Nineteenth-century Witchcraft July 2, 2010Posted by Beachcombing in : Modern , trackback
The British town of Hebden Bridge is to be found deep in the South Pennines. The town itself is merely quaint – it has, Beachcombing seems to remember, cobbles. But the countryside thereabouts is the stuff of Xanadu. Indeed, over-travelled Beachcombing is of the opinion that Hebden Bridge’s wooded valleys are Masada at dawn, the Taj Mahal at sunset, the top of the Empire States Building on a clear day… Certainly, he would prefer the sight and the smell of bluebell season in those magical places to anything that the English Tourist Board could throw at him.
Given this enthusiasm for Hebden Bridge and, above all, for its surroundings, it was with some satisfaction that, this morning at breakfast, Beachcombing stumbled on a reference to a belief in witchcraft near the town in the nineteenth century, at a time when we are told that such a belief was long dead and gone.
The fragment in question comes from the end of William Dearden’s poetic epic, The Star Seer (1837). Luckily it is written in prose rather than Will’s rather turgid verse.
In connexion with this subject [astrology], it may not be improper to mention, that about twenty years ago, the people of this district [in the valley of Caldene around Hebden Bridge] were, in general, strenuous believers in Witchcraft; and even at this very day, though such a belief may not be countenanced in the valleys, in consequence of the great influx of strangers, and the spread of information, it still lingers, like a cloud, upon the hills; and innumerable are the stories told by the aged chroniclers of the mischiefs performed by those possessed of the Evil Eye and Spirit, and of the efficacy of the Witch Doctor’s charms.
From the number of tales of this description, which I have heard narrated, I will recite one to exercise the credulity of the reader. On the hill south of Hebden Bridge, stands a little rural village, called Old Chamber – the original name of a house which Watson, in his history of Halifax, mentions as being the first in the neighbourhood that had an apartment built above the ground floor. The persons who resided in this very house, about eighteen years ago, felt convinced, from a variety of calamities that befell them, that they were under the baleful influence of Witchcraft. The first proof they had of this, was their being unable, for some time, to keep a cat either in the barn, or in the house; for no sooner did the animal become an inmate, than it sickened and died.
Determined, if possible, to put a stop to this feline mortality, a charm was obtained from the Witch Doctor, and tied round the neck of a young Kitten, which, under such sovereign protection, became a healthy, thriving creature. In the meantime, however, the power of the Evil-disposed increased. Several cows, both in the field and in the stall, were suddenly seized with some unknown distemper, and died in the most excruciating agonies. A fine bull was attacked in the same way, and shared the same fate. At length, the favourite horse of the old farmer, on its return from the coal-pit, fell down on the threshold of the stable, and began to exhibit symptoms of the same terrible disorder.
A messenger was immediately dispatched for the Witch Doctor, who came, and by the performance of some mysterious process, rescued the horse from death. Alarmed by these repeated misfortunes, the family enquired of the man of spells, if, by any power of his art, he could ascertain the person who malignancy was so signally manifested towards them. The Doctor told them he could not only discover, but bring the guilty being into their presence. He was requested to do so without delay.
Accordingly he began his preparations: a fire was kindled in the middle of the barn-floor, and over it was suspended from a beam, a charmed phial, on which, he informed them, the life of the inflictor of their calamities, depended. Round the fire he then drew a circle, and placed within it such of the family as chose to witness the scene; and, after cautioning them not to mention the name of God, and setting the doors wide open, he commenced his incantations.
The wind suddenly rose, and, in a short time, a withered old hag was seen hobbling down the barn-fold, with both hands on a stick, apparently in the most violent agitation. The good dame of the house no sooner saw her, than forgetting the injunction of the Witch Doctor, she pronounced the interdicted word [i.e. God], in a fit of exasperation, and the hag was immediately released from the power of the spell, and scampered away as fast as she could to her lonely dwelling among the hills. The particulars of this story I had from the lips of a person who was employed in the house at the time, and saw the approach, and precipitate departure of the witch.
Dearden, a Hebdenian himself, then adds ‘It is hoped none of my readers will infer from the preceding remarks and examples, that I am a believer in the absurdities of Astrology, or the legends of witchcraft. They are merely adduced to show that sufficient warranty in the notions of those who pretend to be skilled in astral influences, and in the power of charms is afforded for the sentiments uttered by the character introduced in the poem.’
Dearden, like Milton, was of the devil’s party but did not know it…
Now Beachcombing has a stable full of thoroughbred hobby horses and one of these is a black stallion called Witchcraft-in-England-survived-much-later-than-most-professionals-in-the-field-think. Many scholars, indeed, would tell us that witchcraft (or better a belief in witchcraft) died with the end of the great witch craze in the seventeenth century. But the broom-sticked ones clearly flew on, out of sight, for a couple of centuries afterwards and every so often, as here, witches appear from out of the clouds of academic denial.
