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Ellen Hayward the Witch of the Forest of Dean

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

Returning to the Forest of Dean now for another place and another tale. This unique area of England (and a tiny part of Wales) is defined not just by the forest itself but the network of villages and towns that have grown throughout it – and the people that live in them.

The last recorded witchcraft trial in the Forest took place in 1905. It was still technically an offence no matter the methods or intent behind it, but by the 20th century this law was used almost exclusively against charlatans, con artists and the like acting as mediums and fake herbalists. This case however began more like the classic hysterical village trials of the 1600s, with questions actually being asked in Parliament. The Hansard record shows this from earlier that year -

“I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention has been called to the practice of witchcraft at May Hill and other parts of Gloucester; whether he is aware that, in the case of a family named Markey, four members last week lost their reason and one attempted to commit suicide at a place called Blakeley, as a result of these practices; and whether, in view of the alarm in the locality, he can state what action will be taken by the authorities to suppress witchcraft”

Ellen Hayward lived in a small terraced house in Pembroke Street, Cinderford. Not the classic tumbledown cottage popularly associated with witches but nonetheless the abode had chickens wandering freely through the lounge and herbs gathered from the forest hanging from every ceiling. Locals would visit Ellen and ask for her help in treating various ailments and injuries, she only accepted what fee she considered fair and often worked for nothing. Forest workers, maids from nearby mansions, all were treated equally by old Ellen. Interestingly she considered herself a “phrenologist”, a practitioner of the now discredited Victorian practise of reading a person's personality and mental health by the shape of their skull. She was known to walk to St Anthony's Well for spring water and sometimes met clients there, encouraging them to bathe in it's icy waters. This curious monument features a large stone bath made from huge stone blocks into which the ancient fountain flows, it has always been considered a place of healing and was probably originally a pagan holy place prior to Roman dominion.

A man named John Markey travelled across from May Hill to see Ellen, complaining that some money had gone missing from his house and asked if she could use her “sight” to locate it or identify the thief. The witch told him that he appeared unwell, tired and should go home to rest. He did at least return home, but within a few days all hell broke loose in his household. One of his daughters, along with his granddaughter, “went insane” and were hauled off to an asylum, while his wife ran off into the forest and disappeared. She returned to the house a week later clutching a staff and claiming it was her protection against witches. At this her own son went berserk, lashing out at all around him before stabbing a stick into his own eye! The young man, like his sister and niece, was dragged off to the asylum. Others in the area began carrying their own hazel sticks with them for magical protection s hysteria spread like wildfire, with the story making the national newspapers – leading to the parliamentary questions. Ellen even had someone write a letter to the local newspaper on her behalf, denouncing the “cruel attack” and asking for donations as nobody was asking for her work any more.

Sergeant William Packer of the Gloucestershire Constabulary could stand no more, and opened a prosecution against Ellen Hayward for “using certain craft, or means, or device, to wit, by pretending witchcraft, to deceive or impose upon one of his Majesty's subjects, to wit, James Davis” Davis owned some pigs and cattle that had fallen sick, he blamed a local woman who he felt had some grudge against him, even though he had not seen her for some years. Davis felt sure he was being charmed and sent a letter containing cash to Ellen, asking for her help, before she could reply he made his way to her house in person, bringing yet more payment and begging for her assistance. Ellen gave him practical advice in treating the animals and also told him to keep them hidden and to not tell anyone either that they were sick or that he been to visit her. The animals did indeed recover but after some time a pig relapsed and once again Davis wrote a letter to Ella with enclosed cash, to which she responded with a letter of thanks. Again he rushed across in person, claiming now that the witch had cursed him, making he himself fall ill and demanding she lift the spell. “Be you satisfied? I wants you to put me right, I don't want to come to you any more!” Ella calmly informed Davis that he had flu, to stay away from all and to rest for a month. With that he made his report to the police and Ellen was duly summoned to Littledean Sessions at the old gaol.

The case was dismissed by the magistrates, with Ellen Hayward denying all claims of curses, swindling and trickery. “I am a phrenologist.” she repeated throughout, telling the bench that she had told Davis time and again that he was not being cursed, that his enemies had no such power to harm him, and to remain calm and take rest. She had thanked him for the cash and acknowledged the money as gifts which he had not denied. It is obvious that James Davis was sent to “set up” old Ella with cash no doubt provided by an less than trustworthy agent of the authorities, frustrated as they were by the total incomprehensibility of the mayhem at the Markey house.

Ellen Hayward died of a stroke in 1912 and was ironically buried in the same graveyard as the constable (later inspector) who had brought court proceedings against her, with her gravestone looking across at his.

A few decades later in 1933 a green clad “Nesta of the Forest” was also charged with the same crimes and appeared before Gloucester magistrates, this witch lost her case and was fined £2 8s (two pounds and eight shillings in old money). This lady had been visited by plain clothed detectives and read them their futures for money – evidently she couldn't foresee her own!

The Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1953. St Anthony's Well still sits much as it did over a hundred years ago in the lower edge of the Forest of Dean near the remains of an Iron Age fort. Toss a coin in and remember old Ellen Hayward, one of the last witches of the forest, and head over to Littledean Jail and court as it's now a highly recommended museum of crime, witchcraft and general strangeness.

The steps down into the "bath" at St Anthony's Well

St Anthony's Well

The path Ellen Hayward would have taken to the well from Cinderford

Ellen Hayward stands here on the far left, outside her row of houses with some of her neighbours

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