Witches In England

Great Britain


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 Churchill was annoyed about the waste of resources over ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ (love that man) and the act was finally repealed.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:

Witchfinder General

Rosemary’s Baby



The Witches (1966)

Night Of The Eagle

The Witches of Zarragamurdi

Drag Me To Hell

Into The Woods

The Witch


17 comments on “Witches In England”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    There was a programme on BBC2 last week about the Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library, including a bit about a witch museum in the South West (from whom they borrowed some exhibits) which is presumably the one you’re thinking of. I think it will still be on iPlayer.

    Never heard of Syd Moore but I have just finished the excellent Essex Serpent (which was way better than I was expecting by the way) and it looks like her books might be similar. I’ll look out for them next time I’m in a Waterstones. They might be a good antidote to the disappointingly dire The Woman in Black which I have just finished.

    (My browser’s spell checker doesn’t recognise Waterstones and suggests testosterones instead. I’m just glad it hasn’t got some sort of auto-correct feature.)

    “Instead of RP (Received Pronunciation) she has kept her local accent”

    Disgraceful. Send her off to elocution lessons right away.

    Of course no regional accent has the right to be regarded as “correct” or “definitive”, even if it happens to be the local accent of the middle/upper class of the capital city.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    I love ‘Haxan’ (1922). It’s still an eye-opener, even now. It’s fascinating how much dirt and decay is crammed into each scene. Rotten food, dirt and grot everywhere. The director, who I believe was called Henrik Christiansen, plays the Devil, bare-chested with long, taloned fingers, and his very long tongue on show to fairly disgusting effect. There is a troublingly realistic sacrifice of a baby to a moth-like daemon, and plenty of nudity (those Scandinavians, eh?). 1966’s ‘The Witches’, starring Joan Fontaine, is one of those oddly elegiac British movies that has a jarring sense of ‘wrongness’ running through it, where the sun might be shining, but there is a coldness ever present. Another favourite movie of mine – I have a kind of obsession to collect all the Hammer, Amicus, Tigon, and A.I.P. movies., and my heart soars whenever I see a list of movies like the one above. I also own ‘Night Of The Eagle’, which is a slow burner, which, like the greatest Black Magic movie of all, 1957’s ‘Night Of The Demon’, has the hero caught in a trap that he has to work very hard to escape. ‘Night Of The Eagle’ is possibly the only movie whose most famous elements are a coat/blackboard interface (no spoilers, sorry).

  3. Jan says:

    It’s in Boscastle Cornwall the SW witchcraft museum.

    I dunno if it’s changed ownership in last year or two (after the floods) but the owner/keeper of the place had some really interesting ideas. He was working on the Greenwich Meridian which he reckoned had been magically “charged”at its creation.

    Interestingly enough the Meridian is marked along its length through the UK and as it passes through Europe + I think Africa and beyond. My geography will run out well b4 the Meridian does.

    Very interesting thought really. Remember the old Celtic idea that the centre of their territory should be delineated as a sign of power. The Meridian was this on an international scale. Marking out the UK as the worlds centre of power. This theory plays into all the arguments over the locating of the prime Meridian that went on at the time. ( The French still want it on their land.)

    Could be total rubbish but what tickled me is that USA prime Meridian runs through Washington when Obama was inaugurated and that vast crowd (where about 50% of the attendees were doing Eric Morecombes in the background! That was a big big day) well they were standing on the USA’s prime Meridian the Meridian running through the central plaza Fascinating.

  4. Jan says:

    There’s been a lot written about the Masonic/magical arrangement of buildings and plazas in Washington. One example being the Rose garden at the White house allegedly constructed to be a tiny copy of the Hanging gardens of Babylon. Interesting that Kennedy – the first Catholic president – did much to change the Rose gardens but who knows they might just have needed renovation.

    Strange that part of this package is the insertion of the U.S. Meridian through the place of greatest celebration and also expressions of unrest and demand for justice (Think of the million man March, Vietnam protests, Vietnam veterans making their statement.) the very heart of a countries national life. I know it’s sounds fanciful + it might be completely daft. All comes down to place in the end though doesn’t it?

