Hot Peppers and Hot Sauces in the English Cookery of the 17th to 19th Centuries

Hot peppers – capsicums – were introduced to England from Spain in the sixteenth century, and were growing in England by 1548.[1] Looking at seventeenth century English books, a number of references to ‘Guinea peppers’ and cayenne pepper appear, with an early example being found in John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629).[2]

In his renowned book The Complete Herbal (1653), the English botanist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper includes an entry on cayenne pepper (‘Guinea Pepper’), in which he notes its ‘fiery, sharp, biting taste’ and ‘temperature hot and dry’. Cayenne peppers, eaten raw, would ‘burn and inflame the mouth and throat so extremely that it would be hard to be endured’. Yet, despite the ‘evil qualities’ of these ‘violent plants’, when powdered, cayenne pepper ‘may serve instead of ordinary pepper to season meat or broth for sauce, for it not only gives it a good taste or relish, but tends to discuss the wind and colic in the body’. Culpeper includes instructions on how to make cayenne pepper powder for culinary use.[3]

In 1669, the Englishman John Evelyn published a book titled Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, which offers an extensive collection of salads and vegetable dishes. Cayenne pepper again made an appearance, with Evelyn including instructions for preparing a cayenne vinegar (‘in a separate Vinegar, gently bruise a Pod of Guinny-Pepper‘).[4]

In the 18th Century, we find cayenne pepper as an ingredient in numerous dishes. Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), for example, contains multiple references to ‘Chyan pepper’.[5] By this time, as Stephen Schmidt writes, ‘cayenne was beloved in England’ and ‘Raffald’s reliance on cayenne in The Experienced English Housekeeper is almost compulsive’.[6] Raffald’s book was not only very popular in her native England, but was also one of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.[7]

By the nineteenth century, hot pepper recipes and products were very well-known. William Kitchiner’s bestselling 1822 book The Cook’s Oracle (which was also extremely popular in the United States), for example, contains entries on cayenne pepper, ‘Essence of Cayenne’, and ‘Chili Vinegar’. Kitchiner’s book contains quite an extensive discussion regarding cayenne pepper. He notes that, in the England of the period, Indian cayenne pepper and cayenne pepper from the West Indies were both sold and used. Kitchiner considered the Indian cayenne pepper to be ‘prepared in a very careless manner’ and alleged it was adulterated with food colouring or even red lead to approve its colour. The cayenne pepper imported from the West Indies, meanwhile, was made up of ‘an indiscriminate mixture of the powder of the dried pods of many species of Capsicums – especially of the Bird Pepper, which is the hottest of all’.[8] According to Kitchiner, ‘respectable oil shops in London’ sold West Indian cayenne pepper and ‘Capsicums and Chilies… may be purchased at the Herb Shops in Covent-Garden, the former for about five, the latter for two shillings per hundred’.[9] That hot peppers were being sold by the hundred is indicative of the extent of their use.

Kitchiner’s ‘Essence of Cayenne’ recipe reads as follows:

Put half an ounce of Cayenne pepper into half a pint of brandy or wine; let it steep for a fortnight, and then pour off the clear liquor. This is nearly equal to fresh Chili juice.[10]

‘This or the Chili vinegar’, writes Kitchiner, ‘is extremely convenient for the extempore seasoning and finishing of soups, sauces, &c.’

Kitchiner’s ‘chili vinegar’ is made by infusing fresh chillis – ‘cut in half, or pounded’ – in ‘a pint of the best vinegar for a fortnight’.[11] ‘This is commonly made with the foreign bird pepper’, Kitchiner notes, although he favoured milder ‘red English Chilies’. Kitchiner observes: ‘Many people cannot eat fish without the addition of an acid, and Cayenne pepper: to such palates this will be an agreeable relish’.

Other recipes employing hot peppers found in Kitchiner’s book include:

  • A ‘Piquante sauce for cold meat, fish, &c.’ made using horseradish, salt, mustard, eshallots, celery seed, and cayenne pepper, soaked in vinegar.
  • A ‘Savoury Ragout Powder’ made up of salt, mustard, allspice, black pepper, grated lemon peel, ginger, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper.
  • A curry powder made up of coriander seed, turmeric, black pepper, mustard, ginger, lesser cardamoms, cayenne pepper, and cumin seed.
  • Horseradish Vinegar: ‘Pour a quart of best vinegar on three ounces of scraped horseradish, an ounce of minced eschalot, and one drachm of Cayenne; let it stand a week, and you will have an excellent relish for cold beef, salads, &c. costing scarcely any thing. A portion of black pepper and mustard, celery or cress-seed, may be added to the above’.
  • Pickles: ‘The strongest vinegar must be used for pickling… To assist the preservation of pickles, a portion of salt is added; and for the same purpose, and to give flavour, long pepper, black pepper, allspice, ginger, cloves, mace, garlic, eschalots, mustard, horseradish, and capsicum’.
  • A tomato sauce made using twelve or more tomatoes: ‘[P]ut them in a stew-pan with a capsicum, and two or three table-spoonfuls of beef gravy; set them on a slow stove for an hour, or till properly melted; then rub them through a tamis into a clean stew-pan, with a little white pepper and salt, and let them simmer together a few minutes’.

Isabella Beeton’s bestselling Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) contains similar recipes and includes more than 200 references to cayenne pepper.[12] Beeton was arguably more a compiler of recipes than an originator, and she reproduces (without attribution) Kitchiner’s recipes for Essence of Cayenne and chili vinegar, although in the Essence of Cayenne recipe she swaps the brandy or wine for vinegar and offers ‘Cayenne Vinegar’ as an alternative name.

Also found in Beeton’s book are a recipe for ‘pickled capsicums’ and a seasoning blend called ‘Hot Spice’, which is presented as ‘a Delicious Adjunct to Chops, Steaks, Gravies, &c.’ The recipe reads as follows:

INGREDIENTS.—3 drachms each of ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon, 7 cloves, 1/2 oz. mace, 1/4 oz. of cayenne, 1 oz. grated nutmeg, 1-1/2 oz. white pepper.

