Witchcraft is in the bones of Shropshire folk, if we are to believe folklorist Charlotte Burne. She recounted that magic was so ingrained in local communities, that when a new vicar took parish near Clee Hill, he was shocked to see the prominence of witchcraft in daily life. He was advised in no uncertain terms not to preach of its ills, lest he awake the wrath of the locals. This anecdote is wonderful, and I believe that it perfectly encapsulates our relationship with sorcery in Shropshire. Such practices were so entrenched within the lives of the rural population that it would have been hard to separate or define them. Witchcraft took on many guises, from apotropaic markings and charms which ensure protection, to moon reverence, fortune telling, cursing and love charms, such as the ‘Plucking the Sage tree’ which I will be looking at in more detail in a further post.
Understandably, with such a prevalence of witchcraft within the Shropshire area, a number of individuals have entered popular memory as witches, or even wizards. Littered across our folklore and history are tantalising glimpses of the women who practiced magic, Jean Salvage, Becky Smout, and Maisy Bloomer are but a few. However, none typify the idea of a witch more than a woman known as Ann (Nanny) Morgan. Nor is there a woman more misunderstood than her.
The story of Nanny Morgan has captivated me for as long as I can remember, and although folklore has reduced her to ‘the wicked Witch of Much Wenlock’, a ghost still capable of wielding unholy powers of seduction, when we turn to history, we can see that she was so much more. Ann can be seen as representing the collective experience of many women throughout history. Her story shows that there was a strong belief in the existence of witches well into the 19th century, and that such women lived in communities that were distrustful of their power. Even in modern accounts of Ann Morgan’s life and death, she is still presented very negatively, as if she is a stock character or literary device, and she still suffers from the stereotypes placed upon her during her life. It is my goal to remove these stereotypes and reclaim her personhood. I want to paint an image of the woman in all of her colour, with all the complexities and intricacies of human life apparent. She was in many ways a woman of contradictions, she was a formidable woman, imbued with strength and a strong sense of self, yet a vulnerable person, trapped by the expectations of her gender. Ann Morgan was not perfect, but neither was the patriarchal world in which she navigated, which limited and harmed women. Women who were too powerful or diverged from societies expectations were lambasted as witches and doomed to suffer at the hands of the collective. Sadly, this would be Ann’s fate, and much of what we can discern about Ann comes from the reports of her death. I believe it is my duty to share her story, to ensure that she becomes more than her folklore again. Some of what I am about to present mirrors the folklore we have for her, whilst other information is completely independent, and demonstrates the importance of history in folkloric narratives.
So let us journey to Shropshire now, to explore the life of Ann Morgan.
Traditionally, Ann Morgan’s date of birth was not known,
though it was believed that she was born around 1796, due to the 1851 census
listing her age as 55. However, in the time since I last wrote about her, I
have found her baptismal records which suggest an earlier date. Ann was
baptised in Much Wenlock on the 29th of May 1791, into the Anglican
faith. Her maiden name was Williams, the daughter of a Richard Williams of
Westwood Common. Thus, I can confirm these are her baptismal records as she is
listed as being the daughter of Richard and Martha Williams. Furthermore, on
her burial records she is listed as being 66 at the time of her death in 1857, which
confirms a birth date at some point in 1791. Thus, moving forward, I would
suggest that 1791 was the year she was born. Though at this point we do not
know much about Richard Williams, we know that he lived in the Five Chimneys
area of Westwood Common. I had previously read that he lived in a house with
five chimneys, or a cottage by that name, but I now know this not to be true.
‘The five chimneys’ were a small row of buildings built as part of 13 cottages for limestone workers in 1800. They were near a common and served as housing for the community right until they were demolished in the 1960s. These close-knit houses would have been simple but were to be the axis of Ann’s world as she grew up. This suggests that perhaps Richard was involved in some way with the limestone quarry, though at this point it is just speculation. Little more is known about Ann’s early life; however, we are provided a description of her during girlhood. She was said to be tall, darkhaired with steely grey eyes and a stern countenance. I wonder how much of this is accurate, or if the community is trying to preface her later behaviour by presenting her as atypical to traditional girlhood, or different from her peers.
