My Ancestors’ Secrets: A Dorset Witch

I’d like to tell you about my 6x Great-Grandmother, a Dorset witch! Accused by the local Vicar, was she malevolent or was she a victim of an abusive employer?

A Dorset Witch or An Eccentric Vicar?

It is the year 1804 – King George III is on the throne, William Pitt the Younger is starting his 2nd attempt as Prime Minister and England is at war with France. Britain is a hive of industry and there is plenty for an eager diarist to write about. Why then does our protagonist turn his hand to writing about witches in rural Dorset?

Tucked away in the little hamlet of Turners Puddle in Dorset, Rev William Ettrick sits at his writing desk, putting pen (or more likely quill) to paper. Unbeknownst to him, over 200 years later I would read tantalising snippets of his work and judge him for it.

Ettrick was a keen diarist and kept numerous papers and personal accounts. Legend has it that some of these papers were stuffed into a large glass bottle, and passed down the generations of Ettrick family.

The bottle remained sealed for 100 years, before finding it’s way to the Dorset History Centre, where upon it’s arrival, eager staff opened it to reveal the personal accounts within. Or at least that’s how the story goes.

But what does Ettrick choose to write about? It is not Napoleon, economics or politics, that dominates the Rev’s thoughts. Ettrick’s diary reveals the everyday worries and thoughts of a rather eccentric individual. Highlights include his concerns regarding a local Dorset witch, Susan Woodrowe (or Woodrow), my 6x Great-Grandmother. He describes her as an ‘old hag’ and gradually becomes utterly convinced that this woman, my ancestor – his gardener and one of several midwives helping at the birth of his son – is a witch. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Ettrick blames her for the death of his horse, the failure of his garden to bloom and even for the illness of his infant son.

Much has been written about the Ettrick family, and the life of this eccentric vicar, but who was this Dorset witch, Susan Woodrow?

Elderly witch
Halloween Witch face profile by Scottepentzer [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

The Origins of the Dorset Witch

Susan Woodrow, Dorset witch, was my 6 x great-grandmother – appropriately on an almost solidly maternal line.

Dorset Witch lineage

Susan was christened Susanna Fancy, a “base born” child named after her mother. Her baptism took place on 17 July 1757 in St John the Baptist Church, Bere Regis, Dorset. Susan seems to have followed in her mother’s footsteps, going on to give birth to an illegitimate child herself. On 18 February 1779, Susan gave birth to Hannah Fancy, and Hannah, like her mother before her, was christened at St John the Baptist on 21 March 1779.

Did Etterick know that Susan was illegitimate, did this prejudice feed his belief that she was a Dorset witch?

A few months later in July 1779, Susannah’s name appears in the Quarter Sessions Order Book. The Churchwarden and Overseers of Beer [sic] Regis, were concerned that baby Hannah was likely to become a burden on the parish finances. They pursued both Daniel Barnes (Hannah’s alleged father) and Susan for a financial commitment. Daniel was ordered to pay 9 pence a week whilst the infant was chargeable to the parish. All ‘lying in’ costs had already been met by Daniel, suggesting he did take at least some responsibility for the babe. Susan was also ordered to pay a weekly sum (of 6 pence) to the Churchwardens whilst she ‘refuse to nurture’ the infant.

I had wondered whether perhaps Daniel was already married when he met Susan. Perhaps this had prevented him from ‘doing the honourable thing’ once Susan discovered she was expecting? However, the only marriage I have found for a Daniel Barnes, in Dorset, before 1779 is in Canford Magna in the year 1749. Of course, it’s possible that is the ‘right’ Daniel and that he was considerably older than Susan, but it seems more likely that it’s a different Daniel. Perhaps Susan simply did not want to marry Daniel, or visa versa!

Nine years later, on either the 6th or 8th October 1785, and presumably with Hannah in tow, Susan (now aged about 28) married an older man, named George Woodrow (my 6x Great-Grandfather).  The couple married at Bere Regis but most likely soon moved to George’s parish, Turner’s Puddle.

St John the Baptist church, where the Dorset Witch maried

At the time of the marriage, George was a 45 year old widower, who had had 6 children with his 1st wife Betty (buried 23 Nov 1783). At least two of their children had died in infancy. Twins Joseph and Mary Woodrow were baptised at Turner’s Puddle on 12 November 1774 but died not long after their baptism. They were buried in late November of the same year and the  burial records reveal that the twins were born with serious facial deformities;

The above twins when born had no upper-lip, no upper-jaw, no roof to their mouth but had a piece of flesh which came from the ?unla to the Nostrils, and hung down from them in such a manner as to form a resemblance as near as possible to a Piggs nose, when it closed with the under lip; to which there was joynd another piece of flesh that made the resemblance the more strong: Occasioned as was supposed from a fright the mother received by drawing a Pig from a well.

