Belonging to the nightshade family and found in the Mediterranean region, the mandrake has been known for centuries as one of the most powerful and potent of all plants. People originally believed that the mandrake had two forms; one male and the other female. Some botanists now think that these are two distinct species with the one known as the Autumn Mandrake native to the Levant area and the other Mandragora Officinarum found in the rest of the Mediterranean.
The name mandragora (mandrake in Middle English and Middle Dutch) is formed from man symbolising its resemblance to a miniature person and dragora or drake taken from the archaic word for dragon alluding to its magical powers.
A Powerful Poison
The medical properties of the mandrake were known to the Egyptians 6000 years ago. Egyptians called it ‘the water of life’ and used it to improve health, vigour and longevity. The mandrake was attributed with divine powers and placed in a visible corner of a dwelling. Vows were made to it and candles lit.
Mandrake plants contain hyoscine, an alkaloid which if too much is ingested causes hallucinations, delirium and even comas. Accidental poisoning could lead to various symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness and blurred vision. There were some positive benefits of medicinal mandrake such as the relief of rheumatic pains and eye infections and even as far back as AD60 the Greek botanist and physician Dioscorides wrote about its use as an anaesthetic. An anaesthetic mandrake root mixture which also contained opium, hemlock and ivy was used by surgeons well into the Middle Ages.
During the Roman period a mandrake infused wine or ‘death wine’ was also known to have been offered to those being crucified. I suppose being drugged into a near coma made the tortuous punishment a little easier to bear.
For many it was the presence of this alkaloid together with the mandrake’s unusual shape that conjured up images of magic and power.
‘Love apple of the ancients’
Mandrakes were also believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac (as long as the dosage was right otherwise the outcome would not have been so pleasant for either parties!). The Greek made a mandrake love potion by steeping the root in wine and vinegar and the plant became associated with the Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Circe (the goddess of sorcery) who used the potion to cast a spell over the Argonauts. In Arabic the mandrake is known as the Devil’s Apple and was believed to inflame a man’s love. It was also alleged that if a man carried the female-shaped mandrake in his pocket he would win the woman he desired.
‘Goe, and catche a falling starre, Get with a child a mandrake root’, John Donne
The mandrake has long been linked to fertility probably because its shape reminded people of a human figure. Even in early illustrations it was drawn with a head, body and legs crossed.
One of the oldest references can be found in the Bible in Genesis, when Rachel desperate for a child asks her sister Leah for a loan of the mandrakes which her son, Rueben had harvested from the field as it was believed that eating the sweet smelling yellow fruits of the mandrake would imbue a person with sexual energy and fertility.
The mandrake could also act like an ancient test tube such as in the legend of King Hermones who wanted a male heir but was adamant in his refusal to have sex with women! The king ordered his advisors to find another solution. His astrologers, at an auspicious time took the king’s semen and placed it on a mandrake. Through alchemy a male-child was created much to the king’s delight .
Not only could the mandrake help to get a woman pregnant it was also used in childbirth. In order to make use of the mandrake’s power it had to be carefully looked after e.g. the root was placed on a plate and fed with milk or red wine on special days such as every Friday. The milk used to bathe the mandrake could then be fed to pregnant women. Some traditions suggest putting the mandrake under a woman’s bed in a plate full of milk mixed with breast milk. Both rituals were believed to ease childbirth and protect the mothers and babies. .
‘Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake’s groan’
One of the most powerful legends concerns the deadly scream emitted by the mandrake when it was pulled out of the ground and how to avoid being its victim.
In Theophrastus’ treatise written in or around 230BC he explains how to pick the mandrake to avoid being bewitched. He advised drawing three circles around the plant with a sword of virgin iron and then facing west cut portions of the taproot. After cutting the second portion the picker must dance around the plant muttering incantations concerning the mysteries of love. The sword should only ever be used to cut a mandrake.
A later account written by the Roman Jewish historian Josephus (c.37 to 100AD) was the first to mention the use of a dog to extract the plant. He instructed the digger to dig around the root until the lower part was exposed. A starving dog should then be fastened by a rope to the mandrake root and then encouraged to pull out the plant by placing a piece of food just out of its reach. The scream of the mandrake would kill the dog instead of its master and the mandrake would then be safe to handle. This practice of using a dog to remove the mandrake was still being used in the 13th century as witnessed by the Moorish herbalist Ibn al-Baitar. He wrote that the dog in this case survived the ordeal. In Germany it was believed that the dog had to be completely black with no blemishes.
Other variations on how to extract the mandrake have come down to us. These include stuffing your ears with wax or earth and blowing a horn whilst pulling the mandrake out. Anything to drown out the mandrake’s screams. Pliny suggests using an ivory staff to dig around the mandrake, others advise placing crosses on the plant for protection against evil forces whilst the Roman writer Apuleius stated that on certain holy days an evil spirit would emerge to do the pickers’ bidding, similar to the genie in a lamp.
Some claimed that the legend of the screaming mandrake was invented by witches to stop ordinary folk from picking their precious plant. Witches were believed to enter an alliance with the spirit of the mandrake. They would promise to care for the mandrake if the mandrake’s spirit would act as a vessel for other spirits and familiars. Offerings were made to the mandrake spirit on the night of a full or dark moon and a circle of salt drawn around the plant. A black dog was tied to the plant and food used as a lure. The mandrake was then covered by a cloth and placed in a special bag.
A more practical but less colourful explanation is that it was the squelching sound made by the mandrake when its fleshy roots was pulled out of the damp earth that was mistaken for a screech.
The Little Gallow’s Man
Myths also arose relating to where mandrakes could be found. In Welsh folklore mandrakes were found at crossroads. Crossroads were associated with supernatural and dark forces and it was here criminals were often hanged and buried along with others who could not be interred on consecrated ground.
Crossroads and gallows were known to be popular places for the gathering of herbs for a witches brew and so the link between mandrakes, gallows and witchcraft was widely accepted. The ground where a gallows was placed was seen as contaminated by the blood or semen of the hanged. Some stories stated that it had to be semen from innocent men who with the help of a witch were given a second chance at life as a mandrake whilst others claimed that they were formed from the tears and blood of the fallen innocent. In Iceland the mandrake was known as Thjofarot or Thiefs’ root and it was believed to grow where the froth from a hanged thief’s mouth fell.
Talismans and Charms
Mandrakes became popular as talismans and good luck charms. They were thought to bring wealth, popularity and the ability to control one’s own and other people’s destinies. It was believed that King Solomon wore a mandrake root seal which enabled him to gain sovereignty over souls.
The powers of the mandrake seem to be limitless such as making a person invisible, healing domestic animals, changing the weather, guiding a person to hidden treasure, transmitting diseases and allowing its owner to tell fortunes.
Mandrakes could also protect a family as well as individuals. Sprinkled with blessed water and salt mandrakes were buried near the front door to protect the households from intruders and evil spirits.
In Germany the trade in mandrake talismans flourished as they rose in popularity and were worth their weight in gold. Often roots of other plants were carved to look like mandrakes in order to meet the increased demand. People took painstaking care of their mandrakes wrapping them in white cloth, tying it with golden rope and placing them in special boxes or bags of pure silk. In Germany the talismans were passed down to the youngest son.
Although mandrake charms were at first ignored by the ecclesiastical authorities the scale of their popularity eventually started to worry the Church. Wearers of the charms were accused of invoking demons and tried for witchcraft. In 1603 in Romorantin, France the wife of a Moor was hanged as a witch for keeping a familiar in the form of a mandrake and in 1630 three women in Germany were executed for possessing mandrake talismans. Although this was not the first time that the church took exception to mandrake talismans e.g. in 1431 during her public interrogation Joan of Arc was asked whether she was had a mandrake figurine to which she replied ‘I have no mandrake, and never had one,’  the increasing hostility of the church did dampen public enthusiasm for the charms. Trouble was that giving away a mandrake charm was not easy as they had a habit of returning unaided to their owners.
Up Up And Away!
Witches on brooms, flying high above the ground silhouetted against the moon is an image most of us grow up with but this was not always the case. In earlier traditions witches were believed to be able to fly on just about anything including kitchen utensils and furniture. It was only later that witches were linked to brooms.
The famous witches’ brew was made from deadly nightshade, henbane, devil’s snare and of course mandrake. Such a concoction was obviously lethal and so could not be ingested. It had to be placed somewhere where the user could get the maximum effect without dying. There are only two places on the body which are suitable; the armpits and the genitals. Women’s clothing at the time would have made it extremely difficult to smear the ointment on their armpits so they were left with only one alternative. In order to reach far enough inside the vagina an appropriate implement was needed and so they used a tool which was easily available – a broom handle.
Historical evidence can be found for the use of the broomstick. On being arrested for witchcraft and the killing of her husband in 1324, a broom with the tip coated in a strange substance was found in the cupboard of Lady Alice Kyteler.
The medieval chronicler of witches Jordanes de Bergamo in the 15th century stated that he had heard witches confess to using brooms to insert a potion into their ‘hairy places’ which enabled them to fly. Giovanni Della Porta in the the 16th century confirmed that he had witnessed a woman who had applied the brew to her body state that she ‘had passed over both seas and mountains’ and the ‘witch’ Antoine Rose testified that she had smeared a potion given to her by the devil onto a stick which she had then straddled shouting ‘Go, in the name of the devil, go!’
Since the ointment contained ingredients which are known to cause intense hallucinations it is not surprising that the women believed they were flying, what is more remarkable is that more of them did not poison themselves before they were arrested and executed.
The English Mandrake
Although the power of the mandrake was well-known in Britain they were expensive and difficult to obtain and so people began to look around for cheaper substitutes. Carvers of mandrake charms saw the large root of the white byrony (a climbing plant belonging to the gourd family) as a perfect alternative. Known as the English Mandrake these counterfeit mandrakes were carved to represent the human body with wheat and grass used to represent pubic hair. Not everyone was convinced by the power of the English Mandrake, Dr William Turner denounced the superstition stating that people ‘are thus deprived both of their wits and money’. These views did not seem to have damaged their popularity as the charms were considered valuable heirlooms and left as bequests in wills.
In Jean-Baptiste Pitois’ book ‘The History and Practice of Magic’ he describes how to make a powerful charm from the root of the byrony plant.
- Take it out of the ground on a Monday (preferably the day of the moon) a little time after the vernal equinox.
- Cut the ends of the root.
- Bury it at night in a country churchyard in a dead man’s grave.
- For 30 days water the plant with cow’s milk in which three bats have drowned.
- On the 31st day take out the root in the middle of the night and dry it in an oven heated with the branches of the verbena plant.
- Then wrap it in a dead man’s winding sheet and carry it with you everywhere.
Even in the early years of the 20th century the confusion between the byrony and the mandrake persisted. A story told in Warwickshire claims that in December 1908 a man employed in digging a garden half a mile from Stratford upon Avon cut out the large root of a white byrony plant. Mistaking it for a mandrake he stopped working claiming that it was bad luck to cause damage to them. A few days later he fell down some steps and broke his neck.
Although not quite as potent as the mandrake the white byrony it can cause nausea, vomiting, anxiety, paralysis and death so it is not really surprising that it came to be viewed with the same mixture of respect and fear.
An Unbreakable Cord
The reputation of the mandrake affected one of the other members of its family, the tomato. Early herbalists associated the tomato with the mandrake and so in the 18th century instead of being eaten people preferred to grow them as ornamental plants. Potatoes were also initially viewed with suspicion, luckily for the sake of the humble chip and roast dinners people eventually overcame their fears.