Her story really begins in 1809, when both folklore and history suggest that she was implicated in a robbery whilst working as a servant for Mrs Powell In Bourton, alongside a girl called Mary Beamond. It is not certain who instigated such a theft, (though the stolen goods, including clothing were found in Ann’s possession) both girls were tried for the offense at the Shrewsbury Assizes, and found guilty. I have managed to locate the date of the trial to the 29th of March 1809, and interestingly, folklorist Charlotte Burne had an actual letter in her possession written by Ann to her father just before the trial. She includes this letter in ‘a Sheaf of Gleanings’ the seminal work on Shropshire folklore.
The letter is brief,
and its purpose is to ask for money as she ‘has imploid an atturney and
counsellor’ for her trial. She states in the letter that as ‘the time is
near at hand’ she would like to see her parents at the trial. She also
tells her father that ‘Mary Beamun bids to be remembered to her mother and
hur must get hur money without fail and send it’ suggesting that Mary is
not literate, and Ann is working on her behalf. Ann signs off the letter as ‘Your
dutiful daughter, Ann’ and if find this letter fascinating. It is a
tantalising glimpse of Ann’s life during a difficult time. It is formal,
respectful, and though littered with spelling mistakes (which Charlotte
Burne has preserved in the original format in the book) it demonstrates
that Ann was literate and was thinking critically about her situation. She has
sought out and employed an attorney, to provide her with judicial
representation in her trial, and this shows the independent streak that would
characterise her later life. The outcome of the trial saw the women sentenced
as guilty. Folklore states that Beamond was to be transported whilst Ann was
imprisoned. Interestingly, I have found the record for Mary Beamond’s transportation,
as well as some anecdotal evidence about her family. Mary Beamond was said to
be the daughter of Betty Beamond who was the last person to do penance in a
white sheet in Much Wenlock. Mary was sentenced to 7 years. She travelled with
121 other convicts and arrived in New South Wales on 8th September
1810. I would love to find out more about Mary, to add more colour to the narrative.
Ann was in prison for some time (though I cannot find the exact length of time at this point) and upon leaving prison, she was in a predicament. Her actions had gained her a certain level of notoriety within the community and because of this, her family ostracised her, providing her with no means of supporting herself. There is evidence to suggest that her family turned their back on her, and this left Ann without a home. It’s important to remember that she was still a young at this point, and the options for her would be very limited, especially being unmarried, and deemed a criminal. This would have been a very scary situation for a woman in Ann’s position. Her community were equally as unhelpful, as Ann’s criminality presented her as a paragon for moral and even sexual sin. It seemed that the workhouse was only a breath away, and this would have been an incredibly stressful and uncertain time in Ann’s life.
However, life was soon to provide her with an opportunity. After searching for a place to live, and a means of supporting herself, Ann was introduced to the travelling community, who often came to the local area to work as farm labourers. Far from the reaction of her peers, they embraced her with open arms and acceptance. I think this may in part be to do with the fact they understood a little of what it was like to be stereotyped and ostracised. Whatever the reason, the travelling community provided her with a home and a way of life which suited her. though life would have still been difficult, I honestly believe that Ann’s time within her new community would have been a largely happy one, characterised by freedom from many of the obligations placed upon women during the time. She was said to have taken up ‘unchristian ways’ (one can only imagine what such behaviours could be) and was also taught how to read fortunes as well as cards and other occult practices. It seems she was a natural and began gaining a reputation for her accuracy. So, Ann began to travel around the countryside, leaving Westwood Common far behind her.
