I was reading an article published by the famous Dartmoor folklorist Theo Brown some 47 years ago which I think typifies the beliefs and resources available to moor folk in days long gone by. It concerns medical treatment for both humans and animals administered by so-called ‘White’ or ‘Hedge Witches’ and the strong belief people had in their powers. The author focuses on those living in and around the small hamlet of Postbridge and clearly demonstrates the numbers of these ‘charmers’ or ‘healers’ that once lived on and around Dartmoor.
Theo Brown notes the importance of these mysterious people when she says; “In olden times villages depended on white witches; these unofficial practitioners were more readily available, more sympathetic about minor ailments, cheaper and probably no less successful than a qualified doctor. The methods were very odd certainly, but herbs and a shrewd knowledge of psychology played a large part. Now, with growing confidence in the efficacy of medical treatment, the white witch has gone out of trade, but the gift of charming remains, a consistently more successful method with some diseases than all the doctor’s methods. Charmers never call themselves witches, and their power is entirely beneficent. The gift is handed down, usually in the family, by alternate sexes (father to daughter), mother to son or nephew.”, p.223. It is also worth noting that in many cases where families were running on a tight budget they could not afford a qualified doctor even if they had access to one. So, again the only recourse was the local charmer who would provide affordable treatment of one kind or another.
What are the qualifications for a charmer? In many cases they are as diverse as doctors need today; the use and knowledge of a plethora of secret words, actions or spells and a strong belief in their healing powers and a local knowledge of their patients. I was listening to a radio programme which was discussing current doctor’s pay levels and an average figure of £90,000 a year was cited. In theory the charmer should never accept any payment for their services (although some did) because should this happen then they would lose all their powers as they were a divine gift never to be exploited. As briefly mentioned above the charmer’s patients could include humans, cattle and horses, so in effect they would multi-task the responsibilities of both a doctor and a veterinarian.
So to get back to Postbridge, Theo Brown lists eight charmers that at one time or another practiced in and around Postbridge, of these only one was male. This may well suggest that immediately prior to them there were seven male charmers who handed their skills down to their daughters or other close family females? Either way it’s their stories we are concerned with not their sexes.
The first example of a charmer demonstrating their skills in action involved the one-time landlady of the Forest Inn at Hexworthy, a local girl and Jack Warne who used to be the mine captain and the Birch Tor and Vitifer mine. One night a little girl with a terrific nose bleed was brought to the landlady who gave Jack Warne a slip of paper and asked him to pass it to the girl. On the piece of paper was written the biblical verse of Ezekiel, 16. 6 (Brown quotes Ezekiel vi. 6 which I think is wrong) which reads; “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.”. The little girl then read out the lines and her nose bleed stopped immediately. Apparently this type of charm must be written on a piece of paper and somebody other than the healer must pass it to the patient.
The second healing miracle once again involved Captain Jack Warne, somehow he had managed to badly sprain his wrist which I imagine would have been easy to do in a Dartmoor mine. For weeks the injury had been bothering him and so he went to visit a brother and sister who both had the gift of charming and lived at Merripit Farm in Postbridge. When he arrived he found the brother tending his ‘teddy’ plot and wasted no time in showing the man his painful injury. The charmer gently held his wrist whilst staring at the ground and reciting some incoherent charm, within an hour the injury had healed and Warne was back to full health.
The next charmer was a woman who lived at Archerton as the caretaker and by all accounts was a formidable lady both in looks and reputation. Always dressed in a long, black cape and a poke bonnet she did project a witch-like appearance. Her speciality was twofold; the ability to heal sprains with her favourite herb of Comfrey and an uncanny gift of prophecy. The locals were somewhat cautious of the woman and always did their best not to get on her wrong side unlike one local farmer. It appears for whatever reason he had annoyed the charmer and one day he happened to pass her in his cart. Without hesitation she gave him the ‘evil eye‘ and said; “Before you gets home you’ll have a spill.”, as he passed the old Greyhound Farm a dunghill cock rocketed out of the hedge with such a noise that it spooked the farmer’s horse and sent him flying out of the cart.
Probably the most famous charmer of all was known as the ‘White Witch of Dartmoor’, aka Mrs Webb of Stannon Lodge. Her medicinal skills were wide-ranging as were some of her cures such as peeling a reed and rubbing (known as striking) the sap into a wart which after a few days would disappear. She could also cure bleeding by some mysterious means and in some cases she could do this by telepathy, her patients being far away from her. A couple of less savoury cures were those for whooping cough and adder sting (bite). For whooping cough she would catch a mouse, fry it up and tell her patient to eat it. In the case of adder sting the offending snake had to be caught, killed, chopped up into small pieces and the boiled. As the water cooled a scum would form on the surface which would then be skimmed off and administered to the patient to drink.
Brown does not give a lot of information about the other three charmers except to say they were proficient at wart charming and lived locally to Postbridge. These were Granny Rowse, Granny Dower and William White who apparently used the same rush sap cure as the ‘White Witch of Dartmoor’.
Although these reports of charmers come from the mists of time it must be remembered that there are still charmers working their ‘magic’ today and in most Dartmoor villages, hamlets and towns somebody will know somebody who knows somebody with the mysterious powers of healing. Certainly there is a greater understanding of herbal medicine and I bet that somewhere in your house you have a preparation of some sort albeit fruit tea, herbal creams, lotions or pills etc. The only difference between now and then is that the practitioners are known to administer alternative or complimentary treatments.
Please note; after posting the webpage on Wart Charming I began to get emails asking if I can charm them or know of anybody who does and still they come through today – I cannot charm anything and those who know me would definitely say I’m not a charmer in any sense of the word nor do I know of anyone who is.
Brown, T. 1961. Tales of a Dartmoor Village – Transactions of the Devonshire Association – pp.223 – 225. Torquay: The Devonshire Press.