Mode.—Pound the ingredients, and mix them thoroughly together, taking care that everything is well blended. Put the spice in a very dry glass bottle for use. The quantity of cayenne may be increased, should the above not be enough to suit the palate.

A few years after Mrs Beeton was first published, commercially produced bottled hot sauces were on sale in Britain. Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce, for example, was – according to 1869 and 1870 advertisements in London newspapers – ‘pronounced by connoisseurs the best sauce’.[13][14] Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce was promoted at the International Exhibition of 1862 as follows:

This sauce is used as a relish to roast meat, game, poultry, steaks, chops, cutlets, fish, soup, gravy, &c. Its thorough adaptation to this purpose has won for it a first class among sauces, and extensive patronage in the houses of the nobility and gentry, and in the clubs.[15]

‘The clubs’ is a reference to the private members clubs of London, where the wealthy gathered to drink and socialise.

Arthur Gay Payne’s The Housekeeper’s Guide to Preserved Meats, Fruits, Vegetables, &c. (1886) contains an entry on Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce, which states: ‘Cayenne sauce is a very hot sauce’.[16] Hot spice blends and hot sauces were evidently very popular in the period. Mary Davies’ The Menu Cookery Book (1885) includes a ‘Sauce Piquante’, as well as ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ recipes for a dish called ‘devilled bones’. The dry recipe reads as follows:

Take the leg, back, or wing bones of turkey or fowl, score them a little with a knife, butter them well, then lay made mustard thickly over, sprinkle cayenne or common pepper on, and broil. Serve very hot.[17]

This English dish – a favourite in the private members clubs of London – was made by combining ‘the bones of any remaining joint or poultry, which has still some meat on’ with butter, hot mustard, and cayenne pepper.[18] The meat was scored so the seasonings would permeate throughout, then coated with a ‘devil sauce’ and briefly cooked until hot.[19] While butter, hot mustard, and cayenne pepper were the basic ingredients of these hot sauces, there were of course variations. The members of Boodle’s Private Members’ Club (which exists to this day) in St James’s Street, London, for example, were served devilled bones coated in a mixture of butter, dry English mustard, black pepper, salt, curry powder, cayenne pepper, and Worcestershire sauce.[20]

While hot sauces and devilled bones were much loved, not everyone was a fan. Kettner’s Book of the Table (1877), for example, contains the following disparaging remarks:

It is the great fault of all devilry that it knows no bounds. A moderate devil is almost a contradiction in terms; and yet it is quite certain that if a devil is not moderate he destroys the palate, and ought to have no place in cookery, the business of which is to tickle, not to annihilate, the sense of taste.[21]

Eventually, the hot sauce and devilled bones trend died out, a fact bemoaned by the essayist EV Lucas in his 1924 book Encounters and Diversions:

Britons, who were never to be slaves, are slaves once more, principally to cynical Italian caterers. Where are certain simple delicacies of yesteryear? Where is that ancient nocturnal amenity, the devilled bone? After the theatre, how agreeable it once was, too many years ago, to seek the Blue Posts in Cork Street and be sure of devilled bones![22]

A head waiter is quoting as saying that ‘nobody asks for them now’.

However, visit any major supermarket (and plenty of smaller shops) in England today, and you can purchase a wide variety of hot sauces, including cayenne sauces, although Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce is sadly nowhere to be found. Asking for devilled bones in a pub or bar will most likely result in a look of confusion on the part of the barkeeper. Ask for hot wings, however, and there’s a fair chance you’ll be served some, particularly in the larger chains.

While English cookery is often assumed to have been historically bland and lacking in heat and seasonings, this assumption is false. For the better off, at least, spice blends and hot peppers were a part of English cuisine for a number of centuries.


The English Roots of Potlikker Greens

The dish known as ‘potlikker greens’ is often presented as a uniquely Southern phenomenon, and as a clever innovation of the slaves. To make the dish, strong leafy greens (often collard greens) are cooked slowly with meat such as bacon or a ham hock. The pot liquor left over after the greens have been eaten is then ‘sopped up’ using cornbread. The dish remains popular within both Southern cooking and African American ‘soul food’, and certainly stands out as having a particularly strong regional identity. However, when we dig deeper into the history of potlikker greens, and how it came to be a Southern staple, it is, in fact, found to have its origins in England.

Bacon and greens was long a well-established dish throughout England, enjoyed across social classes. A witness in a 1739 report on court cases in the City of London reports that a criminal ‘and several others’ were eating bacon and greens.[1] Edward Moore, in his book The World (1761), writes of ‘the wonders of Yorkshire’, noting that ‘the best people in the country… say that they never eat so heartily as of the parson’s bacon and greens’.[2] The greens grown in Yorkshire, noted Isabella Beeton (1861), included ‘the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort’ (known in the United States as ‘collard greens’).[3] In 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne – an American touring England – published an account of his travels titled Our Old Home and English Note Books, in which he recalled a visit to ‘one of the rustic hostleries’ in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. Hawthorne ate bacon and greens, mutton chops, and a gooseberry pudding, and considered the meal ‘good enough for a prince’.[4]

Bacon and greens was a standard meal for English farmers. The 19th century English nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote a number of accounts of rural life in his native Wiltshire, with his 1892 book The Toilers of the Field providing, as the preface to the 1898 edition notes, a valuable ‘picture of the life of all classes of the cultivators of the soil in the early [eighteen] seventies’.[5] In the book, Jefferies writes that ‘[t]he traditional bacon and greens dinner is passing away, though still the usual fare in the small farmhouses’, and defines the ‘middle-class farmer’ as ‘the man who is neither an independent gentleman, nor obliged to live on bacon and greens’. As for the farm labourers, Jefferies reports the following:

On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening—that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity. Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have…

To dine in an English labourer’s cottage would be impossible. His bread is generally good, certainly; but his bacon is the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops—oily, soft, wretched stuff; his vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been soddened, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled—potato liquor—and sup it up with avidity. And this not in times of dearth or scarcity, but rather as a relish…

They never buy anything but bacon; never butchers’ meat. Philanthropic ladies, to my knowledge, have demonstrated over and over again even to their limited capacities that certain parts of butchers’ meat can be bought just as cheap, and will make more savoury nutritive food; and even now, with the present high price of meat, a certain proportion would be advantageous. In vain; the labourers obstinately adhere to the pig, and the pig only.

