National Treasure: The Old Bluecoat School, Thatcham

SPAB member Mark Thomas writes about a local Berkshire landmark. This article first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of the SPAB Magazine. The magazine is only available to members of the SPAB.

Alongside the A4 in Thatcham, Berkshire, is a small building now known as the Old Bluecoat School. Although it was a school in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the building’s history is much longer than that. The style of the east window shows that it was once a chapel and it is believed to have been built in 1304 as the Chapel of the medieval Borough of Thatcham.

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Living in Thatcham for over 30 years, I could not avoid noticing the rather tired old building by the side of the main road. Having a background in construction I volunteered to help the trustees during the refurbishment in 2014 and quickly got co-opted onto the committee. Like others before me, I started to investigate the history of the building and became fascinated by how the ancient building had survived through cycles of decay and repair.

A Victorian historian, Samuel Barfield, discovered the original licence from the Bishop of Salisbury dated 3rd May 1304 granting a local landowner and later Lord of the Manor, Sir Richard de Fockenham, and the parishioners of Thatcham the right to hold chantry services in the chapel which they had already built at their own expense.
Later authors speculated about why the chapel was built, although, from its location adjacent to the historic London to Bath road, one likely use could have been as a wayside chapel situated at the boundary of the newly created Borough. The promotion of Thatcham town to Borough status appears contemporary with building of the chapel and it is tempting to see the new chapel as a prominent civic status symbol for the new Borough. The national rarity of a surviving free-standing wayside chapel accounts for the building’s Grade 1 listing in 1983.

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Interior of the Old Bluecoat School, date unknown

Between 1304 and 1707 little is known about the chapel other than that, somehow, it survived. There is a single reference from 1446 saying that it is dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr. Another mystery is that there is supposedly no record of it at the 1547 Abolition of the Chantries during the Reformation. It appears in the records again in 1661 as “the Chapel of this Borough” almost as if it was still in use.
From 1707 we are on firmer historical ground. Lady Frances Winchcombe bought the “old decayed chapel” to convert into a charity school for 30 local poor boys, although it didn’t properly open until 1794. The charity’s surviving account books from that year record the clothing bought for the boys, but do not specifically describe the coats as blue until 1900. (A “Blue Coat” school was a popular unofficial name for one of many similar charity schools.)

The school closed in 1914 when the master was called up for military service. From the end of the First World War until 1964, Berkshire County Council rented the building for school cookery lessons. After 1964 the trustees of Lady Winchcombe’s charity could not find a new use for the building and its upkeep was unsustainable. It was sold to Newbury District Council in 1969 for £2500. The building was used as an antiques shop during the 1990s but fell empty again. In 2003, local Councillor Barbara Collins-Wootton, saw that the Council was proposing to sell the building by public auction as surplus to requirements. Mrs Collins-Wootton set up a committee with other Thatcham residents and succeeded in transferring the building to a new charity with a long lease from the Council to manage it for community use.

After ten years of fundraising, and thanks to the generosity of local businesses, a start was made on refurbishing the exterior of the building in 2014. Modern cement render was removed from the flint walls and replaced with lime render and limewash. Temporary acrylic window panes, which had been there for over 30 years, were replaced with leaded lights in the original wooden frames and were based on an old photograph from 1897. The roof was re-laid, while saving 75% of the old tiles.
Currently the interior is suffering from the 1973 refurbishment of cement rendered walls, a concrete floor slab and varnished plywood dado panels that cover up damp. The most striking feature is the attractive scissor-beamed roof. Described by some as Victorian or Tudor or, more credibly, as 15th century with an older tie-beam, the roof structure is an obvious candidate for more scientific dating.

The building is now in daily use by local clubs and societies. Classical music concerts have been very successful, with many performers commenting on the excellent acoustics. Longer term plans, money and permissions permitting, are to refurbish the interior by removing the concrete floor and cement render and replace them with more appropriate materials. The challenge for a historic building in daily use will be to include sympathetic modern facilities, such as a catering area, so that the building is attractive to hirers and will continue in community use for the foreseeable future.

