Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Perfidious Lodger:The Witches of Bakewell

Within three years of the accession of James I. the new Act against witchcraft was put in force in the county of Derby, the witches of Bakewell being burnt to death in 1607; but the stores of the Public Record office refuse to yield any information as to their number or the particulars of the offence, so that we can do no more than chronicle the fact. 
John Charles Cox, Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals. 

Famed today for its pudding of the same name, Bakewell also lays claim to being the scene of one of Derbyshire's very few "known" witchcraft cases. Although reported in various accounts from the 19th century onwards however, it is unclear quite where the assertion that witches were executed in Bakewell originated and if it is indeed based on any sort of fact whatsoever. Whilst Cox is quite right in asserting that there is no documentary evidence relating to the case, however, that has not stopped chroniclers and historians alike from repeating various versions of the following tale.  

Mrs Stafford was a milliner by trade, and alongside that business she ran a boarding house with a woman who was said to be either a close friend or sister. How her trade went or whether there were problems before this point is unknown, but the two women would come to rue the day they took in a certain Scotsman as a lodger.

For some time later, this man was discovered in a London warehouse where he had no business to be; suspected of robbery, he was arrested and taken before the magistrates, where he related the most curious tale. He had, he swore, absolutely no idea how he had come to be where he was found. The night before he had been lying in bed in his lodgings in Bakewell, when he was disturbed by a sudden and bright light shining up through the floorboards of his room.  

Intrigued, he left his bed, kneeling to peer through the cracks. In the room below he saw Mrs Stafford and her partner, looking as if they were about to embark upon a journey. Given the hour this must have greatly surprised him; even more startling however was when Mrs Stafford stopped to recite the following:

Over thick, over thin,
Now Devil to the cellar in London.”

The two women then abruptly vanished, leaving the startled lodger staring down into a now darkened room. Somewhat foolhardy, he repeated the words to himself, but with one, somewhat crucial, error: 

"Through thick, through thin,
Now Devil to the cellar in London." 

This slight change to the wording apparently made all the difference, as instead of a nice gentle vanishing the next thing he knew he was propelled by an unseen force with the power of a whirlwind, travelling at great speed until he finally, much to his relief, came to a stop in the very cellar where he had been found. When he finally came to his senses, he recognised the two women were also with him, busy with parcels of silk and muslin which they had, no doubt, gained through nefarious purposes. What he would have done is unclear, as they gave him a drink that turned out to be drugged – he fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke he was facing the angry men who had found him.

His dishevelled appearance (it must be remembered that the man was clad only in his nightclothes) confirmed in the judge's eyes the man's story, as did his assertion that if further proof were necessary, the lodging house in Bakewell should be searched in order to discover items of his clothing that he described in detail. The search was duly carried out and the garments found – Mrs Stafford and her partner were arrested, found guilty, and executed.  

A more mundane explanation has been put forward for the story, one that would, if believed, have led to quite a different outcome. It was said that the Scotsman had fallen behind in his rent, and Mrs Stafford had taken it upon herself to hold onto some of his clothing, either to sell it or in the vain hope of recovering the money owed to her. It was the discovery of these items in her possession that ultimately provided the proof of the “witchcraft” carried out upon the lodger, and for which, it is said, the two women lost their lives. 

Where the actual tale came from or was first reported is not clear. William Wood relates it in his Tales and Traditions of the Peak of 1862, adding that:

No incident connected with Bakewell is of that appalling character as the legal murder of two ignorant women, who were seized at their residence in Bakewell, dragged to Derby, and barbarously hanged, on the ignorant charge of witchcraft; and this so recent as 1608, in the reign of that witch-ridden monarch, James the First. 

The tale is also recounted by Bakewell's chronicler, White Watson, and in various books of Peak District folklore and strange tales. 

It is not quite clear why Mrs Stafford and her partner would have received the harsh penalty of the death sentence; their actions as related would not have led to them being punishable by death under the 1604 Witchcraft Act. There are no assize records available for the time, and indeed they are very poorly represented for Derbyshire as a whole, only being in existence from the 1930s, so any "facts" of the case, if it took place at all, are regrettably lost to us. 

