VERY appropriately, as today is Hallowe'en, we're taking a look back at evidence of the practise of witchcraft in Dorset.

Belief in witches was once commonplace in the county and discoveries of the measures taken in the past to protect against their malevolent magic are plentiful.

In addition to the amulets and talismans worn as a safeguard against the invisible menace of the black arts, protective measures were also taken to preserve the household from witchcraft.

Concealed shoes and even mummified cats have, from time to time, been found behind hearths or in the roof space of many Dorset cottages; in the village of Blacknoll in the parish of Winfrith Newburgh, near Dorchester, a mummified cat was found in the space below the rafters of a house which was originally three cottages, dating back to 1650. Sealed up for generations, in the same home there was also a Victorian shoe and vase found concealed behind the 19th century fireplace.

While the occasional discoveries of besom brooms (the kind made of twigs tied round a stick, the archetypal witch’s broom) hidden in the lathe and plaster of an old wall are rarer, not to mention finds of a pig’s jaw bone jammed above a door lintel, evidently, the favoured charm was a bullock's heart stuck with thorns, pins or nails.

Found stuffed up many a Dorset chimney, in one instance such a gruesome discovery was even made in a police station!

Considered by superstitious Dorset folk to be the most effective way of keeping witches out of a house, along with a rowan tree growing in the cottage garden, and the front door protected by the ubiquitous lucky horseshoe, the charm of the prickly heart was thought to be an effective deterrent, the pins and thorns tormenting the witch as she made her way down the chimney, a favoured point of entry, and breaking her spell. The charm could be rendered more potent still however if ‘maiden’ thorns were used, that is thorns that had grown the same year in which they were picked, and indeed pricked!

While the discovery of the vestiges of ‘counter-witchcraft’ measures may have lessened with the passage of time, installed in many homes during the heightened period of paranoia occasioned by the ‘witch-trials’ prevalent during the 16th and 17th centuries, the practice did continue for a significant period afterward, (in some cases continuing until the mid-twentieth century).

According to a report appearing in the Bridport News in March 1884, a tenant who had recently taken over a cottage in Hawkchurch, West Dorset, was troubled by what he thought to be a chimney in need of a good sweeping.

On investigation, however, an obstruction was removed, and found to be a bullock's heart, “into which was stuck a quantity of the prickles of the white thorn, some nails, pins, and other things.” Some years later, in April 1901 the same newspaper was to report a similar discovery made by a Bridport chimney sweep, of an old canvas bag found suspended some ten feet up the chimney of a cottage in Shipton Gorge.

Inside the bag, wrapped in paper, was a hardened, dried bullock's heart, “stuck through and through with thorns and pins.” The article went on to say that this was the fourth such discovery to be made in chimneys in the neighbourhood within the last few years.

Perhaps, then, the hayfork which was found when an old bread oven was unlocked during renovations to a cottage in Buckland Newton, near Dorchester, was also in keeping with the ‘pricking theme’, albeit on a larger scale, as the prongs would certainly have interrupted a witch’s descent and averted their unwelcome visit.

It would seem that even the local constabulary were not immune to the suggestion of supernatural transgressions however, as mention was made in the Dorset Year Book 1942-3 that, some forty years prior, during building work undertaken at Frampton Police Station, again not far from Dorchester, the fitting of a new fire grate “dislodged a bullock’s heart stuffed full of pins”.

Perhaps the cautious constable who may have been responsible could be forgiven his circumspection, however - after all the legislation against witchcraft in England was only repealed in 1951!