For more information about the Old Bluecoat School pleases visit the website.

 

Wimpole Tower, the artificial ruin

Wimpole Tower was built to proclaim the grandeur of a noble landowner from a hilltop. How, after years of decay, it speaks out once again, writes Donald Insall.
To the observant viewer, every building speaks. Today indeed, many buildings even shout – especially those demanded as publicity for commercial organisations –  for that is the spirit of our age. “My creator…” some of them shriek ,” is bursting with originality, and will design and erect for you a magnet for every eye, crushing its competitors,  defying apparent gravity, trumpeting your name and products…”

An earlier eye-catcher, with specifically that function in mind but in an utterly different spirit, was the landscape feature of the 18th-century Picturesque Movement – notably the Artificial Ruin. Perhaps deceitful, yet more often rather witty and tongue-in-cheek, its aim and message were to delight the sensitivities of the educated visitor. And in doing so, also to commend the wealth, knowledge and scholarship of a noble landowner, hinting at his lineage and history, underlining the passage of time, and with it the continuity and tranquillity of his country seat.

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A 1777 engraving of the gothic tower at Wimnpole. Artist unknown.

Such a feature, set among trees on a hilltop and axially linked with its architectural parent, is the Gothic Tower at Wimpole, just outside Cambridge. Originally the inspiration of architect Sanderson Miller, who sketched the idea for Lord Hardwicke in 1749, this came to reality (or perhaps, a rather special variant of reality) a quarter of a century later in the hands of the ubiquitous Capability Brown and his friend James Essex, and rapidly took its place in the locality’s designed landscape.

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Wimpole Tower, before works. Credit: Malcolm Barrett

As in every building, life and change continued. In 1805 the Estate adapted the interior of the Tower to provide accommodation for a gamekeeper and his family, introducing additional floors and enclosed the wooden stair, while outside and within the curtilage some lean-to structures were added as home for farm stock. Meanwhile, the hand of real time and decay was now adding to the original theme of ruination – history was gradually taking over.

With changing fortunes in 1976, the Estate came into the hands of the National Trust. By then the little hilltop folly was overgrown, rabbit-riddled and in increasingly unsafe condition, demanding immediate emergency repairs. More recently still, and thanks in part to DEFRA’s Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (administered by Natural England) and to legacies and donations, it became possible to allocate more funds.  With these came an opportunity for increased care.

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Conservators from Cliveden Conservation working on the repair and consolidation of Wimpole’s north-east turret wall. Credit: Donald Insall Associates

A fresh study and conservation plan were commissioned, including archaeological and historical research and investigations into local social history, and into onsite technical aspects such as the design of lost elements, as well as practical matters like stonework decay and cleaning. All of these brought unusual challenges of both a philosophical and practical kind. For here we were dealing not with an ancient structure scarred by battle, but with a consciously-created and retrospectively-built image of a non-existent earlier history, itself gathering evidence of a life of its own.

Luckily, limited available archive material came to our aid, and was reinforced by the tangible evidence onsite. The walls of the Tower and its flanking lesser sisters and compound had been built mainly in red brickwork, but faced-up with ashlar in the soft chalky limestone known as clunch.  Typically, this had proved highly porous and vulnerable, and had suffered erosion and lamination of its outer weather-surfaces, and heavy losses in the remaining vestiges of the crenellated crown.

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Wimpole Tower after conservation. Credit: Malcolm Barrett

Practical cleaning trials were carried out, and led to a traditional solution of removing vegetation, brushing of loose and friable stonework, raking-out open joints and repointing.  In this, and using naturally hydraulic lime, four specified mortar mixes were employed, matching the respective requirements of deep  walling-voids,  the repointing of backing brickwork and of fine facing stonework, and lastly of wall-capping and rainwork run-off areas.