Exactly what this ‘detestable style’ of cooking cabbage might have been is suggested in other writings of the period. In 1863, Dr Edward Smith conducted a detailed survey of labourers’ diets, and found that ‘where fat was available, cabbage was usually cooked in it’.[6] Another 19th century observer noted that ‘bacon fat… served to relish farm labourers’ “potatoes and cabbages, which was all they got for dinner”’.[7] Indeed, Jefferies writes that the farm labourer ‘believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping’. As for the farm labourer’s children, Jefferies notes that while they might get a little cheese or bacon, they subsisted mainly on ‘a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor’.

Such food had a long history in England. In the 17th century:

The poor ate rye or barley bread, those better off manchets of white wheat flour. Bacon, souse, brawn, powdered (salted) beef or mutton, and barrelled (pickled) herrings, or other fish, were the mainstay of the table in winter. Brewis was eaten largely [‘bread soaked in pot-liquor’]…. Common people ate with wooden or latteen spoons from wooden trenchers.[8]

In 1795, the Revd. David Davies published The Case of Labourers in Husbandry. In his book, Davies included a study of ‘The parish of Barkham, in the county of Berks, Easter 1787’, and reports the ‘weekly expenses of a family, consisting of a man and his wife, and five children, the eldest eight years of age, the youngest an infant’. In 18th century Berkshire, writes Davies, a farm labourer would feed his family with a pound of bacon, ‘boiled at two or three times [a week] with greens: the pot-liquor, with bread and potatoes, makes a mess for the children’.[9]

This English diet was brought to the United States during the colonial period [10] and persists to this day, particularly in the Southern states, where a ‘mess’ of collard greens cooked with bacon or other pork products is a much-loved dish, the pot liquor (‘pot likker’) being ‘sopped up’ with cornbread. The ‘sop’, of course, dates back to medieval England [11] and was defined in the 1761 Royal English Dictionary as ‘bread steeped in liquor or dripping’.[12]

Gloria Lund Main writes that in colonial Maryland:

Marylanders ate an American diet cooked in old English style… White and black, servant and master – all liked their meat and vegetables cooked together in the large pot over the fire, and the corn bread baked on the hearth.[13]

‘G.W.W.’, a Kentucky gentleman, writes in 1859:

In very early Kentucky times, the universal dinner, winter and spring at every farm house in the state, was a piece of middling bacon, boiled with cabbage, turnips, greens, collards, or sprouts, cabbage sprouts, according to the season. The pot, if the family was a large one, contained about ten gallons, and was nearly filled with clean pure water, the middlings and the greens were put in at the proper time, to give them a sufficient cooking.[14]

The Virginia writer George William Bagby notes in his The Old Virginia Gentleman: And Other Sketches (1877) that ‘the cabbage’ is ‘sacred to the Virginia dinner-table’ and that bacon and greens were cooked together. Bagby identifies the greens in question as ‘the ugly pot-herb of the sea-cliffs of England’.[15] As such, he is clearly referring to ‘collards’, the coleworts first brought to Virginia by English colonists. In her famous book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), the English cookery writer Isabella Beeton writes the following:

On the cliffs of Dover, and in many places on the coasts of Dorsetshire, Cornwall, and Yorkshire, there grows a wild plant, with variously-indented, much-waved, and loose spreading leaves, of a sea-green colour, and large yellow flowers. In spring, the leaves of this plant are collected by the inhabitants, who, after boiling them in two waters, to remove the saltness, use them as a vegetable along with their meat. This is the Brassica oleracea of science, the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort, from which have originated all the varieties of Cabbage, Cauliflower, Greens, and Brocoli.[16]

Returning to the South, we find that ‘bacon and greens’ was seen as a hearty meal prepared by good wives. A character in the nineteenth century Virginia writer Beverley Tucker’s novel George Balcombe (1836) states that ‘highly educated wives’ are generally ‘left to men of cultivated but effeminate minds’, while ‘those whose names live in the mouths of men, prefer the plain housewifely girl, who reads her Bible, works her sampler, darns her stockings, and boils her bacon and greens together’.[17]

This was a universal meal, consumed in the South by master and slave alike. Daniel Hundley’s Social Relations In Our Southern States (1860) reports that ‘the usual fare of the slaves is bacon and greens’.[18] Slave narratives, likewise, state that children on the plantations were fed with pot liquor:

These children were fed cornbread and milk for breakfast and supper, and “pot licker” with cornbread for dinner.[19]


Dey wuz six uv us chillun an dey would feed us in a big wooden tray.
Dey’d po’ hot pot liquor in de tray an crumble braid in hit.[20]

Yet, while it was the case that bacon and greens was a meal eaten by the slaves, an article in an 1860 issue of The Southern Cultivator magazine states that ‘people of all classes, sexes, ages, and conditions’ in the South consumed large quantities of fat bacon and pork, and ate ‘boiled bacon and collards at dinner’.[21]

The Southern states were largely agrarian, and had been from the colonial period, when Englishmen – ranging from the planter gentry to small farmers and indentured servants – first settled Virginia and established it as a British colony. These Englishmen brought their culture, traditions, and foodways with them, so it is entirely unsurprising to find that the common English dish of bacon and greens gained a foothold in the South, or that English rural labourers’ practice of eating pot liquor and bread, and seasoning strong leafy greens with bacon fat, should have entered the slave diet (especially given the fact that, early on, English indentured servants worked in the fields alongside slaves).[22]

