13 March 2016

Witches & Folklore of Hove & Portslade

Judy Middleton 2001-2003 (revised 2016)

 copyright © J.Middleton
A group of witch stones collected locally; they are mostly flint but the large white one is chalk.

Witch Stones and H.S. Toms

Brighton and Hove are famous for their pebbly sea-shore although that sometimes leads to grumbles from keen swimmers trying to negotiate their way into the sea without too much damage to their bare feet. But amongst the millions of ordinary-looking pebbles there are bound to be a few of more lasting interest. These are the ones with a hole through the middle and sometimes you will find a pebble with two or three holes.

The holes are something of a mystery. It is sometimes thought the holes were made after the formation of the pebble through the action of the sea. But as most of the ‘holey’ pebbles are of flint that seems improbable because flint is a variety of quartz and it is a hard mineral. It therefore seems more credible that the holes were there right from the start of the pebble’s formation. You have to think yourself back into the far-off days when much of north Europe was still covered by sea. On the sea floor the ooze solidified into chalk while lumps of silica began to harden around a sponge, which left a hole when it died. There are other theories of course because nobody can be certain. But it is certainly a cause for wonder when you hold in your hand something that was created at least 65 million years ago.

 copyright © J.Middleton
Perhaps some of these fishing boats had witch stones aboard. Note the steamer at the end of the West Pier.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Herbert S. Toms as a young man c.1900 
Sussex people have always held such stones in high regard, calling them witch stones, hag stones, ague stones or lucky stones. They were used as a charm for practically everything. Some were strung among trees in orchards while there were fishermen at Brighton who always kept a few lucky stones on board their vessels; if the stones were secured by a copper thread that was thought to give extra protection against capsizing or drowning. A fisherman’s young daughter was once seen wearing a whole string of such stones, in graduated sizes, around her neck.

It is pleasant to record that a famous Brighton man who, as a scientist might have been expected to be too lofty to be interested in folklore, was in fact fascinated by witch stones. He turned his scientific brain to collecting and collating as much material as possible, both in the acquisition of witch stones and recording stories about them.

This man was Herbert Samuel Toms. He once worked as excavation assistant to General Pitt Rivers, no doubt gaining useful experience along the way. Toms became curator of Brighton Museum in 1897 and was associated with that institution for a period of some 40 years. As a youngster E. Cecil Curwen was fascinated by Toms’ ‘trim beard, fiercely waxed moustache and flashing eyes’ while Margery Roberts described him as ‘very tall with straggly hair’ and ‘rather out of this world’. There was a celebrated feud between Toms and H. Adrian Allcroft, a classical scholar.

Toms was the moving spirit behind the Brighton & Hove Archaeological Society, which undertook the first excavation of Devil’s Dyke and Hollingbury Camp in 1908.

  copyright © J.Middleton
The Booth Museum

At the Booth Museum there remains an archive Toms built up in which he documents the different places where lucky stones had been found as well as people’s different feeling regarding them. Some hung them up to bring them good luck while others considered them just the thing to cure ague. Then there was the old belief in them as a charm against the power of witches and the stones were often to be found hanging up in stables as a form of insurance against their precious horses being hag-ridden during the night. There were also those who simply enjoyed displaying them along a windowsill for interest.

Toms liked to think that this regard for lucky stones went right back in time as witness their discovery in Bronze Age and early Iron Age graves as well as being present in Anglo-Saxon graves. A more prosaic explanation is that the stones might have been used merely as loom weights.

Mrs A.E. Weller of Fulking gave Toms some interesting information concerning her mother Mrs G. Moore of Portslade. Apparently her mother treasured a small brown flint with a hole that was no bigger than a marble. She habitually wore it around her neck and when she died in 1918 the stone was placed inside her coffin. There is an interesting parallel to this when in the early 1920s the grave of a Neolithic woman was excavated at Whitehawk Hill, Brighton and two small holed stones were discovered with her.

Witch Bottle
Pitt Rivers Museum
An artistic impression of 
a remarkable witch bottle.