Finally a limewash mix was applied to individual stones, but without disturbing any which retained their protective surface and were lichen-covered. Where a minimum of replacement stone was needed and was unavailable on site local stone was selected from a quarry at Barrington (since alas, closed). Special care was taken in painstaking examination of faint archive photographs of the remaining  and exposed stonework at the tower top, where Chilmark stone from Chicksgrove has proved a happy neighbour for the clunch ashlar; and the weather is already assisting in a happy marriage. Throughout the works, a close liaison was maintained between client, curators and within the specialist team, the highly able contractors engaged being Cliveden Conservation. An active programme of works tours, arranged from an access scaffolding, attracted a great deal of public interest and involvement.

The Gothic Tower is now accessible to visitors and serves as a major landscape feature over a remarkable area, contributing in a very real way to the Grade I registered park and garden at Wimpole today. Thanks to a detailed entry by the National Trust, the project has been not only awarded a 2016 European Union Prize but also celebrated as a Grand Prix winner for the UK, announced in Madrid to an international audience by Europa Nostra’s President, Maestro Placido Domingo, who said: “At a time when the European Union is confronted with many political, economic and social challenges, this initiative has a very special meaning. Cultural heritage, indeed, connects people across generations and across borders, generates economic growth and fosters social inclusion.”

In the words of the jury:”Intellectually, this project raises interesting questions about the preservation of a designed ruin and inspires thoughts about the nature of conservation.  It is informed by detailed research and archaeological recordings and is a model of cooperative endeavour. This Grand Prix is awarded in recognition of this diligent work”
So, the Wimpole Tower now “speaks” again.

This article first appeared in the autumn 2016 SPAB Magazine. The magazine is one of the benefits of SPAB membership.

Mystery Bottles

After attending SPAB’s 2015 autumn lectures on curious things found in old buildings, Kelly Appleton-Swaine, building conservation officer, Heritage Lincolnshire, was inspired to find out more about the Old Kings Head, Kirton, a former coaching inn  with a story to tell. This story first appeared in the SPAB Magazine, a benefit of SPAB membership.

The darkness of a cold, wintery night can set the mind imagining all sorts of horrors. Our senses are heightened and small sounds seem large and frightening. The noises of nocturnal animals -scratching, sniffing, scurrying –  mutate, conjuring monsters, witches and evil spirits. In the absence of light, the creaks, cracks and groans of the building around us moving and settling after the heat of the day sound more like someone (or something) knocking, tapping or scraping at the doors and windows trying to get in.
Terrifying! Then we flick the light switch and after blinking in the sudden brightness, everything returns to normal again. It’s only the cat prowling outside, sizzling sap from the cooling fire, a twig tapping against the window.

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It is no wonder that our 17th century counterparts were so superstitious when the fear of witches, evil spirits, spells and curses was very real. Warding off the supernatural was a powerful motive for actions which seem to us, in our light-filled, busy modern day world, decidedly odd and strange.

After attending the 2015 SPAB Autumn Lectures I understood this a little more, although some aspects did still seem baffling. I could understand why ritual and sacred marks were carved into windows, doors and fireplaces, but the reasons for hiding dead cats, shoes and skulls in walls or under floorboards still took an extra leap of the imagination. It was, however, fascinating and was made more so by Brian Hoggard whose lecture, ‘Shoes in the chimney, cats in the floor’ left me intrigued and wanting to know more. Afterwards as I stepped out into the busy October semi-darkness, I wanted nothing more than to race back to Lincolnshire, find a torch and start scouring Heritage Lincolnshire’s new building conservation project, The Old King’s Head, for signs of marks or buried felines.
Luckily I didn’t have too long to wait until something curious turned up.

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The Old King’s Head. Credit: Beverley Gormley

Heritage Lincolnshire is a Building Preservation Trust that works across the county to help protect, preserve and celebrate Lincolnshire’s rich heritage.  Purchased in early 2016, the Old King’s Head is a brick built former coaching inn, located in Kirton, on what was the main London road into Boston. After decades of neglect, the Grade II – Listed building has become at risk and in danger of being lost.