Reports on Witchcraft in 19th and early 20th Century English Newspapers

Throughout the nineteenth century (and into the early twentieth century), the worldview and belief system adhered to by a large proportion of the English population – particularly those dwelling in the countryside – was not grounded in Christianity and the teachings of the church, but, rather, in a longstanding belief in witchcraft.[1] Should any misfortune befall an individual or his property, the default belief was that they had been ‘overlooked’ and ‘ill-wished’ by a malevolent person in their community. In this understanding of the world, accidents and illness are neither the result of chance or disease, nor are they judgements sent by God, but they are, rather, the result of human actions intended to cause harm. In fact, in this worldview, God and Christianity played a very marginal role, as did priests and church ritual. When people found themselves suffering in any way, it was the fault of the ‘black witch’, and the only way to undo this evil was to turn to the ‘white witch’, ‘wise’ men and women who – for a fee – would counteract the power of the black witch through spells, rituals, powders, and potions. These ‘white witches’ were numerous throughout the country, and, while their rituals sometimes invoked the Trinity or made use of Biblical passages as spells, they were not operating as a supplement to the help offered by priests, but, rather, in place of them. The people evidently feared witches more than they feared God, and had more faith in spells than they did in prayer.

The people of the West Country, living in a particularly rural part of England, held onto this belief system longer than in some areas.[2] Even as trains hurried across the country, newspapers were widely read, cities were constantly expanding, and the Industrial Revolution was in full sway, witchcraft beliefs still had a strong hold over much of the population. While the more educated and literate were often surprised and appalled to find that such beliefs persisted in an enlightened age, numerous newspaper reports on the phenomenon appeared throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, illustrating the fact that witchcraft was far from the marginal or ‘extraordinary’ practice it was often presented as. The following excerpts from 19th and early 20th century newspaper reports were found via the British Newspaper Archive (for which a subscription is required).[3]

Bristol Mercury – Saturday 08 April 1843

Features an article titled ‘Witchcraft, Conjuration, Sorcery, and Enchantment’.

Frederick Peter Statton, 23, was charged at the Cornwall Assizes with:

having unlawfully pretended to conjuration, witchcraft, and sorcery; and also with having pretended, from his skill in witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, conjuration, and knowledge in occult or crafty science, to discover to one William Henry Nottle that he was bewitched, and under the influence and power of enchantment by which, he, Nottle, was then bound. The reading of this indictment caused great laughter.

Mr. W.H. Nottle was then examined–He said, I am a farmer, and live at Stokeclimsland, in this county; the prisoner lives in St. Dominick, on the common; I went to his house on the 17th of January, 1842, and saw him; I asked him if he could inform me how I had lost some cattle that had died; he told me that I was ill-wished (laughter), and he would put the thing all to rights, and I would lose no more cattle. A calf or yearling was ill, I expected it would die, and he said it would not die before I reached home.

The witness then read the following morceaux which he had duly registered in his memorandum book, and most probably acted upon: “Take the calf and kill it. Take the heart out and prick it full of pins. On Thursday morning next, at the first hour the sun rises, put the heart into the fire and roast or burn it to ashes. The person’s name you suspect of ill-wishing you, must be written on a piece of paper and put in the heart, with the pins run through the name. During the time the heart is roasting, the 35th Psalm must be read three times.” (The reading of this curious document convulsed the court with laughter, in which the prisoner heartily joined.)

The prisoner was acquitted on technical grounds, but the judge ‘told him he had no doubt he was a great rogue and must change his course of life if he wished to escape punishment’.

South London Chronicle – Saturday 25 July 1868

Contains a report titled ‘Superstition in Cornwall’:

A fisherman of Mevagissey lately became impressed with the idea that he was “ill-wished” by a poor widow, whose son had been dismissed from a mackerel seine. To avert the evil consequences which he apprehended might ensue, he procured a large bone, and after filling the hollow with pins, proceeded to place it in the chimney. During this interesting ceremony he read portions of the Bible, especially the 109th Psalm. This incantation was intended to cast a spell on the “witch,” but hitherto it has failed in effecting the proposed result. As might have been expected, a full measure of ridicule has been showered upon the luckless victim of the machinations of the “witch.” But the hard-working, quiet woman, who possesses an untarnished character, has been subjected to great annoyance. It is an acknowledged fact that many in Cornwall superstitiously attach importance to such senseless allegations of witchcraft.

Western Times – Friday 12 June 1874

Contains a report simply titled ‘Witchcraft’:

Lucretia Jane Fatchell, locally known as “the white Witch of Somerton,” has been committed to goal [sic] for six weeks, with hard labour, by the magistrates sitting at Shepton Mallet, for having obtained various sums of money by unlawful means, Several witnesses, who gave their evidence most reluctantly, were called to prove that prisoner had pretended to cure them of disease, to rid them of persons who were supposed to be overlooking them, and to prevent their enemies from destroying cattle supposed to have been bewitched.

Western Times – Thursday 12 October 1876

A visitor to ‘an aged couple living not far from Exeter’ was told about the death of some pigs, due to them being ‘overlooked’ by the ‘evil eye’ of a local woman.

John’s belief that he had been “overlooked” by a witch was too firmly planted to be shaken by the visitor, who could only walk away wondering at such proof of the survival of superstition in a district, so near a Cathedral City. In fact the superstition not only survives, but is profitable to some classes, for the “White Witches” of Exeter, we are told, have no reason to complain of dull times.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Friday 17 August 1877

Includes a report on the ‘Prosecution of a North Devon “White Witch”’. John Harper, an elderly man who seemed to employ divining rods and astrology to ‘heal’ people, found himself in court:

The defendant in this case was not a spiritualist, but he was something more akin to the old Devonshire witch or wizard, a race which, at this time, ought to be extinct. But he was afraid that there were a good many ignorant and superstitious people who believed in the power of such people, and the result was that persons who descended to the practice found it an opportunity of making money, and both directly and indirectly worked a great deal of harm to the community.