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, named after Toms’ erstwhile colleague, there is a fascinating object described as a witch bottle. A facetious question is often asked: is there really a witch inside the bottle? In fact such witch bottles were used to deliver a curse and buried in the ground.

A similar example has been found in Sussex, being excavated in 1972 in the grounds of Michelham Priory and put on show in their museum. Rather than a bottle it is a Bellarmine Jar and was made of ceramic and there was usually a face on the side of such jars. It was popular with witches for use as a ‘hexing’ vehicle.

But such a jar could also be used as a good luck talisman if for example it was set into the walls of a house. The use of Bellarmine Jars for these purposes was first recorded in the 17th century.

Inside the Bellarmine Jar found at Michelham Priory were some rusty pins, also on display, and an unidentified dark lump – perhaps an animal heart? This would seem to indicate a curse rather than a blessing.

Witches at Hove?

On the whole Sussex in the 16th century did not follow the trend for witch-hunting prevalent in other places in England; although the years 1558/1559 recorded the highest number of indictments for witchcraft in the home circuit. During the years 1588 to 1736 only seventeen people were indicted for witchcraft and the sole recorded execution of a witch in Sussex took place in 1575 when Margaret Cooper was hanged at Horsham.

In the Archdeaconry Court of Lewes on 21 May 1588 Margery Banger, widow, and her daughter Joane, both Hove residents, stood charged with being ‘vehemently suspected to be notorious witches and common practises of the same’. Not long afterwards a third person was drawn into the witchcraft charges; on 4 June 1588 John Bradford of Hove was accused of being a supporter of the two supposed witches.

A trial by compurgation was ordered. Under old English law compurgation was the clearing of the accused by witnesses who testified as to their innocence. The compurgators in this case were Elizabeth Collen of Brighthelmstone, Joane Alley of Hove, plus Joane Bradford and Margaret Burton (place of origin not specified). As a result of this trial on 18 June 1588 the three accused were held to have sufficiently purged themselves and they were discharged. At least the accused did not have very long to wait before they received justice.

A Witch at Portslade?

In 1840 the Tithe Apportionment Map recorded the name Hag Track Cottage and Hag Track Croft at Portslade. In the 1842 census the name was abbreviated to Hag Track and agricultural labourers occupied the cottage. It is possible the name Hag Track was an allusion to a witch although Hagtrack was another name for fairy rings; these were circles of coarse green grass seen on the Downs supposedly caused by witches dancing there at night but in reality caused by a fungus.

The story goes that there used to be a witch living just over the brow of Foredown Hill in the area later known as Hangleton Bush. It is probable that the witch/wise woman dispensed natural remedies and charms, carrying on an ancient tradition in a remote part of the Downs. Among her rituals were visits to the Goldstone, Hove, where she re-charged her magical properties by dancing sky-clad (naked) around the ancient stone.

copyright © D. Sharp
Foredown Hill.

But unfortunately, she came into conflict with the vicar of Portslade who must have seen her actions as an affront to Christianity. At length the vicar succeeded in making her homeless, either by having the thatched roof removed or by demolishing the cottage. This naturally enraged the woman and she is said to have laid a curse on the site of her old home.

  copyright © J.Middleton
The large stone in the middle is the Goldstone.

The evidence for this story apparently was documented in some old letters that have since been sold to a collector in the United States. As far as it is known, the story is not mentioned elsewhere.

It might be coincidence or it might be a residual folk memory but the imposing house opposite the Village Green is called Whychcote (home of the witch) and when it was built it was near the old Vicarage.

copyright © J.Middleton

Old customs were still being followed in Portslade into the 19th century. In 1815 the Revd Henry Hoper, vicar of St Nicolas Church Portslade, recorded that the village people had performed an age-old cure concerning a magical thorn tree on the Downs, only a few years before his arrival in the parish. The ritual involved carrying the sick person around the thorn tree three times and bumping him against the thorn tree three times. In this case the ritual did not work a cure and the man died.


