The True Nature and Business of Cunning-Folk


A late 18th-century Magic Book

I’ve been reading and thinking a good deal about 18th century Cunning-Folk. The first discovery I’ve made is simple: I knew a great deal less about who Cunning-Folk were and what they did than I thought I knew.

What made someone part of the group of local, ‘alternative’ practitioners known as Cunning-Folk? Where did they get their power and authority? What did they believe about themselves? More importantly, what did their clients and the people amongst whom they moved believe about them? What did they even do? Were they all quacks and charlatans; little more than confidence tricksters or stage magicians, who preyed on people’s gullibility?

These are some of the questions I’m going to try to answer in a series of blogs during the coming months include:

  • Who were these Cunning-Folk? How did you gain this reputation?
  • What did they do for people?
  • What cultural beliefs and context allowed them to operate?
  • How did they relate to the orthodox medical practitioners of the time?
  • How did they fit into what was supposedly an overwhelmingly Christian country?
  • How did they differ from witches and warlocks — always supposing they did?

I’ve already featured a Cunning Woman in my two most recent Ashmole Foxe Mysteries. She’s in “Bad Blood Will Out” and she also appears in the following book, “Black as She’s Painted”. However, neither delves deeply into her activities. In one sense, this is fair. What I have discovered suggests that the ‘high tide’ of the Cunning-Folk occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries, with a slow decline thereafter, as an increasing emphasis on rationality and science replaced mystical and supernatural explanations of natural phenomena.

The Cunning-Folk may have faded from our lives, but they never went away entirely. The more I discover about them and their activities, the more similar much of it appears to today’s booming industry in alternative medicine and life-styles. Orthodox medicine and state interventions may have triumphed on the surface. Look more closely, however, and you could argue that the Cunning-Folk are having the last laugh!

In that vein, here’s an excerpt from the “Norfolk Chronicle” for Saturday, 1st April 1815:

At the trial of Lucy Black, for robbing Robt. James, the following peculiar circumstances were detailed. The prisoner, it appeared, was the grand-daughter of the prosecutor’s wife, and resided with the prosecutor. The whole family went to the meeting house on the March instant, but the prisoner not being quite ready, did not go with the prosecutor, but remained in the house herself, and arrived at the meeting-house, which was at a considerable distance, within a few minutes after the prosecutor. On their return home, the prisoner observed to the prosecutor, that she saw a light in his dwelling, which was then above mile distant. The prosecutor also, saw a light, but could not discern at what house. When they got home, they found two squares of the outside window broken, as if for the purpose of getting in a hand open the casement, and a briar bush under the window was partly cut away and much trampled down. Upon entering the house they found the things scattered about, chest broken open, guineas missing thereout. A very extraordinary stratagem of the prisoner led to the suspicion of her having committed this robbery, during short time that she remained in the house after the prosecutor was gone to the meeting-house. She related to her grandmother shortly after, that she had been to the cunning woman, Lucy, who had told her that the bigger half of the money would be returned the next day, at about the same hour that it was stolen. At about eight o’clock on the following evening, the prisoner said she heard a noise and went into the garden to make out what it was. Shortly afterwards, she returned, and said she saw somebody in a dark coat fly over the garden gate, upon which the prosecutor went out to see this extraordinary sight. He did not see the dark coated Genius, but the prisoner took this opportunity for picking up a paper parcel at the door containing eleven guineas, which she took to her grandmother, observing that the fortune-teller’s prediction had come true.

Posted in Georgian Society | 9 Comments

“Crier! Call the Ghost”!

“A remarkable instance of a person being tried for murder on the pretended information of a ghost.”

This was the headline above an article in the Chelmsford Chronicle dated 9th April, 1784. The minute I saw it, I knew it was tailor-made for this blog. I often spend a considerable amount of time browsing through 18th-century newspapers. It’s nearly always time well spent. Besides, I enjoy it. However, on this occasion I felt I had truly struck gold.

The story concerns a farmer who was returning from Southam market in Warwickshire, when he was murdered on his way. The next morning, a man went to the farmer’s house and asked his wife whether her husband had come home the evening before. The anxious woman said that he had not and she was beginning to feel terrified that something had happened to him. Her visitor now told her an extraordinary tale:

“Your terror, said he, cannot equal mine, for last night, as I lay in bed, quite awake, the apparition of your husband appeared to me, showed me several ghastly stabs in his body, told me he had been murdered by such and such a person [here he gave the person’s name], and his carcass thrown into a marle-pit.”

