Sorcerer’s Apprentices and Industrial Witches:
The Urban Wyrd as Magick in Leeds, West Yorkshire
Our cities are myths; constantly rewriting themselves and spawning our demons; incest, rape, child abuse, drugs, poverty. Besides these “beings”, anything you can tempt into a porta-triangle is nothing by comparison. Yet we don’t seem to have a magical approach to the complexities of city-life. We’ve hardly begun to touch the psychic complexities of urban living; how it affects us and generates weird elementals and semi-sentient nexuses of energy. It seems to me that we spend too much time searching for a connection with the past, whilst doing our best to ignore that we are hurtling at breakneck speed into the future.
Phil Hine, Touched by Fire: Techniques of Modern Shamanism Vol. 3 (1989)
The urban wyrd suffuses the streets of Leeds. Even at the height of the industrial revolution, magick was still to be found amongst the mechanical tyranny of the mills and factories of the city, where incoming rural workers brought their own folklore, and - in the absence of a welfare state - cunning-folk took care of a multitude of daily problems... in their own way. Marginalised even before the uttered a magical word, it is unsurprising that almost all of the cunning-folk seemed to land themselves in prison: Mary Bateman, a murderess, prophesied the Christ’s second-coming through miraculous messages inscribed on eggs; Henry Harrison “the Kirkgate Wizard” and bigamist served five years after inducing a client to murder his wife; while William Dawson Bellhouse, crystal-gazer and galvanist, found himself in York debtor’s jail.
Two centuries later, Leeds is still notable for its urban shamans and as the cradle of chaos magick. An especially green city, with a multitude of parks, woodland spaces and moors within its boundaries, you can happen upon a shady glen with streams and deer running across your path in the most unexpected, sometimes grim, urban setting. This is part of the reason why the city that has appealed to contemporary pagans and occultists alike: you can “escape”, however momentarily, into another world with relative privacy and calm.
Having moved to the city in the early 2000s, I found it haunted by the spirit of magical practitioners past: some of whom had died long ago, others of the prior generation, who had left their mark before moving on. Yet there always felt like a magical thread or resonance between them and myself, as I found myself, often literally, walking in their footsteps. What follows is a rough sketch of magickal Leeds, informed by my initial researches and interviews, which I hope to develop further over the coming year. For this article, I concentrate on the experiences of Rodney Orpheus and Phil HIne, coming to Leeds from Ireland and Huddersfield, respectively, and how their magical community resonates with the Leodisian witches of yore, and my own experiences in the present. I extend my particular thanks to Phil and Rodney for the interviews I conducted with them in late 2018.
Sorcerer’s Apprentices: Chaos Magick & Urban Shamanism in Modern Leeds
I was drawn to the black iron-wrought door as I walked down Burley Lodge Road, where my best friend lived in the early 00s. Forever entranced by urban decay, we would walk together arm-in-arm and often paused to gaze up at the blacked out windows of the imposing end-of-terrace building, imagining the exciting possibilities that lurked within – a decrepit fire-wrecked home, the solitary cell of a modern-day hermit, a sex dungeon perhaps. It appealed to our gothic aesthetic... we mischievously knocked at the door once, on the way home from a night out.
I Googled the address one night to try and discover what lay within and we could not have been more pleased to discover it was the address of the (now mail order only) Sorcerers Apprentice: an occult book and supply store which had also been situated at the later and more prominent location of Hyde Park corner as “Astonishing Books” before an arson attack by fundamentalist Christians. Both of us had an interest in magic, so this felt like destiny. We pored over the listings, sent off for a few incense ingredients and cackled at the nerve of selling “sacred rocks” picked up on Ilkley Moor.
It wasn’t apparent to us then, that this location, and a small lock up further down the street, had played such an essential role in the magical lives of many prominent local practitioners in the 1980s, such as Ray Sherwin, Phil Hine, Peter Carroll and Dave Lee.
