Witchcraft & Folklore
Witchcraft is very much interwoven with Norfolk folklore. Traditionally ‘Witches’ were perceived to have supernatural powers to control people or events. Most villages and towns had ‘wise-men’ or ‘wise-women’ who were acquainted with the old mysterious ways. Although much-feared, it is claimed that these ‘cunning folk’ made sick people better, located lost property and were even able to forecast the weather.
I cannot believe that the inhabitants of Great Ellingham were exempt from these beliefs.
Witches at Shipdham
The story goes that during the 1860s/1870s, there were at least seven witches and a ‘planet reader’ in the village of Shipdham (not 10 miles from Great Ellingham). The ‘planet reader’ not only consulted the stars for advice on medical treatment, but did so to cast astrological horoscopes and to tell fortunes.
Perhaps Great Ellingham had one or more ‘wise men’ or ‘wise-women’ to whom some of the inhabitants (more likely the poor) would go for remedies in times of sickness. Not all could afford to pay for the services of the local doctor.
Crime to use the Powers of Witchcraft
For centuries, there has been much superstition around ‘witches’, ‘wizards’ and ‘cunning folk’. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was not a crime to be a witch. However, it was a crime to use the powers of witchcraft to cause harm to others, their families and their livelihood.
The mid-17th century was also the time of the self-appointed ‘Witch-Finder General’ Matthew Hopkins. Suffolk born Hopkins sought out ‘witches’ from around Essex, Suffolk, Huntingdon and Norfolk. He applied torturous inquisition methods to gain confessions, which ultimately lead to a conviction and death. Nevertheless, the crime of witchcraft died out in the 18th century by an Act of 1736.
Would the superstition and fear associated with witchcraft and ancient beliefs still exist amongst the inhabitants of Great Ellingham into the 19th and 20th centuries?
A ‘Letter to the Editor’ of the Norfolk News published in the newspaper on the 22nd February, 1868, describes examples emanating from the belief in ‘Witchery’.
The writer appears to question whether it is the church, the education of people or the enforcement of law which is required to ‘put a stop’ to the belief in ‘Witchery’ which, the writer suggests, still exists in the county.
These are the ‘facts’ which the writer lists as truths, and which he (or she) thought may be of interest to the readership:
|This confidence in the powers of witch-craft is far superior to that in medical or surgery skill, and, therefore, the “cunning man” or the reputed “witch” is called upon for assistance before the chemist or the doctor. The facts I give occurred very recently in a parish not 100 miles from Great Ellingham.
|A boy, assisting in a grocer’s shop, had his arm severely burnt, and he went every morning to a “witch” that she might spit upon it, and so effect a cure.
|A house stands in the village tenantless, and going to ruin, the woman who last held it was a “witch”, the house is bewitched and the people generally are so bewitched that no person can be found of sufficient courage to inhabit it.
|A short time since, a “witch” died, and left a considerable quantity of wearing apparel, as shawls, dresses, petticoats &c. This coming into the possession of a young woman, whom was afterwards taken ill, the neighbours ascribed the cause of ill health to “witchery” and eventually the young woman gathered all together and burnt them, a sacrifice to the manes of her bewitching relative. The chests that had contained the things were also destroyed, and the keys tied to a stone and thrown into a pit.
|Is the prison or the school, the policeman or the parson, to put a stop to this? If craft is to do it, Sir. [signed] ‘WHICH CRAFT?’
It is interesting that the village of Great Ellingham is mentioned. I wonder why? Perhaps the correspondent is a Great Ellingham resident?
1905 Dragon’s Blood!
Some 40 years later, an article published in the Norfolk Chronicle of the 5th August, 1905, suggests that some of the poorer classes of Norfolk still held on to the ancient beliefs in witchcraft.
The headline ‘WITCHCRAFT IN NORFOLK’ is followed by ‘STORY OF PRESENT DAY SUPERSTITION’.
The subject in question is a woman described as old, lonely and ill. She was in receipt of parish relief. The Relieving Officer found her to be in state of collapse. Apparently, the old woman had been without food and drink for three days. Accordingly, this would account for the poor woman being so weak!
In any event, the woman’s condition was such that the Relieving Officer tried to engage the services of a nurse. However, he was ‘astounded at the refusals‘ to help. A neighbour alleged that ‘the old woman was a witch‘ and several of the neighbours declared that they were (or had been) ‘under her uncanny power‘.
Eventually, the Relieving Officer persuaded a woman (who was also receiving parish relief, so there may well have been some leverage here) to nurse the old woman. However, during the first night, ‘the nurse’s experiences were such that no money would tempt her to stay any longer’. She alleged that the patient ‘conversed with the Evil One‘. In fact, the old lady was likely delirious! The Officer engaged the services of another nurse who told a similar story.
Sadly, the old woman died. However, the Relieving Officer encountered ‘further trouble‘ in getting the body into the coffin. As it happens, he had to carry out this duty himself! The women attending the elderly and ill woman declared that ‘among other preparations found in the old woman’s cottage were bottles containing dragon’s blood, herbal concoctions, and other articles populary associated with witchcraft.’
1920s The Witches of Penhill Road!
In his wonderful and informative booklet ‘A Little History of Great Ellingham‘, William R Lebbell says “Two witches lived half way up Penhill Road in a wooden hut”. Mr Lebbell also recalls that they were mother and daughter.
Black Dot showing the approximate position of ‘The Witches’ Shack’.
Second Edition. O.S. Map, 1906. Wayland Union R.D. Norfolk Sheet LXXXV. S.W. Great Ellingham. Courtesy of Ray & Maureen Beales
William Lebbell’s granddaughter remembers that her father, Claud, also told her about ‘the witches’ whose wooden shack was on the south side of Penhill Road, just off the track leading to Homelea Farm.
The Lebbell family cultivated nearby fields. Accordingly, the Lebbell children would go down Penhill Road from their home at Poplar Farm to help on the fields. They would also have to go past the wooden shack where ‘the witches’ lived and, from all accounts, they were frightened of the women.
I have yet to discover the identity of the mother and daughter living in the wooden hut just off Penhill Road. Further, without more information, I cannot say whether the two women had any form of ‘magical powers’!
It is perhaps more likely that the women were just ‘odd’ or ‘eccentric’ in character and appearance, and the children’s imagination just took over!
Norfolk News. 22nd February, 1868.
Norfolk Chronicle. 5th August, 1905. Viewed via The British Newspaper Archive website. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ 30th October, 2021.
Lee, Robert. 2005. ‘The Banningham Witchcraft Letters’. Voices of the Rural Poor, 1820-1880. Windgather Press Limited, 29 Bishop Road, Bollington, Macclesfield, Cheshire. SK10 5NX.
The National Archives website.https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/candp/crime/g04/g04cs3.htm Accessed 30 October 2021
Lebbell, W R & Fay, S. A Little History of Great Ellingham.
Thanks to Sue Fay. Granddaughter of William R Lebbell