Weird Norfolk: The Wise Women of St Stephen’s, Norwich



There are secrets hidden in every corner of Norfolk, even in the least expected places: what today forms part of a modern shopping mall was once the place where city people went to have curses removed and good luck restored.

Until 1956, when it was renamed Malthouse Road and was filled with the sweet scent of chocolate, St Stephen's Back Street was where the Wise Women of the city lived and practiced their art, using spells and charms to combat malevolent witchcraft, to find criminals, missing people or stolen property, to tell fortunes or to offer love potions.

Known as either 'cunning' women or men, wizards, wise men or women or conjurors, those who offered help to others would do so in a variety of ways, including offering witch bottles which would contain items such as urine, metal nails, nail clippings and hair which it was believed in unison would cause harm to evil witches.

Animal hearts were pierced with pins, dolls were made of rags and pierced to break bewitchments, rituals were carried out and the needy were cured with the laying-on of hands.

Wise men and women were visited by the poor who were unable to afford the fees of doctors or apothecaries, they were an affordable way to repel evil in a time when it was believed that the only 'cure' for witchcraft was to deploy similar tactics.

Herbs and plants would be used in tinctures and potions and magic was employed, albeit Christian in nature and calling on the power of the Holy Trinity to heal and soothe – and it was all happening far later than you might imagine.

In response to a previously published article, the Eastern Daily Press received a letter from a Mr G Edward Deacon of Brundall, which it published on June 2 1943.

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'Although the case you mention seems to have been the last in Norwich to come before the magistrates, it was by no means the last to occur in and around Norwich,' he wrote. 'Between 1890 and 1900 I met with several instances. If a pig, horse, dog or other animal died, the owner would sometimes think it was because a neighbour had bewitched him and caused the death. The 'bewitched' person would then go to one of the 'wise women' of St Stephen's Back Street, Norwich to have the 'curse' removed.

'The wise woman would first ask to have her hand crossed with a piece of silver. After explaining his case the 'bewitched' person was given an amulet to wear round his neck next the skin and was directed to light a candle and put it in a dark cupboard.

'At chime hours he must open the cupboard, repeat an incantation (the words of which I have now forgotten) and then stick a pin in the candle. This was to be repeated at chime hours until the candle was burned out. The curse was then supposed to be removed. The amulet consisted of the Lord's Prayer written on a scrap of paper and sewn up in a piece of rag.'

Wise women were also known to offer abortions to those desperate enough to try anything not to have another hungry mouth to feed or bring shame on their family: the abortion would generally be brought on by ingesting a poisonous potion which could also cause potentially fatal harm to the mother.

The Norwich cunning woman Sarah Whisker was transported to Australia for life in 1846 after she gave an irritant, white hellebore, to a pregnant servant who later fell badly ill. Tried at the Norwich Lent Assizes, 1858, for administering powdered white hellebore for the purpose of procuring abortion, Whisker had a witness stand up in court on her behalf to offer evidence that she was 'a kind-hearted woman'.

In the New York Journal of Medicine in April 1846, a report explained that Whisker had been visited by Frances Bailey, a servant, who wished to have her fortune told and admitted that she was seven months pregnant.

'The prisoner told her to come in the evening, and she would give her something that would do her good and not prevent her going on with her work. She accordingly went, and the prisoner gave her a liquid and a powder, with instructions how to take them. They were taken accordingly, and the result was, that she became very ill and sick,' said the report.

'She left her place, and went to Yarmouth, and in a day or two she became so unwell that she was obliged to have medical advice.'

Whisker's pharmacist Mr Cook gave evidence that he had frequently sold hellebore to her while her servant said she had regularly seen young people at her mistress's house and been sent to Mr Cook's to buy drugs which included dragon's blood, turpentine and hiera picra, a cathartic powder made of aloes and canella bark.

Another notable case of a cunning person performing cursing and malevolent witchcraft comes from nineteenth-century Norwich, where a wise woman who went by the pseudonym of 'Virtue' used to demand gifts from her neighbours, threatening them with cursing if they refused.

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