Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times

Cover of Cursed Britain by Thomas WatersThroughout British history, the power of witchcraft, curses and black magic has endured. Whether in the 1800s or the early 2000s, when disasters struck or personal misfortunes mounted, many Britons found themselves believing in things they had previously dismissed – dark supernatural forces. In Cursed Britain, historian Thomas Waters explores the lives of cursed or bewitched people, along with the witches and witch-busters who helped and harmed them.

Read on for the story of William Ettrick and 18th-century minister and victim of black magic.

1804: William Ettrick’s evil year

Great wealth, an expensive education, and high rank didn’t stop people from crediting witchcraft. Witness William Ettrick (1757–1847), scholar at Blake’s Grammar School in York, graduate of Lincoln College and fellow of University College, Oxford, ordained minister of the Church of England, descendant of the Earl of Dumbarton, and heir to the Ettrick family’s estates at High Barnes, Sunderland. No idiot. And not, perhaps, the type of man we’d expect to be troubled by witches. Yet in 1804 the Rev. Ettrick experienced what he called his ‘annus malignus’, his evil year. Beset by travails, fearing for his family’s survival, this upstanding member of the gentry found his thoughts turning in occult directions.

By 1804, when the events unfolded, William Ettrick was in his late forties and serving as vicar of Turners Puddle, Dorset. He’d lived in that village, near England’s south coast, for about a decade and a half with his wife Elizabeth and their growing brood of children. The area became notorious during the 1830s when some local labourers were prosecuted for forming a trade union. Unlike those poverty-stricken workers, we might imagine that the Rev. Ettrick enjoyed an idyllic existence, the charmed life of a genteel country parson. Yet even wealthy men like him found rural life cold, dirty, difficult and dangerous. In his diaries, the main sources for this study, William recorded a cornucopia of folk cures and recipes, showing the lack of effective medicines and difficulties of household management. For bowel complaints: beef suet, mixed with water and wheat, taken three times a day. For ‘the bile’: boiled carrots. Instructions for making ink, polish, fish sauce, essence of peppermint, for curing outbuildings of rats, and more. Survival depended on resourcefulness and self-sufficiency.

Country life was always hard. But it was perilous when animals died, people sickened, crops failed and food spoiled. Troubles mounted for the Rev. William Ettrick in February 1804, when his new horse fell ill. The expensive animal, needed for work and transport, got worse when William hired a local farrier, who bled it and prescribed an ointment that blistered the horse’s throat. In September the poor beast died and at the same time some pigs ailed. Worse, William and Elizabeth’s infant son became seriously unwell. Unlike the horse he was not bled, though copious opiates were administered to help him sleep.

Susan Woodford: the first witch

The Ettricks had recently employed Susan Woodford, a local woman, to help farm the gardens, nurse the children and run the house. One day in November 1804 they spoke with her about their desperately ill child, who, despite the drugs, wouldn’t settle at night. Rather than commiserate, Susan mocked the family’s misfortunes, or so it appeared to the sleep-deprived parents. All she would say were strange fatalisms and riddles. These mystic sounding remarks, William later recalled, were ‘the thing that first excited our suspicions’.

William and Elizabeth Ettrick knew Susan Woodford had an evil reputation. In Turners Puddle and the surrounding villages she was known as a witch, someone with special powers who blighted her neighbours with spells and other malignant abilities, for no other reason than spite and envy. The villagers shared their suspicions with the parson. Some even said they’d harmed the witch with counter-magic. Initially though, the Rev. Ettrick ignored these rumours. Susan Woodford was insolent. But she was a good worker too, quick with the hoe, knowledgeable about plants and crops. William gladly employed her, yet when his multiple misfortunes unfolded, in what seemed like an escalating pattern, he began thinking differently. Searching for a culprit he remembered that, as well as talking in a witchy way, Susan once asked for a hair from his horse’s tail. No doubt she was undertaking the common folk cure for warts, which involved tying them with a horse’s hair. Suspicious and disorientated, Ettrick imagined she wanted it for a malicious spell.

Photograph of hexafoils

Hexafoils were magical markings used to protect buildings from evil and occult influences such as witchcraft. These examples were created in about 1900 to cover the interior walls of a barn at Pratt Hall, Derbyshire. Copyright to Thomas Waters.

