A modern story of an old witch’s grave
One of the strangest witch stories of modern times occurred in Essex, towards the end of the Second World War. For many years the village of Great Leighs had known that a witch lay buried at the crossroads called Scrapfaggot Green. There was no green left there now; only a great stone that marked the witch’s grave. The story went that she had been burned at the stake upon Scrapfaggot Green, some 200 years ago. Her remains had been buried on the spot, with the ashes of the fire that consumed her, and the great stone had been laid there to keep her down. Actually, as we know, after the Reformation in England death sentences on witches were carried out by hanging, not burning at the stake.
The latter, however, was the means of execution for treason, and for a woman found guilty of killing her husband, which was regarded as ‘petty treason’. If a witch was found guilty of either of these things, she could be executed by burning at the stake; but recorded instances are few.
The last certainly recorded case of a witch being executed in England was that of Alice Molland, who was hanged at Exeter in 1685. It seems more likely, therefore, that the detail of ‘burning at the stake’ is a later romantic addition, and that the time when this nameless unfortunate was executed was earlier than ‘200 years ago’. But though unfortunate, she was by no means powerless, as will be seen as the story unfolds.
Great Leighs is not far from Chelmsford, which actually was the place of execution of many witches; and the practice of burial at a crossroads was general in times past, for those who had died a death accursed.
However, the witch of Scrapfaggot Green lay quietly in her grave until the turmoil of the Second World War. Then the rural peace of Great Leighs was rudely interrupted by the coming of the army.
Military traffic rumbled along its leafy lanes and rattled the windows of its farms and cottages. The narrow winding road called Drachett Lane, which led over the crossroads, could scarcely admit the passage of army vehicles. So the order went out, given by an outsider who knew nothing of local tradition, to send an army bulldozer along and widen the road. The order was carried out; and in the course of the road-widening, the lumbering bulldozer pushed aside the witch’s Stone.
From that day onwards, a series of events took place which might be regarded as fantastic, were it not for the fact that nearly everyone in the village was witness to one or another of them. Nor were the strange happenings trivial. Apparently, senseless they might be; but the force required to carry some of them out was truly extraordinary.
For instance, a local builder found his heavy scaffolding poles scattered about his yard one morning as if they were matchsticks. Like the majority of these queer happenings, it took place overnight, and no human agency could be found to account for it.
The same builder was employing some painters at work on a cottage. Overnight, a dozen heavy paint pots, together with the rest of the painters’ tools, disappeared. The workmen searched the house, and eventually found the pots and the other missing articles hidden under a bed in an attic.
Other strange overnight persecutions were visited on a local farmer. After a perfectly calm and windless night, he found his straw ricks tumbled down and scattered. Moreover, his wagons had been turned round in their sheds, so that it took his men half an hour to get them out.
Daily, the tale of mischief grew. Sheep were found outside fields in which they had apparently been safely penned; yet there were no displaced hurdles or gaps in hedges to show how they had escaped. Three geese completely disappeared from a man’s garden, with no tell-tale feather remaining to show the work of a fox or other predator. And a chicken that no one owned turned up dead in a water butt.
The bells of the village church were heard to ring at midnight, when no human hands were pulling their ropes; and something interfered with the works of the church clock, and made it two hours slow. The bewitching of Great Leighs caused so much talk and speculation in the countryside, as one crazy event followed another, each without any normal explanation, that eventually the story got into the National Press.
On October 8th I 944 the Sunday Pictorial printed a full-page article, “The witch Walks at Scrapfaggot Green”, by its reporter, St. John Cooper.
Mr Cooper was himself a witness to the astonishment of the landlord of the village pub, the ‘Dog and Gun’, when a huge stone was discovered outside his front door. The landlord declared that the stone had not been there before; nor did anyone know where it had come from. The reporter helped to lift it out of the way, and gave his opinion that it would have taken three strong men to carry it any distance. As usual, there was no explanation; that is, no normal or material one. By this time, however, the view was being freely expressed in the village that the cause of all these eldritch happenings was the disturbance of the witch’s grave.
The late Harry Price, who was then head of the London University Council for Psychical Investigation, was consulted about the case, and gave his opinion that the events were being caused by a poltergeist. This left no one much the wiser; nor did it offer any remedy.
Apparently, however, Mr Price suggested that the stone which had marked the witch’s grave should be replaced in its old position. Why this action should have stopped the activities of a poltergeist is not clear. However, it was certainly in accord with public feeling in the village.
During the next week the villagers got together, headed by the Chairman of the local Council, and manhandled the witch’s Stone back into place. As the monument weighed about two tons, it was hard work; but they had seen enough to convince them that it was a good idea.
Moreover, it was not long to Halloween; and what might that night of witchery bring forth? The Sunday Pictorial published a photograph of the scene of the replacement of the stone, in its issue of 15th October 1944.
Apparently, on the very last day before the stone was replaced, the witch’s restless ghost had performed a final prank. A villager who kept rabbits found the animals had somehow been put into the hen house and were sharing it with the chickens!
There is a touch of humor about this, in contrast with the malice of some of the previous happenings. Was someone-or something-placated? At any rate, as the queer happenings had started with the moving of the stone, so with its replacement they stopped. Great Leighs was left again to its rural peace-a quiet intensified by the wartime blackout.
A crazy, fantastic story; but a true one.
Written by Doreen Valiente – An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present