Harper’s ‘sentence was that he be sent to prison for one month, but not to hard labour, because he was an old man’.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily Telegrams – Tuesday 13 August 1878

A columnist writes:

When I was penning the remarks I made last week with reference to witchcraft, I did not know that we had had a fresh importation into this neighbourhood of a “white-witch.” The Rev. J.H. Buxton, the new Vicar of St.Giles-in-the-wood, near Great Torrington, writes to say that he wishes to warn people against a man, who, accompanied by a woman, is going about with a knife-grinding machine. He pretends to cure people who have been “overlooked” by a witch and he has actually obtained money from several simpletons for his services.

The Cornishman – Thursday 13 March 1890

Contains an article titled ‘Extraordinary Belief in Witchcraft and Ill-Wishing’. The article reports on a court case in Penzance, involving William Charles and Jeremiah Jeibart of Lower Boskenning, who had been harassing and threatening a seventy-one-year-old woman named Mrs Clarke, a tenant of the neighbouring farm:

There had been a feud of several months’ standing between these neighbours and it comprised several challenges to fight when the male members met in the roads because the Jeibarts are quite convinced that Mrs Clarke knows something of witchcraft and fortune-telling, and had ill-wished their horses.

One night, William Jeibart had banged on the front door of the Clarkes’ house, and when Mrs Clarke opened the door, Jeibart, ‘in loud and angry voice, and calling Mrs Clarke a devil, asked her to come out of the house for he would murder her that night. She asked why she was to be murdered and he said because she had ill-wished his horses’.

Mr George L. Bodilly, Mrs Clarke’s lawyer, cross-examined William Jeibart:

Bodilly: What was your grievance?

Jeibart: About the ill-wishing.

Bodilly: Have you ever been at school?

Jeibart: Yes, sir; I have been.

Bodilly: How old are you?

Jeibart: 25.

Bodilly: And, being an educated Englishman of 25, in the year 1890, pledge your oath that you believe in ill-wishing?

Jeibart: Yes, sir; I do.

Bodilly: In what way is it done?

Jeibart: I don’t know in what way it is done, but it is done.


Bodilly: On this day your mare kicked?

Jeibart: Yes.

Bodilly: And with that quickness of perception for which you are remarkable you said ‘Oh! Mrs Clarke has ill-wished it’?

Jeibart: Yes.

Bodilly: How do you connect the kicking of your mare with Mrs Clarke?

Jeibart: She is always peeping at the horse and watching it.

Bodilly: Then you are a believer in the evil eye?

Jeibart: Yes, sir.

The report concludes:

Major Ross said the bench would mark its sense of the extraordinary delusion under which the young men laboured… It was remarkable at the end of the nineteenth century to find two respectable-looking, fairly educated, and no doubt, as fairly educated religiously, young men believing such utter rubbish.

Torquay Times, and South Devon Advertiser – Friday 10 November 1899

A columnist writes:

In the present day, especially in the “West Countree,” [sic] there exist English rustics who firmly believe in the power of “ill-wishing,” and secretly, if not openly, account for many calamities by imagining themselves to have been “overlooked.”

Birmingham Daily Gazette – Wednesday 20 July 1927

Contains a report titled ‘Man Who Was “Ill-Wished”’:

An extraordinary story of rustic credulity was told to the Truro magistrates yesterday, when Mary Hearn, a gispy [sic], was charged with demanding £171 with menaces from Richard Harris Paddy, aged 75, a gardener, of St. Mawes.

It was stated that Paddy had been told he had been “illwished” and believing the gipsy woman could remove the “ill-wish,” he gave her, over a period of years, about £500.

Western Daily Press – Monday 18 November 1935

Contains an article on the suicide of Emma Bennett of Taunton, titled ‘Woman Thought Family Had Been “Ill-Wished”’. An excerpt:

At the inquest at Taunton on Saturday on Mrs Emma Bennett (49), of Portman Street, Taunton, whose body was recovered from the canal at Cheddon Fitzpaine, the dead woman’s daughter, Miss Dolly Bennett, said her mother appeared depressed on the morning of the day on which she disappeared from home.

In reply to questions from the coroner, Mr Geoffrey P. Clarke, the daughter said, “She thought there had been an ill-wish on the family, because she had been ill and there had been such a lot of trouble lately.”

It is hard to say when such beliefs finally died out, but, 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.[4]

The Diet of Black American Slaves and the Diet of the English Rural Poor

Slave narratives provide valuable insights into the kinds of foods that were given to the black slaves of the Southern States of North America, which varied somewhat, but shared a number of core foodstuffs in common.[1][2][3] The slave diet that emerges from these narratives is one that included boiled meat, pickled pork, salt bacon, fat meat, chitterlings, ribs, pickled pigs’ feet and ears, greens (particularly collards and cabbage), pot liquor, beans, cornbread, dumplings, and molasses. The adult slaves tended to eat various kinds of meat – largely pork products – and lots of vegetables, while their children were often given the pot liquor left over from the cooking, eaten with cornbread or dumplings, as well as greens and molasses.

Some of the narratives mention the gardens that slaves maintained, which provided many vegetables that enriched their diets. Robert Shepherd of Georgia recalled that his master taught him how to grow vegetables (‘My Old Marster done larnt me how to gyarden’) and that ‘He allus made us raise lots of gyarden sass such as: beans, peas, roas’in’ ears, collards, turnip greens, and ingons (onions)’.[4] Julia Larken, also of Georgia, similarly reported: ‘On de other side of de house was a large gyarden whar us raised evvything in de way of good veg’tables; dere was beans, corn, peas, turnips, collards, ‘taters, and onions’.[5]

While much in the slaves’ diet is unappealing to modern tastes, the widespread assumption that it was somehow uniquely bad does not appear accurate when the diet of poor whites – both in the South and in England – is examined. Without doubt, slavery was a vile and brutal institution. Many slaves were not adequately nourished and the manner in which slave children reportedly often received their food – in troughs of the type used to feed farm animals – shows the utterly degrading manner in which they were treated and viewed. However, the diet itself was not dissimilar to that of poor white people. In fact, with its reported wide variety of vegetables, it was likely more nutritious than the foods eaten by some whites.

