Founder, author, and one of the great occultists of the 20th century.
Ernest remained very private about his personal life but he was born in East Yorkshire and was one of a large family. He never talked about his brothers, sisters or his parents. It is thought that he was brought up by either an aunt or his grandparents. It is also thought but there is no certainty, that his parents were eventually put into a workhouse. It is also believed that his young life was grim. He spent some years with the army in India and tried many times to get into the Theosophical Soc but was refused. While in India he studied among Hindu spiritual teachers and with the renowned mystic Annie Besant… eventually he was told to return to England and look for the “lady with the roses”. In England he trained as a member of Dion Fortune’s Fraternity of the Inner Light, and was also a pupil of the psychic Robert King. In 1965, W. E. Butler founded Servants of the Light School of Occult Science. He was SOL’s first Director of Studies up until a few years before his death. His books, classics in the field, are well-known for their readability and no-nonsense approach to occultism.
He took Holy Orders quite late in life – it is thought, in his fifties. He was trained as a medium by Dr Robert King an archbishop in the Liberal Catholic Church. His wife was called Gladys but her maiden name is not known. They had one child, Iris, a staunch labourite who loathed the occult – as indeed did Gladys. Iris tended to scare the hell out of people as she had both a very forceful physical, and mental presence. There was one grandchild – Keith, who it is understood actually ran away from home for a while and lived in the New Forest with gypsies.
Ernest died on 1st August ( Lammas Day ) 1978.
Written July 2002 by Gareth Knight for the SOL
Please note: This article was written especially for SOL and the copyright is invested in G Knight and SOL. Permission is granted for individuals to take one hard copy of this article for personal use. Electronic copying or storage is strictly forbidden, as is the posting on other websites.
I first met Ernest Butler some time in 1962 when I was editing an occult magazine called “New Dimensions”. It was my policy at that time to try to find the best writers of what then seemed to be the old guard of the magical tradition, before they ascended to the great Lodge in the sky, taking their knowledge with them.
Ernest was of particular interest to me, as he had once been a member of the Society of the Inner Light in its early days. He had subsequently branched off on his own and recently come into the public eye as author of an informative little paperback “Magic, Its Ritual, Power and Purpose” followed by the more substantial “The Magician, his Training and Work” and later “Apprenticed to Magic”. This was at a time when occult books did not appear with anything like the frequency that they do today, but in any case Ernest`s works commanded attention by their intrinsic merit. They were obviously from the pen of one who knew what he was writing about from first hand.
My wife and I were immediately charmed by Ernest when he first came to see us. Our first impression was that he might well have come out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, as “Mr John Wellington Wells, a weaver of magic and spells.” He was an affable somewhat rotund little man, in his early sixties, with a three-piece chalk-striped blue serge suit, complete with gold watch chain across his waistcoat. Nonetheless, despite exuding good will, he was obviously not one to be trifled with. There was evident in his persona a hard core of dedication that had been tested and proved in the fire of hard experience, which started early when, (if my memory of his anecdote serves me right), he was discovered as a foundling on the doorstep of the York workhouse…
Along with such stories he provided us with a fascinating account of his first meeting with Dion Fortune and C.T.Loveday at Glastonbury in 1925. He has given a written account of this meeting himself elsewhere but the gist of it was that when serving with the British Army in India he had met up with Annie Besant with a view to joining the esoteric section of the Theosophical Society. However, to his chagrin, she turned him down, the reason probably being that with her involvement in Indian politics in support of independence, it would have done her no good at all to be seen recruiting members of the British imperial forces. She let him down as gently as she could however, telling him that his path lay elsewhere, apparently with a “woman with the roses”. Whether this was a general hint towards the Western esoteric tradition in general, or a clairvoyant cameo vision of the future, Ernest seemed inclined towards the latter view, for when he first met Dion Fortune she was in her garden at Chalice Orchard, Glastonbury, holding some roses.
This led in due course, after he had left the army, to his initiation into the Fraternity of the Inner Light in 1930, and the record of his entry can still be seen in the Society`s archives, but as an occultist of the old school he would not thank me for divulging any details as to his magical name or such like. However, he soon made his mark, giving the occasional lecture and contributing a couple of articles to the Inner Light Magazine.
These were by no means easy times for him as, on leaving the army, he set out to start up his own business only to walk into the economic downturn of the Great Depression. His memories of that time remained very bitter. He recalled being physically sick in the street after being subjected to a humiliating interview by a committee of magisterial citizens appointed to subject those who were in need of social benefit to a “means test”. At one point in desperation he turned to giving psychic consultations but was repelled from this by the trivial level at which his clients sought advice.
