A glimpse into history: “A Spell of Witchcraft” radio programs re-released

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SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND –The year was 1971 and, despite the death of Gerald Gardner some years before, Wicca was continuing to gain adherents. The high priest and priestess of the Sheffield coven of witches, Arnold and Patricia Crowther, who had been initiated by Gardner in 1960, were emerging as strong voices of the movement. Their voices were markedly amplified when they produced A Spell of Witchcraft, a show on BBC Radio Sheffield, explaining to listeners through a half-dozen twenty-minute segments what modern witchcraft was really like.

patricia crowther

Patricia Crowther [Courtesy Photo]

Those programs have recently been made available online by the Centre for Pagan Studies (CPS). Patricia Crowther provided the original cassette recordings, which were digitized and, with approval of the BBC, upload for public consumption.

Arnold passed on in 1974, and Patricia was on holiday and unavailable to be interviewed directly. However The Wild Hunt spoke to CPS director Ashley Mortimer about the significance of these early radio programs. Mortimer was also able to reach Ms Crowther and relay some of her own recollections. Mortimer said:

These programmes are certainly informative, unquestionably, but the deeper historical interest to me seems to be that they show the attitude that Craft members like Patricia and Arnold thought they should adopt in explaining the Craft to a wider world. This has cultural context to the time. I gather they caused a reasonable stir in 1970s Sheffield, a northern industrial town in Britain, and perhaps deliberately so . . . but also carefully thought out to not court controversy while equally not ignoring the fact that it may be viewed as such.

The idea that these segments were produced to carefully “toe a line” does not fit with Crowther’s own recollections, as reported by Mortimer. “She didn’t think much of the question about pagans justifying themselves(!),” he explained, rather, “she said things like her talks and the radio programme were just meant to be interesting and informative. There was no real agenda to promote anything; the Goddess was already rising into people’s consciousness anyway.”

Nevertheless, Mortimer’s observation that these recordings “give a glimpse into the way early pioneers of publicly ‘defend’ paganism and the Craft” isn’t necessarily off-base. The fact that the programs do appear to be a justification today suggests they could have been interpreted as a defense just as easily at the time they were first broadcast.

To better understand what being a public member of the Craft was like in that time and place, we asked Mortimer this question: “Do you think Pagans today feel less of a need to justify themselves, as was done in these shows?”

I think these shows were less of an attempt to justify pagans and paganism than a genuine attempt to simply show that pagans deserved to be treated with equal respect to other faith groups — times WERE different in 1960s and 1970s Britian, that’s for sure. I think today it depends on the cultural context, in some places it’s quite ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’ to be pagan though some people have a tendency to rather flaunt it, whereas in others there is still genuine fear from the prejudice that sadly still rears its ugly head — like the case in Iowa when the local Christian faction decided to show their magnanimity and generosity of spirit and understanding for people of other faiths to their own.

The Crowthers themselves were no strangers to such controversy but, according to what Patricia relayed in a phone conversation with Mortimer, it wasn’t her work on the air that stirred the proverbial cauldron. Mortimer explained, “She said that there was little controversy over the programmes, it was the talks and lectures that attracted some adversity, including the time that a church group prayed for her talk to be cancelled … they didn’t object to a talk on witchcraft but they did object to a witch giving it!!! She also said that she did a lot of talks around that time, she enjoyed the universities because she found the students particularly open to new and different ideas and she also liked the private clubs and the Masonic events she was invited to speak at.”

In the years since A Spell of Witchcraft first aired, many religious practices identifying as Pagan have emerged, and even the word “Wicca” has become broader in how it’s used. But the shifting of labels has in no way diluted the clarity with which Patricia Crowther herself sees her own religious practice. According to Mortimer, Crowther “wanted to stress that paganism and the Craft are not precisely the same thing, and that there are lots of people working in pagan circles who are identifying with the Goddess and paganism, they are certainly pagan but not Craft.”

While these radio programs were intended to convey information about the Craft specifically, the content is expansive and may be informative to other, more eclectic Wiccans and any Pagan whose tradition has been influenced by such early work.

witches for hanging

CPS’ will continue to focus on building a history around the roots of the Craft movement. While there were only a half dozen segments in A Spell of Witchcraft, Crowther told Mortimer that, “she was quite a regular on BBC Radio Sheffield, she was interviewed hundreds of times about Witchcraft, astrology, folklore and all sorts of things.” Mortimer intends on trying to source more of those broadcasts and obtain permission to digitize and publish them online as well.

Longer-term projects include plans to open a museum of magic, witchcraft and folklore, once public funding for the project is obtained, and to continue research into Valiente’s and Gardner’s writings. This may result in published research, but possibly also a conference focused on the various incarnations of the books of shadows used in both their work.

In addition to all of those pursuits, the Centre for Pagan Studies will be republishing Crowther’s novel Witches Were for Hanging on May 1. Also in the works is a brand new biography of Doreen Valiente written by Philip Heselton. Mortimer, who is also a trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, said ” I can promise your readers [that the book] will make some rather startling revelations about Doreen and her life that Philip has uncovered; amazing, actually (but I won’t spoil the surprise for everyone until the book is published!).”

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