Needless to say, the woman raised the alarm and the pit was searched. Sure enough, they found the farmer’s body, and its wounds exactly matched the description the man had given of them. What happened next seems barely credible, even given the widespread belief in ghosts at the time. The man whom the ghost had “accused” was at once apprehended, brought before a justice, and committed for trial on a charge of murder. What’s more, according to the newspaper report, “the jury would have convicted, as rashly as the justice of the peace had committed him, had not the judge checked them.”

The presiding judge, Lord Chief Justice Raymond, stepped in to bring the process to a halt:

“I think, gentlemen, you seem inclined to lay more stress on the evidence of an apparition than it will bear. I cannot say that I give much credit to these kinds of stories, but be that as it will, we have no right to follow our own private opinions here; we are now in a court of law, and must determine according to it; and I know not of any law now in being which will admit of the testimony of an apparition; nor yet if it did, does the ghost appear here to give evidence.”

He then instructed the court crier to call the ghost as a witness. This the crier did, calling three times. Unfortunately, at least for the prosecution, the ghost failed to put in an appearance. The judge therefore dismissed the case with the following words to the jury:

“Gentlemen of the jury, the prisoner at the bar, as you have heard, by undeniable witness, is a man of the most unblemished character; nor hath it appeared, in the course of the examination that there was any manner of quarrel or grudge between him and the party deceased. I do believe him to be perfectly innocent; and as there is no evidence against him either positive or circumstantial he must be acquitted.”

What of the man to whom the ghost had apparently told his tale? The judge made the obvious inference:

“From many circumstances which arose during the trial, I do strongly suspect that the gentleman, who saw the apparition, was himself the murderer; in which case he might easily ascertain the pit, the stabs, et cetera without any supernatural assistance; and on such suspicion I shall think myself justified in committing him to close custody, so the matter can be further enquired into.”

The article ends by relating that the man was taken immediately into custody and his house searched, producing various proofs of his guilt. He at once confessed the murder and was tried and executed at the next assizes.

Was this a true story, or a piece of “false news” that was going the rounds and appealed to the editor as something that would amuse his readers? There is no means of knowing for certain, but I rather suspect the latter; especially since the article ends by stating that it should be, “a sufficient caution to others, not to be over hasty in giving credit to the testimony of apparitions.” There’s also a notable lack of names in the story. The dead farmer, the man accused of his murder, and the accuser are none of them named, which would surely not have been the case if it was a direct report of an actual trial. It all sounds more like the kind of story that somebody tells while propping up the bar in the local hostelry.

Still, I would just love it to be true! Wouldn’t you?

Posted in Crime | 4 Comments

Turkeys in Boots


No, this is not a bizarre idea for a new Christmas panto! Just a plain, factual statement of what took place in Norfolk in Georgian times.

From the late 16th century, thousands of geese and turkeys were walked the hundred miles from Norfolk to Leadenhall market in London each year. The journey would take three months and the birds wore special leather boots to protect their feet. Geese wouldn’t allow themselves to be shod (hence the contemporary phrase “to shoe a goose” for something difficult), so their feet were dipped in tar and covered with sand.

Turkeys in England

Turkeys didn’t come to England from the colonies in North America. They were here long before that. The birds were introduced to Europe by the Spanish, who found the Aztecs of Mexico and Central America rearing them. The latest research suggests this had been going on for maybe 2000 years, long before the Aztecs, and already the domesticated birds were not the same as the wild ones. They were more docile, slightly smaller and darker, and the black plumage contrasted well with the white flesh. By 1525 or so, turkeys had reached England from Spain via merchants of the Levant Company. Since these merchants were associated with the Middle East, the strange birds were assumed to come from Turkey, hence the common name. (As an aside, the French name, dindon, is a corruption of d’Inde, ‘from India or the Indies’. I believe the Portuguese call them ‘peru’. )

Plucking the Turkey exhibited 1776 by Henry Walton 1746-1813

Plucking the Turkey
Henry Walton Tate, 1776

Turkeys became immediately popular with the rich, since they had more meat on them than the small Tudor chickens. Their meat was also far tastier than that of other birds of a comparable size then available, such as swans or peacocks. Henry VIII is known to have eaten turkey at Christmas — not because of any link to that time of year, but simply because he wanted to show off. Eating turkey was at that time an extremely expensive luxury.