The Old Kings Head was built in two main phases. The first was completed  in 1599 and the second phase, in 1661, consisted of major remodelling. This second phase, as noted by Pevsner, is in the Fen Artisan Mannerist style, an architectural term coined by Sir John Summerson in the 1950s to describe a style of building which was designed and built by craftsmen rather than architects. There are several examples in the Fenland area such as Church House in Boston and Aslackby Hall near Bourne.

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The Old King’s Head stairs. Credit: Ian Moore

The building has a long and fascinating history as a coaching inn and was mentioned in the autobiography ‘The Life of John Rastrick’ (1650-1727). As a Lincolnshire non-conformist clergyman. Rastrick used his money to release fellow non-conformists and refused to baptise the local children if he felt their parents were ‘loose and scandalous’ people. This made him extremely unpopular with the Kirton locals who, by his own admission, all hated him and felt he was ‘too rigorous and cruell [sic] to make the Children suffer for the Parents faults’. This led to a near fatal incident in 1678 when Rastrick was locked in the dining room of the King’s Head with a Mr William Hunt (Rastrick would not give him communion due to Mr Hunt refusing to repent his ‘former ill life’) who flew into a rage shouting ‘We’ll die together in this room!’  Rastrick only survived due to a neighbour intervening. There were several other lively characters associated with the King’s Head, which remained as a pub until the late 1960’s when it was converted to residential use.

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The entrance room at The Old King’s Head. Credit: Ian Moore

Since purchasing the building, the Trust has been spending time investigating its construction and development and we are benefitting from expert advice on the historic timbers, thatch, paint and mortar. Due to the age of the building we suspected we might find marks or items of apotropaic interest and I attended the SPAB lectures to ensure that we would know what to look out for. We have also been talking to the local community, including previous occupants, and it was at a meeting with a former resident that I first heard of the bottles in the roof.

Up to this point we had not fully investigated the roof space apart from shining a torch into its gloomy depths. We knew that the pub had once been thatched and that a pantile roof had been built over the top of it. From what the torch illuminated, some if not all of the original thatch base survives.

On hearing about the bottles we investigated further and found three broken glass bottles covered in dust and cobwebs hanging from a roof beam. Our source told us that his grandmother ordered him and his siblings never to touch them but they were never told the reason why.  We decided to ask Brian Hoggard to visit to see if there was an explanation. Brian’s visit was enlightening and extremely interesting, and although we still don’t really know why the bottles were put there a few theories have been put forward. When we first saw the bottles the idea of them being ‘witch bottles’ was mooted. Witch bottles are normally buried; they contain items such as pins, nails and urine and are complete (upon burial).

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Our bottles are hanging, broken and it is believed that they date from between 1800 and 1850. One theory is that they were used as part of a game when coach men and stable boys would sleep in the roof space and throw stones at hanging bottles, scoring points whenever one was smashed. However the rope that the bottles are hung with appears to be the same age as the bottles and the way it is knotted shows they could only have been hung after they were broken.

If they are not witch bottles or the remnants of a game, what are they? The last and slightly speculative (or romantic) theory is that the bottles represent people who lived in the inn. Looking into historic records we found that a John and Elizabeth Pulford lived at the King’s Head in the mid 1800’s. They married in 1835 and had their first child, William, the following year. Sadly there is record of William’s burial aged 2 in July 1837 and later in the year Elizabeth was buried too, along with another child – Richard Pulford – who was only 25 weeks and three days old.

Could it be that in his grief John Pulford had hung the bottles in the roof as representations of Elizabeth, William and Richard? Choosing broken bottles because they had been tragically taken away from him? It is quite likely that we will never know, but the mystery is intriguing and it brings the building and former inhabitants to life.
Heritage Lincolnshire is only at the beginning of our journey exploring and renovating the Old King’s Head. Our hope is to return it back into a thriving centre of the community.  There is still a lot to discover so who knows what other mysteries we will find on the way?

