Strange tales from Es­sex

Amongst the thou­sands of names and dates that make up parish reg­is­ters, there are of­ten recorded anoma­lous events, from freak weather to six-toed in­fants and strange deaths. HE­LEN BAR­RELL shares some of her weirder finds from the county of Es­sex.

Fortean Times - - Contents - He­len Bar­rell is a li­brar­ian at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham. Her book Poi­son Panic: Ar­senic Deaths in 1840s Es­sex (in­spired by notes about a mur­der in a parish reg­is­ter) is pub­lished by Pen & Sword. You can find her at www.he­len­bar­ and on Twit

“Here To be born & die of rich & poor makes all the his­tory.” From West Bergholt’s parish reg­is­ter, 1771-1812.

Fam­ily his­tory has be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar of late: now that so many records are avail­able on­line, it doesn’t in­volve as much squint­ing at scratched mi­cro­fiche or rum­mag­ing in parch­ment at county ar­chives.

Parish reg­is­ters are vi­tal for any­one hop­ing to trace their fam­ily back be­fore 1837, the start of civil reg­is­tra­tion (in Eng­land and Wales); com­mer­cial ge­neal­ogy web­sites fight for cus­tomers by mak­ing these doc­u­ments avail­able. They be­gan to be kept in Eng­land from the mid­dle of the 16th cen­tury, but cov­er­age varies de­pend­ing on how well they have sur­vived Civil War, fire, flood, theft, damp vestries and hun­gry ro­dents. Al­though parish reg­is­ters’ main pur­pose is to record bap­tisms or births, mar­riages and buri­als, in many cases they were the safest place for the rev­erend in­cum­bent or his clerk to record the life of his parish, how­ever strange it might some­times be. It is thrilling to iden­tify your six-times-great-grand­fa­ther with his un­fea­si­ble 18th-cen­tury name, but serendip­i­tous forteana in faded ink can also be found amongst the lists of names and dates. For some years, I have been tran­scrib­ing the reg­is­ters of parishes in Es­sex and have stum­bled across all sorts of gems, some of which I will share with you….


The Great Storm of 1703 was per­haps the worst in Bri­tain’s his­tory. It killed over 100 peo­ple on land, and 8,000 mariners around the Bri­tish coast. Hun­dreds of ships were lost, and more than 400 wind­mills were de­stroyed. A largely ru­ral county on the North Sea coast, Es­sex would have felt the full force of this night­mar­ish storm, but its parish reg­is­ters are, in the main, con­spic­u­ously quiet about it, per­haps be­cause the rav­ages were so se­vere that there sim­ply wasn’t time to record it. Rayleigh’s parish reg­is­ter spares a cou­ple of lines to tell us that Queen Anne ap­pointed a day of “Fast­ing and Hu­mil­i­a­tion”; the in­cum­bent gave thanks that he had sur­vived the storm un­scathed. But a dra­matic

de­scrip­tion ap­pears in Purleigh’s reg­is­ter: “Novemr. the 26th 1703, about one of the Clock in the morn­ing, there arose the most out­ra­geous tem­pest that ever was heard or read of in Eng­land, it was held till seven or eight a clock in ye morn­ing, it lay’d naked most peo­ples dwelling houses, out Barns, Sta­bles & all other out houses, & mul­ti­tudes of them were lev­elled with the Ground, it blew down Steeples, un­ript our Churches, & made thou­sands of tall and sturdy Oakes, Elmes & other trees root body & branch to

sub­mit to the vi­o­lence of an out­ra­geous blast, that brought them to the ground, & made them fit fuel for the flames.”

Light­ning is of­ten men­tioned in the reg­is­ters, not sur­pris­ing when the church steeple would be one of the tallest struc­tures in the vil­lage and there­fore the most likely vic­tim of a light­ning strike. Barn­ston (1665), Bures St Mary (1733), Great Halling­bury (1738) and Great Burstead (1822) all record their spires be­ing ei­ther dam­aged or de­stroyed by light­ning. Abbess Rod­ing’s church sen­si­bly in­stalled a light­ning con­duc­tor, and this is men­tioned in their reg­is­ter in 1903.

