OCCULT LONDON AND MARYLEBONE’S WIZARDS
London continues to thrive as a mecca for occult studies and groups. Today, salons and bookstores such as Treadwell’s and Atlantis attract hundreds of artists, scholars, and practitioners from around the world—much like the Victorian-era bookshops of John Denley and George Bumstead. The Warburg Institute, which was the base for historian of magic and science Dame Frances Yates, also maintains the world-renowned Yorke and Innes collections, which include (among many other eclectic tomes) works on alchemy and ceremonial magic.
In the early twentieth century, London was the main social arena for occultists like Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley. It was also a formative centre of The Theosophical Society, whose London chapters were led by women’s rights activists Anna Kingsford and Annie Besant. Two centuries earlier, during the Enlightenment, the city had harboured countless legendary esotericists such as the Kabbalist Baal Shem and the seer Emanuel Swedenborg. Elizabethan London saw the rise of Dr John Dee, a member of the Queen’s court and a scryer who “discovered” the Enochian language of angels. Ancient Londininium was also a hotbed of magical activity. Artefacts from its temples of Mithras and Isis have been on display at the Museum of London for several decades.
Despite the deep overall occult history of London, little has been said of Marylebone’s relationship with the esoteric world. The Marylebone Spiritualist Association (which eventually evolved into the current Spiritualist Association of Great Britain) was founded in 1872 on David Street (now Porter Street). Curiously, author Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (who was a fervent Spiritualist) set his most famous character Sherlock Holmes in a flat on Baker Street, just a few minutes away. Doyle conveyed that he would like “to be remembered for his psychic work rather than for his novels”, but Holmes is the exact opposite, occasionally using his acute intellect to banish superstition. Yet even the cynical detective might have found Marylebone’s lesser-known wizards amusing.
1. The Norton Street School of Magic
Francis Barrett was the author of The Magus, a book on ritual magic which borrowed heavily from Heinrich Agrippa’s Three Books on Occult Philosophy and the fifteenth-century grimoire, the Heptameron. Barrett claimed that he was a master of mysteries with encyclopedic knowledge of esoterica. From his flat on 99 Norton Street (now Bolsover Street) he taught lessons on magic and philosophy, accepting no more than twelve students at a time:
“[Students] will acquire the knowledge of the Rites, Mysteries, Ceremonies, and Principles of the ancient Philosophers, Magi, Cabalists, Adepts, &c.–The purpose of this School (which will consist of no greater number than Twelve Students) being to investigate the hidden treasures of Nature; to bring the Mind to a Contemplation of the Eternal Wisdom; to promote the discovery of whatever may conduce to the perfection of Man,. the alleviating the miseries and calamities of this life, both in respect of ourselves and others; the study of morality and religion here, in order to secure to ourselves felicity hereafter; and, finally, the Promulgation of whatever may conduce to the general happiness and welfare of mankind.–Those who feel themselves thoroughly disposed to enter upon such a course of studies, as is above recited, with the same principles of philanthropy with which the Author invites the lovers of Philosophy and wisdom, to incorporate themselves in so select, permanent, and desirable a society, may speak with the Author upon the subject, at any time between the hours of Eleven and Two o’clock, at 99 Norton Street, Mary-le-Bonne.”
His pupils included cunning man Dr John Parkins, and crystallomancer Frederick Hockley, but other contemporaries of Barrett remembered him as an amateur chemist and painter who made three unsuccessful attempts at balloon aviation.
2. The Anti-Pope of Marylebone High Street
Eugene Vintras acquired a little more notoriety for his practices. Born to an impoverished French family in Bayeux, Vintras rose to prominence as a messianic prophet whose powers even impressed his more well-known contemporary, Eliphas Levi. Vintras fled to London after he and his cult, the l’Oeuvre de la Miséricorde (“Work of Mercy”) were explicitly condemned by two popes and the King of France. Giving himself the Hebrew moniker “Elie-Strathaniel“, Vintras settled in a flat on 33 Marylebone Road in 1852 and invested himself as the new pope. He and his fellow priests (who also included women) believed they were true Christians and tried to devote themselves to battling black magic. According to one account, Vintras projected his spirit all the way to France to disrupt a Satanic ceremony. Eventually, Vintras departed from London in 1863 to establish his own spiritual centres in Florence and Lyons.