Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Wednesday Weirdness: The Devil in Lancashire.

This fortnight I am delighted to welcome Melanie Warren to The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful. In advance of the publication of her book Lancashire Folk in November, Melanie shares with us some tales of what the Devil has been up to in Lancashire.


Somewhere near Greens Moor Quarry, close to the Lancashire town of Bacup, there is a large cairn of stones which was known locally as Hell Clough. As you’d expect, there’s a legend which explains how this came to be.

Close to this cairn there was once a natural pool which the devil was fond of using for bathing. One day a terrific storm swept over the moorland and the heavy rain so over-filled the devil’s favourite pool that the edge of it was in danger of giving way. If that happened, the pool would empty itself entirely down the hillside. The devil realised that he needed to construct some sort of dam to prevent this calamity, but how?

The devil looked around for an answer and down in the valley he saw a hayrick covered with thick sheeting for protection. This gave him an idea. He flew quickly down to the valley, took the sheeting and wrapped it round his waist, like an apron. Then he returned to his pool at a more leisurely pace, gathering boulders as he went along and carrying them in his apron. It was a good plan, but sadly his apron could not hold the weight he expected of it. Before he reached the pool, his apron gave way and all the boulders tumbled out to land in one huge pile on the moorland. It is this pile which later became known as Hell Clough.

As for the devil’s bathing pool, well, as he had feared, the edge of his pool did indeed give way and the whole of the contents poured away down the hillside. The handy bathing-pool was gone forever and the devil would have to find somewhere else to wash.

Hell Clough is not the only natural feature in Lancashire to be linked with the devil. On Pendle Hill there is another cairn, now rather smaller than it once was, which (coincidentally) has the name of the Devil’s Apronful. This is where the devil stood when he flung rocks at Clitheroe Castle, making a new window in its side – the window can still be seen. The devil also used to walk the streets of Clitheroe, trying to persuade people to sell him their souls for three wishes. However, he was beaten, defeated by cleverness and trickery, and flew to a bridge, a mile to the south, where he disappeared. Ever since that day, the bridge has been known as Hell Hole Bridge.

On Parlick Pike, there is a well of spring water known as Old Nick’s Watering Pot. The fabled ‘Old Dun Cow’ was reputed to frequent this place and give freely of her milk to anyone who asked, without ever running dry – until she was bewitched. (But that’s another story…)

On Rivington Pike, a ghostly horseman haunts the moors and is sometimes identified as the devil himself. One day, some men out hunting took shelter from a storm in a ruined tower. As they waited for the storm to pass, a horseman galloped past and one of the men, Mr Norton, recognised the rider as a missing uncle, so he quickly mounted his own horse and set off in pursuit. The rest would have followed, if not for the intervention of one of their servants, who insisted that this was not Norton’s uncle, but the spectral horseman long feared in the area.

The servant then explained that his father had been out poaching one night when a similar man on a huge black horse had asked to be taken to the stones known as the Two Lads. When they arrived there, the stranger asked that one of the stones should be lifted and beneath it the servant’s father had seen a large pit, wherein lived the devil, and the smell of the pit was so terrible it had caused him to faint. When he woke up, the stranger was gone and the stone was as it had been before.

Once the storm abated, the rest of the hunting party went at once to the Two Lads, and found Norton unconscious on the ground, looking as if he had been in a terrible fight. When he eventually regained consciousness, he explained that the horseman had indeed been his uncle, at least in part. He had been claimed by the devil and allowed to return to earth only on condition that someone else could be found for the devil’s spirit to possess. As Norton had refused to submit, even to save his uncle, the devil would have to hunt for another victim.

A less terrifying tale comes from Fulwood, near Preston. Two Roman roads cross each other at Fulwood, one being Watling Street, and it was said that these roads stretched from sea to sea in every direction, north, south, east and west. The crossroads might well be at the place known locally as Withy Trees – a very old name which indicates that here was once a grove of willows. Here, Watling Street Road crosses Garstang Road. The former leads to Ribchester, the latter to Lancaster, both of which are Roman sites. Locally, however, the Romans were given no credit for these fantastic roads. Instead, it was said that the devil made them and, what’s more, he made them in just one night.

