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The parish of Selworthy in the county of Somerset, some notes on its history online

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and he set off to seek the nearest white witch, some
thirty miles away. The visit confirmed his suspicions.
It was as he suspected. He was under the influence
of the evil eye, and his tormentor was named to him.

Folklore. 235

On a waste piece of land on the side of the moor above
his house, a cottage, scarcely more than a rough shelter
of walls built without mortar and roughly thatched,
had long been inhabited by an aged woman. She was
the evil doer. " She must die," shouted the angry
farmer, as he poured the reward of divination into the
white witch's hand, " nothing less than that will con-
tent me." He hurried home and up to the cottage
with several friends. There, tossing in a strange fever,
lay the witch already nigh her end ; and when she had
thus expiated her evil deeds, the neighbours came and
burnt the house and pulled down the walls.

In the same neighbourhood was one whose wife lay
month after month sick of an illness which no doctor
could cure. " I wonder," said a neighbour, " you let
your wife stay like that." " Like that ; what else can
I do ? " replied the disconsolate husband. " Go to

Exeter and see Mr. : he will help you." Now the

farmer had never been to Exeter before, and knew no
one there. As he entered one of the main streets he

asked the first person he met where Mr. lived.

" I am he," replied the stranger, addressing the country-
man, to his astonishment, by his name, " and I know
that you have come to consult me about your wife's
sickness. Come back with me." It was the same
story. His wife lay under the spell of an evil-minded
neighbour, but, said the white witch " she lies (the evil-
minded one) under the sentence of death for her evil
deeds, and when she is buried I will give you a sign to
show who the offender was." The countryman went
home. Under the power of the wise man's spells his
wife regained her usual health, and soon a neighbour,

236 History of Selworthy.

little suspected of witchcraft, sickened and died. It
was a beautiful afternoon, still and clear, as she was
being borne to the churchyard ; but as the procession
drew near the house of the woman that had been sick,
suddenly a great storm of wind arose and lifted off
the bier-cloth from the bier and laid it against the
woman's door. And so the woman knew that this
was the promised sign of the identity of the worker of
her trouble.

One hears how mothers with sick infants would rise
in the dark early morning and saddle a horse and
ride away, concealing the nature of their errand and
speaking to no one by the way ; and how, hurrying
back, after long hours of travelling, with the medicines
given by the white witch, they found their children
under his beneficent protection, happy and sleeping.
Sometimes it was some invocation to be said, some
strange rite to be performed, or some mysterious
powder, which, sprinkled around the premises, pro-
hibited the witch's approach.

One curious feature in the doings of witches is their
desire to look on the mischief that they work. Some
years ago there was great distress in a farm house
near the north coast of West Somerset. Great losses
had taken place amongst the cattle. Several members
of the family were ill.

" There was no luck about the place,
There was no luck at all."

Of course it was evident what the matter was. The
whole place was under some evil influence. The
assistance of the nearest white witch was sought, and

Folklore. 2 37

he gave the applicants a powder to strew round the
place, which would prevent any evil thing approaching
to hurt them ; and he told them that before long they
would see the worker of all the mischief endeavouring
to approach the house. Scarcely had the son who
had been to consult this beneficent ally returned, when
the family beheld an old woman who lived a solitary
life in a cottage not far off, endeavouring to look
through the paling which hedged in the little garden
in front of the house. Here then was the evil fate of
the family. " Let the dogs on her ! " cried the master
of the house, and he tried to rise from the armchair in
which he was sitting ; but some occult influence held
him fast, and gradually chair and all rose to the ceiling.
The rest hurried out just in time to see the old woman
vanish as she approached a thick hedge, and the dogs
returning cowed and dismayed. But the story goes
on that to this day the master of the house, stricken
down by some mysterious ailment, remains a helpless
cripple and demented.

To refuse a gift to a person suspected of witchcraft
is as dangerous as to receive one from her. " The
. place was full of 'em " said an ancient person to me,
" fifty years ago." And here is a typical story ; for all
these stories have a strong resemblance one to the
other. A strange-looking old woman called one day
at a small farm house, and leaning over the half door
asked for a drink of cider. Cider was scarce that year
and the request was refused. The old woman hobbled
off, denouncing vengeance on the churlish ways of the
farmer and his wife. " You will wish soon you had
given me the cider." From that day nothing went

238 History of Selworthy.

right with the household. The stock died, and one
after another the farmer's daughters sickened and
pined away !

