George Pickingill (c.1816–1909) was an English cunning man and 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. 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.
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 since been scrutinised and rejected by academic historians.
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, (an identification that Bill Liddell has challenged  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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bill Liddell's claims
In 1974, a writer using the pseudonym of Lugh began sending articles to Pagan newsletter The Wiccan articulating an alternative account of Pickingill's life and relation to the British occult movement. He 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. He would also assert that he was personally a descendant of one of George Pickingill's male cousins. In 1977, he began sending his articles to a rival British magazine, The Cauldron, edited by Michael Howard. In 1994, Liddell and Howard collected together the articles that the former had written, publishing them as The Pickingill Papers.
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. He also stated that the Elders ceased providing him with new information in the early 1980s. 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.
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".
There is ample evidence that Gardner and Crowley knew each other and that Gardner was initiated by Crowley, however it makes little sense that two coven members would initiate each other to the same coven, let alone initiation into an entirely different magical order. The OTO material is well documented and almost all the material in the original Gardner Book of Shadows can be traced back to OTO sources, if not even to the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn, for instance, uses Egyptian and Hebrew imagery, which makes little sense for a hereditary witch using celtic and gaelic sources to employ. Since Pickingill only received a second grade education, it's unlikely he could read or write or would have any knowledge at all of Egyptian or Hebrew.
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 the prominent Wiccan Doreen 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". 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 Allan Bennett, who was Crowley's magical tutor during the 1890s, the period when Liddell alleged that Crowley had been involved with Pickingill and witchcraft.
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.
- Census Information from www.deadfamilies.com
- Census and public records information from www.deadfamilies.com
- Bill Liddell's "Defense of the Pickingill Papers" online
- Maple 1960. p. 247.
- Maple 1960. p. 248.
- Maple 1960. p. 247-248.
- Maple 1960. p. 241.
- Maple 1960. p. 242-243.
- Hutton 1999, p. 289.
- Hutton 1999, p. 290.
- Hutton 1999, p. 292.
- The Pickingill Papers: The Origin of the Gardnerian Craft Capell Bann, 1994, ISBN 1-898307-10-5, ISBN 978-1-898307-10-5
- Baker 1996, p. 186.
- Hutton 1999, pp. 220–221.
- James W. Baker. "White Witches: Historic Fact and Romantic Fantasy". Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 171–192.
- 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.
- Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-820744-1.