Canewdon - The Bedeviled Village

In Essex Countryside Magazine

Issue 283, Pg.26

By Eric Maple

While lecturing on Essex superstition at a village hall last summer I was asked by a member of my audience: "Why is Essex so often called the 'Witch County'?” This happens to be a frequent question for which there is a ready answer. Essex acquired its doleful reputation as a “Witch county” due to certain tragic events of the seventeenth century when the infamous witch finder general, Matthew Hopkins, operating from Manningtree, became responsible for the trial and execution of scores of women whom he accused of practicing the black arts and co-operating with the Devil. On one dreadful day in 1645 no less than nineteen of these had been hanged on a single gallows at Chelmsford. The skeleton of one victim was found riveted bone to bone in a garden at St. Osyth.

For long afterwards, Essex folk continued to harass suspected witches often with tragic results. Just over a hundred years ago in 1863 a mob at Sible Heddingham attacked a dumb fortune-teller known as “Old Dummy” throwing him into a stream. So roughly was he handled that he died later in the the infirmary and the newspaper accounts of subsequent trials and punishment of the offenders must have convinced the rest of Britain that in Essex at least witchcraft had never completely died out.

There was a later incident at the turn of the century when an old woman was threatened with a ducking at Dunmow and had to be rescued by the police. Behind the idea of ducking a witch was the old superstition that if she succeeded in floating she must be guilty. Only by sinking, and sometimes drowning, could she satisfy her tormenters of her innocence.One has also to remember that the last English “witch doctor”, Cunning Murrell, lived in Essex and died in Hadleigh in 1860 having kept alive the fear of witches in a county that had tasted fear enough. Murrell's weatherboarded cottage stood in the little lane to the south of Hadleigh church.

Mrs Charlotte Mason's fascinating book Essex, Its Forest Folk and Folklore published in 1928 has a chapter on witches “Belief in magic and withcraft is still surviving in Essex,” she wrote, reminding her readers of the legend of the witches of Canewdon village a few miles to the north of Rochford “There were always six witches at the village of Canewdon, three in silk and three in cotton and when one died a stone fell out the church wall. There was always another witch to take her place. Canewdon is called the witch country”.

In 1959, on behalf of the Folklore Society I followed up what I thought were the surviving legends of witchcraft in Essex obtaining from Canewdon some rather remarkable old wives' takes. I was told for example: “Dreadful things happened in the old days. The witches could change themselves into white rabbits”. However I admit to feeling a shudder running down my spine when I heard the story of the old Witch Hart of Latchingdon at the moment of whose death hundreds of white mice ran screaming from her cottage. According to the local legend these were her “imps”. The legends were published in the Folklore Journal for December 1960. Obviously the old terror of witchcraft had never quite died out.

I visited Canewdon again in 1968 for the BBC and obtained interviews with villagers (which were broadcast under the title “Return to the Witch Country”) in which one old woman said: “I know there are witches here”. The programme can be read in the BBC publication Good Talk for 1969, we were now within hailing distance of the present times but still Essex witchcraft refused to expire and instead took a new and more sinister shape.

In place of legend and superstition there was clear-cut evidence suggesting that witchcraft in the county was now on an organised basis, and witch covens were constantly reported. A grave was actually dug on Rochford Golf Course containing a new spade, the symbol of death, and a branch of a willow tree, the simple for sorrow. The heart of an animal was discovered on a gravestone at St. Clement Church in Leigh and the head of a pig on an Essex lawn – this being one of the oldest spells for the pig is the symbol of Satan. In fact, a witch who was interviewed by a reporter for a local newspaper said: “We were drinking devil's blood which is the blood of pigs and beetles mixed with wine.”

In April, 1969, a newspaper investigating a further outbreak of witchcraft in Essex discovered that Priory Park museum near Southend had been under attack. Skulls had been removed from the three glass cases and a ventriloquist's dummy was found with a dagger piercing its eye. A ritual fire had also been lit in one of the galleries, endangering the safety of the building.

Throughout the 1970s there have been incidents in places as far apart as Stansted where a Bible was descrated and Danbury where a coven had been reported. However, the people of Danbury insist that the coven is not theirs but operates from Maldon.

