Molly Leigh – a Staffordshire witch?

St John’s, Burslem

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 Leigh’s grave

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.

Molly’s snacks

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.

Post industrial Potteries

Snowdrops

It’s a forgotten corner of the garden and the turf between is wetter than a car wash sponge.

But the snowdrops are beautiful. Their whiteness is perfect. They’re elegant and simple.

We’re no gardeners and the dog is no respecter of squirrels, lawns or shrubs. But the snowdrops continue to thrive.

They bring cheer and concentrate the mind, even for a few moments. There is beauty all around us if only we will stop to look for it.

White Rabbit – a short story

‘I can’t believe you met her.’ Her eyes were watery as she leant forward to pat my knee. I shrank away from her. I don’t do touchy-feely, not my thing at all. ‘Sometimes people say things and they don’t…’
‘I haven’t made it up,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t do that.’
She tucked her feet beneath her on the tapestry cushion. She wore a ring with a moonstone on her middle finger and another like a cube of clear blue glass on her thumb. ‘You’re honoured,’ she said. I didn’t feel honoured. I already felt as if I was wasting my time, stuck beneath windchimes and dreamcatchers in the back of a damp shop. She took a hankie from the sleeve of her baggy sweater and dabbed at her eyes.
‘And you saw her on Midsummer Eve?’
‘Hottest day of the year,’ I said, which was true though of course that wasn’t why I remembered it. I wriggled in the seat as she fussed with the tea things. This was as hard for her as it was for me, I told myself. I saw a lonely woman with too few customers but too many cats. She probably saw me as a shallow corporate bitch. All eyebrows, nails and first class to Dubai. Davina Mandrake she said her name was, but I doubted that was on her birth certificate.
‘I don’t have long,’ I said. I glanced around as she stirred the pot. I must’ve passed the shop half a dozen times before I’d decided to come in, wondering what I was letting myself in for. It was at the end of the arcade where the fallen leaves and crisp packets gathered, sandwiched between a derelict hairdressers’ and a shop selling figures of knights, trolls, wizards and dragons. A copper bell tinkled my entry between cluttered, dusty shelves of books, spells and potions. Straw crosses were hung from beams. Horseshoes were nailed above the door and windows.
I didn’t have to be here, but the need for answers had got the better of me. I’d been in a sales meeting at some dreadful motorway hotel and as I’d stared out at the trees and the reps admiring their Mercs and sipping coffee, I saw a white rabbit on the lawn. I don’t know if anyone else saw it, but it didn’t move for a long time. It just sat there, staring at me and I thought it had to be a sign. I’d seen that rabbit before, the time I encountered the odd woman. I posted a piece online, anonymously of course, asking for help. There were no replies and barely a dozen page views and so I forgot. One morning I got a message, random and out of the blue. You’ve seen her! We got to talk.
Davina took a marbled notebook from between the cushion and chair. ‘So, tell me. From the beginning.’
I talked, warming my hands on my cup. I told her it was a blisteringly hot day. It hadn’t rained for weeks and the papers were full of all the usual guff about train tracks buckling, hosepipe bans and eggs frying on London pavements.
‘I had this big presentation to do in Manchester, nine-sharp. I was up and out by six. Tolliver said no pressure, but you must win this one. I’d been up half the night rehearsing it, checking my notes, staring at the words for mistakes until I could no longer read them.’
‘You have an interesting job,’ Davina said. ‘I can see that you’re ambitious.’
I wondered if she meant she’d read my palm or my tea leaves. ‘OK, I hit traffic at junction 14, not even crawling. My phone started buzzing. They’d only gone and bloody cancelled. Could I do next week instead? I was livid. I swerved across and nailed it to the next exit.’
‘The only reason you took that exit was traffic?’ Davina said.
‘Well, and the job getting cancelled.’
I told her I’d turned off the roundabout and found myself speeding into countryside with no chance to make a turn. ‘There were no gates or lanes and I had this bloody big farm truck right up my backside. I drove until the first turning I could find which had to be miles. It was a farm track and I couldn’t turn back, so I kept on driving, panicking a bit as the lane got tighter till I got to the end. Well, it wasn’t the end, it was a ford.’
‘Summer Lane?’
‘Yeah, on Midsummer Day. What’re the chances?’
‘Midsummer Eve. It’s different. And that’s important. Now, you got out of the car. Tell me what you saw.’
I shrugged. I didn’t want to chance the company’s Audi in the ford, so I’d parked up. I turned off the engine and slumped against the wheel and cried, although I didn’t tell her that bit.
‘Were you upset, Laura?’ She pursed her lips in sympathy. ‘Sometimes when there’s trauma it makes people more open to-’
‘Susceptible to ghosts?’
‘If you like.’
‘No, nothing like that,’ I lied. ‘It was so hot. I went for a wander and stood on the little bridge. There was this straw cross on top of the wall as if a kid had left it there.’ I nodded up at the straw cross on the beam. ‘You’ve got the same ones here.’
‘They’re for protection. Did you feel like anyone was watching you?’
‘No, it felt as if I was the only soul for miles. I couldn’t hear a tractor, a car. No voices. Nothing. I could’ve stayed there forever.’
‘So, at what point where you first aware-’
‘I’m getting to that bit.’
‘It helps to imagine you’re back there. You know, to put yourself back in that moment.’
