Suffolk’s newest Crime Festival – Stowmarket Library 27 – 30 April 2018
Crucial to the setting of ‘The Fressingfield Witch’, is The Fox and Goose Inn which nestles in front of the churchyard. Formerly the guildhall of St Margaret of Antioch, the structure was built around 1509 and has been a public house since 1710. The side facing the churchyard is an attractive mix of brick and timbers and there is an interesting carved corner post with the figure of Saint Margaret on the church side of the building. The post, quite naturally, appears worn and I worked it into the book with one of the characters touching it for luck.
The village of Fressingfield in the book is populated with real inhabitants from the 1891 census, mostly where they do not play a lead role – and even sometimes where they do. The publican in 1891 was 63-year-old Benjamin Powley from Burlingham, Norfolk, coincidentally bearing the same name as one of my nephews. Prior to that, he was victualler at ‘The Feathers’ in North Walsham.
Though serving as a public house, The Fox & Goose regularly hosted inquests. The following, extracted from The Ipswich Journal 8th November 1884, records the inquest following the death of Jonathan Carter, an integral event in ‘The Fressingfield Witch’:
Sudden Death – An inquest was held at the Fox and Goose Inn on Monday morning before C.W. Chaston, Esq upon the body of Jonathan Carter, agricultural labourer, aged 77 years. Harriet Corbyn stated that the deceased, who was her brother, had lived with her and her husband for the last four years; he had had fair health and witness had not heard him complain. He left home about nine a.m. on Saturday to be shaved, which was the last time the witness saw him alive. Several of the family had died of heart disease. Deceased had not for a long time been attended by a medical man. Harriet King, widow, said that as she was walking through the churchyard on Saturday morning, about 10 o’clock, she noticed someone lying on the path, and on going up found it was the deceased. She spoke to him, but receiving no answer she went at once for assistance. John Edwards, baker, said that in consequence of what the last witness said to him on Saturday, he went into the churchyard and found the deceased lying as described. He breathed twice, and almost immediately afterwards expired. Dr Anderson stated that he had made an external examination of the body, and found no marks of violence. Judging from his experience and from the evidence given, he was of the opinion that death was caused by sudden failure of the heart’s action. The jury returned a verdict accordingly.
Today, The Fox & Goose is a popular, friendly restaurant attracting a range of satisfied customers and even coming to the notice of The Telegraph. It is a far cry from the place of torture assigned to its upper floor in the book – a place where Matthew Hopkins accused Faith Mills of witchcraft and tried to extract a confession using the cruellest methods. Nowadays, the only cruelty is having to choose from so many delicious menu options. Time has moved on, in a good way.
This afternoon I spoke at Peterborough’s John Clare Theatre on the subject of ‘Witchcraft and Magic in the Fens’, an event organised by Peterborough Archives. My talk focussed particularly on evidence of witchcraft and magic from Peterborough and the surrounding countryside. I am always delighted on such occasions to hear stories from the audience, and on this occasion I was not disappointed. One audience member reported that, as a small child, her mother (who was born in 1891) suffered from warts and the family was unable to afford a doctor. The girl was accordingly sent to a Peterborough ‘witch’ who lived in a brownstone cottage at the junction of Cobden Street and Walpole Street. The ‘witch’ presented the girl with a snail; the audience member was unable to remember the rest of the story, but it is likely that the snail was meant to be rubbed on the warts…
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The Fressingfield Witch was inspired by articles from national and local papers about Mary Ann Corbyn and her alleged use of witchcraft to procure the death of her step-granddaughter. Below is an extract from the Framlingham Weekly News 12 April 1890:
“An inquest was held on Wednesday evening at Gooch’s Farm House, Fressingfield, before C W Chaston Esq touching the death of Edith Margaret Hammond, aged 11 weeks, daughter of Ben Hammond, agricultural labourer…
…Deceased seemed very queer on Friday, and early on Saturday morning was taken home in a perambulator by witness and his wife. On the way they noticed smoke issuing from the perambulator and deceased died after arrival home.
Sarah Hammond, the mother, said that when she took deceased out of the perambulator, the clothing was quite hot and dry and smelt of brimstone. She had no doubt but that deceased’s death was due to witchcraft and wickedness…
…George Corbyn of Wingfield, grandfather to the deceased, gave it as his opinion that his late wife had the powers of a witch and that he in consequence used always to try to do what she wanted him.
The jury found that deceased came to her death from shock to the system, caused by the external application of some irritant, the nature of which there was not sufficient evidence to show.”
… and it’s here courtesy of Publishnation who have helped me hit my target of publication by the end of October.
The Fressingfield Witch is a work of fiction based on a series of factual events from the 1890’s. It takes place in Suffolk, England. As usual, one or two of the characters come from my own family tree and the crime is solved with a combination of sleuthing and genealogy. The book blurb is below:
“During the 1645 Suffolk witch trials, hundreds of innocent women were convicted. Death and uncertainty stalked the land.
Fast forward to 1890 and two mysterious deaths in the village of Fressingfield stir up rumours of witchcraft again. Lawrence Harpham is dispatched from Bury St Edmunds to investigate. But Lawrence is still tormented by the tragic loss of his family in a house fire. Can he overcome his own demons and discover who is behind the flurry of deaths?
The Fressingfield Witch is a fictional murder mystery based on true events. Two of Suffolk’s darkest cases of witchcraft are weaved together in one compelling story.”
It’s the first day of a week away from work. The weather is disgusting. My dog is sullenly pacing round the house eyeing me with disapproval. It’s so foul outside, that today we are going nowhere.
I like a walk. It keeps the dog happy and my Fitbit from nagging. Today my Fitbit sits redundantly on my arm while I contemplate the pile of books I have been looking forward to reading, but have lain gathering dust on my bedside table while other things take priority.
The Fressingfield Witch, is one of those other things. My latest novel is a Victorian murder mystery set in Suffolk and based on a real news item that hit the local headlines in 1890. It was an allegation of witchcraft. The news item was only short, but had an immediate impact on me. For starters, it involved one of my very distant relatives. That’s always a good lure to a genealogist. And it involved death and witchcraft, so my inner writer pricked up her ears. Before I knew it, we had conjured up a novel from this tiny eleven-lined piece of inspiration.
I’ve taken a risk with this book. The real village of Fressingfield has been populated with actual people from the 1891 census. This will be like marmite to some. They will either appreciate the idea of real people living on in print, or they will disapprove of the merging together of fact and fiction. I hope it is the former.
The final cover and finished drafts are with Publishnation and should be ready for purchase very soon. All of which gives me the rest of the week to catch up with a little light reading of my own. Unless the rain lifts and the dog demands a walk. Doing a little rain dance now…..