In Lancashire of old, it was definitely not acceptable to play games on a Sunday. It may have been a day of rest, but that didn’t give licence to have fun, especially if that fun involved any kind of gambling. Three men playing cards in the Three Lane Ends pub in Chipping one Sunday were joined by a stranger, who they accepted quite happily, until they began to notice that he wasn’t like other men. There seemed to be horns on his head, though he wore a hat to hide them, and when they looked down they saw that his feet were actually cloven hooves. One can only imagine the speed at which the panic-stricken men vacated the pub. A shame for the devil, who only wanted to play a game of cards!

Crawshawbooth, Copyright Richard Spencer.

One Sunday morning, the boys of Crawshawbooth were indulging in a game of football, despite the remonstrations of the vicar who warned against playing such games on the Lord’s Day. They paid no heed to his warnings but perhaps they should have done – because the devil himself came along to join in the game. He waited until the ball came in his direction and then he kicked the ball so high into the sky that it vanished and so did he, in an explosion of fire. And that was the last time the lads played football on a Sunday!

On another Sunday, some local men were playing a gambling game at a disused church in Haslingden – on a Sunday! One of them threw a halfpenny up in the air and all were puzzled when it did not come down again. All was explained, though, when they looked up to see the devil grinning down at them from the beams.

All Hallow's Church, Great Mitton, 
Copyright Rude Heath.

The devil in a church? Certainly. He was not averse to churches and their ceremonies – one day he even hitched a lift on a coffin being carried to Brindle Church, the weight of him stopping the funeral procession in its tracks. The Vicar was forced to deal with him by reciting a prayer and ordering him to leave – and the funeral continued unhindered. He was also said to be responsible for moving one church, at Great Mitton, entirely. All Hallows Church was deposited in its current location by the devil, stone by stone, in a single night.

He was even - sometimes – beneficent in his own way, although there was always a price to pay. In Chatburn, he offered three wishes to a tailor who was feeling very unhappy with his life. Three wishes – in return for his soul, to be collected in seven years’ time. The tailor agreed, and so excited was he to have three wishes that he asked immediately for a side of bacon, a delicacy he hadn’t tasted for years. His wish was granted at once. Next, the tailor stupidly wished to be rid of his nagging wife and at once, it was done. He was immediately sorry he had made such a silly wish – who would bake his bread now, and knit his stockings? “I wish I had never said that,” he said and at once, his wife was returned to her place by the fire.

The tailor, having used all his three wishes and effectively sold his soul for a side of bacon, had seven years to reconsider what he had done and by the time the devil came back, he was ready for him. He talked the devil into giving him just one more wish, as he had sold his soul so cheaply. Foolishly, the devil agreed. “I wish,” said the tailor, “that you were on the back of the dun horse in that field over there, riding back to where you came from, and that you’re never able to bother me or any other mortals again.” At once, the devil was swept out of the house and set upon the dun horse, which galloped away, never to be seen again.

The story of the tailor’s great success against the devil spread across the county and people came from far and wide to meet the man who tricked the devil... and the poor tailor finally found a prosperous life by turning his home into an ale-house, for the use of his visitors. It became known as the Dule Upon Dun.

This same story is told about a tailor in Sawley, Nicholas Gosford by name, although in Nicholas’ case he was given twenty years, not seven, and his wishes were different. His first wish was used up quickly when he went home expecting a meal and there was only oatcake and butter to be had. His wife said, “Well, I wish I had a backstone for the fire, so that I could bake.” At once, a backstone appeared on the fire and Nicholas was so angered by this waste of a wish that he shouted, “I wish that backstone was smashed to pieces!” And so it was. The third wish was similarly thrown away next morning, when Nicholas wished he had some hot water for his shave.

The rest of the story is the same as that in Chatburn; Nicholas bartered for one more wish, which he used in wishing the devil on the back of a horse which would take him back where he came from, never to return. And Nicholas opened an Inn, and people came from far and near to meet the man who had tricked the devil.