    Whether the Meridian comes before the city or vice versa place that’s the thing.

  5. Brooke says:

    Jan, please see March on Washington (1963).

  6. Ian Luck says:

    I visited the Boscastle museum ages ago, and I loved it (I do enjoy things that most people don’t even think about) I was most pleased to find that they have the skeleton of the Witch that was dug up in St.Osyth, in Essex. This is a startling looking skeleton for two reasons: (1) Her mouth is wide open, so it looks like she’s screaming – she possibly had a brick or tile wedged in her mouth when buried, a usual occurrence with witches, so I’m led to believe, so they couldn’t curse anyone from beyond the grave. (2) She was fixed to the earth by iron staples at her ankles, knees, elbows and wrists. That part of Essex was, of course Matthew Hopkins territory. There is a very lonely part of the River Stour near Manningtree, that is supposedly haunted by the dolorous cries of suspected witches being ‘swum’ by Hopkins (although I suspect that he never actually got his hands dirty with such things – never mind, his soul was filthy enough to compensate). I watched Michael Reeves’ ‘Witchfinder General’ a few days ago, and it stands up very well. Vincent Price (my favourite film star of all time, bar none) is superb, with none of the sense of glee that he usually brings to his roles. He’s genuinely frightening, and completely unknowable. Another very slight reason I love this movie, is simply because it’s the only movie I know that mentions Brandeston and Stowmarket, two small towns in Suffolk.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Sorry. The director of ‘Haxan’ was Benjamin Christiansen. I was thinking of the German actor and writer Henrik Galeen – ‘The Golem’, ‘Nosferatu’, ‘The Student Of Prague’ etc. Simple mistake.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, I like all the films you like, and I think Vincent Price does a career best in “Witchfinder General”, he’s so chilling in it. Whilst it is a violent film, I see it as more a film ABOUT violence and how power corrupts.

    Another favourite is “Devil Rides Out”- a film in which I think Christopher Lee gives a career best, oddly not as villain but hero. Whilst I think Lee is a great “Dracula” I find some of his acting risibly over the top-particularly his scenery chewing performance in “Rasputin”

    BTW, I think “The Wicker Man” is the most overrated underrated film of all time.

  9. Brian Evans says:

    ….and thanks Chris for drawing attention to the 2 authors above as I haven’t heard of them before. I have downloaded the first of Syd Moore’s Essex museum books.

  10. Roger says:

    “The Witches of Zarragamurdi”
    Neither IMDB nor Wikipedia have heard of this film

  11. Colin says:

    Roger – it’s listed on both under the translated title of ‘Witching and Bitching’ rather than the direct translation of ‘Las Brujas de Zarragamurdi’

  12. Roger says:

    Thanks, Colin

  13. admin says:

    I used the original title of The Witches of Zarragamurdi because I hate the US title. It opens with a montage of histories most feared witches, and includes a couple of surprises at the end.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Is ‘The Essex Serpent’ about the legendary Brent Pelham Dragon, killed by one Piers Shonks, by any chance? I had family out that way (all dead now, unfortunately), and it was still talked about in the 1960’s. My paternal grandfather told me it like a fairy tale.

  15. Jan says:

    Brooke had a look @ photos of 1963 March on Washington. Mightily impressive. Great pictures. Again I wonder if some energy is released to empower the nation by release of both the spirit of protest or celebration at the site of its prime Meridian.

  16. David Ronaldson says:

    An ancestor of mine, Alice Aylett, was found guilty of WItchcraft in Braintree, Essex, in the 15th Century, as was Mary Aylett, down the road in Bocking. Later, we turned to piracy, with Capt. John Aylett sailing with Captain Morgan. A more distant relative, Aylett Sammes (another Essex boy) was responsible for the Wicker Man woodcut which in part inspired the film. Steer clear of Ayletts (“Ronaldson” is a patronymic used for Twitter purposes).

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Can we expect a merging of ley lines and meridians any time soon? Mind manipulation is a constant worry and there are now studies of the problems created by Twitter and such.

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