One of Bideford’s odder claims to fame is that three of its inhabitants were amongst the last to be legally hanged in England.
The story goes back to the glory years of Bideford in the seventeenth century. Throughout this century the town’s quayside was thronged with vessels whose cargoes brought a vast new wealth to Bideford and its merchants. The town’s population probably doubled from around 1000 to 2000 over the century and many new building projects were undertaken – not least the start of construction of the great ‘merchant houses’ in Bridgeland Street by the Bridge Trust. This time of economic growth was matched by a growth in non-conformity and Puritanism. Indeed during the Civil Wars of the 1640s Bideford was a notable and staunch supporter of Parliament.
This mixture of Puritanism and wealth didn’t mean that there were not religious tensions and poverty in the town. Many of the poorest struggled to survive and the Church of England was at dagger’s drawn with the new non-conformist sects – a situation not helped by the rector Michael Ogilby who was accused of intemperate behaviour – to the extent of ‘abusing and striking of Mr.Mayor’ in 1685.
So where does witchcraft come in all this?
Devon, along with most other areas, had a long history of witchcraft with the first recorded case coming before the courts at Exeter in 1302 and a whole flurry of accusations coming to official notices over the years 1658-1702. Bideford wasn’t immune from these beliefs. Indeed in 1658 and 1679 actual allegations of witchcraft were made – the latter being against an elderly woman called Temperance Lloyd. In 1682 Thomas Eastchurch, a Bideford shopkeeper, had Temperance arrested and brought before the town’s magistrates ‘upon suspicion of having used some magical art, sorcery or witchcraft upon the body of Grace Thomas and to have had discourse or familiarity with the devil in the shape of a black man.’ This bizarre meeting took place in Higher Gunstone whilst Grace’s illness consisted of a ‘griping’ in her ‘belly, stomach and breast.’
Temperance not only admitted to this but also owned to ‘pricking’ a ‘puppet’ or doll to inflict pain on Grace – which rather smacks of modern voodoo! She was also charged with killing William Herbert who had died as long ago as 1671. After hearing all this nonsense the poor old woman, who was clearly unbalanced, was packed off to Exeter gaol to await trial.
Two weeks later another Bideford woman Grace Barnes was experiencing fits and Mary Trembles was found loitering outside of Grace’s house – and was accused of being a witch along with another old woman, Susanna Edwards. Poor Grace was bodily carried to the town hall to give evidence, where, one of those helping her, shouted out ‘I am now bewitched by this devil’ and began leaping about ‘like a madman, quivering and foaming, and lay there for the space of half an hour like a dying or dead man.’ Mary and Susanna were then sent off to join Temperance at Exeter.
Their trial came on in August 1682 when the three, callously described as ‘very old, decrepit and impotent’ all pleaded not guilty. Unfortunately, and possibly due to senility, all three seemed to have freely confessed to their ‘crimes’ during cross-examination. Given this behaviour it is unsurprising that all three were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
The sentence was carried out on Friday 25 August 1682 at Heavitree in Exeter before a large crowd – they being among the last people to be executed in England for practicing witchcraft. Not perhaps a proud claim for Bideford but definitely a strange by-way of the town’s history.
Anyone wishing to discover more about the Bideford witches is directed to ‘The Trial of the Bideford witches’ by Frank Gent which reproduces many of the documents in the case.
© Peter Christie 2009