The History of The Museum of Witchcraft
by Graham King, updated by Julia Phillips in 2023.
Cecil was a West Country man born in Paignton, Devon. His father was a military officer often posted abroad, and Cecil was looked after by a nanny and often sent to stay with relatives. Some holidays were spent with his uncle, the vicar of North Bovey in Devon; it was here that he had his first encounter with witchcraft. Cecil apparently intervened to stop some local thugs persecuting a local witch, who later befriended the young Williamson.
Cecil was later sent to an upmarket prep school in Norfolk and then to Malvern College. In an interview Cecil related how he had met a 'Wise Woman' who lived in the school grounds; she taught him some simple but effective spell craft that he used against a school bully.
Williamson's magical education continued in Rhodesia where he went to work on a tobacco plantation. It was here that realised that the principles of village witchcraft are universal - the African witchdoctors were using similar techniques to English wayside witches.
In 1930 Williamson returned to Britain where his study of the occult was now becoming known. He was meeting and exchanging letters with the country's leading experts including Wallis Budge of the British Museum, anthropologist Margaret Murray, and historian Montague Summers.
In 1938 he was approached by MI6, to work as an undercover agent collecting data on the occult interests of leading military personnel in Nazi Germany.
Cecil's involvement with MI6 and the occult continued through World War II and his occult knowledge was apparently used to lure Rudolf Hess to fly to Scotland.
It was probably in late 1950 that Cecil first met Gerald Gardner in London and although they quickly became friends and business partners, as so often happens, the relationship ended in fighting, mistrust and bitterness. The Museum archives have a collection of letters from Gardner to Williamson that demonstrate the rise and fall of their relationship.
The Witches Mill on the Isle of man before renovation
In 1947 Cecil Williamson tried to open a museum in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1947, but was overpowered by bureaucracy; it was made clear to him that Stratford did not want anything to do with witchcraft! In January 1951 he planned to relocate an Elizabethan cottage owned by Gerald Gardner from Bricket Wood, Herfordshire, to Warwick, Warwickshire, to operate as a museum of witchcraft, but he was not able to secure the requisite planning permission.
Shortly after abandoning plans for a museum in Warwick, Williamson purchased Windmill Farm near Castletown, Isle of Man and converted it into a Museum and restaurant.
The museum opened in July 1951 with Gardner in attendance as 'resident witch'. Gardner courted publicity and succeeded in persuading several newspapers journalists to cover witchcraft along with radio and television stations. This publicity coincided with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951.
Williamson wanted the Museum to show the way of the 'Wayside Witch' and folk magic but knew that the public demanded sensational displays. Gerald did not approve of Cecil's displays and was not at all happy that Cecil removed a photograph of him from the exhibition.
Eventually Cecil decided to move his museum back to England and in 1954 he moved in his collection to Windsor. The Witches' Mill building was sold to Gardner who continued to run it as a museum of witchcraft.
Witchcraft and Royal Windsor were not good partners and Cecil was forced to move the collection to the beautiful Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water. The Witchcraft Exhibition, later re-named the Witchcraft Museum, opened on April 1st (Easter Sunday) 1956. Initial response was encouraging, with more than 3,800 visitors to the museum during its first ten days, according to a report in the Birmingham Post. Some complaints were reported to the Birmingham press, but the Chair of the Parish Council said, ‘from what he had learned from the Parishioners, there was little or no criticism of the Witchcraft Exhibition. A number of letters had been received by the Clerk and himself, but only two of these came from local people.’
The museum remained in Bourton-on-the-Water until 1967, although it was not active in its later years and in 1961, Cecil moved back to his beloved West Country and opened a new museum in Boscastle, where it remains.
Cecil ran the Museum until 1996 when at midnight on 31st October he sold it to Graham King. Sadly, Cecil Williamson died in 1996 aged 90. We hope that the museum will remain a lasting tribute to a remarkable man.
For details of the collections and museum opening hours, visit: https://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk
Further reading: Phillips, Julia. 2021. ‘The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic: Toward a New History of British Wicca ’ Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 16 (2): 173-200 (University of Pennsylvania Press).