Founded in January 1975 by Chris Bray, also known as Frater Marabas, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice shop initially operated out of the small lock up garage building adjacent to the current premises at 6-8 Burley Lodge road. Claiming to be one of the original occult mail order suppliers, SA quickly built up a reputation within the occult community and naturally became a focal point for local practitioners, as well as people coming from all over the UK just to visit. A small social scene developed, congregating there and sharing ideas, no doubt the thronging social atmosphere was in part due to the fact the physical shop only opened on a Saturday. In addition to this Bray used the original lock up as a venue for Saturday coffee mornings: patrons paid a small fee for drinks and mingled there, discussing their practices and often taking each other back to their ritual spaces to demonstrate. The SA also began publishing The Lamp of Thoth, an anachronistic revival of a much earlier occult magazine originally printed by the Rosicrucian Fathers of Keighley, a Golden Dawn offshoot who operated out of nearby Keighley around 1870. SA’s Lamp of Thoth featured news and articles from prominent occultists as well as a reprinted extract of the original 1870s LoT magazine.
Rodney Orpheus moved to Leeds from Northern Ireland in the early 1980s solely due to the reputation of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice:
When I first turned up in Leeds, I literally decided I was going to move from Northern Ireland where I’m from to England to form a band. I was going to be a Rockstar I was at university in Northern Ireland and one day I was walking across the campus with a big pile of books in my hands, and it was grey, dreary and horrible. I just stopped and threw my books on the ground said fuck this I’m going to be a rockstar. I stopped and packed everything in a rucksack and hitch-hiked to the UK. The only place I knew about was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Leeds, so I hitch-hiked there and arrived on a Saturday morning with all my stuff in a rucksack. I sat in the coffee shop and had literally no money, I just started chatting to people. One of the first people I talked to was Pete Carroll, well before Liber Null or anything - he was just this usual guy, talking away. There was a lot of hippy, pagan people sitting around, chatting away, and a guy called Richard Bartle Bitelli who was the wise old man of Leeds occultism. He lived in Dewsbury and he was ancient, at least by my standards at the time! He came up to me in shop, big old guy with a staff, with a gold plated pentagram at the top and said “Now young man, what are you here for?” I got to know him, he was an amazing man – very influential at the time. He also did a thing called the sexual tarot, which the Sorcerer’s Apprentice published... it was outrageous at the time.
Orpheus, once settled in Leeds, worked at the Sorcerer’s apprentice for several years in order to support a blossoming musical career with his band, The Cassandra Complex. He speaks highly of Bray;
He took a lot of shit from a lot of people inside the occult world at the time but I have nothing but respect for Chris, despite his insane claims and over the top marketing bullshit, I have nothing but respect for him. It was only when I started working there that I realised just how great he really was, he was really on the ball and knew his stuff magically as well.
A lot of what we now consider to be the UK occult scene would be completely different or none existent without Chris’s work.
Along with the Leeds University Union Occult Society, which was formed in 1979 as a consequence of a local occult group disbanding, the coffee mornings at SA became a breeding ground for new ideas, sharing of practical magic and collaboration. Having met in London after an infamous classified advert placed in Time Out magazine in 1974 brought together a group of occultists known collectively as the “Stoke Newington Sorcerers”, Ray Sherwin, and later Peter Carroll, attended these meetings and eventually both moved to East Morton, a small village between Leeds and Bradford, on the edge of Ilkley Moor. Together they had established the, magical working group The Illuminates of Thanateros, also known as The Pact or just the IOT, using ideas from Spare, Crowley and Castanada as well as yogic practices to create a more stripped-down, back-to-basics approach to magic with more focus on ability rather than formal grades of initiation. On November 22nd 1980, the early incarnation of the IOT performed it’s first ritual on Ilkley Moor, with four more rituals being conducted over the next 18 months, culminating in the burial of a pentacle in a nearby wood and the disbanding of the working group on May 1st 1982. New members for the IOT were often recruited at the SA coffee mornings and in 1981 the SA re-published Peter Carroll’s Liber Null (originally published in 1978), considered a key text for Chaos magic, as well as Ray Sherwin’s Book of Results and The Cardinal Rites of Chaos (Sherwin, under the alias Paula Pagani).
The meritocratic nature of the IOT in the early 80s was a novel approach at the time, contrasting with the magical groups that had been in existence earlier in Leeds that were often guru-led or based on more formal initiatory traditions. There was no reliance on one particular system or tradition, instead practical skills and techniques from a variety of sources were drawn together depending on what suited the individual.
