Witchcraft in the Wolds.

The old custom of “Telling it to The Bees” was a comfort to many Alfordians into the 19th century but another less benign, belief remained in the Lincolnshire Wolds, a belief rooted in fear, a belief which emerged again in the 20th century, a belief in witchcraft.

We begin with an article from 1841 which goes some way to revealing the divide between locals on the issue. Next come the 1905 tales of a Bewitched Farm in the Lincolnshire Wolds, the curious story was retold for weeks but few seemed interested in the poor servant girl at the heart of it. Finally a brief look into that poor girl, where she had come from and where she went to escape the storm.

The Alford Witchfinder

In 1841 some folk continued to seek out those who were versed in the old ways, people whom they believed could cure their loved ones of mysterious ailments. Known as wise men and witchfinders they frequently declared the patient over-looked or witch ridden. A letter to the editor of the Stamford Mercury provides an insight into the existence of devotees to the old ways and their exploitation by others.

Allow me through the medium of your widely circulated Mercury to expose the frauds of system based on the ignorance and superstition of its dupes. It is a lamentable fact that in this age of boasted illumination, swindlers, affecting the name of ” wise men,” ” witch-finders” etc., live by picking the pockets of the superstitious and fanatical, under pretence of destroying, by supernatural means, that power by which necromancers or wizards are supposed to “overlook” and torment whomsoever they please. With the doings of one of these impudent rogues I happen to be acquainted: his swindling tricks are well known at Alford, Louth, and the circumjacent villages, where he has for years been making the ignorant as wise himself: he has taken their money, and substituted disappointment and misery in its place. I have known the most direful consequences to result from credulous persons putting trust in [this] rogue who has actually made them believe that they were the unfortunate subjects of witchcraft. Out of the many cases of this nature with which I am personally acquainted I will relate only the following :—About 15 months ago, man living a short distance from Alford took his wife, who was labouring under mental derangement a distance of 12 miles to one of these wise men, who, of course, pronounced her to be “overlooked” or witch-ridden, and after obtaining fee of 1l. 5s. from his dupe, promised to restore the woman to perfect health in a week. The husband being a poor man was unable to pay a person for attending on his unfortunate wife, she was allowed to roam about unrestrained, and though it was well known that she had made repeated attempts upon her life, the parochial authorities took no steps to prevent her again attempting self-destruction. About a week after her visit to the ” wise man,” instead of recovering her mental faculties as he had predicted, she committed suicide by drowning herself in a large pit about half a mile from home. Had proper care been taken, and the woman conveyed to a Lunatic Asylum, this awful result would have been avoided, and the husband escaped being swindled by a remorseless scoundrel, who affects a knowledge which is denied to his species —On another occasion, a person was swindled by the same party out of 10l, under similar delusion. About three years ago, another man, whose wife was labouring under pulmonary consumption, went to the same fellow, and was also told that she was overlooked.” In this instance he insinuated to his dupe that his wife was afflicted by an elderly relation, and hinted that the applicant’s father was the cause of the woman’s disorder and that he believed him to be wizard Thus the peace of families, the lives and property of individuals, are at the mercy of these miscreants. Whilst England ls annually exporting hundreds of missionaries to what we term barbarous countries, to break the gyves of spiritual despotism and superstition, and to teach their inhabitants a new and pure religion, it ts lamentable to find her own peasantry in such state of ignorance as to believe that it is in the power of weak and wicked men to torment by supernatural means their fellow creatures. This system I am most anxious to see put down, and thus to prevent the unthinking and credulous of our fellow men from being plundered by designing knaves, who live by perpetuating the superstitions of the ages of barbarism and cruelty. An Enemy to the Superstition and Fanaticism of the Nineteenth Century April 1841

Over sixty years later the beliefs remained in some quarters, the witchfinders were now called spiritualists.

1905 Bewitched Farm in the Wolds

Bewitched Farm in the Wolds

In 1905 the Lincolnshire Wolds was at the centre of a sensational tale of witchcraft which appeared in local and national newspapers for several weeks.

The story was picked up in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 19th January and the various elements to date were then extensively repeated and built upon to the delight of newspaper sellers and their readers everywhere. Many mocked, some sneered but there remained those who took the incident seriously, none more so than the poor servant girl in the eye of the storm, Mabel Sheldrick.