Source: ‘Burials at Toners Puddle 1774’, Dorset History Centre; Dorchester, England; Dorset Parish Registers; Reference: PE/TPD:RE1/2. Retrieved from; Ancestry.com. Dorset, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Turners Puddle, home of the Dorset witch
Holy Trinity Church, Turners Puddle, Dorset.
The burial of the twins pre-dates Rev Ettrick’s engagement as Vicar at Turner’s Puddle by some 13 years but I wonder whether the story of their birth defects was passed down orally. Perhaps Ettrick had heard the name Woodrow long before Susan came to work for him?
Turners Puddle Ford. I spent a happy hour here with my children, imagining my own ancestors paddled through the same waters.
A few years later George and Susan were increasing the size of their family, with at least two children being born in the 1790’s (the first of which Robert Woodrow baptised 27 March 1791 was my 5x Great-Grandfather). It’s possible it was Ettrick who baptised the Woodrow children. He may have had further contact with the Woodrow family when Susan returned to the church to bury her husband, George on 3 May 1794.

The Employment of a Dorset Witch

Whatever his peripheral involvement with the Woodrow family, it became far more personal when he employed Susan to tend to his garden. Less than a week later, Ettrick’s horse fell ill. The farrier was called and he administered various potions including one that caused blistering within the horse’s throat. Despite this, blame for the incident fell on Susan Woodrow, as Ettrick began to suspect that she had some sort of evil influence over the household. His suspicions deepened when the various garden harvests tended and stored by Susan became rotten or failed to bloom.

“Everything she touched affords fresh remembrances of her malignant and diabolical influence”…Other alleged victims of Woodrow’s ‘satanic influence’ included six gallons of vinegar, which ‘failed unaccountably’ to turn sour; a dog’s death; and a pig’s sickness. The bizarre irony of his own words is lost on Ettrick when he comments that the ailing pig was ‘killed to prevent it dying, and salted for food’.

‘Witchcraft in the Puddles’, by Robert Gutteridge, published by Dorset Life in March 2018 (www.dorsetlife.co.uk/2018/03/witchcraft-in-the-puddles/)

The above entry was dated April, but despite such concerns, Ettrick appears to have had no qualms about allowing Susan to assist his wife, Elizabeth, with the birth of their 4th child. Assisted by 5 other women, in June 1804, Elizabeth delivered a baby boy. The baby was unwell and Ettrick was quick to attribute the illness to Susan.

Owen Davies, in Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951 explains that;

“On 14 November 1804 he [Ettrick] described the strange illness of his child as ‘like a demonical Possession and began immediately after the child was snatched out of the Mothers Arms, by a Hag & reputed witch…I was once incredulous about the power of Witchcraft, but have no doubts remaining'”

It’s clear that Etterick’s belief in Susan as a Dorset witch was growing.

A month later Ettrick describes Susan as an “ill looking & worse tempered wretch”, and decided to terminate her employment. Understandably distressed and perplexed by her sudden termination of employment, Susan writes two letters to the Reverend. He refuses to receive them and threatens her with a ‘Warrant’ for her address, although he writes that her “crime admits of no legal proofs, being all works of darkness and I must say nothing until somebody else suffers and then my allegations will seem not altogether visionary.”

Susan, innocent of any wrong doing – except maybe inept gardening skills, was forced to leave Ettrick’s employ. I wonder how she fared at seeking future employment? It seems unlikely that Ettrick would have been willing to give her any references! His conviction of her witchcraft was so strong that nearly a year later on 11 September 1805 he notes in his diary that his bees “have dwindled away unaccountably, Susan having had hands upon them last year…”

Illustration for 1895 ed. of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice (Chapter 19) By C. E. Brook [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. I can't help but imagine Ettrick as a sort of pompous Mr Collins character!

Susan’s fate after 1805 is yet to be discovered but one hopes and suspects she over came her persecution, living until she was at least 80. Susan was buried in Turner’s Puddle in May 1838. I strongly suspect she was made of ‘strong stuff’. I imagine this ‘Dorset witch’ as an outspoken woman, not afraid to stand up for herself, despite living in a very patriarchal society.

As for Rev William Ettrick, his life makes a fascinating story in itself. One must presume that any curse Susan blighted him with was lifted, for he went on to father 10 children and lived until the ripe old age of 90.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Davies, Owen (1999). Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Horn, Pamela (1980). The Rural World 1780-1850: Social Change in the English Countryside. London: Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd

‘Witchcraft in the Puddles’, by Robert Gutteridge, published by Dorset Life in March 2018 (www.dorsetlife.co.uk/2018/03/witchcraft-in-the-puddles/)

https://www.sunderlandecho.com/news/weird-cures-in-the-reverend-ettrick-s-diary-1-1107617

http://www.bars.ac.uk/blog/?p=1658

http://randombitsoffascination.com/portfolio/vicars-curates-and-church-livings/

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