Another old Lancashire story is claimed by at least three towns; firstly, Burnley. The story here tells of some boys at Burnley Grammar School who had discovered a method of raising the devil by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards. Late one night, they decided to see if this spell would actually work and, indeed, the devil dutifully began to appear, rising up through one of the flagstones in the schoolroom. The boys were so scared by their success that they immediately began to beat him back into the earth with a hammer. A black scorch-mark left by the devil on the flagstones remained visible for many years, until the floor was boarded over.

This same story is told about Clitheroe Grammar School. Here, the hapless boys were rescued by their Schoolmaster, who struck a deal with the devil - he must complete one task and if he succeeded, he could stay. The devil agreed and the schoolteacher ordered him to knit a rope of sand – which was, of course, impossible even for a supernatural being. Furious at being tricked this way, the devil disappeared again, beneath the hearthstone.

A third story comes from Blackburn, where the devil was raised by two men threshing corn in a barn. They were naturally horrified when the ritual worked and the devil began to appear, rising between them through the floor of the barn. They had little alternative but to beat him back down with their threshing flails.

The motif of ‘knitting a rope of sand’ recurs in another devil-tale, this time from Cockerham. Here, the devil had taken up residence in the village, much to the dismay of the residents, and once again it was the schoolmaster (the most intelligent man in the village) who came up with a way of banishing him. He set the devil not just one, but three, tasks.

The first task was to count the number of dewdrops on a hedge. This the devil found too easy, for when he went to the hedge to count, the wild wind caused by his arrival blew the hedge dry and there were only thirteen dewdrops left to count.

The second task was to count the number of stalks in a cornfield. Unfortunately, when the devil gave his answer, the schoolteacher realised he had no way of checking whether he was correct!

The third task was to make a rope of sand which would withstand washing in the river Cocker. The devil vanished, but in just a few moments he proudly reappeared with a beautifully woven rope of sand. His confidence soon faded, however, when he and the schoolteacher went to the river to wash the rope, which promptly dissolved away.

The devil was furious, but a bargain was a bargain and, accepting that he was beaten, the devil flew away to Pilling Moss and was never seen in Cockerham again. In Pilling, it is said that he landed on Broadfleet Bridge – and his angry footprint can still be seen there, stamped into the stonework.

Devil's Hoofprint on Broadfleet Bridge
Copyright Bob Jenkins.

How easy it was to trick the devil in the old days! All it took was a clever man; a schoolteacher or a priest, with a bit of common sense and intelligence – for the devil, as we can see, at least in Lancashire, is not as clever as he thinks.

Incidentally, there is another story about the devil in Cockerham – but this time the devil was one unwittingly carved on a rood-screen by a singularly inept craftsman. The church’s original rood had been destroyed by order of Henry VIII, but when Henry’s daughter Mary came to the throne the churchwardens were obliged under law to find the money to provide a new one. They employed a man who was alleged to be skilled at carving to decorate the rood-screen with an image of the crucifixion. The image, when it was completed, was just terrible. The churchwardens refused to pay the bill, preferring instead to appear in court at Lancaster to explain their actions.

The Mayor of Lancaster, presiding over the case, was told that the image was so ugly and frightening that children were scared to come near it. The Mayor dismissed that argument, saying that the man deserved to be paid for his work, whatever their opinion of it. He then advised them to ‘clap a pair of horns on his head, and so he will make an excellent devil."

This last story is no legend, for it appeared in local newspapers – one wonders what effect it had on the business of the hapless woodcarver!


