The South Devon Cunning Folk


Before the coming of the National Health Service and a modern police force, who would you go to if you were ill or believed that someone was doing you harm?

For thousands of years it was the local cunning man or woman.

Each community had one, a person who practiced magic, who could heal and offer protection from supernatural threats. Cunning folk typically performed several different services in their local communities, using what they claimed to be their own special powers.

They offered practical remedies for specific problems and were known by a variety of names in different regions of the country, such as wise men and wise women, wizards, and sometimes white witches. In the 1860s John Collander, the ‘white witch of Newton Abbot’, was apparently quite popular with women.

In the mid nineteenth century there may have been as many as several thousand working in England at any given time. While two-thirds were male, being a cunning woman was one of the few means by which ordinary women could achieve a respected and independent position in society.

They were often of a high social status and were at least semi-literate. While many genuinely believed they had magical powers and were there to do good deeds, money, power and social prestige were undoubtedly also attractions.

Cunning folk practised folk magic – also known as ‘low magic’ – but sometimes ‘high’ or ceremonial magic learned from magic books known as grimoires. Only a minority of people were able to read while books were very expensive. Accordingly, a great display could be made of owning and understanding such tomes.

While there were other health practitioners in a village, cunning folk were widely approached for aid in healing ailments in both humans and their livestock – often as poorer residents couldn’t afford the fees charged by apothecaries and physicians.

They used a wide variety of different methods, from the laying on of hands, using herbs and plants as medicines, and they employed magical rituals, including the use of charms and prayers. Cunning folk were also known to offer abortions, usually via a poisonous potion that would kill the foetus.

One specific service they offered was protection from witchcraft.

They were the providers of witch bottles and other domestic defences. When an old house in Watcombe was being renovated in the 1970s a mummified cat was found behind the fireplace – the animal placed there to protect the inhabitants from witchcraft. Even late in the nineteenth century, there were still those who feared supernatural assaults. In 1875 the clerk of Torquay’s magistrates received an application by a poor old woman in Chelston, who believed that her husband had died from the effects of witchcraft.

Cunning folk were Christians in an almost entirely Christian society. And so they used the symbols of Christianity – such as holy water, candle wax or Eucharist wafers – and magical words taken from the Bible. Regardless, some Church authorities believed that the cunning folk were in league with the Devil. Yet, even though laws were enacted that often condemned cunning folk and their magical practices, there was no widespread persecution. Most ordinary people could easily distinguish between witches, who were seen as being harmful, and cunning folk who were useful allies.

But there was always a danger of being associated with witchcraft, particularly when certain cunning folk performed bewitching or cursing for a fee.

One thing that witches and cunning folk were believed to have in common was the use of a familiar, supernatural entities able to aid them in their practice of magic. Most familiars resembled ordinary humans or animals such as cats and white mice. However, the familiars of cunning folk were often referred to as fairies while witches had imps or demons.

Cunning folk were also commonly employed to locate missing or stolen property and uncover the perpetrator. Indeed, just engaging a cunning man or woman could encourage the thief to promptly return what they had taken out of their own fear of being cursed.

From 1868 we have an interesting example of both property recovery and an alliance with the Church where an Ashburton cunning woman was called in to investigate the stealing of books from the music loft of the church. She reportedly identified the thieves by reading playing cards.

Another skill was the ability to locate treasure and to defeat any demons, pixies or fairies guarding their gold.

However, as society advanced and became more urban there were challenges to the craft. The Witchcraft Act of 1736 prosecuted those who fraudulently claimed magical powers, while the 1824 Vagrancy Act outlawed “persons pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means and device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose.”

One of the difficulties that the authorities had was in deciding who could reasonably claim to have access to the supernatural and who was a charlatan. It looks like the Teignmouth astrologer William Priestly was the latter. In 1893 William advertised that, for payment, he could send single people a photograph of their future husband or wife. He was apparently mailing identical photographs to people across the country. His foretelling powers unfortunately failed, and he received a month’s hard labour and costs.

While William had a decidedly modern technological approach, this was part of the stock-in-trade of the cunning folk – love magic which offered services pertaining to sex and relationships. One form was fortune telling where the name or appearance of a client’s future lover could be discovered, often using palmistry, scrying, astrology or the casting of spells or charms.

Over time the description of the provider of services would change, but the basic techniques would not.

In February 1926 visitors to Torquay Town Hall could visit Gipsy Leah who followed the profession of fortune-telling and described herself as, “a scientific palmist, helpful particularly in matters relating to matrimony, health or business.”
Discrete clients who wished to remain anonymous in their search for future knowledge could further arrange special appointments at the Queens Hotel on the Strand.

This was certainly a lucrative business. We next hear of Leah in April 1926 when she appeared in court in Exeter. An elderly Exeter miller had given £331 to Leah – equivalent to £20,000 today – who he believed possessed “superhuman powers”. The man had approached the palmist for a reading as his wife had left him and Leah had allegedly promised to bring them together again for a price. However, predictably, she didn’t manage to arrange this promised reconciliation.

The miller went to the authorities and a case of theft was heard at the Exeter City Quarter Sessions. In court it was revealed that Gipsy Leah’s real name was Ida Sheridan.

The 34 year old denied the charge of stealing. She had, she said, promised nothing but to see the old man’s wife and to advise her to return. She insisted that at no time had she claimed any particular supernatural gifts.

The jury – presumably taking the position that there’s no fool like an old fool – found Leah/Ida not guilty.

The cunning folk faded away as medicine and education provided other explanations and cures for illness and misfortune. The introduction of modern medicines and the NHS reduced the need for folk remedies.

And so, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the number of cunning folk had fallen; by the 1940s cunning men and women had vanished from the country.

Yet, other professional practitioners of popular magic, such as astrologers and fortune tellers, continued to remain popular. Also, the magical practices and charms of the cunning folk continue to be used and have influenced the development of the religion of Wicca.

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Kevin Dixon went to Audley Park – now Torquay Academy – and South Devon College when it was at Torre. After studying at Birmingham City University, he returned home because there’s nowhere else quite like Torquay. He then became involved in community and adult education, completed a PhD at Exeter University , and started writing about the weird and unknown side of town. He now Chairs Healthwatch Torbay and is involved in health and social care in the Bay.