If you would like to make a donation to the conservation of this historic building and/or to the work of Heritage Lincolnshire, you can do so online.

Loyd Grossman, man of taste

As Loyd Grossman comes to end of his time as Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust, he talks to SPAB communications manager Kate Griffin.
Loyd Grossman is a pleasingly difficult man to pigeon hole. His diverse enthusiasms and commitments could almost be seen as the accomplishments of someone from earlier age when a person could be defined by their interests rather than their profession. Loyd’s distinctive swooping vowels made him instantly familiar as a broadcaster when he fronted several hugely popular television series in the 1980s and 90s, but it is perhaps another small screen appearance that gives the clue to his range and depth. In 2009, he won an edition of BBC’s Celebrity Mastermind and his specialist subject was 18th century art and artists, something that viewers of Through the Keyhole or MasterChef, might not have expected. Then again, they might also have found it surprising that Loyd has an ongoing parallel ‘career’ as a rock musician. In 1977 his punk band Jet Bronx and The Forbidden reached number 49 in the UK singles chart with “Ain’t Doin’ Nothing” and he returned to performing music in 2008 with a new version of the group.

The son of a Massachusetts art and antiques dealer, Loyd graduated from Boston University with a degree in history before arriving in the UK in the 1970s to study for a master’s in economic history. He subsequently read art history at Cambridge where he received his PhD. In addition to his television work, a lifelong interest in history and the arts has led to his involvement with a number of heritage organisations. In 2007, he was appointed Chairman of The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) and in 2009 he was appointed Chairman of The Heritage Alliance, the UK membership organisation that represents more than 100 leading non-governmental organisations across the heritage sector.

Credit: Will Pascall Hudson

Credit: Will Pascall Hudson

You’ve enjoyed a very varied career, how would you describe yourself?
I try very hard not to describe myself. I’m very fortunate in that I try to pursue the things I’m interested in with a great deal of commitment, passion and love. It may be heritage, it may be higher education, and it may be playing the guitar. I am a great enthusiast and an optimist. I always believe that things can be made better if we try.  I don’t have a career, I have an attitude.

You are clearly an anglophile, how did your enthusiasm for Britain and its heritage begin?
I love this country. I came to London in 1974 to do a post graduate degree at the London School of Economics. And I’m still here. My academic discipline has always been history. I grew up in Marblehead, a famously beautiful part of New England with a very strong sense of history. From childhood, thanks to my parents and my environment, I was always interested in history, and architectural and art history. Really, I think it was inevitable – for someone like me who grew up in New England and who was interested in history – that Britain would have an appeal. For Americans, the Revolution of 1776 is an extraordinarily evocative and romantic thing – it’s the moment at which American history and British history seem to be on a threshold. You can’t understand one without understanding the other.

Why is the past relevant?
I think it sets us in the context of all those who’ve come before and makes us think about the future. I’m very clear that it’s not just about us and it’s not just about us feeling good, productive or aesthetically satisfied. It’s about us as inheritors of this incredible history and wanting to pass it on to future generations – wanting our children and grandchildren and so on, to grow up in a beautiful, inspiring, historically rich and meaningful environment.

How did you become involved with the Churches Conservation Trust?
In 2007 I’d finished six wonderful years as a commissioner for English Heritage and I knew I wanted to stay in the heritage field. Everything is a matter of timing. Miraculously, the Chairmanship of the CCT was available. I had met, and greatly admired, the two previous Chairs – namely Liz Forgan and Frank Field – so I knew what a great organisation it was. I thought, what the heck, I should try for it. I must add I never expected to get it. In those days ‘celebrity’ wasn’t in any way a necessary part of the criteria for the chairmanship. Oddly enough, at that stage I don’t think the fact that I was in some way well known played a part in the process.