This article is based on entries from the forthcoming book ‘Lancashire Folk: Ghostly Legends and Folklore from Ancient to Modern’ which will be available in January 2016. (Schiffer Publishing, ISBN13: 9780764349836 £16.99

Melanie Warren has collected British folk tales and ghost stories for almost four decades. For many years, she was a paranormal investigator and took part in innumerable ghost-hunts but never saw a ghost, although she did have several experiences she finds hard to explain… She was also BBC Radio Lancashire’s resident “paranormal expert” and co-authored two collections of ghost stories, which were broadcast on BBC local radio stations. Melanie is now concentrating on turning her extensive collection of stories and tales into a series of books, one county at a time. Melanie lives in Lancashire and has done so all her life. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

Witch Hunts for Today: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern

Back in October I had the pleasure of watching two performances of Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. A new play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Out of Joint Theatre, and directed by Ria Parry, Wenham is inspired by the momentous events that took place in 1712 in the Hertfordshire village of Walkern, when Jane Wenham was one of the last women to be condemned of witchcraft in England.

Far from being a straight telling of the historical narrative, the play takes the core concepts of the Wenham case and uses her story as a vehicle to explore the timeless themes of consent; identity; grief; loss; sexuality; and desire. By turns amusing, chilling and poignantly thought-provoking, this gripping piece of theatre transcends the historical record to present a relevant, modern, frequently uncomfortable, but entirely necessary, take on witch hunts both then and now.

For, in the close-knit community of Walkern, everyone has a secret to hide. From the Widow Higgins at the local alehouse to Samuel Crane, the newly-appointed reverend, there is no one – whether in thought or deed – who is guilt free. The need to point the finger at others in order to alleviate deep-seated feelings of shame and culpability are central to the careful policing that goes on within any community: creating a well-spring of barely suppressed disquiet that could, at any moment, bubble over into hysteria. When tragedy strikes Wenham becomes the scapegoat – the sacrifice - for the community: the enemy within that must be flushed out before safety and order can be restored. Highlighting not only how accusations of witchcraft could destroy a community from the inside but also drawing  stark parallels with today's perception of the hidden enemy within, this popular idea of blaming the other is shown as what it is: the de-humanising and persecution of those who are different and dare not to conform.

Imagery from the history of the witch trials that rocked England in the 16th and 17th centuries features heavily throughout: swimming and pricking a witch; the belief that a witch could turn into animal form; the deep-seated distrust of a woman's closeness to her pet. Ludicrous as they may seem to our modern eyes, they act not only as a reminder that such beliefs were deeply ingrained in the culture of the day and taken with deadly seriousness, but also as an invitation to examine the all-too-similar whispers and sweeping judgements that make up society today. The mounting sense of suspicion, panic and eventual hysteria are therefore as much a commentary on the 21st Century as Wenham's time.

The play also addresses two connected and pressing issues within theatre today: the dearth of plays reaching the stage by female playwrights and the lack of female protagonists. Wenham tackles both by daring to be written, directed and predominantly acted by, women. The very topic of the play – that of the witch hunts – brings issues of gender to the fore. The society in which Wenham lived, and the witch trials themselves, were, on a day-to-day level, policed by women, with women taking a prominent role as both accusers and accused. The myriad of small yet constant interactions within the daily to and fro of village life provided the fertile ground from which suspicions and accusations could, and did, spring with devastating consequences.

© Richard Davenport/Out Of Joint Theatre.

The passion of the script is matched by the carefully selected cast: Among the sterling performances David Acton's portrayal of the intellectually-energetic and troubled Francis Hutchinson was a joy to watch, contrasting neatly with the equally unsettled and tortured religious conviction of Tim Delap's Reverend Crane. Acton also makes for a marvellously obnoxious Saul Paterson; village stalwart and drunk, he also acts as a chilling reminder of the precarious position held by in society with his half-threatening "I keep you safe" to Widow Higgins. 

Amanda Bellamy makes for a deeply sympathetic, and often heart-breaking, Jane Wenham, by turns defiant and bewildered as she is isolated and tormented by her neighbours. She epitomises, as the historical Wenham does throughout the sources, many well-documented attributes common to those who were accused as a witch: unafraid to speak her mind, elderly and vulnerable due to a lack of protection from husband or family, Bellamy's Wenham retains her spirit to the last, broken but not defeated as she shouts curses on the village as she is led away.