Through reading fortunes, she was able to sustain herself, and had found her place among these transient peoples. Ann had found acceptance. She left Much Wenlock for some time, and her trail becomes cold. Though at some point there is evidence to suggest that Ann was married to a Thomas Morgan, who was an agricultural labourer. What happened during this period of her life? What places did she visit? What brought her joy or sorrow? What was her marriage like? One can only speculate at this point, though it would have been a difficult existence, faced with its own challenges. Ann’s life as a young woman is seemingly lost to the roads, whispers of her still left on the journeys she took.
However, Ann was to make her return to the area. One Monday morning, she unexpectedly returned to Much Wenlock, and was seen wandering around the market. The locals were shocked by her return, as she was still quite the talking point by running off with the travellers. Perhaps she was used as an example of how not to behave, to encourage good behaviour amongst young girls. When asked why she was back, Ann informed them that she’d inherited her father’s house up at five chimneys and was planning to settle there. So, Ann returned to Westwood Common, and very quickly used her house as a base for her craft. She sold fortunes, charms and curses and gained a reputation across the countryside for the truth in her foresight. Regardless of our modern stance on witchcraft, people believed Ann had the power to influence and change the very course of a person’s fate. They believed her to be powerful, and this made her a very wealthy woman. Indeed, she was always in demand and was consulted by women of all social standings, from servant girls eager to win the heart of a lover to wealthy ladies of great education. After Ann’s death, a great quantity of jewellery was found in her house, which was given by her customers in payment for her services; alongside a number of letters, which were reported to have contained the signatures of ladies of high importance and position in the neighbourhood. Here we see the contradiction which would mark Ann’s life.
Her foresight and skills as a soothsayer were seen as a commodity to many in her community, who would seek her out for fortune telling, palm reading, love potions as well as hiring her as a curser, however she was ostracised from the community, met with indignation and even fear. They needed her but didn’t want to associate with her. She was generally avoided and met with hostility. One cannot help but wonder, if she was so feared, why did so many people use her services? It seems that here Ann could symbolise the collective experiences of many women throughout history, women who diverged from expectation and were demonised, or presented as other.
Ann Morgan had a real talent for cursing. She was said to have been the best in the area, with her curses dealing a terrible blow. She was as in demand for this as she was her other practices, which demonstrates the widespread belief and superstition regarding such taking place well into the 19th century. She quickly gained such a reputation for herself that rumours started to develop, these rumours stated that Nanny Morgan was a witch. She is described in this time like a stock character or cheap Halloween costume, but this pantomime fear of the witch did not stop locals and those from further afield seeking Ann out, for fortunes, the settling of petty disputes, enacting vengeance and for the seduction of potential suitors?
Whether Ann Morgan considered herself a witch is up for debate, though perhaps not even relevant here. Though the community certainly painted her as one. One contemporary of Ann, Bessie Roberts, had described how she’d with caused great terror in the district, just like the Shropshire witches in Stuart times, and that ‘no one dared to call their soul their own’ when they were in her presence. A further person remarked that ‘she was a bad owd woman, I’ve eerd things on er that would make yoor flesh creep, but I’d be sorry to repeat the things I’ve eerd’. She was even said to have the Evil Eye. Another person claimed that ‘Everyone was frightened of her, and no one dared refused her nothing, for fear she should do something to them’. Such sensationalism presents Ann as being a powerful, almost inhuman being, capable of great evil, directly linking her to the long tradition of witchcraft in Britain. One must take such depictions with a pinch of salt, as much of this is hearsay amongst the disapproving locals. I believe the evidence suggests that Ann was a strong woman with her own unique personality, and capable of being self-sufficient, thus leaving quite an impression. She certainly peddled her trade well, and perhaps lived up to some of the stereotypes of such. Perhaps as the rumours spread, she began to embody the witch like a consummate show-woman. She was an intelligent, practical woman, and I like to think that she would have found some of these rumours humorous.
