Becky Swan the Worcester Witch
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
As current events are curtailing our usual wandering around the kingdom it is a good time to look more closely at the places that we take for granted around our towns and cities – and the people and lore that haunt them. I don't have any pictures specifically relevant to today's piece but the story will hopefully speak for itself.
Worcester Road is the main route into Kidderminster from the aforementioned city. Today a drive along this boulevard will reward the driver with a view of a JTF superstore, Screwfix and Go Outdoors amongst other edifices before swerving at a drive-through McDonalds and carrying on into Kidderminster proper. A road branches off from Worcester Road to drop steeply down past the railway station known as Station Hill, and it was at the junction of these two roads that one of the town's most infamous residents made her home.
Becky Swan was a witch who lived in a near derelict cottage at the top of Station Hill. Born in 1780 Becky did not take up her supernatural profession until her twilight years but must have spent some decades learning and acquiring knowledge of it. Her classic witch's house was full of the trappings you'd expect, from stuffed snakes and bats to the three large cats that never left her side. She also had four dogs that roamed the cottage, and on one occasion old Becky was apoplectic with rage when a visiting police constable, wanting to own a magic talisman, ran off with one of them under his arm!
Folk would drop by constantly for advice on all matters, from love to legal, to find missing objects and money or to heal an ailment. She even nailed a large and elaborate painted sign above her front door which read “Rebecca Swan – town and county letter writer – gives advice in all matters – no recommendation required – wishes to do justice, mercy, and to walk with God”. However, many were adamant she was a crook, with a nice line in the recovery of animals. Should a horse owner ask Becky to locate a missing nag, she would consult with her three cats, take his money and send the man home to wait. Sure enough, a gypsy boy would turn up at the fellow's residence claiming to have found the animal wandering on a nearby common, and would the gentleman consider recognising his honesty and hard work in delivering it safe to it's owner!
The absence of stories of any herbal or healing cases does lead one to judge this witch to be one of the many clever fraudsters and cunning women who plied their trade during the 1800s, but – when Becky Swan was summoned before the courts to answer to a case of such a crime and subsequently imprisoned, she cursed the magistrate to die before she completed her sentence. Sure enough, within days the old justice dropped dead. Once out of jail, Becky revived her career as a witch, by now sporting full dreadlocks - “elf locks” as originally described – and with her large beak like nose and piercing eyes this by now 70 year old woman must have cut a striking figure, especially with the added cachet of seemingly having the power to deal death by magic.
Death by magic is what was widely assumed to have been old Becky's eventual fate. One day a huge black cat arrived at Station Hill, heading directly to the old cottage where it scratched at the door. The story goes that she was seen to visibly jump at the appearance of this creature but stood aside, agog, as it ambled inside while her four dogs ran from the house in fright. The next day the cat was seen sitting on a wall outside, staring at onlookers, before disappearing. With no sign of Becky for some days, and sounds of screaming being heard from the cottage on the night of the cat's arrival, locals went in to check on her. They found a pile of ash next to the fireplace with Becky Swan's shoes lying next to it. There was no sign of her three cats. It was as if she had spontaneously combusted.
It must be said here that Becky Swan was a very heavy and aggressive drinker, slugging gin from morning until night. She was often seen with scratches and bruises on her face which she put down to “struggles with other witches and demons” - or more likely from falling over. It is possible that old Becky lapsed into a drunken coma and fell next to the fire, her gin sodden clothing catching alight, and her cats fleeing from the stench of the smoke. If she had fallen fully onto a stone hearth then there is a possibility that she slowly sizzled away without igniting other parts of the room.
Large crowds flocked to the burial of the ashes but history does not record where this location is or was...and accounts suggest it was definitely not in church grounds. A case of the devil claiming his own through spontaneous human combustion, or the sozzled crone gradually burnt through on a low heat? Wherever her ashes now lay, the spirit of old Becky Swan the Worcestershire Witch will always live on as long as tales of her are told – as absolutely nothing remains of the old rows of houses along Station Hill today. Today's pictures are of the lower half of Station Hill immediately after the slum clearances, then an image of another Kidderminster street around the time of her death to give an idea of the world Becky Swan lived in.
A shopping street in Kidderminster around the time of Becky's last years
The lower half of Station Hill immediately after the slum houses were cleared. Becky Swan lived just around the very top right of the picture