The myths surrounding the link between the mandrake and witchcraft are numerous. It was believed that if a witch made love to a mandrake root they produced offspring which couldn’t feel real love and possessed no soul. Many of the stories contradict each other but they do show how over the centuries the mandrake has been seen as a powerful and dangerous supernatural tool. Even though today getting hold of a mandrake is much less hazardous, being available online and even on eBay, the plant’s link to witchcraft remains unbroken as it still plays an important role in modern witchcraft.
Bryonia Dioica, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bryonia_dioica
The plant that can kill and cure, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33506081
The History and Uses of the Magical Mandrake, According to Modern Witches, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-history-and-uses-of-the-magical-mandrake-according-to-modern-witches
Mandragora autumnalis, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandragora_autumnalis
How to harvest a mandrake, http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2017/12/how-to-h arvest-a-mandrake.html
Herb Analysis: Mandrake, greatest ally of witches, https://www.magicalrecipesonline.com/2015/10/herb-analysis-mandrake-ally-of-witches.html
Rare occult herbs: Mandrake, https://www.groveandgrotto.com/blogs/articles/rare-occult-herbs-mandrake
The Magic of Mandrake, http://www.thewisemag.com/mystery/the-magic-of-mandrake/
Why Do Witches Fly on Brooms?, https://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/why-do-witches-fly-brooms/
The Fascinating Reason Witches are Commonly Depicted Flying on Broomsticks, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/10/witches-fly-broomsticks-2/
Myths and mandrakes, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539425/
Fantastically Wrong: The Murderous Plant That Grows From the Blood of Hanged Men, https://www.wired.com/2014/06/fantastically-wrong-mandrake/
Trial of Joan of Arc, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_of_Joan_of_Arc
The Solanaceae II: The mandrake (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil, Mr Lee, https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/w_lee_2.pdf
Plants of Life, Plants of Death, Frederick J. Simoons, 1998
An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Doreen Valiente, 1973
Executing Magic in the Modern Era: Criminal Bodies and the Gallows in Popular Medicine, Owen Davies and Francesca Matteoni, 2017
Henry VI Part 2, William Shakespeare
 The Solanaceae II: The mandrake (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil
 The Magic of Mandrake
 Myths and Mandrakes
 The Magic of Mandrake
 Myths and Mandrakes
 Plants of Life, Plants of Death
 Herb Analysis: Mandrake, greatest ally of witches
 Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 2
 The Solanaceae II: The mandrake (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil
 Mandrake, Wikipedia
 The plant that can kill and cure
 The Magic of Mandrake
 Myths and Mandrakes
 The Magic of Mandrake
 The Trial of Joan of Arc
 Why do witches fly on brooms?
 The Fascinating Reason Witches are Commonly Depicted Flying on Broomsticks
 Mandrake, Wikipedia
 Myths and Mandrakes
 Bryonia Dioica
 The plant that can kill and cure
Cunning folk, cunning woman, Deleval, Ecclesiastical Courts, England, Janet Pereson, Newcastle, North East, North East Folklore, Sir Francis Blake Deleval, trials, Wallsend, Witchcraft, witches, Witches of Wallsend
The Wallsend Witches, revisited
In anticipation of Halloween I decided to revisit an old post of mine from 2013. Way back when I first started writing this blog I wrote about the fairly obscure local legend of the Wallsend Witches. A gothic tale of horrible hags, revolting rituals and a dashing Delaval, all played out in the picturesque ruins of Old Holy Cross church, Wallsend. The tale is found in print in several Victorian Table books and seems to have been oft retold in the eighteenth century by Sir Francis Blake Delaval (1727-1771) of Delaval Hall.
The gist of the tale is that a scion of the Delaval family was riding home late one night and noticed light emanating from Holy Cross Church. Upon investigation he came across a band of hags performing a diabolical ritual upon a disinterred corpse. Brave Delaval then apprehended the ring leader and brought her to trial and to the stake at nearby Seaton Sluice – but not before the accused had tried to make an aerial getaway on some enchanted plates. For the full version of the tale, originally recounted in Richardson’s Local Table Book of 1838-46 but in this case taken from North-Country Lore and Legend, Monthly Chronicle (April 1888), click here: The Wallsend Witches: a tale for Halloween.
Having initially dismissed the tale as a combination of colourful folklore and florid Victorian Romanticism, I was surprised to come across an actual report of a Wallsend woman accused of witchcraft during the sixteenth century.
the pointing finger
I first came across this case in A History of Northumberland volume XIII which provides an extract from an earlier source: Depositions and other ecclesiastical proceedings from the courts of Durham,extending from 1311 to the reign of Elizabeth. After a little digging I managed to get hold of a copy of the depositions, published by the Surtees Society in 1845. Here was discussed the case of one Janet Pereson of Wallsend, accused of witchcraft in about 1570.
Janet Pereson was accused by two people. One, a farmer called Robert Durham of Walshend, aged 72, who said ‘He hath heard saye that Jennet Pereson uses wytchecraft in measuringe of belts to preserve folks frome the farye’. And the other one Catherine Fenwick, aged 20, the daughter of Constance Fenwick who accused Janet of taking payment for using magical charms to cure a little boy by the name of Benjamin Widdrington. Catherine went on to claim that ‘she knoweth not whether she is a wytche or not’. Despite the possibly malicious intent of the accusations, Janet herself was not accused of practicing malificent magic, rather, the accusations appear to indicate that she was some kind of local cunning woman or wise woman.
Cunning woman or witch?
While cunning folk would seem to be broadly speaking, forces for good, such ‘white witches’ did not escape censure and in fact their brand of magic, whilst not obviously malevolent in intent, was viewed by many as a threat to the very souls of those who sought their aid.
In 1487 notorious women-haters Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger wrote of such cunning folk in their infamous book The Malleus Maleficarum:
although it is quite unlawful… bewitched persons… resort to wise women, by whom they are very frequently cured, and not by priests and exorcists. So experience shows that such cures are affected by the help of devils, which is unlawful to seek
Based on the information provided in the deposition, Janet’s case would seem fall into this category. The accusation was recorded thus:
The said Pereson wyfe said the child was taken with the fayre, and bad hir [the child’s mother] sent 2 for Southrowninge [south-running] water, and then theis 2 shull not speke by the waye, and that the child shuld be washed in that water, and dib the shirt in the water, and so hand it up on a hedge all that night, and that on the morrow the shirt should be gone and the child shuld recover health – but the shirt was not gone as she said.
Robert Thompson, the Vicar of Benton, had the following to say about Janet:
Dicit that he herd one wedo Archer doughter called Elizabethe Gibson, saye that Jenkyn Person wyfe heled hir mother who was taken with the fayre, and gave her 6d for her payment and that the said Jenkyn Pereson wyfe took 3d of Edmund Thompson for a like matter.
Despite official unease over the practices of cunning men and women, they were usually tolerated when they were performing helpful actions. And, Janet comes across as quite honest – she did not not steal the shirt left out over night (either that, or she really believed the fairies would take it). So what was going on?
Digging a little deeper, Janet seems to have been accused of witchcraft after her husband, William, and son, Jenkyn, were charged with stealing a horse from Robert Thompson, the Vicar of Benton . Whether any or all of the accusations were true or not, it would seem someone was out to get the entire Pereson family.
As has been pointed out by many writers on historical witchcraft, witchcraft accusations could often stem from long-standing local disputes or social anxieties, focusing on those seen as a threat to social order, either by virtue of their anti-social behaviour, illness, deformity or poverty. This element could be a factor in Janet’s case, on initial reading, if the horse theft allegation against William and Jenkyn Pereson was true, it may indicate that they were a troublesome family. Staying under the radar of officialdom was probably the safest course for a cunning woman, but the allegations against her husband and son could have brought Janet’s practices sharply into focus as well.
One important factor in Janet’s case can be found in the footnote of the Depositions. The witchcraft accusations against Janet appears in a series of Exceptions against the witnesses to a tithe Suit relative to the Living of Benton. Tithe disputes were very common in pre-modern England, especially after the Reformation, and hinged over payment of church dues . All the allegations against Janet and her family seem to have arisen as part of this tithe dispute. As Jo Bath points out, Constance, the mother of Katherine Fenwick (Janet’s accuser), was a the one engaged in this acrimonious dispute with the Pereson family  and the Vicar of Benton seemed to have been willing to add his accusations to the pile. Perhaps this dispute, compounded with any other real or imagined anti-social behaviour by the family, was the last straw? Or, maybe, Constance simply was ready to use any means at her disposal to win the argument, whatever the cost. The case certainly shows how neighbourhood disputes could easily escalate into allegations of witchcraft.
Unfortunately, the texts that I have seen do not provide the outcome of Janet’s case – I would be interested to hear if anyone has this information. In the Surtees volume, a Janet/Jennet Pearson appears in relation to another case in Dunston in 1586. While differences of spelling were common at the time, it is hard, nevertheless to tell if this is the same woman or simply another with a similar name.
Broadly speaking, in England when cunning folk fell foul of the law, the were usually tried in the Ecclesiastical Courts rather than secular courts. Allegations of providing charms, love potions, enchantments or even the of finding lost goods, could all wind a local cunning person in such a court, and this is what happened to Janet, as her case is recorded in the Depositions and other ecclesiastical proceedings from the courts of Durham.
The 1563 ‘Act agaynst Conjuracons Inchantments and Witchecraftes’ focused mainly on black magic and offered a penalty of death for anyone that ‘practise or exercise [of] any Witchecrafte Enchantment Charme or Sorcerie, whereby any pson shall happen to bee killed or destroyed’ they would be put to death.’ However, cunning folk were not overlooked and the Act goes on to say:
That yf any pson or psons shall from and after the sayd first daye of June nexte coming, take upon him or them, by Witchecrafte Enchantment Charme or Sorcerie, to tell or decleare in what Place any Treasure of Golde or Sylver shoulde or might bee founde or had in the Earthe or
other secret Places, or where Goodes or Thinges lost or stolen should be founde or becume, or shall use or practise anye Sorcerye Enchantment Charme or Witchcrafte, to this intent to provoke any pson to unlaufull love, or to hurte or destroye any pson in his or her Body, Member or Goodes; that then every suche pson or psons so offending, and being therof laufully convicted, shall for the said offence suffer Imprysonment by the space of One whole yere wthout Bayle.
Janet was tried in or around 1570, and her alleged actions would seem to meet the criteria of the recent legislation. While the outcome of Janet’s trial was not recorded, it would be possible, that if found guilty, she could have been imprisoned (rather than burned at the stake – the purported fate of the captured Wallsend Witch). Although it’s worth noting that imprisonment could in itself be a death sentence, due to the dreadful conditions in most prisons at that time.
From Fact to folklore
Having revisited the story of the Wallsend Witches and found in it a grain of historical truth, in that Wallsend did in fact boast at least one real-life alleged Witch, the tale of the Wallsend Witches takes on a new aura. One in which real historical events evolve over time to become folk-lore – of course it would be hard to prove that Janet Pereson’s case is the ‘true’ origin of this tale. Nevertheless, it is appealing to think it forms the core: that as living memory of her tale faded, it began to incorporate such elements as the fate of the North Berwick Witches (burned at the stake in 1590) along with more fantastical elements of established folklore (such as that witches were thought to be able to use wooden platters to fly).
The story appears to have come down through the ages at first in folk-memory, then, perhaps, permeating different levels of society though Sir Francis Blake Deleval’s constant retelling, eventually being embellished with the real location of Holy Cross Church, Satanic necromancy and a Delaval as hero, and ultimately being collected as a colourful piece of local lore, by Richardson in his Local Table Book of 1838-46.