A selection of newspaper stories provide a flavour of these tales which bring to mind scenes from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. These are followed by a little more information about those involved, the mundane reality of humble people just trying to get by.

The Stories

… mysterious happenings by day and night which occurred in a lonely farmhouse in the wolds are giving colouring to the local belief in witchcraft. ” Amongst peasant folk , naturally there are occurrences regarded as supernatural in nature for which more unromantic and less thrilling explanations can undoubtedly be found … at dinner flowerpots on the windowsill were seen to be wildly whirling around … pans jumped up and down on the shelves, chairs moved jerkily across the floor in broad daylight, brooms danced and household utensils moved even when being closely watched. Nothing would convince the maid that she was not the victim of an unnatural manifestation of power causing her physical pain and mental terror. Mr White and his neighbours believe most firmly that there has been a resuscitation of black magic in the district … Liverpool Echo 23rd Jan 1905

… the village constable a man of unimpeachable probity was sceptical and consequently kept watch and ward in the kitchen. He solemnly declares he saw flowerpots on the windowsill executing mysterious gyrations of their own

Tourquay Times, and South Devon Advertiser Friday 27th Jan 1905

The story was reported far and wide including the following papers: The St James Gazette, The Jarrow Express, The Luton Times & Advertiser, The Bournemouth Daily Echo, The Bolton Evening news, The Leominster News, and The Irish Independent. One of the more tactful reports was that of The Globe which asserted that “The monotony of country life is avoided by these means, and the home kept bright and lively”

The Northampton Mercury noted that the more level headed villagers are inclined to regard the work as that of a practical joker but the household and their immediate friends pin their faith on a witch. Once the popularity of the tales were proved the stories continued.

… A dead rabbit unhooked itself and ran around the house before returning to the hook. When Mrs White saw bottles toppling over one by one and falling from a shelf to break on the tiled floor she called her husband and the servants, they also watched the completion of the spectacle. Two dozen bottles leisurely went to destruction this way, some contained paraffin others oil. Another dead rabbit hung in the dairy transported itself to another room where it was found lying beside a beer barrel. In the dairy three strings of sausages were hung on a line but refused to remain there and after being hung for the third time broke into small pieces. A dozen large dinner plates moved from a shelf and were deposited unbroken beside an earthenware dish. Another … dish of cream over turned … the churn performed a similar feat… When the family were having tea water poured into the kitchen, further investigation showed a large flat bottomed tub had emptied itself, but there was more water than would have filled it. The tub had only been half full of water said Mr White but more water came into the kitchen than would have filled it. I am not superstitious but I am puzzled about these happenings , if I had not seen some of them I would not believe they had occurred.

I saw three large biscuit tins which were on the shelf fall to the floor, together with a side of bacon and three hams which had been thoroughly dried. Up to date Mr White has had 200 fowl killed in a most remarkable manner, their necks, the head and the breast were skinned and their pipe pulled out. This slaughter has been going on continously though the fowl house was watched day and night. Mr White has now only two dozen fowls on the farm.

Offers to “Lay the Witch” have been received from all over the Country, and Mr White has accepted that of Mr John Dunn of Grimsby. Hull Daily Mail 24th Jan 1905


Amusing stories have been circulated with the supposed bewitched farm at Binbrook, but they are surpassed by one correspondent who now relates. Much fun has been caused the locality, and there are some to vouch for the truth of the almost ridiculous incidents. It is said the ” witch ” has left the house, and is playing pranks among the farm hands. One labourer yoked pair of horses to a waggon, which was standing in a shed, with the intention of hauling it out for work on the farm. The waggon, however, it is said, seemed rooted firmly to the spot by some invisible agency, and the addition of another two, and afterwards four, horses to the first pair was insufficient to move it. By this time, several of the farm hands had collected, and they declared that while the struggle with the waggon was in progress the farm foreman, sitting in a wheelbarrow, was brought up, at breakneck speed, by some unseen hands. The sight of their foreman being wheeled along, by apparently nobody, in a wheelbarrow, and at such a speed, proved too much for the already over-wrought nerves of the labourers,who fled in a body, leaving foreman and wheelbarrow, and horses and waggon. Hull Daily Mail – Tuesday 07 February 1905

