Witches are a common sight this time of year, casting spells with a cackle in spooky Halloween displays. But these seasonal cartoon hags are a far cry from the real ‘witches’ of Essex who form part of a much darker history in our county. During the 16th and 17th centuries, over 100 people were tried and executed as ‘witches’ in Chelmsford. While witch hunts did occur elsewhere in Britain, the Essex Witch Trials became notorious due to the persistence of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, who made it his mission to rid the county of as many ‘witches’ as possible.
Typically when we think of ‘witches’ we might think of older women, but people of all ages and genders were accused of witchcraft and subsequently tried, punished or killed. Usually what these people had in common was a sense of ‘otherness’ that seemed to arouse suspicion in their community, whether that was mental illness, queerness, wisdom of the natural world, or being particularly skilled at a craft. And of course, many women were accused of witchcraft purely due to their gender, too. These people suffered and went to their deaths on the basis of suspicion, unfounded beliefs, and moral panic. It is easy, then, to draw parallels with modern society, where marginalised groups, such as refugees or the trans community, are vilified in politics and media simply because they’re different.
On 29th October, as part of The Community Mile organised by The Art Place and The Mason Foundation, a small group gathered for an activity to commemorate the Essex ‘witches’. We had initially planned to walk to the Essex Witch Trial memorial in Admirals Park, however, adverse weather meant we took a shorter route and instead visited the street art on Duke Street by local artist Shelley Ings. We spent some time reading and observing the artwork, as well as sharing stories of local ‘witches’ such as Agnes Waterhouse, before a few moments of silent reflection.
During the walk we held and observed natural items such as leaves, twigs and conkers, paying careful attention to the way they felt and made us feel. When we returned to The Art Place we drew these natural items from memory, to connect us to nature, each other, and our own memories. Drawing strengthens memory because it requires a particular kind of focus, and many people were surprised at the quality of the drawings they produced. Participants also said that drawing in this way felt freeing, relaxing and mindful – perhaps collectively we channeled some kind of stress-relieving magic through this creative ritual?
It is important to hold the memory of the past in our minds as we look to the present day: who are the ‘witches’ of the 21st Century? And how can we ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself? How can we honour these people in ways that create relevant meaning for us today? There is no single answer to these questions, but I believe that creativity and community are certainly good places to start.
Hayley Wells is an Essex-based illustrator with an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art. Their first illustrated picture book, The Spectacular Suit, was published by Scribble in 2021 and their author-illustrator debut, The More Monster, was published by Pavilion in 2022.
Find out more about Hayley’s work here.