Rachel Sanders as the grieving Bridget Hurst and no-nonsense Widow displays a wonderful versatility in her moving and accessible portrayals of both, while Judith Coke's sightless Priddy Goodstern is by turns bawdy, shocking, and a chilling reminder of lost childhood. Andrew Macklin tugs at the heartstrings as the deeply unhappy Fergal McGuire, even as his performance as the Pricker leaves you squirming in your seat.

Cat Simmons as Hutchinson's housekeeper Kemi Martha never fails to draw the eye when she is on stage. The character with the arguably lowest social status due to her position and the colour of her skin, Kemi in fact provides the unlikely thread that weaves the whole piece together: her haunting singing following through to the final scene and remaining with you long after you have left your seat. Finally, but by no means least, Hannah Hutch catches perfectly the frantic, disturbed nature of Ann Thorn. Haunted by her past and her own, unacceptable, nature, she moves through the events that unfold with a desperation that is palpable; running, jumping, always moving, building to a fever pitch that threatens to destroy everything and everyone around her. 

(And no review of Jane Wenham would be complete without a shout out to James the cockerel. Although only seen once he is often mentioned and he remains, without a doubt, a star along with the rest!)

Ultimately, Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is a vital and timely piece of theatre. At the very core it holds a mirror to society today, never more apparent than when the Widow asks towards the end of the play:

"Where does all the hate hereabouts come from?"

Fergal's answer is perhaps the most revealing of all, as he tells her:

"People are unhappy. Jealous. They enjoy another's suffering."

He then adds the ultimate question, tinged with a disbelief that we should share, as we question and examine the all-too-ready willingness of people to turn against one another even in these "enlightened" times:

“Unless they truly believe it all.

Do they?”


Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Wednesday Weirdness: Folklore Roots for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Ghostly hounds always go down well here at The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful, and today I welcome Mark Norman to talk about possible folklore roots for one of Sherlock Holmes' most well-known cases.


The phenomena of the Black Dog – apparitions of spectral hounds – are most prevalent in the UK, although they are a worldwide tradition. Despite there being almost 1,000 years worth of sightings to draw on (the earliest recorded report in the UK being probably that cited in the Anglo Saxon chronicle in 1127) it is an area of folklore about which many people are not overly familiar. The most popular appearance of the motif is arguably in the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Oddly enough, the Hound is not typical but quite exceptional to the usual run of such creatures. No family hound chases the head of the house to his death, that is quite certain, and so the Hound is not based directly upon any known prototype in Devon or elsewhere. However, the development of the legend in a fictional form is of great interest, since legends in general sometimes come to birth by a similar mental process.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was published in serial form in the Strand Magazine between August 1901 and April 1902. John Dickson Carr, in his Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, tells us that in March 1901 Doyle was in a low state of health and went down to Cromer for four days, accompanied by his friend Fletcher Robinson. The weather was bad, and on the Sunday they stayed in their sitting room and Fletcher Robinson entertained Doyle with “legends of Dartmoor, the atmosphere of Dartmoor. In particular his companion’s imagination was kindled by the story of a spectral hound.” And so the idea for a plot was born. Fletcher Robinson’s family lived at Ipplepen in South Devon. In a few days only, April 2nd, Doyle was staying at Princetown exploring the moor for himself. He went to view Fox Tor Mire and this was to become Grimpen Mire in the story.

At some early period Doyle went to Ipplepen to stay with the Robinsons, and was met at the station by a smart young coachman called Harry Baskerville, descendent of a family that had once owned two manors locally but had fallen on hard times. Doyle was impressed by the name and asked to be allowed to adopt it. Harry Baskerville drove Doyle about to further sites, which in old age he named for a reporter. However, no hint has ever been brought as to the identity of the spectral hound apparently known to Fletcher. There are many vague stories of hounds on the edges of Dartmoor, the best known probably being that of Lady Howard of nearby Tavistock.

