"We leave the theoretical Utopias to others and concentrate on the down-to-earth ways in which ordinary lives can be improved" Pat Jacob, National Chairman in ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ by Simon Goodenough, 1977.
The Women’s Institute is probably the largest and most widely known women’s organisation. Over the years it has not only survived, but thrived.
The first WI was formed in 1897 at Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada by Mrs Adelaide Hoodless. A suggestion that women could form their own group was put forward at a Young Farmer’s Institute and the following week over 100 women attended. Adelaide Hoodless had suffered the loss of a baby from contaminated milk, and, recognising this, she was determined to prevent others suffering similar losses through a lack of education. She went on to be involved with founding Domestic Science courses for girls, as well as holding positions of president of the national YWCA and treasurer of the National Council of Women of Canada.
It wasn’t until 1915 that the WI came to Britain when the first group was formed at Llanfair in Wales by Mrs Watt. Mrs Watt had been a member of the Canadian WI, one of only four women on a committee to advise the Department of Agriculture in British Columbia and promoted the Women’s Institute movement following its official recognition in 1911. Upon the death of her husband in 1913 she moved to Britain and set about encouraging the movement here.
The Wiltshire federation came into being in 1919 following the establishment of six WI’s. Founded in September 1916, Redlynch and District WI is the oldest in Wiltshire and probably the second oldest in the country. There are currently over 4000 members in 125 WIs across the county and here at the History Centre we hold an array of archive material from many of them.
One of the most interesting aspects of many of the WI collections are the scrap books, which showcase local life, are often a work of art in their own right. Bradenstoke WI scrapbook highlights some of their achievements as well as hiding unexpected gems such as the beautiful examples of a 19th century lace collar and lace neck tie below.
WI scrapbook of the history of Bradenstoke with Clack, ref 2626/1
My previous blog looked at herbal lore with reference to wise women putting Wiltshire’s natural resources to good use. Even so, there was always the possibility, especially during the 17th century when even educated people believed in the dark arts, that they could be accused of witchcraft, and so I thought it would be timely to delve into Wiltshire’s past yet again; this time in hunt of witches.
Europe had fallen under the spell of what R. S. Holland calls ’witch mania’ in the 17th century, partly as a consequence of the reoccurrence of bubonic plague and also due to the rise of religious zeal in the Renaissance period. Men and women could be accused for many reasons: jealousy and spite, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, being the victim to money or property grabbing friends or relatives, or trying to help a patient who unfortunately died of their illness when little was known about the true causes of disease.
Wiltshire’s Churchwarden’s Presentments offer a glimpse into the psyche of local communities at this time, although cases of suspected witchcraft had been presented as early as 1565 (D5/28/1) if not before. Those accused in the 17th and early 18th centuries included Margaret Pilton, 1613; ‘Goodwife’ Barlowe, 1630; William Starr, 1652; Joan Baker, Elizabeth Beeman, Anne Bodenham, Joan Price, 1653; Elizabeth Loudon, Christina Weekes, 1654; Margaret Gyngell, 1655; ‘Widow Orchard’, 1658; Jane Mereweather, 1655; Elizabeth Peacock and Jane Townsend, 1670; Elizabeth Mills, Ann Tilling, the appropriately named Judith Witchell, 1672; Elizabeth Peacock, Ann Tilling and Judith Witchell, 1685 (for the second time); M Parle, 1687; Christiana Dunne and Margaret Young, 1689; Ruth Young, 1698; Joanna Tanner, 1702.
The case of Widow ‘Goody’ Orchard of Malmesbury is described in R.S. Holland’s book ‘Legends & Folklore’, of which ‘extraordinary tales’ were told. Goody was fond of begging for scraps from door to door but had a reputation for threatening those who would not be charitable. Widow Goody came upon one such girl and was seen to pace out a circle around the cottage where the girl was residing. She sat in the middle of the circle and appeared to ‘mumble an incantation’. The procedure was repeated twice over. Not long after the girl’s hands seized up and Goody was detained. She maintained that bad water must have caused the disablement, and unfortunately offered to cure the girl by bathing her fingers whilst casting another spell! She was found guilty and hanged at Salisbury after the girl was cured.
Jane Townsend of Latton was accused of using a ’poppet’ (an English version of a voodoo doll) to cause harm to others, but another notorious case was that of Anne Bodenham who was accused of conjuring spirits. The original statement in the case was quoted in a book by Nicholas Crouch, published in 1688 and entitled ‘Kingdom of Darkness’.
Elder is the witch’s ‘particular tree’ and they were said to have lived in the tree at times and there was a superstition that the tree could bleed if it was cut down. Apologies would be made if cutting was attempted.‘Old gal, old gal, gi Oi yer wood, an’ when Oi be a tree, Oi’ll gi’ yer mine.’ You must never, ever fall asleep under an elder bush for fear of putting yourself under the power of a witch. Hawthorn was also a special tree to a witch but St. John’s wort was a great protector against witches, and pious people would often hang pieces of the herb over doorways on St. John’s Eve to keep witches away. The plant was also renowned for preserving you against tempest, thunderstorm and evil spirits in general. Called the ‘Rose of Sharon’ in Wiltshire, it was the ‘pleasant golden flower’ of the garden.
Cats are most well known as a witch’s accessory, but hares are also particularly noted in association with witches; did you know they too were also called ‘pusses’? (I didn’t!). Lyddie Shears from Winterslow was lucky to have been alive in the 19th century instead of the 17th, and was never tried for witchcraft, but she was reputed to have the ability to turn herself into a hare. This was supposedly discovered to be true when a local farmer shot a hare near Lyddie’s house with a silver bullet (said to destroy witches). Low and behold, Lyddie was discovered dead in her house with a silver bullet in her heart. Ravens were also said to be a witch’s favourite.
We all like to indulge in the odd luxury if we can, including a good truffle or two perhaps…
Did you know that these chocolate treats originally contained truffles of the fungal variety when they were first produced in Belgium? At the time it was this truffle that was at the height of fashion.
Truffles were once common in England, especially in the south. The hunting of them became a cottage industry in rural Wiltshire from the late 17th century to the early 20th. The earliest known description of the truffle is by Tancred Robinson in 1693. “Those observed in England are all included in a studded Bark or coat; the Tubercules resembling the Capsules or Seed–Vessels of some Mallows and Aloeas the inward substance is of the consistence of the fleshy part in a young chestnut, of a paste colour, of a rank or hircine odour, and unsavoury, streaked with many white Veins or threads, as in some Animals’ Testicles; the whole is of a globose figure, though unequal and chunky”. The size can range from 3mm to that of a grapefruit, can be found near trees or in forested areas, and are especially associated with beech trees which do not give too much shade. The first definitively English truffle was the ‘Trub’, documented and written up in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1693.
Truffles have held a certain mystique for many years in history as well as today, but just what is that that makes them so special?