Why Chelmsford’s ‘witches’ deserve their place on the local tourist map
The Essex city was a hotspot for England’s witch-hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries, but modernisation has buried all physical evidence of them and the victims are barely mentioned in guidebooks.
Chelmsford is known for its cathedral and Hylands House, but many residents are unaware that the area in front of Shire Hall was where the first ‘witches’ were convicted in a secular court.
Under the Elizabethan Witchcraft Act 1563, people who used witchcraft to murder were hanged as felons and not as heretics. Those who used witchcraft to harm, but not kill, faced one year in prison. Re-offenders were hanged.
Stereotypical convicts were unpopular women who had curious wounds or abnormalities, argued with neighbours, and owned pets, much like the Hatfield Peverel ‘witches’ Elizabeth Frances and Agnes Waterhouse.
According to a 1566 pamphlet, Elizabeth’s cat, Sathan, demanded drops of her blood as payment for his favours, such as killing a man who refused to marry her. She later exchanged Sathan for a cake from Agnes, who asked the cat to kill her husband and neighbour. When both women appeared in court, they were still covered in red spots from feeding Sathan. Elizabeth was imprisoned and Agnes was hanged.
Which witch was first — the problem with shoddy records
Great Waltham historian Peter Wells said Agnes’ more entertaining tale overshadows Elizabeth Lowys — the 1563 Act’s first victim.
“There’s many people, including media historians, who say the first one is Agnes Waterhouse,” said Peter. “Agnes is great, I’m not knocking that, but let’s just make sure Elizabeth’s first.”
Elizabeth Lowys, the Great Waltham ‘witch’, was convicted of bewitching a baby to death in 1564 and hanged in 1565. Although her case lacks the sensational elements typical in other trials, it sparked Peter’s interest in researching witch history.
“The pull for me was that it was in the village where I lived,” he said. “And I felt it was a story that I wanted to get across to other people, particularly because of the Agnes Waterhouse situation.”
Conflicting information makes reconstructing Chelmsford’s witch history difficult. Four pamphlets published from 1566 to 1589 and records of Matthew Hopkins’ 1645 witch hunts documented around 29 ‘witches’ hanged at Chelmsford’s Primrose Hill gallows out of the 65 accused. However, a trawl through ambiguous public records offers higher numbers.
Peter said Chelmsford is “the place to come for witchcraft”, yet its history is not as well-known as that of Salem, Massachusetts.
Chelmsford’s ‘witches’ are being forgotten
The 1692–3 Salem witch trials are a fixture in supernatural pop culture. They ended with 20 executions — 19 hangings and one crushing.
Chelmsford’s death toll is higher, but a Facebook poll showed about 90% of participants knew little to nothing of their home’s role in England’s witch hunts.
“The stories survive, but the locations where they happened have all since been developed and no evidence exists at all.”
— Alan Pamphilon
Chelmsfordian Strachan Coutinho, 33, said: “Everyone knows about Salem or they’ve heard of Salem. Not everyone knows about Chelmsford.”
He knew nothing about his hometown’s witch hunts before acting in the play ‘The Waltham Witch’, and the extent of the trials beyond Elizabeth Lowys surprised him.
“Most of what I learned was from this play. I’ll be honest, other than that, I haven’t really learned much else,” said Strachan.
Lisa Mathews, 58, lives in nearby Ingatestone, but knows of the 1645 witch hunts.
“I know a little bit about the history just because I’m interested,” said Lisa, a Wiccan. “And somebody gave me a map of all the places in Essex where there was a witch convicted.”
Lisa, who recently received a witch-themed souvenir from Salem, USA, said Chelmsford keeps quiet about its witch history.
“Unlike Chelmsford, Salem really sells its witch connection to tourists.”
The loss of landmarks limits Chelmsford’s witch tourism to tales
Chelmsford, however, turned the Primrose Hill gallows site into a residential area, tore down the assizes’ courthouse in front of today’s Shire Hall, and likely replaced the undocumented homes of ‘witches’. The Chelmsford Museum’s small witch exhibit is the only physical reminder.
“The stories survive, but the locations where they happened have all since been developed and no evidence exists at all,” said Alan Pamphilon, creator of the ‘Chilling Tales of Chelmsford’ tour.
Alan, 64, planned his 90-minute historical walk after going on York’s ghost tour and recognising Chelmsford’s tourism gap.
“I find it quite entertaining to actually perform it,” said Alan, who narrates the witch trials outside Shire Hall about ten times each year. “And I like to think that we’re providing something that Chelmsford hasn’t got. There’s no other ‘Chilling Tales’; there’re no other ghost tours in Chelmsford. We are the only one.”
“It’s part of our heritage. Perhaps it’s a dark side of our history, but it needs to come out.”
— Peter Wells
The historian, Peter, gives occasional presentations in Great Waltham about Elizabeth Lowys, and ‘The Waltham Witch’ two-nights-only play was based on his research. However, there are no memorials or events to remember the trials and help bring in tourists.
How to remember the witch trials’ victims
Colchester Castle recently unveiled a plaque in memory of the witch trials’ victims imprisoned there. Peter said there should be similar memorials in Chelmsford, where many of the castle’s prisoners were tried and executed.
“I’d hope that we get blue plaques going up,” said Peter. “I think we should have some sort of monument naming all of the witches that we know of that were executed in Chelmsford.”
There is also interest in witch-related events as ‘The Waltham Witch’ quickly sold out tickets.
Cast member Strachan said: “I think some sort of fair, like a festival, with actors reenacting trials would be an awesome day out.”
Lisa suggested the annual Essex book festival as a springboard for initiating other events.
“It would be really good if they did something to link up with Essex witches there. There must be books that would be relevant, or writers or historians to ask to come along and do a talk.”
Regardless of how Chelmsford remembers its witch history, those aware of it stress the importance of doing so.
“It’s part of our heritage. Perhaps it’s a dark side of our history, but it needs to come out,” said Peter.
“One doesn’t want to hide these things.”
Comment below with suggestions on how Chelmsford could incorporate its witch history into local tourism to remember the trials’ victims.