IN HIS lifetime Aleister Crowley was revered, slandered, celebrated as a great poet and reviled as a thoroughly wicked person.

He was a mystic, a poet, a chess master, a scholar, an accomplished rock climber and mountaineer, a magician and occultist, a novelist and author of more than two million words.

Of his days in Eastbourne Crowley wrote: “In my playtime I was either hunting flappers on the front, playing chess or climbing Beachy Head.”

In July 1894, he and his cousin Gregor Grant scaled the towering pinnacle of the Devil’s Chimney at Beachy Head. The climbs were recorded and featured in the press and in the “Scottish Mountaineering Club journal”.

In his autobiography he wrote: “My grand passion was Beachy Head. The fantastic beauty of the cliffs can never be understood by anyone who has not grappled them... Beachy Head offers rock problems as varied, interesting and picturesque as any cliffs in the world... Chalk is probably the most dangerous and difficult of all kinds of rock... One can hardly ever be sure that any given hold is secure... In wet weather the chalk forms a paste which clogs the boots and makes a foothold impossible... But for all that, many of my happiest days have been spent on the face.”

Crowley was brilliant at chess and wrote a chess column in the Eastbourne Gazette. He upset the local team by insisting on “study and practice in order to make Eastbourne the strongest town in England”. He beat the local champion every time and won all his club tournaments except two against a Mr Martin who refused to play his games. Crowley insisted the games should be played but Mr Martin refused so Crowley departed for Switzerland and more climbing.

He was born in 1875 in Leamington, Warwickshire. His mother and father were members of a religious sect known as The Plymouth Brethren. His health having suffered and in his 19th year (1894), he was sent to a day-school at Eastbourne under the care of a Plymouth Brother named Lambert.

The archivist of Eastbourne College, Mr Michael Partridge, has kindly dispelled the myth that Aleister Crowley was a pupil at Eastbourne College. He did, however, work in the chemistry laboratory as an assistant to the head of science, Robert Edward Hughes. In his autobiography The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, he wrote: “I was privileged to assist that great man in several researches.”

He completed his studies in chemistry at King’s College London and passed the scholarship to Trinity Cambridge in 1895, when he was 20. His library filled four revolving walnut bookcases containing books on science, philosophy, Greek and Latin classics and French and Russian novels.

In one of his major works, Magick in Theory and Practice, Crowley wrote: “In my third year at Cambridge I devoted myself consciously to the Great Work, understanding thereby the work of becoming a spiritual being, free from the constraints, accidents and deceptions of material existence.”

In around 1898 he inherited £40,000 on his father’s death. He left Cambridge without having to graduate. He was seriously studying and practicing “magick”, he self-mockingly recounts in his autobiography with an amusing incident on the beach at Eastbourne, near the bandstand.

He wrote: “Having waited for the lowest possible tide so as to be as remote as might be from the bandstand, I made a circle and built an altar of stones by the edge of the sea. I burned my incense, performed my evolutions and made heaven hideous with my enchantments. All this in order to invoke the Undines. I hoped, and more or less expected, to have one come out of the foam and attach herself to my person. I had as yet no notion that this programme might be accomplished far more easily.

"The only Undine that appeared was a policeman, who approached near enough to observe a fantastically garbed figure, dancing and howling in the moonlight ‘on the silvery, silvery, silvery sands’; howling, whistling, bellowing and braying forth the barbarous names of evocation… around a furiously flaming bonfire whose sparks were whirled all over the beach.”

In 1900, aged 25, Crowley travelled to Mexico to climb mountains with Oscar Eckenstein, an English rock-climber and mountaineer who taught him Yoga concentration and meditation. In 1902 they attempted the first ascent of Chogo Ri - K2 – the second highest mountain, after Everest. In 1905 Crowley headed a party of mountaineers on the first attempt on Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.

Crowley was again in Eastbourne in 1908, aged 33, where he wrote The World’s Tragedy. Published in 1910, it is considered as his first attempt at an autobiography and which he described in his autobiography as “the high-water mark of my imagination, my metrical fluency, my wealth of expression, and my power of bringing together the most incongruous ideas so as to enrich my matter to the utmost”. Like many in those late Victorian times, Crowley despised the false, hypocritical, self-righteous attitudes and the spiritually restrictive aspects of established religion. His fierce indictments of religious and political conditions did not endear him to many of the Christians of his day but his writings reveal a profound understanding and spiritual impulse.

Crowley was the author of more than two-million words including essays such as Science and Buddhism, Eight Lectures on Yoga, Little Essays towards Truth and studies of The Hebrew & Greek Cabala and erudite commentaries on mathematics, philosophy, metaphysics and theology. His mystical writings are regarded as elegant descriptions of mystic consciousness. In 1909, while staying in Bournemouth, he wrote in one week and without reference books a work titled 777, which is a study of ceremonial magic, oriental mysticism, comparative religion and symbology. He made powerful explorations into human sexuality which he meticulously recorded and analysed in his “magickal” diaries and published works.

In the popular press he was “The Wickedest Man in the World” but this was the invention of Horatio Bottomley, editor of the jingoistic journal “John Bull”. Bottomley was convicted and sent to prison for fraud and embezzlement. Crowley wrote of him: “I am indeed sincerely sorry that a man with such great qualities should have turned them to such poor purpose.” Silly and sensationalist claims were levelled at Crowley that he ate babies, or engaged in human sacrifice, or sank the Titanic, or started the First World War, or even that he was Hitler’s guru. Horatio Bottomley and others like him well understood that mud sticks. However, Crowley never committed any crimes. He did little to dispel the many accusations of “wickedness” made against him and his mischievous spirit and innate literary wit and humour made him revel in whatever people chose to say about him.

His close friend Alan Bennet, who suffered agonies with asthma, was helped by Crowley to migrate from London to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he became a Buddhist monk. They studied and practiced Yoga techniques and Bennet founded the Buddhist Sangha (Brotherhood) in the West.

Crowley’s poetry attracted a young Captain John Charles Frederick Fuller of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, later Major General J C F Fuller, one of the foremost military historians of the 20th century. Fuller wrote a profound essay, The Star in the West, on Crowley’s collected works, published in 1907. Crowley wrote of Fuller in his autobiography. He wrote “my friendship with him is one of the dearest memories of my life”.

Crowley and the poet W B Yeats worked together for a short period as members of the occult Order of the Golden Dawn. The painter Augustus John made drawings of Crowley and recalled a dinner among friends at the then famous Cafe Royal in London, which closed in 2008, when he had been astonished by Crowley’s conversational brilliance.

Crowley resided in his final days at a respectable boarding house at Netherwood, Hastings. He was mentally productive, writing two major works, Magick without Tears and The Book of Thoth. He died from chronic bronchitis on December 1, 1947. The final words in his autobiography are “What may befall I know not, and I have almost ceased to care. It is enough that I should press towards the mark of my high calling, secure in the magical virtue of my oath, ‘I shall endure unto the end’.

The funeral was held four days later in the chapel of Brighton Crematorium. The final rights were conducted by the American novelist Louis Wilkinson. Those present read aloud from Crowley’s poetry The Hymn to Pan.

Francis King writes in his The Magical World of Aleister Crowley, “in some of his books, notably Magick in Theory and Practice, he had given expression to an occult system and philosophy which was clear, consistent, and in some ways beautiful.”