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Cornwall's Witch Heritage

An extract from the revised edition of 'Traditional Witchcraft - A Cornish Book of Ways'
by Gemma Gary

 
 
Witch with staff
 

Cornwall was indeed home to many folk-magic practitioners, a tradition that reached a climax in the 19thC. Such practitioners offered a range of services mostly involving the work of healing, curse lifting, exorcising of evil spirits, protection, love and the restoring of lost or stolen property. Clients were often provided with magical substances in the form of small bags of earth or prepared powders. Written charms are also a common feature of Cornish folk-magic, intricately folded and sewn shut inside small square bags.

Some Cornish practitioners achieved a certain degree of fame, two of the most notable perhaps being Tamsin Blight and Granny Boswell. Tamsin Blight, or Tammy Blee as she would have been known, lived from 1798 to 1856 and was perhaps the most famous historical practitioner in Cornwall. Plying her trade within the Helston area, she earned a well respected and feared reputation, for Traditional Cornish Witches have always maintained the ability to cure and to curse. Clients were known to have travelled great distances for a consultation with her, and at certain times people would queue outside her small house in considerable numbers to purchase new charms or have old ones re-empowered, particularly in the springtime when, according to Cornish tradition, a Witch’s Powers are renewed. We know that she would provide the traditional written and sealed charm bags, as well as small bags of grave earth, bones and teeth, as well as magical powders, most notably ‘Witch powder’. She also had a strong reputation for removing curses and healing, working with not only people but cattle and horses. Her powers of sight were also held in high repute for she would be consulted on the whereabouts of lost or stolen money and the identity of malevolent Witches and would work with spirits, making use of hallucinogenic substances, to aid her visions and communications. She had a husband, Jemmy Thomas, who also claimed the powers of a Witch but for the most part enjoyed a fluctuating magical reputation for magic, although his obituary celebrated his abilities in providing cures for people and animals and taming the unruly behaviour of cattle and of horses, a skill traditional among Cunning men across Britain.

The following account, by the 19thC folklorist William Bottrell (1816 – 1881) whose work recorded a vast body of traditional Cornish Witch-lore, gives a fascinating insight into Tammy and Jemmy’s Pellar’s practice which they operated from their household:
From ‘Annual Visit of the West-Country Folks to the Pellar of Helston, to have their Protection Renewed’:


“…According to ancient usage, the folks from many parts of the west country make their annual pilgrimage to some white witch of repute, for the sake of having what they call "their protection renewed." The spring is always chosen for this object, because it is believed that when the sun is returning the Pellar has more power to protect them from bad luck than at any other season.
…There used to be rare fun among the folks in going to the conjuror in the spring, when they were sure to meet, at the wise man's abode, persons of all ages and conditions, many from a great distance. Then the inhabitants of the Scilly Isles came over in crowds for the purpose of consulting the white witches of Cornwall, and that they might obtain their protection, charms, spells, and counter-spells. Many of the captains of vessels, belonging to Hayle, St. Ives, and Swansea, often visited the Pellar before they undertook a voyage, so that, with seaman and tinners, there was sure to be great variety in the company.

…Though they arrived at the Pellar's by the middle of the forenoon, such a crowd was already assembled that they waited long before their turn came to be admitted to the presence of the wise man. The conjuror received the people and their offerings, singly, in the room by courtesy styled the hale (hall). Few remained closeted with him more than half-an-hour, during which time some were provided with little bags of earth, teeth, or bones taken from a grave. These precious relics were to be worn, suspended from the neck, for the cure of prevention of fits, and other mysterious complaints supposed to be brought on by witchcraft. Others were furnished with a scrap of parchment, on which was written the ABRACADABRA or the following charm:


S  A  T  O  R
A  R  E  P  O
T  E  N  E  T
O  P  E  R  A
R  O  T  A  S


These charms were enclosed in a paper, curiously folded like a valentine, sealed and suspended from the neck of the ill-wished, spellbound, or otherwise ailing person. The last charm is regarded as an instrument of great power, because the magical words read the same backwards as forwards. A gritty substance called witch-powders, that looked very much like pounded brick, was also given to those who required it. An aged crone of the pellar blood, mother or sister of the white witch in chief, received some of the women upstairs to cure such of the least difficult cases, as simple charming would effect; but the greatest part of them preferred the man, as his charms only were powerful enough to unbewitch them.