Ann was said to be a great animal lover and kept a number of animals right up until her death. Indeed, her house was once described as ‘swarmed with cats’. Some of these cats had rather comical names, given her new found status as a witch including ‘Hell-Blow’ and ‘Satan’s smile’. Which again hints at Ann playing up to the commonly held view of her. She was also said to keep dogs as companions and a ‘whole box of toads’ with her most beloved toad (and wickedest, though I’m not sure how one quantifies the moral compass of an amphibian) was called Dew, who was fed exclusively on communion bread (if we are to believe the folklore) and showered with kisses. (It’s nice to know he was well looked after). I think that Ann gained something from these animals which she couldn’t gain from people, true companionship, and she was said to treat them kindly.
The most awful and shocking behaviour Ann displayed, far worse than anyone else of her time and cementing her status as a witch is that Ann owned a whole library of books. I am obviously being sarcastic here, though my statement goes part of the way in demonstrating the communities reaction to her literary interest. These books were met with suspicion, and Ann’s interest in reading was generally seen as a negative thing. Indeed, these books were described after her death as ‘the wickedest’ and her bookshelf being almost exclusively occult tomes. Perhaps Ann did have some books about the occult, but there was more likely some variety in her reading habits.
This however demonstrates how a literate woman was still seen as dangerous and how attitudes to learning and being successful were overwhelmingly negative.
So far, we have a picture of Ann as a woman who has strove forward, cut her own path, and thrived despite adversity. She did not let her mistakes define her, which shows creativity. She has been a servant girl, a criminal, traveller and fortune teller, a capable and even astute woman made of multiplicities. This woman was not the caricature of a witch, the evil old woman in the gingerbread house, she was human. Her mistakes were as important as her successes, as they all served as events in developing her character. She could be warm to animals but cold to people, dishonest but dutiful and wholeheartedly deserved more than what she was to be given. Her strength is evident, and to have found success with a society largely set up to harm women like her is commendable. By today’s standards she would be seen as a business woman, and a success story. I certainly believe that she is wonderful. I want to move forward to the last phase of her life now, to her tragic death and its aftermath.
Let us turn to 1857, the year of
Ann Morgan’s death. It was the 12th of September 1857 when Ann, aged
66 was stabbed to death in her home in Westwood Common. She’d been stabbed in
the face, neck and wrist and hand as well as receiving other wounds. One of the
injuries to her neck had cut her carotid arteries, fundamental In delivering
blood to the brain. This was said to leave the scene incredibly bloody. She
would have suffered greatly in her last moments, which to me is incredibly hard
to think about. It is said that her dog was the only soul who mourned her, the
animal was found by her side, howling at his loss. I find this incredibly
Ann Morgan’s murderer was the 35-year-old William Davies, described at the time as ‘inoffensive’ and " a weak and silly fellow” who had moved in with Ann around 12 months before her murder. He was in between work for much of this time, and it seems that Ann was the breadwinner, through her fortune telling and taking in odd jobs. Their companionship raised a number of eyebrows within the community, with many frowning upon their seemingly romantic relationship, especially due to the substantial age gap. People preferred to believe that William was after Ann’s considerable inheritance (Ann was a very wealthy woman through peddling her trade, and one source suggests that William believed he was set to inherit £600-700 about £70,000 to £80,000 in today’s economy, at the event of her death) than in any way romantically involved with the woman. The evidence is not conclusive, and certainly he could have been her lodger, though if we look at the trial, it suggests the two were in some form of relationship.
However, soon another narrative began to unfold, which collaborated the accusations of witchcraft. Simple minded William had been bewitched by Ann, and thus, he murdered the woman to escape a magical thraldom, to break the curse. As we shall see shortly, this narrative was echoed by his lawyer, and other prominent minds of the time including the Mayor of Much Wenlock Richard Nicholas. This shows that the narrative of Witchcraft still held great sway in communities, in supposed civilised time of industry, rail and empire. People still believe that a witch could control and coerce people into doing their bidding.
