Casting a spell: meeting three witches in 1986

<span>Hubble bubble: the Lady Olwen, Queen of the Britain’s witches. There were 2,500 of them.</span><span>Photograph: PR</span>
Hubble bubble: the Lady Olwen, Queen of the Britain’s witches. There were 2,500 of them.Photograph: PR

In 1968, the Observer met three witches, but thankfully it didn’t end in murder, haunting and tragedy. Seventeen years since the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, they were free to exercise their craft, but what did that actually involve and was contemporary witchcraft ‘really just a cover for sex’?

Love potions? ‘I recommend a dozen oysters’

For guardians of the Isle of Man Witchcraft Museum, Mr and Mrs Wilson (pictured naked; Mr in a horned helmet), the sex bit was ‘only a very small part of the whole’. Mrs Wilson, who went by the exalted title Queen of the Witches (‘supposed to be an honour, but really it means that I carry the can when anything goes wrong’) specialised in medical spells and had recently intervened, she felt successfully, in the case of a young Italian with ‘penis cancer’. She wouldn’t make love potions, though, which she felt were a waste of her powers. ‘I recommend a dozen oysters.’

Brighton witch Doreen Valiente used her powers to ‘help people and to do them good’, including shooing away domestic evil with garlic and banishing poltergeists with ‘sympathy and understanding’. She offered those services for free, but would occasionally also help herself, including to 20 crocodile-skin handbags: ‘I don’t know exactly how the magic worked, but I know I’ve got the handbags.’ Although Valiente also conducted darker rituals – she was reluctant to disclose details of one involving a sheep’s heart – she felt accepted in the local community: ‘I don’t think the neighbours mind that I’m witch.’

Miss Margaret Bruce sold potions by mail order; a simpler business than dealing with the undesirable elements who occasionally appeared at her door. ‘I have all kind of odd people calling here. One man waited outside half the day, saying he couldn’t enter until the hour of Jupiter.’ She offered the Observer a free phial of her aphrodisiac perfume, saying that witchcraft was ‘All too often… a method by which men hope to get sex with women, sometimes very kinky sex.’ The aphrodisiac smelled, apparently, ‘like after-shave’.