The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 5/A Witch's Ladder (Colles)


By Dr. Abraham Colles.


THAT the western counties of England have been in the past to the full as noted as other parts of the country for the belief in various forms of superstition is a fact too well known to need comment; but many are not aware to what an extent those beliefs still linger in the popular mind. Many "white" witches are living at the present day and practising their arts of curing, and among the poor are held in high estimation. Much of the knowledge of the older, especially of the black, witchcraft is, however, extinct, or becoming so; and therefore the following account of certain articles found which are apparently connected with it, may be of interest as a record of a dying past.

In the town of Wellington, in Somersetshire, I lit upon them almost accidentally in the following way: I was calling at a house which has been built within the last few years, and in course of conversation was told that formerly the site of the house in which I then was had been occupied by another building of considerable antiquity, on property belonging to the well-known family of Popham, and which had presumably in olden days been a farm-house. This house had been built with cob walls of great thickness; was covered with thatching also of some feet in thickness; while its rooms were so low that in some of them a person of ordinary stature was obliged to stoop his head to avoid striking the ceiling.

Some eight or nine years ago it was discovered that this building was in so unsafe a condition that its instant demolition was become a necessity, and it was during the progress of its destruction that the articles were discovered to which I wish to call attention. In pulling down the upper storey there was found in a space which separated the roof from the upper room, and to which there was no means of access from below—First: six brooms. Second: an old arm-chair. Third: a rope with feathers woven into it.

The brooms were ordinary looking heather-brooms, but with handles 80 decayed that they snapped with the least pressure. New handles were put to them, and they were used in the garden, so that they are lost irretrievably. The other two articles, however, were, I found, still supposed to be in existence, but had been stowed away in a warehouse belonging to the establishment.

I had them looked up and brought down for inspection. The chair was old and worm-eaten, square and stiff in shape, and with a rush-bottom which was much decayed. I am informed by a carpenter who examined it that it is made of two woods—oak and ash. Whether the combination may have any special significance I know not, and as the chair has been coloured black I cannot myself distinguish very clearly the difference in the woods, and give the statement on the authority of this man, who professed to have no doubts on the point.

But it is to the last article—the rope—that I wish more especially to refer. When found the various things were placed thus: In front the brooms (their arrangement uncertain). Then, spread on the ground, the rope, and beside that the chair. It is unfortunate that at the time no inquiry or investigation into the significance of these things was made, as year by year the number of those whose age would enable them to throw the light of their personal knowledge of witchcraft on the matter is lessening. Even since these articles have come into my hands two reputed witches whom I proposed to question have died before they could be interviewed.

The workmen who made the discovery of the articles declared them with confidence to be for the following purposes:—The chair for the witches to rest in: the brooms for them to ride on: the rope to act as a ladder to enable them to cross the roof. In fact, they regarded them as being all placed there for the accommodation of the witches, presumably to render them propitious to the house. I have been unable, however, to discover on what grounds they rested their assertions, but they had no hesitation in at first sight designating the rope and feathers "A witches' ladder." Such a name, I think, they would have been unlikely to invent on the spur of the moment, nor would it have been likely to occur to them had there been no tradition extant, however vaguely, of such a thing having been used. It is not of such a form as to suggest of itself the notion of a ladder, nor obviously could it have been used in such a capacity.

It is composed of a piece of rope about five feet in length, and about half-an-inch in diameter. It is made with three strands, and has at one end a loop, as if for the purpose of suspending it. Inserted into the rope cross-ways are a number of feathers—mostly goose, but some crow or rook—not placed in any determinate order or at any regular intervals, but sticking out on all sides of the rope at (or near) right angles to its axis. Examination makes it evident that these feathers had been twisted into the rope at the time when it was first made, not inserted into it subsequently—an opinion which was confirmed by Mr. Bubear, owner of the house, himself a rope-manufacturer, who declared that on that point there could be no doubt. The "ladder" then was apparently made for some purpose, just as we now find it. It was a piece of new rope with feathers woven into it, only that now the feathers are in a very imperfect condition, nothing remaining of several of them save the merest stump of the quill.

In all attempts to discover a satisfactory explanation of the original meaning and objects of this so-called "witches' ladder," I have so far been baffled. Whether it was, as the workmen who found it seemed to think, intended in some sort to render the witches propitious to the house; or whether, like the broom which used to be laid across a door to keep them out, it was intended as a spell to bar their entrance,—no one whom I have been able to find seems now able to say. In fact its use remains an enigma. The following, however, seems to definitely connect it with witchcraft in some way.

Amongst others who in the course of my inquiries were interrogated, was an old woman who was asked whether she knew anything about witches or witchcraft. She replied that she did, and on being pressed to say what she knew answered that she knew of the use of "the candle with pins in it, of an onion with pins in it, and of the rope and feathers." On being further pressed to tell for what purpose they had been used, she either could not or would not say. That she would not seems most probable, as there has grown up a great reticence in these parts among those who believe in witchcraft, and a great dislike to speak on the subject to unbelievers. Another old woman who was in like manner questioned, mentioned amongst other things used in magic "the new rope with new feathers," thus confirming the former woman, and adding the fact that the materials were to be new, as was probably the case as I have said in the "ladder" before us. This woman also professed to be ignorant of its use, though I hope one or other may yet be induced to be more communicative. These are the only instances in which I have hitherto been able to trace any remembrance still existing of the rope and feathers, but, unsatisfactory as they are in some respects, they seem to me to afford a very definite ground for connecting it with witch-superstition, more especially when considered in conjunction with the opinion so readily expressed by the workmen at the time of its discovery.

In the case of neither woman was any leiading question put, the mention of the "ladder" being in both instances made first by her and not by her questioner; and mentioned, too, as if it were one of the instruments of magic not less common than those which were spoken of at the same time.

Dr. E. B. Tylor has with great kindness taken some trouble in assisting me by looking up the question in various works on witchcraft and kindred subjects, but has, I understand, as yet found nothing definite. It is, he informs me, unusual for such superstitions to be very local in character, and a wider inquiry may elicit more information.

It is with the hope that this may prove so that I write this account, believing as I do that the ladder possesses in itself great interest, and is well worth the attention of those interested in folk-lore. I have transmitted it to Dr. Tylor, in whose hands it will remain for preservation among other kindred relics.