All Saints, Bakewell

The parish records for Bakewell start only in 1614, but they do provide evidence that a family named Stafford was indeed established in the area at that time. There were several branches; John and his un-named wife had eight children baptised at All Saints, Bakewell, between 1620 and 1636, whilst William had three children between 1615 and 1619. George and Christopher each had one a piece, both baptised in 1615. Given these dates, it is possible that the three men were potentially sons or nephews of the Mrs Stafford who may have met her fate in 1607.  

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Wednesday Weirdness: The Devil and Jonathan Moulton

Today marks the very first Wednesday Weirdness post here at The Witch, The Weird and The Wonderful, and it is my very great pleasure to welcome Undine, with a tale of a general who made a rather rash bargain....


Jonathan Moulton (1726-1787) was an accomplished general, who served his country with distinction in the French and Indian Wars. He did much to contribute to the development of New Hampshire, and became a prosperous and public-spirited landowner. He did much for his country during both war and peace.

And he was such an unpleasant character that even the Devil got fed up with him.

Legend has it that one day early in his career he said to his wife Abigail: “I've got to get hold of some money. I am not a man ever to be satisfied with a retired army general’s pension. I need cash, wealth, riches, money to burn.”

Abigail had no argument with these sentiments.

“I’d sell my soul for unbounded wealth,” Moulton continued.

Mrs. Moulton began to get a little nervous. She had obviously read enough quaint legendary tales to be able to guess what would come next.

Sure enough, a short while later, the General saw sparks suddenly flying from out of his chimney. They were followed by a tall, distinguished-looking fellow dressed in black velvet. “You've often said that neither man nor devil could get the better of you in a trade,” Satan commented agreeably. “Let’s see you prove it.”

After a bit of dickering, Moulton and the Devil came to a deal: The Infernal One would fill Moulton’s boots with golden guineas on the first day of every month. In return, the Devil would get Moulton’s immortal soul.

The Devil warned Moulton not to “play me any tricks,” or he would repent it. But, of course, the General thought he knew better. Not content with acquiring the largest pair of boots he could find for the delivery of his ill-gotten gains, he made the mistake of getting just too cute. One day, when the Devil was pouring the gold into Moulton’s boots, he noticed that they weren't becoming full. He found that the soles had been removed, and as a result, the entire room was now piled with gold.

Say what you will about the Devil, but he always keeps his word. That very night, Moulton did indeed regret his greed. His house suddenly caught fire and was burned to the ground. When the General sifted through the ruins in search of his hoard of gold, he found…nothing. All of his riches had simply vanished.

As it happened, this was not the end of Moulton’s fun and games. Sometime after his ill-fated attempt to cheat the Devil, his wife Abigail died under what were described as “very suspicious circumstances”—circumstances that became all the more suspicious when Moulton almost immediately remarried. It is said that on the day of Abigail’s funeral, he removed all the jewels from this wife number one—including her wedding ring--in order to gift them to upcoming wife number two.

Abigail’s ghost soon got her own devilish revenge. One night, the new Mrs. Moulton woke up to find—something—gripping her hand. She barely had time to scream before the spectral visitor ripped her rings from her fingers and disappeared with them. John Greenleaf Whittier later immortalized Abigail’s re-appropriation of her jewels in the poem “The New Wife and the Old”:

“God have mercy! Ice cold
Spectral hands her own enfold
Drawing silently from them
Love’s fair gift of gold and gem.”

By the time General Moulton died, there were few who believed he had any hope of resting in peace. It is claimed that so many unsettling rumours circulated about the General's hellish afterlife that his grave was exhumed, only to find the coffin was now empty. The Devil had collected his rightful property.

From what we know of Moulton, I’d say Satan got the worst of their bargain.

Undine is the auhtor of the blogs Strange Company and The World of Edgar Allan Poe.  She knows nothing else about herself and can be found on Twitter here

Monday, 13 July 2015

Where's a Witch to Rest? Chimney Stacks and Witches' Seats.

