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WEIRD SUFFOLK: The three Suffolk from Ballingdon women who tried to remove a curse by putting toenails in a bottle and throwing it on the fire

PUBLISHED: 18:00 04 July 2020

In the 17th century Bellarmine jugs were favoured for witch bottles. PICTURE: STEVE ADAMS

In the 17th century Bellarmine jugs were favoured for witch bottles. PICTURE: STEVE ADAMS

The phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ has never been more appropriate than for the Suffolk women whose bottle of ‘magical’ toenail clippings exploded in a fire.

On a list of things you’d rather didn’t explode in your face, a bottle filled with your friend’s toenails, finger nails and hair would be fairly near the top. But this is what happened to three Suffolk women who attempted some magic to rid their friend of a spell which they believed had been placed on him by a witch.

In February 1829 the Bury and Norwich Post carried a piece which read as follows: “It will scarcely be believed that in this present day that there should be persons so ignorant that they believe in witchcraft, yet an incident took place in Ballingdon this week, a labouring man named Ruggles having been afflicted since harvest and still remained so, three of his neighbours took it into their heads that he was bewitched or as they termed it ‘in bad handling’.

“To rescue him they pared his finger and toe nails and cut off some of his hair and put the whole into a glass bottle and placed it on the fire using some incantations and expecting to see some evil spirit depart from the victim, the bottle burst, it so frightened these ignorant necromancers that two of them have scarce recovered, two are tradesmen’s wives another a bricklayer’s wife.”

To be fair, the women got off lightly: witch bottles generally contained the urine of the person who was bewitched. Witch bottles were once a relatively regular ‘cure’ for all manner of ills and were used as charms throughout the 16th to 19th centuries as a way to deflect witchcraft back towards the user. They are often stoneware jugs with a bell-shaped base – in the 17th century it was Bellarmine jugs that were favoured, by the 19th century it was glass bottles or small phials. Such bottles were commonly filled with items associated with the bewitched person: urine, hair clippings, animal hair or sometimes animal bones or textiles. It was believed that a person who had been inflicted with misfortune or illness by a malevolent conjuror, the bottle would be used as ‘counter magic’ to cause the suspected witch or wizard problems and force them to lift the curse. Witch bottles tie the victim to an object and to the person practicing the dark arts and would generally be created on the advice of one who practiced white magic.

Such bottles have been found in Ipswich (during building work for the Civic College), a Woodbridge, Eyke, Wetheringsett, Stowmarket and Ixworth. Archaeologist Ralph Merrifield, who wrote The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, believes that witch bottles were first introduced in East Anglia before the practice spread across the country. In Suffolk, bottles were generally buried under hearths or thresholds whereas in London, the vessel was hidden away from the house of the victim that it was intended to protect. The earliest account of a witch bottle being used comes from 1644 when the Reverend William Brearley of Christ’s College Cambridge came to lodge in a Suffolk village. In an account he wrote in 1681, he mentions that his landlord’s wife has been in poor health for some time and “…that she was haunted with a thing in the shape of a bird that would flurr near her face and that she could not enjoy her natural rest well.”

The landlord told his concerns to a visiting friend, who informed him that the woman’s issue was caused by “a dead spright” and that he could help the couple banish the problem once and for all. “He therefore advised him to take a bottle and put his wife’s urine into ti, together with pins and needles and nails and cork them up and set the bottle to the fire but be sure the cork be fast in it that it not fly out,” wrote Rev Brearley. The man followed the instructions but as he held the cork tight in the fire with a shovel, he felt “something” shove off the fire shovel “…and the urine, pins, nails and needles all flew up and gave a report like a pistol and his wife continued in the same trouble and languishment still.” The visitor returned soon afterwards and asked how the man’s wife was – Brearley’s account takes up the story: “Ha, quoth he, it seems it was too nimble for you.

“But now I will put you in a way that will make the business sure. Take your wife’s urine as before and cork it in a bottle with nails, pins and needles and bury it in the earth and that will do the feat.

“The man did accordingly. And his wife began to mend sensibly…but there came a woman from a town some miles off to their house with a lamentable outcry, that they had killed her husband.

“But at last they understood by her that her husband was a wizard and had bewitched this man’s wife and that this counter-practice prescribed…was the death of that wizard that had bewitched her.”

Weird Suffolk’s other favouite fact about Ballingdon is far better known: in 1972, Ballingdon Hall, a timber-framed house built around 1593 by Sir Thomas Eden, was moved 200 yards when the A131 was improved. The relocation involved the 170-tonne structure being jacked up by 15 feet and rolled on to 26 wheels which were then pulled uphill by two tractors to its current site in Ballingdon Hill. A very different kind of magic.


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