From wronged female ‘witches’ to Nazi-fighting covens, our city’s past is littered with spell casters time forgot. Katie McCabe digs up their stories
The witch who inspired a play
Marble Arch, 1621
The medieval London village of Tyburn, near modern-day Marble Arch and its Primark-bag-toting crowds, acted as an execution site for more than 600 years. Among those killed there were thieves, highwaymen and – yep – women accused of ‘witchcraft’. Elizabeth Sawyer, ‘The Witch of Edmonton’, was executed there in 1621, after it was claimed she had been lured into serving Satan by a dog called Tom. Her story hit the capital’s book stalls within days and quickly became a stage adaptation. A stone plaque can still be found in the area, on the spot where the ‘Tyburn Tree’ – a three-sided gallows that allowed multiple executions to take place – once stood. Dark stuff.
The witch who scared a baker
In 1652 a pamphlet was circulated around London detailing the ‘crimes’ of herbalist Joan Peterson, aka ‘The Witch of Wapping’. There were stories of Joan morphing into a black cat, having incriminating conversations with a squirrel and, horror of horrors, ‘frightening a baker’. Eventually she ended up on trial, accused of bewitching the 80-year-old Lady Powell to death. It was also claimed she sent Christopher Wilson – who owed her cash – into a series of ‘fits’. During the trial, Joan was offered a potential pardon if she agreed to give testimony about the so-called ‘witchcraft’ activities of another woman, Anne Levingston (to whom Lady Powell left her estate). The Witch of Wapping refused and thumped one of her accusers in the face for good measure. She was sentenced to death by hanging for her trouble.
The Witch Queen
Kentish Town, 1676
The World’s End pub is rumoured to be built on the spot where the ‘The Witch Queen of Kentish Town’ lived. The story goes that Jinney Bingham – also nicknamed ‘Mother Damnable’ – had three husbands, all of whom died under ‘strange circumstances’ (one was found curled up in an oven). She roamed the taverns of London wearing a red cap made from a ‘musketeer’s sash’ and had a rep for practising black magic. A local mob admonished her as a ‘shrew’, but that didn’t stop them from visiting her for a cheeky herbal remedy. Jinney died from poisoning, along with her black cat.
The witch who has a Gatwick restaurant named after him
While those charged with pursuing the dark arts in the seventeenth century were mainly women, every so often the witch-hunting finger was pointed at a bloke. One was Nicholas Culpeper, a physician who ran a pharmacy in Shoreditch. He was accused of ‘devil’s dealing’ by his patient Sarah Lynge in 1643. She claimed one of Culpeper’s treatments caused her to ‘waste away’. The physician was acquitted soon after, and his book, ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’, is still in print. There’s even a restaurant named after him in Gatwick Airport. Which all seems a hell of a lot better than the fate of most female ‘witches’.
The witch who fought the Nazis with magic
Charing Cross, 1940
With his shock of electric white hair and flapping black cloak, the ‘Father of Wicca’ Gerald Gardner was like a wizard invoked from a nightmare. The retired civil servant moved to London in 1938, and became hellbent on reviving British Wicca (contemporary pagan witchcraft) as a religion. As part of the New Forest Coven, Gardner claimed he tried to ward off the Nazis in 1940, using a magical attack on the mind of Adolf Hitler known as the ‘Operational Cone of Power’. Though he spent much of his time standing in pentagrams and chanting in rural areas around Highcliff, Gardner and his wife Donna rented a flat in Charing Cross Road. The flat gave Gardner handy access to another of his favourite pastimes, as he was a regular at a nudist club in Finchley.
The last convicted witch
Old Bailey, 1944
Britain’s last conviction for witchcraft was as recent as 1944. The accused, Helen Duncan, was Scottish, and her case was tried at The Old Bailey under the Witchcraft Act, which had been written 209 years before. Duncan had demonstrated her spiritual abilities at a church in Portsmouth, allegedly conjuring the spirit of a sailor who’d lost his life with 800 others when their ship was sunk by a German U-boat in 1941. Spookily, the incident had been hushed up by the government to protect morale. Duncan was arrested by police at a second séance, and branded a traitor. It’s said that Winston Churchill called the case ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ and visited Duncan in prison. Still, her name has yet to be cleared.
The hippy witches
Notting Hill, 1960s
As London swung nipples-out into the 1960s, the witches of the ’30s seemed about as edgy as straddling a broomstick. Leading a new wave of neo-paganism were Alexander Sanders and Maxine Morris, the founders of ‘Alexandrian Wicca’. This ‘Wicca King’ and his ‘High Priestess’ ran a coven from their basement flat in Notting Hill. Alex loved to feed the media tall stories of his initiation into witchcraft, in which he claimed his grandmother ‘nicked his scrotum with a penknife’. Photographs of the coven capture carefree hippies performing ‘skyclad’ (ie naked) rituals, and the pair appeared in the film ‘Legend of the Witches’ in 1970.
The modern-day witches
If all of this has inspired you to widen your ritualistic circle, get yourself down to south London, because Croydon has the highest concentration of witches in the UK. In the Office for National Statistics religion census in 2011, a whole raft of Croydonites gave their religious belief as ‘Wicca’. So how did Croydon become an epicentre for paganism? It might have something to do with Witchfest International – the largest witchcraft festival on record – which took place annually at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls for more than a decade. The hex-po has since moved to a new, more affordable venue in Brighton. Even witches are powerless against London rents.
With thanks to The National Archives.
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