Anglian witch-cult. Thus, according to Liddell, Pickingill was "England's most feared and vilified 'Satanist'". Elsewhere, he stressed that Pickingill was not a Satanist, but that he had been considered such by other witches because he practiced sex magic.
Liddell asserted that Pickingill spent time in France, where he was initiated into a local form of the witch-cult. Returning to Canewdon, he was invited to lead the local coven – the "Seven Witches of Canewdon" – which had existed since the mid fifteenth-century, and which he would continue to lead until disbanding it several years prior to his death. Pickingill proceeded to introduce into English witchcraft many new innovations to it by bringing in concepts from the Danish and French witch-cults, namely the idea that the coven should be led by a woman. Liddell asserts that Pickingill then established nine covens in England, spread out in Essex, Norfolk, Hertfordshire, Sussex, and Hampshire; he furthermore added that two of those covens, based in Hertfordshire and Norfolk, survived into his own time. Liddell asserted that Pickingill was propagating witchcraft in a reformed, female-oriented form because he was aware of the oncoming Age of Aquarius which would be more receptive to this form of spirituality.
In Liddell's account, Pickingill travelled widely and joined a variety of cunning lodges, gaining access to their grimoires and libraries. According to Liddell, from the 1850s onward Pickingill began cooperating with a group of Freemasons who considered themselves to be Rosicrucians and who wanted to prove that Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism were "siblings" of the witch-cult. Two of these Freemasons, Hargrave Jennings and W.J. Hughan, became pupils of Pickingill, who aided them in producing a Rosicrucian Manifesto that was used in the formation of the Societas Rosicruciana in 1865. According to Liddell, his involvement with Freemasons also led to the foundation of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1888. Liddell also asserted that Pickingill was influenced by a coven that had been founded in the early nineteenth-century by a group of Cambridge University academics led by Francis Barrett and whose rituals were based largely on Classical sources.
Liddell also asserted that the prominent occultist Aleister Crowley had been initiated into one of these nine covens as a young man. According to this claim, Crowley had been introduced to the coven in 1899 or 1900 by his magical mentor, Allan Bennett. Liddell nevertheless asserted that Crowley was subsequently ejected from the coven for his misbehaviour. As evidence for these claims, he asserted that his own grandfather had been present on three occasions at which Bennett and Crowley met with Pickingill, and that he had seen a photograph in which the three figures are together. When asked to present this photograph for public scrutiny in 1977, Liddell claimed that it was "not available"; when independently asked again in 1983, he asserted that it had been stolen by "interested parties".
Further, Liddell claimed that the New Forest coven, a Wiccan group with Gardner claimed had initiated him in 1939, was one of Pickingill's nine covens; he later contrasted this with the claim that this was not certain. He also asserted that Gardner went on to join another of the covens, which was based in Hertfordshire, through which he received "the Second Rite of the Hereditary Craft", although stressed that this group was separate from Gardner's own Bricket Wood coven. He furthermore claimed that Gardner received the "Third Rite" from an East Anglian coven. As a result, he stated that the structure and rituals of Gardnerian Wicca were based on those devised by Pickingill, and that "No impartial observer could fail to see that they formed the nucleus of the rites of Wicca." Liddell was of the opinion that while many hereditary witches despised him, Gardner represented "the spiritual heir of Pickingill", because he had similarly reformed and propagated witchcraft for contemporary purposes.
Liddell's claims have received a mixed response from the British Wiccan community. Score championed them in private letters to his correspondents, declaring that they proved that the Gardnerian tradition had historical origins predating Gardner. His successor as editor of The Wiccan', Leonora James, was intrigued by Liddell's claims and investigated the original records pertaining to Pickingill's life, however by the 1980s she had concluded that Liddell's claims were spurious. In her 1978 book Witchcraft for Tomorrow, the prominent Wiccan Doreen Valiente – who had been Garder's High Priestess in the Bricket Wood coven during the 1950s – stated that she had an "East Anglian source" from Essex who claimed that many of Liddell's assertions were correct. In particular, the informant championed Liddell's claims that Crowley had been an initiate of one of Pickingill's covens. By the time of her 1989 book The Rebirth of Witchcraft, she had come to be more sceptical of Liddell's claims, noting that any supporting evidence was "still sadly lacking".
