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Sources for the 'Halloween 1938' story

My grateful thanks to all the people who, in various ways, have assisted with the research associated with this story. This story would not have been possible without Witchfather and A Zest for Life, the splendid biographies of Gerald Gardner and Alexander Keiller written by Philip Heselton and Linda Murray, respectively. Philip Heselton most kindly responded to requests for further information about aspects of Gardner's life.

Sadly little information about Keiller's interests in Scottish witchcraft and the occult has survived. Jenni Mills researched this period of Keiller's life for her novel, The Buried Circle, and independently established that there seems to be little surviving information about Keiller's interest in witchcraft or the 'occult'.

I have also drawn in small part from information in Modern Wicca by Michael Howard, especially Michael's description of the contents of the box from Hill Top Farm. Michael informed me in an email that the present whereabouts of the box and its contents are not known; seemingly they did not become part of Gardner's collection of witchcraft items at the museum on the Isle of Man.

The final passage, where Keiller leads a procession to the statue of Pan, is based on an interview with Mrs P D Sorel Taylour in 1979 by Mike Pitts (one-time Curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum) and Hilary Howard (Mike Pitt's wife at the time) and reproduced in Linda Murray's A Zest for Life. Mrs Sorel Taylour states the event took place at Halloween in the 1930s, although does not remember the year. The statue of Pan was sold in the late 1980s by the then-owner of Avebury Manor, Ken King; it's present whereabouts are unknown.

The incantation to Pan comes from Dion Fortune's novel The Goat-Foot God which was published in 1936. There is no direct evidence that either Keiller or Gardner had read this work by Halloween 1938, but it seems entirely plausible.

There is no evidence that Gardner ever visited Avebury. The only two occasions when Gardner and Keiller are known to have met are the International Congresses on Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences co-organised by Keiller in 1932 and 1938. Indeed, the opportunities for them to meet were restricted as Keiller spent each autumn at Morven in Aberdeenshire while Gardner spent each winter (apart from the war years) in warmer climes. Prior to 1936 Gardner worked and lived in the Far East, only returning to Britain about every four years; during the Second World War both had time-consuming jobs.

In July 1938 Gardner moved to Highcliffe, near Chichester, and met the people who he thought of as the 'New Forest coven'. His initiation into that group was just over a year later, and the research which led to the novel High Magic's Aid seems to have occupied his spare time during the Second World War. However his first novel, A Goddess Arrives, was probably drafted by mid-1938 because Edith Woodford-Grimes substantially rewrote the text before it was published at the end of 1939.

People attending Folklore Society meetings in the 1930s signed a book on arrival. Gardner's first-known attendance in March 1939 reveals he was accompanied by a woman who gave her name as Elspeth Begg. According to Philip Heselton's biography of Gardner, Elspeth lived somewhere near Bournemouth, perhaps Boscombe, and the two became 'close friends'. This may be the reason why Gardner chose to move to this part of the south coast when the threat of war meant that his London flat was not an ideal location. Elspeth was the author of a short article about Dorset witchcraft in the society's journal, although there is no evidence that she knew Keiller. Other than that, nothing else has so far been discovered about Elspeth Begg.

However there is something curious about the name Elspeth Begg as, in the early eighteenth century, an Elspeth Begg was the wife of Douglas Begg, the 'victim' of Janet Horne, the last witch of Scotland. Philip Heseleton considers that Gardner used one or more pseudonyms at this period in his life (especially when applying for membership of organisations) and, if Gardner and Elspeth might be suspected of being 'close friends' then it is entirely plausible that the 1930s Elspeth Begg is a pseudonym.

Heselton notes that Edith Woodford-Grimes – known to her family as 'Daf' and referred to by Gardner in later years as 'Dafo' – was sometimes introduced as 'Elsie'. There is no certainty that Elspeth Begg and 'Elsie' are one and the same, and Heselton's biography makes no such connection. While I have conflated Elspeth and 'Dafo' in this story, I fully accept that considerable more research would be needed to confirm this.


In a book published nearly five years after this story first appeared – In Search of the New Forest Coven – Philip Heselton provides clear evidence that Elsie Begg was a real person, living in Bournemouth. The nickname 'Elspeth' is used once by Gardner.

'Dafo' is certainly Edith Woodford-Grimes.

Quite possibly Elsie Begg met 'Dafo' although there is no record of such a meeting.

In Search of the New Forest Coven (Fenix Flames Publishing 2020).

Where possible I have taken the opinions of both Gardner and Keiller from their published writings, although in the case of Gardner these are all from writings published in the 1950s. Nevertheless, Heselton has convincingly reconstructed the views Gardner had about witchcraft in 1939. Whether the specific ideas expressed by the characters in this story are views that they actually held in 1939 is, of course, only conjectural. Philip Heselton has established that Gardner's grandfather was not a witch, although throughout his life Gardner believed that he had been.

The wording of the quotations from published works has been adapted to fit these fictional conversations, although I hope such changes have not distorted the original meanings and sensibilities. The invented speech in this story is mostly based on phrases known to have been used by Gardner and Keiller. Especially useful was a BBC radio interview with Gardner (probably broadcast in the 1950s).

The description of Keiller put into the mind of Elspeth Begg is taken from the diary of Denis Grant King as quoted in Murray's Zest for Life. King began working for Keiller in August 1938.

The description of Edith Olivier is taken from Stephen Lloyd's William Walton: Muse of fire (Boydell 2011) and is based on the words of David Herbert. Olivier's children's story, The Underground River, published in 1928, refers to a dowser locating the eponymous watercourse under the house of the main protagonists.

My understanding of Keiller has benefited greatly from various discussions with Dr Ros Cleal, the current curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum. Dr Cleal suggested that Keiller may have learnt about Scottish witchcraft from female staff working at the family home in Aberdeenshire. There is no proof, but it seems plausible. Morven is close to the 'ancestral lands' dramatically described by the Scottish Traveller storyteller and 'keeper of the lore', Stanley Robertson (1940–2009). But there is no evidence as to why Keiller developed an interest in Scottish witchcraft while still a schoolboy. We simply know that he built up an impressive library on the subject (now in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh) and a letter by him, headed 'Witchcraft in Scotland', was published in the Folklore Society journal of 1922.

A substantial part of this story was drafted on 12th February 2014, which was the fiftieth anniversary of Gardner's death in Tunis.


Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery

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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

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Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape

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Avebury and environs in the Roman period

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St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'

Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery