There is no inscription on the grave. Other than a small roadside plaque, which perhaps understandably commemorates Wedgwood and has only a footnote for Molly, there is little trace here of Molly Leigh. Only the transport cafe – Molly’s Cafe (the sign is pictured below) – celebrates this famous north Staffordshire story. A week or so ago I travelled to Burslem – the Mother Town of the Potteries – to see Molly’s resting place.
Molly was born in 1685 and back then, long before the industrialisation of north Staffordshire, Burslem would have been an out of the way village surrounded by woodland. It’s hard to imagine as the church of St John’s is surrounded by a neat line of seventies houses, a breaker’s yard, wasteland and a busy cut-through road leading down to the A500 and M6. Just across the road from the church are three magnificent bottle kilns pictured below. It may be difficult to imagine how the landscape was 300 years ago, but there is definitely an atmosphere in the churchyard. When I visited I had to take photos between heavy downpours. The sky was black and a crow sat on a nearby headstone.
I heard a rustling and turned to see a white carrier bag floating and drifting in the breeze.
Perhaps Molly is not celebrated as the local authority is worried about Satanists or rituals being performed. She was an outsider almost from birth, marked for taking solids as a baby and preferring the milk of animals. Poor Molly was said to be ugly and she lived alone in a cottage on the edge of a wood. She sold milk but locals accused her of watering it down. She went about with a blackbird or crow on her shoulder, singing. She might be what we’d now call an eccentric. She was certainly a strong character and, in a God-fearing age, got on the wrong side of the local clergy by refusing to attend church. When she died her spirit was restless and she was seen sitting in people’s houses. She lived to a good age but when buried in St John’s churchyard (her tabletop tomb is above) she continued to haunt folk. Her spirit was forced into the trough beside the grave and her grave was moved to be set down at right angles to all the other graves.
She was been an inspiration to many, including another daughter of Staffordshire Sybil Leek. Sybil went about with a black crow on her shoulder and claimed to be a descendant of Molly. She emigrated to America and published many books on astrology and witchcraft.
Molly’s story has many versions and it’s difficult to separate myth and rumour from fact. What is fascinating is that unlike many other mythical figures in folklore and storytelling Molly was a real person. She had a will and there are other documents bearing her name.
I’ve written a short story involving Molly and can’t understand why more isn’t made of her.