Thursday, April 18, 2024

Thurrock Local History: Broomsticks and Bedknobs by Susan Yates

AT our February meeting our chairman Susan Yates’ talk was entitled Broomsticks and Bedknobs. It covered witches, those on broomsticks as we can imagine, but the bedknobs referred to those women who ‘bewitched’ men.

Besom brooms are a symbol of witches, but in fact witches in the 1450-1650s were probably just herbalists, which ran in families, certainly not looking like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. They were persecuted across Europe, over 500 being hung. A hundred of them were in Essex, pursued by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s. He was born in Suffolk where his father was a vicar and trained as a lawyer. He moved to Manningtree where he accused six women of trying to kill him by witchcraft.

One test for a witch involved immersion in water – if they floated they were guilty, but innocent if they drowned. Their pets were known as familiars, who they suckled. Hopkins was known as the ‘Lady Pricker’ – moles were another sign of witchcraft: if they didn’t bleed when pricked then you were a witch.  Other tortures included the penalty of death by hanging and sleep deprivation. The Salem witch trials in America are famous, and there were also some in Pendle, Lancashire, where many shops still display witchcraft themes.

The Canewdon village sign depicts a witch, probably the only one in England, a place which still blocks off the church on Hallowe’en. It seemed a strange place when Susan visited, the village eerily deserted. At St Osyth there is The Cage, said to be haunted, where a witch was locked up. She was Ursula Kemp, a local midwife, accused of killing a baby and later hanged. In 1921 her possible skeleton was found with rivets, suggesting someone accused of witchcraft. The bones were sent to a museum and may have later been re-buried in St Osyth.

Regarding bedknobs, another type of witchcraft involving men being led astray, Susan cited many famous people. She used Anne Boleyn as an example, bewitching Henry VIII. Also Queen Caroline who married George IV and had a liaison with Thomas Manby, the hotel in Southend where they stayed still displaying a plaque on the wall. Lord Nelson was led astray by Lady Emma Hamilton, who is said to have danced naked at Uppark to entertain visitors. Disraeli was another, a love story of his secret affair with Lady Henrietta Sykes. Disraeli had several affairs, preferring older women who wanted to mother him, before he entered the world of politics. HG Wells was bewitched by Rebecca West; when he dropped her she wrote a long bitter letter. 

There were several witches in Thurrock, including Elizabeth Fox in Aveley, others in Bulphan, East Tilbury, Fobbing, Grays and Horndon. There were four in Ockendon and three in Tilbury. This was a sobering journey through the world of witchcraft, leaving us feeling glad that we no longer have witchfinders.

Our next meeting is at 8pm on Friday 17 March at St John’s Church hall, Victoria Avenue, Grays when Dr Twigs Way’s talk is entitled The Social History of Allotments. All visitors are welcome.

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