There is a curious sight that can still be seen today in the Channel Islands: the legendary  witches' seat or stone.  

In evidence in both Jersey and Guernsey, these small plinths or ledges were, it was said, built for a very important purpose. Witches, travelling across the island on their brooms, were often in need of a place to stop and catch their breath, and more than capable of punishing a householder if they did not provide a place for him or her to rest. Worse, if there was no ledge or “seat”, then the witch might come into the house itself to seek refuge, and if you were really unlucky, might choose never to leave!

Witches' Seat on a traditional thatched roof

Witches would meet on a Friday night at various locations across the islands, with dancing and revelling lasting well into the night. The witches might, understandably, grown tired on the way home, and thus the “seats” were necessary to keep the tired witches from seeking revenge on those who did not think of their comfort. There is also a variation on this theme in the fireplace “corbels”. These stones stuck out through the wall and provided a ledge outside the building, and thus another useful place for a witch to stop. 

Grande Greve, Sark 
Known as a popular meeting place for witches. 

The real purpose of these ledges was somewhat less fantastical. Rain water running down each side of the chimney would, over time, do damage to the thatch, and so the "seats" served the purpose of providing the necessary protection against this eventuality. It is unclear which came first; the belief in the witches' resting place (for which the ledges were them appropriated), or whether the architectural design led to the creation of the legend. 

In the 18th century, tile was introduced to replace the earlier thatch, which in turn were replaced by slates as the material of choice as time went on. Interestingly, as these new roofs were thinner than the older thatched ones, the stone ledges stuck out much more noticeably in the new designs. 

"Seat" on a lead roof. 

A newspaper of 1971 showed the belief was still going strong:

Those stone blocks sticking out of the walls of some of the old houses in Guernsey are not evidence of faulty workmanship – they're witches seats. The old folk on this British Channel Island off the coast of France knew that witches got tired on their flights around the island, and needed somewhere to rest.”

Witches making good use of the seats!

So ingrained is the belief in fact, that even today, some newly built houses have witches' stones built into their design as a matter of course, despite never having been thatched!

"Seat" on a modern roof. 

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Daily Bread: The Curse of Two Jersey Witches

Bread lies at the centre of many a story; little surprising given its importance throughout history as a staple of the average diet. Bread has been baked, shared, fought over, ruined, refused, exchanged and blessed throughout history and fable alike, and two tales of bread and witchcraft are to be found in the rich folklore of Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. 

The first tale begins with a young girl named Nicolette. She quarrelled with an old woman, a foolish thing to do, as the woman in question was well known to be a witch. What the argument was about is not revealed, but the angered witch got the last word, declaring that:

“Neither mouthful nor morsel of bread will henceforth pass thy lips.” 

When Nicolette returned home, she indeed found the witch's pronouncement to be true, and she was unable to force even the smallest crumb past her lips.

In despair, Nicolette visited a local "white" witch to ask for guidance, where she was instructed to:

“Go to town and buy a packet of new pins and a new saucepan. When you return home, scrape and scour the pins so that they may be bright and clean, and at midnight, when your household is asleep, steal softly down to the kitchen and boil them in the new saucepan.”

This would, the white witch informed her, result in the witch who had cursed her appearing at the door, begging for Nicolette to cease tormenting her. When this happened, Nicolette would then in turn be able to ask for the curse to be lifted. 

The young woman duly followed this advice. Sure enough, as midnight passed, the windows rattled and there was loud banging at the door, quite terrifying at that time of night.

“Stop tormenting me!” the witch cried from outside.

The girl's response left no doubt as to the purpose of her actions, as she cried back, “Let me eat bread, then!”

“Eat it, eat it!” The witch capitulated. The spell was thus broken, and the triumphant Nicolette able to eat as she had before.  

There is another similar tale involving a fourteen year old boy named Edward. He too had been reckless, and had not listened to tales regarding the "Black Lady". 

This was to be at great cost, as he discovered one day when he followed after her, taunting her and calling her names. His glee turned to terror as she turned to glare at him, gaunt and death-like in appearance, her haunting eyes fixing him to the spot.  