Despite my cynicism – I always hated this kind of mindfulness nonsense when the managers made us do it – I wanted to know what I’d seen that day, so I closed my eyes and sank, as she said, a little like sand in an hourglass into the tapestry armchair. I could hear hissing, buzzing of bees in the wildflower meadow by the brook. Icy, clear water ran between my toes, soothing my aching heels. Butterflies floated among the cow parsley. The sun was blinding, but I opened my eyes a fraction to see my only connection with the big, outside world was a wispy white trail of a transatlantic flight, far above, tracing two perfect lines in the blue. When my eyes got accustomed to the light I saw a white rabbit sitting perfectly still further along the bank of the stream. Its head turned and it stared at me, just as it would later at the sales conference. It glowed in the sunlight, a dazzling white, and I followed the stream, walking towards it. I thought it was a lost pet. A shaft of sunlight broke through a gap in the hawthorn, but the rabbit had gone. Vanished.
‘You’re sure it was a white rabbit?’
‘I know what I saw. Know what it means too.’
I’d smoothed down a clump of grass and was sitting and dangling my feet ‘I cupped my hand in the stream, gasping as the cold water splashed my neck and face. I was blinking the drops away when something moved. A woman was sitting there. She gave me a right jolt. Sat on a tree trunk just where the rabbit had been, across the stream from me, so close I could almost reach out to touch her.’ My eyes were shut tight, but I sensed Davina tense, the creak of her chair.
‘Describe her to me.’
‘Her hair was fiery red, and she had a pale, oval face. She wore a white linen shirt or blouse that glowed in the sunlight so much she seemed like a haze above the water.’
Something about Davina, perhaps her stillness, made me uneasy.
‘She was barefoot, and her long skirt was soaked and filthy where it must’ve dragged through the field or riverbank.’
‘What did she do?’ Davina said. ‘Did she say anything?’ I shook my head. ‘Did you speak to her?’
I’d thought she was a mental health patient or a missing person. ‘I smiled at her, asked if she was OK.’
‘And what did she say?’
I picked at loose skin on my thumb. ‘Nothing really.’
‘Nothing at all.’
‘She muttered something.’
‘What did it sound like?’
‘Christ, I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Laura, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that I’m involved, so anything you can tell me would help. And I know she spoke to the others.’
‘Well not to me. She was weird OK. She scared me.’
‘How was she scary?’
My scalp prickled. ‘Something was wrong. She turned to face me, and it was so slow. Like time had stopped. Like she was looking through me. Not hostile, but creepy.’
‘Rubbish. She wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
I got up, grabbing my coat, my bag. ‘OK, I’m done. I’m not a liar. I don’t have to be here.’
Davina gripped my hand, pressing my fingertips. ‘That can’t be it. There must be more. You have to tell me!’
I yanked my hand free and stomped out of the shop. I walked the streets, but everywhere in town seemed to be shut. I found a café by the bus station and ordered a mug of tea. When I had calmed down I felt stupid. I was the only customer and the owner was mopping closer and closer to my table when the café door opened. Davina held out her fingers, gesturing five minutes. She brought a mug of tea over, blew it and folded her arms on the checked tablecloth. ‘I’ll start by being honest then.’ I stared out of the window. ‘Yes, and something’s bothering you else you’d have cleared off by now.’ She glanced about her. Condensation dripped down the glass. Menus were laminated. Breakfasts ordered by the number of items. ‘Doesn’t look your kind of place, Laura.’
‘It’s not,’ I said, pushing my mug away.
‘The woman you saw is my daughter.’ She nodded at me. ‘She was reported missing on Midsummer Eve.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘She was part of a group involved in-’ She searched for the right word. ‘Bad things. She left and she tried to do good, to protect people, put things right. She was interested in good magic.’ She held my gaze. ‘You’ll think this is all a load of old mumbo jumbo, I’m sure.’ I said nothing. ‘But you got in touch, so something must’ve made you.’
I tapped my phone screen and scrolled to the images. ‘I’ll show you something,’ I said.
She wasn’t listening. ‘Midsummer Eve used to be a very important date,’ she said. ‘When folk were still believers. It was a powerful time for witches and spirits and all sorts of protection was used to fend them off: horseshoes, straw crosses, chanting rhymes. My daughter got involved with some bad people, so she tried to protect others. She went out into the fields and lanes to place the crosses at the entrances to the village like they did in the old days.’ She caught my look. ‘I know it sounds crazy. I made her a flask that night. I offered to go with her.’ She wiped her nose with the hankie. ‘I wish I had.’
‘What did the police do?’
‘Now it’s your turn.’ She said.
I tapped the screen and turned it for her to see. ‘I was worried about her. I thought something might have happened to her. So, I took photos of her. Except-’
‘She’s not in any of them,’ Davina said.
‘It’s as if she wasn’t there at all, but I swear on the Bible she was sitting there when I took these.’
Davina swiped through the images. There was one of a straw-cross where it’d been left it on the tree stump. She scrolled to the next image and dropped the phone.
‘What?’ I said. I stared at the screen. ‘No, that wasn’t there before.’
The white rabbit was sitting beside the stump.
‘It’s a sign,’ Davina said. She read from a card she took from her handbag.
That fly or crawl, or run,
Between the rising and the setting sun
Ere the Midsummer eve be done

I didn’t see her again. Shortly after her shop was shuttered up and her website taken down. A white rabbit is good luck in many cultures, but Davina would’ve known it was a different sign in this part of the country. A white rabbit meant a violent death, or a wandering, lost spirit.