More than one case lives in the memory of the dis-
trict, of some poor creature, sick to death of some
mysterious ailment which the doctor could not diag-
nose, suddenly being restored to health and strength
on the passing away of some ill-conditioned person
who was supposed to have willed him ill. And still
in many a village whilst the doctors are innocently
administering their medicines, the magic rites and
incantations prescribed by the white witch are at the
same time being secretly practised. At sunrise
secretly the weakly child afflicted with rickets or a
tendency to hernia, is taken to the cleft ash and passed
through it and round it with muttered words of incan-
tation ; and the parents afterwards anxiously watch
the tree, for they know that should the split sides join
together again their child will grow strong, but should
they remain apart, their child will always be weakly.

The rite " had to be performed on a Sunday morning,
just before sunrise, and the opening must be in the
direction of east and west, for the child must be
passed through it towards the rising sun . . . These
rites can be considered as nothing short of dramatic
representations of that which it is desired to accom-
plish — a remedy of congenital .... imperfection by
a new birth." 1 This orientation is no doubt a remnant
of the sun-worship of an early period in our history.

And very remarkable are the cures supposed to have
been wrought by the mysterious touch of the seventh
1. F. T. Elworthy's The Evil Eye, p. 70

Folklore. 239

child of the seventh child. Obstinate cases of king's
evil, which have stubbornly resisted the treatment of
the medical man, have yielded apparently to the will
of the person possessing this mysterious gift.

In the ancient chimneys of grey old farm houses
and cottages, myrtle and rose covered, a dark leathery
substance filled with pins is sometimes to be found. And
those who are wise in such matters shake their heads as
they think of the pains that evil thing cost some faith-
less lover or foe, long ago laid to rest. For there was
no surer way in the olden time to punish the one and
injure the other, than to stick a sheep's or calf's heart
full of pins, and silently and secretly to hang it up in
the wide old chimney. There it hung, unknown and
unsuspected, and did its fell work ; while the perpetra-
tor of the vengeful deed rejoiced, as the foe, smitten
with some sore disease, wasted and pined away. A
heart so used, and which was found in the Quantoxhead
district, is to be seen in the Taunton Museum. And
in an old manor house, unique in its beauty and interest,
in our district, a shrivelled heart full of pins is still
seen hanging in the very place where it was hung per-
haps two hundred years ago, to work dire pains on
probably some faithless lover. These hearts were an
evidence of the " old, old belief that the heart was the
seat of life and therefore a fit representative of a living
person. It was believed that the heart of the hated
person would suffer from the pricking, and that as the
latter dried up and withered so would the heart and
life of the victim against whom the act was designed.*"

And can we say that the belief of witchcraft is dead
1. F. T. Elworthy's The Evil Eye, p. 54.

240 History of Selworthy.

and gone when our daily papers are still able to re-
cord such horrors as the fully reported and attested
tragedy which took place near Clonmel, in April, 1895 ?
" The trial of old Julian Cox for witchcraft, at Taunton
Assizes in 1663, is curious. Julian — who, in spite of
the name, was a woman — was accused of practising
the black art upon a young maid, ' whereby her Body
languished and was impaired of Health, by reason of
the strange Fits upon account of the said Witchcraft.'
A large part of the evidence went to prove her ' a
Witch in general,' in itself an indictable offence, while
the rest was devoted to showing the specific damage
she did by sorcery to the maid. The witnesses who
speak to the former count are the more interesting of
the two sets, illustrating, incidentally, the chief habits
of skilled witches. A huntsman came forward to say
how once he started a hare ; the dogs were just upon
it, when it slipped under a bush. He ran round on the
other side to save it from the hounds, when he discovered
that it was Julian Cox, with ' her head grovelling on
the Ground.' He was horror-stricken, yet questioned
her : ' She was so far out of Breath ' — from the chase,
and, perhaps, the rapidity of the transformation — that
she could not utter a word. 'And the Huntsman
with his Dogs went Home presently sadly affrighted.'
No wonder ! Hardly less alarming was the experience
of another witness : ' Julian set a monstrous great
toad ' to bother him as he sat ' taking a Pipe of
Tobacco ' at home. He cut it in pieces, and the
' paddock ' pieced itself together again. Another
had his cattle driven mad, so that they ran their heads
against trees : to find out who did it he was advised