The Mummers performed a traditional English folk drama on Christmas Day. Their name derived from the Middle English mum meaning silent because they did not speak any lines. The drama always included a heroic duel between gallant St George and an infidel knight but the one who died was not always a foregone conclusion. Fortunately, there was usually a ‘doctor’ on hand to revive the slain one.

In Sussex the Mummers were called Tip-teers or Tip-teerers and they were still active in Shoreham, Southwick and Portslade during the 19th century. Each individual represented a different character and carried some badge of office so that the audience could readily identify them; the troupe always had St George and a Turk in their ranks. In 1883 it was recorded that Tip-teers were still calling at houses in Portslade to present their seasonal play.

Tony Wales in Treasury of Sussex Folklore cites Mrs Ethel Powell of Portslade twice: once in a rhyme about Granny Rumney on her pattens (wooden shoes) and the other about wassailing. The ceremony of wassailing used to take place at Christmas or New Year to encourage a good crop of apples. The people taking part stood around an apple tree and serenaded it, either with a song or rhyme, sometimes tapping the branches with sticks to encourage budding, and perhaps pouring a libation at the base of the tree. Mrs Powell stated that by the close of the 19th century it was only children who continued the custom of wassailing and it was expected that the apple-tree owner would pay them for their services.

Good Friday Ritual

On Good Friday at Hove people kept up an ancient custom of kiss-in-the-ring. In the early 19th century hundreds of people would arrive to continue the tradition. There was a special song to be sung too:

‘Hey diddle-derry
Let’s dance on the Bury.’

The last word is significant because the ceremony took place at the large Bronze Age Barrow that had stood for centuries in a field then known as Coney Burrow Field and now covered by Palmeira Avenue. It is thought that the barrow was the burial place of an important chieftain because of the treasures found buried with him including the unique amber cup.

copyright © J.Middleton
The unique Amber Cup.

There is a parallel between the Hove barrow and the old English epic Beowulf. Although it was not committed to writing until the 8th century A.D. it derived from ancient traditions. After Beowulf was cremated, the people erected a broad and high tumulus that was plainly visible to distant seamen. Then twelve chieftains rode around the barrow mourning their loss. See Hove's Ancient History page for more information.

copyright © Valentine & Co 
It is a remarkable coincidence that the Floral Clock, resembling a mini-barrow, was erected only a short distance from where the Bronze Age Barrow once stood.

It could be a folk memory of this sort of occasion that had the people of Hove linking hands around the barrow thus forming a living circle, the circle being a vital symbol to ancient people. No doubt the kissing part of it had its origins in some fertility rite, which taking place in the spring on a hero’s grave aligned to the east, also represented re-birth.

People liked to keep up old customs and even after the barrow had been demolished to make way for housing, kiss-in-the-ring still took place for at least another 40 years. In fact it became quite a rowdy affair but by 1897 the Brighton Herald was able to report that the practice was ‘only indulged by a limited number, and it was of a decidedly mild order’. 

Good Friday Skipping

On Good Friday communal skipping took place and at Brighton the tradition earned the name Long Rope Day. In Brighton fisherman usually loaned a rope for the purpose but in Hove any rope would do. Mrs Joan Redford remembered the skipping on Good Friday at Ruskin Road and the children used a scaffolding rope.

Margaret Powell in Below Stairs also remembered a scaffolding rope being used for Easter skipping; the mothers turned the rope while as many as a dozen children could be skipping at the same time.

Ernie Mason, who was born in 1906, remembered that everyone joined in the fun of skipping together, mums and dads as well as children. The rope stretched from one pavement to the other and sometimes a second rope was brought out so that the two ropes formed the shape of a cross. It was quite a feat of skill to jump over the cross. While the skipping was in progress, a rhyme would be sung about hot cross buns.


Behague, John Lucky Sussex (1998)
Candlin, Lillian Memories of Old Sussex (1987)
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Mason, Ernie A Working Man (1999) QueenSpark 34
Middleton, Judy Ghosts of Sussex (1988)
Powell, Margaret Below Stairs (1986)
Wales, Tony A Treasury of Sussex Folklore (2000)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp