Witchcraft and post-Christian beliefs in Blackpool and the Fylde
Witches are a difficult subject to discuss because in all probability they never existed historically and those that do exist are basing their practises on a mixture of imagination and unreliable reports from witch trials. Nobody would dispute that there are witches nowadays but they came about because of the persecution of innocent alleged witches in the past.
There are many who disagree and believe that witchcraft is a form of paganism that has existed in clandestine form since Christianity Early Christianity had to compromise with existing religious practises. Easter is feast of the Saxon God Oestra who is a goddess of fertility, hence the egg.
Early Protestants were austere compared to Catholics and they were suspicious of traditional feasts such as Christmas and All Souls Day and of traditional practises like May Pole Dancing. They suspected that these had origins in a pre-Christian world.
Witches to early Protestants were proof of the inability of the Catholic Church to cleanse itself of Pagan practises. Catholicism was an inclusive religion. The poorest struggled from one feast day to the next. The Church provided something for everybody, aesthetics, drama, learning, a fund of interesting stories, the possibility of cure for illnesses and regular opportunities for feasting and general merriment. The holidays on which Blackpool achieved its astonishing growth were “holy days”, when people celebrated their local patron saint or the consecration of their church accompanied by rushbearing drinking and dancing. The Catholic Church was a never-ending source of entertainment for people and old beliefs were incorporated in the same way that Pagan symbols such as the Green Man are built into the fabric of cathedrals. One feature of England since the Reformation has been a kind of unfulfilled longing for Catholic extravagance often expressed in the form of envious disapproval. One source of the Gothic style so characteristic of England is Catholicism.
The North West of England and especially the Fylde an isolated peninsula in a region which was hardly thought of as being England and where pre-christian folk beliefs were strong was a place where superstition thrived. Farmers hung hag-stones in their stables to ward off witches. A hag-stone is a stone-age tool such as a hammer head with a rope through the hole to hang it up. Any disaster, illness, a bad harvest, the death of cattle could be blamed on a witch. Witches were mostly women but many of those tried were men, witches were not burned they were hung and a witch-trial was not a foregone conclusion, many were found not guilty.
The outstanding witch trial in Lancashire was the trial of the Pendle Witches.
The year was 1612 and James 1 was a firm believer in witches and had written a book on the subject. The Pendle area was strongly Catholic. When Roger Knowles a JP heard of a dispute between two alleged witch families led by the magnificently named Demdyke and Chattox he investigated. Because of ill-feeling, perhaps rivalry, between the families, there were mutual accusations. Many involved in the prosecution of the witches were hoping for promotion, they were trying to second guess what James I would want. James I was ambiguous on the subject. He firmly believed in witches but he made fun of the evidence at some witch trials. Crucially he thought that evidence from a young child was acceptable in witch trials, in a later case he changed his mind and decided that evidence given by children was not permissible.
Nine people were hanged on the moors near Lancaster at the site of present day Williamson Park on the basis of evidence given by nine year old Jennet Device against her mother and brother. Amongst the charges were that they had plotted to blow up Lancaster Castle. We are in Weapons of Mass Destruction Country here. How the poorest people imaginable were going to have the means and the expertise to blow up Lancaster Castle did not concern anybody.
Amongst those hung on Lancaster Moor was Alice Nutter. Unlike the other victims she was a landowner. What she would be doing meeting up with a bunch of near tramps and beggars at Malkin Tower on Good Friday is anybody’s guess. She was a Catholic and she may have been attending a service and preferred to hang than betray her fellow Catholics. Two of her family had previously been executed as Catholic Priests.
Alice Nutter’s relatives gave their name to Nutter Road in Cleveleys.
Jennet Device, or somebody with that name, was accused of witchcraft in Lancaster in 1634. Although she was found guilty the case was submitted to King Charles 1. Jennet had been accused by a ten year old boy and under questioning he admitted lying. Nevertheless Jennet does not seem to have been released and she probably died in Lancaster Prison. We can only guess at what made a nine year old girl give evidence that was responsible for the death of her mother and brother. Possibly she was flattered by the attention and did not understand the consequences.
We owe our knowledge of the case to Thomas Potts who was a clerk of the court. His book of the trial: “The wonderfull discoverie of witches in the Countie of Lancaster ” was a runaway best seller. Some of the accused believed they had supernatural powers and others exploited the belief that they had such powers.
A more local example of witchcraft or the belief in witchcraft is the story of Margaret Hilton of Meg Shelton.
Meg Shelton was born in Singleton. She moved to Wesham. She was so in fear of local people that she intended to move to Cottam but she was found crushed by a barrel in Cuckoo Hall where she lived.
She was widely feared as a Witch, she was said to be a gifted shape-changer. One story is that she provided a hare for the Lord of Cottam to chase with his hound on condition that the Lord did not use his black hound. The Lord of Cottam agreed but cheated. The hare escaped but the black dog managed to bite its leg. Thereafter Meg Shelton walked with a limp. The Lord of Cottam is said to have provided her with a cottage but she died before she was able to move there.