Folklore. 241

to cut off the ears of the bewitched beasts and burn
them. This was as good as burning the witch, ' who
would be in misery, and could not rest till they were
pluckt out of the Fire.' Sure enough, the haggish
Julian came and took them out, and then all was well
again. Next came the unshaken testimony of a
woman, who swore that she had seen the accused ' fly
into her own Chamber-window in her full proportion,
and that she very well knew her, and was sure it was
she.' Finally, there was the astounding admission of
the poor old body herself. ' [It] was to this purpose :
that she had been often tempted by the Devil to be a
witch, but never consented ; that one evening she
walkt out about a mile from her own house, and there
came riding towards her 3 Persons upon 3 Broom-
staves, borne up about a Yard and a Half from the
ground ; 2 of them she formerly knew, which was a
Witch and a Wizard that were hang'd for Witchcraft
several years before. The third Person she knew not ;
he came in the shape of a black Man, and tempted her
to give him her soul, or to that effect, and to express
it by pricking her Finger, and giving her name in her
blood in token of it ; and told her that she had Re-
venge against several Persons that had wronged her,
but could not bring her purpose to pass without his
help ; and that upon the Terms aforesaid he would
assist her to be revenged against them.' She said she
did not consent to it ; but there can be no doubt that
she believed in the genuineness of these apparitions.
There was little difficulty after this in finding her
guilty of ' practising ' upon the maid. It was shown
that Julian was angry with her for refusing her alms,

242 History of Selworthy.

and had told her that she would repent it ere night ;
that the maid had convulsions and saw Julian, ' when
they in the same Chamber did not see or hear any-
thing.' The judge and jury had but one conclusion
to come to, which was that she be hanged four days
after her trial. But some of the less blind and be-
sotted spoke harsh words of judge Archer for his zeal
and precipitancy, and openly declared poor Julian's
innocence when advocacy could do her strangled
corpse no good.

" In May, 1893, tne Yeovil magistrates had a case
brought before them in which a man was charged with
having threatened a woman whom he believed to have
been a witch, and to have cast a spell upon his sister.
Applicant stated that defendant came to her house
and called her an old witch, and asked her to take the
spell off his sister. He said she ought to be burnt,
and accused her of burning stuff all night to bewitch
people with. The defence was that defendant really
believed the complainant had put a spell upon his
sister, and threatened to ' do ' for her in his anger.

" In June, 1892, the late coroner, Mr. W. Muller,
held an inquest on a young woman at Lufton, in which
the evidence revealed an extraordinary belief in witch-
craft. After the medical man who had attended the
girl for some time had stated that there was no hope
of saving her life, the parents considered she was
suffering from a spell or a ' bad wish,' or that she had
been 'overlooked,' and they consulted a quack with
the idea of getting the spell removed. After referring
to an almanac, he informed them that no one could
'overlook' her, as she was a first-born child, but he

Folklore. 243

went to their house and stayed from Thursday evening
to Saturday morning ; and on the Friday he made
some herb tea in a black bottle, which was given the
girl. The father had also consulted another 'wise
man ' as to the ' bad wish ' supposed to have been cast
upon his daughter. In the course of his summing up,
the coroner remarked that one of the reasons why
that enquiry was held was because it was reported to
him that the parents thought that deceased was ' over-
looked,' and they consulted the quack with a view to
removing the spell that was upon her. In this nine-
teenth century, with all the educational advantages in
the county of Somerset, the belief in witchcraft ap-
peared more extensive than he could credit. There
is no doubt whatever that such superstitions are very
largely believed in by the country people in this
county, but it is comparatively seldom that they get
brought before the public as they were in the above
cases." 1

