It's witchcraft: occult collection of Doreen Valiente, the 'mother of modern witchcraft', to go on public display at Brighton's Preston Manor

By Ben Miller | 15 March 2016

A house known for hauntings is about to host the first major exhibition of the collection of Doreen Valiente, one of the most important figures in modern witchcraft

A photo of local Brighton witch Doreen Valiente whose collection is going on show at Preston Manor
© Doreen Valiente Foundation
Last month John Belham-Payne, the final High Priest to Doreen Valiente, the wiccan roundly credited as the mother of modern witchcraft, died.

Belham-Payne was the Chair of the Foundation caring for Valiente’s coveted occult collection, which includes statues, an altar and various wands, and had been in productive negotiations about an exhibition with curators in Brighton, where Valiente’s old tower block home was adorned with a blue plaque in her honour in 2013.

A photo of the candles and collection of Brighton witch Doreen Valiente whose collection is going on show at Preston Manor
© Doreen Valiente Foundation
Gerald Gardner

Preston Manor, a sweeping 17th century mansion forever embroiled in ghost sightings and folklore, was a super-natural fit. Séances were conducted there during the 1880s, and Valiante visited several times, possibly while researching her 1962 book, Where Witchcraft Lives.

The exhibition website is named after the tome, which explored folk traditions with scholarly rigour in the first of six revered books Valiente would write.

The exhibition is as much about the likes of Gerald Gardner, the so-called Father of Wicca who propagated his beliefs most fervently following the 1951 repealing of the Witchcraft Act of 1736.

Gardner inducted Valiente, who practiced her first spells as a South London schoolgirl during the 1920s before walking out on the convent she had been enrolled at by her strongly Christian family, into the Bricket Wood Coven.

A photo of books once owned by Brighton witch Doreen Valiente whose collection is going on show at Preston Manor
© Doreen Valiente Foundation
In an online shop where Valiente-themed phone cases, hoodies and posters called The Witches’ Chant and The Charge of the Goddess are also available, Philip Heselton has just produced a biography of her.

He speaks of the suspicion Gardner's protégé were regarded with. “Gardnerian was used initially as a term of abuse,” he says.

“Gardnerians adopted it. My personal view is that it could apply to anyone who’s been influenced by Gerald Gardner. We’ve forgotten how rare and difficult it was to actually contact anybody who was involved.

Doreen didn’t deny the value of being initiated into a traditional coven of learning stuff that way. But you don’t have to be initiated by somebody else in order to practice the craft.”

A photo of local Brighton witch Doreen Valiente whose collection is going on show at Preston Manor
© Doreen Valiente Foundation
Diana of the Rounded Moon

Heselton first admired Gardner’s work, The Gardnerian Book of Shadows, in 1959, but wasn’t initiated until 2002. He points out that would-be witchcrafters can affirm their affiliation within seconds online today. Valiente questioned Gardner, but also continued his legacy. “The split with Gerald, initially, was on the grounds of his publicity,” says Heselton.

“He’d sworn them all to secrecy when they were initiated and yet he gave interviews to scurrilous newspapers. He admitted that he was taken in by reporters. He was initiating people that they considered to be unsuitable. He’s been described as an old man in a hurry. He didn’t want it to die out.”

Search for Valiante on YouTube and you’ll find her in a dark forest, cape flowing, summoning Diana of the Rounded Moon, the Queen of all enchantments. “Doreen was sensible and yet what she combined was both that down-to-earth sensibility with a very strong feeling of a spirited nature,” says Heselton.

A photo of objects belonging to Brighton witch Doreen Valiente whose collection is going on show at Preston Manor
© Doreen Valiente Foundation
“I think in essence she was happier going out at night under a full moon and communing, if you like, with the spirits that are there, rather than elaborate rituals. She was happiest just going out on a night of the full moon, up onto the Downs above where she lived in Brighton, the wind and the trees, and just being and experiencing the spirit that’s there.

“I think her heart was really in that simple approach to spirit and magic which she wrote about quite a bit. Her book, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, was very much in favour of ‘if people want to practice the craft, this is one of the ways you can do it.’

"She wrote that book for people who had that inner feeling that they wanted to experience that spirited nature and she helped them as much as she could. It didn’t matter that you hadn’t got anyone to initiate you. It was good if you did, but don’t let anyone stop you – I think that was basically what she was saying.

“The material that she left is vast in extent and I am absolutely certain that mine will not be the last biography of Doreen. I’m sure that over the next hundred years there will be people doing that sort of research and writing about her.”

A photo of objects belonging to Brighton witch Doreen Valiente whose collection is going on show at Preston Manor
© Doreen Valiente Foundation

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to find out about witchcraft history in

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle
The world's largest collection of witchcraft related artefacts and regalia, based in Boscastle since 1960 and now one of Cornwall's most popular museums. Attached to the museum is library which has over 5,500 occult related titles.

Meffan Museum and Art Gallery, Forfar
Step into a crowd staring in awe and horror at a witch about to be strangled and burnt. Forfar had a dark period in its history where several women were accused of witchcraft.

The Tolhouse, Great Yarmouth
Visit one of the oldest prisons in the country and explore Great Yarmouth’s story of crime and punishment. Discover the fate of thieves, smugglers, witches, pirates and murderers when punishment included transportation and execution.
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Excellent to see Brighton honouring one of their most notable daughters. The town had a great atmosphere of multi culturalism when I visited recently and is known as one of the most friendly to the LGBT community. It is great to see that spirit being extended even further towards the Pagans, Heathens & Witches who regard it as an important and welcoming place to.
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