The final story also appeared in the Hull Daily Mail

GRASBY: Have You Seen the Witch?— The uncanny doings of the Binbrook witch have attracted many visitors the farm, some with a view of “discovering” the mysterious visitor, others to attempt to ” lay” the witch. Amongst the former was a party from this neighbourhood, who (if rumour be correct) had an unpleasant experience, furnishing conclusive proof that it is somewhat dangerous to raise the ire of such visitors as witches, particularly on a Sunday. Engaging a waggonette and pair, the party set out in high spirits their journey of 15 or 16 miles. The thaw having set in, made extremely heavy going. However, after a struggle, they arrived near their destination. Here the courage of the majority seems have failed, for only two of the ten volunteered to reconnoitre. Arriving a the “ghost farm.” they made inquiries, when the farmer’s wife having ascertained from whence they came, quietly advised them to return as quickly as possible. This advice was acted upon, but lo and behold! they had not proceeded far on the return journey, when, to their amazement, both horses and waggonett were ” bewitched !” The wheels became clogged, and refused to go round, whilst the horses appeared dead beaten. Oil was procured at several houses and the wheels thoroughly lubricated; but all in vain, they refused to turn. There was nothing for except walking, and this the forlorn party did almost half the way home, where (after ” putting up ” on the way) they arrived safely, and, although late, wiser men. Their sad experience has had the effect of arousing considerable superstition, and now one hears at every turn (especially after dark) the question asked, “Have you seen the witch? 27th Feb Hull Daily Mail

One newspaper which had taken a slightly more serious approach to the tales was the Sheffield Telegraph. In mid- February they published a report which seemed to be the result of an interview with the Whites, interestingly many of the previous tales were not refuted.

Sheffield Telegraph Special – Tales from Binbrook – some first class “Hair-Raisers”

…. There has been a good deal of fun made of the eerie stories circulated of late relating to occurrences on the Binbrook farm which, in popular phraseology, is supposed to be bewitched; but there are plenty of people who believe that the redeeming grain of truth is not altogether absent. Undoubtedly, however, the Binbrook witch is not up-to-date. She has not learnt the art of self advertisement ; for, to somewhat strain the imagination and suppose her existence, she has hit upon one of the most outlandish spots in the county of Lincoln wherein to revive the broomstick-thunderstorm superstition of the Middle Ages. To journey from Louth to Binbrook, as a correspondent did the other day, over some of the most exposed parts of the Lincolnshire Wolds, and in the face of a bitterly cold wind, is certainly calculated to give one the impression that a spirit of evil—and a vindictive one that—wields an influence over the locality. It is a sparsely populated district; wild and storm-swept in winter. The “bewitched” farm is situated in one of the innumerable hollows in the Wolds country, and about three miles from Binbrook, on the Louth side. It has already attained to picture postcard notoriety, which distinction, however, the good man and woman of the house view with considerable disfavour. A man came from. Caistor the other day, and asked if he might take a photograph of the house,” said the good wife. I said yes, but if I’d known he wouldn’t.” This was when certain asperity at the commencement had worn off. The lady objects to journalists, too. In fact, she expressed the benevolent intention of getting somebody six months. They’ve forged his name,” she said, meaning that someone had adopted the American method of interviewing Mr. White. The latter had not this feminine asperity; he was more ponderous. But when he described how he had intended to treat the next Press-man who called one heartily congratulated oneself on having got sufficiently good terms with him to have one of his glasses near hand. There’s been nothing here since the last two days of the Old Year,” said Mrs. White, and progress thence to details was easy. The first mysterious event, it appears, which occurred in the house was when a line of plants and pots standing on the windowsill laid themselves down on an adjoining table without any of the soil in the pots being disturbed. Then bottles took to falling off shelves without human agency, and while those in the house stood and looked at them. Tins on the wall have also a singular force of gravity or the agency mysterious power. One of the most singular events, however, was the burning of the servant girl. At the time this occurred the girl standing fully sixteen feet away from the fire, between which and her there a table. There was a dull fire in the grate, so that the matter of fact supposition that a spark flew out and ignited her clothing is put out of court. At one moment the girl was standing promising Mrs. White to look after the child in the cot, the next Mrs. White was on the stairs, and Mr. White appeared in the doorway of the kitchen to find the girl enveloped in a mass of flames, and ere the fire could extinguished she was so badly burned that she is still in Louth Hospital, where she has been for nearly a month. She is, however, making satisfactory progress, and is soon expected to be out again. Another extraordinary story related Mrs. White concerns fowls. As long as these are kept in confinement they are all right, but as soon they are let out, they are said to take to jumping in the farmyard with their throttles torn clean out without any indication by what means this has been done. Over 100 of this year’s fowls have, it is said, been lost in this way since last September, and Mrs. White says she has seen birds standing on the doorstep suddenly killed in this way. The breaking of the chickens’ legs, which was reported, Mrs. White attributes human agency; that kind of thing had been going on for a long time she said. With all these doings to be amazed at, we learn, almost with surprise, that Mrs. White is still firm in her opinion that there is no witch. “If there was” she argued “we should have seen something.” This is to some extent reassuring, and one is further relieved to hear that the latest yarn of the foreman of the farm being wheeled in a wheelbarrow by the mysterious power, and of the waggon, rooted in the ground, resisting the efforts of six horses to move it, is an invention, though many people have written to Mr. White, asking whether it was true. 14th Feb 1905