Epping Forest has several witch covens. On one occasion a group of white witches disrobed in the forest for one of their Hallowe'en dances did not stay long. An eerily wind whisling through the trees send them scurrying back to their cars.

It was the repeal of the law against witchcraft (the Witchcraft Act) in 1951 which resulted in the presented revival. However, the witchcraft of modern times seems to have little in common with the strange beliefs of Essex villagers in the days of old.

I once asked the leader of the modern witches, the late Dr. Gerald Gardner, if he could explain the sudden revival of witchcraft in the county. He replied ambiguously: “They have witches in Sussex. Why shouldn't they have them in Essex as well?”

And now we move into the 1970s. In 1976 the effigy of a man pierced with pins was found in a small wood near Rochford. It lay at the centre of a twenty foot circle and was covered in what was at first thought to be blood, but which proved to be crimson candle grease. Pentagrams (these are five pointed stars) were painted on nearby trees. The ceremony had been carried out at Hallowe'en which has become known locally as “The Night of the Doll of Death”. This was no schoolboy hoax or Hallowe'en joke by amateurs. As the police said at the time: “The perpetrators had too much knowledge to be written off as pranksters”.

Then in 1979 came an almost “carbon copy” of the same ritual in the same stretch of woodland. In this case, however, there as a roughly constructed altar but instead of the doll the skull of a goat, that well known symbol of the Devil, was found in the magic circle impaled upon a pole, and, as before, weird symbols were painted on the trees. The press quoted one authority saying: “There is a group of people here who believe in devil worship”.

At this point I think it might be helpful to distinguish between the various kinds of witches who operate in Essex and elsewhere, of which there are three.

Firstly, we have the old-style country witches who seriously believed in the power of the evil eye and bewitching an enemy by casting evil spells. These unpleasant types were combated by village witch doctors like Cunning Murrell of Hadleigh, whom I have already mentioned. I think it would be true to say that witchcraft in this form is practically extinct, very few Essex people giving it much credence. The fear of the evil eye, however, survives in the well-known phrase, “if looks could kill”.

Next come the modern versions of witchcraft, which I am convinced are relatively new manifestations having arisen as the direct result of the repeal of the law against witchcraft a quarter of a century ago. It seems astounding that there should be more witchcraft in Essex today than at any other period in county's history with the possible exception of Matthew Hopkins' reign of terror. Modern witchcraft comes in two distinct packages: first there is white witchcraft, a cult which under the name of Wicca claims that all its magic is directed to good works. Like the detergent, these witches claim they are “whiter than white”. Wicca is organised int small groups of covens under a high priestess and has its own witchcraft “bible” called the “book of Shadows”. Their ceremonies are held at the four seasons of the year, one of the most important being hallowe'en when tribute is paid to the witches of the past. I have met a number of members of Wicca in the course of my investigations and am convinced that they are relatively harmless and also that they dislike black magic and Satanism as much as we do. Finally, we have the black magicians or devil worshippers who seriously believe in the power of Satan and worship him as their god. Small animals are sacrificed during the orgies in which these unpleasant people indulge, churchyards are vandalised, and also the interior of churches. A number of clergymen in Essex will be aware of their activities, but it must be made clear (if the culprits are ever to be detected) that the responsibility lies with the Satanists and not witches as a whole. I am aware of one group of devil worshippers, fortunately not in Essex, who dug up seven graves in a deserted churchyard and worshipped a skull which they set up in the centre of a circle of human bones.

There are, of course, the hoaxers and these are responsible for a great deal of anxiety, especially in lonely areas where the churchyard is at a distance from the village and therefore unobserved.

The real identity of the witches of Essex may never be known for they operate in the strictest secrecy and under cover of darkness, but not a year passes without a recurrence of their activities in Essex, some of which appear in the newspapers while much more is never reported at all.

Very recently a modern church near Leigh was broken into and a pentagram drawn in chalk on the floor. The vestments had obviously been used for some kind of ceremony. And as the villagers of the Ingatestone district will be aware, the graveyard at Buttsbury was recently disturbed and an inverted warden was found on a half opened grave.

Anyone who still considers it remarkable that Essex, which is so close to London and well within the commuter area, should be called the witch country will now know the reason why.


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