King James I is reputed to have had turkey replace pork at a number of banquets and ceremonial occasions, labelling it ‘the king of birds, the bird of kings’. Within half a century of its introduction, turkey was already a favoured meat at grand Christmas meals. George II loved the bird, and, in 1851, turkey replaced swan as Queen Victoria’s choice for her Christmas dinner.

By the time English colonists were heading for America in appreciable numbers in the late-1500s and 1600s, the rearing of turkeys for market had become concentrated in eastern England , especially Norfolk. The land was suitable and it was within a reasonable distance of London. The breed of turkeys in England had already been improved into what later became known as the “Norfolk Black“, which is generally considered the oldest turkey breed in the UK and can still be found on certain farms. Some of these birds were even taken to the American colonies, where they were crossed with wild birds to produce most of the dark-feathered commercial varieties used today.

Getting to Market

By the early 18th century, some 150,000 to 200,000 turkeys were being walked to London from Norfolk each year. These Norfolk turkeys were reared and then sold live at October sales at Aylsham and Attleborough. They were arranged into small flocks of between 300 and 1,000 birds and driven fairly slowly, to avoid loosing too much weight from the exercise. All along the way, there would be stops for rest and feeding, especially in stubble fields. The journey usually took around three months, with the first flocks setting off in August. They would be bought by London middle-men, then walked by drovers to Smithfield Common, where they had a further period resting and building up their weight. Having been slaughtered in early to mid-December, the turkeys were sold at market to local butchers and individual buyers.

Never a cheap meat, turkeys quickly became a bird of choice for major holidays, such as Christmas. Writers on cookery, such as Hannah Glasse in the 1740s, made sure to include a number of recipes for cooking turkey . She also described certain items as ‘the size of a turkey egg’, implying this was common knowledge. The 18th-century Norfolk diarist Parson Woodforde commented in an entry for 1770 that a turkey weighing 14lbs was, “the finest fatted turkey that I ever saw, it was two inches in fat on the breast after it was roasted”.

Arriving in Style

Turkeys didn’t just walk from Norfolk to London either. Many were slaughtered locally, dressed, then loaded onto the stagecoaches. During four days in 1793, over 2,500 turkeys were sent by passenger coach from Norwich to London for Christmas. The coachmen even thought the trade “paid better” than human passenger at that time of year.

In The Book of Christmas, by Thomas Kibble Hervey (1836), the author states:

Our readers will acquit us of exaggeration, when we tell them that Mr. Hone, in his Every Day Book, quotes, from an historical account of Norwich, an authentic statement of the amount of turkeys which were transmitted from that city to London, between a Saturday morning and the night of Sunday, in the December of 1793;—which statement gives the number as one thousand seven hundred, the weight as nine tons, two cwt., and two lbs., and the value as £680. It is added that, in the two following days, these were followed by half as many more.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Of Bankers and Beer


The early part of the 18th century saw the beginning of the modern brewing industry, especially in London. Beer production took place in larger breweries using the forerunners of modern industrial methods. Aside from centralised orders by government for the military, sales were more and more linked to inns, pubs and taverns “tied” to the brewers by direct ownership or loans that would require the borrower to sell only that brewer’s product.

This new approach to brewing could generate enormous profits in good years, and equally significant losses at other times. It also demanded abundant capital resources. To get the capital needed, brewers looked for investment by wealthy individuals with spare cash. These people might ether deposit their money with the brewery in return for interest payments (the usual rate was five percent), or become partners in the firm. In either case, they were investors, not men interested in getting directly involved. Since brewing was seen as a stable industry and money invested there produced good, long-term returns, many family members of the original investors deposited their spare capital in the same way. Finally, many pubs ran “savings clubs” for their customers, either to finance major significant expenses, or to provide money for medical bills or to cover periods of unemployment. This money too was deposited with the brewers.

Short-term Surpluses

A brewer’s income was regular. In contrast, the outgoings for raw materials, such as malt and hops, bought in bulk, fell due at set times of the year. This meant that, in the periods before paying the accounts of the maltsters and the hop growers, there could be significant accumulations of spare cash in brewing businesses. Rather than allow this to languish unused, the brewers got into the habit of investing it in government bonds, or making short-term loans to entrepreneurs.

