Witch Villages and Cursing Wells
Witchcraft differed from one region to the next, but it also varied over much shorter distances. Certain desolate, inhospitable or generally ominous locations were known as the favoured haunts of witches. Prolley Moor in Shropshire was a notorious meeting place for practitioners of the dark arts, as was Locharbriggs hill in Dumfriesshire. Tinkers Hole, a wood near Ostend in Essex, was said to be ‘devil haunted’. Pendle Forest, a few miles from Burnley, had connections with black magic going back to the Lancashire witch trials of 1612, when ten people from the area were convicted of murder by witchcraft. ‘Two hundred years have since passed away,’ wrote one investigator in 1867, ‘and yet the old opinions survive.’ Throughout the forest, the farmers were known for striving to:
Chase the evil spirits away by dint
Of sickle, horse-shoe, and hallow flint.
Every British county had a few witch villages, where wicked traditions echoed down the generations, or were supposed to. Around the midnineteenth century Weobley Marsh in Herefordshire was called a ‘witchridden’ place, while Monzie in Perthshire was ‘long and widely known for its witches’. Reputations like these were often so well established they were expressed in local proverbs, adages and odes. Of Orcop, in Herefordshire, it was said that ‘There’ll always be nine witches from the bottom of Orcop to the end of Garway Hill as long as water runs.’ ‘Welford for witches, Binton for bitches’ was a rhyme about two Warwickshire villages. A similar verse described the distinguishing features of four Norfolk places:
Beeston babies, Sheringham ladies,
Weybourne witches, Salthouses ditches.
In Somerset it was a cliché that ‘the Devil’s in Frome and cannot get out’. Inverkip and nearby Dunrod Castle, in Renfrewshire, were similarly infamous. ‘In Inverkip the witches ride thick, and in Dunrod they dwell,’ ran alocal proverb. Auchencrow, in east Berwickshire, ‘had an evil reputation asthe resort of witches’, expressed in the maxim ‘in the toun o’ Auchencraw, where the witches bide’.
Were these ditties, and the ideas behind them, taken seriously? There is evidence to suggest they were. During the 1870s, before a sketching trip to a Warwickshire village with a reputation for witchcraft, the author Elinor Mordaunt was implored by a servant ‘with tears in his eyes, not to go there, for it was “fair swarmin’ wid’ witches”’. An extreme reaction, but not wholly exceptional. Throughout the nineteenth century Canewdon, in south-east Essex, was an ill-reputed village. The folklorist Eric Maple was told carriers avoided it ‘if possible, for fear of having the wheels of their wagons bewitched’.
The most fearsome witchcraft locations were Welsh. They were places worth travelling many miles for – two cursing wells, where evilly inclined people laid deadly imprecations upon their enemies. For reasons lost to history, both the wells were dedicated to the Roman Catholic evangelist Saint Elian, who built some of Wales’ first churches, during the fifth century. One of Saint Elian’s cursing wells was located near Llaneilian on Anglesey, the largest island in the Irish Sea, located just off the North Welsh coast, and accessible by road and rail after Thomas Telford completed his Menai suspension bridge in 1826. The more notorious Welsh cursing well was situated in the parish of Llanelian yn Rhos, on the Denbighshire Caernarfonshire border, near the coast of North Wales.
For centuries St Elian’s well, known in Welsh as Ffynnon Elian, was used for healing. Yet during the later eighteenth century, it acquired darker associations. Persons wishing ill upon their enemies would inscribe their victims’ initials on pebbles, parchment or lead tablets, before solemnly immersing these offerings. Devised by various keepers of the well, who made a handsome living from owning or occupying the property on which it was situated, these practices made the power of witchcraft available to all. On several occasions, the neighbourhood’s outraged churches and magistrates attacked the well and prosecuted its keepers. In 1814 the walls enclosing the well house were destroyed. In 1826 the Justices forbade use of the well. In 1829 the local Methodists celebrated the demolition of the entire structure, well house and all. Shortly after, an enterprising neighbour, a tailor named John Evans, diverted the water source to his cottage garden and established himself as the new keeper. Not until the 1850s was his trade in evil magic finally ended, after Mr Evans renounced his wicked ways and joined the Baptists.
By the mid-Victorian era there was no longer a keeper of St Elian’s cursing well. Yet the superstition refused to die. During the 1860s a visitor to the remains of Ffynnon Elian ‘noticed corks with pins stuck in them, floating in the well’. Presumably these were intended to direct malevolent forces at unfortunate persons. ‘The ill fame of Ffynnon Elian,’ another commentator confirmed in 1870, ‘continues even to this day.’ Tales about the cursing well were still being told, through the nineteenth century and beyond, with folklorists recording some of the yarns. Critics had long blamed Ffynnon Elian’s popularity on the superstitious mindset of the ‘peasantry of the neighbourhood’. In reality, a broader spectrum of people used St Elian’s curse, including individuals from England and Ireland, according to the last keeper of the well. Apparently, some of these had been the ‘best people in the land in terms of wealth and education’. The well inspired a sort of magical tourism, which is revealed in other sources. Ffynnon Elian featured in many nineteenth- and twentieth-century guidebooks to the region, including James Halliwell’s Notes of Family Excursions in North Wales (1860). He condemned the ‘barbarous custom of invoking the presiding saint to injure an enemy’. Tellingly, though, Halliwell described the well’s location and the various ceremonies typically enacted to induce a curse. His readers might find this information useful, and perhaps not just out of antiquarian curiosity.
Menacing locations, where witches roamed and curses mustered, defy easy classification. They obviously contradict the archaeologist Christopher Tilley’s theory, about the terrain of western capitalist countries being ‘desanctified’ – stripped of mystical and supernatural associations characterising the premodern landscape. The idea that the early modern period witnessed a ‘secularisation of space’ is similarly unhelpful. Also problematic is the terminology of more sensitive scholars, who are alive to the persistence of holy landscapes long after the Reformation. Alexandra Walsham’s The Reformation of the Landscape is a wonderful book, which shows how religious strife caused once sacred spaces – wells, rocks, ruined chapels and monasteries, wayside crosses – to be ‘resanctified’, ‘reconfigured’ and recreated, rather than being purged entirely of Christian connotations. Categories like ‘sacred’, ‘holy’ and ‘sanctified’ are apposite in this context, but not for the domain of witchcraft. The terms are religious rather than magical, too positive and too evocative of personal control. Given the dark associations clinging to parts of Britain, it probably makes more sense to speak of the witch-ridden villages, bedeviled outcrops, damned fields and haunted landscapes. For people learned in witchcraft, seemingly innocuous terrains could be nerve wracking, threatening, even terrifying.
From Cursed Britain by Thomas Waters. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Thomas Waters is lecturer in history at Imperial College London and a specialist in the modern history of witchcraft and magic.