A few tales of historical spooks for you this All Hallow’s Eve

Déjeuner dans le trou de la Sorcière (Forêt noire)/ Breakfast in the Witch Hole (Black Forest), a print from 1854. Image from Gallica.

One of the books that’s been on my shelf for a while is Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson’s hefty work The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. It’s almost an encyclopedia of folklore from across England, peppered with references to the primary material from which they draw these little snippets of lore. Here are a few I thought you would appreciate, writing this as I am on All Hallow’s Eve:

Knutsford, Cheshire: There are two explanations for the name of this town, both mentioned by its historian, Henry Green, in the 1850s. One is that there was once an old woman who sold nuts for her living, and when dying asked to be buried with a bag of them under her head. This was done, but she found this pillow so uncomfortable that, after turning over in her coffin and finding the other side no better, she one night clambered out of her grave, emptied the bag, cracked all the nuts against her gravestone, and ate them – all but one, which she dropped without realizing it. She then refolded the bag to use as a pillow, got back into her coffin, and has slept there peacefully ever since. But a fine hazel sprouted from the nut she dropped on her grave. Henry Green, telling this tale in 1859, says that there really had been a tree growing from a grave here; by the time he was writing only its shattered stem remained, but he himself had once plucked a leaf from its branches, which was seen as ‘an undeniable witness’ that all this was true.(81)

Crowcombe, Somerset: It was believed in Somerset (as in several other regions) that anyone who kept watch in a church porch at midnight on Midsummer Eve or Halloween would see the wraiths of all those fated to die in the parish in the coming year entering the church for their own funeral service. (641)

Pinkney Park, Wiltshire: In a niche overlooking the main staircase of this house . . . there is a skull, thought to be that of a woman; traditions about it were told to the local writer Kathleen Wiltshire in the 1970s. There are also marks said to be irremoveable bloodstains on the floor of one room, and a woman’s handprint on the door of another; according to the traditions, the story behind all that is two sisters in the family loved the same man, so one murdered the other, out of jealousy. . . .
the skull is said to have been there for centuries, despite many attempts to remove, smash, or burn it, from which it invariably returns unharmed, as is the normal case with stories of this type. Legend used also to claim that it would fall to dust of its own accord when the last Pinkney died and the house and estate passed into other ownership, but the property did in fact change hands several generations ago, without affecting the skull at all.(792)

Black Heddon, Northumberland: M.A. Richardson’s Table Book (1842-5) includes an account, sent him by Robert Robertson of Sunderland, of the haunting sixty or seventy years previously of Black Heddon, near Stamfordham, by a supernatural being known as ‘Silky’ from her predilection for appearing dressed in silk:
“Many a time, when any of the more timorous of the community had a night journey to perform, have they unawares and invisibly been dogged and watched, by this spectral tormentor, who at the dreariest part of the road. . . would suddenly break forth in dazzling splendour. If the person happened to be on horseback . . . she would unexpectedly seat herself behind, ‘rattling in her silks.’ There, after enjoying a comfortable ride; with instantaneous abruptness, she would. . . dissolve away . . . leaving the bewildered horseman in blank amazement.”
At Belsay, a few miles from Black Heddon, there was a crag under the shadows of whose trees Silky loved to wander at night. At the bottom of the crag was a waterfall, over which an ancient tree spread its arms, amid which Silky had a rough chair, where she used to sit, rocked by the wind. Sir Charles M.L Monck, of Belsay Castle, had carefully preserved this tree, still called ‘Silky’s seat.’
Horses were sensitive to Silky’s presence and she seemed to take pleasure in stopping them in their tracks, so that no manner of brute force could get them moving. The only remedy was ‘magic-dispelling witchwood’ (rowan, mountain ash). . . .
Silky is described as ‘wayward and capricious.’ Like many bogeys, she revelled in surprise. Women who cleaned their houses on Saturday night, ready for the Sabbath, would find them next morning turned upside-down, but, if the house had been left untidy, Silky would put it straight.
Eventually, she abruptly disappeared. People had long surmised that she must be the restless ghost of someone who had died before disclosing the whereabouts of her treasure. Supposedly, about this time, a servant, alone in one of the rooms of a house at Black Heddon, was terrified by the ceiling giving way, ‘and from it there dropt, with a prodigious clash, something quite black, shapeless and uncouth.’ The servant fled to her mistress screaming at the top of her voice, ‘The deevil’s in the house! The deevil’s in the house! He’s come through the ceiling!’ IT was some time before anyone dared to look, but finally, the mistress, stouter-hearted than the rest, ventured into the room and found there a great dog or calf’s skin – filled with gold. After this, Silky was never more heard or seen. (549-50)