“it will be a fine day, my boy," she declared,  "before you eat bread.”

With those words she carried on, but with that, Edward's life was changed forever.

That night as he sat with his family to eat, his perplexed parents asked why he did not touch the fresh bread that he so usually enjoyed. He related the tale of his encounter with the “Black Lady”, and they listened with no little horror, knowing only too well what the woman was reputed to be capable of. 

Their fear was, it seemed, justified; every time Edward put the bread to his lips he could not make it pass into his mouth. He tried everything possible, but still could not bring himself to eat it despite his distress.  

Years went on and still the situation did not change. Once healthy, Edward was now visibly wasting away, weak, unhappy, and still unable to eat bread. To make matters worse, the mysterious lady who had cursed him had moved from the area shortly after afflicting Edward, and was nowhere to be found.

At the age of eighteen, the future did not look good for the sickly young man. The doctor had gravely told the family that, unless he could be induced to eat, Edward would not survive for much longer. There was, he said, nothing that could be done.

Fate, however, intervened. On the fourth anniversary of Edward's unlucky encounter, he awoke at three in the morning, dashing to the kitchen with all the strength his wasted body afforded him. Once there, he grabbed a loaf of bread, cramming chunks into his mouth as if – and it very nearly did – his life depended on it. His father discovered him at dawn, still eating with enthusiasm, the curse, at last, lifted from him.  

What had caused his sudden deliverance? The answer came when Edward's father visited the doctor the following day to tell him the miracle of his son's recovery. The doctor, it turned out, had the answer to this riddle. The Black Lady had died, and the spell breaking with her, at three am the very morning Edward had started to eat.  

Monday, 6 July 2015

A "Petrifying" Visit to Matlock Bath

Since moving to Derbyshire, Matlock Bath has become one of our favourite places to visit. It's like the seaside but without the sea, (although there is the river, and a lovely big sandpit at the “ship park” where the kids can while away many a happy hour,) and with ice cream in the secret garden, the delightful "alternative" clothing shop, and plenty of lovely walks, it's a full and fabulous day out.   

One of our very favourite haunts there however, is the aquarium. The kids love the big fish, I love the collection of gem stones, and we all spend a good long while admiring the wonders of the petrifying well.  

The process is simple but impressive; the water from the thermal spring is rich in a variety of minerals, in particular calcium from the local limestone. As the water evaporates, a deposit of calcium carbonate slowly builds up; over time, this turns the objects within the water to stone. 

People have visited Matlock Bath to watch this wonder for centuries, and visitors today can still see the well in action, along with a selection of items that have been petrified over the years.  

Objects petrified by the well at Matlock Bath

It is the only remaining working well in Matlock Bath. Victorian Matlock Bath boasted several "dripping wells" and items such as wigs, birds nests and brooms were petrified and sold to visitors! 

The 1868 publication "On Foot Through the Peak" describes the petrifying industry at Matlock Bath:

"Petrification working, as it is called, has become an important, and certainly not the least lucrative branch of the "curiosity" business at Matlock, there being several wells in the tufa, [I.e a porous rock composed of calcium carbonate and formed by precipitation from water] where this curious and interesting operation of nature is carried on. The process of incrustation is an exceedingly simple one, the articles to be operated on (embracing almost every conceivable object, but chiefly birds' nests, baskets of fruit, moss, and the leaves and branches of trees) are placed on stands, and the water that filtrates through the tufa allowed to drip gently upon them; the moisture in percolating through the concrete mass becomes strongly impregnated with lime, and on reaching the open air, rapidly evaporates when a calcareous deposit is formed that in time completely encrusts the object on which it falls, and gives to it the appearance and hardness of stone."

The pipe through which the water passes to the well. 

The eight year old Elizabeth Barrett was inspired by a visit to Matlock Bath in 1814 to write a poem, with the following reference to the well:

We quit this shadowy cave with vapours hung,
And joy to see the beauteous glowing day,
The rocks, woods, waters, all in bright array,
Then running, tumbling down the hill,
New wonders rise, our thoughts to fill,
Papa so ever kind, our joys to swell,
Led us to see the petrifying well,

Where heads, wigs, baskets, eggs, lie on the ground
Soon turned to stone, in dropping waters drowned.
Farewell, farewell, ye scenes of joy so sweet,
All other joys lie humbly at thy feet.

