by George Knowles
Vera Chapman is perhaps best known as the founder of the Tolkien Society of Great Britain, founded in 1969 to promote the works of the author J.R.R. Tolkien. Later she became an accomplished author herself, best known for the Arthurian Trilogy: The Green Knight (1975), King Arthur’s Daughter (1976) and The King’s Damosels (1976). However, less was known about her interest in Woodcraft and Paganism, for she was an early member of the Kibbo Kift Kindred, a movement founded by John Gordon Hargrave in 1920, a member of the Ancient Druid Order, and later Pendragon of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids founded by Ross Nichols in 1964.
Born Vera Ivy May Fogerty in Christchurch, near Bournemouth, England, on the 08th May 1898, Vera was the youngest of three daughters (sisters – Dulcie W. and Geraldine E.) born to John Frederick Fogerty and his wife Kate Isabella Veronica Fogerty (nee Morse). John Fogerty was a wealthy architect and engineer of Irish descent, best known for East Cliff Hall (completed in 1907), a new “home/museum” he designed for wealthy Sir Merton Russell-Cotes and his wife Lady Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth. Today the building is known as the Russell Coates Art Gallery and Museum, a popular cultural attraction in Bournemouth open to the public.
Shortly before 1914 her parents emigrated to South Africa, apparently for the benefit of her mother’s health. There at the start of WWI her father enlisted in the army as an Officer, throughout which he served in South West Africa, the Isle of Wight, Palestine and Poona in India. By the end of the war he had been wounded several times and had received various decorations. After the war he returned to South Africa and worked as a public engineer in Pretoria until 1926, before moving on to Lusaka in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) as a Borough Surveyor. He later died at Kilfinane in Lusaka in 1938.
Meanwhile, having waited out the war in the relative safety of South Africa, Vera was sent back to England and enrolled at the prestigious Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to continue her education. There in 1920 she became one of the first women admitted as a full-time student in Oxford University. Her time at Oxford was not without incident however, as women in the early 1920’s were still struggling to gain equality in a male dominated society. Ladies from wealthy backgrounds, particularly those entering influential institutions like Oxford University, were expected to conduct themselves according to very strict standards of respectability. As such Vera caused a minor scandal when she was seen out walking with a boyfriend along the river Cherwell without a chaperone. This was considered a shocking breach of propriety, for which she was summoned to the College Principal’s office and reprimanded.
During her time in Oxford, Vera also became a dedicated member of the Kibbo Kift Kindred, a ‘back-to-nature’ orientated Woodcraft movement founded by John Gordon Hargrave (the White Fox). Vera’s Woodcraft name was ‘Lavengri’ meaning ‘Woman of Letters’, reflecting her University status. After graduating from Oxford in 1924, Vera married a Church of England clergyman, Charles Sydney Chapman, and went to live in Lourenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa. A year later they returned to England, where they lived for many years in country vicarages and together raised two children (names and birth dates not yet known).
In the late 1920’s the focus of the Kibbo Kift movement had changed from its ‘back-to-nature’ origins, to that of Social Credit, and while Vera supported some of their aims, in particular the need for a fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth among workers, she did not favour political activism; and so ended her involvement with the movement. Today her original handmade Kinswoman leather belt and personal logbooks are preserved in the Kibbo Kift collection held at the Museum of London.
Throughout the war years 1939-1945 it is thought that Vera worked as a teacher/civil-servant in London, and then after the war she joined the Colonial Office as a student welfare officer. At about this time she also joined the Ancient Druid Order (ADO), then the largest Druidic order in the UK with a lineage they traced back to 1717. It was perhaps through the ADO, or through London’s academic and literary circles, that she made the acquaintance of Ross Nichols. Nichols was the Principal of a private teaching college in London (known as Jimmy’s); he was also an author, poet, artist and naturist. In 1954 he had helped a fellow naturist and member of the ADO, Gerald B. Gardner to produce his first non-fiction book on witchcraft called “Witchcraft Today”.
That same year, 1954, more interested in the ancient history and practice of Druidry, Nichols was introduced into the ADO by Gardner, and quickly advanced through the ranks to the office of Scribe, a position that suited his academic and literary abilities. Later he was elected Chairman of the Order, in which capacity he lectured on its history. In 1963 together with Robert A. F. MacGregor-Reid, then Chosen Chief of the ADO, Nichols was invited to the Breton Gorsedd in Brittany and ordained as ‘Archdeacon of the Isles’ (Isles of Britain) by Archbishop Tugdual of the Ancient Celtic Church.
Sadly over the following two years his friends Gerald B. Gardner, Robert MacGregor-Reid and Archbishop Tugdual all died. Each had played a major role in his life and to lose them all naturally devastated Nichols, but he was aided and encouraged by his friendship with Vera who provided him with the sort of peer support and intellectual stimulus he needed to move on. With the death of MacGregor-Reid, a schism soon developed among senior members of the ADO and as a result the Order split into two factions. The first group elected Dr Thomas Maughan as the new Chosen Chief of the ADO, while the second group elected Nichols as the first Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (OBOD), a newly reconstructed Order focusing on the same three grades – Bard, Ovate and Druid. As the senior officer in the new Order, Nichols appointed Vera his first Pendragon, a position she would hold until 1991.
Into the 1960’s, fearing that the hippie cult-culture was undermining the literary value of books like The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954) by J.R.R. Tolkien, Vera founded the first Tolkien Society of Great Britain dedicated to restoring a more scholarly appreciation of his works. In 1969 taking the name Belladonna Took from The Hobbit, she placed an advertisement in the New Statesman, an influential weekly magazine published in London, announcing the creation of the Society.
