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Witchcraft in Cornwall

Jason Semmens



Cornwall has enjoyed a reputation as a ‘land apart’—a legendary kingdom inhabited by piskies, giants, fairies, and witches, ever since the railways first made mass tourism possible in later nineteenth century. Cornwall continues to be regarded as a particularly ‘witchy’ place; far from being the preserve and fancy of folklore, however, a considerable body of evidence suggests that belief in witchcraft formed a serious part of the way Cornish people over the past 500 years viewed their world. Witch beliefs offered a means to understand misfortune and illness, and a way to measure moral conduct. Yet while the history and beliefs of organised religion in Cornwall, especially that of the Methodist movement, have been intensively researched, it is noticeable that popular beliefs in witchcraft and the wider supernatural world have received scant attention by professional historians of Cornish culture and belief.

By the fourteenth century, ancient notions of the efficacy of sorcery and enchantment had comingled with Christian belief in the Devil, leading to the idea of a ‘fifth column’ in society and the power of the witch to inflict harm and spread disease by Satan’s aid. It was believed possible to be ‘overlooked’ or begrudged by an ill wish from a witch, resulting in misfortune or even death. Fears surrounding the prevalence and incidence of witchcraft centred on the home and work. Relations between friends and neighbours could be affected in close-knit village communities if witchcraft was suspected. Cottage industries or farming were particularly susceptible: cattle dying mysteriously, milk failing to churn properly, crops blighted—there were many varied opportunities for a witch to inflict misery and hardship upon village economies that depended upon the land.

Seventeenth century Cornwall was witness to a dozen or so witch trials, held at the Assize courts at Launceston. The practice of witchcraft had been made a crime under legislation introduced by the Tudor monarchs and updated by James I. Cornishmen and women found themselves hauled before the courts accused of bewitching cattle and of murdering children. For example, in the 1650s more than 25 people were sent to Launceston Gaol when a woman accused by her neighbours of being a witch implicated others in her alleged practice of the dark arts. Some of them were executed at that time. In 1671 Isaac Pearce was accused of laming Honor Teague by witchcraft. A little later in 1675, Mary Glasson was accused of murdering 11-year-old Isabella Hockin of Camborne by witchcraft. Most dramatic perhaps were the cases of Jane Nicholas and Mary Guy, in 1686 and 1696 respectively, who were accused of bewitching two children and of tormenting them to the point that they suffered from fits, and vomited pins, nails, and other assorted objects, which were produced in court as evidence. The boy at the centre of the 1686 case claimed that Jane Nicholas “very often appeared to him, sometimes in [her own shape]; at other times like a Cat; whereupon the Boy would shriek, and cry out that he would not see her, laying his hands over his Eyes and Mouth, and would say with a loud voice, she is putting things into my Mouth, she will Choke me, she will Poison me.” One of the towers of Launceston Castle was formerly known as the “Witch’s Tower,” owing to the belief that witches were burned at its base, though under English law those convicted of witchcraft were hanged.

Until recently historians have tended to assume that witchcraft beliefs largely died out during the early eighteenth century, as the last of the witch trials in England took place in 1712 and the laws against the crime of witchcraft were repealed in 1736. In many respects they followed the opinions of the social reformers, clergy, and intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who viewed such beliefs as credulous and superstitious, and believed that with better education, and further preaching of Protestant Christianity, witchcraft would be vanquished from the minds of the masses. It came as something of a surprise then, at the end of the eighteenth century, to find that witchcraft beliefs were still vibrant. In its early days, before it began to court mainstream respectability, Methodism was blamed by the Anglican Church for fanning superstitious beliefs in witchcraft, owing to its tenet of the active involvement of Satan in the affairs of men and the sensational nature of the wailings, fits and groaning that took place at the revival meetings that characterised early Methodism. It would be more accurate to say that it was the continuation of popular beliefs in the supernatural during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that enabled Methodism to gain such a strong foothold in Cornwall.

Witchcraft beliefs both supported and were sustained by the group of folk-magic practitioners called cunning-folk, who thrived in Cornwall into the early twentieth century.

Cunning-folk were the multi-faceted practitioners of the occult arts, who, from as early as the sixteenth century, were to be found living in or around towns and villages across the country. Most of them specialised in detecting and removing the malevolent effects of witchcraft. In this role people turned to them when they became sick of mysterious and oftentimes untreatable illnesses, or had animals ill, demanding some idea of who had bewitched them and what they might do to break the spell. Cunning-folk were popularly known variously as conjurors, cunning-men and women, witch-detectors, wise-men and women, and wizards. In Cornwall, from the 1850s onwards, the word Peller was also used to describe them, which was a Cornish dialect word, mostly restricted to the far west. They also offered a wider occult service besides witch-detection, such as fortune telling, divination in its various forms for the finding of lost or stolen goods, reading palms, and occasionally they also dabbled a little in the charming of common skin diseases. Some offered skills as herbalists. As they provided a service, using the skills and powers that they had learned and acquired, conjurors charged for their expertise, usually anything from a few shillings to a few pounds, depending on the service provided.