… the Grimsby sprititualists are convinced that the strange phenomena is the work of spirits and that the servant girl, so mysteriously set on fire, was the medium. Offers to lay the witch have been received from all over the Country, Mr White has accepted that of Mr John Dunn of Grimsby. Weekly Dispatch London 29th January

The Reality

On the 28th Jan. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph had also spoken to the servant girl Mabel Sheldrick. She had been in hospital since 14th January and was now finally able to tell her story. Mabel had been sweeping the kitchen floor a short distance from the fire when her clothes ignited, she had received extensive injuries but asserted that all of the reports of strange happenings were untrue.

Henry White was the foreman of Walk Farm, he had married Sarah Jane Jackson of Hagworthingham in 1882, the daughter of an agricultural labourer. The couple had twelve children during their twenty nine year marriage, six of those children had died. They shared their home with other farm workers boarding there along with a young servant girl. Four other houses were identified as related to Walk Farm in the 1901 census, inhabited by agricultural labourers and their families along with a shepherd and his family from Norfolk.

Henry and Sarah White lived and worked at Walk Farm for 28 years, finally retiring to Donninington On Bain. When Sarah passed away in 1941, ten years after Henry, a Louth Standard comment on the occasion revealed that locals clearly held them in high regard.

As the forman had Mr White been the subject of a cruel prank by some disgruntled men ? The loss of six children may have made the Whites more susceptible to spiritual possibilities suggested by some. Once their tales had been shared in the close confines of the farm had others shared their own incredulity too widely, once the rumour mill had begun it could not be quickly closed down. Undoubtedly the assertion of the Globe that “The monotony of country life is avoided by these means, and the home kept bright and lively” enhanced the situation for many.

The one person who really suffered in all of this was Mabel

Mabel’s Story

Louth hospital had shielded Mabel from the outside world for several weeks. As the burns on her legs were slowly healing and she must have worried about having to leave the hospital and face her future. She was about to turn 16 what was to come now, more accusations, more hardship ? Mabel was no stranger to that.

Before Walk Farm

Born in Grimsby, the daughter of fisherman Henry Sheldrick and his wife Harriet, Mabel’s family were rooted in hard work.

Henry Sheldrick was born in Bethnal Green, the son of a slater – himself the son of a lighterman – Henry’s parents did not marry until shortly after he was born. The 1861 census records him living in the home of his paternal grandmother with both of his parents. The birthplace of the older family members is recorded as unknown and a frustrated enumerator has added the comment “all living in sin and ignorance” in place of the missing details.

Harriet’s father, John Wallis had traded as a fishmonger in Louth for many years. Following his marriage to Elizabeth at St James, Louth in 1859 they had travelled the country following work, their six children born along the way, before returning to settle in Louth by 1881.

