Molly Leigh the Stoke Witch

A little late perhaps, but the tale of a witch is always appropriate for Halloween. This one takes place in Stoke on Trent, specifically the area of Burslem, a place that along with giving us Stoke's most famous son Josiah Wedgewood, is also famous for being a bizarre epicentre for the genesis of famous rock stars. Lemmy, Slash, and, erm, Robbie Williams all hailed from this corner of Stoke which was once little more than a village.

Molly Leigh lived in a large ramshackle farmhouse at the edge of Burslem with her parents who, according to accounts, were actually quite well off by the standards of the day. They both died at some point during the early 1700s and Molly continued living in the house, making a living from the small dairy heard she kept there. She would sell her milk in the village and to passers by, and was said to have an aggressive and angry personality, often loudly arguing over the smallest thing. Local legend says that Molly was “hideous” and was accompanied everywhere by her pet blackbird. She rarely, if ever, attended church and so she was treated with suspicion by those living around here. A hawthorn bush grew outside the house that never bloomed and the blackbird took to sitting in it, watching for visitors.

Molly's arch enemy was the local church pastor, Thomas Spencer. He was a heavy drinker and mismanaged church funds, leaving him constantly asking his flock for monetary contributions to it's upkeep. Spencer asked Molly for a donation from her inheritance and she angrily refused, bellowing out accusations of drunkenness and laziness. From then on the rumours of witchcraft grew, with accusations from Spencer the loudest of the voices. He claimed that Molly cast a spell on him that made him appear drunk for three whole weeks, and that she sent her blackbird to the Turk's Head inn to “sour” the beer. Ale going off was often blamed on witchcraft, right up to the 20th century in the case of Charles Walton. As Molly grew older her relationships with the folk of Burslem became ever more tense as they accused her of watering down the milk she sold, with Molly defending her reputation in fiery fashion.

Molly Leigh died in 1746 at the age of 63 and it is here that her story became legendary. After a quiet funeral and afterparty hosted by Pastor Spencer, the small group retired to the Turk's Head. Molly's blackbird landed on the pub sign and Spencer rushed out in a rage, drawing a pistol and firing at the bird. Whether through “Dutch courage” or perhaps out of a sense of vindictiveness, the tipsy cleric led a group of men over to Molly's old cottage to follow the blackbird and to see what was inside. As they neared the house they saw her blackbird perched outside, but, no doubt with hearts pounding, they pushed the front door open. Molly Leigh was sitting in a chair by the fireside, expecting them! The blackbird flew in and sat upon her shoulder, while the ghastly apparition hoarsely intoned - “Weight and measure held I ever Milk and water sold I never!”

Themen fled in terror and over the next few weeks wild stories flew around, some saying Molly was haunting the graveyard while others saw her looking through the windows of the Turk's Head - Spencer took it upon himself to exorcise the restless spirit of Molly Leigh. He called in clerics from nearby churches and formulated a plan. They would first seize the blackbird which they allegedly managed without incident. They then walked in procession to St John's church and began a ceremony to lay her ghost to rest which involved disinterring her corpse and stuffing the poor bird into the coffin, before nailing the lid back on. Then the grave was dug out further and her coffin moved round so that it lay in a north to south position, rather than the usual east to west that graves are aligned in. The grave was filled in and a huge memorial of simple blocks placed on top, with the further addition of a cattle trough for added weight. Some versions of the tale say the parsons even drove an iron spike through her corpse.

That seemed to work, as the ghost of Molly Leigh the Burslem witch was seen no more. Her grave is still there in the graveyard of St Johns today and it is indeed orientated north to south, highly unusual. A strange trough-like slab does sit on top, along with a similar edifice on the ground next to it. So are the tales true? The exorcism, yes, undoubtedly. However, a document was discovered a few years ago that casts a new light on the legend - a typed copy of the original last will and testament of Margaret “Molly” Leigh. It seems she was far from poor despite the way she lived, leaving large amounts to an early version of a women's shelter in Burslem, and including an annual payment to her one and only friend, one Alice Booth. Another revelation was the fact that she left money to her mother...yes, the mother that was supposed to have died when Molly was a child. It appears she lived as a complete recluse in the cottage with nobody else knowing she was alive. Perhaps it was she that sat in the chair and frightened Spencer and his gang so much?

I think Molly refused to donate to the church in the belief that Pastor Spencer would blow it on drink, leading to her not wanting to attend services, and the bizarre exorcism was a childish act of vindictiveness and face saving on his part. The grave, although simple and crudely fashioned, would still have been expensive, but I can offer no comment on the strange “bath” on top of it. The trough on the ground next to it is weirdly a 15th century stone sarcophagus and once contained the remains of Lady Elizabeth, widow of Nicholas, 5thBaron of Audley. She was first interred in the defunct Abbey of Hulton but ended up unceremoniously dumped at St Johns, at least her sarcophagus was – the body disappeared. Molly's old cottage is long gone with the fields now a housing development but it stood until the mid 1800s when a picture was taken of it.

So a witch's grave does indeed reside in Burslem, but much of her legend may have been in the mind of a crazy pastor who carried a gun and went on three week benders – and despite Robbie Williams having a self financed statue of himself repeatedly refused by the local council, the curious monument to Molly Leigh, the Burslem witch, still stands proudly today.

The Turk's Head inn on the left of this sketch

St. John's Church

The grave of Molly Leigh in the background with the sarcophagus of Lady Elizabeth in the foreground

The grave of Molly Leigh, orientated north to south in contrast to every other grave here

Molly Leigh's old Cottage

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