It’s interesting to note in Dave Lee’s recollections of the early chaos magic scene in Leeds that he describes the black-painted frontage and interior of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice shop as a “tiny one-storey shop unit that looked like it had survived a number of urban renewals”. The unassuming urban surroundings seemed to inspire, rather than hinder, the magical practices of its inhabitants, leading them to side-step conventional neo-pagan romanticised focuses of a simplistic natural world and a nostalgic imagined past, instead forging new practices that often evoked futuristic or alien landscapes.
Phil Hine described the new style of practices initiated by the chaos magic scene as “stripping away the bullshit”, and these practices became intertwined with the punk scene of the late 70s/early 80s which thrived amidst the squats and urban wastelands. However, Leeds’ uniquely green landscape also played on the psyche of its inhabitants.
Hine moved to Leeds from Huddersfield, where he’d studied at university in the early 1980s and landed in Headingley, living in a squat with punks. Ray Sherwin, who was the first owner of Id Aromatics (an essential oils, resins and medicinal herb shop still existent in Leeds today), was around that time making the first Chaos International magazine and Hine arrived just in time to get involved. Being able to survive largely on benefits also helped the magickal community develop, as Phil Hine recalled:
Virtually all of my time in Leeds was spent unemployed, as were most of the people I knew in Leeds. I worked odd jobs, worked in Id (aromatics) occasionally, making up incense and packaging up parcels. When I got kitted up with some DTP gear, I did curry house menus but spent most of my time on the dole and editing Pagan News. There was a vibrant, unemployed people's culture. When I moved down to London it was a huge shock because I was used to them being very laid back about people being on the dole, but in London virtually no one was.
The creative community having a (meager) source of income and free-time seems to have played an essential part in practitioners have the space and time to explore ideas. Hine spoke in an earlier interview with Gyrus on his Dreamflesh blog about his desire to connect with urban spirits:
What I was also interested in for a long time was forming relationships, for want of a better term, with the spirits in cities. Not merely the ghosts of haunted houses, but maybe the ghosts of old industrial buildings. The weird things that hang around electrical sockets when nobody’s looking. I think how we frame and interpret and allow spirits to be there… “Oh yeah, there’s earth spirits and water spirits and fire spirits.” But are there electrical spirits? Are there nuclear energy spirits? Are there spirits of gas and petrol and plastics and things like that? I was very caught by the realisation that we have lots of metaphors for dealing with magic in the outdoors, but we didn’t have very many metaphors for magic in the cities.
Hine later published three volumes of essays on Modern Shamanism, dealing with the practical issues of working with magic in a modern, urban community - using magic as a tool to “enhance survival”. Hine’s down to earth approach seems to perfectly reflect the landscape in which he operated, finding solutions to real-life problems in a possible reflection of his training as an occupational therapist:
I started I guess, acting like a shaman, without wanting to take that much-abused title on. Some people wanted rituals, or just turning up at people's houses when they'd lost their sticky black and dowsing for it with a pendulum. That's as good as anything!
What really struck me was there was a whole range of urban ailments that there was nothing in the magical texts I'd read up to that point that suggested a way of dealing with it. Someone came up to me and asked if I knew a magical way to help them get off heroin. I was thinking “shit, that's not something I've ever come across anybody mentioning before” so I think the urban environment represents a whole new range of problems that at the time I was finding the magical texts I was reading had nothing to say about at all. So I was starting to think about what kind of practices I needed to evolve as a magical to work with those kinds communities of people. I tried not to turn people away. It was useful that I'd trained as an occupational therapist, which is a very good job to do to help you think on your feet and have tools to deal with people. So a lot of what I was doing was applying occupational therapy and giving it a magical twist.
The green spaces in Leeds seem to have held particular attractions for local magical practitioners - less so for solitude and quiet but more for space as a communal area for congregation. According to Hine:
Woodhouse moor was one of the primary magical areas, we used to go out and do lots of rituals on Woodhouse moor, in fact one time I was out there with a bunch of squat friends and we were just hanging out and we got busted by the cops who thought we were a witch coven. I thought that was hilarious as I was the only one of the group who could be categorised as a witch!