Another possible source could be that of the legend of the Demon of Spreyton, this being located on the fringe of Dartmoor National Park, although the mention of the Black Dog in this is a relatively small part of the story. The events took place in Spreyton in 1682 and were recorded in a wonderfully named pamphlet of the time, "A Narrative of the Demon of Spraiton. In a Letter from a Person of Quality in the County of Devon, to a Gentleman in London, with a Relation of an Apparition or Spectrum of an Ancient Gentleman of Devon who often appeared to his Son's Servant. With the Strange Actions and Discourses happening between them at divers times. As likewise, the Demon of an Ancient Woman, Wife of the Gentleman aforesaid. With unparalell'd varieties of strange Exploits performed by her: Attested under the Hands of the said Person of Quality, and likewise a Reverend Divine of the said County. With Reflections on Drollery and Atheism, and a Word to those that deny the Existence of Spirits." You wonder if the contents of the pamphlet were as lengthy as the title!

In summary, the Demon of Spreyton was a series of poltergeist-type events where the second wife of Philip Furze of that Parish infested the house, tearing clothes and moving household items. Reading the full account it is obvious that the happenings were all down to the young servant, Francis Fey, who related the incident. But in the course of these events it is reported in the pamphlet that the spirit of the woman appeared in various forms, including “a dog, belching fire”.

It is curious that no one enquired about the origin of Conan Doyle’s Hound at the time of publication, nor can members of the Sherlock Holmes Club throw any light on the problem for certain. One member, Dr Morris Campbell, wrote a paper claiming it is the Black Dog of Hergest in Herefordshire. The family was that of Vaughan, related by marriage to the Baskervilles on an adjoining estate. However, the Hergest creature has no features in common with Doyle’s Hound.

Hergest Court

The Black Dog of Hergest is associated with “Black Vaughan” who was killed at the Battle of Banbury in 1469. There are two versions of the story. In the first, Vaughan is said to have returned and appeared in various forms such as a fly and a bull until he was exorcised. Campbell states that Vaughan upset farmers’ carts and the like. He was reduced in size, stage by stage, until he could be shut in a snuff box. This was buried in the bottom of Hergest Pool in a wood, with a big stone on top, and so he was bound for a thousand years.

In the second version, Vaughan is supposed to have been accompanied in life by a demon dog. This haunts Hergest Court, and is seen before a death in the Vaughan family. Also, he inhabits a room at the top of the house and can be heard clanking his chain. He is also seen wandering, minus the chain, particularly in the vicinity of a pond, the “watering place” on the high road from Kington. The dog is supposed to have been seen by many people, according to a witness recounting in 1909.

It is said that the ghost was believed in by all the people of Kington. Citing A.R. Williams from the 1927 edition of Word-lore, Robert Tyley writes:

“A neighbour told my uncle that on a moonlight night he was crossing the Arrow by the bridge below the Court and distinctly saw a huge black hound walking in front of him, but beyond the bridge the beast was not.

The Pool was also feared. In the 1700s and earlier many awful things happened to passers-by: horses bolted and threw their riders, riders were found unconscious. Stories always told that ‘something’ had emerged from the Pond and chased them. Whatever it was, accidents were frequent.

There had been an enquiry into the identity of the ghost which identified it as a “Father Vaughan”, of wicked life, who had lived at the Court. Thirteen priests assembled in Presteign Church to try and deal with the spirit. They formed a circle and lit candles and invoked the wicked spirit to appear. In the centre of the circle they had ready a small iron box. When the spirit came twelve of the priests fainted, and their candles were doused. One stood firm and though his candle burnt blue, he conjured the spirit into the box, which he at once locked. Then it was thrown into the Pond.

Many years later, a foreign owner of Hergest Court drained the Pond. The box was found in the sludge and opened. The same troubles as before began to happen again until a further gathering of parsons at Kington Church laid the ghost under a huge oak in the grounds of Hergest Court for sixty years."

It is tempting to ask whether the coachman, Harry Baskerville, was distantly related to the Herefordshire family. There was a real Hound of the Baskervilles, reflected in the family crest, but it was a friendly one. It does not terrorise or chase the head of its house - indeed nor does any other family dog in England. Apart from the name there is really nothing to connect the Hergest dog with the Dartmoor Baskerville hound.

