‘I’m not feeling too well, my cattle have died - I’ve been cursed by a witch who must pay!’

Witch ducking book extract
Witch ducking book extract

In the final instalment of our series on witchcraft in Dacorum, Joan Hands looks at a celebrated 18th century case.

A book about Tring – That Tring Air, by Arthur MacDonald – has a few words on the subject of witchcraft.

He believes that witchcraft survived locally into the mid-1700s, when a farmer in Gubblecote named John Butterfield had an outbreak of foot and mouth disease among his cattle.

The theory behind its onset was one of witchcraft at the time. He recalled that a poor old woman named Ruth Osborn had come to his door begging some buttermilk.

He turned her away, saying he did not have enough for his pigs, to which she replied: “I hope the Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie) will come and take your pigs and you, too.”

Her mutterings were taken as a curse by the farmer, who subsequently suffered fits and saw all his cattle die.

The farmer called in a ‘white witch’ from Northampton to reverse the curse.

But the locals were determined that both Ruth and her husband John, a labourer of Long Marston, were to be punished, so they notified all the villages round about that, on a certain day, a notorious witch and wizard were to be publicly ducked for their sins.

That ordeal by water, – known as ‘swimming’ or ‘floating’ a suspect – had been one of the most popular ways of determining witchcraft.

Over the years, however, it had become more of a mob punishment, rather like those meted out by the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.

The town criers of Hemel Hempstead, Leighton Buzzard and Winslow gave out the public notice, which caused quite a stir and the whole neighbourhood gathered at a local pond – nobody is sure which one – to see the event on April 22, 1751.

The old couple had been kept at first in the Tring Workhouse, but the crowd threatened to destroy the building if they were not handed over.

They were then taken to the vestry, in the sanctuary of Tring’s parish church, but they were dragged from there without mercy.

Sebastian Grace, the Tring constable, stood little chance against the mob.

The unfortunate husband and wife were each tied to a stool and dragged across the pond time and time again.

One of the men, Thomas Colley, turned poor Ruth over with a stick, until the sheet she was wrapped in came off entirely.

After three attempts, Ruth was drowned, although her husband somehow survived the ordeal.

They were the last people in Dacorum to be treated in this cruel way.

Colley, a drunken chimney sweep from Tring, then went round the crowd with his cap, to earn a substantial tip!

The matter did not rest there, however, since Colley was later tried for murder at Hertford Assizes and condemned to be hanged at the scene of his crime.

A troop of Horse Guards was sent from London to ensure the punishment was carried out without local interference.

A panic followed an accidental firing of a pistol in Tring market place that day, but Colley did pay the penalty for his cruel act.

His body was hung in chains, according to local tradition, at Gubblecote Cross as a warning to others.

Sources: That Tring Air by Arthur MacDonald; A Potted History of Long Marston 
and Puttenham by The Long Marston and Puttenham Horticultural Society