So, it would seem that however florid a tale may become with the telling and re-telling, sometimes there is a kernel of truth in it!!
Sources and notes
All images by Lenora unless otherwise stated.
Bath, Jo, Charmers, Enchanters and Witches: True tales of Magic and Maleficia from the North East 
Honeybell, F, Cunning Folk and Wizards In Early Modern England, University of Warwick MA Dissertation, 2010
Raine, James, Depositions and other ecclesiastical proceedings from the courts of Durham,extending from 1311 to the reign of Elizabeth Vol 21, published by the Surtees Society, 1845 
Boxmoor, capital punishment, crime and punishment, eighteenth century, footpads, hanging, Hemel Hempstead, highway robbery, highwayman, James Blackman Snooks, last hanging, Last highwayman, newgate, nineteenth century, regency crime, Robber Snooks, robbery, The Old Bailey, theft
A life of crime
James Snooks was born in Hemel Hempstead on the 16th August 1761, the second of four children to John and Mary Snooks. That is pretty much all that is known of the early life of James Snooks.
The next time the name of James Snooks appears is in connection with a case held at the Old Bailey on the 15 January 1800 where he was indicted for stealing a gelding valued at 91 shillings. The horse the property of Thomas Somerset disappeared from his paddock in Preshute near Marlborough on the 1st November 1799. On the 1st December 1799, the horse was discovered by one of Somerset’s men being driven along the Bath road on the way to the Cinque Port Fencibles. The investigation carried out determined that the horse had come into the possession of a Mr James Langhorne who had sold it in a private auction to a Mr Bishop who in turn had sold it to a Mr Marsden, a horse dealer. Mr Langhorne testified that the name “Blackman” was entered in his books as the person from whom he had acquired the horse. Langhorne also stated that after receiving a good character reference from a Mr Chancellor for James Blackman Snooks, he gave Snooks the money owed to him from the sale. After it was discovered that the horse had been stolen, Mr Langhorne’s foreman had searched for Snooks and after a game of cat and mouse had finally caught the prisoner. Snooks was acquitted of the charge due to lack of evidence since no-one had ever seen the horse in Snooks’ possession and Mr Somerset couldn’t be 100% sure that the horse had been stolen and not simply got out of its paddock.
Although Snooks escaped from justice this time, he didn’t learn his lesson. At some point either before or after his trial Snooks took to the road and enjoyed for a time at least, a relatively successful career as a highwayman, his preferred area of operation being the road between Bath and Salisbury. That is until he made during one of his heists, a grave error in judgement which led to the hangman’s noose.
One theft too many
On Sunday 10th May 1801 at around 10.15pm, John Stevens, a post boy was travelling from Tring to Hemel Hempstead when he was ambushed and robbed at gun point by a single highwayman mounted on a dark coloured grey horse. The man stole six mail bags full of promissory notes and letters. One of the letters contained a large sum of money comprising of £50 and £10 notes. In total the amount stolen was estimated at £500. Once the bags had been emptied of anything of value, he threw away the rest and left them strewn over the moor.
The man had chosen an isolated part of Boxmoor near Bourne End to make his attack, probably reasoning that the remoteness as well as being under the cover of darkness would conceal his identity. Unfortunately it was as he was making his get-away that he made a fatal mistake and one which he would live to regret. Along with the empty mail bags and the worthless letters, he also discarded a saddle with a broken strap.
After the highwayman had disappeared, Stevens made his way back and reported the robbery to both the Postmaster and the High Constable John Page (of the King’s Arms of nearby Berkhamsted). The next day they began their investigation.
To catch a highwayman
During the course of his enquiries, Page discovered that several people remembered seeing a man at the King’s Arms fixing a broken girth strap. The man in question was identified as James Snooks. Snooks had previously worked for Page as an ostler a year or so earlier. He was known to have lived in Hemel Hempstead in 1800 and so was perfectly positioned to observe the post boy’s route.
The next step was to find Snooks. On top of the ususal £100 reward offered for the capture of highwaymen by Parliament, a further £200 remuneration was promised by the Postmaster General. The high price on Snooks head shows just how serious and determined the officials were to bring Snooks to justice.
The London Chronicle in May 1801 published an article on the crime in which they recounted what took place on the night in question as well as giving a detailed description of Snooks. In most myths, novels and folklore highwaymen tend to be cast into the role of debonair, handsome, roguish adventurers. In the case of Snooks this couldn’t be further from the truth. He was described as in his late 30s/early 40s, 5 feet 10/11 inches tall with short light brown hair and a face left pitted due to smallpox. The Chronicle also states that Snooks was last seen leaving his lodgings at 3 Woodstock Street wearing a blue coat, black velvet collar, Marcella waistcoat with blue and white stripes, velveteen breaches and dark coloured stockings.
Snooks had after leaving the King’s Arms headed to Southwark before continuing on to Hungerford. Why he decided to return to his home town where he was well-known seems strange; maybe he was panicking, maybe he was arrogant or maybe he simply trusted in his friends and family to protect him.
Despite his precarious situation it was reported that Snooks could not help bragging about his nefarious deeds and finally his luck ran out. On the 8th December 1801 whilst driving a post-chaise through Marlborough Forest, the driver William Salt recognised Snooks and with the help of his passengers managed to apprehend him. Salt had gone to the same school as Snooks and so was in no doubt about whom he was capturing. When searched £200 were found on Snooks’ person as well as a brace of pistols. Snooks’ career as a highwayman was over.
Although it was pretty much universally accepted that Snooks had been the man behind the highwayman’s mask, proving it was a little harder. Due to the theft having taken place at night Stevens was unable to conclusively identify Snooks as the thief.
The nail in the coffin turned out in the end to be the money itself. Whilst in Southwark, Snooks had despatched a servant to purchase some cloth for a coat on his behalf and to bring him back the change. accidentally he had given the girl £50 instead of a £5 note. £50 in 1800 would have been worth about £900 in today’s money. This note aroused the trader’s suspicions and he contacted the authorities. On investigation the note was traced back to the Tring mail robbery. Snooks must have been aware of his blunder and this was probably why he fled Southwark in such haste.
Trial and Judgement
Snooks was initially imprisoned in Newgate prison before being transferred to Hertford gaol on the 4th March 1802. The trial was held at the Hertford Assizes five days later. The verdict was guilty and he was sentenced to be hanged. Transportation was not an option as the crime was considered “of a nature so destructive to society and the commercial interests to the country”.
The actual sentence was for Snooks to be hanged in chains, a rather gruesome means of execution. Page, now promoted to the position of High Constable of the Hundred of Dacorum was given the task of deciding where the execution was to take place. Page decreed it would be held at the place where the crime had been committed. This ruling was not unusual and was often used when officials wanted to make an example out of a particular case.
By the start of the 1800s people were starting to lose their taste for grisly public executions and that was probably the reason why the residents of Boxmoor decided to petition the court to commute the sentence to that of a simple hanging.
Two days later on the 11th March 1802, James Snooks was taken from the gaol and transported to his final destination on Boxmoor. As custom dictated the condemned man was allowed to stop for one final drink. It was reported that Snooks when faced with his escorts’ impatience exclaimed “it’s no good hurrying – they can’t start the fun until I get there”.
A large crowd had been gathering since early that morning to witness justice being served. The day had been declared a local holiday and people were excited and eager to hear the highwayman’s last words. Unfortunately from their point of view Snooks failed to live up to their expectations. His audience made their feelings clear as they stamped and hissed as he spoke about the necessity to observe the Sabbath and the need for children to listen to their parents and follow their advice in order to avoid being drawn into a life of crime. At the end of his monologue he offered his gold watch to anyone who was prepared to assure him of a decent burial. No-one accepted his offer and he was strung up from one group of five horse-chestnut trees
His body was eventually cut down and unceremoniously tossed into a makeshift grave which had been layered with straw. A rather unpleasant scene then ensued with the executioner trying to strip the corpse of its clothes insisting that it was his right. Page had to step in and stop the chaos and prevent any further desecration of the body. He ordered the remaining straw to be thrown in on top of the corpse and the grave to be filled in. The officials then retired to the Swan Public House for a drink.
The next day the villagers obviously had a change of heart as they returned to the execution site, exhumed the body, placed it in a wooden coffin and then reburied it at the same spot.
In 1904 the Box Moor Trust placed a small white headstone on a site which is believed to have been the area where Snooks was hanged. The exact location of the grave is unknown. The inscription on the gravestone is simply “Robert Snooks 11th March 1802”. James Snooks has gone down in history as Robert Snooks probably due to a corruption of his nickname ‘Robber Snooks’. The headstone and a small footstone placed in 1994 now stand some 20m off the A41 on Boxmoor Common between Bourne End and Boxmoor.
The last highwayman to be hanged in England
Snooks himself was a common all garden thief. There was nothing distinctive about him in life but in death he achieved a rather unexpected notoriety, that of the last highwayman to be hanged in England.
The occupation of highwayman was becoming less attractive as a criminal activity and by 1815 it was rare for mounted robberies to take place. There were a number of reasons for this decline. One of which was the expansion of gated and manned toll roads and turnpikes which hampered the highwaymen’s escape. Another reason was the increase in 1800 of horse patrols. This together with the newly formed police service which had started in London in 1805 had resulted in pushing the highwayman’s area of operation away from the city and further into more remote locations. A final obstacle and the one that had been Snooks’ downfall was the introduction and greater use of notes as currency. Notes as Snooks found out were traceable and so harder to get rid of than gold. The golden era of the highwayman was over.
As tradition dictates Snooks has become somewhat of a mythical figure and a number of supernatural stories have become associated with him.
It is said that if you run around the four trees where Snooks was hanged you will see his ghost. A slight issue with this particular story but one which seems not to bother this particular restless spirit, is that the trees which now stand near the grave are not the same ones as in 1802 (the original trees were cut down years ago when they became diseased).
One legend states that if you walk around the gravestone three times and call out Snooks name he will materialise. A slight variation on this theme recounts that if you summon Snooks whilst circling the stone twelve times he will appear and join you in a danse macabre!
On a number of occasions it has been reported that the grave site has been disturbed at night by people trying to find Snooks skull and bones to use them in magical rituals.
Lastly fresh flowers are often seen at the stone along with children’s drawings. . For me for some reason the idea of children’s sketches being given almost as an offering sends a chill up my spine.
Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
Robert Snooks – Highwayman, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/domesday/dblock/GB-500000-204000/page/2
Last highwayman hung in Hemel Hempstead, http://www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/towns-and-villages/hemel-hempstead/last-highwayman-hung-in-hemel-hempstead
James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang, http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/5759738.James_Snooks___The_last_highwayman_to_hang/
Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
Snook’s Grave, http://www.thegranthams.co.uk/paul/graves/snooks.html
Whores and Highwaymen, Crime and Justice in the Eighteenth Century Metropolis by Gregory J. Dunston, 2012
Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
Beware, the ghost of highwayman Snooks, http://www.hemeltoday.co.uk/news/beware-the-ghost-of-highwayman-snooks-1-6380931
10 Notorious Men from European History, http://listverse.com/2016/04/02/10-notorious-highwaymen-from-european-history/
Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800., https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18000115-45-person434&div=t18000115-45#highlight
 The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800., https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18000115-45-person434&div=t18000115-45#highlight
 Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
 Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
 Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
 Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
 Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
 Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
 Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
 Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
 Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
 Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
 James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang, http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/5759738.James_Snooks___The_last_highwayman_to_hang/
 Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
 Robert Snooks – Highwayman, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/domesday/dblock/GB-500000-204000/page/2
 10 Notorious Men from European History, http://listverse.com/2016/04/02/10-notorious-highwaymen-from-european-history/
 Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
 Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
Emma Peel, England, FOG, g.h.o.s.t, ghost hunters, Ghost hunting, ghost north east, Ghosts, haunted, haunted castles, haunted houses, Hauntings, North East, ouija board, paranormal investigation, paranormal investigators, scottish borders, SMOG, Steve Watson
When I think of the Avengers, I don’t think of the Marvel superheroes, I think of John Steed and Mrs Peel. The Mrs Peel series’ were rerun when I was a child and I loved the quirky humour and the eccentric and often surreal storylines. One of my favourite episodes was The Living Dead, from the 1967 series. In this episode Steed and Mrs Peel investigate strange happenings at the estate of the Duke of Benedict, including ghostly goings on in a creepy old church. Here they cross paths with rival ghost hunting factions FOG and SMOG (respectively, Friends of Ghosts and Scientific Measurements of Ghosts). The over the top characters of Mandy from FOG and Spencer from SMOG perfectly highlight the divide still often found in the ghost hunting community – between the psychic believers and the sceptical scientific types. To be honest, I’ve never been quite sure which camp I fit into.
