The not so wicked Witch of Ewell

17th century Woodcut of a woman with stones falling around her and a man with a smoking musket and a dead animal possibly a fox.
17th century Woodcut of a woman with stones falling around her.
This and other images on this page were included in one of the reports of this case.

Once upon a time, many many years ago in 1680 when Charles II was on the throne of England, a young girl, Mary Farborough of Ewell village, became seriously ill in what was described as "an extraordinary and violent manner".

17th century Woodcut of a walking womanNeighbours of the family told Mary's parents that their child was bewitched. They suggested that Dr Thomas Bourne should be asked for advice. There was no health service in those days, doctors had to be paid and not all doctors were qualified and those that were had little knowledge of how the body works. Dr Bourne could not identify the sickness and immediately suggested that the young girl was "under an ill tongue", meaning that she had been placed under a spell by someone. He advised Mary's parents to conjure up the witch by burning Mary's clothes.

Mr and Mrs Farborough collected Mary's clothes and set them on fire. Whilst the garments were still alight an elderly lady named Mrs Joan Butts called to explain that she too had been unwell for some time but had felt compelled to come to see the family at their time of trouble. Widow Butts then collapsed in a fit. Sadly, on 12 October 1680, little Mary died.

Joan Butts had previously been suspected of being a witch and now rumours spread like wildfire increasing the deep suspicions by which Joan Butts was regarded in her community. On 5 October 1680 she had called at the home of Mr Tuers in the village begging for an old pair of gloves but a the maidservant, Elizabeth Burrige, was alone and sharply dismissed the request. Although Joan went away, she returned shortly afterwards to beg for a pin for her neck-cloth and that request was granted to dispose of a nuisance.

17th century Woodcut of a woman picking flowers and a man and a woman talkingOver the next fortnight the maid seemed to have fretted that she might have offended a suspected witch. Elizabeth complained fearfully of being harassed by various supernatural experiences. She claimed stones had been thrown at her both inside and outside her Master's house by ghosts and moaned about being pricked sharply in the back, causing her insufferable pain. She became hysterical and to stop her outbursts, her employer and another man pretended to discover and remove objects which could have caused Elizabeth's discomfort.

The next day however, Elizabeth set off early in the morning to milk some cows but encountered Joan Butts in a wretched state, sitting bedraggled amongst some bushes in Nonsuch Park. The maid turned in terror and fled back to her Master's house. That night, and over the following few days, Miss Burrige spoke of other scary experiences, fire-irons, a wooden bar from the street-door, bellows, and many things having been thrown at her. When she travelled the three miles home to seek comfort from her Mother in Ashtead, acorns and other nuts flew about, pewter and fiddles were moved and her grandfather's britches ended up on the roof of their house.

On 18 October 1680, barely a week after Mary Farborough's death, Mrs Burrige went to Ewell fair where she encountered and attacked Joan Butts, drawing blood in the process.

17th century Woodcut of a seated woman possibly writingPoor confused Joan was later charged formally with being "a common witch and enchantress" who had bewitched both Mary Farborough and Elizabeth Burrige (jun.). This led to her appearance, on 27 March 1682, at a Court in Southwark before the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Francis Pemberton. In a hearing that lasted only three hours Joan Butts pleaded "not guilty" but was faced by twenty or so witnesses giving evidence against her. Joan made some incautious remarks, which could have led to her conviction and death by hanging, but after lengthy deliberations the jury eventually acquitted her of any wrongdoing. She was discharged but her subsequent fate is unknown.

Elizabeth Burrige, spinster, went on to marry William Williams at Horley on 17 September 1684, disappearing from the area but presumably living happily ever after.

So was Joan a witch, or an elderly, confused old lady? You decide.

Further details of these bizarre happenings may be read at the History Centre in Bourne Hall in two pamphlets:-
  1. Strange and wonderful news from Yowel in Surry, giving a true and just account of one Elizabeth Burgiss, who was most strangely bewitched and tortured at a sad rate. Printed for J. Clarke at the Bible and Harp, West Smithfield, 1681.
  2. Trial of Joan Butts for witchcraft. Nonsuch Antiquarian Society Occasional Paper No.3, March 1973