Nonetheless he used his clairvoyant gifts at public demonstrations on Spiritualist platforms. This led to some difficulty with Dion Fortune after she had published “Through the Gates of Death” in which she expressed some typically forthright opinions about what she saw as the abuses of promiscuous and unqualified attempts at communication with the departed. This was accompanied by a general instruction to members of the Fraternity, discouraging them from participation in Spiritualism. My impression was that Ernest resigned from the Fraternity as a result of this but this seems contradicted in that, a little before the war, he was licensed with a few other members to operate an Inner Light lodge somewhere in the Guildford area.
Anyhow, by the end of the war years, he seemed definitely to have ceased his membership of the Society, and from then until I met him in the early sixties seems to have worked independently.
Ernest was no armchair occultist and was proud of having had his first instruction in occultism from Robert King, a bishop in the Liberal Catholic Church. As a consequence of this influence, when the young Ernest Butler had joined the British army, he insisted on declaring, against some official opposition, his religion to be Liberal Catholic. He eventually became a priest in the Liberal Catholic church himself, although he had to wait some years, as in those socially conscious days the bishop concerned did not approve of ordaining members of the working class!
One of the articles that Ernest wrote for me was an account of an experience of astral projection induced in him by Robert King, from which however he had been quickly recalled when it appeared as if his heart might not stand the strain. Ernest also liked to tell the story of how he badgered a somewhat reluctant Robert King to sit for his photograph, but when the film was developed to his amazement there was no photographic image of the sitter there. Be this as it may, Robert King had a serious reputation as an occultist in his day, and helped another later Inner Light stalwart, Margaret Lumley Brown, to deal with the problems of a natural psychic living in a haunted house, in 1913.
At the time we met, Ernest was beginning to be concerned about his means of livelihood, as he shortly had to retire from his post as a laboratory technician at Southampton University. This sparked the idea of trying to incorporate him in some way into Helios Book Service, the occult bookselling and publishing venture which I had recently co-founded. In the beginning we hoped to find him a place to live near our company in north Gloucestershire, but in the end he and his wife came to a satisfactory arrangement with a lady they knew, to live in “Little Thatches”, an attractive country house near Southampton in return for their working on the garden and keeping things in general order. This did not appear to conflict to any great extent with Ernest`s writing and so he henceforth participated in the Helios project at a distance.
This consisted in taking over what we had already launched as the Helios Course in the Practical Qabalah. My partner John Hall had for some time been nagging me to provide some kind of practical course and in the end I had found time to put together half a dozen lessons based upon Israel Regardie`s “The Art of True Healing”. However, that was the limit of what I was prepared to do, or indeed felt able to go. It was arranged that Ernest should take over the administration of the course as it stood, including the supervision of students` work, and would also extend the course by writing further lessons. This is what he did over a period of some four years, at times just keeping a month ahead of the leading students, until in the end we were offering a course of no less than fifty lessons.
He recruited a group of three senior students to help him, who worked as student supervisors. These were Elizabeth Ward, Tom Oloman, and Olive Ashcroft, (no relation to Dolores, who appeared on the scene later).
So things continued with a certain amount of tetchiness from time to time from Ernest, who at such times was inclined to justify it by references to his Yorkshire and Irish ancestry. A problem in the early stages of writing the course was that he took a few months to get into his stride, and so on a couple of occasions, under prompting from John Hall, it was my task, a young whippersnapper no doubt in Ernest`s eyes, to try to concentrate his mind a little on the job in hand. However, it was not long before he found his right level and he went on to produce a unique course that utilised evocative symbolism from the Arthurian Legend based upon a sub-structure of the Tree of Life.
A slightly bizarre crossing of purposes occurred when Ernest applied to rejoin the Society of the Inner Light. For at just about the same time John Hall and I had resigned from it, on the grounds that it had somewhat fallen short of maintaining the Dion Fortune tradition. However, our paths are influenced by unseen causes and it was while he was a member there that he met Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki and her husband Mike Nowicki who had coincidentally joined at about the same time. This had important consequences for the future.
This future came to pass in 1973 when the Helios Course on the Practical Qabalah had expanded in popularity to become something of an administrative burden for Helios Book Service and it was decided to float it off as a separate enterprise. This marked the birth of the Servants of the Light, and its relocation in the Channel Islands, from whence it has never looked back and has grown to become the world wide school that it is today.
Its foundation, which has been so admirably built upon since then, is undoubtedly the genius and dedication of Ernest Butler. I shall always remember him from a few choice sayings of his. One was about the demerits of those esoteric schools or teachers who promised more than they delivered, a quotation from Charles Dickens: “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today!”
The second was chanted with chuckling gusto in defining the attitude of schools or teachers of an exclusive frame of mind:
“We are the few, the chosen few, let all the rest be damned, So fasten up those pearly gates, we can`t have heaven crammed.”
Ernest was above all of the inclusive persuasion, with a deep and genuine love of all students, and humble pride in the role of being an esoteric teacher. He never compromised his principles and was certainly one of the more liberal dispensers of esoteric jam I have been privileged to know in my occult career.