In recent years I have been on several ghost hunts operated by various different groups. It’s fair to say that some were more FOG than SMOG and some clearly geared up primarily for entertainment. Nevertheless I enjoyed each one, and some were at truly excellent locations, with compelling and charismatic guides – Chillingham Castle springs to mind (it’s an experience not to be missed for sheer drama of location and the ghostly tradition attached to the castle). However, one thing that I have often felt lacking on some of the more commercial tours, is the element of investigation – I guess I’ve always had a secret affinity with Spencer from SMOG, despite the allure of FOG. Ultimately, what I was really looking for was a group that could accommodate both viewpoints.
I came across Ghost North East by chance, a local not for profit group who investigate locations in the North East of England and the Scottish borders. Ghost Northeast was founded just under 10 years ago by friends Steve Watson and David Howland. In Steve’s book The Chronicles of a Ghosthunter he explained:
“..we decided we should open our own group. We wanted it to be 100% genuine and 100% honest. If nothing happened, then nothing happened. But, if we did see, feel or hear things then we knew as far as we were concerned that the activity would be real”
They and their team now run regular ghost hunts throughout the North East of England and Scottish Borders, taking in haunted locations such as Jarrow Hall, Ellison Hall, Hexham Old Jail, Jedburgh Jail and Neidpath Castle.
The Ghost Hunter kit
The group don’t use mediums or psychics, but do use psychic tools such as the Ouija/spirit board, planchet and dowsing rods. These methods sit alongside more scientific tools such as lasers, thermal imaging devices, EMF and K2 meters (for detecting electromagnetic fields -such as given off by ordinary electrical devices or, more interestingly, unexplained sources) and the Franks/Ghost box.
The latter is a device which is a somewhat controversial in ghost hunting circles. The Franks box works by rapidly scanning radio waves for anomalous phenomena. The device is familiar to many people through its use on popular TV series such as Zac Baggins Ghost Adventures. While some people believe that it can facilitate communication with spirits, others dismiss its effectiveness citing the credulousness of over eager ghost hunters in attributing random results as being of paranormal origin . My own view is that although it can bring up some interesting results, it would be hard to confirm they were of paranormal origin rather than just wishful thinking.
Ghost North East make the whole ghost hunter kit available to everyone at each location, and ‘ghosties’ are encouraged to be very hands on. Whether their preference is for the scientific or psychic tools, everyone gets to play with the kit and draw their own conclusions from the results.
Three Ghost Hunts:
1. On a dark November night – Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society.
The Lit & Phil, as it is affectionately known, is the largest independent library outside of London, and the oldest in Newcastle. The current building, dating to 1825, is located near the oldest parts of Newcastle (the Close) and Roman foundations can be found in the basement.
This was my first ghost hunt with the group, and the first thing I discovered was that many people attending were regulars, despite this, everyone was very welcoming and friendly. Steve Watson the founder of the group welcomed everyone and set out the housekeeping and the ground rules – in short, to respect that everyone has their own equally valid views on the supernatural. I was impressed by how accommodating the group where to those with mobility issues, although the locations often don’t lend themselves to full disabled access, the group are happy to cater for the less mobile.
Steve then took the whole group down to the Gentleman’s Library and held a circle and conducted a blessing – in the pitch dark. Standing in the musty darkness, surrounded by ancient tomes from floor to ceiling, with only the rhythmic ticking of an old clock puncturing the silence, he called out to the spirits and the K2 meter lit up….from that moment, I was hooked.
We were then split up into three separate groups to conduct investigations in different parts of the building (around 8 people max). Smaller groups made it a much more hands on experience, and we all had a case of equipment to play with, from Lasers, Franks Boxes, EVF meters to dowsing rods and dice. I was in Peter’s group and we began in ‘the stacks’ – a book store in the basement where they store books and manuscripts, it is a very eerie place, filled with looming shadows and priceless volumes. A number of people in the group said they felt a quite malevolent male presence down there. I can’t say that I did, however, I’m not sure I would have been willing to stay down there alone even with all those fabulous books (and I don’t scare easily).
Later in the night, my group went into the main library and tried to communicate with spirits via the Franks Box. During this experiment I took up the offer to do a ‘Lone Vigil’ in the ladies waiting room, in the pitch black, with only an EVF meter for company! Not being shy I sat in the middle of the sofa and asked if any spirits would like to come and sit next to me, having previously checked for any reaction on the EVF and getting none. However, once I made the invitation and rescanned the sofa, the box reacted in a very definite manner. I withhold judgement on whether a ghost actually did accept my invitation to join me on the sofa, but the timing was most interesting….
Perhaps the most powerful part of the night occurred in the Music Room, where the groups rejoined and formed a circle while the Gnostic Mass was played. This is a very strange piece of music and whether the music, the darkness or supernatural forces were at play, several people were overcome and had to leave the room…the music player also jumped unexpectedly to particular song, one with significance to one of the Lit & Phil’s early patrons.
By the end of the night, while many of the phenomenon could clearly be explained away, nevertheless, various interesting pieces of information came to light that could be linked to the historical record. I’m giving away no spoilers though!
2. On a frosty January night – Gateshead’s Little Theatre
The Little Theatre Gateshead, is a remarkable building, the current theatre was opened in Autumn 1943 and was the only theatre to be built during World War II. It sits on the corner of Saltwell Road, and faces onto the beautiful Saltwell Park.
The theatre is home to the Progressive Players, whose founding members, Misses Hope, Ruth and Sylvia Dodds, helped to fund the building work in the 1930’s. However, things did not go smoothly and upon the outbreak of war, the empty house purchased for the theatre was requisitioned for a RAF Barrage Balloon station. The players only got the site back on New Years Day 1942, when the RAF decamped following a particularly harsh winter. The theatre also suffered from collateral bomb damage on a misty night in early 1943, when a German bomb hit Saltwell Park just across the street from the theatre. Windows were blown out, the doors damaged and a tree fell through the roof. No one appears to have been hurt or killed.
All in all, a promising location for not only theatrical ghosts, but perhaps some wartime spectres as well.
After our orientation and the group circle, which Steve conducted on the stage, we split into our groups. Unable to help myself, I, yet again, volunteered to do a lone vigil. I was conducted down a maze of corridors to one of the dressing rooms, and here I waited in the dark, calling out occasionally. Unfortunately there was no activity that I could discern, and the evening as a whole appeared quite quiet, with little activity on the planchet or otherwise. However, some other groups did report activity and one individual did become noticeably affected during an invocation on the stage. Despite the lack of activity on this occasion, it was a wonderfully atmospheric venue.
3. On a snowy March night, Jarrow Hall
My third, and most recent outing with Ghost North East, was at Jarrow Hall. I have to say it was my favourite venue, perhaps that is because the Hall itself is eighteenth century (and I’m a sucker for the Georgians). The falling snow made it even more atmospheric – the North East was in the grip of the mini Beast from the East that night, just getting to the venue was an adventure. Jarrow Hall is closely associated with the Venerable Bede (considered the ‘Father of English history’) and linked to the Anglo-Saxon monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. It houses a lot of Anglo-Saxon artifacts in the museum, and a reconstruction of an atrium style house of the period.
Now, I firmly believe that most paranormal phenomena can be explained rationally, however…..during the group circle that took place at the foot of the staircase, I kept getting the impression of someone peaking round the banisters at the top of the stairs….I’m not sure if it was just peripheral vision going scatty but I was not the only one who felt this.
There were some very interesting results from the dowsing rods in the museum (linking up with the Anglo-Saxon history of the location). Beyond that, the most active part of the Hall was the back stairs, where some quite extraordinary activity unfolded. I was with two others using the Ouija board, while another member of the team was seated on the stairs (around the corner and out of the line of sight of the board). As we asked questions and the glass moved around the board, the information was conveyed almost simultaneously by the person on the stairs, who was convinced that a spirit was communicating directly with them. A tragic tale was soon pieced together, and culminated with the board spelling out a song title, as the person on the stairs began to sing the same song.
There were some contradictions brought up by the board, and some elements of the information that did not add up, however the overall story that unfolded could be linked to the historical record – as far as could be ascertained. This phenomena could be explained in several ways, from auto-suggestion, telepathy or pure coincidence, whatever the explanation, being a part of the experience was extraordinary (and I can say for certain that I didn’t know the story and I definitely wasn’t pushing the glass!)
The Ghost Hunter
It’s fair to say that people want different things from ghost hunts, for some people it is pure entertainment – and any creak or strange noise is enough to send them off into paroxysm of fearful giggles, others may want a more spiritual experience – to connect with a supernatural that they firmly believe in, others may prefer a purely rational or sceptical approach. I have to say, that to my mind, a good ghost hunting group can accommodate all viewpoints and belief systems.
In short, I would say that whether you are Mandy from Friends of Ghosts or Spencer from Scientific Measurements of Ghosts a ghost hunt with Ghost North East will not disappoint.
For those who are interested in reading more about the investigations, full investigation reports are published by Ghost North East in their magazine.
Sources and notes
All images by Lenora unless otherwise stated.
Watson, Steve, Ghostnortheast volume 1: The Chronicles of a Ghost Hunter, 2017
If someone were to measure just how ‘gothic’ a story was via a tick-list analysis of stereotypical parts, then Edgar Allan Poe’s classic ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ would cross the qualifying line furlongs ahead of its competitors. A claustrophobic and foreboding location? Yes. A deliciously wordy study of depression and mania, sanity and insanity, the melancholy and the bizarre? Absolutely. A premature burial and a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom? Indeed.
Poe and H.P. Lovecraft never fail to scratch the itch for macabre entertainment when the mood takes me, and while I have always enjoyed them as a reader from childhood, doing audio performances of their work has brought a new and deeper appreciation of the music and rhythm of the language used.
I particularly relished the pronunciation challenges arising from the narrator’s discussion of the various books that Roderick Usher and he had been studying (around 24:30 in) and the fact that the story opens with a couplet in French. In addition, both Lovecraft and Poe had no problem in making single sentences stretch almost over a full paragraph, with punctuation which needs to be carefully noted in order for the main point of emphasis not to be lost.
I hope that you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it.
The story of the Woolpit children is one which many people know. Countless articles have been written and numerous theories put forward by various people to explain what happened. There are so many ideas and interpretations that I am only going to look at a few of them briefly but in the bibliography below I have listed a number of sources that explore the topic in much more detail.
There exists two near contemporary sources which chronicle the events at Woolpit and the appearance of the green children, one of whom is Ralph of Coggeshall and the other is William of Newburgh.