Mabel’s father, Henry Sheldrick had been swept from the rigging of the Severn by heavy seas in November 1891. Harriet had tried to carry on, the young widow had four small children to bring up alone. She moved to Hull where, in January 1897, she lost her life to tuberculosis. Mabel’s maternal grandfather was at his daughter’s side when she died, he returned to Louth with eight year old Mabel. Elizabeth had died some years before and John Wallis had remarried, he lived with his wife Sarah on Northgate. The couple could not accomodate Mabel but initially she lived a few doors down under the guardianship of E Harrison where her grandfather could keep an eye on her.

Over the next few years Mabel seems to have been boarded out, probably a subject of parish relief. School records show that she attended St Michael’s infant school in Louth, Donnington on Bain School and then Louth girl’s school. Initially under the guardianship of E Harrison in Northgate, the 1901 census records Mabel as a visitor to Charlotte Lingard in Donnington on Bain, finally the 1902 school admission records show James Fielding as Mabel’s guardian, the Master of the Louth Workhouse. Having lost her parents and parted from her siblings Mabel must have felt very alone during those years.

As a boarded out child Mabel was probably used to unwanted attention from the other children at school, marked out as “other ” by her workhouse clothing and finally living in the Union. Outbreaks of measles, smallpox, ringworm and diptheria reportedly prevented those living at the workhouse attending school and complaints were made that the children were late and dirty.

Finally , schooled and trained in domestic duties duties, probably around the age of 14, she would have been able to leave school and go out to work. The trepidation must have been mixed with some relief, she would be living with the White family at Walk farm, in the Wolds. When things went wrong in January 1905 Mabel is simply referred to as the girl in the newspaper stories, accusations quickly followed, devotees knew that witches used young girls as a medium for their craft.

After the hospital

After the trauma of January 1905, undoubtedly unable to work straight away, where would Mabel have been able to go except the workhouse? Her grandfather John Wallis was still alive and may have been able to offer some support but that is unproven. John Wallis died in 1907, by 1911 his wife Sarah was herself in the workhouse.

It has been hard to trace Mabel after leaving the hospital, hours ( and hours and hours) have been spent looking into all possibilities. Marriage and death records do not reveal any answers, neither do the 1911 census records of extended family members. One glimmer of hope remained, emigration records. A young lady called Mabel Sheldrick had left London for Brisbane in early September 1908, arriving in October, Mabel may have left once her last close relative in Louth had died. The next issue was funding, Mabel had nothing to her name but at this time there had been a renewal of assisted emigration schemes for some workers.

In 1908 various advertisements appeared offering free passage to Queensland, one article which was critical of the scheme spells out the details

An examination of the inducements offered shows that Queensland people are very exclusive. They give free passages to domestic servants – a class which this country can very ill spare Dundee Eve. Telegraph Wednesday 8th Jan 1908

Elsewhere the poor law guardians were under continued pressure to utilise these schemes to relieve costs.

Mabel Sheldrick disappears after her arrival in October 1908 but Caro Mabel Sheldrick pops up in a marriage certificate to William Henry Galvin in Tumbarumba in 1910. This has not been a straight forward match as Caro Mabel Galvin (Sheldrick) claims to have been the daughter of Mabel Elizabeth Wallace and sea captain William Henry Sheldrick, of the Cedars, in Hulme in Manchester. In fact the only things that do match are the age of Caro Mabel Galvin, the presence of the Wallace surname and the name of her father – Henry William was written as William Henry on some of her father’s merchant navy documents and baptism records – although he was a fisherman not a sea captain.

However the details Caro Mabel Sheldrick provided to New South Wales authorities do not match any records currently available on the government civil registration records, or the various census records or the many additional parish documents available. There are Sheldricks in Hulme but they do not tie in with the information presented in New South Wales. It may have been that Mabel no longer had full knowledge of where she had come from, it may have been that she did not want details of her old life to follow her to her new one, she could have deliberately muddyied the waters.

At the moment I have to admit defeat, I cannot prove that Caro Mabel Sheldrick is our Mabel Sheldrick, but I also cannot disprove it, I believe it to be the same person.

Caro Mabel Galvin (Sheldrick) died in April 1974, the mother of seven children, I hope it was Henry and Harriet’s daughter and that she found love and happiness in her life.

Published by

Mrs T

Beyond the day job, and the garden, I love to delve into local and family history. While pursuing one project other snippets frequently distract me, resulting in the eclectic mix of tales from the past found here.

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