You can see how easily this would turn into regular banking. The brewers received deposits, on which they paid interest, and used some of these deposits, together with their own resources, to invest in the open market, make loans or arrange mortgages. Brewing was also highly profitable, but offered limited options for direct investment of surplus funds. Brewers were also likely to be the wealthiest people in a locality, save where there happened to be another, more dominant industry, such as cloth in Norwich. Where better to deposit your spare funds and savings than in whatever was the most stable and flourishing local enterprise? It was a very short step from there to providing a range of other banking services, such as honouring bills of exchange. In time, some dropped the brewing business altogether and became full-time bankers.

Major merchant dynasties, like the Gurneys, became involved in a wide range of activities, in part because of the need for ‘surplus’ younger sons to make their own way in the world. When the family was close-knit, especially those bound by a shared religious tradition like Quakerism, the obvious way to raise capital for new entrepreneurial activities was from your relatives. The Gurneys began with dealing in wool, before branching into investments in brewing and, from there, banking. Part of their strength lay in the large number of family members who invested their personal wealth in the dynasty’s enterprises, and could be relied on to stay loyal generation by generation. Part lay in the influence of family members, who filled score of positions in local and national government . The term ‘Beer Baron’ was no empty title. Brewing families wielded enormous wealth and influence and were prominent in philanthropy. They were the Warren Buffets and Bill Gates of their time.

The Quaker Bankers

Amongst these early brewers, you find once well-known names, such as Whitbread and Truman, Greenall, Cobbold and Worthington. You also find families who had more or less left brewing behind by the century’s end. The route from brewer to banker became a familiar one.

Two families of leading Quakers followed that path: the London Barclays and the Norwich Gurneys. Both were partners in The Anchor Brewery in Southwark, London, as well as bankers in London and Norfolk. Both had large, extended families, many of them wealthy enough to need a safe place to deposit their spare capital. As Quakers, the men were barred from the universities and the professions. Instead, like many of their denomination, they used their reputation for honest dealing to pursue successful business careers. Brewing was not considered an improper trade for a Quaker, unlike distilling or making weapons. Where some families like the Cadburys and Frys turned to chocolate, others turned to beer.

Members of the Society of Friends had a culture of mutual reliance and established strong networks of mutual support. From the start, the Barclays and Gurneys were closely linked. There was so much intermarriage between them that their family trees must have resembled knitting! It was almost inevitable that they should merge their banks in the next century to form the basis of the global financial behemoth we know today as Barclays Bank. The Baring family — one of Britain’s largest and most famous firms of merchant bankers until one rogue trader caused it to collapse — also had strong links with Norfolk, intermarrying with local gentry families like the Windhams of Felbrigg. One branch of the Baring family became Earls of Cromer.

It’s common knowledge that much of the wealth of Scotland, in commerce and land, lies in the hands of some half dozen grand families. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to work out how much of the wealth of eighteenth-century Norfolk was also held by a few, interlinked families — and whether the same is true today?


Posted in Commerce

A Frightening and Inexplicable World


The Quack Doctor: Pieter van der Borcht

One of the hardest mental exercises for any writer of historical novels is to forget much of what you know about how this world of ours works. It’s true that the Georgian period marked the very beginning of a scientific approach to understanding, based on experimentation, measurement and collecting of evidence. However, such ideas were still restricted to the educated elite. For the vast majority of ordinary people, little had changed since mediaeval times. Medicine was stuck in the study of Galen and the belief that disease was due to an imbalance of humours. Germs and infection had yet to be linked. If the primitive, largely useless medical tools of the day failed, you either got well on your own, lived maimed and crippled, or died. Too often, it was the last.

Faced with so many terrors and misfortunes, people sought an explanation of their causes, which might offer ways to lessen or avoid them. “Why me?” is the universal cry of those in distress. “What do I do now?” is equally common. Even for the faithful, being told it’s God’s will brings little comfort.

Ordinary people in Georgian times turned to three sources to answer questions about the misfortunes they encountered. One was religion. “Why me?” and “What now?” could also be answered via two different kinds of understanding: magical practices and other supernatural sources, such as curses, charms and superstitions.

