“The Witch Country”
For many people when asked what they know about the county of Essex, the most common responses are TOWIE, Essex girl jokes (What did the Essex girl say after the doctor told her she was pregnant? Is it mine?), Jodie Marsh, girls in miniskirts and white stilettos dancing around their handbags and Jamie Oliver cooking up school lunches whilst chattering away in his Estuary English patter. Negative stereotypes have left Essex as almost a poor relation to other counties in England a reputation which it definitely does not deserve! Essex is rich in history with over 14,000 listed buildings, the oldest Roman remains in Britain, a unique housing style known as weatherboarding (which was adopted in America and is now known as the New England Style), the oldest surviving wooden church in the world and the rumoured burial place of King Harold II.
There is a darker side of Essex which has almost been forgotten, away from the chocolate box villages and the dubious delights of the seaside town of Southend. It is a county steeped in a tradition of witchcraft which has spanned centuries. Essex was the starting point in 1644 of the worst witch hunt ever initiated in England, led by the witch-finder General Matthew Hopkins, with its inhabitants suffering indescribable horrors at his hand; the birthplace of James Murrell one of England’s greatest “cunning men” and; Canewdon, a small relatively nondescript village which was believed to be a centre of witchcraft for an area which became known as “The Witch Country”.
The village of Canewdon
Located in the Rochford District on the Crouch Estuary, the village is sited on the highest hill of coastal Essex. Its name derives from the Saxon meaning “hill of Cana’s people”. Local tradition has it that a camp near the village was used by Canute during the Battle of Assandun.
Even today Canewdon has a lonely feel to it. Surrounded by the mudflats and marshes of the Thames Estuary it is easy to imagine how isolated and insular the community must have been in the past.
Dominating the village is the 14th century Parish Church of St Nicholas. The church stands on a ridge overlooking the River Crouch, its most striking feature being the 15th century tower which was built to commemorate Henry V’s victory at Agincourt.
A number of ghost stories abound in the area giving it the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in Essex. Most reports centre on the church, in particular around the church porch, graveyard and west gate car park. The most widely seen apparition is that of a grey lady with a poke bonnet and no face who has been spotted floating on moonless nights from the church’s west gate towards the river. Another popular story refers to a headless ghost seen in the church who has a tendency to pick unwary victims up and deposit them in a nearby ditch. Locals also reported in the 1980s that a man on a motorbike was chased by a small demonic entity that was just as fast as the bike.
Many of these ghosts are believed to be the spirits of witches who wander the earth unable to rest due to injustices committed against them when they were alive. If so, then historically speaking there would only be a miniscule pool of potential candidates to choose from, as unlike many other places in Essex, in Canewdon only three cases of witchcraft were ever recorded as being brought to trial.
The Canewdon Witch Trials
When you mention witches, most people would immediately think of Pendle, Berwick and of course Salem. Very few would name Canewdon; to be honest most people who live in Essex have never even heard of it. This is probably due to the fact that it had no sensational witch trials which could capture the public’s imagination; the village wasn’t even visited during Matthew Hopkins’ witch hunts. It is hard to imagine that if the connection between the village and witchcraft practice was as deeply rooted as folk memory claims how it managed to escape Hopkins’ attention. There are a number of possibilities: maybe land travel was too difficult due to the extremely isolated nature of the place; maybe the village was too poor to afford Hopkins’ services; maybe the witchcraft association does not go back as far as many people believe; was the link so strong that the villagers did not want outside interference and that witchcraft was silently accepted or were the witches considered too powerful to risk offending?
It is very difficult to precisely date when Canewdon became synonymous with witches. The three witchcraft trials span the short space of ten years. In 1580 the spinster Rose Pye was accused of bewitching to death Johanna Snow, a twelve month old child at Scaldhurst Farm. She pleaded not guilty and was acquitted but died in jail probably because she was unable to pay the fee needed to secure her release. In 1585, Cicily Makyn was also charged with practising witchcraft and given five years to mend her ways. In 1590 the ‘Goodwife’ Makins of Canewdon was indicted for witchcraft, as this trial occurs five years after the one involving Cicily Makyn it is safe to assume that they were one and the same, allowing for medieval flexibility with spelling. It appears that Cicily did not heed the warning to reform and as punishment was excommunicated. So only two women in Canewdon were ever charged with witchcraft, one found innocent and the other found guilty and excommunicated but (although a severe punishment in Medieval England and regarded as damning the soul to everlasting torment in hell) not imprisoned or hanged. Why the leniency? Did they believe witches could be reformed?
