Mobile menu

William Barnes and Witchcraft
Jerry Bird

In 1881, when folklorist John Symonds Udal was collecting material for his book Dorsetshire Folk-Lore he wrote to the Dorset County Chronicle suggesting that a folklore column might become a regular feature. The editor assented and William Barnes, known for his poems in the Dorset dialect became a regular contributor. As early as 1832, Barnes had submitted an article for Hone’s Everyday Book, containing ‘memories of the tides and times of the year’, with headings including Harvest Home, Haymaking, Matrimonial Oracles, Midsummer Eve, Country Fairs, Perambulations, etc. He continued to contribute similar articles to several publications throughout his life.

Saducismus Triumphatus 1681 engraved by William Faithorne
Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full And Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions by Joseph Glanvell, engraved by William Faithorne

In 1921 Udal asked Barnes, then aged 86, to contribute the introduction, or ‘Fore-Say’ to his book, which was first published a year later. This is the first publication to mention that he was in possession of an ‘old deposition on witchcraft in Dorset’ from which ‘we find that at some meetings which the witches held at night on a common they made a waxen man-shape and christened it (christened it, forsooth!) with the name of some unhappy man who was to be bewitched (Udal 1989, 12). This ‘deposition’ was Robert Hunt’s book of examinations, as included in Joseph Glanvill’s treatise on witchcraft and the supernatural, Saducismus Triumphatus (published in its most complete version in 1681). The book is a collection of essays which include, beside accounts of the witchcraft trials, poltergeist activity (the ‘Demon Drummer’ of Tedworth), along with a lot of dry theological discourse on the subject of ‘the true notion of a spirit’ and suchlike.

Robert Hunt, a magistrate and some-time MP for Ilchester, was called upon to examine several alleged witches in 1664, some of whom, it was claimed, met at Leigh Common, just outside Stoke Trister near Wincanton in Somerset to practise their sorcery.

‘On the Mizmaze, at Leigh, Dorset’ by William Barnes, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club IV, 1882

Barnes’s copy of Hunt’s ‘examinations’ latterly belonged to the occultist and artist Robert Lenkiewicz; fortunately before it was sold to a private collector after the artist’s death, it was compared to the original in the Somerset Record Office and was found to be an accurate copy. (Pickering 2017)

Unfortunately for subsequent folklorists Barnes put two and two together and made five, believing that the Leigh in Hunt’s notes (variously spelled Leigh, Lye, or Lie) referred to the Dorset village south-west of Sherborne. Close to the village are the old earthworks of an ancient turf maze, known as the ‘Mizmaze’. This was the subject of one of his articles in 1882. It contains the following lines:

Many years ago, I was told by a man of this neighbourhood that a corner of Leigh Common was called ‘Witches’ Corner,’ and long after that, a friend gave me some old depositions on witchcraft, taken before Somerset magistrates from about the year 1650 to 1664. The cases were of Somerset, and touched in some points Dorsetshire, and one of the witches’ sisterhood said that they sometimes met on Leigh Common. This proof of the meeting of witches’ in Leigh Common as the ground of the traditional name of ‘Witches Corner’ is interesting as a token of truth in tradition. (Barnes 1882, 156)

Barnes’s erroneous assertion has been repeated a great many times (including by Rodney Legg, who ought to have known better) and has led to an association between the Mizmaze, and mazes in general with witchcraft (Legg & Knott 1974). The internet has spread this further, and it currently may even be found on the, usually reliable, ‘Megalithic Portal’ website.

In 1920 Udal wrote of Barnes:

Scattered through the poems we see many traces of the belief in the efficacy of “charms” as preventives against or cures for witchcraft or spells cast by the “overlooker,” or from the malefic influence of the “evil eye.” Many of these have a special reference to objects of natural history, and must be well-known to many of my readers. The belief in the power of the witch or “wise-woman” — to say nothing of the male witch or “wizard” — is wide-spread, and this not only amongst the ignorant peasants and town-dwellers, but even amongst persons of a much higher station in life. Barnes must have been a keen observer in these matters, for we find that in his poem of “The Witch,” he mentions no less than a dozen forms of bewitching or overlooking which may befall, in person or estate, any peasant or his employer who may have been so unfortunate as to incur the displeasure or resentment of such a “sly wold witch” as he there depicts. At the same time, he describes two of the-most widely recognised “charms” for the cure or prevention of the spell. (Udal 1920)

A Witch
By William Barnes

There’s thik wold hag, Moll Brown, look zee, jus’ past!
I wish the ugly sly wold witch
Would tumble over into ditch;
I woulden pull her out not very vast.
No, no. I don’t think she’s a bit belied,
No, she’s a witch, aye, Molly’s evil-eyed.
Vor I do know o’ many a-withrèn blight
A-cast on vo’k by Molly’s mutter’d spite;
She did, woone time, a dreadvul deäl o’ harm
To Farmer Gruff’s vo’k, down at Lower Farm.
Vor there, woone day, they happened to offend her,
An’ not a little to their sorrow,
Because they woulden gi’e or lend her
Zome’hat she come to bag or borrow;
An’ zoo, they soon began to vind
That she’d agone an’ left behind
Her evil wish that had such pow’r,
That she did meäke their milk an’ eäle turn zour,
An’ addle all the aggs their vowls did lay;
They coulden vetch the butter in the churn,
An’ all the cheese begun to turn
All back ageän to curds an’ whey;
The little pigs, a-runnèn wi’ the zow,
Did zicken, zomehow, noobody know’d how,
An’ vall, an’ turn their snouts towárd the sky.
An’ only gi’e woone little grunt, and die;
An’ all the little ducks an’ chickèn
Wer death-struck out in yard a-pickèn
Their bits o’ food, an’ vell upon their head,
An’ flapp’d their little wings an’ drapp’d down dead.
They coulden fat the calves, they woulden thrive;
They coulden seäve their lambs alive;
Their sheep wer all a-coath’d, or gi’ed noo wool;
The hosses vell away to skin an’ bwones,
An’ got so weak they coulden pull
A half a peck o’ stwones:
The dog got dead-alive an’ drowsy,
The cat vell zick an’ woulden mousy;
An’ every time the vo’k went up to bed,
They wer a-hag-rod till they wer half dead.
They us’d to keep her out o’ house, ‘tis true,
A-naïlèn up at door a hosses shoe;
An’ I’ve a-heärd the farmer’s wife did try
To dawk a needle or a pin
In drough her wold hard wither’d skin,
An’ draw her blood, a-comèn by:
But she could never vetch a drap,
For pins would ply an’ needless snap
Ageän her skin; an’ that, in coo’se,
Did meäke the hag bewitch em woo’se.


Barnes, W. 1882. ‘On the Mizmaze, at Leigh, Dorset’ in Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club IV

Barnes, W. 1893. Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, London.

Glanvill, J., More H. & Horneck, A. 2018 [1681], Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full And Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (rpnt), Gyan Books, India.

Legg, R. and Knott, O. c.1974. Witches of Dorset, Dorset Publishing Company, Wincanton.

Pickering, A. 2017. The Witches of Selwood Forest – Witchcraft and Demonism in the West of England 1625 – 1700, Cambridge Scholars.

Udal, J.S. 1920. ‘The Folklore of William Barnes’ in The Dorset Yearbook 1920

Udal, J.S. 1989. Dorsetshire Folk-Lore [1920] (rpnt) Dorset Books, Exeter.


See also
Dorset Dialect
"Call hwome"
Call banns in church
Society events