When the Reverend Charles Woodmason, an Englishman, toured the South Carolina backcountry in 1766 on an evangelism mission, he repeatedly commented in his diary with obvious horror regarding the cuisine of the poor whites he encountered:

[N]othing to refresh me, but water – and their provisions I could not touch – all the cookery of these people being exceedingly filthy, and most execrable.

And the next day:

I was almost tired in baptizing of children — and laid myself down for the night frozen with the cold without the least refreshment, no eggs, butter, flour, milk, or anything, but fat rusty bacon, and fair water, with Indian corn bread, viands I had never before seen or tasted.[6]

Woodmason also commented on the lack of concern the slaveholding class showed towards poor whites:

How lamentable to think, that the legislature of this province will make no provision — so rich, so luxurious, polite a people! Yet they are deaf to all solicitations, and look on poor white people in a meaner light than their black slaves, and care less for them.[7]

The meats given to slaves, such as pickled pork, chitterlings, and pigs’ feet and ears were not as unappealing as they may appear today. In the colonial and post-independence South, items such as chitterlings and pigs’ feet and ears were enjoyed by the wealthy, as evidenced by recipes of the time.[8] Indeed, accounts exist of slaves being punished for not preparing chitterlings to their masters’ satisfaction,[9] and foods such as pickled pork and pigs’ ears and feet appear in English cookery books written for the kitchen staff of the wealthy elite that were hugely popular in the colonial period and beyond.[10] Chitterlings were also enjoyed by rural Southern whites and were a much celebrated food well into the 20th Century, playing an important role in the construction of a regional identity.[11] While, in the later era of slavery, chitterlings and the like had ceased to have the status of prestige foods, they were far from being unappetising detritus that was merely endured, and were evidently enjoyed by the slaves. Their continuing popularity within the ‘soul food’ tradition is illustrative of this fact.

The ‘variety meats’ given to the slaves were not in any way part of a uniquely Southern diet, either. In fact, just as they had originally been much favoured foods of the English elite, they had also, as in the South, over time become in England associated with the poor. When slaves ate chitterlings, brawn, pigs’ feet, and so on, they were not consuming a uniquely depraved diet. Indeed, such items were an important part of the diet of the English poor as late as the 20th Century. In Gloucestershire, chitterlings, sweetbreads, and fat bacon were still being eaten; in Bristol, faggots, pork ribs, chitterlings, and pigs’ cheeks; in Dorset, chitterlings and brawn; and, in the West Midlands, chitterlings, cows’ udders, chickens’ feet, pigs’ feet, brawn, and brains.[12]

When the diet of the slaves is compared with the diet of the English rural poor, we see that it was essentially almost identical. Even the much-talked-of ‘potlikker greens’, which is an important dish within both Southern and ‘soul food’ cooking today, was not unique to the slaves, and was also eaten in England. In the slave diet, we see pot liquor being eaten with cornbread and dumplings. Today, ‘potlikker greens’ are commonly served with cornbread, which is used to ‘sop up’ the pot liquor. The idea of using bread to ‘sop up’ dripping, gravy, or liquids has a long history in England (see, for example, a 1761 definition in The Royal English Dictionary [13]) and the ‘sop’ was ‘one of the most common constituents of a medieval meal’.[14] In 18th Century England, the poor subsisted on a diet of foods such as ‘water porridge and garden greens’ (similar to grits and greens), as well as bread, treacle (molasses), potatoes, dumplings, broths, and stews.[15] The similarity with the slave diet is clear. Rabbit stew and dumplings is an example of an English dish of the era that still survives today, and it can also be found in the slave narratives (see the account of Will Sheets of Georgia).[16]

In 1892, the English writer Richard Jefferies published an account of the lives led by the rural labourers of his home county of Wiltshire, expanding upon a piece he originally wrote for The Times in 1872.[17] Jefferies noted that the poor English agricultural labourer ‘presents in his actual condition at this day a striking analogy to the agriculturist of a bygone time’. Jefferies wrote about the diet of these agricultural labourers, arguing that ‘a more wretched cookery probably does not exist on the face of the earth’. The ‘usual fare in the small farmhouses’, wrote Jefferies, consisted of ‘the traditional bacon and greens dinner’. This was mirrored in the diet of Southern farmers who, according to an 1860 article in The Southern Cultivator magazine, ate ‘boiled bacon and collards at dinner’ (collards being colewarts; strong leafy greens of the cabbage family, originally brought to colonial Virginia from England).[18]

However, in the cottages of the poor labourers, the diet consisted ‘chiefly of bread and cheese, with bacon twice or thrice a week, varied with onions’. The bacon was described as ‘the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops—oily, soft, wretched stuff’, and greens in fact made up the bulk of the labourers’ diet:

On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening—that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity… [H]is vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been soddened, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled—potato liquor—and sup it up with avidity.

As for the children:

Their food is of the rudest and scantiest, chiefly weak tea, without milk, sweetened with moist sugar, and hunches of dry bread, sometimes with a little lard, or, for a treat, with treacle. Butter is scarcely ever used in the agricultural labourer’s cottage. It is too dear by far, and if he does buy fats, he believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping. Children are frequently fed with bread and cheap sugar spread on it. This is much cheaper than butter. Sometimes they get a bit of cheese or bacon, but not often, and a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor.

Just as gardens were important for the slaves’ diet, Jefferies writes of the poor English rural labourer: ‘Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have’.

The English rural poor of 19th Century England, then, ate a diet of strong cabbage and pot liquor, cheap cuts of meat, bread, animal fats, and molasses. They also relied on their vegetable gardens as a principle source of their sustenance. This diet is almost identical to that reported in the slave narratives, although foods such as pickled pork and chitterlings are notably absent. Even the foods given to children – pot liquor, bread, and molasses – are identical to those given to the slave children of the Southern plantations.

