For many of us, looking at the history of our country and the lives of those who inhabited it is fascinating. There is, however, the ever-present danger of romanticising the past and seeing it as a more healthy and innocent time, in which people lived in tune with nature and developed a rich and charming folklore. The reality is more complicated.
At school, we read the words of the witches of Macbeth:
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
We are tempted to see this as nothing more than fantastic fiction. After all, surely no-one really believed in the efficacy of charms cooked up using animal body parts? And surely ‘witches’ were just some delusion dreamed up by the church to persecute innocent single women?
We may watch stage magicians and hear them pronounce ‘Abracadabra!’ while carrying out an illusion for the entertainment of the crowd. Surely, no-one ever really believed that such words had magical potency?
And we may read books to our children, populated with ‘cute’ mythical creatures such as pixies and fairies. Surely, that’s all they have ever been – stories made up to entertain children?
In all of these assumptions, we would be wrong.
As we shall see, right up to at least the beginning of the twentieth century, there was across England a widespread belief in the existence of malignant witches, as well as a large number of individuals who made their living working as ‘white witches’. And there was also a widespread belief in the efficacy of charms cooked up using both animal and human body parts.
During the Plague, the word ‘Abracadabra’ was worn by Londoners as a charm against infection, which was believed to be caused by evil spirits. In nineteenth century Exeter, the word was still being sold in silk bags as ‘a talisman against the dominion of the grey witch, pixies, evil spirits, and the powers of darkness’. And those pixies were no children’s fairy story characters.
Many among the rural population of the West Country, as late as the nineteenth century, believed pixies to be a real and malignant phenomenon. Pixies were believed to be the lost souls of unbaptised infants who steal children, lead travellers astray, and delude miners, and they were genuinely feared, as contemporaneous accounts show. In a typical example, a Somerset woman who got lost in fog near her cottage became ‘demented with terror’, believing she had been ‘pixy-led’.
Nineteenth century ‘cures’ prescribed by the ‘wise men’, ‘wise women’, ‘white witches’, and ‘cunning folk’ of the time were often almost as grotesque as the concoctions of the witches of Macbeth. Accounts of West Country folk beliefs provide many examples. William Henderson, writing in 1879, notes:
[T]o descend to modern times, the hind-leg of a toad dried, placed in a silk bag, and worn round the neck, is in Devonshire the common charm for the king’s evil. White witches and Wise-men supply these charms for a fee of five shillings. Sometimes they cut from the living reptile the part analogous to that in which the patient is suffering, bury the rest of the creature, wrap that part in parchment, and tie it round the patient’s neck. A cure for rheumatism in the same county runs thus: burn a toad to powder, tie the dust in silk, and wear it round the throat.
Toads were a common ingredient, as we see in Sarah Hewett’s account of nineteenth century Devonshire folk beliefs:
To Cure Skin Disease
Place the poison found in a toad’s head in a leather bag one inch square: enclose this in a white silk bag, tie it round the neck, allowing the bag to lie on the pit of the stomach. On the third day the patient will be sick. Remove and bury the bag. As it rots so will the patient get well.
To Cure the Colic
Mix equal quantities of elixir of toads and powdered Turkey rhubarb. Dose: Half a teaspoonful fasting for three successive mornings.
To Cure King’s Evil
Bake a toad and when dried sufficiently to roll into powder, beat up in a stone mortar, mix with powdered vervain. Sew in a silken bag and wear round the neck.
To Cure Bleeding of the Nose
Take one or two fine old toads, place them in a cold oven, increase the heat until sufficiently fierce to cook the toads and reduce them to a brown crisp mass. Remove from the oven and beat them to powder in a stone mortar. Place the powder in a box and use as snuff!
To Cure Dropsy
Take several large fully-grown toads, place them in a vessel in which they can be burned without their ashes becoming mixed with any foreign matter. When reduced to ashes, pound them in a stone mortar. Place the ashes in a wide-mouthed jar, cork closely and keep in a dry place. Dose: One teaspoonful of ashes in milk to be taken at the growing of the moon for nine mornings.
In Wiltshire, fits could supposedly be cured through swallowing woodlice, and a cure for sprains included 2 oz. of ‘oil of earthworms’. In 1876, in Lew Trenchard, Devon, hair cut from the cross on an ass’s back was placed in silk bags, which were worn around the neck as a charm against whooping cough. In the 1890s, a ‘wise woman’ in Wiltshire provided the same article to the folklorist Sabine Baring Gould.