You are stepping down from the role of Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust in 2016, looking back what do you consider to be the most satisfying achievements during that time?
It’s been nine years and it’s been amazing experience – a really incredible part of my life. I’ve worked with so many interesting people who share a real passion. It’s an organisation that punches way above its weight because we all love the mission. I’m pleased that during my time as Chairman the size of the charity has increased by more than threefold, which means we are doing and are able to do more and more and more wonderful stuff. Of course, there’s still a huge amount to tackle, but I think, modestly, I’ve helped to play a part in creating a framework or platform to enable it to go on doing and achieving great things in the future.

There are thousands of ancient churches across the UK. With diminishing congregations and huge care challenges, what does the future hold?
Nationally, I believe there are around 16,000 listed churches. The CCT is a smallish charity and we only look after 350 of them, which, actually, still puts us in the same category in terms of the number of properties in our care as, say, English Heritage or the National Trust.

It’s a huge challenge, but I am full of optimism.  I hope that the CCT leads by example. I think we have created very innovative models which show the extraordinary and imaginative things you can do with listed churches, while remaining consistent with their consecrated status.  We try very hard to exercise a pastoral role and we’ve shown that one can be creative and full of hope and full of commitment to do the best things for the communities that surround our churches. Of course, it’s not a uniquely British challenge. We’ve exported our model to other countries. We’ve taken a leadership role in something called Future Religious Heritage Europe which is trying to help others deal with the similar issues facing their own historic buildings.

What will never change – and this is true for everyone in the heritage world – is that our aspirations, which are so great and so beneficial, will always outstrip our resources, but nonetheless we will keep moving forward and keep improving things.

The challenges and difficulties are great, but so are the opportunities. Do we believe that historic buildings have the ability to inspire people and make them more creative, more entrepreneurial and more complete? 

The answer to all those questions for me – for all of us – has to be ‘yes’. We are all nuts to be doing this, but we believe it will help people now and in the future, and we will keep on doing it. We will triumph.
Is it about people or buildings?
It’s about people. It has to be.  It’s about saving buildings to help people have better, more interesting, more fulfilled lives.

The full interview was published in the summer 2016 SPAB Magazine. The magazine is just one of the benefits of SPAB membership.

Message in a bottle

Dr Brian Hoggard is an expert in the archaeology of British folk magic. This feature on the witch bottles of England first appeared in the spring 2016 edition of the SPAB Magazine. The magazine is benefit of SPAB membership, for details on becoming a member please see our website.

Witch-bottles first appear in the archaeological record in England in the first half of the 17th century. They were initially used as a specific counter-spell to undo harmful bewitching. For the first 100 years or so of their use a type of stoneware bottle colloquially known as a ‘bellarmine’ was used, glass bottles were used later on.

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Witch bottle found in Suffolk

Witch-bottles, like other apotropaic (evil-averting) objects, were deliberately concealed so it is only when buildings are demolished, repaired, or when archaeologists excavate building sites that they come to light.  This means that only very few get reported to a local heritage service.  The amount that can be found is also limited by how many buildings survive from any given period.

The earliest written description of witch-bottles is Joseph Blagrave’s 1671 Astrological Practice of Physick.  Describing a method of removing bewitchment:

‘Another way is stop the urine of the Patient, close up in a bottle, and put into it three nails, pins or needles, with a little white Salt, keeping the urine always warm: if you let it remain long in the bottle, it will endanger the witches life: for I have found by experience that they will be grievously tormented making their water with great difficulty, if any at all…’
‘The reason. . .is because there is part of the vital spirit of the Witch in it, for such is the subttlety of the Devil, that he will not suffer the Witch to infuse any poysonous matter into the body of man or beast, without some of the Witches blood mingled with it. . .’

Blagrave is prescribing a method of turning the witches power back upon them using the sympathetic link between the witch and victim. It seems that the idea was that the bottle represented the witch’s bladder and, by inserting pins and the victim’s urine into the bottle and then heating it, this would cause intense pain to the witch, forcing them to lift whatever spell they had cast.

