Many of us have superstitions we observe, from touching wood for good luck to avoiding bad luck by not walking under ladders.
These days, those superstitions are seen as harmless, a habit, a bit of fun - but once upon a time they were treated much more seriously.
In 2009, WH Johnson – Johnnie to his friends – wrote a book called The Superstiations and Curious Beliefs of Old Sussex, which explored the strange and often deadly world of fears and convictions of years gone by.
The book is now available as an e-book via Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk); and, with chapter titles such as Charms And Charmers, Cunning Folk And Counter Spells, and Death The Ever-Present Companion, it makes for an enthralling read.
The Superstitions and Curious Beliefs of Old Sussex paints a picture of a fascinating world of witchcraft, of spells and counter spells, of so-called cunning-men, of death omens, of girls conjuring up the identity of their future husbands, of fishermen’s precautions against ill-luck, of the fairies, always uncertain of temper, and of the Devil and his nefarious ways. Each chapter explores the mind-set of people whose lives were coloured by a richly woven tapestry of ancient beliefs that today seem outlandishly far-fetched but which once gave ordinary lives their meaning.
The Devil features heavily. Call him what you will – The Poor Man or He or Old Nick, Old Scratch, Old Grim, Old Man or Old Harry – being found to have been seduced by him rarely ended well.
Take Ann Cruttenden, for example. She was ‘drawn on a hurdle’ - basically, tied to a bit of wood and dragged behind a horse - and burned at the stake in Horsham in 1776 after stabbing her husband, Joseph, to death.
As if murdering Joseph wasn’t enough, Ann’s indictment included the line “not having the fear of God in her eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil...”
Despite witchcraft having been decriminalised some 30 years earlier, being in league with the Devil could still legally be used as a reason for some one committing an offence. Ann must have known she was doomed.
Incidentally, there was quite an age difference between her and Joseph. She was 80 and he was 43. They had been married for eight years before the knife in Joseph’s throat brought things to an unsavoury end.
The first chapter of The Superstitions and Curious Beliefs of Old Sussex covers witches, with the good folk of Rye making twice as many accusations of witchcraft as all the other Sussex towns and villages combined.
Despite the constant accusations, records show only one woman in the entire county was ever put to death for witchcraft. Her name was Margaret Cooper, of Kirdford, and she met her end in 1575 after being found guilty of bewitching Henry Stoner on April 1.
Apparently Henry ‘languished until 20th April following, when he died’. Margaret had two other charges brought against her relating to the deaths of William Fowler in 1572 and Elizabeth Fowler in 1574.
Other women found themselves under lock and key - obviously much more preferable to the fiery alternative.
One was Alice Casselowe, of Mayfield, who was sentenced at Horsham Assizes in 1577 having bewitched to death an ox belonging to Magin Fowle, and two pigs, the property of Richard Roose. She was sentenced to one year in prison, where she died.
Back in Rye, where everyone appeared to be a part-time witch spotter, Susan Swapper and Ann Taylor were accused in 1607 of ‘conversinge with spirittes’ - in other words, witchcraft. Luckily for them, the jury of aldermen dismissed the somewhat questionable charges.
As well as conversing with spirits and bewitching farm animals, some Sussex witches could shape-shift. One was Dame Garson of Duddleswell who, legend had it, could transform herself into a hare.
She was said to have used her skill to spy on people - especially those she wished to harm. She nearly came a cropper, though, when she was chased in hare form by a gaggle of huntsmen. She managed to leap over her garden hedge and into one of the windows of her house.
In The Superstitions and Curious Beliefs of Old Sussex, Mr Johnson stated: “Those peering over the garden hedge heard a triumphant voice from inside calling out ‘Ah, my boys, you ain’t got me yet’.”
One of the witnesses to the scene later claimed to have experienced another strange event when he saw a woman, known to be a witch, walking next to a hedge.
He said: “I says, why missus, you ain’t no call to be out so late as this! And I tell you, as true as I’m sitting here, she vanished, and instead of her I saw a hare running through a gap in the hedge. I saw it - and you could have knocked me down with a feather.”
As well as witchcraft and some of the darker side of superstition, The Superstitions and Curious Beliefs of Old Sussex covers the more harmless aspects.
One such superstition states that on Hallowe’en night, at midnight, the witching hour, a young maiden would see the face of her future husband peering over her should if she ate an apple while looking in a mirror. Rather a creepy way to find the love of your life...
The root of other superstitions seems to have been lost in the mists of time. One, which was written about in Folklore magazine in 1950, involved a rise in the birth rate of one Sussex parish.
A correspondent wrote: “A vicar’s wife of my acquaintance remarked to her charwoman that the number of births in the parish had been unusually large that year.
“The woman replied that this was only to be expected because there had been a very fine crop of nuts in the previous autumn.
“When questioned further, she could not explain the connection - she only knew that it was an accepted local sign and, in her experience, a true one.”
Another, particularly curious, superstition involves the need to keep the local bees up-to-date with any news concerning the beekeeper or his family.
Mr Johnson wrote: “Any major change affecting the keeper’s family had to be conveyed to them with the teller first tapping gently on each hive with the house key.
“Then he would whisper the news to them in as respectful a fashion as possible. This telling of the bees has been recorded over centuries in Germany, France, the United States and in most counties of the British Isles.”
Quite what the bees would do if they were kept in the dark about the latest gossip is anyone’s guess.
Are there any old superstitions which you still observe?
About the author
WH Johnson has won writing awards from various bodies including South East Arts and the Society of Sussex Authors. He was a finalist in the Fenner Brockway Peace Prize for Literature Competition and second in the Alpha to Omega Competition which attracted many contestants from beyond Britain.
The Superstitions and Curious Beliefs of Old Sussex first appeared as a paperback in 2009.
To find out more about him, log on to www.johnniejohnson.co.uk
Don’t miss out on all the latest breaking news where you live.
Here are four ways you can be sure you’ll be amongst the first to know what’s going on.
1) Make our website your homepage
2) Like our Facebook page
3) Follow us on Twitter
4) Register with us by clicking on ‘sign in’ (top right corner). You can then receive our daily newsletter AND add your point of view to stories that you read here.
And do share with your family and friends - so they don’t miss out!
Always the first with your local news.
Be part of it.