Old George Pickingill (1816–1909) was a legendary English Cunning Man and a controversial figure to many contemporary Witches. According to the English folklorist Eric maples, Old George Pickingill claimed to be descended from a line of hereditary witches dating back to the 11th century. He was born in 1816, the oldest of nine children to Charles and Susannah Pickingill, in Hockley, in Essex in East Anglia. Like his father, George was a farm labourer and worked in the Canewdon district. He was viewed by his neighbours as a mysterious, ill-tempered man who practised magic and employed a fleet of Imps to plow his fields for him while he relaxed.
Pickingill claimed his original witch ancestor was a woman named Julia, the “Witch of Brandon,” a village north of Thetford in Norfolk. In 1071, according to family legend, Julia was hired to make magical chants to the troops of Hereward the Wake, inspiring them in battle against the enemy Normans. Her chants also were supposed to befuddle the Normans. Nevertheless, the Normans set fire to the village, and Julia was burned to death. Ever since, according to legend, members of each generation of the Pickingill family served as priests in the Old religion.
The Pickingill witches worshiped the Horned God. George Pickingill was vehemently anti-Christian, and openly advocated the overthrow of the Christian Church. To that end, he collaborated with ceremonial magicians, Witches, Satanists, Rosicrucians and Freemasons, in the hopes of spreading beliefs that would replace the church.
Over a 60-year period, Pickingill established a group of covens known as the Nine Covens, located in Hertfordshire, Essex, Hampshire, Sussex and Norfolk. He selected leaders who had hereditary connections to the Craft. Initiates included both men and women, but all Rituals were performed entirely by women. Pickingill also was said to be the leader who controlled a coven of female witches called the Seven Witches of Canewdon. Pickingill terrorized the local farmers and extorted beer from them by threatening to stop their machinery with magic.
Called a master of Witches, Pickingill reputedly could make nine secret witches declare themselves simply by whistling. He was alleged to sit by his hedge and smoke his pipe while his army of Imps harvested his fields in half the time it would have taken men. No one went to his house without invitation, and even then did so in fear. At his death, his imps appeared in the form of white mice. After his death, they haunted his cottage, and passersby could see their red eyes glowing in the dark.
In 1974, more information surfaced about Pickingill, from a source who claimed to be the front for a group of anonymous hereditary Witches who wanted the truth to be known about him. From 1974 to 1977, a series of articles about Pickingill were published in the British magazine The Wiccan, the newsletter of the Pagan Front (now the Pagan Federation), edited by John Score. The author was E. W. “Bill” Liddell, who used the pseudonym “Lugh.” He said that he had been inducted into a number of “Old Style Craft covens” between 1950 and 1961 and then had retired to New Zealand. From 1977 to 1988, Liddell published more articles in another publication, The Cauldron.
Liddell said that Pickingill’s correct patronymic was Pickingale, and that he had Romany kin and was raised as a Gypsy. His hereditary tradition used many rituals imported from middle Ages Europe and adapted to East Anglia. rites of worship of the Horned God were conducted by women and involved ritual nudity and sexual inductions. Pickingill divined that the Craft revival would be activated in 1962, and reintroduced Goddess rituals into his coven to launch Wicca.
According to Liddell, Aleister Crowley was initiated into one of Pickingill’s Nine Covens in 1899 or 1900, but was soon expelled because of his deplorable behaviour. Crowley, however, makes no mention of this in any of his extant writings.
Gerald B. Gardner’s New Forest coven was supposedly one of Pickingill’s Nine.
When Crowley met Gardner in 1947, he allegedly agreed—or volunteered—to use “magical recall” to remember the exact Pickingill rituals and write them down for Gardner, who then used them in constructing his own Book of Shadows. If Crowley did, this document either cannot be found or no longer exists.
In one of his more controversial claims, Liddell also asserted that Pickingill had collaborated with pseudorosicrucians to write the rituals for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Critics of The Lugh material cite the lack of supporting documentation or evidence to validate these claims as reason for dismissal of them.
- Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991.
- Kelly, Aidan A. Crafting the Art of Magic Book I: A History of Modern Witchcraft, 1939–1964. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1991.
- Liddell, E. W., and Michael Howard. The Pickingill Papers: The Origin of the Gardnerian Craft. Chieveley, England: Cpall Bann Publishing, 1994.
- Maple, Eric. The Dark World of Witches. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1962.
- Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale, 1989.