A Tale Of Two Witches
Once upon a time, North London’s Camden Town did not exist. There was Kentish Town (Kent-As-Town) above it and the city below, and the connecting coach corridor became a hamlet, then a village. While it was still a village it supposedly became the home of two witches, the Mother Red Cap and the Mother Black Cap. I say ‘supposedly’ because although accounts are plentiful, they’re a bit contradictory.
A red capped hag was someone wearing the headgear of witches, but this was more an archetype signifying a local old woman who offered advice to girls in the village. Even when I was a child every street had one of these women, someone to whom others went with worries, relationship problems, unexplained illnesses and of course, unwanted pregnancies.
The red-capped old lady on the site in Camden in the 17th century (rather vague, I know, but again hard facts are hard to come by) was born Jinney Bingham, the daughter of a local bricklayer. By the time she was 16 she had a child by a man caught stealing sheep from Holloway. He was sent to Newgate Prison, tried at the Old Bailey and hung at Tyburn. Jinney’s parents were accused of practising black magic and causing the death of a young maiden, for which they were both hung. Meanwhile, Jinney met several men who ‘disappeared in mysterious circumstances’. She was supposedly acquitted of burning a man alive when a witness proved that he often hid in the oven to escape her nagging tongue.
The pub was built on the site of her cottage and became a halfway house for carriages venturing and returning from North London. And you thought it was hard to get a cab over the river. But in the 1980s the pub was changed to a meaningless name, the World’s End, despite continuing to play up its associations with a witch (so why change the name at all?)
Witches = mysogyny; that’s not much of a surprise. But to have a pair of rival witches in one small village is. The Mother Black Cap was originally the name of old Mother Shipton, the 17th century Yorkshire seer or witch who saw London in flames. There’s a moth and a pantomime figure named after her. But Camden’s witch was Mother Damnable, fortune teller, healer, who admitted the Devil into her cottage and was also known as the Shrew of Kent-As-Town.
Could it be that there was only one witch? The village was not large and the names appear synonymous in most accounts. They existed at the same time in similar forms, and it seems strange that the two halfway houses, almost opposite one another on different sides of the same road, should end up with two witches.
The problem with researching something like this is that you tend to return to the same sources over and over. When I get my books out of storage in October I’ll look up their history in my volumes of ‘Old & New London’.
The Black Cap pub, a longstanding fixture in Camden, has now been closed by property developers, and I wonder what will happen to the large tiled mural just inside the doors depicting the hunchbacked witch herself. Perhaps it has already been destroyed. So Camden Town continues to mutate – ‘Compendium’, the wonderful bookstore that used to be near the bridge, is sorely missed, and I also miss the shop that sold old store displays (I bought a huge ‘Cadbury’s Bournvita’ desert island with palm trees in there in the early 1980s).
Will either of the witches’ houses reopen? Or has another link to Camden’s past slipped quietly away?