LETTER: Pendle ‘Witches’ cottage’ is no Malkin Tower

Further to the story of the “Witches’ Cottage” (December 9th).

By The Newsroom
Friday, 16th December 2011, 1:58 pm

This story appears to have emanated from a press release on behalf of United Utilities and the BBC wasted no time in pouncing on the idea of “a ruined building having just been discovered” (reported in an awestruck tone) “in the shadow of Pendle Hill” (whispered for effect) containing a “mummified cat” (a bit shriller now).

They then wheeled on a chap in an undertaker’s outfit to proclaim the site to be that of “the infamous Malkin Tower - a major historical breakthrough” - and there we have it. Within hours the story that the meeting house for a massive witches’ coven had been discovered in Lanchester was being reported by our American cousins.

Hopefully, the hysteria and sensationalism should have abated by now and, at the risk of being accused of spoiling a good story with the truth, it has to be said there is not a single shred of substantive evidence to indicate this site is indeed that of Malkin Tower.

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It is disappointing that a major guardian of our heritage (United Utilities) should rush out such an ill-researched story. Given the fact that a private firm of archaeologists had carried out the excavations of the building, we might at least expect that any press release would be held off until a structured report of the site became available.

So ... stripping back the hyperbole of the story, what are we actually left with? Firstly, the “new discovery” was nothing of the sort. The building in question appears on the first OS map (1840s) and was partly demolished in 1902 when Smith Whitehead led the construction of the Lower Black Moss reservoir. At this time, the upper part of the building was removed and dumped in the croft adjoining the eastern side of the building. The ruin was then backfilled to form an even slope. However, it is clear from air photos of the 1940s, 1960s and 2009 that the extant walls of the building protruded from the soil surface - in other words, it was never actually buried. Further to this, the building was described as “a ruin” in 1925 by Joe Bates in his book “Rambles Around Pendle.”

Secondly, much has been made of the cat skeleton within the building fabric. However, this is far from being unusual. It was common nationwide practice to place dead cats within buildings to provide an element of protection against ill fortune for the occupants. As paper became more readily available in the 18th Century, and second-hand astrology books began to fall into the hands of those wishing to make a few bob from their more gullible neighbours, so the written “witch charm” largely replaced the cat as a popular token.

Even today there must be thousands of undiscovered charms, cats, shoes, bottles, iron crosses etc. hidden within older houses and barns throughout the area.

Thirdly, the onsite archaeologist described the building as dating to the 17th Century and this would appear to be correct. Certainly the construction of the internal doorway, connecting the southern cell to its neighbour, appears to be contemporary with the late 17th Century external doorway in the south wing at Barcroft Hall (Cliviger), the porch at Pearson’s Farm (Wycoller) and Winewall Farm (Trawden - 1690).

Elizabeth Southern (Demdike) is said in Potts’s account of the 1612 Witch trials to have lived at Malkin Tower for a very long time. On balance, then, her dwelling would have been built in the 16th Century but, even if Demdike lived in a brand new house in 1612, there would be a separation of a number of decades between the erection of the “newly discovered” building and Malkin Tower.

The ruined building was formerly part of a small farmstead with crofts, outbuildings and a barn and may well have been part of the Upperhouses estate. At the time of the witch trials, and for centuries afterwards, part of the estate was owned by the Robinson family and was eventually split when two sisters inherited.

This is possibly when the ruined building was divided by bricking up the connecting doorway. During the 19th Century, the properties at Upperhouses were inhabited by a number of people, chiefly the Hartley and Hargreaves families - in 1845, James Hartley, aged 10, was accidentally hanged when he became entangled in a cord and slipped.

The 400th anniversary of the witch trials looms upon us and this provides an opportunity to separate fantasy and fiction. Unfortunately, knee-jerk assumptions, such as we have seen in “The Witches’ Cottage,” do little to advance the cause of those who wish to approach as near to the truth of the matter as possible.

Furthermore, many of the foreign news reports relating to this story painted the people of Pendle as Devil worshippers who make a habit of walling up live cats for fun. Some might say all publicity is good publicity but I have my doubts.

In conclusion, then, there is a genuine historical story to be told about the ruined building at Barley - unfortunately, the story so far is without foundation (pardon the pun).