There is a stronger possibility for the original of Conan Doyle’s beast which was suggested by a writer in Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries. Ipplepen, where Fletcher Robinson lived, is not very far from Buckfastleigh, on the edge of Dartmoor. The parish runs up the great slopes northward, and these are scored by long, deep, narrow valleys, cut by the streams hurtling down to join the River Dart on the in-country. Tucked away in these remote areas are mysterious little old farms, manors and cottages. One of these is Brooke, where Richard Capel (or Cabell, spellings vary from report to report) lived and died in 1677. Local tradition credits him with a reputation not unlike that of “Black Hugo” in the novel, though no details are given. His death was said to be suitably unpleasant for a hunter of village maidens: he was chased across the moor by the whisht hounds until he dropped dead.

Another version of the story says that as he lay dying in his house, whisht hounds bayed outside. If we accept the last, then it could be seen to be a death warning as is found in many families. But if we accept the former, then this is a local story that Robinson may well have known and passed on. The equation of pack and single hound occurs commonly in folklore.

In 1972 Cecil Williamson, recognised as one of the founders of modern British witchcraft as well as being responsible for amassing much of the collection housed by the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, visited the churchyard at Buckfastleigh. Whilst there he saw a dog which he described as being quite substantial looking, but when he tried to touch it he found that his hand passed straight through.

There is a postscript to the legend which is worth repeating. The remains of Buckfastleigh church, which was almost completely destroyed by fire in an act of vandalism in July 1992, are perched on the top of the hill overlooking the village. It is here that Squire Capel is buried outside the south door in an altar tomb. It is said that the parish were in a quandry about how to bury such an evil man in such a manner that his brutal spirit would not rise up and continue to plague them. Finally they buried him deeply with a heavy stone on his head. They piled the large altar tomb over his grave and then constructed what appears to be a symbolic prison to contain the tomb. It is solidly built, with a wide iron grill on the side facing the church, and on the opposite side is a strong wooden door with a locked keyhole. Young boys used to dare each other to walk clockwise around the building thirteen times and insert a little finger into the keyhole, which the prisoner would then gnaw at the tip. This is an example of a typical playground ghost-type game in the same vein as Bloody Mary or, following the film of the same name, Candyman.

There are, as is plain, some small parallels between the Hergest and Buckfast legends but this is not uncommon in folklore as stories develop over time and become attached to differing locations from a common root theme.

It is most likely that Conan Doyle would have used an amalgamation of information and legend to base his story on, from those cited here as well as general examples of spectral dogs such as the whisht hounds, yeth hounds and others. This is the general way in which stories develop after all, both from a fictional and from a folklore perspective. 

Mark Norman is a folklore researcher and writer who lives on the edge of Dartmoor, in Devon. He holds what is thought to be the country’s largest archive of UK Black Dog traditions and eyewitness accounts and his book on Black Dog Folklore in the UK will shortly be published by Troy Books.

He welcomes anyone interested to his research page where he is happy to discuss any aspect of his work.

Monday, 12 October 2015

West Country Witchcraft: Ann Burge and the Taunton Assizes.

A lovely little book that I am very fond of browsing through is Bygone Days in Devonshire and Cornwall. First published in 1874, it contains various weird and wonderful West Country superstitions and customs, and also makes mention of “an account of a trial at Taunton Assizes, on April 4, 1823, in which three females were charged with stabbing an old woman, a reputed witch.”

It appears that this attack was carried out at the behest of a man named Baker, a well known wizard in Devonshire, and a dig through the newspaper archives produced the following story in the Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser for 9th April, 1823.

Elizabeth Bryant and two of her daughters had been before the courts a few days previous, charged with assaulting and beating the widowed and elderly Ann Burge in Wivelscombe on 26th November, 1822. The mother had grown concerned when a third daughter of hers had fallen ill, experiencing fits that no one could explain. In her distress, Elizabeth Bryant had visited the aforementioned Baker for advice and she returned home convinced that her daughter had been bewitched and that Ann Burge was the cause.