Instead of the earthy powder, some are furnished with a written charm, which varies according to the feelings of the recipients. Most of the very religious folks have a verse of scripture, concluded with the comfortable assurance that, by the help of the Lord, the White Witch hopes to do them good.

But those who have no particular religious sentiments he furnishes with a charm, of which the following is a literal copy:

On one side of a bit of paper, about an inch and a half by one inch,

NALGAH.

Here follows a picture of what must have been the conjuror's own creation, as such an object was never seen by mortal eyes in the heavens above, the earth beneath, nor in the waters under the earth. The only object we can compare it to is a something which is a cross between a headless cherub and a spread-eagle. Underneath what might have been intended for angel or bird, there is an egg, on which the creature appears to be brooding. There is another egg at the extremity of one of the outstretched legs of the creature. This picture, which is the most singular part of the charm, can only be represented by the aid of the pencil. The word “TETRAGRAMMATON” is under it. On the reverse:

JEHOVAH.
JAH. ELOHIM.
SHADDAY.
ADONAY.
HAVE MERCY ON A POOR WOMAN.

From the worn condition of the charm (which had been in use many years before it came into our hands) it is difficult to make out the writing.

Another amulet, which is commonly given by the Pellar to his patients, to be worn suspended from the neck, is a small bag of earth taken from a man's grave.

Besides the above-mentioned precious charms, the Pellar gives his neophytes powders, to throw over their children, or cattle, to preserve them against witchcraft, ample directions as to the lucky and unlucky times, and a green salve, which is said to be an excellent healing ointment. I have talked with many who have visited the Pellar every spring, for years running, that they might get their protection renewed. Yet there is no finding out all that takes place at the time of this important pilgrimage, as the directions are given to each individual separately, and all are bound to preserve the greatest secrecy about some portion of the charm, or it will do no good.

Others were supplied with blood stones, milpreves, or snake-stones, and other trumpery, manufactured by the pellar family, to be worn as amulets. The blue-stone rings, in which some fancied they saw the figure of an adder, or when marked with yellow veins the pattern of a snake, were particularly prized, because it was believed that those who wore them were by that means safe from being harmed by any reptile of the serpent tribe, and that man or beast, bit and envenomed, being given some water to drink, wherein this stone had been infused, would perfectly recover of the poison. The amulets, reliques, and charms supplied by the white witch served to tranquillize the diseased fancy as well as the bread pills, coloured waters, and other innocent compounds of more fashionable practitioners, or the holy medals and scapulars of other professors. There are no new notions under the sun; the only difference is the fashion in which they are disguised.

…After dinner, the afternoon was spent in telling witch stories. Everyone present had many cases, each within his own experience, to vouch for. They compared the merits of the different conjurors of repute, and all agreed that none could surpass the Pellar of Helston. Not even the "cunning man" of Bodmin nor the "white witch of Exeter" could possess more power to lift a spell or to punish a witch, or to find out who had stolen whatever was missed, and to put out the thief's eye.

Another renowned Helston Wise-woman was Granny (Anne) Boswell, 1813 – 1906. A practitioner known to be of Romany blood, she was widely consulted for her skills in magic and foresight. She entered into the large Boswell Romany family via her marriage to her second husband Ephraim Boswell; son of a Gipsy King. She endured hard, little paid and long working days on Helston area farms alongside other women of her class and community and was later burdened with the raising six children, giving birth to them in her late forties. The magical knowledge gained by her Romany upbringing served her in her later years as she was able to provide a number of charms, traditional to both the Cunning and Romany folk, to those who consulted her for assistance. Notably these included a small curative bag of black spiders to be hung in the bedchamber of the ailing client. She was consulted by girls and young women on matters of love, the lifting of curses, and was skilled in the curing of ringworm in cattle.

An amusing incident involving Granny Boswell, often recounted illustrates perfectly the Cornish tradition of Wise-folk having the ability not only to provide cures, but to curse, or ‘blast’. During the 1906 elections, Granny Boswell was drinking herself into great intoxication in a Helston inn, as was her custom, when she walked out into the street to observe what may well have been the very first motor car she had ever laid eyes on, brought into Helston to ferry voters to the poll. She stood there in the middle of the street fascinated by the polished, throbbing and ribbon-bow bedecked machine. The driver, frustrated by this obstacle, told Granny Boswell to move out of his way in a very harsh manner, blasting at her with the vehicle’s horn. This made Granny Boswell furious and she began shrieking in the foulest of language at the motorist and informed that the machine would not even get as far as the other end of the street. She stormed off in a fury, probably for another drink, as the vehicle attempted to continue upon its journey. The thing only managed to get half way down the street before one of the thick steel tension rods broke clean in two leaving it stranded and requiring a horse to tow it away.