Canewdon, Essex: Canewdon was once notorious for its witches, a reputation linked with the tall tower of Canewdon church, of which, says Philip Benton in his History of Rochford Hundred (1867), ‘A tradition exists, and is believed by many, that so long as this steeple exists, there will always remain six witches in Canewdon.

In the 1920s, it was likewise said that there were always six witches – three in silk and three in cotton (meaning three well-to-do- and three working women). Charlotte Mason, writing in 1928, says an old man then living in Rayleigh told her that one was supposed to be the parson’s wife, and another the wife of the butcher. He said that a Canewdon girl who had gone to keep house for his uncle at Woodham Ferrers was also one of the witches, and his uncle knew no peace after her coming there ‘for nothing in the house would keep still.’ (He is referring to the witch’s power of moving objects by telekinesis . . .) It was also claimed that a stone fell out of the church wall every time a Canewdon witch died. . . .

A well-known procedure for identifying the culprit when witchcraft was suspected was by heating a witch-bottle containing the victim’s urine and sometimes nail-clippings, ordinary nails, pins, and other items. Eric Maple, writing in Folklore in 1960, puts the proverbial number of Canewdon witches at seven, and says that an old woman told him she was present as a girl at one such ceremony.

. . . . a witch who stole a bell from Latchingdon church, on the other side of the river, tried to bring it back in a washtub, using feathers as oars. She was seen by a waterman, but she bewitched him into forgetting what he had seen by saying, ‘You will speak of it when you think of it.’ It was not until years later, when he heard the bells toll for the funeral of the witch, that he remembered. (251)

Edmondthorpe, Leicestershire: In the parish church of St Michael is the tomb of Sir Roger Smith of Edmondthorpe Hall. He died in c.1655 after two marriages, and both his wives are represented in alabaster effigy on the tomb. The left hand of Lady Ann has been broken and the wrist stained a dark red, perhaps by iron rivets used to mend it. The local explanation of the stain, however, is that Lady Ann was a witch who, as was the habit of witches, could turn herself into a cat. Her butler, trying to drive this cat out of the kitchen, struck it with a meat cleaver, wounding it in the paw. When the cat resumed its human form, the wound was plain to see in the corresponding position on the wrist of Lady Ann. At her death, this ‘wounded hand’ also appeared miraculously on her effigy.
And that was not all: as the result of this supernatural event, Edmondthorpe Hall gained an ‘indelible bloodstain’. The cat’s blood had fallen on a kitchen flagstone and the stain proved to be ineradicable. At some time between 1918 and 1922, the Countess of Yarborough, then living at the Hall, had the stone taken up because the maids complained that, however much they scrubbed, it would not come clean. The stone was removed to the workshop of J.W. Golling in the main street of Wymondham, Leicestershire, where it became the object of much curiosity.
The phenomenon whereby the wound inflicted on her wer-animal is transferred to the witch is known as ‘repercussion’. Many traditional tales of witches hinge on this belief.(419-20)

Potterne, Wiltshire: It is common in folklore to encounter tales about witches turning into hares. A more unusual experience was reported by a young man in the 1920s to the folklore collector B.H. Cunningham, who printed it in 1943. This young man said that when he was courting a Potterne girl he used to take her for a stroll along the lanes every evening after work. They were always followed by an unknown greyhound; he was convinced that this was the girl’s mother, keeping an eye on them. As proof, he told Cunningham how one rainy evening the dog ran ahead of them as they got near the girl’s home, jumped the garden gate, and disappeared; when they reached the house they could see through the kitchen window the mother standing in a tub, washing mud off her legs.(792)

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