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Weird Norfolk: Mrs Mortimer the wise woman of Great Yarmouth

PUBLISHED: 09:00 19 January 2019

A rustic cottage in which an old woman sits by the fire. Picture: Wellcome Collection

A rustic cottage in which an old woman sits by the fire. Picture: Wellcome Collection

Wellcome Collection

It was a curious case of bewitched sausages which saw a Great Yarmouth man seek an enchanting cure from a town wise woman.

Writing in 1872, John Glyde recounts the strange tale of the enchanted bangers in The Norfolk Garland, explaining that the mischievous meat had been won at a village raffle close to the seaside town. While initially delighted, the winner of the sausages - Charles -soon found himself taken ill and afterwards was unable to shake off the melancholy that followed his sickness. Friends persuaded Charles he should seek professional help from Mrs Mortimer, a renowned ‘cunning woman’ at Yarmouth.

Accompanied by his mother, he went to visit Mrs Mortimer who at first turned him away on the grounds she did not let men into her home. When the sausage situation was explained to her, her stance changed.Glyde writes: “The mother, who related the adventure, said: ‘I trembled from head to foot when I entered Mrs Mortimer’s house. She took us upstairs, and my Charles paid her a sovereign. She brought out her divining cup, and wanted me to look, but I daren’t.’” Sent away with a magical mixture to use and a handwritten copy of the Lord’s Prayer to fold and keep close to his heart, he was given instructions: to send Mrs Mortimer some hair from the nape of his neck, finger and toenail clippings and a bottle of his urine. She would, it was explained, fashion these most personal of items into a cure.

And Charles was, indeed, cured - although it seems not of stupidity or ingratitude: when asked for a further 10 shillings from the wise woman, he refused. As swiftly as he had recovered, he declined and, realising the error of his ways, he paid his dues and remained well until the death of Mrs Mortimer upon which he sought the advice and help of a cunning man in Norwich.(Weird Norfolk has, in a previous tale, told you all about the wise women and men of St Stephen’s in Norwich) Glyde then offered another tale given to him by the Rev Edward Gillett of Runham Vicarage, near Filby.

When letters containing valuables started to go missing at Beighton Post Office in 1860, traps were laid and fallen into by post-master William Barker, who was committed to Norwich Castle for trial. With another prisoner - a counterfeiter - Barker broke out of prison in January 1861 and went missing. No trace of him could be found for three months. After an advertisement in the Police Gazette, Barker was arrested in Liverpool, ironically as he posted a letter to his sister-in-law. It later transpired that the rogue postmaster had escaped the castle, travelled to Beighton then on to Yarmouth to seek help from Mrs Mortimer, where he paid her a sum of money for “a safe-conduct to Liverpool.” She advised him to work in Leeds for a period of time in his original profession, as a tailor, before travelling to the north west.

There, he aroused the suspicion of police who, on checking their records, discovered he matched the description of a wanted man in Norfolk. The letter he had been preparing to post had been asking his sister-in-law to go to see Mrs Mortimer as a matter of urgency to request “the protection for safe conduct to America” that she had promised. Barker was brought back to Norfolk, tried and on March 30 1861, sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment for the robbery, and six months for breaking out of gaol.

Yarmouth has, of course, a long and tragic association with witchcraft - poor Rebecca Nurse was born in the town, left for a new life in the New World and was a victim of the infamous Salem witch trials and hanged in 1692 along with her sister Mary. Another sister, Sarah, was accused of witchcraft but never tried. It is home to the Kitty Witches and where dreadful Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, persecuted innocent souls in the mid 1600s, 11 were accused and five were hanged in Yarmouth.

Although belief in witchcraft was fading in the Victorian era as scientific and medical discoveries were made, it was still fairly common to hear accounts of cunning folk in towns and villages. Active from the medieval period until the early 20th century, the cunning folk were professional or semi-professional practitioners of so-called ‘low magic’, primarily using spells and charms to influence the future. They were most often called on to combat evil witchcraft, to tell fortunes, to heal illness, to help the progress of love, to locate stolen property, criminals or missing persons or to help find hidden treasure.

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