When the contents of witch-bottles are examined they almost always contain evidence of iron in the form of pins or nails. The next most common ingredient is hair with some bottles yielding large locks of it. Almost all of the bottles which have been tested for urine have tested positive.  Sometimes a small piece of fabric in the shape of a heart is found and pretty much anything prickly or unpleasant could be included. The early texts do not mention hair at all and they also do not mention deliberately bending the pins or nails before inserting them into the bottle – another difference from the texts.

The accounts only refer to burying the bottles if the heating was unsuccessful. All of the examples in my records were buried or concealed which suggests that the process of heating the bottles did not work well and that burying bottles was widespread and well known. It is my contention that this actually became the normal way to treat a witch-bottle.

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A bottle found beneath a parish boundary wall in Dorset. After analyses it was found to contain beef tallow and spring water, presumably this was a witch bottle to protect livestock.

Mapping early witch-bottles shows a distinct bias towards the south east of England and parts of the south coast. These bottles were imported in vast quantities full of beer and wine but the stoneware was so durable that they were reused many times, including as witch-bottles. Thus far I have not seen any examples of bellarmine witch-bottles further north than Leeds, yet the trade in stoneware vessels did reach this far. As we move beyond the 17th century glass witch-bottles in the shape of small phials, bottles and occasionally jars begin to be found in all parts of Britain. There are several examples from the USA and a few from Australia too.

Within the home slightly more than half were found either beneath the hearth stone or within the construct of an inglenook fireplace. The next most common location was beneath the floor and then beneath the threshold. From the middle of the 18th century onwards the locations and contents begin to diverge away from the original recipe and locations and there is increasing use of glass bottles.

Case Studies
In the grave of a young adult at All Saints Church, Loughton, Buckinghamshire a late 17th or early 18th century glass steeple bottle was discovered lying between the left humerous and upper chest. The bottle contained several copper pins and a number of pins were also stuck into the cork. The bottle contains liquid which may be urine, although no analysis has yet taken place on this substance. Based on currently available records for witch-bottles it seems that this is the only case of one being discovered in a coffin although several other bottles have been found buried in churchyards. Presumably the bottle was placed in the coffin as a kind of counter-witchcraft to perhaps help protect the body and soul in death or to exact revenge on the perpetrator of the witchcraft which was thought to have led to his death.

In Pershore, Worcestershire two small glass phials were discovered along with three childrens shoes and a collection of toys. The group was discovered behind the hearth.  In this instance the group of objects were dated to the mid-19th century. The phials contained wheat husks and possibly some resin from a pine tree. This is possibly residue connected with the production of pine beer which was once commonplace. The idea with this collection of objects appears to have been to bring together the shoes, two small bottles and toys to serve as a decoy for any bad influences that might want to attack the home via the chimney.

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Glass phials discovered in Pershore, Worcestershire, with three children;s shies and a collection of toys

Theoretical metaphysics!
Initially it seems that witch-bottles were a specific counter-spell designed to cause physical pain to the witch thereby giving the opportunity to barter for your own unbewitching. I already noted that, if the heating was not successful then the bottle would be buried which would lead to a slow death of the witch. Over 50% of witch-bottles are found by the hearth which suggests that the heat and also the location by the only portal which was permanently open to the sky was important. The amount of effort involved in creating a witch-bottle and then digging a large hole for it is quite significant and it’s my contention that as time went by the way people thought of witch-bottles changed to more of a spirit trap.  The idea being that negative energies entering the home via the chimney would be sniffing out the victim and locate them conveniently near the hearth (the hair and urine) and plunge into the bottle become impaled on the ghostly pins and nails which had been ritually killed (by being deliberately bent).

The more I explore the beliefs, practices and customs of the past the more certain I am that life was viewed through a complex web of beliefs regarding magic, folklore, the supernatural and religious forces. Unseen forces surrounded and permeated everything. Witch-bottles serve as a small window into that world.

For more information on apotropaic objects visit Brian Hoggard’s website.