Language, we are told is a constantly evolving beast. Whilst this is undeniable, in certain rural areas this evolution can be somewhat slow. We have, for example in the Norfolk vernacular today the phrase ‘to put the toad on someone.’ Admittedly this is not an everyday comment, but this curious phrase that seems to date back many hundreds of years is, remarkably still in use today.
It is often spoken in hushed tones by those fearful of having the toad put upon them, or more forcefully and with a sense of threat by those wishing to afflict their enemy using what is known in East Anglia as ‘toad magic.’
An NRO document entitled ‘Folklore: Veterinary Cures and Recipes – The Horseman’s Words and Charms’ (NRO, MS 21630/147 502X2) gives us detailed insight into the origins of the phrase. Written in approximately 1958, it clearly demonstrates the superstitious fears that were held by rural communities as late as the twentieth century. The small exercise book has been written by two unknown hands, both of whom appear to be local clergymen.
Toad magic was a complex skill, involving ritual ceremonies and training. To become a toadman;
“…was a particular aspiration for labourers working with horses.”
The powers were not reserved for men alone however; women could become toadwomen, or toad witches, after performing the same initiation. The tradition of toad magic was particularly infamous in the Fens, where it was said to grant the owner of a toad bone the power to immobilise and control not only horses, but also pigs and cattle. In a county where most people lived cheek by jowl with their livestock, and relied on them for their very survival, having some sort of control over the natural world was a longed-for gift. Thankfully for us, the details of the ritual carried out by prospective toadmen and women has been preserved. In the document previously mentioned, (NRO, MS 21630/147 502X2) the local clergyman has noted down the requirements as told to him by a labourer named Golding,
“Put a toad in a pishimere’s nest  ; throw the skeleton into the river and the bone that floats upstream is the required bone. (Golding says he did not hold with all this old squit). Some talk of a frog bone; but that sounds like a softening up: the toad is the magic beast.”
Other reports of the ritual are rather more dramatic and shadowy, claiming that the toad’s skeleton must be thrown into the river at midnight, whereupon the devil will appear. The prospective toadman or woman must then make a secret pact with the devil; only then will they gain the power they desire.
One toadwoman, Tilly Baldry, is quoted in Eastern Counties Magazine in 1901, describing her own initiation, and giving us some idea of how Fenland handywomen would use the toad for maladies of the breast,
“You catch a hopping toad and carry it in your bosom until it has rotted away to the backbone, then you take it and hold it over running water at midnight til the devil comes to you and pulls you over the water.”
Upon being carried upstream, the magical toad bone would separate from the remainder of the skeleton. This was the bone that was to be used for witching purposes, to be kept in one’s pocket or worn around the neck.
Despite the temptation of the magical powers that the toad bone could bestow upon its owner, would-be toadsmen and women had to be hardy souls. Local accounts tell of the power of the bone going hand in hand with a descent into deep despair, with some toad magic practitioners eventually taking their own lives.
Previously mentioned document (NRO, MS 21630/147 502X2) notes a quote from a Billy Roberts, who stated on 4th March 1958 that,
“He knew a man (dead now) who after getting a frog bone lost his wife, and was dogged with misfortune all his life. He regarded it as evil or witchcraft, and said if he couldn’t manage horses without that sort of thing, he’d do without it.”
These claims of certain misfortune may have been propagated by those who had been initiated as a way of retaining their own power and mystique. It was said that “No door is ever closed to a Toadman,”  and anyone with the nickname ‘Tuddy’ garnered instant respect.
Going back to our original source, (NRO, MS 21630/147 502X2) the author tells us,
“The immobilisation power doesn’t seem to have been believed in, but they may be due to reluctance to talk, and even in these days of the tractor, teamsmen are chary of speaking, or of disclosing recipes.”
The later pages of the document describe the use of poisonous plants as key ingredients to the aforementioned recipes; plants renowned in rural communities for their toxic nature, such as yew, hellebore, nightshade and root of bryony.
It seems that these rural labourers, whose livelihoods hung by a thread resting on the whims of the weather were sorely tempted by shadowy practices that promised some form of control over the natural world around them. Life must have felt unstable and unpredictable, with illness and death inextricably linked to the success or failure of the agricultural land upon which they worked.
Our lives are so detached from the seasons and the land around us that we can only imagine what lengths our ancestors were prepared to go to ensure their survival. Fortunately for us, we have access to some perfectly preserved documents, giving us a glimpse into our forebears’ lives and reminding us of the centuries-old superstitions that are still very much alive in the local vernacular of today.
 Pennick, Nigel ‘Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England’
 pishamere is Norfolk dialect for an ant
L. Spirit, NRO Blogger
Thanks for the great article. I really enjoyed it.