Hat­field Broad Oak’s cu­rate made a note about an ex­tremely vi­o­lent hail­storm, which took place on 5 June 1795. “A tremen­dous Tem­pest of Thun­der, Light­ning, & Hail be­tween the Hours of three and five in the af­ter­noon ever re­mem­bered. The dev­as­ta­tion made by it was al­most in­cred­i­ble. The hail stones some of them mea­sured four inches in Cir­cum­fer­ence, and they laid in some parts of the Town 5 feet deep for eight days. By the vi­o­lence of the hail the Wheat and Bar­ley suf­fered con­sid­er­able dam­age. Most of the Win­dows in the Town were broke; and all the fruit Trees & gar­dens were to­tally de­mol­ished.” In July, he noted the in­fla­tion in the price of wheat (which caused ri­ots in some parts of the coun­try), though he adds: “But a prospect of a very fine Har­vest & the Wheat & Bar­ley come abt. sur­pris­ingly since the above Tem­pest – which was par­tial, and ex­tended not quite a Mile in length and a quar­ter of a Mile in bredth.” The same reg­is­ter records another harsh hail­storm, af­fect­ing a far larger area, on 24 July 1824, “by which a very large por­tion of the crops in the county of Es­sex were de­stroyed, the stalks be­ing as com­pletely sev­ered as if cut with a sickle.”

Six years later, on 7 Fe­bru­ary 1830, a se­vere frost is noted in Hat­field Broad Oak’s reg­is­ter: “A frost of 7 weeks broke up to­day. Tem­per­a­ture 12 de­grees be­low freez­ing point! Many per­sons frozen to death.” On that same day, five-year-old Bet­sey Rogers was buried at Hat­field Broad Oak. A note in the reg­is­ter records that she was burnt to death, pre­sum­ably as she tried to warm her­self by the fire.

The prac­tice of record­ing un­usual weather events con­tin­ued into the 20th cen­tury. Great Maplestead’s reg­is­ter records the dam­age caused by the 1987 hur­ri­cane: “On the night of Oc­to­ber 16th 1987, there was the worst hur­ri­cane in the south of Eng­land since records were kept. Na­tion­ally 15 mil­lion trees were blown over. In this parish more than a thou­sand fell. Four­teen came down in the Vicarage gar­den; four of them were about 200 years old. There was some struc­tural dam­age to the church and a few houses in the vil­lage. Here no one was in­jured.” It’s in­ter­est­ing how the tone lit­tle dif­fers from that of 18th and 19th cen­tury notes on ex­treme weather.


Just as un­usual deaths are re­ported in the me­dia to­day, they also ap­pear in parish reg­is­ters. Burial records did not de­mand a cause of death (un­like death cer­tifi­cates, is­sued from 1837 in Eng­land and Wales), but if some­one met a par­tic­u­larly un­usual end, then it might have made it into the parish reg­is­ter.

Binge drink­ing is a long­stand­ing pas­time of the Bri­tish. We find a burial in Beau­montcum-Moze in 1744 – in the mid­dle of the 18th cen­tury gin craze – of John Brasted of Ket­tle­bas­ton, Suf­folk, who “dyed suf­fo­cated with Geneva”. Quite why he was so spec­tac­u­larly tid­dly 30 miles from home isn’t ex­plained – in­deed, the “suf­fo­ca­tion” could even have been a poi­son­ing caused by cheap, im­pure spir­its. John Di­mond, “a re­puted good Fi­dler”, was buried in North Shoe­bury in 1764. He “had drunk too freely and fell into a ditch by the road­side from whence he had scrambl’d out, but ye weather very cold and wet, tis be­leav’d he per­ish’d by those means, lay five hours per­ish­ing and was found in ye road just ex­pir­ing, the Coro­ner’s jury brought it ac­ci­den­tal death.”

In 1711, two men were smoth­ered in an ac­ci­dent at Fin­gringhoe’s gravel pit. John Sy­mons is recorded in the reg­is­ter as “a

“The hail stones some of them mea­sured four inches in Cir­cum­fer­ence”

wicked and prof­li­gate man” so “the of­fice was not read” at his fu­neral. The sec­ond man, Fran­cis Baker, “suf­fered in the same calamity but lived some days af­ter and seemed to die a good Chris­tian”. How they had lived was clearly of as much im­por­tance as how they died.

Another death that might have left lo­cals won­der­ing if God was dish­ing out just desserts was that of Wil­liam Tay­lor of Beau­mont. In 1581, this un­for­tu­nate chap was “was kylled w. a bell out the churche Steple wh. fell opon hm and was found the cause of death.”