As to the contents of Dearden’s passage. Old Chamber is marked on the OS map above Hebden Bridge near Horsehold – ‘hamlet’ would perhaps be a more accurate word than ‘village’, then as now. ‘The Witch Doctor’ (curious name) is a fascinating figure, especially his refusal (in a spell) to call on God – a burning offence just two centuries before! Evil to fight evil…
Beachcombing likes best of all though the withered hag coming down the road like some bloodied ghoul out of The Shining. Notwithstanding a nasty skin condition Beachcombing’s hairs stood on end as he read that. There is something of a folklore Wuthering Heights about the episode: Bronte Country is just a dozen miles over the hill and Dearden and Branwell Bronte were acquainted.
Beachcoming would love to hear any other late (eighteenth- or even better nineteenth-century) witchcraft stories from anywhere in England or the United States or, indeed, the Dominions: in Scotland, Wales and Ireland they are as common as three-leafed clovers and cow pats. He would be particularly interested in any stories from the South Pennines and would be life-and-death grateful if anyone could shed some light on an alleged place called White Witch Woods just outside (or around?) Hebden Bridge. It is marked on no map that Beachcombing can find though he has heard rumours of children running from ghouls there! drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom
Aug 1st: Beachcombing was lucky enough to get an email from Ronald Hutton, eminent British professor. RH gently took Beachcombing to task – basically explained that Beachcombing was talking out of his hat – as far as scholarship and late witchcraft are concerned. ‘Most historians, by this date, however, think that rural England was a seethe of witchcraft beliefs until the late nineteenth century, largely because of the work of Owen Davies. You probably know his Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951 (Manchester University Press, 1999), and A People Bewitched: Witchcraft and Magic in Nineteenth-Century Somerset (published by the author, also 1999).’ Beachcombing, of course, did not know. But he has them on order… thanks to Ronald.
1st Sep 2010: On the subject of Hebden Bridge’s White Witch Woods Beachcombing was happy to receive the following from Rael from Hebden: ‘I noticed (actually it was bleeding obvious) that you have an unhealthy/healthy interest in the White Witch Woods amongst Ragley woods. We’ve got an old 1905 map of Hebden, it cuts off just around WWWoods but mentions an area just before it called LAW, possibly irrelevant perhaps but I wondered if it had some anti-pagan meaning. Undeterred nonetheless and safe in the knowledge that you have googled WWWoods to death, I have just met another old buddy on Friday (the 23rd July) who has lived here all his life, his awareness of the area he has lived in ALL HIS LIFE is staggeringly shit but in all fairness he did manage to point towards what is essentially the correct hillside where Hell Hole Rocks can be found although he did do the full ‘360 degrees dog in its own basket’ display first. I also had to assure him that Hell Hole Rocks were in fact much further to the left from where he was telling me they ought to be, we were sat outside the Stubbing Wharf pub at the time. Anyway, my point is that I am asking local locals to see if I can help you and your quest for White Witch Woods, my blatantly unreliable friend… left me at midnight because I made it abundantly clear that I was NOT going to the Trades Club but Home. He went on there, I came back here. Lord knows who he spoke to but at 1.30am he sent this quoted text ‘White Witch. Mill owners daughter climbs scaffolding plumeted [sic] to death white lady ghost is seen’. All the more tantalising it would seem, I will try to root out any other local knowledge for you but as I’m sure you know folklore and fact are usually poles apart, in Hebden the gossip grapevine can be so dismally woeful that many years ago some local friend of ours… was informed how and when he died, came as quite a shock to his ass I can tell you as he is still acutely alive.’ Thanks to Rael!
3rd Oct 2010: Rael writes again – thanks Rael! – about a certain Lumb House at Hebden. ‘So named after Mr Lumb apparently, and Mr Lumb built and owned the mills in that particular valley, all 7 of them it would seem, not that I knew there were ever that many. If I remember rightly, he had four daughters and the fourth one had a bit of an argument with dad during the construction of the seventh mill, climbed the scaffold and fell or fell from an upper floor window of Lumb Bank house itself…’ Aziel’s contact claimed ‘he’d seen a white lady ghost himself in the woods many years ago with his mates and it was like so scary and he didn’t want to talk about it cos it was so awfully terrible and his mates couldn’t talk about it for years cos they were all like so freaked out and he still didn’t want to talk about it.’ This interestingly corresponds to Beachcombing’s original informant who also claimed that he had met the White Witch in the wood with his friends. Has Beachcombing stumbled on a Hebden urban legend? He can but hope.
1st Nov 2010: Beachcombing was lucky enough to have a Lancashire-born Hebdenite in the house this week and Small Coloured Thing (tis she) suggested that the origin of White Witch Woods is based on some nude wicca dancing in the woods of the Colden Valley in the 1980s. Are White Witch Woods a modern children’s creation refracted off some chance though doubtless exciting nudity? Beachcombing is going to ask this question in that Bible of the South Pennines the Hebden Bridge Times this very month. Fingers crossed.