The Wallsend Witches
Wallsend is a small town in the North of England. It is easily overlooked – just another post industrial town that has lost its heavy industry and been taken over by call centres and service industry jobs. But Wallsend has a long history. The Roman’s called it Segedunum when they built their fort at the end of Hadrian’s Wall (end of the wall – Wallsend – get it?). Through the centuries farming gave way to salt panning, glass-making, coal mining and shipbuilding. For the Roman’s, Wallsend was the end of the world, the border between civilisation and barbarianism, and in such a place anything can happen.
Halloween seems an appropriate time to share one such dark tale – a tale of witchcraft and necromancy. The following extract is taken from the ‘Monthly Chronicle’ for April 1888 and it describes, in wonderfully florid Victorian prose, the supposed encounter between one of the famously colourful Deleval family and the infamous Wallsend Witches.
Witches at Wallsend.
The adventurer… is said to have been returning home from Newcastle after nightfall. When turning, up the road past Wallsend, at the foot of the eminence on which the old church stands, he was surprised to observe the interior of the edifice brilliantly lighted up. Being, of course, curious to know the cause of this untimely illumination, he rode to the gate of the burying-ground, left his horse in charge of a servant, and walked forward to a window, where, like Souter Johnnie’s drunken crony “Wow, he saw an unco sicht.”
Upon the communion table, at each corner of which was placed an inverted human skull containing some inflammable substance that burned brightly, he saw extended the body of a female, unconfined, and partly unrolled from the winding sheet, while around it, apparently occupied in the preparation of charms, sat a number of withered hags, one of whom was at that instant employed in cutting with a knife the left breast from the corpse. The beldam who operated as dissector, and who, with stubbly beard, ugly buck teeth, red fiery eyes, and withered, wrinkled skin, seemed the likest imaginable counterpart of one of Macbeth’s witches, handed the severed breast to one of the other hags, who went off with it in the direction of the belfry, where she was lost to sight. Delaval, who believed he saw before his eyes only a set of detestably wicked old women, fit to be burned at the stake for their dealings with the foul fiend, as well as for their desecration of the consecrated building, determined that he would make an effort to stop their proceedings. So he applied his strength to the door of the church, burst it open, and rushed in, to the utter consternation of the assembly. Each of the hags endeavoured to save herself by flight. Some climbed up to the roof, and took their departure through the openings in the belfry. Others managed to get out at the door or the windows. But Delaval succeeded in laying fast hold of the beldam in whose hand the knife still gleamed, and managed to tie her hands behind her back with his pocket handkerchief, in spite of her hard struggles and horrid curses.
When Delaval had taken a hasty look at these devilish preparations for love and hate, charms and incantations, he hastened off with his captive, and bound her on horseback behind the servant. He kept her securely until she could be brought to trial, whether at the assizes, the sessions, or the baron’s own court tradition sayeth not; but certain it is that she was fully convicted of being a witch, as well as a sacrilegious person, and sentenced to be burnt on the seashore in the vicinity of Seaton Delaval.
And now followed the most marvellous part of the story – so marvellous, indeed, that we must beg our readers to take it, as we ourselves do, with a grain of salt. When the sentence was about to be carried into execution, the witch requested to have the use of two new wooden dishes, which were forthwith procured from the neighbouring hamlet of Seaton Sluice. The wood and combustibles were then heaped on the sands, the culprit was placed thereon, the dishes were given to her, and fire was applied to the pile. As the smoke arose in dense columns around her, she placed a foot in each of the utensils, muttered a spell, cleared herself from the fastenings at the stake, and soared away on the sea-breeze like an eagle escaped from the hands of its captors. But when she had risen to a considerable height, one of the dishes which supported her lost its efficacy from having been, by the young person who procured them, dipped unthinkingly in pure fresh water; and so, after making several gyrations, the deluded follower of Satan fell to the ground. Without affording her another chance of escape, the beholders conveyed her back to the pile, where she perished amidst its flames.
Monthly Chronicle; April 1888.
North-Country Lore and Legend
Folklore or fact?
OK – first things first – apologies to any real-life witches/pagans reading the above tale with its stereotypical hideous hag-like witches – history and folk-lore do tend to give witches a bad rap, I’m afraid!
It seems quite plain that unlike the historically attested Newcastle Witches the Wallsend Witches belong to folklore rather than fact. The tale as quoted above was reported in the Monthly Chronicle of 1888. The Monthly Chronicle cited the most famous teller of the tale as Sir Francis Blake Deleval (1727 -1771) although it notes that even in his day the tale was well established.
Sir Francis belonged to that family of originals, the Delevals, who seemed to easily attract tall tales and legends; and himself was famous amongst other things for accepting a bet to build a castle in a day – Deleval won the bet and Starlight Castle still stands in Holywell Dene, in ruins now, a testament to Deleval hubris. Sir Francis was also a noted theatrical and practical joker and one can imagine him regaling his drinking companions with a tale of supernatural derring-do accredited to one of his ancestors. He was also a bit of ladies man and the idea of scaring the petticoats off some of his fashionable lady friends might have also appealed to him!
There are some obviously fantastical elements of the tale: the witch flying off on wooden plates – I mean, REALLY? I can just imagine a condemned witch about to be executed asking someone to just pop to the next village and get her some new tableware and some witch-finder general type just saying ‘righto pet, I send someone to Ye Olde Collectibles right away’…can’t you?)
However even the ‘historic’ elements of the tale seem suspect, as Alan Fryer points out in his article on the Wallsend Witches. It seems unlikely that even in an earlier age a Deleval would have had the legal remit to order a capital punishment on a witch. And of course, in the main, witches were hanged in England not burned. Perhaps it owes some of its embellishments to the tale of the Berwick Witches who were burned just across the border in 1590 – part of the confession of Agnes Sampson involved diabolical shenanigans in a church.
Despite its historical implausibility, the tale of the Wallsend Witches stands out as a relic of a less industrialised and disenchanted age. An age where the Lord of the Manor was the dashing hero of the hour, upholder all things decent, and wicked witches practiced the dark arts in derelict churches and could make their escape on crockery – I leave the reader to judge which of these elements they think the most unlikely!
Holy Cross Church can be approached either from a neatly kept housing estate, or via the grounds of Wallsend Old Hall. The latter way offers the most interesting route, winding along the course of the burn, under a canopy of old trees, then up the steep steps, hemmed in by hawthorn and brambles, towards the old church itself. You can still find a riot of nature and wildlife following this track even so close to the heart of the town. It’s not difficult to imagine that to traverse it by moonlight with dark branches casting spidery fingers across your path, foxes barking in the undergrowth and perhaps a mysterious light up ahead…you might, perchance, meet with the Wallsend Witches.
You can now hear me talk about the Wallsend Witches, folklore and fact, on the Voices from the North East podcast, available from anchor.fm/voicesfromthenortheast , Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts:
Notes on images
1. Illustration of Holy Cross Church in 1813 from http://www.sandmartyn.freeserve.co.uk/wallsend/wec.html
2. Joshua Reynolds, Sir Francis Blake Deleval, Wikimedia Commons
3. Jack O’Lantern by Toby Ord 2003, Wikimedia Commons
All other photographic images by Lenora.
Monthly Chronicle; April 1888, North-Country Lore and Legend: Witches at Wallsend