Such folk beliefs, of course, had a long pedigree and harked back to the England of many centuries earlier. Belief in witchcraft, evil spirits, and so on, was once widely held, even among the wealthy and educated. As late as 1680, Joseph Glanvill, a Fellow of the Royal Society, could publish a book – Saducismus Triumphatus – offering ‘full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions’. Both witchcraft and magic were seen as real phenomena.
Throughout the medieval and early modern period in England, magic took the form of herbal medicines, potions (love potions, poisons, etc.), spells, and incantations, which were used to help with overcoming sickness, recovering lost possessions, enthralling a lover, gaining wealth, getting revenge, and so on. Prayers were used in the manner of spells or charms, holy water and holy relics were said to provide protection, and coins blessed during the offertory were believed to have curative properties. Lay devotion included the use of charms invoking sacred names and words, and passages from the gospels or other sacred words were used as written charms which were hung round the neck or placed by the sick.
While Christian belief formed an important part of the basis of folk magic, it wasn’t just to priests and prayer books that the common people turned. ‘Wise’ men and women offered many services to their communities of a magical and quasi-medicinal nature. Because witches and witchcraft were believed to be real, there arose to counter this an army of lay healers practising what was believed to be ‘white witchcraft’. Spells, charms, talismans, powders, potions, and herbal remedies were all offered for sale, along with fortune telling and other services. Seventeenth century critics of such individuals attacked them as ‘unlearned physitians’ and ‘quack astrologers’.
A tract warning against ‘Unlearned Physitians’ (1605) refers to ‘charmes, witchcraft, magnifical incantations, and sorcerie’ and the use of ‘characters, circles, figure-castings, exorcismes, conjurations’, as well as the use of ‘certaine amulets of gold and silver, stamped under an appropriate and selected constellation of the planets, with some magical character’.
Bishop Joseph Hall, writing of the superstitious man in his Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608) states that ‘old wives and starres are his counsellors: his night spell is his guard, and charms his physicians. He wears Paracelsian characters for the toothache; and a little hallowed wax is his antidote for all evils’.
William Ramesay, writing in his The Character of a Quack Astrologer (1673) reports: ‘He offers, for five pieces, to give you home with you a talisman against flies; a sigil to make you fortunate at gaming; and a spell that shall as certainly preserve you from being rob’d for the future; a sympathetical powder for the violent pains of the tooth-ach’.
The dividing line between legitimate medicine and folk superstition in this period was not always clear. Nicholas Culpeper, a doctor and member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, published his highly influential book The English Physitian (later titled The Complete Herbal) in 1652. In the book, we find a mixture of herbal remedies – some of which may have had some level of efficacy – alongside a belief in astrology and its supposed influence over the properties of plants, and a number of references to the purported ability of various plants to counter witchcraft. We read, for example, that the bay tree ‘resists witchcraft very potently’, and of mistletoe: ‘being hung about the neck, it remedies witchcraft’. These kind of notions fed into the activities of the ‘wise’ men and women of England.
Eighteenth century sources offer more on the beliefs and practices of the common people of Britain. John Bell, a Scottish minister, wrote in 1705:
There are many sorceries practised in our day, against which I would on this occasion bear my testimony, and do therefore seriously ask you, what is it you mean by your observation of times and seasons as lucky or unlucky? What mean you by your many spells, verses, words, so often repeated, said fasting, or going backward? How mean you to have success by carrying about with you certain herbs, plants, and branches of trees?
Why is it, that, fearing certain events, you do use such superstitious means to prevent them, by laying bits of timber at doors, carrying a Bible meerly for a charm, without any farther use of it? What intend ye by opposing witchcraft to witchcraft, in such sort that, when ye suppose one to be bewitched, ye endeavour his relief by burnings, bottles, horseshoes, and such like magical ceremonies?
How think ye to have secrets revealed unto you, your doubts resolved, and your minds informed, by turning a sieve or a key? or to discover by basons and glasses how you shall be related before you die? Or do you think to escape the guilt of sorcery, who let your Bible fall open on purpose to determine what the state of your souls is by the first word ye light upon?