Written by the late Tim Keene
Ernie was born in a small village, around 25 kilometres from the city of York. He was quite a normal boy, but he was very eager to learn. Fairly often, he had to stay away from the primary school, because every year in the winter he got pneumonia, bronchitis and other similar diseases. Each year, for around six months, he was so ill that he could not go to school. When he became twelve years old, he left this first school and visited another school more to the south, to get a vocational training.
Some years before, when he was nine years old, he saw an article about sacrificing in earlier times and other historical customs. On account of this, he went to a nearby forest and carried out a ritual, for which he used a big stone as an altar. Something happened and heavily frightened he rolled off the hill. At that moment he was very scared, but he had proven himself that behind the visible world something else existed…
He experienced the vocational training as very severe, and there was no time for mystical things. He was clearly very unhappy, because he said that he had the impression that there were two hundred boys in the school whose only aim in life was to make him unhappy.
When he later started working in an ammunition factory, he came into contact with a man who had worked some time as traveling hypnotist. He taught to Ernie the workings of mesmerism and hypnotism, which he said, were not the same. One day this main said to him that in Wimbledon there were teachers who knew much about these things. He called them spiritualists. Ernie went there and was in luck. During this time his psychic capabilities started to develop. But even so, he was still not satisfied.
One Sunday there was in Wimbledon a lecture by a certain Robert King. After this lecture Ernie was beside himself with of excitement. He had to meet with this man. And that happened. At this first meeting King said: “We have met before, haven’t we?”
King became his first teacher. Through King he also got into touch with the Theosophical Society, with a special inner circle, which was guided by King. “It is one of the fundamental groups behind many other fraternities and orders”, he said. I don’t know which groups he specifically meant, but it is likely that these groups formed part of the Liberal Catholic Church. In any case, that way Ernie got an entry in the occult movement.
After this, Ernie went into the army and fought in the First World War. He got wounded, but survived. In a hospital in the north of England he met King again. Some time later he went to India, where he stayed for some years. He got into contact with certain yogis, and learned a lot from them. He told later that it was also in India that he got into contact with the Gods of Wisdom, that is, the Masters of the Path. Later he never spoke about this again.
In the meantime he was already for some time a member of the outer circles of the Theosophical Society, and he requested to be admitted to the inner circle. He did not hear anything about this for a long time. When he was in Muttra, a small city at the border of the Sinn Desert, and where because of malaria, which he had contracted, he was hospitalised, he was visited by a woman who belonged to the Theosophical Society. “Splendid”, Ernie thought, “That must have to do with my request for admission into the inner circle”. She said: “The outer head (this was Annie Besant), lets you know that the leaders of the inner circle (with that she meant the Inner Chiefs), have decided, that in no way you will be admitted to that esoteric group.” And that was it! But she continued: “I have brought this for you. “And she gave him a deep red rose. He thought: “How nice, that may be very nicely meant, but that does not bring me any further. In no way….”
Later, Ernie went back to England and married there. Some time after he read an article by Dion Fortune, which let all his bells ring. And so he wrote her a letter. He also tried to trace King, but could not find him. Dion Fortune invited him to come to Glastonbury, and there he met Dion and, also C.T. Loveday. During the conversation he told them the story of the rejected request for admission to the inner circles of the Theosophical Society. Loveday left them for a moment, and after a while came back with a cross with a rose on it. He asked Ernie, whether he had seen such a thing before. He said that he had, because King had worn such a cross. Dion laughed a moment and told him that he had been rejected by the Theosophical Society because he was not a member of that order. Therefore they had given him the rose of the Rosicrucians; this belonged, like Ernie, to the western tradition, and not, like the Theosophical Society, to the eastern tradition (This was maybe advice to go there).
Because of his contacts with Dion Fortune he joined “The Inner Light”, the society of Dion Fortune. After some time she gave him the leadership of the lodge in Guilford. When the Second World War started, this lodge was closed.
The “Inner Light” lost some of its vigour after Dion Fortune’s death. Later some of its members founded a group named “The Helios Book Service.” That was the predecessor of the order of “The Servants Of the Light ” (SOL). This group included Dr. Basil Wilby, better known as Gareth Knight.
They developed a course in magic. Basil wrote the first seven lessons, Ernie the other forty-three! On account of this he said: “My contact with Dion Fortune had meant this, that the old contacts on the spiritual level, which I had a long time ago with King and during my Indian time, have been restored. My real (not-human) teacher, with whom I then was connected, has now again taken up his task.”
The course is now the main programme of the SOL Ernie said, that this course has been developed under protection and with advice of his inner teacher.
And with that I end this short summary of the life of Ernie Butler, as I know him. It makes my own life look a little dull. For me, the writings and books of Ernie Butler are something very special, and I have learned a lot from him, in spite of the fact that he has left this incarnation.
Written in 1994 by the late Tim Keene for GardenStone
Dutch Version at GardenStone
Translated from the Dutch by Willem Peletier