Another of Gardner's High Priestesses, Lois Bourne, asserted that she was "as sure as I can be" that Gardner had nothing to do with any witches from Canewdon and that if they existed in the first place, then they must have belonged to a tradition distinct from Gardnerian Wicca. Privately, the Gardnerian initiate and founder of Alexandrian Wicca, Alex Sanders, rejected the claims made. In his 2013 biograpy of Valiente, Jonathan Tapsell commented the Liddell material was "generally regarded as a hoax", being "a spurious history at best, or a malicious prank at worst." Hutton asserted that the only "sustained champion" of Liddell's claims has been Michael Howard, noting that he had defended such ideas in a "limited and measured" manner. Howard has maintained that he keeps an "open mind" about Liddell's claims, noting that while no evidence has been brought forward to substantiate them, similarly he does not believe that "any real evidence" has been brought forth to disprove them.
Support for Liddell's story came from Cecil Williamson, founder of the Museum of Witchcraft, who claimed to have known about Pickingill through his acquaintances with both Crowley and Gardner. However, Williamson was an unreliable source, and was known to repeatedly fabricate claims regarding past events. Another figure, known only as Colonel Lawrence, also supported Liddell's story, asserting that his own great-grandmother had studied under Pickingill and thus been introduced to Crowley; as with Williamson however, Lawrence's claims are spurious, particularly as he has also claimed that his great-grandmother studied witchcraft under the American folklorist Charles Leland. Also supporting these claims was the Wiccan Ralph Harvey, who following the publication of Liddell's material publicly declared that in the 1950s or 1960s, he had been initiated into one of Pickingill's Nine Covens located in Storrington, Sussex. Following the publication of Liddell's claims, a number of covens appeared in both the United States and Australia claiming to be practitioners of a tradition originating with Pickingill. However, Liddell himself has been critical of such groups, expressing his regret that the material he published led to their formation.
Liddell's claims have had a far more critical reception from scholars specialising in magic and witchcraft in British history. In 1975, Eric Maple dismissed Lugh's claims as preposterous. He believed that such tales had been fabricated by someone who had used his own book, The Dark World of Witches, as a basis. Maple informed the historian James W. Baker that he believed that people connected to Valiente were behind the Lugh claims, although Baker disagreed, commenting that Valiente was "one of the most honest of commentators on the subject" of contemporary witchcraft, and that as a result was unlikely to be involved in such duplicity.
Historian Ronald Hutton also scrutinised Liddell's claims, although asserted that he had corresponded with Liddell "at length and in detail", over the course of which he had come to like him, noting that "he has responded to often forceful criticisms with patience, modesty, and good humour". However, Hutton highlighted that no independent witnesses have emerged to support the existence of Liddell's alleged informants, while no supporting documentation has appeared to back any of his many claims. Hutton deemed this particularly unusual, because were Liddell's claims to have been accurate, much documentary evidence would be expected to exist. Focusing on Liddell's claim that Crowley had been initiated into one of Pickingill's covens during the 1890s, Hutton noted that there is no mention of Pickingill or a witches' coven in either Crowley's published work or personal diaries. Similarly, he highlighted no mention of either in Bennett's diaries, who was Crowley's magical tutor during the 1890s. Hutton's assessment was shared by historian Owen Davies; in his study of English cunning-folk, he described Liddell's stories as "seductive but entirely unsubstantiated". Instead, he maintained that Pickingill was "a simple rural cunning-man whose small world of village affairs never crossed with that of middle-class occultists. He received a Christian burial and the idea that he was a pagan priest would probably make him turn in his grave."
American Pagan studies scholar Aidan A. Kelly similarly rejected Liddell's claims. Kelly highlighted that whereas Liddell had claimed that Gardnerian Wicca had adopted the concept of a female coven leader from French and Scandinavian witch covens, the historical evidence clearly showed that Gardner developed the concept of a coven being led by a high priestess during the late 1950s, thus disproving Liddell's assertions. Kelly believed that either Lugh or his Elders were thus "purposely creating a phony history in order to throw researchers off the trail" which would have revealed that Gardner had invented Wicca in its entirety in the early 1950s. Similarly, in a 2014 article about Pickingill in The Cauldron, Richard Ward asserted that Lugh's claims did not stand up under scrutiny, and that they had simply been made in an attempt to show the existence of a "pre-Gardnerian tradition" of witchcraft. Liddell has specifically denied these charges.
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