It seems Baker also recommended some medicine for the ailing daughter to take as a cure, advising that:

The jar of mixtur is to be mixt with half-a-pint of gen (i.e gin),and then a table-spoon to be taken mornings, at eleven o clock, four and eight, and four of the pills to be taken every morning fasting, and the paper of powder to divided in ten parts, and one part to be taken every night going to bed, in a little honey. The paper of herbs is to be burnt, a small bit at a time, on a few coals, with a little hay and rosemary, and, while it is burning, read the first two verses of the 68th salm, and say the Lord's Prayer after.”

Whether this remedy did any good is not recorded, but Elizabeth Bryant had repeated to several people what Baker had told her, and it was not long before Ann Burge heard the rumours circulating that she was a witch and a cause of the Bryant girl's suffering. Understandably aggrieved at this, Ann Burge called at the Bryant household to ask Elizabeth Bryant if she was behind the rumours. Meeting Elizabeth Bryant in the alleyway that led to her house, Ann Burge demanded:

Betty Bryant, I be come to ask you a civil question, whether I bewitched your daughter?”

Elizabeth Bryant's response left no doubt as to her feelings on the matter as she told the older woman:

You damned old bitch, you have bewitched my daughter for twelve months past, and I be all the worse for it.”

At this, Elizabeth Bryant flew at Ann Burge, attacking the old woman and threatening to kill her. Bryant's two daughters appeared on the scene and were quick to help their mother, two of the women holding Ann down whilst the other scratched her arm deeply with a nail. Not satisfied with that, Elizabeth Bryant was heard to call several times:

Bring me knives to cut the old bitch's flesh from her bones, for she shall never go home alive.”

In the space of the brawl the women ended up out in the open street, where Ann Burge was finally rescued by the crowd that had gathered to witness the spectacle. Badly shaken and hurt, with her arms torn and lacerated, the old woman was will for at least a month following the attack.

The judge presiding over the case made his feelings known on the subject, deploring the “infamous knavery” carried out by Baker on the gullible Bryant women. The newspaper agreed wholeheartedly with the Judge's recommendation to the Magistrates that “they would not allow another Sessions to go over without arraigning him upon the Vagrancy Act, to the penal provisions of which he was doubtless amenable.”

Elizabeth Bryant and her daughters were found guilty and sentenced to four months imprisonment. Still ruminating on the case, a week later on 16th April 1823 the same newspaper printed another piece on the matter, reporting that:

The observations of the Judge in passing sentence on the unfortunate simpletons whose conviction was mentioned in our last, may be useful in dispelling the doleful and mischievous superstition which even at this day prevails among the ignorant on this subject.”

Among other things, the Judge was at pains to inform the Bryant women and those assembled that their behaviour had been utterly unacceptable, making it very clear that the law would not now tolerate such attacks against anyone for whatever reason as he told the defendants:

Remember well what I say to you. You are not prosecuted and tried for any opinions which you may entertain, but for carrying those opinions into violence and outrage against a fellow subject, whom the laws equally protect.”

Remonstrating further, he told Elizabeth Bryant and her daughters that they should have gone to the magistrates with their concerns, not taken matters into their own hands. He also reassured the women that there was no truth whatsoever in their fears regarding witchcraft in any form, pointing out that if they believed in God (something which he found himself sadly doubting given their display) then they should not think for one moment that the Almighty would allow such a thing to happen as they accused Ann Burge of. His opinion on Baker was unequivocal as he observed that it would be a great service to take him before the magistrate, declaring of the self-styled wizard that “he is a nuisance that ought speedily to be got rid of.”

The Church of St Andrew, Wiveliscombe

Along with this, the Judge was in no doubt that Elizabeth Bryant would have killed Ann Burge if she had the means to do so, reminding her chillingly that:

As it was, you and every one of you stood in peril of your lives for the offence you have committed.... It was my doing that you were prosecuted for this assault, instead of being tried for your lives.”

Although he had saved them from facing the noose, the Judge did not feel at all inclined to let them off entirely, as although he put the majority of the blame at the nefarious Baker's door:

... yet it is necessary to visit you with a punishment that will cause you and everybody to remember that it is at the peril of severe punishment, if they act upon such ignorance and folly.”

Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 9th April 1823