In 1725, a book was published which sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. In the book, Henry Bourne collects together the results of his research into the beliefs of his fellow Englishmen and highlights the fact that both the customs they observe and the beliefs they hold to be true are in the large part not of an orthodox Christian nature. Speaking of the majority of the English population of his day, Bourne states:
As to the Opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious, being generally either the Produce of Heathenism; or the Inventions of indolent Monks, who having nothing else to do, were the Forgers of many silly and wicked Opinions, to keep the World in Awe and Ignorance. And indeed the ignorant Part of the World, is still so aw’d, that they follow the idle Traditions of the one, more than the Word of GOD; and have more Dependance upon the lucky Omens of the other than his Providence, more Dread of their unlucky ones, than his Wrath and Punishment.
Again, despite such condemnation, the line between legitimate medicine and folk superstition was still quite blurry. Apothecaries – medical professionals of the day – sold, alongside more mundane treatments for common medical complaints such as fever and boils, potions and powders of a less scientific nature: love powders, for example.
John Gay, an English author from Barnstaple in Devon, wrote in The Shepherd’s Week (1714):
Strait to the ‘Pothecary’s shop I went,
And in love powder all my money spent
An anonymously authored text on ‘Dreams and Moles, with their interpretation and signification’, published in London in 1780 and attributed to a member of the Royal Society, includes instructions for how to make a love powder:
Take nettle-seed and juniper berries; dry and beat them to powder: then burn in the fire the claw of a crab, that it may also be powdered: mix them, and give the party as much as will lie on a silver penny in any liquor, and it will cause strange effects, without harm, by which a husband, or wife, through good management, may be obtained.
While dubious medical treatments continued to be sold, even in mainstream medical circles, the belief in witchcraft was receding among the educated elite. Among the uneducated majority, however, it was still endemic. The last recorded hangings for witchcraft took place in Exeter in 1682. In 1736, Parliament passed an Act repealing the laws against witchcraft, but imposing fines or imprisonment on people who claimed to be able to use magical powers. This Act made it a criminal offense to accuse someone of being a witch and also a criminal offense to profess to be one. The Act demonstrates the significant change in the mindset of the educated elite of England, who now saw those accused of witchcraft as being innocent victims of superstitious hysteria and those who paid ‘white witches’ for their services as victims of con-men and women. Despite the enlightened intentions of the Act, it in reality made little to no difference to the beliefs of the general population, who remained firmly wedded to the old ways. Indeed, as late as 1965(!), Ernest Walter Martin wrote in his The Shearers and the Shorn: A Study of Life in a Devon Community:
Even today, in every village around Okehampton, I have found superstition still to be a proof of the evils of ignorance. Interviews with cottagers and elderly farmers brought me into touch with people who spoke with feeling about the efficacy of ‘charming’ and the power of witchcraft. These beliefs and customs have been retained by people who remain bound up with a mode of living resistant to rational ideas.
It may be tempting to see the survival of such beliefs as a quaint and charming relic of England past; indeed, some nineteenth century folklorists presented them as such. However, as Owen Davies rightly notes in A People Bewitched: Witchcraft and Magic in Nineteenth-Century Somerset: ‘The lighthearted and romantic portrayal of witchcraft was a distortion of reality, masking the fear and violence the belief periodically generated in towns and villages across the county’ – and, indeed, across the country.
While some folklorists romanticised witchcraft beliefs, most did not, and the many field studies conducted in the nineteenth century among England’s rural populations offer a window into the world such beliefs created. Beliefs of this sort were once widespread throughout England, but by the nineteenth century they were generally confined to the more rural regions. The West Country, therefore, provided researchers with a lot of relevant material.
In 1837, Mary Reynolds Palmer published A Dialogue in the Devonshire Dialect. The book’s Glossary includes definitions for the terms ‘overlooked’ and ‘whit-witch’. The former, writes Palmer, refers to an individual being bewitched by evil witchcraft, ‘an opinion still deeply rooted in many parts of the county’. The latter refers to the good witch who combats such overlooking by magical means. ‘This remains of superstition is far from being obsolete’, writes Palmer. Other nineteenth century writers confirm this as being true.