The diet of the slaves, then, was neither uniquely bad, nor uniquely Southern. The manner in which slaves were treated – and the fact that they were being held in bondage – is obviously worse than anything experienced by poor whites in the South or by the English rural poor, but the food they were given to eat was often no worse than that being eaten by white agricultural labourers. Sometimes, the diet of slaves was arguably better than that of poor Southern whites, and it was essentially identical to the diet of the poor rural whites of England. It seems highly likely, in fact, that the rations given to slaves in the South were modelled on the diet of the poor of England. Given the fact that slavery in the South was first instituted under English colonial rule, and given the fact that slaves in the South rubbed shoulders with poor white indentured servants of English origin, it is unsurprising that the foods of the slaves so closely parallel those of the rural poor of England. The diet of slaves was not uniquely bad, or even uniquely Southern, even if the monstrous way in which the slaves were often treated was.

The English Roots of ‘Southern Barbecue’ and ‘Southern Hospitality’

Aside from fried chicken, it is hard to think of a more iconic representation of Southern cuisine than barbecue. However, barbecue in North America did not start out that way. English settlers observed and learnt Native American barbecuing techniques and barbecues quickly became popular:

During the 18th century, barbecues became social events that were common throughout the British North American colonies. Although they are associated with the South, barbecues were held regularly in many areas. For example, a barbecue was held to launch the brigantine Barnard in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1767. Celebrations with barbecues occurred even further north. When Quebec City fell to the British during the French and Indian War in 1759, citizens of Falmouth, Maine, celebrated with a barbecue on an island that later became known as “Hog Island.” Barbecuing must also have been known as a cooking technique not used solely for large celebrations. In a 1769 newspaper advertisement, Thomas Carnes announced that he was opening a coffeehouse outside of Boston. He also noted that he would barbecue pigs or turtles. Barbecues as social gatherings or celebrations became less common in New England after the Revolutionary period.

It is not surprising that wealthy English colonists took to this form of smoked meat so enthusiastically, for their native cuisine had long featured similar flavours. As early as the 14th century, the English were eating smoked fish:

By 1349 smoked fish was an established part of the British diet. Documents of that era outlining how to build a herring smokehouse reveal plans for high, narrow brick buildings crossed with beams holding up sticks from which the herring were hung. Fires from oak or ash were lit below and the smoke escaped through loosely laid tiles on the roof.

Smoked meats were also a part of the medieval English cuisine of the wealthy elite, particularly smoked pork, which was ‘cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried — slowly’. Bacon was also present in medieval English cuisine and goes back many centuries. It was heavily salted or cured, with sugar also added to cut through some of the saltiness. By the end of the sixteenth century, bacon was also being smoked.

Barbecue, then, both as a social event and as a form of cooking meat, was initially embraced throughout the British colonies and was not in any sense a specifically ‘Southern’ phenomenon. However, while barbecues eventually went out of fashion in the North, in Virginia they remained central to the social rituals of the gentry:

In Virginia, however, barbecues were widespread and popular social events. Feasting was a vital part of Virginia cultural traditions – much more so than in New England – and pigs were plentiful, as well. Pigs had been brought to Jamestown with the first British colonists, and since pigs are omnivores, they flourished in the woodland areas, even without much attention from settlers busy with planting and growing tobacco. As the wealth of the Virginia planters grew in the 18th century, so did their desire to build great houses, engage in consumer culture to display their wealth, and entertain guests in their homes. By the 1750s, barbecues were one of the most accepted and well-liked forms of entertainment in the colony. George Washington, among other Virginia gentry, frequently attended and hosted barbecues. The gatherings evolved from small get-togethers of family and friends to large all-day events. These large barbecues were expensive to host. Some planters objected to the cost and the drunken antics that often went along with barbecues, but they often went along with hosting and attending the events because it was an expected part of their roles as Virginia gentry.

The wealthy colonists of Virginia, in particular, sought to emulate the lifestyles of the gentry of England and ‘England remained the principal source of cultural authority and prestige’. The Reverend Hugh Jones, writing in 1724, noted:

Williamsburgh is now incorporated and made a Market Town, and governed by a Mayor and Aldermen; and is well stock’d with rich Stores, of all Sorts of Goods, and well furnished with the best Provisions and Liquors.

Here dwell several very good Families, and more reside here in their own Houses at publick Times.

They live in the same neat Manner, dress after the same Modes, and behave themselves exactly as the Gentry in London; most Families of any Note having a Coach, Chariot, Berlin, or Chaise.

In an article titled ‘Of Virginia Hospitality’, published in The London Magazine in July 1746, we read:

All over the Colony, an universal Hospitality reigns; full Tables and open Doors, the kind Salute, the generous Detention… their Manner of living is quite generous and open: Strangers are sought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited.

John Ferdinand Smyth Stuart, in his A Tour in the United States of America (1784), reported: ‘The Virginians are generous, extremely hospitable, and possess very liberal sentiments’. He also noted that, as in England, social stratification and hierarchy was pronounced:

There is a greater distinction supported between the different classes of life here than perhaps in any of the rest of the colonies, nor does that spirit of equality and levelling principle which pervades the greater part of America prevail to such an extent in Virginia.

The famed ‘Southern hospitality’, then, originated among the Virginia gentry. This hospitality, of course, did not extend to the blacks they kept as slaves, not to poor whites. When the Reverend Charles Woodmason toured the Carolina backcountry in 1766, he wrote:

How lamentable to think, that the legislature of this province will make no provision — so rich, so luxurious, polite a people! Yet they are deaf to all solicitations, and look on poor white people in a meaner light than their black slaves, and care less for them.

North Carolina was settled by Virginians, who had brought this Virginian class system with them.

This social hierarchy, complete with obligatory hospitality to fellow members of the gentry, rules of etiquette and politeness, and a callous disregard for those outside the wealthy elite, was really only a continuation of the social order of England, where a wealthy few lorded it over the peasantry. The Virginia planters were a new gentry, living a charmed life far removed from the that of the lower orders:

[T]he gentry preferred to see themselves as removed from and superior to physical labor and the commercial exchange economy. Instead they sought to portray themselves as men of leisure and generosity. This was visible in what strangers to Virginia saw as the inordinate amount of time they devoted to visiting one another and to participation in gambling, dancing, and other fashionable pursuits as well as in the attention they gave to the acquisition of prestigious homes, furnishings, clothing, and other consumer goods.