There are conflicting accounts of how Ann’s murder happened. One narrative suggests that she’d sent Davies out to get some meat for their tea, and he’d spent the day drinking her money away in the pub. Which certainly could hold a grain of truth. Another suggests that it had something to do with a watch. However, it is known that after a great argument, which flowed into the streets at one point, Davies attacked Ann, inflicting the multiple fatal wounds. He then was witnessed leaving home covered in blood. Interestingly the witness was a relative of Ann’s, a young boy who lived nearby with his mother, both of which are mentioned in the subsequent trial.
The boy was the son of Ann’s nephew, a ten-year-old called John Rowlands. After hearing the commotion caused by the argument, he went outside and saw Davies leaving the scene of the crime, covered in blood. He quickly told his mother that ‘Billy (meaning Davies) had murdered his aunt’ and he was worried about her. He was initially ignored but as he began to get more distressed his mother, alongside a couple of neighbours entered the house, to find Ann’s body. An opened and bloody pocketknife, purchased by Davies just days before, was found carefully placed on the dressing table, covered in blood. This was presumed to be the murder weapon, and information of the crime was quickly sent to the police. The first on the scene was Police Constable Roberts, from Much Wenlock and Police Constable Alder, who, after seeing the bloodstained kitchen began to pursue the perpetrator. As well as the police, the local physician was called, which was none other than William Penny Brookes. William Penny Brookes is a fascinating character, who was born, lived, worked, and died in Much Wenlock. Amongst other achievements he was a surgeon, magistrate, botanist, and educational reformer who is perhaps known for founding the ‘Wenlock Olympian games’, the precursor to our modern Olympics. He believed that physical education ensured personal betterment and is worthy of exploration in his own right. Its interesting to know that such a man of significance is linked to such an underrepresented crime, and going forward, perhaps it will be important to see Ann Morgan as just of a part of William Penny Brooke’s story, as he is a part of hers. I cannot help but wonder what went through his mind as he entered the home and witnessed the bloodbath. He was an established surgeon, but even he must have been a little shocked at the aftermath left by this crime. He gave evidence at the trial of William Davies, and stated that he’d found the woman dead, with the severe wounds we’ve previously described. He was also present at her autopsy, performed by a Mr. James and Mr. Brookes, which confirmed Ann’s death had been caused by her wounds.
The police quickly tracked down and arrested Davies. He was said to be shook up, and asked the policemen if Ann was truly dead, and repeated that he ‘loved that old woman’. However as we shall see Ann’s remains were not treated with love.
Davies was tried for Ann’s murder, and the witchcraft narrative was used in both court and the community. The Huddersfield Advertiser reported that Morgan ‘Assumed to exercise supernatural powers… incantations appearing to be the very words of fate’ furthering the narrative that Davies had been coerced and controlled by witchcraft. Davies collaborated this by suggesting some of Ann’s books were in fact tomes of witchcraft and the occult and used as an instrument of fear. The community believed so, a number of people spoke out during the time, suggesting that William Davies had been controlled by witchcraft. The general consensus seemed that William Davies had done the community a favour by ridding the world of the witch. During the trial Ann was described negatively, and it was emphasised she was of poor character, ‘much addicted to abusive language and of passionate temper’.
I am more inclined to believe that the power dynamic in this relationship was abusive, rather than magical. Davies’s lawyer described Ann as a woman of ‘very strong body and abusive tongue’ so perhaps her bullying behaviour in an ill-suited relationship had caused William Davies to snap and commit such a crime. Perhaps they were equally as abusive to each other, Ann attempting to control the passions and behaviours of her much younger companion. Or perhaps it was a drunken argument that went too far, as others have suggested. We will never truly know, but I think its testament to the belief in witchcraft, that people would rather believe she’d bewitched him, than this being a relationship that went sour.
