Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Witch and the Stone

Folklorist Ian Dawson was one of the founder editors of ASH Magazine, and was at the magazine until the very last issue in 1997. He spent the nine years that ASH was in print, as a loyal and leading light within the editorial team. He wrote more articles than anyone else, and was a champion of the Green Man in Essex, along with being a mine of information on Essex Witchcraft and Cunning Lore. The article below, was one of his earlier ones, and was published in the second issue, which hit the streets in the winter of 1988!

The Witch and the Stone
by Ian Dawson

For years Essex has been known as the witch county, because of the many witchcraft trials held there in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is hardly surprising therefore, that there are many stories about witches and their craft, coming from this part of the British Isles. One such story is that of the Witch of Scrapfaggots Green. For years the villagers of Great Leighs knew of large stone that lay at the crossroads known locally as Scrapfaggots Green. Under the stone were the remains of the Witch of Great Leighs, put to death some 300 years before.

In 1944, during the second world war, the roads leading to Boreham air base had to be widened so that military vehicles could travel along them. One of these roads, called Drachett Lane, led over the crossroads where the witch lay, and an army bulldozer pushed aside the stone that marked the witch's grave. From that day onwards. there followed a series of events that defied all explanation and to which nearly everyone in the village was witness to at one time or another.
For instance, after a calm and serene night, a farmer awoke to find his hay stacks had been tipped over and scattered around the surrounding countryside. He also found his wagons had been turned sideways in their sheds and it took the farm labourers half an hour to get them out! Sheep were found outside their still secure pens, yet there were no gaps or any means of escape. A builder found his scaffold poles spread all over his yard and some decorators found their heavy paint pots and tools missing, when they turned up for work at a cottage they were decorating. They finally discovered the paint pots under a bed in the attic. The church bells rang of their own accord at midnight and the church clock was found to be two hours slow. Cows stopped giving milk, chickens stopped laying and three geese disappeared without a trace. Not even a tell-tale feather. A chicken that belonged to no one was found dead in a water barrel. Daily the turmoil grew until a reporter for the Sunday Pictorial arrived on the scene and was witness to one event himself. At the village pub, the Dog and Gun, another large stone turned up on the doorstep. The landlord said he had not seen it before and did not know where it had come from. After he and the reporter struggled to move it out of the way, he stated that it would take at least three strong men to lift it.

This, as with the other happenings, had no explainantion. No logical one anyway.The locals though, had their own theory. The moving of the stone at Scrapfaggot Green had let loose the spirit of the witch and it was she who was to blame for all the disturbances. Harry Price, the well known ghost hunter and head of the London University Council for Psychical Investigation, was consulted about the mysterious happenings, and in his view, the events were caused by a poltergeist and suggested the stone should be replaced in its original position.
As this action was in accord with local feeling, and that Halloween, the witches night was approaching, they decided that this was what they should indeed do. So out to the stone on Scrapfaggots Green the villagers went and edged it back to its place. From that moment, all the strange activity stopped. They later found out however, that one last trick had been played before the replacement of the stone. A woman who kept rabbits, arrived home to find them all in the chicken coup with the chickens! So what was the cause of all these disturbances?

These upsets, although trivial, were witnessed by nearly everyone in the village and some of them would have required super human strength, ruling out the possibility of any foul play. Earth Mysteries enthusiasts would say that the stone at Scrapfaggots Green was a pagan standing stone or markstone, and the removal of this stone would release the earth energies flowing into it, causing poltergeist activity to occur. Or perhaps the villagers of Great Leighs were correct in their assumption, that it was the witch herself who was causing all the mysterious happenings.

Records show that there was indeed a witch who came from Great Leighs by the name of Ann Hewghes who was brought to trial at he nearby Chelmsford Assizes in 1621. For various misdemeanors performed on the nights of the witches sabbats, the old Celtic quarter days of Imbolc, Feb. 1st, Beltane April 30th, Lughnasadh Aug. 1st and Samhain Oct. 31st, she was put to death at the stake. As burning of witches did not take place after the reformation, this form of execution seems quite strange. However, among the crimes Ann Hewghes committed was the murder of her husband which was considered petty treason and punishable by burning at the stake. She was buried on the spot and covered by a stone to keep her down. There is no record where this spot was but crossroads were traditionally the burial place of witches. Bones and ashes were said to have been found beneath the stone at Scrapfaggots Green and incidentally, scrapfaggot is an old Essex name for a witch.

The stone which turned up at the village pub can still be seen. You will not find it at the dog and gun however, but at the St Annes Castle Inn. It seems that one night, three men from the pub tried to carry off the stone, still known as the witches stone, to no avail. Upon investigation, the stone was found to be too small to be the same one that covered the witches grave, but could it be a fragment of the original stone? The bulldozer that widened the road could quite easily have broken it and a piece found its way to the pub.

The fact that the stone is now at St Annes Castle Inn is interesting. The pub is one of the oldest ion England and is haunted by an old lady called Anne. Some say it is he witch herself who has taken up residence at the Inn, arriving with the stone that for so long kept her down.

A strange story but a true one. Whatever the case, the facts remain. I'll leave you to decide for yourself.

The image above was published with the original article and is by Jim Kirkwood.