Cecil Hugh Williamson (1909-1999) was a collector, museum entrepreneur, occultist and witch. These categories do not of course encompass him but they are central to his greatest surviving legacy, the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic. Amassing and assembling witchcraft and occult objects was his passion; whether it be spirit-traps from Zimbabwean plantation workers, or moon-rakes from wise women in Devon. In one way, his biography could be told via the objects he collected. After a stint in Africa he was drafted into the war effort and sent to the Devonshire coast to gather intelligence on German spies (c. 1940s). It was during his ‘off-duty hours’ that he carried out another kind of detection, this time for magical lore and the objects used by West country witches. This collecting project continued well into his twilight years, and took him across Europe – but his focus was always upon the south and west of England. After the war came one of the formative moments of his collecting-life; he was ushered into a room which he thought to have been a black magicians lair – and, ever the opportunist, he managed to leave with a car-load of objects for his Museums. Museums plural – Williamson had a business brain and ran several institutions with varying success in Stratford upon Avon, Windsor, the Isle of Man, Bourton-on-the-Water, Polperro, Tintagel, Buckfastleigh and now the only survivor – Boscastle.
A key feature of Williamson’s museum work and magical practice was how closely the two were intertwined. The aforementioned moon-rake was used by Williamson in divination rituals that he performed for clients well into the 1990s. Objects such as cursing poppets or dolls that he displayed as demonstrative of cursing magic in the south west were, in many cases, items that he himself created for paying customers. In this sense he was typical of the ‘double ways’ cunning person of the British tradition: he could bless or blast, curse or cure depending on the needs of the client, but he was the first cunning man to have a museum in which to house his spells and charms. Much more could be said of Williamson. He began his career in witchcraft, so he said, as a detached observer; later he developed his own art by ‘testing’ the spells he collected from grimoires and from the wise men and women of England. He once wrote that he had tested nearly thirty thousand spells with a 70% success rate. His library (still in the Museum) records that he was a voracious reader of magical literature, and was probably a peripheral member of ritual magic organisations which claimed to revive and codify the Western Esoteric tradition. This framed his universal, cosmic attitude to magic, which he believed found expression in the simple charms and lore of the rural wise woman.
A final note with regards ‘The Art of Magic’: Williamson displayed all his material in his museum, writing enigmatic labels or interpretation cards to accompany them. When the Museum was sold as a going concern to Graham King in 1996 Williamson took some of his most prized objects with him, but the labels remained. When a huge flood hit the museum in 2004, some objects were lost and many more were shorn of their interpretation cards. Today, these vagaries of time and change mean that some objects have no origin story, no dates, names or purpose attributed to them – whilst cards, object-less texts, have no material counterpart. This project addresses and materialises those shades of spells cast long ago returning them from the world of shadows.
Dr. Peter Hewitt, February 2018