‘An Infestation of Rats’ A History of Investigating Witchcraft in Norfolk

As Halloween approaches thoughts turn towards witches and ghosts. A number of references to both have been recorded in the archives. The parish register for Wells next the Sea (PD 679/1) records the burials of fourteen men in December 1583. According to the register these men

‘[Perished] upo[n] ye west coaste co[m]ming fro[m] spaine whose deathes were brought to pas by the detestable woorking of an execrable witch of Kings Lynn whose name was mother gable, by the boylyng or rather labouring of certayn eggs in a payle full of colde water’. The incumbent continues by stating that the case was ‘approved sufficientlye at the araignement of the saide witch’.

One document (C/S 3/box 41a) was used as evidence in the court case of Christopher Hall, in 1654. Norfolk Archaeology, volume 30 gives a transcription of the case. One witness, John Smithbourne, stated that ‘about 10 weekes since his wife [had] a very great sore upon her breast’. This had troubled her for two years and prevented her from working. In order to find a cure ‘he was perswaded by his sister… and others to go to Hall of Harpley a shooemaker who was reported to be a wise and cuning man to be advised by him concerning his wifes illness’.

Hall claimed the problem was the work of a witch. The next day he went to Smithbourne’s house and ‘desiring to see this informts wifes breast he says he could do her no great good butt gaue her a powder to use and send her a paper wch was written to weare about her’.

It is this piece of paper, containing circular symbols, which has found its way into the archives. The large number of pin holes in the document show Smithbourne’s wife must have followed the instructions and attached the paper to her clothes. However, whether she was cured remains a mystery.

C S 3 41 a Xpofer Hall's writing rot and cropped jpg

Extract from Norfolk Quarter Sessions Roll, 1654. NRO, C/S 3/box 41a


Ghost stories also crop up in the archives. In 1957, Revd Fourdrinier was asked to investigate ghostly activity recorded over 100 years earlier in Syderstone pasonage. His investigation (MC 5/6, 386X6) revealed that twice people had reported seeing the ghost of Revd William Mantle, the curate in 1797. Staff and house guests had also heard noises during the night. William Ofield described noises ‘resembling the dragging of furniture about the room accompanied with the fall of some heavy object on the floor’. Phoebe Steward ‘plainly heard the footstep as of someone walking from the sleeping-room door, down the stairs, step by step, to the door of the sitting room below;… she distinctly heard the sitting room door open and the chair placed near one the windows moved and the shutters opened, but on going downstairs found everything as she had left it.’ These noises apparently stopped for months before reoccuring.

Some felt the noises were the work of a hoax by household members. However, Revd Fourdrinier concludes the noises had been made by sudden infestations of rats, accounting for the stopping and starting. What do you believe?

Sleep well tonight!

First published in the Eastern Daily Press, October 2006

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