In a talk delivered at Barnstaple on July 24th 1867, JR Chanter (author of Sketches of the Literary History of Barnstaple) begins by noting the following:
Devon in general, and North Devon in particular, has been very retentive of ancient customs, habits, and superstitions. Its folk-lore is especially interesting from its local form of fairy, the Devonshire pixy. But the most noticeable fact connected with North Devon is, not so much the variety or specially local character of its superstitions and vulgar customs, as of their being still generally interwoven with the daily life of the population. In most parts of the country it is necessary, in order to gather up local customs or legends, to seek out ancient crones or noted legend-tellers; but no one can live in this district, and mix much with the country folks, without finding a general belief in witchcraft still existing, and old customs and superstitions in full sway. A great many of these are, or were, common to all England, but having gradually died out in the more busy parts of the country, have continued here, most probably from the isolated nature of the district, and the stagnant character of the agricultural population.
Chanter refers to the role of the ‘white witch’ (variously referred to in the popular vernacular by terms such as ‘wise man/woman’, ‘cunning man/woman’, and ‘conjurer’):
Accidents, or any obscure ailments to cattle, are commonly attributed to their being witched, or “overlooked”, as the term is, and can only be cured by a white witch; and it is well known that more than one person in North Devon gains his livelihood by acting professionally as a white witch, that is, the country people call him the white witch, though he professes to be a cattle doctor.
In fact, if any one gets into trouble in any way, it is quite a sufficient explanation that he has been “evil-wished and overlooked,” and the white witch is forthwith called into requisition.
In Arthur H. Norway’s book Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall (1897), we read:
Now there are many writers who have praised Exeter for this and that, some selecting one of her manifold charms and dignities for especial comment, while another gives the meed to something else; but there is one which has been neglected strangely, and as it will come cropping up time after time as we go on westwards, we may as well refer to the matter now. Exeter has for generations, if not for centuries, been the headquarters of west country witchcraft.
Of course it is notorious that the west is full of witches. There are few towns or villages of any consequence which do not boast some man or woman skilled more or less deeply in necromancy, and able to furnish charms against the evil eye; while in addition to these regular practitioners, there are many travelling gipsies and vagabonds who derive a comfortable sustenance from the black art. Now most of these witches will refer difficult cases to Truro, Plymouth, or to Exeter, the white witch at the ever faithful city being a sort of acknowledged chief among them all.
Sarah Hewett’s book Nummits and Crummits: Devonshire Customs, Characteristics, and Folk-lore (published in 1900) states:
West Country people generally, and Devonians in particular, are exceedingly superstitious, in spite of all that has been done for them in the way of higher education, and the enlightening influence of the press. Dwellers in the hilly parts of Devon, on Dartmoor and Exmoor, and in the villages bordering upon them, are as deeply imbued with faith in witches, as their forefathers were in the days when Alfred was king.
According to tradition there are three kinds of witches.
The Black Witch, who is of an intensely malignant nature, and responsible for all the ills that flesh is heir to.
The White Witch, of an opposite nature, is always willing, for certain pecuniary considerations, to dispense charms and philtres, to cancel the evil of the other.
The Grey Witch is the worst of all, for she possesses the double power of either “overlooking” or ” releasing.”
In cases of sickness, distress, or adversity, persons at the present time (A.D. 1898) make long expensive journeys to consult the white witch, and to gain relief by her (or his) aid.
In this worldview, there is no conception of events happening merely by chance, nor even of illness being a natural phenomenon. For the rural people of the West Country, in common with the people of England generally in previous ages, the landscape was filled with malevolence, whether in the form of evildoers conducting witchcraft or in the form of ghosts, spirits, and creatures such as pixies. According to this understanding of causation, any and all negative events taking place in one’s life are attributable to malignant forces at work. Such beliefs lead to an essentially paranoid view of reality, in which one’s neighbour or own family member may secretly be conspiring against you. They lead to people living in a state of constant fear, worrying that a fog descending is proof that pixies wish you harm and may be seeking to steal your children, seeing in the development of a cold evidence that someone has placed a curse on you, or believing that cattle becoming diseased is proof that someone in the locale is practising black witchcraft against you. It also makes people ripe for manipulation and exploitation by unscrupulous individuals who play on these fears for financial gain.
Numerous examples can be found in nineteenth and early twentieth century sources which illustrate the devastating consequences of the widespread rural belief in witchcraft.
The 1894 edition of the Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art contains a report on an 1886 case from Barnstaple in which a retired farmer who had been ‘on very good terms with all his children’ developed eczema in one of his hands. He then ‘conceived the idea that the disease was a manifestation of the powers of witchcraft, and had been caused by some of his children “overlooking” him’. The man consulted a white witch in Exeter, who told him the eczema was the result of his having been ‘overlooked’ by a woman who lived near him and a member of his family. The farmer came away convinced that the persons responsible for his misfortune were in fact two of his own daughters and changed his will as a result.