Matlock Bath has drawn visitors for centuries, and shows no sign of ceasing to be popular. One of the things I am always asked to take a photo of when we visit is the not petrified, but equally fascinating collection of dinosaur eggs.  

Then there is the giant amethyst, the ammonites, and to mention the impressive collection of Minor,  Common and Koi Carp enjoying the waters of the old therapeutic baths that the town is named for. In short, if you happen to be in the Derbyshire area, Matlock Bath is well worth a visit!

Because you can't end a day at Matlock Bath without chips.  

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Creepy Caves: The Mystery of Mortimer's Tunnel

Situated on Castle Rock, Nottingham Castle rests an impressive one hundred and thirty feet above the city. Although very little of the original castle exists today, the series of caves and tunnels that run through the cliffs continue to draw visitors and investigation, with over four hundred known caves currently documented and catalogued. 

One of these, known as Mortimer's Hole or Tunnel, has a particularly fascinating legend attached to it. The story is related in Links with Old Nottingham: Historical Notes by J Holland Walker, in 1928:

"In 1330, Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella took refuge in Nottingham Castle, where they lived together flaunting all decorum and allocating to themselves regal powers to which they had no right.

Such a state of affairs could not be permitted to continue, and so the young King Edward III. headed a band of his faithful nobles and by means of a secret passage to the Castle succeeded in surprising the usurping pair, arresting Mortimer and leading him off to execution and dispatching Queen Isabella to an open and honourable imprisonment at Castle Rising in Norfolk."

The tunnel, over one hundred metres long, stretches from Brewhouse Yard up into the castle grounds. It is not possible to travel the full length along it, but it is clear that there were once six gates, with steps cut into the rock. There is also evidence of use by cannon in the Civil War. It would have provided a useful method of communication from the Castle down into what was then called the Rock Yard, and also for getting supplies to the castle from the River Leen. 

As to be expected with such a history, there are many intriguing tales about Mortimer's Hole. One of the most prevalent is that the ghost of Roger Mortimer himself haunts the tunnel. In 1921, tales of a ghostly presence in the area around Standard Hill so terrified inhabitants there that they would not venture from their houses after nightfall. One man, however, decided to see what was going on; setting himself on watch in the tunnel he waited, until he was finally rewarded with the sound of footsteps coming up from the basement, accompanied by the noise of rustling paper. There was no confrontation, however, as when he called out to the presence, the footsteps retreated once more. This account led to a great influx of tourists, each determined to see the ghost for themselves, and there are many who believe that the ghost of Mortimer remains there to this day. 

Showing the tunnel from the Castle down to Brewhouse Yard
Trent & Peak Archaeology/University of Nottingham

There is also a tradition that a room where Isabella and Mortimer met for their assignations can be found at the back of the pub, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem which claims, along with many others, to be the oldest in England. Among other ghostly experiences, in the 1940s, it is said that a group of American soldiers were walking past the Inn when they were startled to hear a woman screaming in a foreign language. It has been suggested that it might have been the ghost of the French Isabella, shrieking for mercy for her doomed lover. 

It had long been suggested that this was not the actual tunnel used by Edward III at all, and that the tunnel named Mortimer's Hole was actually a service tunnel or such leading up from the River. There has been speculation over various possibilities, but in 2010 the "real" Mortimer's Tunnel was discovered to have been what is known as the North-Western Passage. This runs from the house of Castle Grove in the Park Estate (private property) and stretches 30-40 metres. The two year long Caves Survey used laser scanning to record 3D records of Nottingham's sandstone caves.  

The "Real" Mortimer's Hole, looking up towards the castle. 

Cave Tours run from Nottingham Castle on a regular basis, and with the Castle also housing the city Museum and Art Gallery, it is well worth a visit, ghosts or no!