“Three of cotton and three of silk”
One saying referring to Canewdon states that there will always be six witches in Canewdon, three of cotton (lower classes) and three of silk (upper classes). The use of the word cotton does help to date the saying as cotton only become widely available in Britain in the first half of the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution. Before that wool would have been the material of choice for the lower classes. It does seem that about this time stories of witchcraft do seem to resurge. Does this mean that for two centuries, the link was broken? Or simply that nothing had happened that would have been noteworthy to outsider. I personally feel that the latter explanation seems more plausible as otherwise how would it explain the presence of two men whose powerful personalities and fearful reputations brought the village and surrounding area to the attention of the outside world. I think it very likely their decision to practice in this area and their success was largely down to the strength of belief in witchcraft and magic which the locals held, which had been built up over generations.
The “Cunning Man” of Hadleigh
James Murrell was born the seventh son of a seventh son in Rochford in 1780. In 1812 Murrell moved to Hadleigh, Essex and set up business as a shoemaker. Somehow about this time he met a witch/wizard called Neboad from whom he learnt about the craft. His natural skill in the art led him to give up shoe making and become a full-time ‘cunning man’. His fame grew as a cunning-man of unequalled ability and he was sought out by both local people and wealthy aristocrats from further afield. It was said that he would always ask people if their problem was ‘high or low’ i.e. did they need material or magic help. Material help would involve the use of herbal potions to combat ills. To tackle supernatural forces, Murrell would summon good spirits or angels to fight the bad ones. He was an expert in astrology and was consulted on a wide range of issues including finding lost objects, clairvoyance and his ability to cast and break other witches spells. For instance one legend refers to his using a potion to send a ‘burning sensation’ to a gypsy woman who was believed to have cursed a girl. The potion when heated exploded and the next day the body of the gypsy was found burnt to death and the girl cured 1. Many stories about Murrell were passed down by word of mouth and storytelling creating a legend around a man who was said to be the greatest witch/cunning man who England had ever seen.
His connection with Canewdon was also a strong one. The villages lie about nine miles from each other. It was reputed that Murrell was once engaged in a contest with a Canewdon witch to prove who was the most powerful. Commanding her to die, the witch immediately fell down dead. This ability to control other witches appears in another story. According to the legend the Canewdon villagers petitioned their vicar, Rev William Atkinson “to let Murrell exercise his whistling powers and make the witches confess themselves by dancing round the churchyard.” The vicar refused to give in to their demands as he knew such an exercise would reveal his own wife to be a witch 2 (his wife Mary Ann and her sister, Lady Lodwick were believed by many to be part of a coven in existence prior to 1860). Apart from emphasising the traditionally believed link between the church and witchcraft these stories also confirmed for many Murrell’s position as Master of Witches.
Despite a commanding personality and the powerful aura that seemed to surround him, Murrell appears to have used his skills to help the people who came to him. His fees were modest and even in old age when he had in general given up practising his arts he would if a person was in dire need still provide assistance. You get the feeling that he was respected and even liked (albeit with more than a tinge of caution), not so with another Master of Witches, who was reputed to have more sinister intentions.
George Pickingill along with his wife, Mary Ann and children moved to Canewdon sometime between 1864 and 1868. Often seen carrying his famous blackthorn walking stick, he was described as
“a tall, unkempt man, solitary and uncommunicative. He had very long finger-nails, and kept his money in a purse of sacking“. 3
Believed to be a hereditary witch, he performed many of the same services as other ‘cunning folk’ such as providing herbal remedies and finding lost objects but he was also believed to have used darker, malevolent magic to curse people. He was famed for his control of animals especially horses and legend has it that he had the ability to work at a superhuman rate possibly with the aid of his imps (familiars). It was claimed that many locals were terrified of offending him for fear of falling sick, for which the only cure was a touch of his walking stick. A touch of his stick was also believed to be able to stop the threshing machines.
Although the famous saying implies that there were only six witches in the village, many locals believed the number to be nine with many more of silk than cotton. These malevolent witches were not believed to know each other’s identities but were all under the control of one wizard or Master of Witches i.e. Pickingill who could summon them at will by means of a wooden whistle. It was also rumoured that he controlled nine covens established in Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Sussex that had been set up under his guidance.
Many of the darker stories about Pickingill come from the writer, Charles Lefebure. Lefebure claims that Pickingill sold his soul to the devil, was visited by black magicians from all over Europe and engaged in nocturnal orgies in the churchyard with his witches and kin. One legend goes that a young vicar newly appointed to the Parish was determined to put an end to this nightly revelry. On hearing noises he ran outside carrying a riding whip, only to be greeted by the sight of thirteen white rabbits. 4
Pickingill famously wrote “The Pickingill Papers” about the history and anthropology of Wicca and much more. Aleister Crowley was also thought by many to have been one of his students. Many modern-day Wiccans separate themselves from the Pickingill tradition due to the perceived dark and satanic nature of his practices.
