Witchcraft Part 1

Ashingdon and Hadleigh

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.



By Eric Maple

I have collected many legends about Cunning Murrell, the wizard of Hadleigh, who is still remembered there although he died a hundred years ago. Three generations of Hadleigh villagers have treasured tales handed down to them from their great-grandparents, tales of magic and mystery.

These stories reveal the dark world in which the average Essex farm labourer lived until comparatively modern times. In fact, until the coming of popular education in the seventies of the last century [1870s] his ideas were very little different from those of his ancestors of the eighteenth century, and superstitions that had died out everywhere else still lingered on in the countryside.

One story told about Murrell concerns his battle with a gypsy witch and illustrates the gruesome character of the old witchcraft belief. This was told to me by an old lady whose great-grandparents had lived next door to the wizard, whom they feared and respected.

One day a Hadleigh girl went into a barn at harvest time to collect some beer for the farm workers. She discovered that an old gypsy woman had got at the beer first and she ordered her out of the barn. As she left the gypsy shouted out: "you'll be sorry for this, my girl” and so she was. Hardly had she got back to the fields with the beer than she was “took comical" as they used to say in Essex. She started screaming like a cat, barking like a dog, and ran on all fours. Hysteria like this was completely beyond the comprehension of nineteenth century rustics, and it was assumed that she had been bewitched.

They decided to call in Cunning Murrell, the local witch doctor. Murrell took one look at the girl and said that it was indeed witchcraft and that the fee for unwitching her would be sixpence.

The bargain was struck, and that night Murrell prepared a grim concoction of urine, herbs, nail clippings and hair clippings and heated it up in a bottle over the kitchen fire, the idea being that as it boiled up it would burn the witch wherever she would be. It was hoped that by torturing her he would compel her to remove the spell. This was a seventeenth-century technique known as a witch bottle.

The watchers sat in silence and presently there came the sound of footsteps up the path, and there followed the cry of a woman in pain. A voice called out "Stop, stop. You’re killing me". Suddenly the contents of the bottle boiled up and the bottle itself exploded. The woman's crying stopped dead. There was silence. A few minutes later the girl recovered from her hysteria, but on the following day, the half-burned body of an old gypsy woman was found lying in the road in the next village.

Country people of the past still had the strange notion that an evilly disposed person could influence the weather, harm crops and cause storms.

Such a one was old Mrs. Eves, who in Murrell's time lived in a little cottage near the Wagon and Horses in Hadleigh.

People were so frighted of her that when she died nobody wanted to enter her cottage to lay out her body, which was the neighbourly thing to do in old Essex. At last, a women agreed to help, and this was the tale told by her great-grandaughter, whom I met two years ago.

After the body had been prepared for burial, the woman was about to leave when a man came into the room and told her that he was the witch's son, and his old mother's ghost had come to him as he was working in the fields and told him of her death.

The terrified woman wanted to go at once, but he would not let her. He said, "My mother had a power and that power comes to me, but I don't want it so we shall destroy it." He told her to make up a big fire, and when the stove was hot, he took a little box from the sideboard drawer, a box which had something alive inside. He thrust it into the flames and at once, there arose the most dreadful screams, in a human voice, which slowly died away as the box burned to ashes.

As the shocked woman fled from the house, she heard the man say, “The power is dead. At last I'm free." This grim legend is probably very old. It has all the signs of being handed down from the seventeenth century, when such tales were common. Yet it was told in Hadleigh, Essex, only three generations ago.

The old-time countryman lived in a world in which legends like this were believed by all who heard them - that is if they were brought up in the belief that witches really did exist.


Another witch with whom Murrell was often in conflict was Nelly Button, who lived near Ashingdon School. This is the very first of the witch legends, which I collected in that part of the world.

Old Nelly Button was a tailoress, and when one of her customers, a girl, told her that she proposed to transfer her custom elsewhere old Nelly said to her: "If you do, you'll be sorry."

At this, the girl laughed, but Nelly Button had the last laugh. From that day onwards, the girl developed a slow paralysis, which crept upwards from her feet until she could only move her head. Then one day old Nelly Button called at the girl's house and walked quietly into her room. She asked her if she had changed her mind. The girl, who could only manage to move her lips, said "yes," and within twenty-four hours, she could walk again.

Whatever we may think of tales like these, it should be born in mind that they were genuinely believed all over Essex 100 years ago. And in the very heart of this world of witchcraft was the old witch doctor, Cunning Murrell of Hadleigh, spinning the web that would bring the witches into his power.


#Special Colchester Supplement

Vol. 09 No 57

Tales are still told of "Cunning Murrell"

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