When she was buried her corpse appeared beside the grave a number of times so as a precautionary measure she was said to be buried upside down and with a block of granite over the top to prevent her escaping again from the grave.
That is the story. It is difficult to know where to start. If she was a witch why was she buried in a churchyard? If she had the energy to dig herself out of the ground despite being dead surely she could have moved beyond her grave.
A suggested explanation: Of course Meg Shelton was not a Witch. The difficulty with being thought of as a Witch is that everything you do confirms that belief. Witches were genuinely hated, in some ways like paedophiles today. Every bad thing in the community including the deaths of children was attributed to the Witch. The story about Meg Shelton does hint at a sympathetic relationship with the Lord of Cottam.
Suppose that the community is convinced that Meg Shelton is an evil Witch responsible for a great deal of suffering and yet the Lord Cottam gives her a home.
Suppose the Lord of Cottam is slightly less superstitious. The people see an evil woman intent on causing harm, he sees somebody who is very poor and ill. He wants to protect her and gives her a home. His relationship with Meg Shelton is that of a protector.
Meg Shelton dies in 1706 at Cuckoo Hall near Kirkham. Probably she is murdered. Being crushed by a barrel does not sound like the kind of thing that usually happens at home. Under the Lord of Cottam’s protection she is buried in the Churchyard. The people are outraged. They dig her up. A kind of stand-off takes place and eventually Meg is peacefully buried but with added precautions to prevent her being dug up. The story of Meg Shelton and her interments and disinterments is preserved in a folk story which correctly points to her relationship with the Lord of Cottam.
In 1611 Robert Hey renounced his title of the Wise Man of the Fylde. He lived at Poulton and he was probably avoiding more serious charges. In 1627 Dorothy Shaw was accused by a neighbour: “thou art a witch and God bless me I am afraid for my wife and goods.”
Oddly enough there are more modern associations with Witchcraft or neo-Paganism.
A self portrait (with horns) by Osman Spare. The history of horned figures is deeply interesting (to me) and continues in modern rock culture.
Blackpool has had many unusual residents, but none can match the eccentricity of Austin Osman Spare 1886-1956. A very gifted artist, probably underrated because the sheer variety of his work defies easy classification, he was a friend of Alesteir Crowley with whom he later fell out. Alesteir Crowley was a “Catholic” occultist, he believed in rituals, Austin Spare was a “Protestant” occultist, believing more in spontaneity. “Chaos Magic” which is derived from Osman Spare’s beliefs continues to the present day. Osman Spare explored his own form of occultism as well as inventing or developing an array of styles such as surrealism and pop art. He was in Blackpool during his military training in 1915. He was a towering and underrated eccentric… some of his works have been bought by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. The German ambassador had one of his paintings and it is said that he was asked to do a portrait of Hitler which he refused.
Another former friend of Alesteir Crowley was Madeline Montalban 1910 -1982, born Madeline Sylvia Royals in Blackpool she moved to London in the 30s. She became associated with Gerald Gardner one of the founders of the Wiccan movement. She wrote on astrology in the magazine Prediction.
Gerald Gardner’s collected library which contained many rare works about witchcraft and his writings were purchased after his death. One of the negotiators being John Turner the manager of Ripley’s Odditorium Blackpool. The intention was to found a Museum of Witchcraft but eventually the writings have been dispersed.
Phil Hines, a modern practitioner of Chaos Magic which follows the Osman Spare tradition came from Blackpool and in interviews he says that he was a member of a coven in Blackpool. A brief search of the Internet reveals a coven based in Blackpool.
Finally a Satanist switched on the illuminations. Possibly. Jayne Mansfield became a follower of Anton La Vey founder of the Church of Satan. A feisty and clever woman who allegedly had an affair with President Kennedy (who didn’t) switched on Blackpool Illuminations in 1959. She also met Jimi Hendrix in 1965 when they cut two tracks together. He used to stay at a boarding house in Dickson Road when he was performing in Blackpool.
Belief in witches, fairies, holy wells continued to be part of everyday life in the Fylde until the nineteenth century. William Thornber recalls that people used to leave gifts at the wells by Stony Hill which was probably a pre-roman burial mound near Lytham Road as late as the nineteenth century and that at Halloween the hills in the distance around Blackpool would be lit with bonfires. It is possible that sea-bathing was a pre-Christian tradition that went up the social ladder until it reached the Prince Regent in the eighteenth century. Superstition existed alongside Christianity. The astrological signs around the entrance to All Hallows church in Bispham are part of the desire to understand and influence the future is still discernible in the fortune-tellers of the Golden Mile.
I cannot recommend too highly the
Fylde and Wyre Blogspot
By Michelle Harris and Brian Hughes
From which I obtained much of the information about Meg Shelton