While Woodhouse Moor is demarcated by terraces, main roads and university buildings, the leafier suburbs of Meanwood have been places I have been personally attracted to as a magical space, and still use to this day. The green, secluded parkland there often act as a simulacrum of wild places for local pagans and magical practitioners, affording some degree of privacy - especially at night. Meanwood park even has a collection of standing stones, erected by the local landowner when the park was the garden of a mansion house. These stones are now frequently used by local neo-pagan groups with offerings left nearby and have even been attributed folklore - one particular stone is known as a the Witches stone and has personal significance for me despite it’s dubious antiquity - I got married beside it. Phil Hine recounts an initiation there during his time in Leeds:
There were a number of groups loosely connected through friendship networks in Leeds, EOD had a couple of people there, the chaos magic scene, a couple of people in the TOTO, various pagan folk, it had a really vibrant magical scene. It was while I was in Leeds that I met a guy who was in the Arcane Magical Order of the Knights of Shambala – tantric group started by Mike Magee in the 1970s. I rocked up one night to hear this guy give a talk on Tantra at Leeds University occult society and I was kind of impressed with him because he had a good sense of humour. He later on initiated me in Meanwood Park, the thing that I always remember about that night not so much because of the initiation but we were walking back sometime after midnight through the park, and you know Meanwood park, there are loads of rich people's houses along the edges of it – we saw this couple in full evening dress, he had a top hat and tails, she had a massive evening dress on, they were waltzing round and round in the back of their garden. I thought that was amazing.
In the nearby suburb of Chapel Allerton, Hine and Orpheus started producing the acclaimed monthly pagan zine, Pagan News from Orpheus’s terraced house. Originally titled Northern Paganlink News, the zine was born out of a need to disseminate information about networking and events for the Paganlink network, which Hine and Orpheus were both involved in. Pagan News ran from 1988 to 1992 and was integral in the push back against the Satanic Panic craze of the 80s and 90s. Being the only monthly pagan-oriented news-oriented zine at the time they were able to keep up with the fast-moving developments in Satanic Ritual Abuse trials and offer practical advice to pagans as well as having articles, interviews and advertisements from prominent practitioners and personalities. Between 1987 and 1993 there were 84 investigated cases of “SRA” and some 41 children taken into care. Along with Chris Bray at the Sorcerers Apprentice, who formed the Sub-culture Alternatives Freedoms Foundation (S.A.F.F), Pagan News was a vital resistance against the rising hysteria and moral panic inflicted against pagans and magical practitioners at a time when identifying as a pagan, or even just owning books on the subject was enough to find yourself questioned by the police and social services.
The city of Leeds was a focus of magical resistance and of magical practice; Hine was using urban phenomena for divination and inspiration as he took late night walks through the blend of urban and green spaces of Leeds:
I used to do lots of night walking as I lived on the far side of Leeds, I used to like that you could walk from one side of Leeds to the other and walk through loads of greenery, I used to really enjoy walking through that in the dead of night to visit friends. I got really into the murmuration of starlings at one point and prognosticating on the flight of birds in the city centre at night. I guess that's what started me off on the idea of urban shamanism.
Industrial Witches: Shamans and Cunning Folk of Bygone Days
Hine wrote three short books on modern shamanism - describing and instructing on magical situations that occured in the urban environment, as well as his experiences as an “urban shaman” providing magical and occult services for his friends and peers. The down-to-earth and practical approach Hine suggests could perhaps be seen as a true form of folk-magic or cunning, a more direct descendant of the magical workings of ordinary people than the initiatory traditions that were formerly the preserves of the upper classes:
Magick is alive and well and being practiced in the suburbs, squats and housing estates. There is an infinite plurality of approach, which is partly why I don’t stick to one system exclusively - having an eclectic approach and being adaptable in new situations is more useful for me.
There is historical evidence for this kind of cunning folk figure having existed in Leeds centuries before Hine lived there, the most notorious perhaps would be Mary Bateman, known as the Yorkshire Witch. She was executed for murder in 1809, having poisoned two of her clients who had approached her to remove a spell they had believed was placed on them. Bateman, who lived in slum housing around the Timble Bridge area near to the River Aire in central Leeds, was well-known locally as having the ability to “screw down” or remove curses by unknown persons that were supposedly causing ill health or misfortune, as well as working as a fortune-teller and con-artist - having once charged people entry to view an egg supposedly laid by one of her hens that had miraculously appeared with the words “Christ is Coming” on them. Later Bateman had been observed writing on eggs with acid and re-inserting them into her hen! Even in her cell, awaiting execution, Bateman was solicited for love charm-making by fellow inmates and apparently had a large following of dedicated fans who mourned her death and predicting her future rebirth.
