The Dark World Of The Essex Witches
28th December, 1960
By Eric MapleEssex is the traditional home of folk legends, those strange tales of ghosts and devils which were once so common in country districts. These stories were often sad, sometimes morbid, embodying the spirit of people whose minds were steeped in the darkest of superstitions, Witchcraft.
Foremost amongst the characters who helped to keep the old beliefs in witches alive for more than 50 years after they had died out else where, was the strange Hadleigh shoemaker, Cunning Murrell who lived in a little lane near Hadleigh church. James Murrell was probably the last of the old English White Wizards, for the rites that he practiced belonged to the 16th century rather than the 19th century when he actually lived, and it is indeed remarkable that his curious craft should have survived for so long in the quiet corner of Essex known as The Rochford Hundred.
Cunning Murrell cured warts, prescribed herbal remedies for ailing humans and amulets for sick cattle. He traced lost and stolen property by aid of a “magic” glass, read the stars, and was a renowned hunter of witches. There are stories still told of his “witch bottles”, containers in which he boiled up the blood, nail paring, and hair clippings of the victims of witchcraft. According to his theory this would kill the witch or force her to remove the curse. The legends surrounding the man were so numerous and so were those relating to the witches he pursued with such unrelenting hatred. Some of these are still remembered by very old local people, and they throw light on the nature of the witch belief of those times. There is a macabre tale about witchcraft in Murrell's own village of Hadleigh, which illustrates the character of the old, dark fear.
An old woman of Hadleigh was regarded as a witch during her lifetime and was also feared after death. Two women who went to lay out the body did so very reluctantly for fear of the witch's imps, curious little animals which they felt certain were somewhere in the room. They completed their work and were about to leave when a man entered the house saying that he was the dead woman's son. He then told them “my mother held a power and that power comes to me, but I don't want it.”
He ordered the women to make up a big fire and when it was blazing he took a tiny wooden box from a chest. A strange murmuring sound came from the box, the man then placed it in the heart of the flames. At once the room was filled with terrible human screams which died slowly away as the box was reduced to ashes. Then the man turned to the terrified women and said “the imps are destroyed.”
“Now I am free.” This grim legend is typical of the old time witch tales. While people continued to believe in witchcraft it was possible to make a living by destroying the power of witches, charging half-a-crown a time.
There is a story still told about the ghost of a witch who haunted Canewdon, a village with a dreadful reputation for witchcraft. Until about 20 years ago, there would often be seen a solitary grey figure standing by the west gate of Canewdon churchyard, a woman without a head. It was said to be the ghost of a witch who had been executed. At night she began a strange journey down the to the old ferry at Creeksea, riding upon the hurdle upon which she had long ago been dragged to the scaffold. Those who were unfortunate enough to meet her on the road remembered the horror of that moment all their lives; at the sight of her they were turned to stone, and as she passed them a force like a great gale lifted them up and flung them violently to the ground.
The ghost crossed the river to Creeksea and was often seen on the far side walking along the sea wall towards a house, perhaps the oldest building in that place. There they still tell you that the ghost has been seen within the last 10 years. One night she appeared by the fireside in the old paneled lounge, a grey headless thing floating in mid air. Shortly afterwards she terrified a maid who met her on the stairs. They say in that house that the witch ghost is never far away.
The Wizzard Murrell was said to have possessed a mysterious power over witches, and he was often described as a Master of Witches. He knew the secret source of the witch power and the lore of the imps.
Witches were believed to derive their power from the possession of imps, small animals which were handed down from generation to generation, father to daughter, mother to son. Sometimes a witch died without children and there was no one to whom she could hand on the power.
One day the landlord of a cottage near Rayleigh went to remove the furniture of his tenant, a woman who had recently died. Hearing a curious rustling noise he looked into a dark corner and discovered a box containing mice. They were alive but almost motionless, and they seemed to murmur to one another in almost human voices. Badly shaken, the man brought in a cat, which promptly arched its back and fled. He then fetched the parson who declared that these were undoubtedly witches' imps and that it would be necessary to exorcise them. In spite of all his efforts the imps refused to budge, and it was then that someone remembered a similar thing had occurred long ago and then the imps had to be buried with the witch.
