Witchcraft in the Staffordshire Moorlands.
I came across the following information in an old book titled “Olde Leek” which gives a glimpse into the superstitions and beliefs of people in the Moorlands back in the mid eighteenth century. The account is as follows:-
Until the last fifty years charms of various kinds have been in use by the inhabitants of the Moorlands, and are not altogether discontinued at the present time. Their nature and use were various. Bits of brass, copper, lead and other material, with strange letters engraved upon them were placed upon churns to make the butter come quicker and more plentiful.; on the plough to make a horse to enable one horse to do the work of two; or on the flail to make the thresher to do more and better work. There were family charms which were put on when going on a journey as a protection against accidents. Love charms in abundance which girls wore to draw to them the youths to love them. Some of these were nothing more than a bit of paper, with the youth’s name written on it, worn near their heart. The girl who had been jilted gathered twelve smooth stones which she threw into a pool of water one at a time, calling the faithless lover’s name, as a means of bringing him back to her.
Fifty years ago some old women added to their income by selling secret charms to young people of both sexes by which they could compel friend or sweetheart to come to them. A farmer of great age says his father travelled, mostly on foot, to Oxford to purchase a bee, which is a kind of talisman, to enable him to dispense with any hired help on his farm. A bee is a small bit of parchment about two inches by one in size. Some words, unknown to anyone but the vendor were written upon it. It was fastened to the heel of the scythe to enable the mower to do the work of many men. By some it was fastened to the plough by means of a piece of string. Many people had most explicit faith in their bee as a talisman.
If a farmer buys a cow at the market or from a neighbour, and whilst taking it home a magpie flies over its back, the cow is sure to die. If a cow or horse is ill and a bran-mash is given to it, the mash should not be mixed with a sharp instrument or the animal will die. Some housewives will not on any account whilst sweeping the floors brush anything towards the door, as that would be sweeping good luck out of the house. Others will not sweep from the door inwards, as that would be sweeping bad luck in. These are a few of the most prevalent superstitions.
There is nothing that takes longer to kill than superstition, especially religious superstition; and at most superstitions are the shadows of some form of religion or religious ceremony, it is easy to understand how superstitious minds will cling to the belief that those victims still visit the glimpses of the moon. The white lady who takes her walks about Belmont Hall, and in the adjoining woods, is a descendant of the same family of white ladies who for hundreds of years have frightened the servants and other occupants of some of the oldest halls and castles in England.
The one at Belmont Hall has sobered many a drunken man, and furnished material for a vast number of stories which the old inhabitants of the neighbourhood used to repeat as gospel. Her appearance to any member of the family who may inhabit the hall is said to presage the death of some member of the family within a year. She is said to be very beautiful, of melancholy mien, and quite harmless if people will not cross her path.
The luminous children who haunt old habitations, who make mournful noises in the night and vanish as soon as seen or on the approach of daylight, have their origin in the same superstitious sacrifice as the white lady.
The Kirk-grim and padfoot are much of the same family, and are said to haunt churchyards and lonely places. The Kirk-grim assumes various forms, but mostly that of a dog or other animal. The padfoot is invariable a dog. The old well at the bottom of the hill between Ipstones church and the Whitehough used to be a favourite place for them. Men have struck at them with sticks and found them to be of no substance, for the stick has gone right through them and yet they have remained whole. Others have tried to take hold of them and have only grasped the air.
The headless horseman and the hell-horse are, for the most part, one and the same thing, and had their origin in the prantics of Odin the God of the Norsemen. They were supposed to carry the souls of the dead to paradise. The death coach, mostly drawn by two horses, is said to visit various parts of the Moorlands, and more especially on the Ashbourne road between Low Hill Bridge and the old tollgate. There are farmers who would prefer staying in Leek all night rather than travel that part of the road in the dark. Some have seen it and not heard its wheels, nor the tramp of the horses hooves, whilst others have heard its ponderous wheels grind on the hard road and the horses hooves, but were unable to see it.
Stories of men having sold their souls to the Devil used to be plentiful. The vendors were mostly builders and contractors, though sometimes gamblers. In the case of the former the vendors mostly sold their souls to the Devil in return for his assistance to finish certain contracts by a specified time. These contracts were mostly for bridges, hence so many bridges called “devils bridges.”
As a sample of how old religious practices linger amongst us, that of children taking hold of each others hands and dancing in a circle, is a survival of part of the religious practice of the sun worshippers who have left their mouldering temples in the rocks which encircle Leek.
The whole neighbourhood around Leek is a vast theatre of unbounded interest to the antiquarian and historian. In ages far remote, maybe hundreds of thousands of years ago, the Paleolithic men wandered about these Moorlands by day, and crept into their pit dwellings at night after slaying wild animals for food, their only weapons being rude stone instruments, some of which have been found in the neighbourhood. In more recent times the Neolithic men made more polished stone weapons for slaying wild beasts, and sometimes for slaying each other. These also have left the stage and their tools behind them. The ancient Britons played their act in the great drama of history, and defended their homes against the conquering Celts, who played their part, leaving behind them their language, which forms part of the dialect spoken in the Moorlands.