Ralph was appointed as the sixth abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Coggeshall in Essex and served from until he retired in 1218 due to bad health. After he stepped down from his duties he took up and continued his house’s Chronicon Anglicanum. His account contains few original documents but he seems to have taken pains to check his facts and collect anecdotal accounts from visitors to the abbey. It is possible that it was from one of these visitors that Ralph discovered the story of the green children of Woolpit.
The second chronicler was William of Newburgh. William was a well-respected 12th century English historian and an Augustinian Canon of Newburgh Priory. His work contains important historical accounts as well as being “a major source for stories of medieval revenants, those souls who return from the dead, including early vampire stories and the only source for the bishop-pirate Wimund”. The likelihood is that he took many of his facts about the Woolpit green children directly from Ralph, although many of the details differ slightly from the earlier account.
The Tale of the Green Children of Woolpit
Sometime in the 12th century during the reign of either Stephen or Henry II, two young children, a boy and a girl were discovered by reapers. They were found either in a wolf pit by the village of Woolpit or at the edge of a field (according to which account you read). The children were frightened and thin, wore odd clothes and spoke a language incomprehensible to the villagers. The strangest thing about the children was that their skin was green in colour. The children were taken to the house of Richard de Calne. For a few days the children refused to eat any food until they were given broad beans. They eagerly accepted the beans but instead of opening the pods they opened the stalks. On seeing them empty they wept. When shown how to eat the beans correctly they stopped crying. For a long time beans were all they would eat. The boy became depressed and eventually weakened and died but the girl was healthy and thrived. She was baptised Agnes, learnt English, started to eat other food and completely lost her green colouring.
According to Ralph’s account she told the villagers that they had come from a twilight underground world where the sun never shone and everyone and everything was green. One day they followed their cattle into a cave and heard the sound of bells. They walked through the cave towards the sound until they reached the wolf pits where they laid down in a daze, blinded by the sunlight. They became frightened after being woken by the reapers and tried to escape back through the cave but couldn’t find its entrance.
However, William wrote that the girl revealed that her home was called “St Martin’s Land” and that Christianity was practiced there. She said that she was unsure how they had arrived at Woolpit as they had been herding their father’s cattle when they suddenly heard a loud noise and the next minute found themselves at the village.
As Agnes got older she worked as a servant. From Ralph we learn that she was employed in the household of Richard de Colne but was “rather lose and wanton in her conduct” and from William that she married a man from King’s Lynne.
What is interesting is that neither William nor Ralph made any attempt to question or explain the story of the green children of Woolpit.
Investigating the tale
A number of theories have been put forward to explain the story of Woolpit’s green children. These can be separated into two main categories, historical or folkloric. There is also an extra-terrestrial hypothesis which is held by a small number of people who believe that the children arrived through a space portal and that their green colour was due to the vegetation on their home planet.
The historical angle
Many support the theory that the story does contain a kernel of truth in it. For instance through his research on children escaping their masters, Charles Oman sees something more sinister such as drugging and kidnapping behind the tale. There is a story retold in the area which must have been rooted in a distant memory of two children whose uncle, the children’s guardian, tried to poison them with arsenic. He was said to have left them in Thetford Forest to die so that he could claim their lands and money. The tragic folk tale “Babes in the Wood” was probably based on this story. Arsenic would have turned their skins a green colour. On the other hand Jeffrey Jerome Cohen believes the story is an allegory recalling the differences between the English and the indigenous Britons.
Another interpretation given is that the children were part of the Flemish immigrant community which arrived in the 12th century. The Battle of Fornham, sited in Suffolk not far from Bury St Edmunds, took place in October 1173. It was fought between Henry II and Robert de Beaumont, the 3rd Earl of Leicester. The rebel forces contained a large contingent of about 3000 Flemish soldiers. The rebels were eventually defeated and the Flemish soldiers forced into the swamps near the battle site where most were killed by the local peasants. The children after their parents’ deaths fled into Thetford Forest and lost their way. Suddenly they heard the ringing of Bury St Edmunds’ bells and making their way towards them, they entered the flint mines known as Grimes Graves emerging at the village of Woolpit. The green colour came from a diet deficiency disease such as chlorosis which would have been cured once the children ate nutritious food.
On the surface this last explanation seems plausible enough but in Brian Haughton’s excellent article he presents some problems with this particular theory. Firstly he states that it was Flemish mercenaries who were killed. They were unlikely to have brought their families with them and there is no historical evidence of Flemish merchants or weavers being targeted. A second problem relates to the location of the forest and mines. The forest is 20km from Bury St Edmunds so the children could not have heard the bells and the mines themselves do not end near Woolpit. Also the distances from Fornham St Martins to Woolpit and in particular from the forest to Woolpit are considerable and a long way for the children to walk especially in their weakened state. A last point that he raises is that it is unlikely that a wealthy, educated and noble lord such as Richard de Colne would not have recognised the Flemish language even if he could not understand it himself.
Haughton also makes an interesting statement and one which I think cuts to the heart of the matter. He states that the story of the green children has “elements of truth mixed in with mythology and folk beliefs of fairies and the afterlife”. Three themes which run through the story; the caves, the beans and the colour green all have links with the supernatural.
In the past caves were perceived as mysterious and sometimes threatening. Unknown supernatural entities were thought to inhabit them and many believed that they were portals to another world either the land of the fae or to the underworld. As far back as the Greeks, caves were seen as openings to the underworld. For instance Charonium cave in Greece which emited poisonous fumes was believed to be the entrance to Hades.
Closer to home there are folktales from all over the British Isles that tell of spirits or the fae dwelling in caves. It was a common belief that if a human entered these caves then they might be rewarded with new talents or skills but should be aware that time worked differently there and a moment with the fae could mean years had passed in the world of mortals.
A famous Irish myth concerns Oweynagat Cave in Roscommon. The cave also known as the ‘Cave of Cats’ was located near the ancient Connaught capital of ‘Cruachan’ and believed to have been the birthplace of Medh, the powerful queen of Connach. The cave was also used by Morrigan, the goddess of fate (in particularly doom and death in battle) who would at sunset drive her otherworldly cattle through the caves to her world.
It is not surprising then that if the children were believed to be supernatural and that the land the girl described was otherworldly that they would have reached what became their new home by journeying through a cave.
‘You are what you eat’
In British folklore it is often said that a human should never eat fairy food because by doing so you will bind yourself to their world and you will never leave. In fact it was common if relatives went missing for families to leave food in a basket outside their homes so that their missing kin would not have to eat the food of the faeries. Since it was strongly believed that “you are what you eat” it makes sense that faery food can change a mortal into a faery. Even in Greek mythology Persephone was bound to Hades when she ate some pomegranate seeds.
This idea was thought to work the other way round as well. There is a Scandinavian tale of an elf-maiden who ate mortal food to stay with her lover and there are various Celtic stories of sidhe eating mortal food to become human. In terms of the green children, maybe the loss of their green colouring was seen as the natural result of their eating the food given to them by the villagers so changing their essential physical nature.This is definitely what Willim of Newburgh believed as he wrote in his history “by degrees, they changed their original colour, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves…“. If this idea is accepted then the boy’s death could be seen as his body simply being unable to adapt.
The Sinister broad bean
Then there are the beans. It is hard to imagine but fava beans, more commonly known as broad beans have in the past been looked on with some suspicion. To the Greeks and Romans this type of bean symbolised death. Aristotle was convinced that the beans looked like testicles, were evil and that eating them was a one way ticket to Hades! Both cultures thought the shape of the bean resembled the doorway to hell. The Romans also believed that they contained the souls of their ancestors and used to offer them to newly-married couples on their wedding day to attract the souls of male ancestors in order to ask for their help in carrying on the bloodline. Even today on All Soul’s Day, Italian will make cookies in the shape of a bean and eat bean soup.
With the beans being associated with death, spirits and the supernatural it is again not surprising that they turned up in the story of the green children.
The Colour Green
Green is the colour of the forest, nature and the cycle of life. It is also associated with youth, hope and springtime as well as some negative ideas such as wildness, envy, death, sickness and the devil. Faeries and elves are often described as green-hued and wearing green coloured clothing. So when green skinned children appeared it would have been only natural for the villagers to assume they were forest sprites or some other supernatural being.
The old and the new
Why was it so easy for the villagers and others to so accept that the children were from another world? In my opinion a major reason would have been that although they considered themselves to be strong Christians, beliefs which emanated from the old pagan religion were still firmly entrenched, colouring their perceptions of their world. The merging of pagan and Christian symbols and practices was common. An obvious example is the green man carvings which adorn many early churches. These symbols of fertility, nature and rebirth are visible expressions of the old religion which although supressed was never eradicated. Even the two chroniclers, men who represented the new religion did not seem to question the authenticity of the tale too closely. If Ralph’s version is accepted then you can see the story as a parable i.e. the children are attracted away from their home (pre-Christian) which is without the warmth of the sun to a bright new world by the sound of bells, representing Christianity. Additionally when Ralph describes Agnes as wanton, he could be referring to a wildness which he believed derived from her pagan or otherworldly origins (the fae were considered seducers of men).
Remembering the green children
The green children are still remembered in Woolpit. They appear on a village sign and on the church’s altar cloth. As mentioned before the fable “The Babes in the Wood” has distinct links to the story of the green children. In this morality tale written in the 16th century, two young children are looked after by their aunt and uncle after their parents die. Eager to get his hands on their fortune he pays two men to take them into the forest and kill them. During an argument between the two men, the kinder of the two kills his accomplice. He then promises to return with provisions for the children. He never does and the children left to wander in the forest eventually die. The birds cover their bodies with leaves.
My final thought!
Whatever the truth, I love the way a story probably rooted in fact was embellished with supernatural elements to create a unique, mysterious and fascinating tale which has captured the imagination of so many.
Ralph of Coggeshall, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_of_Coggeshall
William of Newburgh, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Newburgh
Battle of Fornham, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fornham
A dictionary of English folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, 2000
Green Children of Woolpit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_children_of_Woolpit
The Green Children of Woolpit: the 12th century legend of visitors from another world, http://www.ancient-origins.net/unexplained-phenomena/green-children-woolpit-12th-century-legend-visitors-another-world-002347
The Green Children of Woolpit, http://brian-haughton.com/ancient-mysteries-articles/green-children-of-woolpit/
Green children of Woolpit, http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins24-the-green-children-of-woolpit.html
Welcome to Woolpit village, http://www.woolpit.org/
Creepy History: Who Were The Green Children of Woolpit? https://thoughtcatalog.com/steven-casale/2015/05/creepy-history-who-were-the-green-children-of-woolpit/
The Green Children of Woolpit – Investigating a Medieval mystery, http://eclectariumshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-green-children-of-woolpit.html
Folklore, History and the Study of Myth, http://garyrvarner.webs.com/
Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland, https://visionsofthepastblog.com/?s=cave+of+cats
Faerie Feast – Writing in margins, http://writinginmargins.weebly.com/faerie-feast.html
Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
The evils of beans, http://writinginmargins.weebly.com/faerie-feast.html
1135~1154: The Green Children of Woolpit, http://anomalyinfo.com/Stories/11351154-green-children-woolpit
William of Newburgh: Book one http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/williamofnewburgh-one.asp#epistle
 Green Children of Woolpit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_children_of_Woolpit
 William of Newburgh, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Newburgh
 Battle of Fornham, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fornham
 The Green Children of Woolpit, http://brian-haughton.com/ancient-mysteries-articles/green-children-of-woolpit/
 Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland, https://visionsofthepastblog.com/?s=cave+of+cats
 Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
 The evils of beans, http://writinginmargins.weebly.com/faerie-feast.html
Astonishing Transactions at Stockwell
In the eighteenth century Stockwell was a rural hamlet in Surrey, repleat with rolling fields and shady lanes flanked by hedgerow. It boasted less than a hundred dwellings mainly centred around a village green, upon which flocks of sheep ambled whilst sparrows and yellow hammers sported in the skies above. It was a veritable rustic idyll.