Arthur H. Norway, writing in 1897, reports:
A man and his wife in South Devon, having had a run of ill-luck, came to the conclusion that they had been overlooked; and they suspected that it was a certain relative of the wife who had “cast her eye” over them. The wife accordingly posted off to Exeter, and consulted the white witch, who thoroughly confirmed her suspicions both as to the nature of the mischief and the individual who had caused it.
The couple burnt a cow’s heart in a ritual prescribed by the white witch, in order to banish the misfortune. No doubt, the family relationship was irreparably damaged.
Sabine Baring Gould, writing in 1908, recounts the case of a cattle dealer who attributed his daughter’s influenza to witchcraft. He consulted a white witch and came away convinced that a woman who lived nearby was responsible. The man ‘returned home full of conviction and wrath’. The next night, his neighbour’s home was burnt to the ground, nearly killing six people. Matches were found at the scene. As Baring Gould notes:
[T]here can be no doubt that bitter animosities are bred by the charges of “ill-wishing” and “overlooking” which are made by the White Witches. They are far too shrewd to name names, but they contrive to kindle and direct suspicions in their dupes which may lead to serious results.
While the arson case is a particularly egregious example of the consequences of witchcraft beliefs, and the activities of the ‘white witches’, it is far from an isolated example of the violence associated with such a worldview. Physical assaults on supposed witches were not uncommon.
Robert Hunt writes in Popular Romances of the West of England (1865):
Jenny Harris was a reputed witch. This woman, old, poor, and, from the world’s ill-usage, rendered malicious, was often charged with the evils which fell upon cattle, children, or, indeed, on men and women. On one occasion, a robust and rough-handed washerwoman, who conceived that she was under the spell of Jenny Harris, laid violent hands on the aged crone, being resolved to “bring blood from her.” The witch’s arm was scratched and gouged from the elbow to the wrist, so that a sound inch of skin did not exist. This violent assault became the subject of inquiry before the magistrates, who fined the washerwoman five pounds for the assault.
William Henderson recounts:
[I]n the year 1870, a man eighty years of age was fined at Barnstaple, in Devonshire, for scratching with a needle the arm of a young girl. He pleaded that he had “suffered affliction” through her for five years, had had four complaints on him at once, had lost 14 canaries, and about 50 goldfinches, and that his neighbours told him this was the only way to break the spell and get out of her power.
Another case in point has been communicated to me from Cheriton Bishop, a village near Exeter. Not many years ago a young girl in delicate health was thought to have been bewitched by an old woman of that place, and everybody declared that the only cure for her would be an application of the witch’s blood. The girl’s friends, therefore, laid wait for the poor old woman, seized her when she was alone and unprotected, scratched her with a nail till the blood flowed, and collected the blood. They carried it home, and smeared the sick girl with it, and the recovery, which took place in course of time, was attributed to this application.
Sarah Hewett, writing about Devonshire customs and folklore in 1898, reports:
The surest method of escaping the influence of the evil eye, is to draw blood from the person of the witch… A country man told me recently that he had “raped old mother Tapp’s arm with a great rusty nail two or three times,” till he made the blood flow freely. ”She can’t hurt me again arter that,” said he.
Even when physical violence was not resorted to, witchcraft beliefs resulted in all sorts of irrational activity. The obsession with witches led to an obsession with seeking revenge upon them, resulting in purportedly Christian country dwellers engaging in activities that bordered on black magic.
William Henderson writes:
In Devonshire, witches and malevolent people still make clay images of those whom they intend to hurt, baptize the image with the name of the person whom it is meant to represent, and then stick it full of pins or burn it. In the former case that person is racked with rheumatism in all his limbs; in the second he is smitten with raging fever.
Ague is a disease which has always been deemed peculiarly open to the influence of charms. It is said in Devonshire that you may give it to your neighbour, by burying under his threshold a bag containing the parings of a dead man’s nails, and some of the hairs of his head; your neighbour will be afflicted with ague till the bag is removed.
There are still plenty of white witches in Devonshire, but one died a few years ago in the village of Bovey Tracey, who, unless she were greatly maligned, by no means deserved so favourable a designation… A man went to her asking for help to get rid of an enemy. The witch gave him a candle, and told him to take it into a secret place, light it, and watch it while it was burning. So long as it burned, his enemy would be in flames; when it expired he would die, which, said my Informant, came to pass.
