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Witches and Cunning Folk

Cornish Legends and Myths

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15 June 2010

Cornish Legends

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Thomasine Blight (1793-1856).

 

Cornwall’s greatest conjuror, well known for her skills in detecting witches and combating ill-wishing. She was also a fortune teller and regarded as an Oracle of the age. The Cornish folklorists Robert Hunt and William Bottrell recorded stories about Blight, with several more reported in the 1920s by William Paynter. “Tammy Blee,” as she was known, began her practice as a cunning-woman at Redruth in the 1820s before moving to Helston in the 1840s. It is from her time at Helston that most of the stories about her derive. Perhaps the most amusing was the time when Tammy offered to raise the spirit of a dead woman to discover the whereabouts of some lost money. Tammy and the client turned up at Stithians graveyard one night at midnight and began her incantations, using herbs as incense to please the spirit as directed in the manual of necromancy, when at last behind a headstone a wailing began and a shrouded figure began to move towards the pair. The young man stood his ground against the approaching apparition, though it was when it laid its hand upon the young man’s shoulder that he reacted and punched the figure to the ground. The game was up when it was discovered that the ‘ghost’ was Tammy’s husband James Thomas dressed in a sheet and stinking of alcohol! It was reported that Blight and Thomas begged the young man not to reveal their conniving and he agreed to say that the spirit had been raised and that it would haunt the thief for the rest of his days, which was spread by the local gossips, and he was surprised to find pockets of money outside his door the next morning by those with guilty consciences!


James Thomas (1814-1874).

 

Probably Cornwall’s most notorious cunning-man, as much as for his personal habits as for the accusations of witchery he made. Born at Wendron, Thomas began his practice as a cunning-man in his 20s while working at the mines around Redruth. He married Thomasine Blight in 1835 and the two of them formed something of a magical double act until his predilection for men got the better of him and he was reported to the authorities, at which he fled Cornwall for a while. There are a number of tales of Thomas’s practices of unbewitching, including taking a group of clients to Phillack church one night where the images of those who ill-wished them were said to appear.


The Trebullet Witch.

 

In the late 1800s a witch and his wife lived at Trebullet. This witch ill-wished S_____ of Wooda Bridge, to be always covered with lice. Mr S. would come home and call for clean clothes, and in fifteen minutes would be covered with lice again. At last he went to see the cunning-man Snow at Plymouth, and was shown the witch in a glass of water, and asked what should be done to the witch. “Oh, break the legs of him!” said S. The witch was working at carrying wood at Ruses Mill, when the witch, for no apparent reason, slipped with his legs crossed, and the wagon went over both legs and snapped them, at the very moment, that S. had wished they might be broken. The witch’s leg was set, but he moved one and it had to be broken again and reset, and even then the bone would not knit, and there was great trouble. At last Mrs. S. begged her husband to go to the witch and speak to him as he was not likely to do him any more harm. So S. went and spoke, and the leg healed, and the witch could walk again.

 

Granny Boswell (1817-1909).

 

Originally from Ireland, of Romany gypsy stock and married Ephraim Boswell, known as the “King of the Gypsies.” She came into Cornwall in the 1860s and spent most of her time in the Lizard area. In his account of her, Kelvin Jones made much of her as a ‘white witch’ or healer, yet the contemporary accounts suggest the opposite to be true. To the civic authorities at Helston she was a nuisance, as she ‘annoys people by begging but acts as a peddler and has no certificate and so evades the law but no one cares to interfere with her.’ She was often met with abroad on the streets of Helston inebriated and incapable, and indeed in February 1902 she was ‘fined 2s. 6d. and 2s. 6d. costs for being helplessly drunk in Lady Street … and for inability to pay was sent to Bodmin for seven days, without hard labour.’ She frequently strayed to nearby towns, yet as the parish guardians confirmed with weary resignation, she always managed to find her way back to Helston. To the people of Helston she was an ambivalent presence in their midst, whom many feared lest her fiery temper and sharp tongue might fall upon them. It appears that people were in the habit of giving her alms to ensure that her evil eye might not fall upon them, and she had a malevolent reputation for ill-wishing those who fell foul of her. At no time was this reputation more powerfully confirmed than in 1906. Captain Taylor related his encounter with her: 

'It was in the 1906 election, when we were ferrying voters to the poll; I remember that the polished brass paraffin headlights were adorned with large blue bows. My father had reversed the car across the street outside our house, and was about to go forward in the other direction, when the local witch walked in front. She stood there, a ragged and grimy old hag, apparently fascinated by the shining and throbbing machine; and swaying slightly, as on election day she was more drunk than usual. My father, to make her move, first shouted, then roared the engine and tooted the horn. This nettled her, and she shrieked in her broad Cornish and with much foul language that the qualified wagon wasn’t going to get as far as the other end of the qualified street; she turned her back, and stalked off in fury. We started; before the car was half-way down the street there was a loud snap, and one of the one-inch steel tension-rods broke clean in two. A horse towed us home. It had long been said that Granny B[oswell] could ill-wish cattle and fowls, and she lived largely on the gifts of those who desired to ensure that her eye should be averted from theirs; but to be able to ill-wish a motor-car in public was a most startling confirmation of her art, and on the strength of that, I have no doubt, she was able to live in comparative luxury for the rest of her life.'

In fact Granny Boswell lived in comparative poverty in her last decade. For reasons unknown she was abandoned by her family and was forced to seek parish relief in the Union Workhouse on Meneage Street, where she died.

 

 

 

       

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