In a West Somerset village a villager suffered for a
long time from the theft of small goods. Sometimes
it was garden produce, sometimes a fowl, that was
taken. At last his tools and more valuable possessions
began to disappear. He suspected a neighbour, but
could obtain no evidence against him, until he sought
the help of a white witch. The white witch confirmed
his suspicions. The person in his mind was the thief.
" You will however never recover your property," the
white witch said, " but take this bag and hang it in
your chimney, and the thief will never pass your way
again." The robbed man did as he was bid ; and

1. Somerset County Herald, 27 February, 1897.

244 History of Selworthy.

straightway the suspected man showed a most extra-
ordinary dislike to passing his cottage. It was observed
that he would resort to any experiment rather than
approach it, and the thefts entirely ceased. At length,
however, some repairs were needed to the chimney,
and the workmen removed the bag ; and that very
afternoon the suspected thief passed the door once

It is related that a very holy man dwelt at one time
near the Doone Valley, spending his time in a hermit-
like seclusion. He spoke to none and entered beneath
no roof tree but his own. But one day a witch en-
ticed him into a circle which he had drawn. The
holy man made the sign of the Cross, but the fall was
irremediable. He followed the witch into his hut, and
was never seen again. It is a widely known super-
stition that if a witch draws a circle on the floor and
can get any one to step in it, that person will be in
his power. And it is in connection with this super-
stition, perhaps, that in farm houses of the better class
and old manor houses, ovals are often to be seen
moulded on the ceiling of the hall or principal dwelling
room. Whatever is said underneath these ovals is
held to be inviolate.

The further one gets into the hill country the more
numerous become the superstitions, the more universal
and strong the belief in them. In a hill country parish
lying in a fold of the Brendon Hills many strange
stories still hold firm sway. A cottage beside a large
wood has been vacated by tenant after tenant, because
of the strange sounds which are heard there and the
strange sights which are seen. One tenant, coming



down early in the morning, saw a figure of an unknown
man sitting in the chimney corner, which vanished
slowly away as he approached. His wife, coming home
one night, unlocked her door, but found it impossible to
open it, although she knew there was no one within.
And every tenant bore witness that strange indescrib-
able sounds made sleep often impossible. The story
runs that many years ago, a Jew pedlar stopped at the
inn of the distant village, and showed his wares to the
assembled villagers. Rough characters then inhabited
the cottage, and were at that time at the inn, but left
it soon after the pedlar. The pedlar never returned
again on his customary round. But the cottager and
his wife became flush of money, and the discovery
many years afterwards of a quantity of bones beneath
the floor of the outhouse belonging to the cottage,
gave foundation to the suspicion that the pedlar had
been robbed and murdered, and his corpse thus dis-
posed of, but that his unquiet spirit still finds no rest.
A keeper watching some time ago in the adjoining
wood on a dark night, saw a mysterious light suddenly
appear, and from the light a figure, huge, white, and
terrible of aspect, develop, from which the man fled
shrieking and demented.

Sudden darknesses, shaping themselves into terrific
indescribable figures, are another hill country super-
stition. A man going to an outhouse in bright moon-
light, saw an indefinable black object in the clear light,
which, as he looked, grew larger and larger, until it shut
out the moonlight altogether. He struck into the dark-
ness with a stick he held in his hand, and the darkness
passed away. A farmer, driving his wife to a neigh-

246 History of Selworthy.

bouring town on a clear star-lit night, as he ascended
the wide road which leads over the head of the at-one-
time open down, saw an appearance of the same
nature. It was small and undefinable at first, and
then expanded into a huge black uncouth appearance
which occupied the whole road. So palpable was it,
that the quiet horse which he was driving jibbed and
turned, and galloped down the hill By the time the
horse could be stopped and turned, the road rose clear
and open as before.

A pleasanter story is that of a lady driving home
from dinner in that same district, in one of the old
fashioned gigs in use some years ago. A bright moon
made the bright, clear summer night still clearer ; and
as the carriage approached an open part of the road,
proceeding at a rapid pace, the lady saw a group of
little children, prettily dressed, dancing across the
road. " Take care," she cried to her driver ; and he,
fearing he would drive into them, at once slackened
his speed, saying, " All right, I see them." But the
figures became indistinct, and disappeared as the
gig drew near.