Mrs Golding was an upstanding and well-regarded member of the community, a lady of independent fortune who lived alone, but for her maid, Ann Robinson. Her house was situated close by the Tower public house. A more respectable and unremarkable old body it would have been hard to find. However on twelfth night, Monday 6 January, 1772, her unobtrusive life was suddenly cast into turmoil.
Mrs Golding’s peaceful forenoon was rudely shattered when her young maid servant, a girl of about twenty, and employed little more than a week, burst into the parlour to exclaim that the kitchen was being turned upside down by hands unseen. Alarmed, Mrs G accompanied the girl to the aforesaid chamber and to her utter astonishment was witness to the following events:
‘Cups and saucers rattled down the chimney – pots and pans were whirled down the stairs, or through the windows; and hams, cheeses and loaves of bread disported themselves upon the floor as if the devil were in them.’ 
While the astounded old lady contemplated the strange turn of events, things escalated –
‘a clock tumbled down and the case broke; a lantern that hung on the staircase was thrown down and the glass broke to pieces; an earthen pan of salted beef broke to pieces and the beef fell about’ 
Soon the cacophony of chaos had drawn quite a crowd. But although Mrs Golding and her neighbours may have feared the devil was at play in her pantry, nevertheless she was also sensible enough to consider that the house may be about to come tumbling down about their ears, and hastily summoned Mr Rowlidge, a carpenter, to inspect the building. His assessment was that the weight of an extra room added to an upper floor was occasioning the disruptions and that immediate evacuation was required. Mrs Golding fled fainting to her neighbour, Mr Gresham, for shelter. She left Mr Rowlidge and his associates to retrieve her remaining possessions – and her maid, who had repaired to an upper chamber.
Mr Rowlidge and his companions urgently impressed on the young woman the need to vacate the property, yet Ann repeatedly ignored their entreaties. Eventually the young woman sauntered downstairs, with such an air of unconcern that it quite amazed Mr Rowlidge and his companions.
In the house next door, Mrs Golding was in a dead faint. Such was her violent reaction to the sudden calamity that it was misreported that she had expired, and her niece, one Mrs Pain, was summoned from her home at Rush Common close to the nearby settlement of Brixton Causeway.
Of the witnesses present, one was a surgeon, Mr Gardner of Clapham. He was called upon to practice his art on the trembling Mrs Golding by letting her blood. Mr Gardner intended to examine the blood later, so it was left to rest in a basin. The congealing mass was too tempting to the disruptive spirit in attendance upon the unfortunate Mrs Golding, and the jellied lump of blood was observed to spring from the basin, which itself then shattered upon the ground.
The bouncing blood did not bode well, soon the many valuables transported from Mrs Golding’s and stowed in Mr Gresham’s parlour were under supernatural attack. China stored on a sideboard came crashing down, shattering a pier glass placed beneath it. Pandemonium soon reigned in the Gresham household – as it had done in Mrs Golding’s.
In terror, Mrs Golding fled to another neighbour, Mr Mayling, for respite. Deciding that her neighbours had been put too much trouble by the devilish commotions, she quickly departed Mr Mayling’s house to that of her niece at Rush Common. If Mrs Golding had hoped the strange events had ceased, she was to be disappointed. During dinner, the maid was sent back to Mrs Golding’s house and later reported all was quiet there. Things were less quiet at the Pain’s – at 8pm:
“a whole row of pewter dishes, except one, fell off a shelf to the middle of the floor, rolled about a little while, then settled, as soon as they were quiet, turned upside down; [..] two eggs were upon one of the pewter shelves, one of them flew off, crossed the kitchen, and struck a cat on the head, and then broke to pieces.” 
Other items soon flew about – a pestle and mortar, candlesticks, brasses, glasses and china, a mustard pot jumped about, even a ham, hung on the chimney, and a flitch of bacon, all went flying. There were many witnesses, family and friends alike, many of whom were so afraid that they fled in terror, fearing witchcraft or the devil was at work.
And during all of this tumult, one person one person carried on as if nothing was amiss. Ann Robinson. Ann continued to flit between the kitchen and parlour wherever the family was. She just would not sit still. Hone reports in his Everyday book that she:
“advised her mistress not to be alarmed or uneasy, as these things could not be helped.”
Following this strange advice, Mrs Golding and the Pain’s began reconsider Ann’s apparent sang froid.
At 10pm the services of a Mr Fowler were called upon, he was asked to sit with the ladies but fled at 1am, being so terrified by the goings on. Mrs Pain fled to bed, Mrs Golding paced amidst the ruins of her possessions. By the early hours of the morning, unable to withstand the destruction any more Mrs Golding left her niece and went to the timorous Mr Fowler’s. Ann returned to the Pain’s to help Mrs Pain retrieve the children from a barn to where they had been evacuated. Hone reports that all was quiet at Mr Fowler’s, until Ann returned.
Once again, a litany of destruction ensued – candlestick struck lamp, coals overturned and Ann informed Mr Fowler that such events would pursue Mrs Golding wherever she went. Terrified, Mr Fowler bid his neighbour leave, but first he entreated her to:
“consider within herself, for her own and the public sake, whether or not she had not been guilty of some atrocious crime, for which Providence was determined to pursue her on this side of the grave.” 
This slight to her good character – that her travails must be divine punishment for a crime she had committed irked Mrs G and she soon gave short shrift to Mr Fowler’s admonitions and declared:
“her conscience was quite clear, and she could as well wait the will of Providence in her own house” 
Unsurprisingly, when she returned home, her supernatural attendant accompanied her – a box of candles was overturned, a table danced, and a pail of water mysteriously seethed and boiled.
For Mrs Golding and Mr Pain her nephew-in-law, the evidence was stacking up against the unflappable Ann. A trap was set. Ann was to go on an errand back to Rush Common. During that time, about 6 -7am on Tuesday morning, all paranormal activity ceased. Upon her return she was dismissed on the spot as the cause of the diabolical destruction. As if by magic, all disruption ceased and Mrs Golding was never again to suffer such travails.
Stockwell ghost: poltergeist or hoax?
At the time, the Stockwell ghost was almost as notorious as the Cock Lane Ghost of the 1760’s. Interest was so great that the main witnesses, Mrs Golding, John and Mary Pain, Richard and Sarah Fowler and Mary Martin, the Pain’s maid, even went so far as to publish a pamphlet a few days after the events, on 11th January 1772: An authentic, candid, and circumstantial narrative of the astonishing transactions at Stockwell … Surry … the 6th and 7th … of January, 1772 …
The curious thing about the Stockwell haunting is that so many people considered it to be genuine, even after the main witnesses began to express their doubts, it was reported that even years later, many locals attributed events to the supernatural.  And this in the eighteenth century: the century famed for the Enlightenment and for thinkers such as Hume, Diderot and Voltaire who to tried to take God out of the equation by presenting a ‘disenchanted’ world free from religious superstition. However, in tandem with this new rationalistic world view, came an enthusiastic popular religion in the form of Wesley’s Methodism, and Wesley himself claimed to have experienced a poltergeist called ‘Old Jeffrey’ at the family home Epworth Rectory. And of course, old superstitions die-hard.
Faced with chaotic, frightening and inexplicable events, many apparently rational people will question their view of the world before looking for more prosaic explanations. In fact, many ‘sober’ and respectable persons attended Mrs Golding, ostensibly to express their sympathies for her not inconsiderable financial losses, but also with an undoubted air of rubbernecking at someone else’s misfortune. Many came away terrified and convinced of the diabolical origin of the disturbances and some no doubt, like Mr Fowler, questioned what the respectable Mrs Golding had done to bring down Providence’s displeasure. As seen with the Cock Lane Ghost, there was an enduring popular belief that ghosts often returned in order to right a wrong or uncover a crime. Mrs Golding stood to lose much more than just her china and plate, she stood to lose her good character.
Poltergeist activity is often associated with young girls. Anthropological studies suggest the are an expression of inter-personal conflicts or domestic violence within kin-groups. In the case of young servant girls, away from home and family, perhaps in a restrictive or oppressive environment, it is understandable that some found it tempting to rail against the power imbalance between master (or mistress) and servant. The historical record certainly provides many examples of young servants perpetrating hoaxes on their employers.
Even if one gives Ann the benefit of the doubt and attributes her sang froid and comment that such things were normal, to the fact that the poltergeist was attached to her and perhaps for her it was normal, it seems fairly clear that the young Ann Robinson was faking it (in order to clear the house for an illicit liaison). The pamphlet points the finger of blame strongly in her direction, whilst stopping short of making an outright accusation, claiming rather to be simply recounting events as they happened (even maids can get litigious). However, all doubt must have been dispelled several years later when Ann finally confessed to her part in orchestrating events. Her confession was made to one Reverend Brayfield and was reported by William Hone, in his Everyday Book of 1825:
‘She had fixed long horse hairs to some of the crockery, and put wire under others; on pulling these the ‘moveables’ of course fell [..] Ann Robinson herself dexterously threw many of the things down, which the persons present, when they turned around and saw them in motion or broken, attributed to unseen agency’
It is worth noting that not everyone was convinced by this confession: Catherine Crowe, famous for introducing the term poltergeist into the English language in her 1848 work The Night-side of Nature, was convinced the phenomena was real. But she was in the minority.
Ann may well have been a simple serving-maid, but many of the middle and upper class writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century believed that servants were routinely committing similar dastardly deeds, and pulling the wool over their unsuspecting employers eyes. All of which suggests that the ‘umble folk had a pretty good grasp of basic psychology, allowing them to tap into popular fears to get the better of their betters.
The god-fearing folk who witnessed events at Stockwell were often so terrified that they would refuse to look upon the shattered items for fear of what devilish imps they might see – thereby giving the nimble and nefarious Ann further opportunity to create mayhem, even going so far as to add a paper of chemicals to a pail of water to make it ‘boil’.
If not for the ultimate callousness and meanness of the trick – Mrs Golding was an elderly lady and she was badly frightened as well as suffering considerable financial loss – young Ann was clearly a force to be reckoned with. One wonders if she ever repeated the tactic on future employers – or if her descendants can be found employed in todays popular Halloween entertainment, the Haunted House.
Sources and Notes
Crowe, Catherine, 1848, The Night-Side of Nature:
Davies, Owen, 2007, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts    
Hone, William, 1825: The Everyday Book:    
MacKay, Charles, 1852, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:  
Britain has an amazing selection of local beers and ales which you can often only find at a few select pubs close to where they are produced. Many of them have been given names which have a strong regional historical or cultural relevance. Manufactured at the Ringwood Brewery, Lovey Warne is one such ale. Classified as a golden or blonde ale, it has a moderate toasted malt and caramel aroma and a bitter citrus taste. It is named after a famous local figure, the female smuggler, Lovey Warne and its amber colour is meant to symbolise her scarlet coloured cloak.
When people think of smuggling in the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain they immediately think of the coasts of Cornwall and Dorset. Books such as Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier set in the wild, remote landscape of Bodmin Moor and Winston Graham’s Poldark series have also helped cement this connection in people’s minds. People tend to forget that smuggling went on all over Britain and how well organised and sophisticated the smuggling network became at its height.
