Wednesday 13 September 2023

Wallingfen and its witches

 This weekend, 16th and 17th September, Howden civic society is having an exhibition in Gilberdyke Memorial Hall as part of the annual heritage open day events.  It will be open from 10am to 4pm both Saturday and Sunday. Whilst concentrating on Howden there will be material too about the area around Gilberdyke including  Eastrington. There will also be information about the large commons of Wallingfen and Bishopsoil which existed before enclosure. 

Some years ago I wrote this article for a local magazine and thought it might be appropriate to reproduce it here.

As a child I was fascinated to hear tales of how my mother’s family from Eastrington were said to be distant relatives of Rebecca Nurse, one of the Salem witches. The jury is out on that.

But I thought I would write about Wallingfen, a 5,000 acre area of marshland which once lay between Gilberdyke and North Cave. And its witches.

The marsh was ancient common land and forty-eight settlements which lay around its fringes had the right to graze their animals, dig turf, gather firewood and fish on Wallingfen.

Representatives of the communities met regularly and held a court to listen to any complaints and make rules about how the Commoners had to behave. Commoners were forbidden to grave (dig) turf from the cart gaits (tracks) or dam any of the drains ‘with an intent to gett fish’. And obviously stray dogs were a problem even in 1636 when it was ruled that ‘ye sheppards that keep sheep on Wallingfen shall keep their doggs on a string att their belts and not suffer them to go loose but to take a sheep’.

Court records of the forty-eight – or eight and forty, as it was then written – date back to the thirteenth century and the area where they met, between Gilberdyke and Newport, is still today known as Eight and Forty.

Exactly where these meetings took place is not clear. In 1584 ‘ye court of ye forty-eight’ met at Scalby chapel. But Mr Jack Holmes, who had a butcher’s shop just west of Newport church, always maintained that the meeting house stood behind his premises but that he demolished it to make way for his slaughterhouse.


In 1772 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow the construction of the Market Weighton canal, which would act as a drain for the fen, and in 1777 Wallingfen Common itself was enclosed. The 5,000 acres were divided up and allotted to the various parishes in place of the common rights which they had lost. New straight roads were laid out and each allotment became part of the parish to which it was given – so today we still have places such as Skelton and Saltmarshe Granges detached from their villages.


A folk story has grown up around the area, although how ancient it is you may judge for yourselves.


There were, it is said, forty-eight witches, led by Margaret Weedon and Mary Hooden, who met every year and sat around a fire on the fen. Here they drank and sang their song, which went as follows:


We’re eight and forty jolly girls tho’ witches we may be;

We live upon the best of food and, like the air, we’re free.

A moorhen, coot or leveret, a duck or good fat hen

Each day we’re almost sure to get around old Wallingfen.

From Blacktoft, Eastrington or Holme we get a daily dish;

Old Foonah’s waters will provide us with the best of fish;

And Hotham Carrs we often comb and take the best of game.

None live more happy than we who bear the witches’ name;

Then fill your glasses everyone and drink ’til all is done;

Here’s whisky hot from Saltmarshe Hall; good ale from Howden town

Long may we eight and forty live, long live old Wallingfen

And may she never fail to breed fine women and bold men.


One evening Margaret Weedon stood up after the song had been sung and said to her fellow witches that they should drink well that night as it was the last time they would meet. She declared that she could see into the future when ‘years after we are gone this will not be a meeting place for such as us, but near this very place will rise a building where people will meet for worship just as they do now at Howden’.


The witches took her message to heart and the drinking and dancing continued until, the story continues:


And the man in the moon looked down on the place

And could scarcely believe his eyes

But quietly pulled a cloud over his face

As he nearly fell out of the skies

For there down below him, oh, what had he seen to give him such great surprise?

The forty eight witches all stripped to the skin

Dancing round before Satan’s old eyes.


The two witch leaders were secretly jealous of each other and each had provided half the drink for the evening’s merriment: Margaret the whisky and Mary the ale. Each witch had poisoned the drinks of the others but had carefully drunk only their own personal supplies. However, their caution flew out of the window as they drank and eventually they too lay poisoned around the fire.


Next morning a wanted man, hiding from the authorities, came upon the forty-eight naked corpses and was so horrified he immediately gave himself up.


And so the Eight and Forty witches were no more and of course the prophecy came true in the shape of the building of Newport church.


Make up your own minds about the witches – but after telling this story, I was once asked whether I could pinpoint exactly where the above event took place so that a local coven could meet there. I was even invited to go along – but politely declined!

nb the poem was actually written by a former stationmaster George Grayson of Newport who had a great interest in local history. Were there any witches? Maybe!!

Below are two pictures of the area. 

The Eight and Forty house was sketched in 1892. You can see that the bottom part was stone and may have been Scalby chapel

The second picture  shows where it stood.  Jack Holmes' butcher's shop was the first building of the block beyond the white building, behind a telegraph pole.

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