After some discussion it was decided to do this, and the box was taken to the churchyard at dead of night and the body of the old woman disinterred. As the coffin neared the surface the imps for the first time showed some animation. They leaped from their box and waited expectantly at the grave's edge uttering queer little whimpering cries.
The coffin lid was unscrewed, and as it was raised the little animals rushed inside, burying themselves in the winding sheet. Those who were present that night swore afterwards that before the lid was lowered again, they had seen by the dim light of the lantern a smile upon the face of the corpse. Wizardry and witchcraft were not confined merely to the Eastern coast of Essex although they were undoubtedly strongest there. In north Essex and in the low lying areas bordering the Thames, Grays, Thurrock and Tilbury, witches were an essential part of the local mythology. It was near Corringham, that a man once decided to take revenge upon an old woman whom he was sure had bewitched his orchard. However, she always managed to elude him and baffled he took the advice of friend (sic) and consulted the great Cunning Murrel (sic) at Hadleigh, who advised him to use the methods of sympathetic magic, which he then revealed to him.
The man was told to follow the woman and look for her footprints in the dust of the road and stab these with a knife. The next time he saw the witch he stalked her as usual, but then she vanished. The man then drew his knife and drove it again and again into the footprint in the dust. At once there was a shriek and the old woman suddenly appeared hopping on one foot, while from the other, streams of blood poured on to the ground.
Not only Wizards used white magic to fight the forces of evil; often, villagers would carry out strange rituals themselves. There is an old lady living not far from Wickford who remembers such an occasion, in 1896, when she was a girl. She was one day asked by her mother to go on a most mysterious errand, to the blacksmith's shop, where she was to collect a parcel. It was stressed to her that she must discuss the matter with no one, and to hurry back immediately which she did. That night she awoke hearing noises from below, and creeping down the stairs, she saw two women, her mother and a stranger, huddled over the fire upon which a pot was boiling. She watched her mother pour the contents of the parcel into the pot. They appeared to be pieces of horse-shoe, hair and handfuls of aromatic herbs. The women were silent the whole time but there was an air of expectancy about them as if they awaited some development. Suddenly the silence was disturbed by the sound of a faint scratching upon the outside of the street door, accompanied by a low moaning as from some creature in pain. The fire burned more fiercely, the pot bubbled and foamed, and the moaning became a cry that shattered the night, while the scratching upon the door grew wilder as if some angry beast was rending it with its talons.
The girl watched the expression upon the faces of the two women. In the flickering red light of the fire they looked like demons, and still they did not speak. Then the nerve of the girl gave way and overcome by the horror of it all she cried out in fear . . . . The moaning and tearing at the door stopped at once . . . . there was the sound of footsteps retreating from the house, and from the distance there came a low mocking laugh. Horror-struck, the girl staggered down the stairs. She was unprepared for the anger of the two women there. They struck her, they called her names, and they told her that by breaking the silence she had let a witch escape the trap set for her. The girl fled to her room crying, and the horror of that night was still with her 60 years afterwards.
On December 16, 1860, just 100 years ago, old Cunning Murrell, the Wizard, passed away in Hadleigh, a man of mystery to the end. He disputed with the curate on his deathbed, maintaining that in matters of spirit the clergy were but amateurs. “I am the Devil's Master” stormed Murrell, and the Curate fled. From his book of spells which still exists, it is obvious that the Wizard worshipped some unknown god whom he described as “The Lord of Ancient Nature.” What was the source of Murrell's strange power we may never know, but while he lived witchcraft was a living force in Essex.
Murrell was buried in Hadleigh churchyard on December 23, 1860. His ghost was seen for a while, gathering herbs by the roadside, not far from his weather-boarded cottage, and for a generation or so he was the subject of chimney corner anecdotes. Then, as the old people who had known him passed on, he became little more than a tradition. James “Cunning” Murrell the man had become legend, part of the dark world of the Essex witches.