Measuring The Circle:

Armed only with a Ring of Confidence, Bob looks towards the Fortean future.


Mike Dash has, in these blogs, extolled the joys of historical research. I concur and share with you a little adventure I had recently while processing images of some 18th century woodcuts for inclusion in my picture library. [1] 

Witch ducking - chapbook frontispiece.

I was particularly puzzled about this one (pictured right). According to John Ashton's Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century (1882), the full title it illustrates is quite a mouthful: A Strange and Wonderful Relation of the Old Woman who was drowned at Ratcliffe Highway a Fortnight Ago, to which is added The Old Woman's Dream, a Little after her Death. Contemporary illustrations of ‘witch ducking' or ‘swimming' are rare and I wanted to know more about this event, where and when it took place and the identity of the Old Woman (if the victim was indeed she).

The story inside the chapbook begins promisingly... "It was the last Monday Morning about four o'clock in the afternoon before sun rising, going over Highgate Hill, I asked him if the old woman was dead that was drowned at Ratcliffe Highway a few nights ago. He told me he could not tell, but if I went a little farther I should meet with two young men on horseback riding under a mare, in a blue red jerkin ..." At this point I realised that it was not historical reportage but a kind of puzzle story in which every description has contrary details. Indeed, the narrator is passed from person to person in his search without end, the account becoming increasing nonsensical - and no doubt to contemporary ears - hilarious.

Geographically, the Ratcliffe Highway (now known simply as The Highway) [2] is nowhere near Highgate Hill; another example of the author's nonsense. It forms the northern edge of Wapping, by the Thames in London, and now links Limehouse with Canary Wharf and Docklands. There was no dating detail that could be checked for a ‘witch swimming'; and no names of the Old Woman and her persecutors. Although I hit a dead end there, my impression was that the woodcut may well have been part of a record of an actual event. John Ashton reached the same conclusion, noting: "The frontispiece has nothing whatever to do with the book, but it is curious and valuable, as giving a representation of the ducking stool." [3]

The practice of swimming witches is familiar to us from tales about the great witch persecutions. [4] The person suspected was, literally, drowned while bound hand and foot or tied to a stool. The outcome was suitably ambiguous; whether the suspect lived or died was interpreted as guilt or innocence as the mood of the crowd determined. Such ordeals tend to be placed among the superstitious country folk of more ‘medieval' times, so perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to discover the following well-witnessed incident from just 185 years ago. It is worth repeating, verbatim, the report from the Times of 19 July 1825 - which cites an original account in the Suffolk Herald of a few days earlier as it provides a fascinating if chilling insight into what our forebears thought and believed. (The interpolations are mine).

No longer ago than Saturday se'nnight [week], a man was "swam for a wizard" at Wickham-Skeith [near Eye] in this county [Suffolk], in the presence of some hundreds of people! [..] In that parish lives Isaac Stebbings, a little spare man, about 67 years old, who obtains a living as a huckster and hard by his cottage lives a thatcher, whose wife is afflicted in mind. In the same parish is a farmer whose mind is occasionally disturbed.

Someone or other put forward the surmise that these two afflicted persons were bewitched and that Stebbings was spoken of as quot;the worker of the mischief". Story grew on story and accumulated hearsays were accepted among the vulgar in the neighbourhood as "proof undeniable". Among other things, it was said that the friends of the afflicted woman had recourse to the means recorded in witchcraft's annals for detecting the devil's agent and whilst the frying-pan operation was going on at night, Stebbings came dancing up to the door. In his denial of this circumstance, Stebbings admitted that he did once call at his neighbour's door with mackerel for sale at four o'clock in the morning before the family was up. The village shoemaker persisted that one morning, as Stebbings passed two or three times before his house, he could not "make" his wax; the ingredients would neither melt nor mix.

Dubbed a wizard beyond all doubt, poor Stebbings, as ignorant as his neighbours [..] proposed, of himself, the good old- fashioned ordeal of "sink or swim". The proposal was readily caught at. Time and place were agreed on - the following Saturday, at two o'clock, in a large pond called the Grimmer, on Wickham-green.

Four men were appointed to walk into the water with him and the constable of the parish engaged to attend and keep the peace. The sides of the pond were crowded with spectators. Stebbings had on his breeches and shirt and when the men had walked with him into the water breast-high, they lifted him up and laid him flat upon his back on the water. Stebbings moved neither hand nor foot and continued in that position for ten minutes. This was the first trial and the spectators called out "give him another".

Another trial was accordingly given for the same length of time and with the same result. "Try him again and dip him under the water," was then the cry. They did so; one of the four men pressed his chest and down went his head whilst up came his heels. In a word, he was like apiece of cork in the water. These trials kept the poor old fellow three-quarters of an hour in the pond and he came out "more dead than alive". Some were still not satisfied. Another man, they said, of his age and size ought to be swam with him. Stebbings agreed, even to this, for he was determined to get rid of the imputation or die. [5]

The following Saturday was appointed for the purpose. Hundreds of people attended the second ordeal. But, in the interval, the clergymen of the parish and the two new church-wardens, had interfered and the swimmers were kept away. It is now told that, at the very time Stebbings was swam, the afflicted farmer [..] was unusually perturbed. He cried out: "I can see the imps all about me. I must frighten them away with my voice." His delusion and his noise, as Stebbings did not sink, are put down to his account"

When I used this account in FT [6], we illustrated it with the following woodcut ...

Witch swimming

That's not poor Stebbings being ‘swum' but another poor wretch called Mary Sutton. Dissatisfied that she survived, the crowd demanded Mary, like Stebbings, be swum a second time, this time cross-tied - "her right thumb bound to her left toe, and her left thumb bound to her right toe". Again she survived but, along with her old mother was, nevertheless, hanged at Bedford Gaol, in or about 1613.

[7] This woodcut has a lot more details than the one at out top; and they seem authentic, hinting at reportage rather than fantasy. Here we see Old man Enger, her chief accuser, who had dammed his millpond especially for the ‘swimming'; the men on ropes who were to haul her out; her hands cross-tied; and the workmen, wagon and pigs she was supposed to have cursed because Enger had cuffed her son for tossing rubbish into his millpond. Like so many ‘witch' cases, this began as a dispute between neighbours.

Swimming - also referred to as "the test" - was a favourite of that self-appointed ‘witch-finder general' Matthew Hopkins (c.1620-1647), who employed it specifically to extract ‘confessions' from the unlucky in Sussex, Essex and Norfolk. His grim work was never popular and as his death toll rose so communities began to question his methods, challenged as they were by growing scepticism about witchcraft generally. There is some evidence that he was forced to retire after the 1645 assizes at Bury St Edmunds at which 18 of Hopkins' victims were hanged in one day. [8] It is also generally accepted that Hopkins died at home in Manningtree, Essex, possibly of tuberculosis, and was buried there on 12 August 1647. Nevertheless, there is an undocumented folk tradition that villagers, suspicious how much he seemed to know about witches, gave him a taste of his own medicine ... that he survived his very own ‘swimming' and was promptly hanged.

Another Old Woman edition

Which brings me back to the Old Woman of the Ratcliffe Highway... As I was casting about, in my usual undisciplined way, I was pixie-led by library angels to the online door of the Elizabeth Nesbitt Room of the University of Pittsburgh's Information Sciences Library, home to this eponymous Pennsylvanian librarian's collection of thousands of specimens of children's literature dating from the 1600s. It was another edition of the same title and contents, but illustrated by a different woodcut. Now, Ashton's comment made more sense to me: "[The chapbook] is illustrated, in every edition, with engravings which have no connexion with the context." (my emphass)

Full circle! Such journeys are full of fascinating diversions, but it does rather leave unfinished the attempt to identify the circumstances portrayed in that original woodcut. If you find anything, let me know.


1 -

2 -  The highway itself would have had its share of London and East End lowlife. I see that PD. James and TA. Critchley published in 2000 a period study called The Maul and the Pear Tree, subtitled The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811. It included the discovery of the body of a John Williams, buried with a stake through his heart ... but was he the eighth victim or the murderer?

3 - John Ashton, Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century (Skoob 1991 reprint ) p.274. The ‘ducking stool' (used on witches) shares an etymology with the ‘cucking stool' as both witches and cuckolds were tied to a chair or stool, suspended from a cantilever that raised and lowered the chair into the water. This stool, some believe, was (or was modelled on) a commode, also called a ‘cacking stool'. The word cack (and spelling variants) is still used in the Midlands today to mean shit.

4 - The official use of ‘swimming' in English law supposedly dates back to King Athelstan (928-930), when trial by water - or indicium aquae - was a general test for a variety of crimes.

5 - Note that "poor Stebbings, is as ignorant as his neighbours" he himself proposed the swimming to prove his innocence, and then agreed to a repeat of the ordeal "for he was determined to get rid of the imputation or die". It is astonishing that such a crude test of whether someone is a witch has sustained this degree of confidence for centuries. One hundred and nineteen years before Stebbings, in July 1706, Grace Sherwood of Tidewater, in Princess Ann County, Virginia, uttered the same cry while defending herself from the accusations of witchcraft from neighbours. (Tidewater is just inland from Virginia Beach, below the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.) When her trial became deadlocked, the judge ordered her to be tried by ducking. She is said to have replied: "If by so doing 'twill clear me of this foul charge, I gladly consent." See Louisa Kyle's The Witch of Pungo, and Other Historical Stories of the Early Colonies (1973).

6 - Fortean Times 191:16 (Oct 1996).

7 - The several and damnable practises of Mother Sutton and Mary Sutton her daughter of Milton Milles in the County of Bedford: who were lately arraigned, convicted and executed; subtitled Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed, for notable villainies by them committed both by land and water. With a strange and most true triall how to know whether a woman be a witch or not (London 1613) ... included as example 14 in Marion Gibson's Early modern witches: witchcraft cases in contemporary writing (2000). A transcription is available at:

8 - This infamous toll and its instigator, Hopkins, was satirised (with a bit of exaggeration) in Samuel Butler's 1680 poem Hudibras :

And has not he, within a year,
Hang'd threescore of 'em in one shire?
Some only for not being drowned,

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