Was Hastings cursed by the occultist Aleister Crowley?
Much has been written about Aleister Crowley, the famous dabbler in ‘sex magick’. He reached the end of his days in a boarding house on The Ridge in 1947 – he’d run out of money and he’d run out of friends.
The Victorian house known as Netherwood was demolished decades ago but its association with Crowley means its memory lingers as the legend grows and is embellished. These days its hard to tell where the facts about Crowley’s life end and rumours begin. Does anyone really know the truth anymore and does anyone really care?
Crowley was a heroin addict, he was the self-proclaimed ‘Great Beast’ and legend says he saw out his days – appropriately and fittingly in support of the legend – in room 13 of Netherwood House.
As for those rumours? Did he really sacrifice animals and did he really make furniture out of human skin as some claim?
Of course the biggest story about Crowley, who was born to a wealthy family in Leamington Spa in 1875, is that he cursed the town. Crowley’s curse says that if you have lived in Hastings you can never leave and if you try you will always come back. The only way to truly leave is to take with you a stone with a hole from the beach.
And there is plenty of folklore on stones with natural holes in them, called Hag Stones they were used to deter witches and were often hung outside the front door of a house – Crowley would have loved that!
What seems strange though is that Crowley would curse a place where he enjoyed a reasonably comfortable time, albeit increasingly subject to illness. In the intellectually stimulating environment of Netherwood he had easy access to the famous Hastings Chess Club where he was able to pursue his favourite pastime.
Adding to the man of mystery and adventure tag are rumours that as a young man, while at Trinity College Cambridge, he was recruited into British Intelligence and that he remained a spy throughout his life.
It was in 1944 that Crowley moved to Hastings and took up residence at Netherwood.
Kenneth Grant became his secretary and he was paid in magical teaching rather than wages. He was introduced to John Symonds, whom he appointed to be his literary executor even though Symonds thought very little of Crowley and later published biographies of him that were far from flattering.
While living at Netherwood he corresponded with the illusionist Arnold Crowther, it was through him that Crowley was introduced to Gerald Gardner, the future founder of Gardnerian Wicca. They became friends, with Crowley authorising Gardner to revive Britain’s ailing Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). According to its website the message of OTO is one of: “a revolution in human thought, culture and religion, based upon a single supreme injunction: the Law of Thelema – Do what thou wilt”.
Another visitor to Crowley was Eliza Marian Butler, who interviewed Crowley for her book The Myth of the Magus. Magus was a legendary magician who claimed to have superhuman powers. Other friends and family also spent time with him.
On December 1st 1947, Crowley died of chronic bronchitis aggravated by pleurisy and myocardial degeneration, he was 72. His funeral was held at Brighton crematorium four days later when only about a dozen people attended. The funeral generated controversy in the press and was labelled a Black Mass. Crowley’s ashes were sent to German occultist Karl Germer who lived in the US, who reportedly buried them in his garden in Hampton, New Jersey.
A lot has been written about Crowley The Tregerthen Horror recounts: “Crowley may have been dead, but his spirit hovered around Hastings. A newspaper report on his deserted room being hung with mysterious, oppressive paintings like ‘totem poles’, the purpose of which could not be understood.”
Netherwood ceased to be a boarding house around 1970 once closed it quickly acquired a spooky reputation and fell in to disrepair and dilapidation. Young people would clamber over its high fences to explore the grounds.
Back to The Tregerthen Horror: “One youthful marauder recalled entering the Victorian ruin and creeping down to the cellar where a startling sight awaited him. Strewn around the darkness were what might be termed ‘cardboard sculptures’, cut-outs, man-shaped and emblematic, heavily crayoned and held together by string. They were ‘relics’ Crowley had used for ritual purposes. It was indefinably creepy, seeing them forlornly hung up on rusty nails and over the backs of broken chairs in that static, dust-filled silence.
“The magician had long passed on, yet his eerie, slightly childish devices lingered like vestiges of an arcane purpose beyond resurrection.” Or maybe they were just children’s cardboard cut-out figures, or some ‘artwork’ by an earlier resident but that doesn’t really suit the narrative that people want to project about Aleister Crowley!
Through accounts like these the myth was born of ‘the demon Crowley’ whose curse it was said ‘sapped the willpower’ of the townsfolk making it impossible for them to leave.
Then as the fortunes of Hastings started to decline and crime and drug use were on the increase so Crowley came back in to fashion – remember he’d been a heroin addict himself!
Netherwood might no longer have existed but any ‘brooding’ property would be identified as the place where ‘the beast’ had once lived.
The Tregerthen Horror again: “Thus Crowley, who had planned to usher in a new aeon of light and love, became associated with the darkness of addiction, dehydration and spiritual inertia. The joyous dance of Pan was reincarnated in the wavering stagger of the junkie negotiating the chip-spattered, polystyrene-carton-clogged streets desperately seeking his ultimate fix.”
It is alleged that film maker and Crowley devotee Kenneth Anger stayed at Netherwood in the late 1960s, when it was still a guest house and folk singer Shirley Collins, who grew up in Hastings, remembers as a girl she was told not to enter the grounds of Netherwood as a ‘black magician’ lived there and she would either cross over the road when walking along that part of The Ridge or peddle past furiously on her bike.
It’s not just in Hastings that Crowley has an infamy. In the 1930s he lived in Cornwall and mention the ‘Aleister Crowley house’ in conversation with someone in West Cornwall and you’ll either get a knowing look or a frosty silence. In the South West of England he was branded a Satanist and ‘the wickedest man in the world’. He remains a controversial figure, controversial enough to stir up ill-feeling in those who would rather his links with Cornwall, however small, were forgotten.
There are those in the south west who claim they have visited the ruin of the house where he lived. Some even claiming to have spent the night there, writing their names on the walls to document their courage, the more honest admit they got too scared to hang around for too long – local folklore alleges that in that house Crowley summoned up the Devil and performed a Black Mass down the hill in Zennor’s church.
In his lifetime Crowley had two wives, five children and gained widespread notoriety. He experimented with ‘recreational’ drugs, was a bisexual and an individualist social critic.
He has been called ‘the wickedest man in the world’ and labeled a Satanist by the popular press and even though it’s more than 70 years since he died Crowley has remained a highly influential figure and continues to be considered ‘a prophet in Thelema’, an occult social and spiritual philosophy he developed in the early 1900s. He believed himself to be the prophet of a new age.
Crowley it is said was was in revolt ‘against the moral and religious values of his time’.
Whatever the truth, whatever the myth, he’s a man who made his mark in life and whose legend continues to grow long after his death in room 13 at Netherwood.
Main photograph is Netherwood as Crowley would have known it.