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History & CommunityTales of Witches

Tales of Witches

We wish you a Happy Christmas and a peaceful year to follow.
As the nights grew darker people used to sit around the fire and roast chestnuts and tell each other old chestnuts! Some may like to tell stories of witches but do not expect to encounter a witch. Some twenty years ago I was investigating the Nine Stones Circle just before Winterbourne Abbas, between Bridport and Dorchester on the right-hand side of the road. I needed to take measurements as I had been unable to find a reliable plan and so enlisted the help of a fellow committee member of Bridport History Society, Marilyn Sealy, who is also skilled with a camera. On entering the circle we discovered a short branch of a tree on top of one stone. It was possibly willow with all leaves and side shoots removed and had been carefully dressed with coloured wool and beads and some ribbon. We thought it was some sort of witchcraft and left it there. The next time I went to the circle the wand had miraculously disappeared.
Witches have been talked of since very early times. In the Bible there is a description of the Witch of Endor with Samuel and Saul. Witches came to prominence in Britain after the reformation when Puritans appear to have associated witchcraft with the Catholic church.
Matthew Hopkins (c.1620 to 1647) son of a Protestant minister appointed himself as “Witchfinder General” in Essex, but this was not a legal post. Nevertheless, he and John Sterne caused havoc among the populace by their witch trials. People would report their neighbours for possible signs of witchcraft, usually, an elderly woman living alone who was unfriendly and had a pet, e.g. a black cat, a ferret, frog and toad, who fed hedgehogs. Hedgehogs are nocturnal and therefore were considered to be evil. Such animals were described as a witches “familiars” and witches were said to be able to turn herself into her familiar. Another familiar was believed to be a hare, and it was believed the only way to shoot a hare was with a bullet made from silver. Women are more likely to be considered evil, like Eve in the Old Testament. The usual check to determine if a woman was a witch was to cast her into the local pond and if she floated she must be a witch, but if she sank then she was not, but if she drowned that was too bad. In the years 1645 to 1647 it is said that 100 women were hanged for witchcraft.
Reverting to the willow, it often grows near water, which was thought to be suspicious. Green willow taken into a sick room will cool it and the sick person. A witches wand is about an arm’s length with the leaves removed. Willow was also reputed to be used for the witches broomstick, and with other types to form the broom. Trees are said to creep about at night. A song includes “All around my hat I will weave the green willow”. Bats are also thought to be connected with witches as they fly at night. Bats are now said to be plentiful on Golden Cap.
You will surely recall the three witches in Macbeth by William Shakespeare (born 1564) who entered a dark cave with a central boiling cauldron, saying “thrice the brindled cat hath mew’d”, “thrice and once the hedge-pig whin’d” and then all three witches said “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble”. They threw poison’d entrails into the cauldron, fillet of a fenny snake, eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, adder’s fork , howlet’s wing, root of hemlock and so on. Another phrase is “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”. Macbeth calls them “secret, black and midnight hags” and finally they dance and vanish.
The male equivalent of the witch was the “Cunning Man”. In Netherbury lived John (or James) Walsh, said to be “a servant and pupil of a popish priest Robert Drayton for seven years who had taught him physics and surgery and much else of a less praiseworthy nature”. He confessed to the Commissary of the Bishop of Exeter in 1566 that he employed a “familiar”, sometimes a dog, a pigeon, “a gray blackish bird”, or a cloven-footed man to discover lost or stolen goods. He was under suspicion of divination and sorcery and said he had his master’s book with “great circles in it” which he used with two wax candles and a wax crucifix to raise the familiar spirit. He rewarded his familiars with a gift of a chicken or a cat and pleaded that he had never harmed anyone. He would climb to the top of high hills between midnight and dawn to meet fairies in a fairy hut and said that “fairies” came as white, green or black the latter meaning death. After his book was taken away by the Constable of Crewkerne, Walsh said he could no longer raise the spirit and perform. Walsh declared that daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and Creed would protect from harm by witchcraft. The results of the investigation are not known, but at the time could have resulted in his execution for witchcraft. In this century he might have been given tranquilisers. As time went on a Cunning Man was also known as a Conjurer or “White Witch” and frequently referred to for curing illnesses of man or beast.
Eventually, these Cunning Men and White Witches became herbalists and made up potions to cure some illnesses. Thomas Hardy has a short story in his Wessex Tales—The Withered Arm—about a young wife who has an increasing problem with one arm. She is directed to a Cunning Man, Conjuror Trendle, who sold furze, turf and sharp sand and plays down his magic accomplishments saying that when he is said to have cured warts that they may have gone naturally. He broke an egg so that only the white fell into a glass of water and she saw the face of her husband’s discarded mistress in the glass. The story ends in a very sad way which I will not relate here but leave you to read for yourself if you wish.
Locally Elizabeth Gale in her book about Burton Bradstock says that fishermen in years past who believed their boats were bewitched would nail a mackerel stuck with pins to the stern. For luck, they might carry a pebble with a hole right through it, a “Holy Stone”.
In 1687 in Lyme Regis the wife of Deanes Grimmerton was alleged to have bewitched 18-year-old Nathaniel Scorch by sharing her tobacco pipe with him. He had fits and then a rusty nail and brass pins were taken from his body, with no trace of blood and then he saw an apparition of Grimmerton. Similar finds were found from Elizabeth Tillman, who died at 18, after fits and also saying she had seen the apparition of Grimmerton. In 1700 widow Margaret Way and Anne Traul were charged with witchcraft after Frances Callway had fits which doctors said were unnatural. Several months later she improved until she saw Anne Traull again in the bakehouse, where they had an argument and the fits returned. She claimed that Traull and Way were pinching and pricking her, then she vomited pins and a broken needle. In both cases brought before Lyme Mayors Standerwicke and Burridge, and then tried at Dorchester the alleged witches were found not guilty.
William Barnes has a poem “A Witch” which says :
“There’s thik wold hag, Moll Brown, look zee, jus’ past! I wish the ugly sly wold witch,
would tumble over into the ditch…. She did, woone time, a dreadful deal o’ harm
To Farmer Gruff’s vo’k, down at Lower Farm.”
Briefly he tells the full story, including ways to combat witches with horse shoes nailed over the door and the farmer’s wife trying to draw blood from the witch with a pin, which snapped against her skin.
I hope these stories have not worried you and you sleep well. Meanwhile, we wish you again a very happy Christmas.
Bridport History Society meets on Tuesday December 11th at 2.30 pm in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport to hear from John Willows about “Water for a West Dorset Quartet : public water supplies from 1797 to present day”. All welcome, visitors entrance fee £3.
With Christmas Cheer, Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.

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