For others Pickingill’s reputation for evil practices was ridiculous. They instead regarded him as simply adhering to the traditional practices of the cunning folk and a man who was “in his later years more interested in caging (sic) beer and getting a rise out of the people than anything else.”5 Whether or not you believe in either Murrell or Pickingill abilities is in many ways irrelevant, what is important is the indelible mark they have left on the history and folklore of this part of Essex.
A walk around the tower
Various legends have grown up surrounding the church and witchcraft these include the belief that if a stone falls from the tower it means that one witch has died and another has taken her place in the coven, that there will always be witches as long as the tower stands and that a novice witch seeking a coven should perform a dance to summon the devil.
One other myth has numerous variations. All of which can be seen to contain a subtle warning to take care when walking around the tower as you can never tell what might happen! It is believed that depending upon how many times you go round and in what direction you are bound to have a supernatural encounter e.g. anyone who walks around the tower at midnight will be forced to dance with witches; if you walk around the church witches will appear and sing to you; if you run around the tower backwards three times you’ll see a ghost at the top of the tower; if you run three times anti clockwise a portal will open and you will go back in time; if you walk around seven times on Halloween you’ll see a witch and thirteen times you will become invisible and if you run anti-clockwise round it on Halloween, the Devil will appear. All of this has made the church very popular, so much so that the police now cordon off the area to prevent investigators and ghost hunters from swarming the village at Halloween.
The tradition continues…
Over the last fifty years, many people have become fascinated with the story of Canewdon. Numerous articles have been published about the village, many debunking the myths that surround it. One writer Claire Smythe in her article on Canewdon stated that the village was one of the last places that traditional belief in witches survived. She discovered during her investigations that the last six witches were documented to have lived around the 1880s. One was believed to possess imps and “bewitch wagon wheels”, another to inflict lice on those that annoyed her and a third to “fix people with glaring eyes” to prevent them from entering the church. One tradition which continued well into the twentieth century was that as Canewdon witches had the ability to bewitch wagon and cart wheels anyone who took a bicycle into the village would get a puncture. Smythe seems to have suffered a similar fate as she recounts that when she left the church
“after having had a look at the carved witches’ cat and the old altar tomb where it is said the children used to listen to the Devil rattling his chains – I found that my car had its first puncture for over five years.” 6
People visiting the church have witnessed strange phenomena including figures standing under the church portal and orbs in the church. One visitor claims to have been terrified when he saw women dancing in the churchyard after taking a walk around the tower.
Not surprisingly the ubiquitous Yvette Fielding and the “Most Haunted” team investigated St Nicholas. They claimed to have felt the presence of Matthew Hopkins, which is strange as according to all records he never visited the village. Maybe his ghost was lost or he had decided to make up for his negligence when he was alive!
I did not experience anything supernatural when I visited the village and church one Saturday afternoon. The only thing which struck me was how isolated, empty and strangely unwelcoming the village felt. The church itself also had an unsettling atmosphere intensified by the sheer weight of silence (we were the only two visitors) which seemed to hang heavy around it. Unlike in other churchyards where I love to amble, investigating and reading the headstones, I felt no desire to linger. Maybe ‘witches’ still live in Canewdon, probably not, but wandering around it was easy to imagine that the tradition has not yet been broken and that the enigmatic James Murrell was correct when he predicted that the village of Canewdon would be populated with witches forever.7
1 Maple, Eric (December 1960). “The Witches of Canewdon”. Folklore Vol 71, No 4.
2 Old George Pickingill and the History of Modern Witchcraft
3 Old George Pickingill and the History of Modern Witchcraft
4 Old George Pickingill and the History of Modern Witchcraft
5 Old George Pickingill and the History of Modern Witchcraft
6 Canewdon by Claire Smythe in ’50 Strange Stories of the Supernatural’
7 Witches of Canewdon, http://www.strangeuk.com/witchcraft/item/17-witches-of-canewdon
Cunning Murrell: The Facts, http://www.hadleighhistory.org.uk/page_id__198_path__0p3p.aspx
Canewdon Church, Essex http://www.hauntedisland.co.uk/haunted-churches/canewden-church-essex
Canewdon, Claire Smythe, “50 Strange Stories of the Supernatural” (edited by John Canning)
Old George Pickingill and the History of Modern Witchcraft http://www.pickingill.com/
The Witches of Canewdon, Eric Maple, Folklore Vol 71
Witches of Canewdon, http://www.strangeuk.com/witchcraft/item/17-witches-of-canewdon
Widow Eliza Frost Lodwick (1784 – 1861), The wife of Jeremiah Kersteman Lodwick, http://www.deadfamilies.com/Z3-Others/Lodwick/Lodwick-Eliza-Frost-01.html
Essex Witch Trials, http://www.witchtrials.co.uk/years.html
Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-century English Tragedy, Malcolm Gaskill
Essex – Paranormal Database Records http://www.paranormaldatabase.com/essex/esspages/essedata.php?pageNum_paradata=2&totalRows_paradata=411