Episode 2; John Butterfield’s Story; mid April 1751

This is the second of a series (Episode 1) of imagined scenarios based on the widely known story of Hertfordshire’s Last Witch Hunt, as seen by five of the individuals involved, It is broadly based on the known facts from published accounts but a number of other assumed facts and conversations have been introduced to add context and make it easier to read. We have also condensed the timescale to bring the early part of the story to life.

I just can’t cope any longer. I lost the last one of my calves today, some kind of disease that has been spreading into Wilstone and Puttenham these last few weeks and has somehow found its way into my herd. And there’s been lots of heavy frosts – almost unheard of at this time of year – which have destroyed the best of my crops. And I have lost two of my most reliable men because I had no money to pay them last week. So there is no-one to see to my fields and care for my crops. I can’t work in the field myself because I’ve started getting these strange fits again.

Everything’s suddenly going wrong these last few weeks and I don’t know why. The Chapmans – who own the next farm along the road and have no cattle disease, typical – tell me that my bad luck is connected to that strange couple, the Osbornes, who came begging a few weeks ago. John Chapman says that he doesn’t even open the door to beggars because he pays his poor tax and is always worried that they will prove to be witches and wizards, particularly weird folks like the Osbornes. I have to admit that they were weird and that unpleasant crone did say something about hell and damnation as she left.

I decide that the best way of coping with all this is my favourite remedy, a jug of ale. Ale has been my best friend since the wife died last year. I remove the jug from the bucket which keeps it cool and sit in my parlour, thinking how unfair the world is being to me. I know in my heart that my time at the farm is finished, that I will soon have to sell up to one of the other bigger farmers who are beginning to dominate. I think that maybe then I will then run an alehouse where I can drink like this all day.

I have no ale left and decide that I will go along to the Queens Head and drink some more, maybe share my grievances with some of the other farmers and labourers who gather there most evenings. I arrive and find a group of farmers chatting in front of the fire; I know them all well and join them. I say very little because all I want to do is drink and keep warm. William Godwin, who owns Red House Farm and who has known me for years, looks at me and says:

‘John, you’re very quiet, what the matter with you’

I know I should not share my troubles and appear needy but by now the ale is taking over and I feel a need to tell everyone how unfair life has been to me. I spend five minutes sharing it all; cow disease, my fits, the men walking out, debt collectors pursuing me. I even share John Chapman’s idea that the Osbornes are witch and wizard and have put a curse on me.

This starts a conversation in which everyone around the fire joins in. Yes there are witches and wizards around and you have to be careful. They tell me various stories they have heard about where a curse has been placed on farms, leading to many disasters. And those who know the Osbornes agree that they have always been strange people, particularly the woman.

As the ale flows, the mood becomes more angry and my friends seem more and more determined to do something on my behalf. I feel grateful for their understanding and willingness to help. Thomas Dean tells me that there is a ‘wise woman’ in Northamptonshire who can give advice to those who have been cursed by witches. We agree that I will go to see her the next day and we will meet to discuss what to do in the evening. It’s a long journey but Dean says that I can borrow his horse and cart which travels at high speed.

I go to see this woman the next morning and tell her about the Osbornes’ visit. She lives in a small shack with pictures of witches and wizards all over the walls. She sells charms that she claims will prevent people from being bewitched. After paying her fee of two shillings – which I can scarcely afford – she confirms without hesitation that I have indeed been cursed and placed under an evil spell. I report this back to my alehouse friends in the evening and, backed up by even more ale, we decide what to do.

I had asked the wise woman how I could remove the curse and she had suggested that the only certain remedy is to submit the witch and wizard to a ducking, in the presence of the neighbourhood. This idea seems to appeal very much to all my alehouse group and we make a plan. One of the group – James Partridge – has been involved in a ducking before and knows that we first have to send a message to the Town Crier in Hemel Hempstead, asking him, for a fee of four pence, to read out a notice of the impending ducking. Partridge is so keen that he agrees to draft the message himself and send one of his labourers to Hemel the next morning. He even writes it out before we split up. It says:

‘This is to give notice that on Monday next there is to be at Long Marston in the Parish of Tring, two ill disposed persons to be ducked by the neighbours consent’

Read Episode 1; Ruth Osborne’s story; Early April 1751

Editors note:

We have used two main sources for our story; Dick Gomm’s excellent history of Wilstone and the Cheddington History group’s equally excellent version of the story which they recently posted on Facebook. As is often the case in research of history, there can be different versions of events and, in that case, we have used the version that fits more easily into this form of presentation.

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