Episode 4; Harry Archer’s Story; April 22nd 1751

This is the fourth of a series 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.

(Harry Archer was an observer who later gave evidence at the trial)

I’m walking by Tring Church with my friend John Worster; we have both lived in Tring for many years. We have heard about today’s proposed ducking of a witch and a wizard and agreed that we would make our way to Wilstone where, we understand, the ducking is likely to happen. Apparently it was originally arranged for Long Marston but some of their senior residents objected.
I suddenly hear loud shouting and see a mob emerging from the direction of the Workhouse. At the front is an enormous man with a red beard who John tells me is a well-known ruffian from Leighton Buzzard, an unpleasant man who sells brooms and chairs and is always at the front when there is rioting and violence.

To our amazement Red Beard leads the mob into the Church and most of the crowd follow him in. We hear sounds of banging and cheering before, in a few minutes, Red Beard comes out of the Church door, carrying an old woman on his back. We assume that this is the witch, Ruth Osborne; she’s not struggling, just sobbing pathetically. Behind her two men are pulling along an old man who we assume to be her husband. To us they don’t look much witch and wizard, more like two sad and frightened old people.

As Red Beard emerges from the Church there are more loud cheers and more people than ever seem to be joining the mob. They disappear down the road in the direction of Wilstone and someone from the crowd tells us that they are indeed heading towards the Ware, the water by Wilstone Village Green where the ducking is to take place. Though we are both appalled by what we have seen, we can’t resist following while keeping a safe distance, in case anyone should think we are part of the mob.

It’s at least a couple of miles to Wilstone and the pace of the mob gradually slows down and the noise quietens. I see some of them beating the old woman with sticks as she is carried along. As we approach Wilstone, those at the front of the mob stop outside the Black Horse Alehouse and take the Osbornes inside. We think about going home but decide that, now we have come this far, we should wait to see what happens. It is late afternoon before the leaders of the mob emerge from the Alehouse and begin to move in the direction of Wilstone, followed by a crowd that has been increasing all the time.

As they arrive at the water, we take a position where we can see what is going on but are not part of the action. I see Red Beard, helped by a couple of the ruffians who were leading the charge, tie the old woman up with rope, carry her to the middle of the pond and drop her into the water which seems to be about 5 feet deep. Then they do the same to her husband. I feel sickened by the whole spectacle and say to John that surely they are going to drown; we are relieved when two men carry them out of the water and lay them on the bank.

But we are even more sickened by what happens next. A man we recognise as Thomas Colley, a chimney sweep and regular drunkard, gets hold of the woman from the bank and drags her towards the water again. He starts to turn her over with sticks to make sure her head goes under water and she does not float. He is encouraged by the crowd who are cheering him on and chanting ‘death to the witch’. As she disappears under the water, Colley holds up his arms in triumph. He even goes round the crowd, holding his hat out for donations; this sickens us even more.

It’s a while before two men, at the behest of her husband who is still lying on the bank, go into the water to rescue the woman and again carry her onto the bank. John and I look at each other because it is obvious even from this distance that the woman is dead. A number of men gather around her body and clearly don’t know what to do. I see John Foster, the Surgeon, approach the group and examine the body. After a while someone covers her with a sheet and they carry her down the road to the Half Moon alehouse.

John says to me:

‘We have seen murder committed today and we should go to see the Constable to give evidence’

‘I know you’re right John’ I reply. ‘But I don’t like the idea of testifying against Red Beard and his like. We’ll end up drowned in the water ourselves if we do.’

‘Yes but we don’t really need to testify against them. It’s Colley who killed the woman. And he’s a drunk who nobody really cares about.’

I nod my head in agreement but have a nagging feeling that this is not right. Colley clearly did wrong but he was drunk and the crowd were egging him on. And it was Red Beard and his band of ruffians who took her from the Church and started it all.

We head back to Tring in sombre mood. This kind of punishment has no place in today’s modern society. I hope we never see its like again.

Supporting Long Marston Book Group to raise awareness & donations for a memorial to Ruth Osborne, a woman from Long Marston. To donate go to https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/longmarstonbookgroup-longmarston

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.

If you missed it: Episode 3; John Tomkins’ Story; 21st and 22nd April 1751

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