This lifestyle was directly rooted in the lifestyles of the wealthy elite of Britain, dating well back into the medieval period. The Virginia barbecue was a new form of an old tradition:

The medieval feast of the time seems to have followed a common pattern; there could, therefore, be said to be an ideal feast as aspired to by the nobility and gentry and even their servants. It was ideal in both its material nature, that is the food, and also in its conduct, that is, the rules of courtesy and hierarchy under which this social ritual was performed.


The medieval esteem for “magnificence” as a hallmark of noble virtue continued to underwrite courtly culture during the seventeenth century, entailing the display of aristocratic wealth through extravagant hospitality.

In medieval England, the feast was a central feature of the lives of the wealthy. The slow roasting of whole hogs on a spit was popular for medieval feasts. During cooking, the meat was basted with a sauce made of red wine and spices such as garlic and ground coriander, to keep it moist and to add extra flavour. Spices were used extensively in the cooking of the time and the nobility enjoyed a ‘highly spiced cuisine’:

The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices. Spices were not only extensively used in the preparation of food but they were also passed around on a ‘spice platter’. Guests at banquets took additional spices from the spice platter and added them to their already spiced food.

Spices used in recipes of the time included black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, mace, allspice, cardamom, cubeb, spikenard, and saffron. In England, the wealthy elite’s love of highly spiced food extended well into the eighteenth century.

The Virginia colonists likewise ‘demonstrated their social standing by providing a wide variety of meats and sweets at each meal prepared in a more traditional English fashion’. As an article in The Colonial Williamsburg Journal notes:

By today’s standards, colonial fare offered too much grease, too much meat, too much seasoning, and too much sweetener. Diners liked meat and lots of it. They considered animal organs, like hearts and brains, tasty delicacies. Cooks used sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg liberally.

The Virginia barbecue, with its whole hogs prepared as part of a communal ritual of ‘hospitality’ among the gentry, arguably echoes the English tradition of the hog roast. Likewise, the spiciness of Southern food, while in part the result of the influence of African slaves on the tastes of the colonists, was strongly rooted in the preferences of the English elite of the period.

The colonists applied English basting techniques and sauces to the Native American smoking method, thereby keeping the meat juicy and flavourful and stopping it from drying out. The basting sauces were derived from English cooking:

Virginia colonists brought European cooking techniques and recipes with them when they arrived in Virginia during the early years of the seventeenth century. In colonial times, Virginians endeavored to emulate European customs, especially when it came to entertaining guests at meals. Because most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks… These cookbooks contain numerous recipes for carbonadoing and roasting foods that would become colonial Virginia staples such as venison, beef, mutton and pork, all with sauces made of spices, vinegar, pepper, and butter. Some call for mustard and/or sugar added to the mix.

The Virginia colonists took these English sauces and applied them to barbecuing:

Colonial Virginians also used the carbonado sauce recipes made of salt, vinegar, butter, peppers, herbs and spices to baste barbecuing meats while they cooked. By combining the Powhatan Indian cooking technique using a hurdle with English carbonado recipes, Virginians gave the world what we now call southern barbecue.

The ‘Virginia hospitality’ that forms the basis for the early construction of the notion of a uniquely ‘Southern hospitality’ was in reality the result of the transplanting of the social mores of the English gentry to the colony. The famous Southern ‘politeness’ and deferential mode of speaking (the ubiquity of ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’) is also rooted in the notions of gentility and hierarchy brought from England. Likewise, the barbecue tradition of the South is actually rooted in the social events of the wealthy elite, who reenacted the medieval hog roast of England using cooking techniques developed by Native Americans, and seasoning techniques popular in England. Even barbecue sauce is derived from the tastes and basting methods of the wealthy elite of England.

As Virginians spread out across the Southern states, they took their aristocratic Anglophile culture with them, and even their mode of speech, which came to be seen as specifically ‘Southern’, echoed that of their ancestral homeland. Virginia barbecue spread throughout the South and became known as a ‘Southern’ food and form of social event, and the famed ‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ of elite planter society (‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ directed towards fellow members of the gentry, not the population as a whole) likewise came to be seen as a hallmark of ‘Southern’ culture.

Barbecue and Southern hospitality (as well as a social model in which a tiny elite held most of the wealth), then, are ultimately phenomena directly derived from England, specifically its upper echelons.

A Witchcraft-Infested Land: Demythologising England’s Rural Past

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.

Arthur H. Norway on the Folk Beliefs of Devonians (1897)

Excerpts related to Devonshire folk beliefs found in Arthur H. Norway’s book Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall.

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; and as these are things not generally known, it may be well to give the facts of one such case in which the prescription was singular and doubtless derived from some very old tradition. The particulars are taken from the Transactions of the Devonshire Association.

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. Fortunately the charm could be broken easily enough ; and the witch advised the woman on returning home to buy a large beeve’s heart. Having done so, she and her husband were to rise from their beds at midnight, lock, bolt, and shutter all their doors and windows with the greatest care; and when they were secure, put the beeve’s heart into the fire. The woman who had bewitched them would then come to the house, and use every effort to get in. If she succeeded, the charm would not be broken, so that it was absolutely necessary to keep her out.

It happened exactly as the witch had said. In the dead of the night, when the beeve’s heart was burning in the fire, the woman whom they suspected came to the door, beat upon it, rattled at the windows and did everything in her power to get in. But the bewitched couple were firm, if terrified; and resolutely kept her out till the heart was completely burnt away, when she ceased her efforts, the spell was broken, and the ill-luck vanished with the smoke of the burning heart.

It is far from my desire to give the white witch a gratuitous advertisement; but all candid persons must admit that this is a remarkable cure, one difficult enough indeed to make the reputation of any specialist. As this work proceeds we shall have facts enough to excite the envy of Endor itself.


But to return to Tavistock, where ghosts and witches are so very common that one would be tempted to dilate still further on them were it not time to be talking of Lady Howard.