Smugglers Who Used Witches as Cover

Evening Echo

1st May, 1970

Witchcraft keeps rearing its ugly head in Essex.

The position was summed up by the vicar of Little Wakering in his parish magazine in 1933.

He said: “Deep in the heart of country people is still a religion of secret paganism which causes a mysterious resistance to the essential truths of Christianity?"

Today's clergy have changed. One told me he had much more important things - “honestly,” he said “much more important” - to worry about than witchcraft taking place about 100 yards from the spot in Southend where he was standing.

But today's people have no changed. The evidence?

  • I phoned someone in Southend, asked her if she knew any witches and was immediately told of two;
  • About six out of ten people in Essex to whom I spoke warned me against leaving anything behind when I spoke to a witch, in case it put me in the witch's power;
  • Something akin to witchcraft is growing among people who work with computers. There is an incredible widespread belief that the monsters have a life of their own when everyone goes home.
  • Two witch stories so far uncollected about Canewdon, the heart of the witches county, have been told to me. One concerns a weed known in Essex as the witches' plant. A man in Leigh found it in his back garden and announced that its flowering meant that there was another witch in Canewdon. The other, a variation on a theme, is that if you walk round Canewdon Church at midnight you will meet a ghost.
  • A great number of people seem to know someone whom they suspect of diabolical practices.

In London this kind of talk has become so prevalent that Church leaders, who are usually ahead of the parish clergy in their thinking, have set up a committee to investigate.

The signs of witchcraft include: In 1963 witchlike signs were chalked on the 300-years-old tomb of a witch in Leigh churchyard. A sheep's heart, embedded with 13 twigs – for the 13 members of the coven – were found in the same churchyard the same year.


In 1964 a ritual grave was found at Rochford Hundred Golf Course with a rudimentary altar several hundred yards away.

In 1965 a ritual grave was found on a cricket pitch at Stambridge Road, Rochford.

In 1966 Canewdon Church was back in the news- you can't keep Canewdon out of witchcraft – when the vicar, the Rev. Norman Kelly, blamed “black magic amateurs” for a broken head stone.

And only last month Priory Park Museum at Prittlewell, Southend, was broken into and a black magic ritual held.

For folk lore detectives the most interesting example was that of a sheep's heart. It seemed to be an attempt to curse someone.

James Murrell, the Hadleigh man who was still practising as a cunning man in 1860, was responsible for most of the tales told to the today's children in Essex.

Murrell claimed to be able to exorcise evil spirits, destroy witches, restore lost and stolen property and he was an undoubted healer of animals. He was also a prodigious man with the ladies and fathered a number of children during “consultations.”

He was also suspected of being an abortionist – though there seems to be no confirmation of this – and a smuggler.


And here, I think, you have the clue to the whole mystery of why Essex was so witch-ridden – at least in men's minds.

The smugglers told stories to keep honest people in their beds.

Every village had its witch or cunningman – by repute at least. There were wizards in Laindon, witches in Canewdon and Leigh, Westcliff and Prittlewell, Stock and Benfleet, and so on.

Prophecies, delivered in oracular tones in magical circumstances, were made about witches being in the village of X for “an hundred years.” Usually, the village in question was somewhere like Leigh, very useful for smuggling.

All this went on, making life miserable, until a good coastguard system was imposed on the area and smuggling stopped. As smuggling stopped, and Essex became less remote, witches tended to vanish.

But illness is a very real thing and that part of witchcraft is still believed today.

An Essex cure for ague is to split an ash sapling and pass the sufferer through it. The ash is then bound and as it heals the ague leaves the child.

That ritual was performed at Terling in 1924, two years before the general strike.

The truth about Canewdon – where there so many stories you could write a book on the place alone – is that only one villager was ever arraigned as a witch. And she was cleared.

And that more or less sums up the whole thing, anyway historically. It was based on ignorance, a desire for a scapegoat on which to blame all the village's troubles and a few astute smugglers. Gullible people still believe in witchcraft today because of their personal ignorance, their personal desire for a scapegoat, and the stories their mothers have told. An adult mind will see the faults in the logic.

And adult minds will see the faults in the dangerous dabblers. It is these dabblers for whom children should really look out.


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