T’is the season of witches, monsters, ghosts and pumpkins and I did enjoy the years when myself and my children put significant effort into getting dressed up for Halloween. I used to look forward to donning my witch’s outfit and scaring the youngsters when they knocked on our door in the hope of a handful of treats.
The thought of witches these days does not scare many people, but in times gone by, they were much feared and the belief in their magical powers to conjure up spells to do someone ill was very real indeed.
In his column from 24th October 1981, Dad talks about one particular and intriguing act of witchcraft that occasionally resurfaces today, usually when builders are carrying out renovations on old houses. If they have occasion to dig up an ancient threshold, or remove bricks or masonry surrounding an old fireplace, then they might just uncover a witch bottle.
Witch bottles would have been hidden by 17th century homeowners to protect the household from the nefarious activities of any passing sorceress. The bottles themselves were not particularly special, being ordinary everyday vessels, but they filled them with items that they believed would do harm to any witch who dared to come close.
Contents varied, but they could include metal pins, thorns, nail clippings, hair, urine, torn fabric and occasionally blood. Each item had its own special property. The pins would be made of iron, which was supposed be able to ward off evil, and the nail clippings and hair represented the most enduring parts of the human body which the witch would have difficulty in destroying. The intended effect of the urine was to afflict the wrongdoer with a condition which would prevent her from being able to pass water, and thus would ultimately bring about her death.
In 2019, an example of such a talisman was discovered in a former pub in Watford near London. The old Star and Garter Inn was being converted into residential flats when they came across the bottle hidden in a chimney stack. People used to believe that witches would try to enter houses in unexpected ways, such as by coming down the chimney, and so bottles would be hidden near the fireplace.
This bottle contained fish hooks, human teeth and shards of glass in a mysterious liquid, possibly urine. The place where it was found is intriguing as it is well known as the birthplace of Angeline Tubbs, nicknamed the Witch of Saratoga. She was born in 1761, but moved the the US in her teens and earned a living telling fortunes in and around Saratoga Springs, New York.
The torpedo-shaped bottled found in her former home, however, dates from about 1830, which is after Angeline had emigrated, so it had nothing to do with her. However it does prove that superstitions involving witches persisted until long after they peaked in the 17th century.
In 1983, during excavations at the site of the Judge’s Lodging building on Lendal in York (on ground which was the disused graveyard of St Wilfrid’s Church) York Archaeological Trust discovered a 16th century stoneware bottle with its cork still in place. It was a rare find, not only because it was barely damaged, but also because the stopper meant its contents were still there too. The bottle had a long neck and a bell-shaped base and was found to contain copper alloy pins along with a piece of textile, while further examination revealed traces of urine. Witch bottles were placed in graveyards because it was believed that concealing a bottle on hallowed ground would break a curse that had been placed upon you.
More than 200 bottles have been found across the UK, and as well as graveyards, and at entry and exit points of dwellings, they have also been found in river beds and banks, as it was believed that witches could not cross water. There are likely to be many more hidden up and down the country that will never ever see the light of day.
I hope you are doing something suitable spooky this Halloween. It’s going to be a first for me as I am attending the Yorktoberfest beer festival. I might not be dressed like a witch this year, but I will certainly come across a bottle or two!
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th and the Gazette & Herald on 27th October 2021