Free trading: A respectable occupation
Smuggling or Free Trading as it was otherwise known became an important source of income for many families hit hard by exorbitant taxes. These unpopular taxes implemented to help pay for the wars on the continent and fill the Treasury’s coffers, had left many families on the brink of starvation. So in order to augment their meagre or in many cases non-existent wages many people turned unsurprisingly to smuggling. People from all levels of society were involved in the trade with the high-duty goods such as brandy, tobacco, lace and tea bringing the best profits.
Smuggling was considered by many to be an honourable trade and a recognised occupation. In addition many people even though not directly involved in the trade themselves were sympathetic to the smugglers’ cause. One such sympathiser, a farmer by the name of Burt Chubbs helped rescue smugglers being chased by excise men. He hid them in his barn and then misdirected the officers by claiming the smugglers’ wagon had broken his leg whilst heading towards Burley. This attitude together with the deep mistrust rural communities felt towards outsiders and especially the King’s men known for their corruption meant that it was nearly impossible to convince anyone to become an informant and most rewards for information were left unclaimed.
A centre of smuggling: The New Forest
One such area which became well-known as a centre of the smuggling trade was the New Forest. The New Forest (one of the most beautiful areas in England) in Hampshire lies inland away from the harbours of Christchurch and Bournemouth in Dorset. The dense forest which would have then extended much further south made an ideal hiding place for contraband transported from the coast. Indeed many of the villagers who lived within the boundaries of the forest played an important and active role in the distribution of these goods and it was once claimed that every labourer in the forest was either a poacher or a smuggler or both. In the mid-18th century, it was written “We hear from the New Forest in Hampshire that smugglers have got to such a height in that part of the country that scarce a week passes but great quantities of goods are run between Lymington and Christchurch”. Another source showing the scale of the operations stated that he had heard of “twenty or thirty wagons laden with kegs, guarded by two or three hundred horsemen, each bearing two or three tubs, coming over the Hengistbury Head, making their way, in the open day past Christchurch to the Forest”. Some parts of the forest are still known as ‘the Boatyard’ despite being miles from the sea.
A smuggler’s refuge
The picturesque New Forest village of Burley with its traditional cottages and pretty lanes is located about 4 miles south east of Ringwood. Today it is a charming stop for tourists visiting the New Forest but go back about three hundred years and the village reveals its much darker past. The village once a close-knit secretive community was a main centre for smuggling in the region. The village was so infamous that the revenue men preferred not to enter it unless they absolutely had to as they were aware that the villagers were able to raise an armed mounted troop of men at short notice more than capable of dealing with the King’s officials.
One of the main pubs in the village, The Queen’s Head Inn was used to store contraband and not long ago during building work a secret smugglers’ cellar was discovered. In the room the workmen also found some long forgotten loot including pistols, cutlasses, brandy bottles, coins as well as several straw hats from Italy. It is even claimed that prior to the discover of the cellar, strange noises such as groans were heard coming from their direction, these sounds promptly stopped after the discovery. I wonder were the noises warning people away from or directing them to the cellar?
The infamous Warne Brothers
In Burley you will find a small street called Warnes Lane named after the notorious Warne family who lived nearby. The Warne brothers Peter and John were believed to have run the Christchurch smuggling fraternity in the first quarter of the 1800s. They possibly acted as ‘landers’. The lander’s role was to move goods away from shore and inland as quickly as possible. They would then either hide the contraband somewhere safe such as a pub or a church or pass it on to their clients. It is rumoured that there was an oak tree in Burley where the gang would meet to discuss their plans. Peter and John lived with their sister Lovey in a house at Crow Hill Top called Knaves Ash. Knaves Ash was perfectly positioned for moving contraband unseen due to the number of tracks that converged at the house. One of the most famous of these sunken tracks was known as Smugglers’ Road. It begun near the inlet village of Chewton, passed through Burley, continued onto the turnpike road at Picket Post and ended at Ridley Wood.
Not much is known about the Warne family but their father may have owned or managed one of the pubs in Burley. If he did then there is a possibility that it could have been the Queen’s Head Inn. Although it was the brothers who were a leading force in the smuggling ring it is their sister Lovey (probably short for Loveday) who has passed into New Forest folklore.
The legend of Lovey Warne
The legend goes that Lovey would walk along Vereley Hill watching for any sign of the revenue men. If she saw them she would turn her cloak inside out to display a red lining which she would wear to warn the smugglers. The romantic image of Lovey wandering the heath in her red cape has captured people’s imagination and she has been immortalised not only in alcohol but also in music and books.Signalling to the smugglers was not the only contribution Lovey made to her brothers’ business. For a while she took an even more active role. On orders from her brothers she would ride on her pony (most likely one of the New Forest ponies, known for their sturdiness and stamina) to pre-arranged meetings with ships’ captains in Christchurch harbour. There she would go to the captain’s cabin, undress, wind herself in valuable silks, put her clothes back on and return home. As she left the ship she would have passed by the inept and oblivious revenue men who even if they were suspicious were under official orders not to search women. At home the silks would have been removed and possibly sold at the market at Ridley Wood which dealt in both legal and illegal goods.
The scam continued for a time until one incident when Lovey’s luck nearly ran out. One day as she left a ship she was stopped by a revenue man and invited for a drink at the Eight Bells in Christchurch, an offer she would have been unable to refuse without arousing suspicion. Once at the pub, the revenue man became a little too friendly, touching her legs and thighs and getting a little too close to the hidden silks. Acting quickly she jabbed the man in the eye with her elbow and fled whilst the landlady sat on the man pretending to tend to his damaged eye allowing Lovey the time she needed to get away. It is believed this incident put an end to Lovey’s front line participation.
Lovey and her brothers pretty much disappear from history at this point. The only further brief glimpses we have is a possible record of Lovey marrying at the age of seventeen in Christchurch in around 1814 and a story surrounding her death. The church of St John the Baptist was built in Burley in 1839 and Lovey was one of the first villagers to be buried there. According to the story she wanted to be buried with her beloved pony but permission was not granted and instead the pony was buried in the middle of a ring of fir trees outside the churchyard.
The usefulness of a good, sturdy petticoat
It was not unusual for women to play a prominent role in the smuggling trade. Although they may not have been physically able to move the heavy tubs, they did contribute in other ways. Like Lovey they could act as look outs, be responsible for keeping the cargo hidden or deliver messages. Again just as Lovey had done many women would wrap themselves in silks and carry them hidden but openly past the revenue men who were powerless to do anything about it.
Women would also transport alcohol by hiding cow or pig bladders filled with brandy and gin underneath their thick petticoats. In 1799 George Lipcomb described meeting some of these women. He was initially shocked by their “grotesque and extraordinary” appearance “till upon enquiry, we found that they were smugglers of spirituous liquors…and, indeed they were so heavily laden, that it was with great apparent difficulty they waddled along”. Sometimes being so overburdened was useful, in Gosport a woman called Maclane was the only survivor when the Queen Charlotte boat sunk, she was saved from drowning by “being buoyed up with a quantity of bladders”. In Folkestone women would disguise themselves as laundresses and hide liquor in baskets covered with linen.
Women were also involved in processing commodities. They would cut and dry ordinary leaves to mix in with the tea leaves to increase its bulk for selling and dilute French brandy. Brandy was shipped in its pure form, which made it easier to transport in large quantities but was undrinkable. The women would also heat the liquid and change its colour from clear to the honey colour which the British preferred.
Despite the fact that women were not allowed to be searched a number of them were arrested on smuggling related offences such as the 70 year old Catherine Winter, a Weymouth seamstress who served an 18 day sentence in 1844. Other evidence from the Register for Dorchester Gaol between 1782 and 1853 lists the names and occupations of more than 64 women from the surrounding villages and towns in prison on smuggling charges. The end of the Napoleonic War together with the tax reforms of 1830 finally brought the country much needed social and economic relief and as a consequence made smuggling much less appealing.
Although smuggling did of course continue albeit on a much lesser scale the golden era of Free Trading was over and the New Forest shook off its disreputable reputation and eventually become what it is today, a beautiful and popular tourist destination.
The New Forest, Bournemouth & Poole – smuggling, www.smuggling.co.uk/gazetter_s_13.htm
Lovey Warne of the New Forest, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/lovey-warne-of-new-forest.html
The New Forest Smugglers, http://www.thenewforestguide.co.uk/history/new-forest-smugglers/
New Forest Smugglers, http://inewforest.co.uk/new-forest-smugglers/
Burley 1958, http://www.royhodges.co.uk/Burley.pdf
Smugglers Cove, http://dorsetsea.swgfl.org.uk/html/smuggler/smug_mr3.htm
Women and the smuggling trade, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/women-and-smuggling-trade.html
Smuggling in the eighteenth and early nineteenth Century, http://lugnad.ie/smuggling/
Dorset – Smugglers Coast, http://dorset-ancestors.com/?p=910
Cindy Vallar, Smuggling, www.cindyvallar.com/smuggling.html
Smuggling in and around Burton Bradstock, http://www.burtonbradstock.org.uk/History/Smuggling/Smuggling.htm
 The New Forest Smugglers, http://www.thenewforestguide.co.uk/history/new-forest-smugglers/
 Lovey Warne of the New Forest, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/lovey-warne-of-new-forest.html
 Lovey Warne of the New Forest, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/lovey-warne-of-new-forest.html
 Smuggling in and around Burton Bradstock, http://www.burtonbradstock.org.uk/History/Smuggling/
 Women and the smuggling trade, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/women-and-smuggling-trade.html
black mausoleum, Bloody Mackenzie, Bluidy, city of the dead, Convenaters, edinburgh ghosts, George Mackenzie, Ghosts, Greyfriarys kirkyard, Kings Peace, national covenant, Orbs, poltergeist, The Black Bond
Edinburgh is a city rife with duality, it is a city where surgeons shake hands with murders, superstition vies with enlightenment and the cruel compete with the sentimental. And in a city like Edinburgh, the dead, like the poor, will never be far away. Greyfriars Kirkyard crouched behind the Grassmarket, protected by high walls and overlooked by the tall tenements of Candlemaker Row, is famous as the resting place of the great and the good: from Buchan to Greyfriars Bobby. But those walls also encompass darker tales: of plague pits, resurrectionists and the brutal suppression of religious dissent.
Mary Queen of Scots and a surfeit of bodies
From the 1400’s to the 1500’s the Kirkyard was a Franciscan convent garden situated on the outskirts of the town; however by the mid sixteenth century pressure on the existing burial ground at St Giles led Mary Queen of Scots to make a gift of the land for use as a cemetery . This was in 1562 and was not a moment too soon, as plague ravaged the city in 1568 and many of its victims ended up in plague pits in the Kirkyard. To further add to its grisly history, the severed heads of criminals executed on the Grassmarket were displayed at entrance of Greyfriars Kirkyard closest to it. As the body-count rose, so too did the ground level. It is worth remembering that as with most old cemeteries, there are a lot more bodies than there are visible monuments…so tread carefully, because every step is likely to be over someone’s grave.
The pale gold Dutch-barn-style church that visitors see today looks timeless but it is not the original Greyfriars Kirk. A late Gothic-style church was begun on the site in 1602 and took nearly twenty years to complete. The old kirk didn’t have much luck; it was damaged during the Civil War and partially destroyed in 1718 when the town’s gunpowder supply, which some bright spark had decided to store in the church tower, blew up. Eventually a new kirk was added to the surviving old kirk, but ill-fortune dogged that too, and a fire in 1845 destroyed the remaining old kirk and damaged parts of new. All seems peaceful now, although if you look closely you can still see some remaining scorch-marks on the brickwork, a reminder of its eventful past.
