A Staffordshire Witch

Over the years I have heard reference’s made to a location where a Witch is said to be buried, I decided to look into the story and the legend surrounding it. The person in question was a Margaret Leigh who was born in Burslem in the county of Staffordshire around 1685. According to accounts she was very ugly and this might have been the reason why she was ostracised by the local community, even as a child there were strange stories about her. She was said to have rejected her Mothers milk and suckled from animals, also she was thought to have been able to eat a crust of bread a couple of hours after she was born!

Whether it was due to her physical appearance or her renowned bad temper but she ended up living on her own in a small cottage on the outskirts of Burslem. She had to make a living from a young age as both her parents died when she was young, she did this by taking milk into town and selling it, she was constantly accused of watering it down by the townsfolk.

Probably one of the main reasons that turned the townsfolk against her was that she had a pet Blackbird to keep her company, however locals claimed that the Blackthorn tree outside Margaret’s cottage that the Blackbird used to perch in never produced any blossom. Whether the Blackbird was simply a pet, or perhaps a Witches familiar is not known, however it is probable that the local townsfolk would have assumed the latter!

In Celtic lore it is believed that the Blackbird can freely pass from this world into the otherworld. The bird is said to have mystical abilities and is said to be able to sing a person into a trance like state. The Blackbird is also said to give a person access to the magic of the otherworld and this may have been the reason why “Molly Lee” used it as a familiar. Added to this Molly Lee seldom attended church which would have been frowned upon in her day as it was practically compulsory. Because of her reluctance to attend church, Parson Spencer who was Rector of St John’s church in Burslem branded her a Witch.

St John’s church in Burslem

One day the Parson Spencer was drinking in a local pub called “The Turks Head”, when Molly’s Blackbird landed on the pub sign and is said to have soured the beer in the pub, the Parson is then said to have tried to shoot bird, however having hit it the bird flew off apparently unharmed.

Although Molly died in 1746 the story doesn’t end there, she was buried in the churchyard of St John’s  church in Burslem, why she was buried there after the Parson had branded her a Witch and hated her is not known! However after being buried her spirit refused to rest and started causing a disturbance in the town.

The Parson along with some townsfolk went to her cottage and found her sitting in a chair knitting, they then proceeded to catch her Blackbird and returned to her gravesite at St John’s church. Then the Parson along with other Clerics from Stoke, Woolstanton and Newcastle exhumed her body from its resting place, they then drove a stake through her heart and then placed the live Blackbird into the tomb with her. They then set about re-aligning the tomb in a North South direction unlike the other graves which are aligned in an East West direction. The reason for this I believe is to stop the spirit wandering as I have come across a similar alignment at Rushton church also in Staffordshire.

Another variation of this story is told by Charlotte Burn and Georgina Jackson in their 1883 book “Shropshire Folklore” and is as follows; ” At other times she would get into their cottages, and sit knitting in the corner. She came both day and night and annoyed the people so much that they got the neighbouring Clergy to meet in Burslem church to lay her. So six Parsons came, and brought a stone pig trough and placed it in the middle of the church and then prayed and prayed that her spirit would be put to rest. At last they saw her spirit hovering high up in the roof of the church, they carried on praying, then they saw the form of her descending face down, gradually nearing the stone trough. And so they got her into it at last, they then took the pig trough and placed it on her grave in the churchyard, and so she was laid. But three of the parsons died from it, and the other three had a job to get over it”.

Molly lee’s resting place and the pig trough

It is said that the day after Molly Lee was laid to rest some parishoners saw her sitting on the side of her grave weeping saying that she could not rest until she was put “side erts on”. Her grave was opened and on examination all seemed correct. The same thing happened another two times before her grave was widened and her body was placed sideways on as she had requested, then her grave was re-aligned to the positionit now faces. An interesting fact is the top of her tomb does resembl a pig trough so perhaps there is some truth to the story after all!

4 Responses to “A Staffordshire Witch”

  1. Have you ever considered publishing an ebook or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on the same information you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my visitors would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.

  2. molly’s Surname is Spelled (no pun intended) Leigh. Her cottage was near to what is now the uppermost part of Burslem park, Hamil road.
    the pig trough which you refer to is not a part of the story that I recognise, but it could well have been used as a pig trough at some point throughout history.
    What I understand of the ” pig trough” is that its original purpose and contents were of much higher status than that that held pig-swill.
    if you look closely, the uppermost part this “trough” is a rounded area, more narrow than the rest which has a raised pillow.
    it is thought that this carved stone is in fact the sarcophagus of one of he Ladies of the Audley family.
    Henry de Audley founded the Abbey at Hulton ( Abbey Hulton) in the 1300’s.
    the Monks from the Abbey farmed the land in the immediate area around the Church of St JOHN, then known as Rushton Grange, and this is why it is thought to be the Sarcophagus of one of the Audleys.
    Why she was not buried at the Abbey itself I do not know..
    I am enjoying reading your stories.
    thank you.

    • Further examples of Similar Sarcophagus can be found at the Cistercian house , Croxden Abbey near to Cheadle in Staffordshire.

  3. oh, interestingly I think that the Staffordshire Sentinel did a piece on Molly Leigh’s last will and testament. when she died Molly had accrued some wealth, and with having no known relatives she left a great part of her will to buy bread for the poor people of the parish… so was she really as bad a person as Parson Spencer had made her out to be?

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