Sarah Hewett records a ritual intended to ‘destroy the power of a witch’:
Take three small-necked stone jars: place in each the liver of a frog stuck full of new pins, and the heart of a toad stuck full of thorns from the holy thorn bush. Cork and seal each jar. Bury in three different churchyard paths seven inches from the surface and seven feet from the porch. While in the act of burying each jar repeat the Lord’s prayer backwards. As the hearts and livers decay so will the witch’s power vanish. After performing this ceremony no witch can have any power over the operator.
Then there is ‘the herring-bone charm to cause death’: ‘Sew into a garment which is worn next to the skin a long thin herring-bone. As the bone dries up, or withers, so will the person wearing it gradually pine away and die’.
Sabine Baring Gould, in his A Book of Dartmoor (1900), writes of a Dartmoor witch:
She was an implacable hater; and living on the wilds, half educated, she was superstitious, and believed in witchcraft, and in her own power to ill-wish such individuals as offended her. She was caught on one occasion with a doll into which she was sticking pins and needles, in the hope and with the intent thereby of producing aches and cramps in a neighbour. On another occasion she laid a train of gunpowder on her hearth, about a figure of dough, and ignited it, for the purpose of conveying an attack of fever to the person against whom she was animated with resentment.
Putting toads in potions, scratching the arms of ‘witches’, and sticking pins into images seem shocking to us today, but were not at all unusual in the rural England of the relatively recent past, nor was a reliance on the services of white witches. Why, though, did so many inhabitants of a firmly Christian country, with a Christian monarch, and an Established church, turn more readily to the services of white witches than clerics, and why did they put more faith in the existence of witchcraft than in the teachings of the church? The truth is that the English as a whole were never particularly formally religious, especially lower down the social ladder. As Henry Bourne put it in his book of 1725, the common people were devoted to ‘idle Traditions… more than the Word of God; and have more Dependance upon the lucky Omens of the other than his Providence, more Dread of their unlucky ones, than his Wrath and Punishment’. Christopher Hill, writing in Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution (1997) notes the following of church attendance in seventeenth century England:
Although church attendance was mandatory up to the year 1650 when it was abolished, the Anglican Episcopalian Church was never all embracing. There is evidence to show that the very poor, rogues, vagabonds, masterless men, and beggars did not ever attend. In some instances parish relief had to be withheld in order to get the poor to attend.
But it wasn’t merely the very lowest ranking of society who eschewed formal religious observance. Scholarly editions of eighteenth century visitation returns illustrate the low level of church attendance clearly. For example, The Visitation Records of Archdeacon Joseph Plymley, 1792-1838 show that ‘the average congregation at the best attended service in 19 Anglican parish churches in the Archdeaconry of Salop [Diocese of Lichfield] in 1792-94 was equivalent to 26% of the population’. While the nineteenth century is well-known as a period of increased religiosity, this was again largely confined to the new urban middle classes and the old ruling class. The Religious Census of 1851 gives a revealing insight into the religious landscape of mid-nineteenth century England. Writing in 1853, Horace Mann, who had been in charge of organising the survey, concluded:
It must be apparent that a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion. Nor is it difficult to indicate to what particular class of the community this portion in the main belongs. The middle classes have augmented rather than diminished that devotional sentiment and strictness of attention to religious services by which, for several centuries, they have so eminently been distinguished. With the upper class, too, the subject of religion has obtained of late a marked degree of notice, and a regular church-attendance is now ranked amongst the recognized proprieties of life.
The working classes (at least 80% of the entire English population at that time), however, made up an ‘absolutely insignificant… portion of the congregations’, wrote Mann, and were ‘as utter strangers to religious ordinances as the people of a heathen nation’. These working people were not just the many who now dwelt in cities as a result of the increasing rural exodus. It was not a case of religious country folk vs. secularised city-dwellers, for, in the year of the survey, the population of England was split 49.8% rural and 50.2% urban, so a great many of Mann’s ‘habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion’ were found in country parishes. The key difference between the rural and urban populations in matters of belief was not so much one of church attendance, but of devotion to folk religion and belief in witchcraft. Some of the new settlers in cities may well have brought those beliefs with them, but they didn’t have staying power once removed from the essentially backward rural environment that birthed and sustained them. White witches were indeed operating in cities such as Exeter, but they largely made their living by preying upon the people of the surrounding countryside.
