WEIRD NORFOLK: Witches-next-the-sea at Wells

Witches once lived at Wells-next-the-Sea. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Witches once lived at Wells-next-the-Sea. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

The wise women of Wells-next-the-Sea involved in two murder cases – but who escaped trial at both.

They were the wise women of Wells whose advice could be deadly. Known as either “cunning” women or men, wizards, wise men or women or conjurors, those who offered help to others would do so in a variety of ways. Animal hearts were pierced with pins, dolls were made of rags and pierced to break bewitchments, rituals were carried out and the needy were cured with the laying-on of hands. In Wells, however, it appears two wise women weren’t averse to lending a helping hand in the matter of revenge.

In Frank Meeres’ Paranormal Norfolk book there is a story recalled by a woman in service in Wells. Susie Barker worked for the Smith family in the town, an offshoot of the well-to-do Woods family who lived at Morston Hall for 100 years until 1911. Susie told her story to Anthony Hamond, who collected archive material, in 1935.

“There was an old woman in Wells by name of Mottie Green who was known to be a witch,” Susie told him, “the boot boy at Mrs Smith’s house was one of the rabble boys who used to torment the old woman and hammer on her door calling out, ‘Mottie Green, Mottie Green, the old witch’.

“One day she came out pointing her stick at this boy who was the chief offender - she put a spell on him, ‘that he would find five pins in his pocket when he got home and that he would die in a fortnight’.

“The boy, terrified, ran home – only to find that there were five pins in his pocket as she had said there would be. From that moment he fell in with a mysterious wasting sickness and gradually died in the 14th day.”

Another story from Hamond himself told of an account from a woman he knew who remembered the boy in question who was “outstandingly naughty and troublesome” and who, during his confirmation, “made monkey faces throughout the whole service”. When he fell ill – apparently after being cursed – he begged for the Bible to be read out to him and, as he wasted away, asked for one passage only to be read out to him: “Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil.”

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There were also tales of wise women being called to help at The Railway Hotel in Wells in 1866 when items kept going missing: a cunning woman suspended a Bible on a string and made it revolve and as it did so, the owner read out names of possible suspects. When the name ‘Creake’ was reached, the Bible came to a stop and the owner promptly sacked his employee called Creake, who just as promptly sued him for slander…and won. Perhaps he was in league with Mottie.

Hannah Shorten, Wells wise woman, was associated with two murder cases within years of each other: one we have recounted in Weird Norfolk before, that of the Burnham Poisoners Catherine Frary and Frances Billing, the other a case that pre-dated it, that of Mary Wright.

Mary was from Wighton in Norfolk. She was married to William and the couple had children, number unknown, but there were infant deaths and Mary suffered from poor mental health – she had tried to take her own life and that of William and had been regularly heard to threaten him – in 1832, however, she went to visit Hannah Shorten. Shorten was a wise woman who was called on to lift enchantments, cast spells, make charms and look into the future: one of her remedies involved burning arsenic with salt in order to have your wishes granted. Mary hid the poison she’d told a friend she was buying to kill rats in a plum cake – she then sent William to work with the sweet treat and after he ate it, he died. So, unfortunately, did her father, who had eaten poisoned food by mistake and who was buried on the same day as her husband in Wighton church on December 4 1832. Cholera was suspected…until Mary’s friend Sarah Hastings mentioned the purchase of the arsenic at which the bodies were exhumed, their stomachs removed and tested. Mary was arrested, charged, tried and found guilty. Hannah was not called as a witness, just as she wouldn’t be in the Burnham trial, either.

Pregnant when she was found guilty, she gave birth to a daughter and her sentence was reduced from execution to transportation to Australia – she never made the long journey, though, dying in Norwich Castle in November of causes unknown. She was buried at St Michael at Thorn, the church at the top of Ber Street which was lost in the Blitz of January 1942, all that remains is the south doorway which is rebuilt in the church of St Julian and forms an inner doorway to Mother Julian’s cell.

Hannah, meanwhile, was still alive and well in Wells in 1851 at the ripe old age of 80.

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