Witchcraft Part 2

Canewdon

by Peter Cottis

I copied this article from The Essex Countryside, printed Oct 1961. I should have the original copy somewhere though I haven’t seen it for some time. Peter Cottis, July 2018.

LAST LEGENDS OF ESSEX WITCHES

WITCH LORE OF CANEWDON

By Eric Maple


Canewdon on the River Crouch, is perhaps the only village of modern times to have an investigation into its witches. As a collector of folklore, I spent over a year gathering the Canewdon witch tales, which combine horror and humour in about equal proportions.

It is well known that there will be six witches in Canewdon just as long as the church tower stands, and that every time a stone falls from the tower one witch will die and another will take her place. This means that by some mysterious process power is passed on from one witch to her successor- but how? This was the mystery I set out to solve. It involved the collection and evaluation of many ancient legends, but at last, I discovered a legend that provided me with the clue.

It is well known that long ago witches were accused of possessing imps, usually small animals, and for this many were hanged. These imps were the means of a witch passing on her powers, as the following curious story reveals.

The old smith of Ballads Gore, on the outskirts of Canewdon, was believed to have sold his soul to the devil, which was probably the reason he always looked over his shoulder wherever he went. Naturally, he had few friends, and these were not over-pleased to visit him as he lay dying. They entered his room and saw that he was very near the end, but his eyes were very much alive, for they travelled round and round the room as if following something only he could see.

Suddenly a great circular scorch mark spread slowly over the bed, then a small white mouse ran into the centre of the circle. It sat there looking at the smith, who said: "I can't die while the imp is there." Then, to the horror of the watchers, he begged his wife to take it, but she said: "No, no, I don't want the power.”

He then begged his daughter to take it, telling her that until she did so he could not die. Weeping, she took the animal from him and crept into another room. As she left the bedside the smith fell back dead and the watchers knew that his daughter was now a witch.

What it meant to live in a village where witchcraft was an active belief was described to me by an old man in his seventies who remembered the stories told to him by his grandfather. People from other villages shunned Canewdon like the plague, and most Canewdon residents regarded each other as witches or potential witches. Because of this scissors and knives were regularly placed under doormats in the belief that no witch would dare to step over iron or steel.

One old lady, who turned back from a doorway at the last minute, having forgotten something, was forever afterwards branded as a witch but not in her hearing of course.

The master of witches was George Pickingill, who kept not only the witches but the villagers as well in a state of sheer terror. Mr Whitwell, whose family has lived in Canewdon for centuries, remembered the fear that this man inspired. When George Pickingill wanted water drawn for him from the pump he did not have to ask twice, for the penalty for disobedience was a curse. The victim was often taken seriously ill as a result and would remain in that condition until Pickingill lifted the spell.

Old Picky, as he was called, died in 1909 at the age of ninety-three. His last and greatest act of magic was performed at his own funeral. As he lay dying he had declared that he would demonstrate his powers in a way that Canewdon would never forget.

On the day of his funeral the hearse drew up to the churchyard and suddenly the horse stepped out of the shafts and trotted off down the road to the great alarm of the mourners. Old Picky was having the last word as usual.

These are the modern legends of the Canewdon witches, but each generation has made its contributions to the great store of Canewdon witch lore. Back in the 1840s, the parson's wife was said to be a witch, and her sister, old Lady Lodwick, once bewitched a housemaid who disobeyed her. Earlier still the parson himself was chased from his pulpit by the devil, but, because of his greater guile, he got away. In the sixteenth century, Ruth Poysey was charged with witchcraft and acquitted. If she had been found guilty and executed it might have provided an explanation of the witch ghost of Canewdon who flies over fields and rivers at night in a silken gown minus her head. Local people today still tremble at the memory of meeting her on lonely roads in the old days.

It might be well to conclude with a story told by an actual victim of a witch's spell. The late Mr Cottis told me on his first day at work some eighty years ago he was asked by an old woman for whom he usually collected shopping if he would do so again, “Too busy,” he said and ran off to work. The old lady shouted at him, "You'll be busy enough before you've finished today's work," and went back angrily into her cottage.

Sure enough, when young Cottis tried to lift his scythe, he found it as heavy as lead, and although he toiled all day he could not finish his work. The next day he met the old woman, who said mockingly, "How did you like your day's work boy? Now will you get my shopping?"

"I didn't argue," said Mr. Cottis, “And after that everything was all right again."

And thinking about it, I would not have argued either if I had lived in a village where six witches and a wizard all worked in secret in the shadow of the old church tower.

Mr Cottis was Albert Edward Cottis my Grandfather.

This page was added by Bob Stephen on 11/08/2018.
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