10 July 2012

Walthamstow witch hunt exhibition photos

The Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow

A few weeks back I popped along to Waltham Forest's travelling exhibition The East Anglian witch-hunt of 1645-47.

Based on the book Witchfinder by Malcolm Gaskill, the display was jointly funded by the council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) ...

Occupying one large room of Walthamstow's Vestry House Museum, the exhibition focussed largely on Matthew Hopkins and his role in the persecution of women in East Anglia during the English Civil War.

Exhibition displays.

A number of displays explained the historical context, with many primary sources blown up and mounted to speak for themselves. The small amount of space meant that the depth of content was always going to be limited, though it provided a good overview for visitors unfamiliar with the period/topic.

The annotated text of the Aldeburgh Accounts (held at Suffolk Record Office).

A few details stood out: the sheer cost of the trials themselves and the personal wealth that Matthew Hopkins accumulated in benefiting from them. An annotated board showing records from just one town, Aldeburgh in Suffolk, in 1645-6, shows Hopkins paid a basic £2 for coming to find evidence of witchcraft (equivalent to £171 in 2012 - roughly a craftsman's monthly salary a the time) and the same sum for giving evidence against "witches in the jaille" a number of months later.

As well as Hopkins, the Aldeburgh Accounts show how many others were employed in activities such as watching, apprehending, setting up gallows and performing hangings.

The only surviving example of Matthew Hopkins' signature.

Hopkins practised in Essex, Norfolk and occasionally other surrounding counties as well as Suffolk. It is estimated that between 1644-1646 he was responsible for the deaths of 200-300 women, though in his Discovery of Witches (1647) - published just before he died - denied making profit ('fleecing') from his work:

Lastly, judge how he fleeceth the Country, and inriches himselfe, by considering the vast summe he takes of every towne, he demands but 20.s. a town, & doth sometimes ride 20. miles for that, & hath no morefor all his charges thither and back again (& it may be stayes a weekethere) and finde there 3. or 4. witches, or if it be but one, cheapenough, and this is the great summe he takes to maintaine his Companie with 3. horses.

According to the legend a mandrake root screams when dug up and kills all who hear it ...

Cabinets placed in the centre of the exhibition displayed items typically kept during the period to ward off evil spirits and flora used to make spells, such as mandrake.

The display finished by recounting the last use of the Witchcraft Act in the UK in 1944, and reminding visitors that the persecution of (usually) women continues to this day in a number of countries.

The rather too realistic gallows!
Further reading:

Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England by Malcolm Gaskill (2001)
Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches by Malcolm Gaskill (2001)
The Black Legend of Prince Rupert's Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda During the English Civil War by Mark Stoyle (2011)

Related article: Nahemiah Wallington's diary


Witchfinder General (1968)
The Devils (1971)

See TV, Film ,Video and Radio

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