NICKI HOWELLS writes about Molly Leigh, an alleged 18th Century witch in Staffordshire, whose grave is the only one in the churchyard that is the opposite way round to all the others
Margaret, or Molly Leigh, was said to have been born in 1685, although there are some reports it was 1723. She lived in a cottage in Jack field, which at the time was in the middle of the forest, close to the town of Burslem , in what is now North Staffordshire. There are differing stories, however, some say her parents died when she was young, leaving her very poor and alone. But others say she was actually born into a wealthy family of farmers.
It is said she was ugly, very ugly, and also had an eye deformity, but she could possibly have had the condition, which is known today as Down Syndrome. Whichever story is true, she was shunned by the townsfolk, and is supposed to have had a nasty temper.
The legend says that from birth she had adult abilities, she was able to eat a crust of bread within a few hours of her birth, and refused her mother’s milk – preferring to suckle from farm animals. Her only friend is said to have been her pet blackbird,who used to sit on her shoulder, and in a hawthorn bush in front of Molly’s cottage, that never blossomed!
Whether she was orphaned or her parents were alive, what is known is she sold milk in the nearby town of Burslem, but she was often accused of watering down the milk. Some say Molly was an accomplished herbalist/medicine woman, which would at the time have given fuel to the witch stories, she also is reported to have sold straw and hay which at the time was used in the construction of roofs
But it was her refusal to attend church that really brought Molly Leigh to the attention of the local pastor Reverend Thomas Spencer, who decided that her not attending church like the majority of people meant she was a witch. Anything bad that then happened to the locals was blamed on Molly!
The Rev. Spencer was reputed to be a drunk, and frequented a local public house in Burslem called The Turk’s Head. One day while he was in The Turks Head, Molly’s blackbird is said to have landed on the pub sign, and instantly all the beer in the pub turned sour and caused the customers to develop rheumatism. This angered the Rev. Spencer, who thought Molly had sent it to spy on him. He took out his gun and fired at the blackbird, who flew off unhurt. For several days, possibly weeks after this, the Rev. Spencer was bedridden with crippling stomach pains. Causing him to say Molly had caused this because she was a witch.
Sometime around 1746/1748, Molly died of natural causes, and was buried in St. John’s churchyard in Burslem. But her blackbird is said to have begun causing a nuisance in the town, by attacking people. Rev. Spencer decided to go to her cottage… possibly to loot it, or maybe to look for the blackbird. After a few drinks some of the townsfolk went with him and there they claimed to have seen Molly Leigh, sitting in her rocking chair by the fire,with her blackbird on her shoulder, this terrified the men and they fled!
Rev. Spencer decided that Molly’s spirit needed laying to rest, so along with some other clergy from nearby Stoke, Newcastle and Wolstanton, they went in the dead of night to the churchyard, with Molly’s now captured blackbird in a sack. They opened up her grave, some stories say they drove a stake through her heart too, and they put the still alive bird in with her and sealed up the grave. This wasn’t enough for Rev. Spencer, who decided that her grave, which was lying in the usual Christian burial position of east-west, wasn’t right and she needed a ‘witches burial’, so her grave was re-laid north-south. Where it still remains to this day.
Molly Leigh’s grave is actually quite a large tomb, standing approximately four-feet high, and would have been very expensive. Not the norm for someone who was reported to have been so poor… so why does she have such a big grave? Could it be someone – Rev. Spencer maybe- – paid for it to ‘contain the witches spirit’? Or could it add weight to the story, that actually Molly Leigh wasn’t a poor orphaned woman, but came from a wealthy family, and was quite well off in her own right! This we will never know.
Personally, I prefer the other version of Molly Leigh’s story, that she lived with her mother and stepfather, and had a good relationship with her mother. In her will she provided for her mother, and the poor of the town, by putting in her will that profits from her land were to buy six-penny loaves for the poor.
Children in the area have grown up hearing the story of Molly Leigh, and there are a few variations of a childhood rhyme,that supposedly if sung three times while skipping round her grave on Halloween, causes her ghost to rise… although I don’t think there have been too many people brave enough to say it three times!!
“Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh chase me round the apple tree
Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh you can’t catch me
Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh chase me down all the holes I can see.”
Sadly, Molly Leigh’s cottage was demolished in 1894, but the land where it stood is now a development of houses and a school. There is no way to find out the truth behind Molly Leigh’s story, but whether she was really a witch or just a misunderstood, disabled young woman, her name lives on in the area.
Nicki Howell says: “I’m a married mum of six, disabled pagan witch, who loves all things ghost and witch related.” Her twitter handle is @nickiH01