The Power of Tradition and Folk-Memory

What we now dismiss as quaint superstitions — if we recall them at all — were matters of vital importance in Georgian times, especially in the countryside. To ignore or overlook the proper rituals and actions associated with key events in the agricultural year was to invite disaster. Even if you had no firm explanation for such beliefs, save that things had always been done that way, to ignore tradition was to behave with arrogance towards the natural world and the spirits which lurked there. Such pride would bring punishment. Folk tales abound in stories of careless or arrogant humans suffering bad luck — or worse — as a result of not doing things as they should be done. That, of course, meant doing them as they had always been done.

A range of rituals were used to secure good fortune and a bountiful harvest. We still can’t control the weather, but we do know pretty well what to do to ensure sufficient fertility for the crops; and how to destroy pests that might ruin the harvest. Such scientific ideas about crop yield were in their infancy in the 18th century. Destroying pests was based on good husbandry and hard labour. More modern ideas in both areas had reached only the wealthiest landowners and their agents. The ordinary farmer or farm-worker either hoped things would turn out well, or turned to age-old traditions that promised answers used many times before.

Folk Medicine

Much the same applied in cases of sickness. Professionals, like physicians, apothecaries and surgeons charged fees beyond the ability of the poor to pay. Folk remedies, written in household manuals and cookery books, cost nothing. Many were memorised or written out for use when needed. Even the mistresses of grand houses did the same, especially with herbal remedies. After all, they did as much good as the bleedings and cuppings of the physicians, or the opium and cocaine based medicines sold by the apothecaries.

Where literacy was limited, much of this traditional knowledge was kept by the Cunning Folk on behalf of the local community. The Cunning Man or Woman would have learned their lore from their parents or grandparents. Knowledge was handed down orally. Those who possessed it guarded it jealously. It was the source of their income and standing in the community. They spread the idea that to write it down might lessen its potency. They also claimed that esoteric knowledge in the hands of ‘ordinary’ persons was dangerous. In this, of course, they were no different to the medical professionals.

How to Survive

To understand the world of the ordinary Georgians, we must set aside our preconceptions and imagine a society in which health, wealth and life itself were all at the mercy of unknown and inexplicable forces; in which the best you could do was turn to those who claimed to possess the means to tilt the odds in your favour. Quacks were everywhere. Just as today, those who were most plausible were not always the most reputable. To the common folk of the eighteenth century, lacking in education and the time to devote to anything other than life’s basics, the quacks offered quick and easy solutions. The ‘scientific’ professionals moved in lofty circles and spoke using terminology few outside those circles understood. Is it any wonder it took many decades for scientific methodologies to become the norm?

Even today, a surprising number of people still prefer to rely on ‘the wisdom of the ages’, expressed as spiritual or religious beliefs, over rational or scientific knowledge. Billions are made via the sales of ‘Alternative Medicine’, much of which has never been rigorously tested. The only difference is that today’s ‘folk’ ideas are dressed in the expensive designer clothes provided by marketing professionals.

Posted in Georgian Society | 2 Comments

The Terrors of the 18th-century German Ocean

Old Photograph Herring Fishing Fleet Anstruther East Neuk Of Fife Scotland

The Herring Fleet setting out from Scotland

Our correspondent at Corton has favoured us with the following melancholy account of the damage the shipping sustained by the high winds, on Tuesday and Wednesday last, near that place: ­­ The Millbank, of Lynn, John RITETRIE, master, to the westward, with wheat, said to be totally lost; crew all saved. ­­ The Anstruther, of Dunbar, Robert TAYLOR, master, in ballast, from London to Lynn; crew saved, and it is thought the ship will [be]. ­­ The Francis, of Yarmouth, a Hull trader; all saved, and the ship likely to be so. ­­ The John and Betsey, of Burnham, Robert HOOKE, master, from London, in ballast; crew saved, and it is supposed the ship will. ­­ A large light brig, from Sunderland, name unknown; ship quite spoiled, but the crew saved. ­­ The Unity, of Burlington, John ESARD, master, to London, with cord; ship, master, and three men lost, one man and one boy saved. ­­ A large Swedish ship lost on the Newtop; the crew, consisting of 22, saved by a boat from Yarmouth, at the most imminent hazard. ­­ The Sophia Magdalen, Jacob AKERMAN, master, bound to Newcastle, for coals for Lisbon, went on shore on Thursday morning last. The five first mentioned ships are all on shore between Yarmouth Piers and Corton. ­­ The Unity went ashore on Thursday morning on Lowestoft Beach.

