Legends of Canewdon by Mike Howard
Few villages in England posses such a long standing reputation for witchcraft as Canewdon, near Southend on sea. In old historical records the name of the place is variously spelt as Canevdun, Canudon and Canevdon. Legend has it that the name is associated with the Danish King Canute or Cnut, and means "Canute's Hill".
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Canewdon became associated with the Craft. In 1847, according to local historian Phillip Benton, the remains of a huge statue described as "a heathen deity" were unearthed near the village. Buried with it were a number of bones which crumbled to dust when exposed to the air. This stone idol, which may have dated from pre-Christrian times judging from the condition of the bones, was smashed up and used to repair the local road.
The first recorded instance of witchcraft in Canewdon dates from the 16th century when a local spinster, Rose Pye, was accused of bewitching a child to death. At the assizes in July 1580 she was acquitted of the charge. By the early 19th century the village had acquired a reputation for strange happenings and was firmly established in Essex folklore as the haunt of ghosts demons and witches. It was claimed that there would be six or seven witches living in the village as long as the church tower stood. Every time a stone fell from the tower a witch died and another took her place in the coven. Other legends linked the church, dedicated to St Nicholas, with magic, witchcraft and the devil. Anyone who walked around the tower at midnight was forced to dance with the coven, children danced around the churchyard as a protection against bewitchment and the devil was said to live under one of the tombstones. There were reports, even in recent years, of the ghost of an old witch materialising out of a grey mist by the church gate.
Why this odd connection with a Christian place of worship with the Craft? Firstly, churches were often built on pagan sites. Secondly, the church tower was built to celebrate the English victory at Agincourt. Tradition has it that the Canewdon coven was founded in the 15th century buy a local landowner who fought in France and had been initiated into the French craft. This is the real reason why the church was significant to local witches.
According to popular belief, during the last century the Canewdon witches terrorised the neighbourhood. They allegedly inflicted plagues of lice on their enemies, "owl blinked" or overlooked wagons so their wheels would not turn and inflicted minor illnesses on the local population. Predictably most of these alleged witches were old women who lived alone who kept white mice as pets. These were regarded as imps or familiar spirits in animal form and had to be passed on when the witch made her final journey to the spirit world, although sometimes they were buried with their mistresses.
Whether these local beldames were real witches or just innocent victims of village gossip is difficult to prove. In rural communities isolated from the outside world witches were seldom regarded as benign. Whatever the truth of the matter folk tradition condemned them as servants of the powers of darkness who had soled their souls to the devil in exchange for magical powers. Belief in witches was prevalent in Canewdon for several generations and they were said to be under control of a male wizard (wise man)who was known as the master of the witches. This sounds genuine for a coven of female witches led by a male representative of the devil (the pagan horned god) was a common pattern in the traditional witch cult of the middle ages.
In the late nineteenth century the holder of the title Master of the Witches was a farm labourer George Pickingill or Pickingale (the family name was spelt both ways) who lived in an old cottage near the anchor public house a few hundred yards form the church. Pickingill was known as a cunning man who could charm warts and locate lost property by divining. He was the resident village character and when the first motor car came to Canewdon it was old George who was photographed alongside it. He had a sinister side to his image as the local eccentric for people said said he could stop farm machinery by staring at it with his intense blue eyes and curse those who offended him with his blackthorn walking stick.
Pickingill was descended from a long line of East Anglian witches and that male members of the family had been priests of the Horned God since Saxon times. The first recorded member of the family was Julia Pickingill, the famous witch of Brandon who helped the \Normans hunt down Hereward the Wake and his rebels in the Norfolk fens. She was burned to death when the wooden tower she occupied was set alight by the Saxons.
Pickingill had gypsy blood ans was raised with the travelling people. His Romany kin venerated the black faced Mother Goddess of their ancestors and the young Pickinghill was encouraged to participate in there ceremonies involving ritual nudity and moon worship. This led Pickingill to become a devotee of the goddess and in later life he founded nine covens in southern England practising a heady mixture of East Anglian and French Craft, Romany folk magic and Scandinavian paganism. Each coven was led by a priestess of had to prove she had "witch blood" or had been inducted into an existing hereditary Craft tradition. Pickingill's use of priestesses, his veneration of the goddess and his contact with ceremonial magicians and occultists led many witches to condemn him as a renegade.
Pickingill passed into the spirit world in 1909 and was buried in an old (unconsecrated?) part of the churchyard. His powers, if local folklore can be believed, did not diminish with his death. On the day of his funeral as the hearse drew up at the church gate the horse trotted out of the shafts and cantered off up the lane. It was said that his imps haunted his empty cottage for many years until it was demolished and passers-by reported seeing their red eyes glowing in the darkness. Shortly before his death it is claimed Pickingill disbanded the Canewdon coven. Certainly little is heard of Craft activities in the village after the old magister died and his son, also called George, does not seem to have carried on the family tradition. Persistent rumours however suggest the Pickingill craft is still flourishing underground in the area and that remnants of the Nine Covens are still active elsewhere. Although the village has changed considerably in the last few years, with a modern housing estate replacing many of the old cottages, Canewdon still has an eerie atmosphere especially at dusk on a winter's evening.
After Halloween 1975 a pin studded doll was found next to a black candle in a wood near Canewdon which revived folk tales of the old witches. However this is more likely to have been the work of a practitioner of black magic than any modern witch. Legends persist though, and in 1977 a local resident pointed out to me the house of an old man in the village who was said to posses the power of the evil eye. In 1973 an Essex councillor claimed Canewdon was one of the last placed in England where witchcraft was still being practised. He said a coven meeting in the village was planning to cast a spell to prevent Maplin Sands being used as the site of the third London Airport.