Witches In England
The other night I once more attended an Authors’ Club Halloween meeting at the National Liberal Club, founded in 1882 by William Ewart Gladstone, one of those grand portrait-filled establishments where you have to wear a jacket and only members can use the bar.
Speaking with me was the writer Syd Moore, who cleverly trades on her Essex Girl roots to undermine those who might lazily dismiss her. Instead of RP (Received Pronunciation) she has kept her local accent and even a version of dress associated with the Essex archetype. But she writes fiction set firmly in the Essex hinterlands that uses the strange histories of the area.
Essex, she points out, had few estates and country manors. Its sheriffs took charge of villages and towns instead of the landowners, and the county has a strange lawlessness that’s hard to pin down. It shows in Moore’s prose, which explores historical superstition in Essex, home of the witchfinder generals who rode from village to village during the English Civil War, and were powerful enough to get away with hanging a priest. Her stories involve a fictitious (but highly believable) Essex witch museum.
There are witch museums in the UK; I recall visiting a couple, including one in the South-West. We need to recall the story of Helen Duncan, the last woman to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735 which made falsely claiming to produce spirits a crime. The fraudulent Scottish clairvoyant/medium supposedly exuded ectoplasm that turned out to be made of cheesecloth and egg whites. Photographs taken reveal that her spirits were fraudulently produced, such as a doll made from a painted papier-mâché mask draped in an old sheet. And this hilarious one that actually fooled people.
When the HMS Barham sank off the coast of Egypt in 1941, Duncan started producing relatives of the disaster in her seances. Because news of the death had been kept relatively confidential the navy started watching her. She was tried in a sensational 1944 trial and sentenced to jail. Churchill was annoyed about the waste of resources over ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ (love that man) and the act was finally repealed.
Duncan is one of several elements at worked in Cathi Unsworth’s new novel, ‘That Old Black Magic’, which looks at the links between sorcery and spies during the war. From the bones of almost unbelievable true-life events involving witchcraft and conspiracy in the mist-shrouded British countryside Unsworth brings to life a Wheatley-esque cast of characters both real and imagined, and spins a delightfully sinister mystery from them.
The book features well-known figures from the era like psychic investigator Harry Price. In the 1930s & 1940s, no newspaper or magazine article about an alleged case of haunting or a radio broadcast concerning poltergeists was complete without a contribution from Price, who did very nicely out of the supposed Borley Rectory hauntings.
London had its own witches. With the closure of the Black Cap pub, the last of the Camden witches has been laid to rest. The two Camden witches were commemorated in pubs that sat diagonally opposite each other at the top of Camden High Street. The Mother Red Cap was pointlessly renamed The World’s End and gutted, while the unique and extraordinary Black Cap, which had an old tiled wall depicting the witch trials just inside its entrance, has been closed by property developers. The two were conflated into one pub, The Mother Black Cap, in the film ‘Withnail & I’.
Perhaps it’s time for the witches to return!
Ten Best Witch Films:
The Witches (1966)
Night Of The Eagle
The Witches of Zarragamurdi
Drag Me To Hell
Into The Woods