The Norfolk Chronicle, March 1782

Shipwrecks represent a national nightmare we have forgotten. A constant toll of lives and wrecked families upon which Britain’s eighteenth-century prosperity depended. In the North Sea alone, then called the German Ocean, hundreds of sailing ships were lost every year and thousands of men, and sometimes women and children, drowned.

The eighteenth-century North Sea was thronged with small, wooden-hulled sailing ships. Few carried more than eighty to one hundred tons of freight; many were simple fishing smacks and coastal barges. All were at the mercy of tide, wind and waves, in a shallow sea filled with hidden reefs and sandbanks.

Norfolk’s Shores could be a Killing Ground

The bulk of this maritime traffic sailed north and south, trying to stay close enough to land to navigate with ease and run for shelter if things turned nasty. The east coast of England and Scotland are ‘lee shores’ — coastlines to which the prevailing wind and the tides are likely to drag you. With only sails to provide motive power, the only way to try to keep your ship away from being driven ashore in an easterly gale was to throw out anchors and try to hold yourself in one place out to sea. If the anchor cables broke, or the anchors dragged in the sandy bottom, even these frail safety features could not save you.

Nor are there any safe havens to run to between Harwich and the Humber. Norfolk rivers are generally too small to provide wide, deep estuaries. Nearly all of them face east, directly into the most feared wind direction. Many are hemmed in by sandbanks and reefs. The bulk of the shoreline consists of shingle, backed by marshes, here and there relieved by low cliffs. If a storm produced a major tidal surge — and many did in such turbulent and shallow waters — your ship would be driven onto the sandbanks or smashed again the shore.

Those Most at Risk

Colliers and fishing vessels, especially the annual herring fleet, faced the greatest dangers. Coal was too heavy and bulky to transport far over the terrible roads of the time. The North Sea is — or was — rich in fish, especially herring, which migrate there annually to spawn.

The huge estuary called The Wash was the most dangerous part of the coast. It’s another lee shore, only this time a yawning dead-end. Getting in was easy. Getting out again next to impossible. It’s also shallow, riddled with sandbanks and prone to violent tides. Yet every ship bringing coal to London from the mines of Yorkshire and the north-east had to pass its gaping maw. The much feared easterly gale, blowing directly into the mouth of The Wash, might leave scores of colliers wrecked in a single night. For a time, sailings were suspended during the dangerous winter months. But such was London’s insatiable demand for coal that, towards the latter part of the century, the ships sailed throughout the year, regardless of the danger.

The herring fleet, consisting of hundreds of smacks and other small fishing vessels, set out each year from the north of Scotland and followed the herrings south. Along the way, they put in at various ports, where the fisherman’s wives would set themselves up on the shore to gut and salt the herrings as they were brought in. Great Yarmouth was the final port on their journey. They would arrive there in autumn, right at the end of the season. Once they had finished with that final catch, the entire flotilla sailed home again, only to set out the next year. All kinds of fishing vessels were at risk from the North Sea’s unpredictable weather, but the addition of the huge herring fleet would add to the slaughter if storms arose without warning.

Counting the Cost

Nowadays, a single shipwreck makes global headlines. On one night in the 1760s, more than 140 ships were reported lost off the coast of Norfolk alone. Small they might be, but such a toll added up to hundreds of sailors drowned or crippled. At a time when the population was much smaller than today, and there was nothing to provide an income to their widows and children, it is hard to imagine what this constant culling of working men did to the small local communities. Most sailors never learned to swim, since the ability would only prolong the agony before you drowned. The waters of the North sea are cold at all times and frigid in winter. Once in the water, even clinging to some wreckage, you would not last long before exposure loosened your grip and you went down to your death. Best to get it over with quickly. Even ships wrecked close to shore often lost all or most of their sailors, despite the efforts on those on shore to make a rescue. With only muscle-power, ropes and flimsy open boats, potential rescuers were all too often reduced to standing on the shore and watching those who had been wrecked giving in to the sea.