In that same hill country parish, a headless horse-
man, at midnight on moonlit nights, rides up and
down a four crossway as though to guard it ; nor
durst anyone pass, who can otherwise avoid it, a dark
quarry beneath a hanging wood, where strange un-
couth things have been seen by many folk to lurk in
the deep shadows of rocks and trees. Many of these
superstitions may perhaps date back to the times of
the Civil Wars, or more probably to the time of Mon-
mouth's rebellion, when the hill country was largely

Folklore. 247

The ghastly name of Forges Cross, given to more
than one cross-way in that district, reveals the spots
where the bloodthirsty Jefferies set up his gallows,
adorned with the quivering limbs of some unhappy
villager well known to his neighbour ; or where some
luckless skeleton long dangled in chains that creaked
in the fierce winds that sweep over that " stark "

Farmer R. was so bewitched, that he lost the use of
his limbs, while " toads and other unclean things could
not be kept away from his door." The white witch
bade him nail three new horse-shoes on the door of his
house, and place some seeds he gave him about it ;
then if the witch came in she would be imprisoned
and unable to escape. A neighbour went to the same
white witch with regard to some bees that had been
stolen. The white witch consulted " his book." " Yes,
your first cousin's bees have already been burnt and
the honey taken, otherwise I could have made the
thief replace them."

At D combe, " there in the meadow," the pixies

light fires and dress their children ; and in the same
meadow there is a post, which none can pass at night,
because a shapeless thing with rattling chains springs
out against the passer-by. The pixies were active in
our district in days gone by. If some favoured houses
were left ever so dirty, they were found cleaned up in the
morning. Even the unfinished operations of brewing
have been found completed. The little people came
through the keyhole, and expected to be paid by a
basin of bread and milk being set for them in a corner.
In some houses it was the custom to put a pail of clean

248 History of Selworlhy.

water, towels, and soap ready for the use of the pixies.
A woman of Minehead who had a relation who had
dealings with the pixies, saw this relation one day in
Minehead market filching pieces of meat from the
stalls. She went up to him and spoke to him. " Which
eye," he asked, "did you see me with?" She told
him. Straightway he blew upon it, and she became
blind in that eye. One luckless person saw twenty-
four pixies " down to Great Gate." They discovered
her watching them, and in revenge they led her
about all night over the moor and about the woods,
till, with the break of day, they left her. This
was the fate also of Farmer B. returning from Mine-
head market. He was led about the fields and moor
until morning. But another man thus mischievously
troubled, bethought him of the sure remedy in such
cases ; he took off his coat and turned it, and got
home at once without difficulty.

Ghosts do not appear ever to have been plentiful in
our district, although the "great house" at Allerford
was at one time supposed to be " troublesome." Some
years ago a man passing a lonely cottage at night,
which had long been empty, saw a bright light within,
and heard the rattle of glasses and the noise of loud
laughter ; a story which was corroborated by a neigh-
bour next day. Another man had a lodger who was
engaged in quarry work which took him away some-
times for a night or two from his lodgings. One night
the landlord and his wife heard the lodger's heavy
steps on the stairs. The woman got up and went out
to the little landing, and called to the lodger by name,
thinking he would want food ; but a figure resembling

Folklore. 240

the lodger's rushed silently past her, and entered his
room. Next day the news reached Selworthy that the
man had been killed the evening before, by a fall of
stone. A sexton in past days used to hear, when a
death was about to take place, loud calls at night ;
and it was believed that ghosts before a death were to
be seen hovering about the bier cloth, as though to
announce that it would soon be required for use. A
woman busy putting straight the house of a dead
friend who had passed to her rest, used to be waked
night after night by the clasping of icy cold hands
about her. A young man went to work in London.
One night, a long time afterwards, his parents heard
a loud and continued tapping at their door, and they
soon heard that at the time of the tapping their son
was passing away in his lodgings in the distant

The number of instances in which relations of dying
people have been apparently warned by the passing
spirit, are certainly most curious, and some very well

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Online LibraryFrederick HancockThe parish of Selworthy in the county of Somerset, some notes on its history → online text (page 16 of 21)