Children from Blacko dig for the truth about Pendle witches

PUBLISHED: 01:16 08 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:49 20 February 2013

Children from Blacko dig for the truth about Pendle witches

Children from Blacko dig for the truth about Pendle witches

Children from Blacko are the first to examine the former home of notorious Pendle witch Demdyke, as Paul Mackenzie reports Photography by Kirsty Thompson

Demdyke continues to be an awkward customer, 400 years after she was accused of witchcraft. Said to be a ring-leader of the 13 Pendle Witches, Demdyke died in Lancaster gaol before she could be hanged and was posthumously declared guilty of murder by witchcraft.

In the centuries since the trial of the Pendle Witches their story has become a cornerstone of Lancashire folklore but now a group of schoolchildren are attempting to discover the truth behind the legend.

The youngsters from Class Four at Blacko Primary School have conducted the first archaeological dig on what is believed to be the site of Demdykes home, Malkin Tower. It is thought the tower stood behind the present day Malkin Tower Farm and the children were joined at the dig by the owners, Andrew and Rachel Turner, as well as members of the Pendle Heritage Archaeological Group.

But despite their best efforts, the artefacts the children unearthed could not live up to their expectations sample quote: I really want to find a skeleton, that would be cool, Eduard, aged 11.

Although they discovered a selection of iron window fittings which are thought to date from the 1600s, an old bottle and some 18th century pottery, there was nothing definitively witch-related, and no skeleton. Not that Rachel Turner was surprised: Its that Demdyke, she said with a shake of the head. She wont make it easy, shell not want them to find anything.

Rachel has been associated with the area all her life, having grown up at the farm down the hill and is well aware of the mischief the old witch can get up to. Since they converted the farm into holiday accommodation, she and Andrew have witnessed a succession of strange occurrences. Pipes have burst, doors have closed by themselves and a JCB has been tipped sideways.

The door wasnt a mystery, it always does that, Rachel added. But the JCB was very strange. I just went cold, I couldnt understand what I was seeing. A couple of psychics have told us, independently, that there is a flagged floor under there. If the children find evidence of a building there, I want to re-build it.

The couple have turned down several requests to explore the archaeology of the site but relented when the primary school contacted them.

Charlotte Dilworth, the class teacher and assistant head, said the children had been studying the witches story throughout the year and added: This area is steeped in so much history and a study like this really engages the children.

We want to encourage them to be interested in the history of their local area but also to question what they read in the history books and to search for evidence. The question here is whether these women were witches or not and although we are unlikely to find anything that will give a definitive answer, it would be great to find something which places the story here.

For her class though, it was also about finding bones. Weve found loads of worms and stones so far, said Eduard Handford, whose father Michael is the field officer for the archaeological group.

We have removed the turf and trowelled away at the soil. The soil changes as you dig weve found a few bits of old iron, but no bones yet.

And classmate Iona Dickinson added: I dont think well find anything that actually proves if she was a witch or not but I dont think she was. I think she was just an old woman practising her religion but that people said she was a witch because Catholics were being persecuted at the time. She might have used herbs for remedies as well and people might not have understood that.

The childrens research has been assisted by retired policeman and local historian Brian Foley who also led some of the Blacko pupils on a walk across the field behind Malkin Tower to an ancient tree which is believed to have been the site of a gathering of witches on Good Friday in 1612 which many of the witches who were eventually hanged confessed to having attended.

The witches are said to have admitted to killing at least 17 people by creating effigies out of clay and then crumbling or burning them, causing their victim to fall ill and die. Many of the women incriminated each other in their evidence, perhaps in a last ditch bid to save themselves or possibly because of a long-running feud between Demdykes family and the family of another witch, a woman known as Chattox.

Whatever the truth, the archaeological group will continue to examine the site and to try to defy Demdykes efforts to confound them.

The print version of this article appeared in the August 2011 issue of Lancashire Life

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