Posted in C18th Norfolk, Commerce, Travel

More on ‘Wise Men’, Conjurors and ‘Cunning Women’


“The Witch of the Woodlands”
Illustration from an 18th century chapbook

I have written before about ‘wise men’ (and women): local herbalists, magicians and clairvoyants, who were often those the ordinary people would ask to cure their illnesses, remove supposed curses and instances of being ‘overlooked’ [effected by the evil eye], bring good luck and foretell the future. In the latest book in my Ashmole Foxe series of mysteries, Foxe is helped by just such a ‘wise woman’, who gives him advice and encouragement when both are needed.

I thought I would take a look through the local newspapers of the time to see if I could find out more about the activities of such ‘conjurors’, as they are often termed at the time. (As an aside, I assume this term refers to their supposed use of spells or ‘conjurations’, not any ability to produce rabbits out of hats!) Here is a selection of what I found, beginning with an undoubted, if only partial, success.

A Success

The house of Mr. Cole, farmer, of Ketton, Rutland, having been robbed of property to a considerable amount; a relation of Mr. Cole’s, advised him, if the thief was not found out, nor the property returned in a few days, to apply to a conjuror (or wise man) who would discover the robber, and also oblige them to restore the effects. Mr. Cole promised his friend to make the application at the end of three days, in case he heard nothing of the money. His intent got wind; and had such an influence on those who committed the robbery, that thirty-one guineas, a 20l. [£20] and a 10l. bank of England notes, and a 10l. Stamford bank (being artfully left in the passage) which is within 18l. 4s. [£18 4 shillings] of the whole sum was returned to him.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 16 January 1790

Two Failures

There were failures as well. I love the snide remark on the conjuror’s abilities at the end of the first excerpt.

Oxford, Dec. 7. Thursday morning, between five and six o’clock, the Bath coach was robbed in going up the hill on the other side [of] Bottley, about a mile and a half from this city, by a single highwayman, well mounted, who took from Mr. Jonas, the celebrated conjuror, his watch and about four guineas in money. It seems more than probable, that either the suddenness of the demand, or the bitter imprecations of the highwayman, might so much alarm Mr. Jonas as totally to deprive him of his wonderful art of conveyance, or we can scarce suppose he would have suffered the robber to pocket the watch and money, and carry it off.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 14 December 1776

The report of this last case is somewhat confusing, so I’ll set down the basics. A woman from the Norfolk village of Hetherset had some cheeses stolen and consulted a wise woman to help discover the thief. The wise woman gave an ambiguous answer, stating the thief had a mark on her nose. This was obviously reported around the village and the village shoemaker, Chamberlain, who seems to have been on poor terms with a couple called Bailey, said something that the Baileys took to be an accusation that Mrs Bailey was the thief. Hence the court case claiming slander.

This action was brought to obtain a compensation for the injury sustained by the character of Mrs Bailey from the slander of the defendant. [a Mr. Chamberlain, a shoemaker] —The facts were these: A Mrs. Witten, of Hetherset, having lost seven cheeses, caused an enquiry to be made of a cunning woman to discover the thief. This cunning woman, by the aid of magic, or some other mode of detecting culprits, unknown even in Bow-street, found out that the offending person had a mark on her nose. Now it happened, unfortunately, for Mrs. Bailey that, under this description, her nose betrayed her guilt; the defendant, at least, (who is a shoe-maker, at Hetherset) entertained no doubt on this point, and roundly taxed her with the robbery. He told her that “he knew very well by the subscription that was given of her that she was the woman who had stolen the cheese,” and said, that “the guilt was lodged on her, and she could not get off it.” These words, however, were, by one of the witnesses denied to have been spoken at the time alledged [sic]; and from this witness it appeared, that all which the defendant had said was, “I don’t say who stole the cheeses, but if the d—d old woman will say ’twas a woman with a mark on her nose, I can’t help it.” Some provoking language appeared also have been used by Bailey to the defendant previous to these words being by the latter, and the case being but weakly supported, the Jury, with the recommendation of the Judge, gave verdict for the defendant.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 12 August 1797

It’s interesting that, although the general tenor of these pieces is sceptical, you get the sense that consulting ‘conjurors’ and ‘Cunning Men’ (and women) was not viewed as out of the ordinary. It’s the attempt to discover what’s hidden that is the source of the disbelief. I could find no suggestion that visiting a ‘Cunning Woman’ (or man) for medical help was viewed with suspicion. After all, as the ‘alternative practitioners’ of their day, at a time when ‘conventional’ medicine had almost nothing useful to offer, they probably offered as much assistance as anyone — and at much less cost as well.


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