Weird Norfolk: The cleavage biting imps of Loddon that turned women into witches

Loddon village sign. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

Loddon village sign. Picture: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

The Witch of Loddon, the biting imps and her daughter Mary, who escaped a pact with Satan in order to marry her Lucky Chance – and it happened less than 150 years ago…

When thinking about widespread belief in witchcraft, you might assume Weird Norfolk was travelling back more than 400 years to the 17th century - but in Norfolk those beliefs definitely persisted into the 19th century when the Witch of Loddon was practicing her art.

Mother Chergrave of Loddon was unusual in that she freely admitted that she practiced magic and not only that, she made a living from doing so. Mother Chergrave was the definition of a charmer, she created charms for those that visited her to cure or procure, mend or break, she read palms and stars and created herbal remedies from hedgerow herbs.

One such charm came in the form of a spell and offered women the chance to discover the name of their future husband for a two-fold price: a gold piece AND the last year of their life.

She would regularly disappear from the village to make long journeys, sometimes being away for two years at a time. After one such odyssey, she brought back a daughter, Mary (or perhaps 'Mara', the old Norse word for an evil spirit in folklore that visited people at night to give them nightmares), who was baptised by a kindly neighbour, Mrs Crab, who was told in no uncertain terms by Mother Chergrave that the child was bound to Satan and that it was cruelty to lead her against him.

Mary was a kind, sweet-hearted girl - once, she used a charm to help children learn to read which she made from brainwort, redwort and silverwort but when the parson chastised the wise woman for teaching Mara dark arts, she claimed she had not passed on her knowledge but rather the child had learned about the herbs in morning dreams.

In Margaret Helen James' (whose cousin was ghost author M.R James) fabulous Bogie Tales of East Anglia, written in 1891 and recently republished by Dr Francis Young in 2019, Mother Chergrave's assistants are described in some detail.

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"She had two rare noted imps," wrote James, "she could make 'em tell her what she chose, they was a male and a female. Impses is a right little sort of fairy, like a person, right enough, but with wings like a bat, These imps could get any size they liked, but kept as small as a bat, mostly. The witch let them bite women who wanted to become witches, and she kept 'em in an old thick box."

After her baptism, and because her religion spoilt Mother Chergrave's magical tea, Mary lived with Mrs Crab and carried a piece of mountain ash wood, a bit of horseshoe and a copy of the Bible just in case Satan came calling for her unexpectedly. In time, she caught the eye of a fiddle-paying pedlar who had been nicknamed Lucky Chance by villagers.

"He had rare nice things in his pack, and he used to let the girls buy them for kisses, and some of the old women too! How did he get his money? O! he said he was Danish, or something foreign - a rare nice looking chap, with a right short yellow beard; he used to wear a fisherman's jersey, and a fur cap, and big boots; his hair wasn't like a foreigner, but cut right short; he used to play his little fiddle in Loddon 'public' and fill the house, and we girls used to listen at the window," wrote James.

That year, in around 1870, on the night the harvest had been brought home there was a celebration supper in the biggest barn in the village. As Chance played his fiddle from the biggest overhanging beam and the farm workers and their families enjoyed a feast, Mary burst in and told those gathered that her mother was dying and she needed help from Mrs Crab.

Followed by most of the village women, the party arrived at Mother Chergrave's house and Mary and Mrs Crab went into her bedroom

"…the old witch had on a scarlet and brown dress, like a man's, almost, and she stood in the middle of the room," James wrote, "then she began to curse! I ran to the window and hollered, 'Chance! Lucky Chance!' and there he stood, as white as a ghost! The witch said, 'Mary, take these imps, and let them bite your breasts, and you'll be a greater witch than I have been. Don't let the devil be your master, but make him mind you.'

"The imps were in a carved wood box; there were lots of funny things in the room, and a lot of gold on the counterpane. 'You are never to marry, Mary,' said the witch. 'You needn't look like that; I done you a good turn when I bound you to Satan, and he's bound to have you.' And then the old witch had an awful fit, and died shrieking.

"We all went downstairs, except Mary, and we heard an imp call to be let out of the box. There were about 20 women in the kitchen, and a great fire - and we lit lots of candles. In about an hour Mrs Crab went upstairs, and found Mary had covered up her mother with a sheet, and was crying and praying. Then Mary came downstairs, and she carried the box of imps, and one imp cried like a child; the box was sealed…"

The women were agog and asked Mary if she intended to follow her mother's path - they were also keep to get a glimpse of the famous imps and begged her to open the box and let them see the familiars. But then, music drifted through the window, the sound of a fiddle.

"I believe she would have opened it, because it was in her blood, you know, and one imp laughed; just then Lucky Chance played something outside, and Mary put the box on the fire, and he imps howled, and we all went out of the cottage," wrote James.

Loddon folk refused to bury Mother Chergrave where she died, so she was taken to Norwich. Lucky and Mary married - but people remembered Mother Chergrave's assertion and suggested that Chance was in fact the devil who had finally claimed her soul. But Mrs Crab, according to MH James, would have none of it.

She said that Mrs Crab had told villagers: "Chance was God's angel, and Mary had been bounden to the devil, but Satan'll have to do with his bounden rights over her!"

The couple were last seen boarding a ship at Great Yarmouth, bound to distant shores or - if those villagers were right - the River Styx.

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