In his diary, William reviewed Susan’s work. A pattern emerged. The crops she planted didn’t sprout. The potatoes she dug up rotted, though every care was taken to store them properly. The beehives she tended died off, or failed to swarm. The raspberries she watered went bad. Everything the old witch touched turned to dust, shrivelling and dying as it came into contact with her malefic power. William and Elizabeth’s baby became uncomfortable in Susan’s presence, as if it could sense her malignity. Desperately, the parson put his immense learning to magical uses, writing out a biblical verse in Hebrew, attaching it to a piece of string and hanging it around the child’s neck. Soon after, the babe fell into a deep healing sleep, barely leaving time for opiates to be administered. There were other signs witchcraft really was at work. One night, amidst his troubles, William dreamt he saw a black bird flying round his hall, pecking him until at last he grabbed it, and broke its neck. Even the starving cat refused to touch the beast on the floor.

Signs of witchcraft and remedies

‘I was once incredulous about the powers of witchcraft, but have no doubts remaining.’ So William Ettrick wrote, on 14 November 1804. He’d revised his once sceptical views and now took seriously the village tales about Susan Woodford’s witchcraft. But the parson was more disposed to believe than he was willing to acknowledge, even in the privacy of his diary. William was independent to the point of eccentricity, and not a man to be cowed into accepting the fashionable, sneering doctrines of his atheistically minded contemporaries. (As an illustration of his independence, Ettrick was one of the few people in British history to marry himself – that is, conduct his own wedding ceremony, to save money.) William also had a prophetic, occult cast of mind. He wrote several obscure works of Christian prophecy, predicting the Apocalypse’s imminent onset. Perhaps it seemed plausible, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, as Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France (1804) and amassed troops just across the English Channel, ready to invade. A strong supporter of Church and state, William Ettrick despised free-thinkers, deists, secularists like Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestly, and the French philosophes of the Enlightenment. This distressed, conspiratorial, reactionary Dorsetshire parson was just the type of educated man who’d be prepared to credit the existence of immanent supernatural forces.

Although he tried magical remedies, the Rev. Ettrick ultimately dealt with his bewitchment by distancing himself from Susan, the witch. In January 1805, eleven months after his misfortunes began, William sacked her. The poor, hardworking and skilful woman wanted an explanation and made several attempts to bring herself back within the fold. William was unmoved and, though he never accused Susan directly, he revealed his suspicions to other locals. With Susan gone, Ettrick’s problems gradually eased, or he thought they did. Yet for the Ettrick family, life couldn’t just return to normal. In 1806, after almost two decades at Turners Puddle, William made it known that he intended to resign his living and depart the parish. In 1808, following the death of his father, he finally left, relocating to the family estate in High Barnes, Sunderland, about 350 miles north and four days’ travel away, by coach.

Ann: the second witch

Even as master of a great estate, William didn’t fully escape the witchcraft he dreaded. An experience like his was impossible to forget, and he never quite felt safe again. In May 1825, two decades after his annus malignus, Ettrick made a foreboding note in his diary: ‘Another Old Sue!’ Once again, his horses and cattle had fallen ill. Once again, he dreamt evil was upon him. In the nightmare he was walking in his garden when he noticed something in the soil, which on inspection turned out to be ‘scorpions, pointing their venomous crab-like stings in my direction’. William knew what it meant. He’d another witch in his employ, a servant named Ann. As before, he resolved the problem by sacking the no doubt blameless woman.

Photo of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

‘Step inside, if you dare!’ The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in the lovely Cornish village of Boscastle has become perhaps the most successful independent museum in the UK. It is a unique resource for anyone with an interest in strange spells and peculiar powers. Copyright to Thomas Waters.

As a clergyman, landowner and person of rank, Ettrick had considerable influence over his neighbours. Gentry like him set the tone of local society, funded church building, provided employment, arranged charity and administered the law as Justices of the Peace (JPs, Justices). These responsibilities determined how the Rev. Ettrick dealt with his witches. Shy and secretive with his suspicions, there was no question of someone like William directly confronting the women he blamed for his troubles. As for attacking his witches – that was unthinkable.

But what would happen if someone like the Rev. William Ettrick, in his capacity as Justice of the Peace (JP), was called upon to settle conflicts between villagers and witches? Where would the magistrate’s sympathies lie? Might he permit intimidation, even violence? We can begin to form answers to these questions by examining the humiliations of a notorious wizard from eastern England, called Isaac Stebbings.

Thomas Waters is lecturer in history at Imperial College London and a specialist in the modern history of witchcraft and magic.

Read more on witches and witchcraft and the history of pagan Britain on our blog.

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