Less well known are the more reputable magical practitioners of the time, for example Hannah Green or The Ling Bob Witch was also a fortune teller and cunning woman who operated in the outskirts of Leeds at Yeadon on the Otley Old Road, having moved there from Wilsden in Bradford, until her death in 1810. She was known for her skill at reading tea leaves and was a fortune teller of great repute - often garnering the custom of the gentry who would park their grand carriages and horses outside her small cottage. She was successful enough to have saved up more than £1000 through her career, no small amount at the time.
Witch Pickles was a contemporary of the Ling Bob Witch, living on Marsh Lane in the Burmantofts area of Leeds in the early 19th century. He was an astrologer and cunning man who was notable at the time for his credibility and unwillingness to trick “weak and credulous women and girls” as well as “lighting a fire or candle without visable agency”.
Unfortunately the same credit cannot be given to William Dawson Bellhouse who supplied a multitude of fantastic services to clients of Leeds in the 1850s, his skills ranging from traditional cunning practices such as horoscopes, folk charms and remedies to galvanic baths and medicinal electricity. Bellhouse was accused of using his crystal gazing sessions to seduce women. He was also a frequent resident of debtors gaol and his magical practices were brought to the attention of authorities when he kicked out a tenant and sold her furniture.
As urban shamans, a significant number of magical practitioners of both past and present seem to have occupied a pastoral role, tending to the needs of ordinary people who seek out their assistance for everyday problems and situations. On the other side of the coin, we also find the cultish exploiters of the credulous - and perhaps there are those who, like Bellhouse, occupy a middle ground, setting some story by their belief, although leveraging it for dubiously moral aims.
While the socio-economic circumstances of the earlier cunning folk made for a much harder life, often resulting in a more exploitative and violent mode of operation, the need for cunning as a neither secular nor conventionally religious, pastoral service, which finds magical solutions for ordinary people in the urban environment, seem to have survived through the ages. Persecution of those practicing magic, although technically legal after the repeal of the witchcraft act in 1951, still carried a cultural taboo long into the 20th century: one which was weaponised against pagans and magical practitioners in the form of fraudulent claims of satanic ritual abuse, and consequent attacks upon shops like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The need for magic persevered regardless.
These, however, are stories which must be explored later: the limits of this article allow only a small part of the story of the magical history of Leeds to be told. I have not touched on Neo-Paganism, Wicca or Thelema in detail, despite their convergences with the Chaos magic scene. Nor have we had the time to explore the influence of Lovecraftian magical fiction, the magical use of the outlying moorlands, the crossover between Leeds’ occultists and the vibrant goth culture of the early 80s, and the development of these themes over the 90s and into the millennium. Doubtless there are many other tales to be told, and I welcome correspondence with people involved in the magic scene of West Yorkshire in the 70s-90s who wish to contribute their own stories.
Anon. 1811. The Extraordinary Life and Character of Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch. Leeds: Davies & Co.
Anon. 1866. ‘Yorkshire Planet-Rulers: Witch Pickles’, The Leeds Times, July 7 1866, p.3.
Harms, Dan. 2012. ‘William Dawson Bellhouse’, Papers Falling from an Attic Window. URL: https://danharms.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/william-dawson-bellhouse-a-galvanist-and-cunning-man/
Harms, Dan. 2018. ‘A Liverpool Cunning Man and his Magical Manual’, Museum of Witchcraft, Ritual Magic conference. URL: https://thefolklorepodcast.weebly.com/season-3/episode-42-a-liverpool-cunning-man-and-his-magical-manual-a-conference-lecture-by-daniel-harms
Hine, Phil. 1989 . Touched By Fire: Techniques of Modern Shamanism, Vol. 3. Pagan News Publications.
Hine, Phil & Gyrus. 1997. Chaos and Beyond: An Interview with Phil Hine. URL: https://dreamflesh.com/interview/phil-hine/
Hine, Phil. Interview with Layla Legard, November 2018.
Lee, Dave. 2017. ‘Tales of Magic’, IOT British Isles Section. URL: http://iotbritishisles.com/?s=tales+of+magic
Orpheus, Rodney. Interview with Layla Legard, December 2018.