NETHERWOOD - A BEASTLY NIGHT IN HASTINGS
Updated: Jan 31
Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast 666 and self-proclaimed ‘wickedest man in the world’.
Whenever most people picture this notorious British occultist, it’s always with a shaven head, prompted by that famous and somewhat unsettling picture of him staring into the camera. Difficult as it is for many to imagine, he didn’t look like this from childhood to the grave. In reality, for the majority of his life he was quite attractive and debonair.
My latest Bernie Quist novel, the Rumba of the Beast, begins with Crowley in his final days in Hastings. The infamous magician died there aged 72 on the 1st of December 1947.
Or did he? My story suggests a series of very different events that took place on that fateful night, but the official (and, let’s face it, probably genuine) version follows…
Crowley spent his final years at Netherwood, a large Victorian retirement home owned by Kathleen and Vernon Symonds. The property stood some 500 feet above the coastal town of Hastings, three miles from the centre on a suburban road named ‘the Ridge’.
Extensive 4-acre grounds contained a tennis court, a large garden, shrubbery and many mature trees. Netherwood’s lofty position afforded extensive views of the town, its Norman castle, the ocean and Beachy Head, cliffs that Crowley had climbed in his younger mountaineering days.
Vernon Symonds was a friendly ‘arty type’ and his house was filled with poets, painters and musicians. This socialist commune provided a very relaxed atmosphere and the best cuisine possible in that difficult rationing period after the war.
Crowley was finding it difficult to find somewhere to live at the time, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him. His disreputable life had been filled with sex and drug experimentation, the summoning up of demons in rituals, and shagging women on altars. Most normal folk would probably have attempted to keep all this quiet, but he revelled in broadcasting his exploits. Worried about him, his old friend Louis Wilkinson, had heard about Netherwood and its eccentric proprietors and arranged for him to move there.
Kathleen Symonds couldn’t remember the exact day of Crowley’s arrival. The relevant page was torn out of the Netherwood guest book - presumably by someone stealing his signature – but the next date was the 8th of September 1945, suggesting he came to stay in late August or early September, six weeks before his 70th birthday. Kathleen recalled, Crowley looked pale and wan, and his hair was cut short. He wore wide knickerbockers with stockings, and shoes with big silver buckles. There was a choice of rooms, but Crowley insisted upon number 13, at the front of the house.
“He wanted that one,” said Kathleen. “It was furnished in the same way as most of the other rooms. There was a large wardrobe, a writing table, a bookshelf and a single bed, as well as a bathroom and toilet. He put up lots of pictures, including several he’d painted in the Himalayas.”
The Great Beast 666 soon settled into a regular routine. At nine each morning the housekeeper Miss Clarke (who didn’t like him) took him his breakfast, and at ten, if the weather was fine, he’d stroll in the garden. Kathleen kept beautiful white rabbits there, which he nicknamed ‘The Chrysanthemums’ and he loved to watch them. Crowley then spent the rest of the day sleeping in his room, where he also took his other meals. His favourite snack was sardines sprinkled with curry powder.
He roused himself as darkness fell, and sat up all night either writing letters, reading or taking illegal drugs. He had a very strong pipe tobacco made with molasses and the smell stayed in the room a long time after he was gone. He also made friends with a grocer named Mr Watson, who took him out for drives and would come and look after him.
“He had a ration of heroin which was allowed him,” said Kathleen Symonds. “It used to come from a chemist called Heppel’s in London. The police knew about it and I often watched him sticking needles in his arm. He didn’t mind.”
Despite (or possibly because of) his notorious reputation and the fact that he insisted on greeting everyone with: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, the Great Beast proved a popular addition to Netherwood. He had considerable charm, a pleasing personality and was very erudite, which helped make him a good companion and a stimulating talker. He had many long conversations with Vernon Symonds and he joined the Hastings Chess Club, where he claimed “nobody ever beat him”. He went for walks along The Ridge, where on sunny days he’d often stop and hold his hands palms upwards to the sun in a yoga pose, and he sometimes visited a Hastings health hydro named Riposo. There were rumours of him visiting the ballroom on Hastings pier where, although he was too old to indulge, he’d watch the young ladies dancing.
Crowley’s regular visitors included Louis Wilkinson, Kenneth Grant, author of Aleister Crowley and the Hidden God, Michael Houghton, the owner of the Atlantis Bookshop, and John Symonds, who wrote The Magic of Aleister Crowley. I love the fact that, shortly before his death, Kathleen recalled he was thinking of going to see the Wizard of Oz at the cinema, but this never happened.
Crowley’s health began to deteriorate with bronchitis towards the end of 1947 and he died of pneumonia on Monday, 1 December aged 72. He was driven to Brighton and cremated the following Friday where only a few mourners turned up. An unknown German lady placed red roses on his coffin, Louis Wilkinson read Crowley’s poem Hymn to Pan, and that night there was a tremendous thunderstorm over Hastings.
That’s the true story… or is it? The Rumba of the Beast provides an alternative, and slightly more dramatic, ending to Aleister Crowley's life.
Like Crowley, the Netherwood guest house and gardens are long gone. Most of the building was demolished in the mid-1970s to build the Wimpey development named Netherwood Close, but the east wing was saved and turned into a pub called the Robert De Mortain.
The 1987 hurricane tore off the pub roof, something which a local witchcraft coven claimed was down to Crowley’s spirit, but in reality was down to the hurricane. In 2017 the pub finally closed and it was pulled down the following year.
Robert De Mortain Place now stands on the site of Crowley's final home, a cul-de-sac of ten luxury houses.
The only remaining part of the original Netherwood complex is the old Coach House which still stands on Netherwood Close.
Crowley isn’t forgotten in Hastings. For a long while after his death his ghost haunted the pavement outside the Robert De Mortain pub, Netherwood Close and a section of the Ridge. Strangely, whenever it was spotted, the witnesses always described it as completely bald and staring, almost as if they'd seen the aforementioned photo of the shaven-headed Crowley and not the spirit of the elderly gentleman who died there.
In more recent years this bald, staring ghost has moved three miles downhill to the rather good Crowley’s Bar in the town centre, where it’s often seen lurking in the gent’s toilets or sitting in a quiet corner.
The pub has more than a hint of a 666 theme. You can call in for a bag of Thelema crisps and a pint of Great Beast IPA for only £6.66, so "drink what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law". I’m sure Aleister would have approved.
There’s a rumour that the Great Beast's spirit performed an occult ritual to make the apostrophe in the sign vanish. Either that, or the 'professional' sign artist they employed was a bit crap.
I always thought this place would have been a great rest home for Aleister Crowley in his twilight years. The current residents include Gandalf, Saruman and Merlin.
The Rumba of the Beast will be out later this year.