Acting as Secretary of the Society, new members initially met at her flat in Camden, North London, from where they produced a newsletter called the Belladonna Broadsheet, named after her Middle-earth alias. Later on the 27th June 1972, she was invited to a party given by Tolkien’s publisher Rayner Unwin, and there met Tolkien himself and persuaded him to become the Society’s Honorary President. After his death in 1973, Tolkien was elected President of the Society “in perpetuo”. Vera remained Secretary of the Society for six years before she handed it over to other enthusiasts, during which time it had expanded rapidly, as did the newsletter, which today is a bimonthly publication called Amon Hen.
By this time, perhaps inspired by Tolkien, but focusing on the myths and legends associated with her roots in paganism, she had been writing herself. In 1975 at the aged of 77, Vera published her first fictional novel The Green Knight (1975). She followed this with King Arthur’s Daughter (1976) and The King’s Damosel (1976) completing an Arthurian trilogy, the last of which Warner Bros. bought the film rights to be used as the basis for a 1998 animated feature film called Quest for Camelot. Bob Wyatt, editor of Avon Books, described her at that time as “elegant and energetic, in a long red cape: her conversation was crisp and witty.”
Sadly on the 30th April 1975 her friend and colleague, the Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (OBOD) Ross Nichols passed away. By this time the Order consisted of just a handful of members, one of whom – John Brant – briefly took over his position as the next Chosen Chief, before the Order went into decline, with members ceasing to meet. After a hiatus of 13 years, one of his early students – Philip Carr-Gomm – became ready to take on his role, and in 1988 was asked to re-form the Order as the next Chosen Chief.
Philip Carr-Gomm who had studied Druidry with Nichols before his death, and thereafter knew Vera personally, has kindly shared some recollections about her: “In the late 1980’s, I used to visit Vera in her council flat in Camden and she would talk about her life, the Order, and a book she was trying to write on the history of the Women’s Freemasonry movement. For some curious reason (which I have forgotten if I ever knew) her small, simple flat was either the same flat, or at least was in the same block, in which the previous Chief of the ADO, Robert MacGregor-Reid, had lived: Harrington House in Stanhope Street.
Although she was lucky to have had three books published and the film rights for one sold, she recounted her misfortune in not receiving much of the royalties, due to the financial difficulties of her first literary agent.
After the death of Ross Nichols there had been few OBOD events for her to attend, but she had maintained her interest in Druidry and later supported me when I was asked to lead the Order. Later she gave me the manuscript of the last book Ross Nichols had been working on – “The Book of Druidry” – and encouraged me to publish it. She also gave me various papers and memorabilia associated with the Order, together with some of her published work and a complete set of A.E.Waite’s rituals for his ‘Fellowship of the Rosy Cross’ (which included handwritten notes and associated papers).
In 1991, at the age of 93, she was due to attend the Order’s summer solstice ceremony on Primrose Hill, there to hand over her title as Pendragon of the OBOD to her successor the artist Will Worthington. However, she had suffered a stroke on the previous day and was admitted to a nearby hospital. Just before the solstice ceremony, in a moving scene at the hospital, after receiving the last rites from the chaplain, Vera signed a certificate, clasped Will Worthington’s hands in blessing, and officially handed over her title to him.”
A year later having recovered sufficiently from her stroke, Vera was able to attend the Tolkien Centenary Conference in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s birth in 1892. This was to be her last meeting with the Tolkien Society, after which her general health began to fail and she was rarely seen in public again. Toward the end of her life when she was no longer able to cope on her own, Vera was moved from her flat in Camden, to a nursing home in Croydon, Surrey, and there she died on the 14th May 1996, just a few days after her 98th birthday.
Philip Carr-Gomm again shares his recollections: “When I attended her funeral, we heard beautiful singing in the service held in what is known as the ‘Zoo Church’ (St.Mark’s in Prince Albert Road – by Primrose Hill, and just across from the entrance to London’s Zoo). For the wake we went to The Queens pub in Primrose Hill where an opera singer sang the funeral lament from The Lord of the Rings in Elvish. There we were – Vera’s family, her Tolkien Society friends, her masonic friends, her publisher, and her Druid friends – all sitting in a pub just by Primrose Hill, with its Druid associations, listening to that beautiful lament, and thinking fondly of a truly remarkable woman.”
The Green Knight (1975)
King Arthur’s Daughter (1976)
The King’s Damosel (1976) – Film rights bought by Warner Bros. for a 1998 animated feature film called Quest for Camelot.
Judy and Julia (1977)
Blaedud the Birdman (1978)
The Wife of Bath (1978)
Three Damosels (1978)
Miranty and the Alchemist (1983)
Around Darlington in Old Photographs (1990)
The Notorious Abbess (1993)
Croft, Hurworth, Neasham, Middleton And Dinsdale in Old Picture Postcards (1996)
The Enchantresses (1998) (with Mike Ashley)
Private communication with Philip Carr-Gomm
The Book of Druidry by Ross Nichols
Biographical notes in the Introduction to The Notorious Abbess by Vera Chapman, Academy Chicago, 1970
Written and compiled on the 06th July 2012 © George Knowles
A fully illustrated version of this biography can be seen at the author’s website – http://www.controverscial.com/Vera%20Chapman.htm