The National Covenant of Scotland
One of the most tragic elements of the history of Greyfriars, and one with potentially long lasting psychic consequences, is its link to the doomed Covenanter movement of the seventeenth century. An old legend about the conversion of Scotland to Christianity claims that there was a covenant between God and the community of Scotland before the first king, Fergus, began his reign (c310AD). To many Scots this cemented the idea that Scotland, not England, or even Rome itself, was the first true Godly Kingdom; it reinforced the belief that no king could stand between the Scots and their covenant with God. In England, the King was the head of the Church but traditionally in Scotland the Kirk had no such figurehead. This would prove a sticking point between the Scottish Covenanters and King Charles I .
Charles I, despite his Scottish birth, critically misread the mood of the Scots when he and Arch-Bishop Laud introduced the Authorised Prayer Book in1637, it was an attempt to bring the reformed Catholic Church, epitomised by English Episcopalianism, to Scotland, and it was required that the book be read out in Scottish Kirks. This was not a wise move by the king. Described as ‘This Popish-English-Scottish-Mass-Service-book’ by John Row, a minister at St Giles  its attempt at introducing a national church, with the king as its head, served only to inflame calls for Scottish religious independence.
On 23 July 1637 the reading of the Authorised Prayer Book in Scottish Kirks led to the Prayer Book Riots, in which stools were hurled at the Dean and Bishop of Edinburgh in St Giles, and the Bishop designate of Argyll was shouted down at Greyfriars Kirk for trying to introduce popery by the backdoor.
Charles I and Arch-bishop Laud were attempting to introduce an Arminian inspired version of the church across Britain. The Arminian view considered that the Church of Rome was a true church even if misguided. In short, Charles and Laud wanted to introduce a reformed Catholic Church across England and Scotland. This was a red-rag to a bull for Scottish Presbyterians, as Simon Schama wrote: ‘The mere notion that the Church of Rome was not actually the abominable institution of the Antichrist, sent them into a paroxysm of wrath.’  Something had to be done to protect the godly church in Scotland from the corrupt and popish church that Laud and his bishops were trying to impose on Scotland.
The King, far removed from his Scottish roots, would not renounce Arch-bishop Laud, Bishops in general, or his idea of what the church should be, and tensions were running high. In fact, Charles thought much of the resentment was being fanned by France, rather than local sentiment, and made it clear he would treat such views as traitorous. The ground was ripe for religious rebellion.
On 28 February 1638 before the pulpit in Greyfriars Kirk, the National Covenant was signed. Prayers were offered, Psalms sung and sermons delivered. The New Jerusalem was to be in Scotland. Over the next days and weeks the covenant was displayed and signed by multitudes, rich and poor, young and old, men and women alike. Simon Schama notes that such was its importance to the national psyche it became almost a measure of patriotism– to be a true Christian and a true Scot you must sign the covenant .
On the surface the document maintained the Kings Peace, but under the condition that the king could be lawfully challenged if he broke the covenant. Schama also points out that Covenanters did not see their demands as threatening to the King as such, with the proviso that if the King should threaten them in their religious freedom, then they would take up arms . This was unlikely to go down well with the autocratic Charles I.
Later in 1638 the Glasgow Assembly went even further and broke the links between the Scottish Church and English government. The die was cast and the King would have to take decisive action.
So began half a century of unrest, punctuated by Civil War, regicide, the protectorate and finally the restoration of a king in exile. In fact Charles II was assisted on his return by the Scottish Covenanters, on the proviso that he agree to leave Presbyterianism well alone in Scotland. However, Kings have short memories once their crowns are secure, and he soon went back on his word and began persecuting the Covenanters. The scene was set for the final tragedy that was to play out in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
The Covenanters Prison
Fast forward to1679, following the final defeat of the Presbyterian Covenanters at the battle of Bothwell Brig on the 22nd June, around twelve-hundred Covenanter prisoners were marched in disgrace to Edinburgh. Declared rebels and traitors they faced execution or at best, transportation to the colonies to work as indentured slave labour. However, many had much worse suffering to endure in the months ahead.
Today, the visitor can view the prison through locked gates – a wide grassy avenue is flanked by unremarkable family vaults of pale stone; however things were very different in the seventeenth century. Inner Greyfriars yard covered about 3 acres, with high walls and only one gate (not the current gates that visitors see) . Facilities to house and accommodate the prisoners were non-existent – they were effectively penned up in the open air for upwards of four months and given a miserly ration of 4oz of food per day. Vulnerable to exposure, malnutrition, disease and despair many died during their internment, especially as the year turned towards winter. The conditions in the Covenanters Prison were so harsh that it has been called the first concentration camp .
Such a huge influx of people created a logistical nightmare in Edinburgh; this is why Inner Greyfriars Yard, as it was known then, was used as an overflow prison. Estimates vary as to how many prisoners were held here, certainly the number reduced over time. Dr Mark Jardine’s view that there were initially1184 prisoners housed in Greyfriars Yard and Herriot School (next to it) seems compelling, it is based on the evidence of how many penny loaves were issued as rations to the prisoners (1184 on 1 July, one for each prisoner). The numbers rapidly reduced during the summer as many were released after being, often forcefully, encouraged to swear the Kings Peace, an oath of loyalty to the King that some hardcore Covenanters called ‘the black bond’. Added to this, others of course would have died from the terrible conditions, or been executed or transported thereby further reducing numbers as time went on  . It must have felt like a bitter irony for the Covenanters to have been imprisoned next to the place from which their movement first took wing.
Eventually judicial fate met those who remained and many were executed on the Grassmarket. By Mid November only around 250 prisoners remained in Greyfriars. They were condemned to transportation, and having survived the privations of the Covenanters Prison, they must surely have felt some relief. However, fate, proved to be merciless when the ship carrying them, The Croune, sank off the Orkneys, and of the 250 or so chained prisoners only 60 or so made it back to dry land alive  .
The Killing Time and Bloody MacKenzie
Presbyterian historians refer to the period of persecution during the reign of Charles II until the Glorious Revolution in 1688, as The Killing Time. During this time, countless Covenanter ministers were forced out of their livings, ordinary people were fined if they didn’t attend the King’s church and torture and extortion were routinely used to break the spirit of the Covenanters. Unable to practice their religion in public, Covenanters resorted to meeting in fields in ‘conventicles’ but that soon became perilous, with a death penalty for any preacher caught in the act.
The Sanquhar Declaration of 1680 brought matters to a head, Covenanters renounced allegiance to Charles II, in response to this treasonous behaviour, the Scottish Privy Council went all out against the Covenanters allowing field executions of those in arms or refusing to swear loyalty to the King. The Oath of Abjuration, as it was called, was, in itself, designed to offend, thereby revealing hardened Covenanters for summary execution.
Sir George MacKenzie (1636/8-1691) is a name that has become synonymous with the persecution by the crown of the Covenanters, earning him the epithet Bluidy Mackenzie. He persecuted them from the bench, while John Graham of Claverhouse earned the name Bluidy Clavers for his summary field executions.
But Sir George Mackenzie wasn’t entirely evil. As an essayist he was enlightened in his views against the persecution of witches, and one of his lasting legacies was the Advocates Library, later the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh. In fact, during the 1660’s when Mackenzie was a budding lawyer, he actually defended a number of Covenanters. Things changed from 1677 though, when he was made Lord Advocate – the king’s representative in Scotland.
It has be argued by Bruce Lenman and J Mackie in their book A History of Scotland, that as Lord Advocate, Mackenzie was responsible for executing King Charles II’s policy regarding suppression of the Presbyterian Covenanters, therefore Mackenzie effectively had no choice but to execute government policy. He and Bluidy Clavers may have acted entirely within law in their dealings with Covenanters – although I doubt the Covenanters felt that justice was being served to them .
It is easy to romanticise the persecuted Covenanters, fighting to preserve their religious independence and perhaps Scotland’s independence as well; however they did not speak for all Scots – many highlanders, after all, were Catholic. And to modern eyes, they can be viewed as hard-line religious extremists, ready to bring down the government in order to impose their austere religious ideology. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between, with most ordinary people simply wanting the freedom to choose how they worshipped their God. What is not in doubt is the terrible suffering endured by the people immured in Greyfriars by order of their King, and such suffering may well have left a permanent imprint…
The Mackenzie Poltergeist
Mackenzie died in 1691 and somewhat tactlessly, was interred in his elegant mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard, within spitting distance of the Covenanters Prison. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing in 1897, reported the evil reputation that Mackenzie and that part of Greyfriars Kirkyard had acquired:
‘When a man’s soul is certainly in hell, his body will scarce lie quite in a tomb however costly, sometime or other the door must open, and the reprobate come forth in the abhorred garments of the grave’ . He went on to report a local children’s game: ‘Fool hardy urchins [thought it] a high piece of prowess to knock at the Lord Advocate’s Mausoleum and challenge him to appear. “Bluidy Mackenzie, come oot if ye dar”’ 
One such foolhardy urchin, in the form of a homeless man looking for shelter one stormy night in 1999, took the dare and got more than he bargained for. Breaking into the Mausoleum he found an underground chamber containing the coffin of Bluidy Mackenzie. Perhaps thinking it contained valuables, he tried to break into it, but in the darkness he stumbled and fell into an open pit filled with the bones of plague victims. The terrified man burst screaming from the Mausoleum, just as a grounds man, walking his dog, approached it. The combined terror is thought by some, to have amplified the dark energies held within the tomb, and given rise to what has become known as the Mackenzie Poltergeist (see Jan-Andrew Henderson’s The Ghost That Haunted Itself, for more on the Pheromone Theory.)
Since then the phenomena around the mausoleum and the Covenanters Prison has escalated, visitors have reported being pushed and scratched and feeling nauseous to the point of passing out. The death of popular local Spiritualist Colin Grant, following an exorcism at the Mausoleum and prison, in January 2000 added a tragic dimension to the growing legend of the poltergeist.
Grant believed there were many spirits trapped there in pain, plus ‘something else as well, something much stronger.’ The local tour company City of the Dead, who hold keys to the Covenanters Prison, have reported many such instances that would support this view – after all, the poltergeist is undoubtedly good for business! Having been on one such tour, I can certainly attest to the eerie feeling walking into the Covenanters Prison on a dark night. During that tour I took some photographs which are below, and there were some interesting anomalies. Lots of orbs, especially in the Prison, and what may be either Pareidolia (the human desire to see faces where there are none) or just possibly, a misty face above a grave stone. I leave you to be the judge.
Nightime shots at Greyfriars Kirkyard
I have to admit that not being an expert on paranormal investigation, or external physical causes of light anomalies in photographs, I am yet to be convinced that ‘orbs’ are evidence of spirits. However, I do find them fascinating and have captured some previous images at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, and now at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.
Conditions at the time:
- Early March
- Dry and cold
- No visible insects
- Early blossom on the trees – loose petals could have caused some anomalies
- Although the graveyard was very dark, lights from surrounding buildings could have created anomalies
- Building work on the Kirk during the day could have created dust in the atmosphere
Visit Greyfriars Kirkyard
Greyfriars Kirkyard is open to the public. You can also do nigh-time tours of the Kirkyard and enter the Covenanters Prison with City of the Dead Tours.
Sources and notes
All images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.
Henderson, Jan-Andrew, ‘The Ghost That Haunted Itself’, 2001, Mainstream Publishing   
Schama, Simon, ‘A Hisory of Britain:The British Wars 1603-1776’, BBC