When I was 10 years old, we visited a small fishing village called Boscastle, that would later become ‘famous’ for the devastating floods of 2004. At this time it was known only as a windy, quaint natural harbour on North Cornish coast, favoured by coach parties and walkers.
As it was October it was raining, so as we walked back into the village from the coast path and saw “Museum of Witchcraft” on the side of a house set into the Cliffside, Mum and I, being proud of our dubious Romany Gypsy heritage (my great Nan had ‘the sight’ apparently) were immediately keen to go in!
The museum is now, as of midnight on Halloween 2013, under the same ownership as the people who started the excellent Museum of British Folklore project. Attitudes have changed too; at one time I was the only 5 star reviewer on Tripadvisor; in 2013 it received the Tripadvisor ‘Certificate of excellence’.
What is inside the Museum has also changed since our first visit 16 years ago (goodness I’m old). Joan Wytte’s skeleton is no longer on display, being buried in the nearby woods just outside of the Minster Church – she was known as the Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin and died in Bodmin Gaol, incarcerated as a witch, in 1813.
Richel collection © Jennifer Porrett
The 2004 flood damaged many items, but it also allowed them to redesign the museum, open upstairs, and add numerous displays of artefacts there had not been room for before, including the slightly overwhelming ‘Richel collection’ of sex magic artefacts, and many recent ritual artefacts from covens around the country.
However The Museum of Witchcraft is not just about witchcraft, it’s a capsule of social history, a time when people would go to the local Wise Woman for a good luck charm for their new house, to heal their cattle or find out if their lover was faithful to them. In some cases that time was not so long ago – people would visit Charlie Bennett in Local Tintagel to ‘charm away’ warts and ringworm well into the 1980’s. I remember being surprised to see, pinned up on a beam, the same rhyme I said each night to wish on a star.
Current visitors, once you’ve paid at the desk (adults – £5 children and elders -£4 Naughty Children and little monsters – £10) you walk through a sliding door to find a display of witches in advertising, art, and a secret fairy house for the kids – in case you hadn’t guessed they’re kindly easing you in nice and gently!
Next is a bit about the history of Witch persecution, with examples of a Scold’s bridle and a weighing chair, and a list of names for you to scour for mention of your own ancestors. Hanging from the side of the display are the more recent death threats received by the museum – the museum had to move twice before finding its current Cornish home.
You have to pass the Wise Woman in her cottage to get to the stairs, reminded that in a time when most people could not afford a doctor, and most doctors would only leech you anyway, a Wise Woman who knew her way around the medicinal properties of plants (even if some were a little far fetched) would have been a very useful person to have around.
Once upstairs you are greeted with the elements of witchcraft most people will be familiar with from modern film and media, examples of ‘voodoo’ magic, excellent examples of mandrakes (minus the shrieks emanating from the rather large, squirming examples in Harry Potter), and protection charms await.
It’s worth mentioning here that the owner of the museum when I first visited was the founder, Cecil Williamson. In a book called “Supernatural in Cornwall” Cecil is quoted as saying; ‘[if I] introduce you to a witch… I’d be introducing you to a law-breaker and possibly a murderer.”
Strong words, and indeed,’ Ill-wishing’ is perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the collection. Sometimes to help one person, you have to do things that are perhaps morally questionable to another, and a knitted doll with blonde curly hair, a small knife through her stomach, and a ballet shoe stuck with nails, are perfect examples of this.
Cecil himself was an accomplished occultist, a friend of Gerald Gardner – founder of modern Wicca, and was part of an MI6 operation to help the war against Nazi Germany using astrology and magic (yes, that was real, and apparently successful!). One of the newest displays is a fascinating, and touching display of war-time magical charms owned by soldiers. Oh, and a Hitler ‘voodoo doll’ that I’m sure was the source of a few laughs at the time…
Perhaps what makes a lot of these objects so fascinating is that many of them were found by accident – in the back of filing cabinets, behind chimneys and buried in the ground and in one case an entire attic space. One well known resident Harriet (previously known as Harry) was found in a nice box in a bombed-out Church in London. Probably sold as a saint relic, she is actually the head of an Egyptian Mummy! Give her a friendly smile and a ‘hello’, she’s been known to grant a wish or two!
I haven’t even touched on the sea magic, Christian magic, fortune telling and modern examples of antlered masks and the objects made by Gerald Gardner. It would take a book to list everything in this museum, and this is the same reason that I have been able to visit every year since that first gloomy November day and never get bored. It probably helps that my absolute favourite thing is museums that are crammed with hundreds of exhibits in a quirky setting!
Now, with my boyfriend in tow (I’ll be honest, I’ve seen a few husbands and boyfriends who chose to wait outside, worriedly checking their watches!) we always see something new, and I always leave feeling creatively inspired too, which I think is the mark of any good museum.
The Museum of witchcraft is well worth a visit for numerous reasons – especially on a wet and windy afternoon!