George Pickingill

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Photograph of Pickingill taken in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

George Pickingill (c.1816–1909) was an English farm labourer who lived and worked in the Essex village of Canewdon. His surname also appears in a number of variants, "Pickengale" and "Pitengale" among others.[1] Pickingill was brought to wider public attention through the folklorist Eric Maple in the 1960s, as part of his research into beliefs in folk magic and witchcraft in Essex. Maple asserted that Pickingill was a prominent local cunning man, or professional folk magician; this interpretation has however been challenged.

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. He claimed that Pickingill had not only been a cunning man, but had also been a practicing Luciferian or pagan member of the Witch-Cult who had founded nine covens across England. 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.


Early life[edit]

George Pickingill's age is given variously at different censuses but it seems clear that he was baptised in 1816 in the Essex village of Hockley. (He would move to Canewdon with wife and young children some time between 1864 and 1868.) He was the eldest son of Charles Pickingill originally of Canewdon, variously described as an agricultural labourer and a blacksmith, and Susannah or Hannah. George Pickingill had a younger brother and three younger sisters who survived infancy. His year of death is supposed to be 1909 on the basis that he is to be identified with a "George Pettingale" buried in that year,[2] (an identification that Bill Liddell has challenged [3] on the basis that "George Pettingale" received a Christian burial which Pickingill's hostile relationship with the church would have precluded). In 1856 a George Pickingill married a Sarah Ann Bateman from Tillingham; this appears to be our cunning man and his wife who is however always thereafter called Mary Ann. She died some time between 1881 and 1891. They had daughters Martha Ann in 1858 and Mary Ann in 1863, and sons Charles Frederick (born approximately 1862) and George (born approximately 1868). George the younger appears to have been serving a term of imprisonment in 1891 and to have died in 1903. While the sons apparently died without issue the daughters each married and had several children.[2]

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.[4]

Magical career[edit]

The first claims that Pickingill was involved in the practice of magic appeared in 1959, fifty years after his death.[5] 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.[4] 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.[6] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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,[9] and there was a rumour in the local community that Pickingill himself was this figure.[6]


In the last weeks of his life, when he had become very ill, the local people moved Pickingill 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.[6]

Bill Liddell's claims[edit]

In 1974, a writer using the pseudonym of Lugh 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.[10] Lugh later revealed his name to be E.W. Liddell, describing himself as an Englishman who had relocated to New Zealand in the 1960s before moving to Australia.[11] He would also assert that he was personally a descendant of one of George Pickingill's male cousins.[3] In 1977, he began sending his articles to a rival British magazine, The Cauldron, edited by Michael Howard.[10] 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.[12] The articles were republished in one single volume in 1994 as The Pickingill Papers, edited by Liddell and Howard.[13]

Liddell asserts that occultist Aleister Crowley was tutored by one of Pickingill's covens as a boy

Liddell's claims are not all consistent, and are sometimes self-contradictory.[13] 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.[13] 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.[13] He also stated that the Elders ceased providing him with new information in the early 1980s.[13] 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 bits of information came from.[14]

More recently he has been claimed by a faction of modern pagan witchcraft centering around Australian-based Bill Liddell to have been a source of modern Wicca and to have played a major part in 19th century esoteric circles. In particular Pickingill is claimed to have been a major influence on the Societas Rosicruciana and the Golden Dawn, although they eventually broke with him over his increasing reputation for Satanism and black magic. By this account Pickingill was a modernizing hereditary witch who reformed the craft, founding nine covens, and introduced the novelty in the English context of female leadership. Further to this account, it was Gerald Gardner's contact with some of these covens which enabled him to found modern Wicca. The famous magician Aleister Crowley was supposed to have been a Pickingill initiate. Bill Liddell claims to be passing on information derived from his own family traditions and from various unidentified "craft elders".[15]


Liddell's claims have received a mixed response from the British Wiccan community. 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. This informant asserted that Crowley had been introduced to Pickingill through his magical mentor, Allan Bennett, and that Crowley had then been initiated into one of Pickingill's nine covens in either 1899 or 1900, subsequently being cast out by the High Priestess, who described him as "a dirty-minded, evilly-disposed, vicious little monster".[16] 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".[17] 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.[18] Jonathan Tapsell commented that by 2013, the Liddell material was "generally regarded as a hoax", being "a spurious history at best, or a malicious prank at worst."[19]

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.[20] 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.[20]

Historian Ronald Hutton also scrutinised Liddell's claims, although asserted that he had corresponded with Liddell "at length and in detail".[13] He noted that in both Aleister Crowley's published work and personal diaries there is no mention of Pickingill or a witches' coven, and that similarly, there is no mention of either in the diaries of Bennett, who was Crowley's magical tutor during the 1890s, the period when Liddell alleged that Crowley had been involved with Pickingill and witchcraft.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24]

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.[13] 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.[25]



  1. ^ Census Information from
  2. ^ a b Census and public records information from
  3. ^ a b Bill Liddell's "Defense of the Pickingill Papers" online
  4. ^ a b Maple 1960. p. 247.
  5. ^ Ward 2014, pp. 21–22.
  6. ^ a b c d Maple 1960. p. 248.
  7. ^ Maple 1960. p. 247-248.
  8. ^ Maple 1960. p. 241.
  9. ^ Maple 1960. p. 242-243.
  10. ^ a b Valiente 1989, p. 197; Hutton 1999, p. 289.
  11. ^ Hutton 1999, p. 289.
  12. ^ Valiente 1989, p. 197.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Hutton 1999, p. 290.
  14. ^ Hutton 1999, p. 292.
  15. ^ The Pickingill Papers: The Origin of the Gardnerian Craft Capell Bann, 1994, ISBN 1-898307-10-5, ISBN 978-1-898307-10-5
  16. ^ Valiente 1978, pp. 17–20.
  17. ^ Valiente 1989, p. 199.
  18. ^ Bourne 1998, p. 106.
  19. ^ Tapsell 2013, p. 64.
  20. ^ a b Baker 1996, p. 186.
  21. ^ Hutton 1999, pp. 220–221.
  22. ^ Kelly 2007, pp. 275–276.
  23. ^ Kelly 2007, p. 274.
  24. ^ Ward 2014, p. 21.
  25. ^ Howard 2014, p. 22.


Baker, James W. "White Witches: Historic Fact and Romantic Fantasy". Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 171–192. ISBN 978-0791428900. 
Bourne, Lois (1998). Dancing with Witches. London: Robert Hale. ISBN 978-0709062233. 
Howard, Michael (2014). "Editorial note". The Cauldron 152. p. 22. ISSN 0964-5594. 
Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-820744-1. 
Kelly, Aidan A. (2007). Inventing Witchcraft: A Case Study in the Creation of a New Religion. Loughborough, Leicestershire: Thoth Publications. ISBN 978-1870450584. 
Maple, Eric (December 1960). "The Witches of Canewdon". Folklore 71 (4) (London: The Folklore Society). 
Maple, Eric (1962). The Dark World of Witches. Pan Books. 
Tapsell, Jonathan (2013). Ameth: The Life and Times of Doreen Valiente. London: Avalonia. ISBN 978-1905297702. 
Valiente, Doreen (1978). Witchcraft for Tomorrow. London: Robert Hale. 
Valiente, Doreen (1989). The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale. ISBN 978-0709037156. 
Ward, Richard (2014). "Last of the Essex Cunning Men". The Cauldron 152. pp. 17–22. ISSN 0964-5594.