While many people visited cunning-folk in search of cures, some conjurors also visited neighbourhoods offering prophylactics for the coming year, in effect running protection rackets and threatened ruination if the charms were refused. A conjuror’s clientele was fairly varied but consisted mainly of farmers, whose livelihoods, then as now, depended upon the continued welfare of their animals. While farmers had access to veterinary medicine, undefined persistent illness amongst their cattle led to suspicions of witchcraft and took them to their local conjuror for a cure. Most consultations resulted in the farmer being given salt to sprinkle over their animals and fields, at the same time repeating verses given by the conjuror. These were usually prescribed for use at specific hours of the day, when an ill wish was said to take effect.

Conjurors also provided textual amulets to their clients, the contents of which drew sometimes drew upon books of ritual magic published during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584 was a particular favourite as it contained a range of magical symbols and incantations that conjurors could copy onto paper or parchment. The most commonly found textual amulet was the word ‘Abracadabra,’ which was regarded as a potent weapon against bewitchment and usually written as a kind of pyramid, leaving out a letter on each line.

There are many tales about the uncanny cures performed by cunning-folk in Cornwall, many of which worked by the idea of sympathies between objects. In the 1920s William Paynter (1901–1976) related the story of a farmer near Callington who had herds that were diseased, and was told by ‘the great White Witch at Plymouth’ to take the heart from a culled animal, pierce it with pins, and burn it in one of his fields at midnight. The idea was that as the heart shrivelled and burned, so would the disease lessen in the farmer’s flocks. At the very least the slaying of a diseased animal might help check the spread of the disease. People placed great store in the power of conjuror’s prophylactics to protect them from ill wishing, and there are several accounts of people being miraculously cured of their afflictions after a visit to a conjuror. Today their cures would doubtless be explained as psychosomatic, where people’s belief in the power of the charm made them well again. That cunning-folk made a living for 400 years or more indicates that there was certainly something in it.

Many conjurors began their practices in their 20s or 30s, offering a limited service to begin with, such as in fortune telling, only to expand their repertoire as their reputations developed. For example, Thomasine Blight (1793–1856 - portrait above) began her practice in Redruth in the 1830s when she was in her early 40s and went on to become Cornwall’s greatest conjuror. For the most part cunning-folk worked on a part-time basis, in tandem with their regular employment, although some conjurors became so well known, and found their trade in the occult arts sufficiently lucrative to practice full-time in their later years. James Thomas (1814–1874), who was married for a time to Thomasine Blight, spent his early working life as miner and engine driver, but became a full-time conjuror during the last ten years or so of his life. Conjurors were drawn chiefly from the mining and artisan communities and it appears that no special qualifications were needed to become one, though the ability to read was useful and often set a conjuror apart from his unlettered clients.

The word ‘conjuror’ brings to mind images of stage magic and sleight of hand, though when applied to cunning-folk the word preserves an older meaning of summoning or calling spirits. Conjurors were held to be skilled at such arts, using books of angelic magic to summon ghosts, and were fodder for popular tales of spirit raising. In his Traditions and Hearthside Stories of 1870, William Bottrell had Thomasine Blight summon the ghost of a woman from Sithney one night to find out where a client’s money had disappeared. According to Bottrell, Blight took the client to the woman’s graveside in Sithney churchyard at the hour of midnight and began her incantations by casting a protective circle around them. In due course a pale, shrouded figure manifested itself among the headstones, visible only in the pale moonlight, and began to move towards the pair. The apparition drew close to Blight’s client and asked why its rest had been disturbed and threatened to haunt the young man for the rest of his days. It was when the ghost laid its hand on the man’s shoulder that he reacted, and he punched the apparition to the ground. The initial confusion at flooring a ghost so easily was resolved when Blight’s husband James Thomas got out of the shroud, groaning in pain and stinking of alcohol.

While many conjurors were undoubtedly popular, they were not universally liked, and many found themselves in court accused of fraud. Unluckiest of all the Cornish conjurors when it came to the law was William Rapson Oates (1842–1905), better known as “Jimmy the Witch,” who spent the greater part of his adult life in gaol. In 1894 he found himself before an Assize judge, indicted “with obtaining 8s from Mary Sedgeman by false pretences at Lelant; and also with pretending to exercise witchcraft and sorcery.” In this case Oates had obtained money from Sedgeman with the promise to make her daughter well, by “aid of the stars and planets,” which he failed to do. Oates was found guilty and served seven months with hard labour.

Cunning-folk formed a part of the social fabric of Cornwall until the early decades of the twentieth century, and while they are unfamiliar characters today, 100 years ago it would not have been hard to find one. Far from dying out in the eighteenth century, as many have supposed, the historical sources demonstrate that vernacular beliefs in witchcraft continued through the nineteenth century—the great age of Cornwall’s industrialisation, before they finally dwindled and largely petered out about the 1940s. This was mostly due to the mechanisation of farming, personal insurance, universal health care, and the decline of village economies. As witch beliefs withered, people stopped visiting conjurors, and they too ceased their practices. Belief in luck and good fortune became the preserve of gypsies while other aspects of the conjuror’s practice, such as fortune telling or herbalism, find expression today in the range of complementary medicines and ‘alternative’ practitioners.

As a belief that impacted upon the way Cornish people related to one another and explained their circumstances, witchcraft is a significant, but overlooked aspect of Cornwall’s social history that is only now beginning to emerge from the realm of folklore where it has been relegated as non-important for too long.



Jason Semmens is author of The Cornish Witch-finder and Tammy Blee's Cabalistic Agency and curator of Horsham Museum, West Sussex