Witchcraft and Magic at the John Clare Theatre

This afternoon I spoke at Peterborough’s John Clare Theatre on the subject of ‘Witchcraft and Magic in the Fens’, an event organised by Peterborough Archives. My talk focussed particularly on evidence of witchcraft and magic from Peterborough and the surrounding countryside. I am always delighted on such occasions to hear stories from the audience, and on this occasion I was not disappointed. One audience member reported that, as a small child, her mother (who was born in 1891) suffered from warts and the family was unable to afford a doctor. The girl was accordingly sent to a Peterborough ‘witch’ who lived in a brownstone cottage at the junction of Cobden Street and Walpole Street. The ‘witch’ presented the girl with a snail; the audience member was unable to remember the rest of the story, but it is likely that the snail was meant to be rubbed on the warts and then buried. It is well attested that wart-charming was one of the last magical activities to die out in the twentieth-century, but it is interesting that the woman with ‘healing powers’ was by this time described as a ‘witch’, an indication that the term increasingly came to refer to all forms of magical activity. Another audience member described how her grandmother attempted witchcraft against a love rival as a teenager, putting a live toad in a jam jar and burying it under the other girl’s threshold. The intention was that the rival would slowly die as the toad suffocated. However, the mother of the girl who planted the toad realised what her daughter had done and dug up the toad before it was dead, thus averting disaster.

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