Moving west from Helston, deep into remote Penwith, the village of St Buryan, and the outlying areas, have a long and deeply ingrained association with Witchcraft. Cornish Witch-lore is rich in stories, collected by folklorists – in particular William Bottrell, about one of St Buryan’s Witches; Betty Trenoweth. It is highly likely that these stories tell of a real figure, as with much of folklore there is no smoke without fire, and as Kelvin Jones explains in his book ‘An Joan the Crone – The history and Craft of the Cornish Witch’; “nearly all of Bottrell’s characters can be traced to real families in the west of Cornwall just prior to the time he was collecting his tales”.

It is thought Betty worked at Trove Mill near Lamorna, grinding corn brought in from St Buryan and the surrounding areas. Trove Mill and Betty are associated with the Cornish play “duffy and the Devil, a ‘Rumplestiltskin’ type story in which Betty features as the leader of a Coven of local Witches. Featured also is Boleigh Fogou (a mysterious ancient underground chamber of which there are a number of examples in west Cornwall), the ‘Buccaboo’ (Bucca Dhu), synonymous in Cornish lore with the Devil, and an intriguing description of a Witches’ meeting:

“…tearing through brakes of brambles and thorns, we found ourselves in the Grambler Grove. And now," continued he, after a pull from the flagon, "I know for certain that what old folks say is true how witches meet the Devil there of summer's nights. In winter they assemble in the Fuggo Hole, we all know; because one may then often hear the devil piping for their dance under our parlour floor that's right over the inner end of the Fuggo. And now I believe what we took for a hare was a witch that we chased into this haunted wood. Looking through the thickets I spied, on a bare spot, surrounded by old withered oaks, a glimmering flame rising through clouds of smoke. The dogs skulked back and stood around me like things scared. Getting nearer, and looking through an opening, I saw scores of women some old and ugly, others young and passable enow as far as looks go. Most of them were busy gathering withered ferns or dry sticks, to the fire. I noted, too, that other witches, if one might judge by their dress, were constantly arriving flying in over the trees, some mounted on ragworts, brooms, ladles, furze-pikes, or anything they could get astride of. Others came on through the smoke as comfortable as you please, sitting on three-legged stools; and alighted by the fire, with their black cats on their laps. Many came in through the thickets like hares, made a spring through the flame, and came out of it as decent lasses as one might see in BuryanChurch of a holiday. A good large bonfire soon blazed up; then, by its light, I saw, a little way back sitting under a tree, who should 'e think? Why no less than old witch Bet, of the Mill. And by her side a strapping dark-faced fellow, that wasn't bad looking and that one wouldn't take to be a devil at all but for the company he was with, and the sight of his forked tail that just peeped out from under his coat-skirts. Every now and then Old Bet held to his mouth a black leather jack, much like ours, and the Devil seemed to like the liquor by the way he smacked his lips…” “…The witches, locked hand-in-hand, danced madder and faster, pulled each other right through the fire, and they wern't so much as singed, the bitches. They spun round and round so fast that at last, especially when the Devil joined in, my head got light. I wanted to dance with them and called out as I advanced, 'Hurra! my merry Devil, and witches all!' In an instant, quick as lightning, the music stopped, out went the fire, a blast of wind swept away umers (embers) and ashes, a cloud of dust and fire came in my eyes and nearly blinded me. When I again looked up they had all vanished.”

For those interested in learning more about the lives of Cornwall’s historical Witches, I can thoroughly recommend ‘An Joan the Crone’ by Kelvin Jones, Oakmagic Publications.

There are many stories of Betty Trenoweth’s Witchcraft and Wise-woman ways, one tells of how her powers were gained, and maintained, by her frequent conferences with the Devil. He would meet her, we are told, in the form of a great black bull on the northern side of St Buryan churchyard; an eerie place that is even today no stranger to the activities of Witchcraft. 

 
 
Tammy Blee Granny Boswell
 
“Tammy Blee”1798-1856 Granny Boswell 1813-1906
 

 

 
 
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