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The Whitby Conclave

Image copyright Katherine King, 2001

At times some places seem to take on an almost magnetic nature. Interesting or influential people attract others and a community develops, as in London's Soho in the Fifties and San Francisco in the Sixties. At the turn of the Eighties, as Britain occupied itself with the punk movement, and many sections of society experienced the emergence of fringe cultures, the occult world experienced the beginnings of its own revolution. A few magicians quietly wondered where all the creativity had gone from magic. As often happens with fringe movements, the resulting ideas were later assimilated into the occult mainstream. Later the IOT became a respected organisation and some highly thought of names have written on the subject of what became Chaos Magic.

Here then Sarah Whittaker, after sifting through the befuddled memories of some of those present, looks back at just a few of the many meetings of minds that contributed to the UK scene all those years ago.

First Published (on paper) 1994 in The Philosopher's Stone

IN THE LATE nineteen seventies there was something of an occult convergence upon the English coastal town of Whitby. The reason for the movement of so many occultists, ex-hippies and pothead pixies, could probably be identified only by a thorough examination of the occult current of the time, along with a good analysis of the spirit of the nation. The result, however, was not only that there was a sizeable occult population in the area, but that many other occultists were in the habit of visiting the place.


Whitby is a small town nestling around a harbour on a steep sided river valley, on the coast of the English county of Yorkshire. One historical feature the town boasts is the ruin of the Abbey built by St.Hilda that overlooks Whitby from the cliff tops. It was here, in 664 that the Synod of Whitby took place, when the Celtic faction of the early Christian Church decided to join with Canterbury and thus fell under the jurisdiction of Rome.

Image copyright Katherine King, 2001Cut off from the outside world by the bleak Yorkshire Moors to the west and the even bleaker North Sea to the east, the town is accessed by one of two roads across the moors or by train from Middlesborough. The only other significant routes into the area are via the coast road from the north or south. Whitby has little through traffic and it could never be described as cosmopolitan. According to those present the local population, made up of generations of families earning a difficult living from fishing or associated industries, did not mix well with this influx of unconventional minds and habits.

The magical through traffic, however, was exceptional, and during the summer of 1979, at a house in Cliff Street, along with a few local pubs no doubt, there occurred what has since become known as The Whitby Conclave. This three story house overlooking the harbour, which is said to be the house in which Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, was the abode of one Graham Fenn-Edwards, a ritual magician and sculptor, who had moved to Whitby the year before. As is the tradition with the likes of occult communities, visiting magi descend upon any suitable lounge floor to crash for a few days, while escaping from the rigours of a world largely unsympathetic to their various models of reality.


With the arrival of the height of summer, the influx continued and the months of June to August saw quite a number of visitors. The names of those present during the summer of 79 were numerous, and what arose was a series of formal and informal meetings attended by Ray and Len Sherwin, who were largely the instigators of the events that followed. The names of others said to be present were Joe Stockdale, Joe and Dave Sheridan and Alfred Douglas. Resident in the area at the time was Bernie Ratcliffe, the proprietor and original owner of the occult shop Starchild, who had moved to the area, shop and all, from Luton in the south of England some time before. Ratcliffe was probably also one of the catalysts, as he and his shop had developed quite a following before he moved to Whitby. Also resident in the area was Bill Thwaites, sometimes known as Bill the Blacksmith. He was one of that rare breed of occult craftsmen who, like Fenn-Edwards, would manufacture magical equipment to order. At times, during the summer, Whitby was also visited by Lionel Snell, Don Howell and Nick Harrison.

Image copyright Katherine King, 2001
Whitby Abbey where in 664
the Synod of Whitby took place

Among the various magicians milling around at the time there was a degree of dissatisfaction with the state of magic as it stood. The general thought was that magic had gone stale. All that was about was either Gardenarian witchcraft or Victorian derived ritual magic. Little had happened in the occult world since the twenties when Crowley had ceased to be as active as he had been in earlier years. And everybody knew that Crowley was a wanker, at least as far as the way he treated the rest of the world. (Other evidence, such as that given in Gerald Suster's book The Legacy of the Beast now suggests that many historical criticisms of Crowley such as those in Symonds' The Great Beast were based on nothing more than hearsay, Editor.) The feeling was that it was time for something new. There was also a feeling that there was a need for magic with balls.

The significant idea that arose was that less structured, shamanistic traditions as exemplified by Austin Spare, who had showed his scorn for structures and hierarchies, had something to offer. Another influence was that amongst those present there were some people, although by no means everybody, who during the sixties and seventies had experimented with various psychedelic and consciousness altering substances. As a result there was a good deal of first hand experience of altered states and therefore, in line with the suggested shamanistic angle, altered states of mind could have a place in the systems, or rather methods, being worked out. There were also a number of artists present, who had an undoubted influence on the trend and also resulted in a call for a new iconography.

Several experimental rituals were performed, both in a temple at Cliff Street and at Boggle Hole, an outdoor setting nearby. The rituals performed used dance and physical exhaustion as a method of achieving the desired altered states of consciousness. What resulted was a magic with more feel and less thought. It was generally decided that any technique for raising power was to be considered fair game. This was experimental magic with no rules and no boundaries. It was realised that with such an unstructured approach there was a likelihood that there could be a high casualty rate, at least in the form of unexpected or imprecise results. However, as everything else practised recently was considered to have been a waste of time, the general reaction was one of, what the fuck, run amuck.


So perhaps, while running barefoot in the head, Chaos Magic was came to fruition, and magic, hopefully, would never be the same again. Shortly after, with the beginning of the Eighties, the instigators of this new current went their separate ways, and the house in Cliff Street is now once more an ordinary house. At about the same time Pete Carrol was coming up with similar ideas in Bristol that led to the publication of Psychonaut, while Ray Sherwin and Lionel Snell produced writings that have to have been influenced by the events of the summer of 79. Eventually, across the county in Leeds, Chris Bray, with his shop The Sorcerer's Apprentice, picked up on the trend and managed to sell it on to the rest of the world.

Image copyright Katherine King, 2001

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