Time and again, we read of urban white witches being sought out by the people of the countryside who, as Sarah Hewett reported, made ‘long expensive journeys to consult the white witch’. As we have seen, Arthur H. Norway wrote of a couple from South Devon who ‘posted off to Exeter, and consulted the white witch’. Sabine Baring Gould wrote that ‘there were several notable white witches in Exeter who took lots of good fees for pretended good services’. An 1848 North Devon Journal article refers to a man from Ashburton who ‘made a desperate attempt to recover [his] property, by applying to the celebrated “white witch” of Exeter’. Robert Hunt writes of a farmer from Bodmin who ‘made many journeys to Exeter, to consult the “White Witch”‘. Country Life Volume 49 (1921) recounts the tale of another man who travelled all the way from Cornwall to seek help from the ‘white witch of Exeter’. There were many such ‘white witches’, the majority of whom were male. They often posed as respectable ‘herbal doctors’, but had a sideline in witchcraft. In 1903, one such individual found himself in Exeter police court on charges of obtaining money by unlawful means:
William Henry Thomas, described as a gentleman, of Bartholomew Street, Exeter… had obtained a wide reputation among poor-witted country people. The latter believed that if a man’s wife was ill or his cattle died that they had been “overlooked,” or bewitched; and Thomas was reputed to have the power of stopping that “overlooking.” His books show that he had been clearing £300 a year by this business. As an instance of the practices that the defendant carried on, he might mention that he gave a farmer who had been losing horses and cattle a powder and told him to throw it around his homestead between 9 p.m. and midnight, and say the Lord’s Prayer at the same time.
Thomas was not the only white witch of Bartholomew Street. Robert Tuckett is listed in an 1835 Exeter directory as a ‘herbal doctor’. He didn’t just see clients at his home, but also journeyed to markets elsewhere to sell his products. An 1836 broadsheet purchased at Tavistock market, offering a ‘Receipt for Ill-wishing’, directs the purchaser to contact ‘Doctor Tuckett, No. 22, Bartholomew Street, Exeter’. The broadsheet was to be purchased along with one of Tuckett’s ‘magical’ powders, intended to be strewn over the backs of cattle in a ritual similar to that of Thomas. The text includes the following:
If not better in two or three days, do this:– bleed the beast as it will bear, and mix it with barleymeal, as warm as you can, and make three images, one in the shape of a man and two in the shape of a woman. Stick five black thorns into each breast and five white thorns into each head, and three new pins into each leg and arm. Say to each as you stick them in, “I do this to torture and torment, in the name of the Lord, that man or woman who hath hurted me and my cattle:” then burn them with green ashen wood. When you put them in the fire, say, “I confine all evil and enemies of mine and of my cattle into the fire forever, never to hurt me nor mine any more for ever, in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, Amen.”
If anything should die, do this:– take out the heart as soon as you can and stick it full of black and white thorns, and new pins, and old horse-nails, and double flint glass, and say to each as in sticking it into the images; then hang it up to the bar of the chimney, and burn a little of it every day for fourteen days following; then burn it out.
Commenting on Tuckett’s text, a writer in The Quarterly Review, Volume 59 (1837) notes that ‘superstitions of this dark and odious character are found in every part of our island’.
Another Tuckett of Bartholomew Street – James, likely the son of Robert – is listed as a ‘herbal doctor’ in an 1848 directory. Two years later, we find ‘Tuckett Jas. and Son, herbal doctors, Botanic Hall, 44 Bartholomew st’ in another directory. Sabine Baring Gould (1908) cites an 1847 account of ‘the general method of the White Witch Tucker in Exeter’. This is almost certainly actually a reference to one of the Tucketts, quite likely James. Visitors to ‘Tucker’ met in the waiting room an accomplice of his, who posed as another customer and got the visitor to open up about his problems:
Now this fuming man was employed by Tucker to draw out from the gulls what their trouble was, and there was but a sham wall of paper between the room where the interview took place and that in which he received the farmer, whom he greatly astonished by informing him of all the circumstances that led to the visit. The remedy he prescribed was to carry a little bag he gave him, in which were some stones, and to dash water in the direction of the old woman, and say, “I do it in the name of Tucker,” and if this did not answer, he was to put a faggot up his chimney, set fire to it, and say a prayer he taught him while it was burning.
The Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, Volumes 57-58 (1926) states: ‘About thirty to thirty-five years ago, Tuckett, the famous “white witch” from Exeter, came to Parkham and stopped for some time at the Bell Inn, where he carried on his “practice”‘.
Many white witches, particularly the city-dwellers, were evidently knowingly conning their clients and cynically playing on the fears and troubles of rural people. Those white witches who genuinely believed in witchcraft and in the efficacy of the spells and potions they offered were less morally repugnant, but were nonetheless contributing to the reinforcement of belief in an irrational and desperate view of the world. Looking at the beliefs of our rural forebears, we find a world very far removed from our own, and we find witchcraft as a lived reality at least up until the early years of the twentieth century (although surviving much later in isolated pockets).
Romantic images and notions of the rural England of past centuries, in which people were presumed to be more healthy, more faithful, and more innocent are based on a false view of reality. Life in the countryside was for most people a harsh experience: living and working conditions were often poor; the work itself was a relentless slog, out in all weathers; the diet was often dreary, uninspiring, and likely nutritionally insufficient; illness and disease was frequent, both among humans and domesticated animals; medicine was largely ineffective and mostly consisted of folk cures, many of which could only have had a placebo effect, and some of which were almost certainly harmful; people lived in fear of witches, ghosts, and evil spirits, even fearing their own neighbours and family members were attacking them with witchcraft. Nostalgia for an imagined rural idyll that existed in England prior to industrialisation and urbanisation is not grounded in reality. When, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people poured out of the English countryside and into cities, they faced many new challenges and hardships, but they also escaped from a world filled with the worst kinds of ignorance and superstition. There was nothing romantic about that world and its passing should never be mourned. While we should rightly be concerned today about preserving the natural beauty and biological diversity of rural England, the loss of much of the culture that once permeated it is no loss at all.
Contemporary polling data actually calls into question the notion that the kind of beliefs that once obsessed the country-dwellers of England ever truly disappeared, although the sheer terror these beliefs once inspired seems to have abated over time with the moving of British society from being largely rural to largely urban. The hope that reason would one day emerge triumphant now seems unlikely, however. While only 1.4% of the population attends church regularly, adherence to folk beliefs is, if anything, on the rise.
Astonishingly, 44% of British people apparently claim to have seen a fairy (interestingly, the top areas for such ‘sightings’ are Devon and Cornwall); nearly two thirds claim to believe in magic; 45% say it is highly likely that witches, vampires, and demons are secretly living and working alongside us in everyday life, and three in ten say they are certain one of these creatures has put a spell or curse on them; around 20% believe that a work colleague has put a curse on them and 13% admitted to trying to curse a colleague; British people are more likely to believe in ghosts than a creator God; and more people may believe in life after death than God.
A 2016 YouGov survey that found more people believing in ghosts than a creator God turned up interesting results amongst those who identified as Christians:
The same survey also found that self-identified Christians are more likely to believe in aliens than the devil, and more likely to believe in fate than in heaven or an eternal soul…
[T]he new YouGov figures suggest that Britain’s “Christian” majority does not hold conventionally Christian beliefs, and that less commonly discussed folk beliefs are often more deeply entrenched than Christian doctrine.
The idea of ‘luck’, good and bad, still has a significant place within popular belief as well. Researchers have discovered that houses with the number 13 on the door sell for £6,500 less than their neighbours and that almost a third less houses are bought on the thirteenth day of the month compared to the monthly average. Some councils have banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. The BBC reports:
Such has been the local aversion to “unlucky” houses [in Worcestershire] that the district council, Wyre Forest, has in recent years banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. Local councillor Stephen Clee resolutely defends the policy.
“We have to listen to what the people say,” he says. “The local community were saying to us, ‘we don’t like living at number 13, so can we do something about it?’”
Wyre Forest is not alone in this – 13 is not used for new houses in authorities ranging from Herefordshire to Lewes in Sussex. West Wiltshire has also introduced a ban.
The key difference between these contemporary beliefs and those of the rural past seems to lie in the kind of action people who claim to believe in such things actually take. In the rural environment of the past, ‘white witches’ did a roaring trade, supposed ‘black witches’ were physically assaulted or worse, and the genuine fear people lived in led to them resorting to the carrying of animal parts and the conducting of occult rituals. The evidence for any widespread continuation of such practices is thankfully lacking, and has now largely been consigned to the past.