Ultimately, Davies was convicted of murder and condemned to death. He was soon granted a respite and sentenced to penal servitude for life. He was transported to Australia for his crimes, and as of yet I am unable to find much more information, though I intend to keep looking. Folklore suggests that the ship carrying Davies to Australia sank during a violent storm, and Ann got her revenge, with William Davies drowning, though perhaps this narrative comes from some of the more creative of Much Wenlock’s inhabitants. Similar stories can be found through the history of witchcraft, such as in the story of Anne of Denmark, James VI of Scotland’s wife, who was prevented from travelling to Scotland to meet her husband for the first time in the winter of 1589 by violent storms, which were said to have been caused by witches operating in both Denmark and Scotland. James would go on be responsible for contributing to the development of the witch craze in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, Ann’s revenge has its origins in well-trod ground, within the lore of the witch trials.
As for Nanny Morgan, her corpse was as feared in death as it had been in life. No one would carry out her last offices, and she was buried as she was found, without pomp or ceremony, still in her bloodstained clothes and missing a shoe. I have located her burial records, which state she was buried on 17th September 1857. Its states that the names associated with her were ‘Morgan, Williams, and Evans’. She received an Anglican burial, though where I am yet to find, and the cause of death jumps from the page, across the centuries… Murdered. Reading this simple word on her burial record had such an impact on me and I must admit it reduced me to tears. The final role in Ann’s life was that of a victim, murdered by someone who should have cared about her. She was far from perfect, atypical to her time, but she didn’t deserve her fate. Whatever problems Ann and William had, were exasperated by the conditions of the society they inhabited. Adversity, poverty, and drink will have played their part in her death. She should have been seen as a tragedy, the community should have condemned such a crime, and implored it would never happen again, but instead of this, after her burial, attention was turned to keeping her spirit from returning. A dead witch was just as much of a threat as an alive one it seemed, and even the Mayor William Nicholas and corporation of the borough feared her return, or that her belongings would fall into the wrong hands.
Thus, Ann Morgan’s books, alongside any charms or belongings were taken down to a pub known as the Falcon’s Yard Inn, and publicly burned in the centre of town. Folklore suggests that the mayor even had her house burned down, destroying any trace of the women though this is not proven. There is something very chilling about this to me, something I cannot quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Mayor had ordered this to happen, that by burning her things, they were destroying everything that she meant, they were wiping out any trace of her, they were literally denying this woman her existence and legacy. How many women have suffered the same fate? Perhaps this even symbolises a community that is ashamed of themselves, that they hoped by glossing over the crime, forgetting her, they wouldn’t have to face how they contributed to her demise. This whole story seems surreal, and it’s very easy to forget that though she may have been flawed, she was a human of flesh and blood and not a supernatural entity needing to be slain. She was a woman, and a victim.
Ann’s story is truly shocking on so many levels, as it demonstrates the very real dangers one faced when stereotyped as a witch, but also how women navigated a society which was set up to harm them. Women who diverged from accepted behaviour were at risk of ostracization, contempt and violence. One only has to look at the witch trials to see the myriad of ways in which men enacted cruelty against women. Ann represents the fate of many women who were persecuted under the guise of witchcraft, but also the ill treatment women faced at the hands of men who purported to love them. She was a victim of domestic abuse, taken too soon at the hand of a lover. Her fate is sadly still a common one. I certainly believe she deserved better, and they deserved better. She was denied of her legacy, and through her story we can begin to understand Shropshire’s relationship with witchcraft. There was a persistent belief in its potency and power, but a fear strong enough to drive a community to attempt to wipe Ann Morgan out of existence. Though the folkloric story attached to her is important, she shouldn’t be reduced to such a narrative. Ann Morgan was a woman made of multiplicities, both good and bad and everything in between and she should be remembered as such. Her death was a crime, and I think even today this is forgotten about when discussing her, as the focus tends to be on her being a wicked witch or evil spirit. She was a woman who faced prejudice and stereotyping throughout her life, and even 166 years after her death, she is still being stereotyped. Her community should have known better, and I think we too should know better, and should not be as clumsy when dealing with her, or indeed other women like her.
Ann Morgan’s legacy deserves to be turned into a war cry, loud enough for everyone to hear. She was a woman, and she endured, and I hope that in this article I have done her story justice.