Strange co­in­ci­dences can be found in Lex­den, just out­side Colch­ester. In 1828, John Beau­mont was “killed by fall­ing down a well”; 17 years later his son, Jeremiah, died “by the fall­ing in of a well upon him.” Thomas Beau­mont was buried in 1828 in Lex­den, “found drowned” – whether or not this was in a well, too, the reg­is­ter ne­glects to say.

The word­ing some­times makes these deaths sound more amus­ing than they are: in 1832, 77-year-old Robert Barnard of Hat­field Broad Oak died of “old age ac­cel­er­ated by a fall down stairs.” Many died by the dreaded “hand of God” – a death which un­de­vel­oped med­i­cal sci­ence could not then ex­plain. The nu­mer­ous deaths caused by wag­gons, car­riages, and kicks by horses are the equiv­a­lent of our au­to­mo­tive ac­ci­dents.

Un­for­tu­nately, many reg­is­ters are frus­trat­ingly silent de­spite the parish not be­ing short of bizarre events worth record­ing. A grave­stone in the church­yard at High On­gar records two un­usual deaths. The stone, paid for by sub­scrip­tion, was erected in 1828 to com­mem­o­rate two lo­cal lads – John Lu­cas and Wil­liam Mead, whose

names ap­pear with­out com­ment in the reg­is­ter as if they had died per­fectly or­di­nary deaths. The still-leg­i­ble carv­ing on their joint head­stone tells us that: “These two young men while im­pru­dently shel­ter­ing them­selves un­der a Tree in this Church Yard dur­ing a Thun­der storm were killed by Light­ning.” The in­scrip­tion con­tin­ues in typ­i­cally windy 19th­cen­tury style, the stone hav­ing been erected to re­mind peo­ple that “In the midst of life we are in death” etc. To read the in­scrip­tion on this stone, which is now lean­ing at a per­ilous an­gle, you have to lie on your back un­der­neath it. Take care, gen­tle stranger: if it falls on you, there might be another op­por­tu­nity for a moral­is­ing mon­u­ment to be put up in High On­gar church­yard.


Some­times na­ture throws a curve­ball and ba­bies are born in un­usual style. Poly­dactyl chil­dren are un­usual enough to gain a men­tion in parish reg­is­ters; in 1737, Mary Wigh­bor­ough was bap­tised in the vil­lage of Ten­dring, near Har­wich in north-east Es­sex: she had 10 fin­gers and 12 toes. She died not long af­ter her birth, so her mul­ti­ple dig­its might hint at other phys­i­cal prob­lems. Less than 30 years later, another poly­dactyl child was born in north-east Es­sex: Paul In­gate was bap­tised in 1765 in Brightlingsea, an oys­ter­fish­ing vil­lage about 10 miles from Ten­dring. He was “born with six fin­gers upon each hand and six toes upon each foot.” He died two years later.

More un­usual was the birth in 1687 of Sa­muel Gon­ner’s daugh­ter in the parish of St Peter’s, Colch­ester. She was born “with but one head but three dis­tinct tongues, four arms, hands and shoul­ders, four legs, thighs & feet; two bod­ies join’d to­gether at the neck; the head stand­ing with its face be­tween the two bod­ies above the shoul­ders. Each body had one breast, back and all parts pro­por­tion­able to a fe­male child be­low the neck; it had two crowns sep­a­rated be­hind on the head, with very thick curled hair.” The de­tailed de­scrip­tion al­lows us to­day to sup­pose she was a con­joined twin. We shouldn’t be sur­prised at what hap­pened next: “It lived about an hour and a half and was after­wards carry’d up to Lon­don for a sight.” There is no fur­ther men­tion of this lit­tle girl in the reg­is­ter: she was not, it would seem, buried in her home parish, so was per­haps in­terred in Lon­don af­ter her re­mains had been ex­hib­ited there. Or she may even have been kept for pos­ter­ity in a spec­i­men jar and qui­etly floats there still.

Leg­end has it that dur­ing the Siege of Colch­ester, the Roy­al­ists placed a canon at the top St Mary’s-at-the-Walls’ church tower –

they called it Humpty-Dumpty. When the Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans suc­cess­fully blasted the canon to smithereens, they took half the tower away with it; the tower to­day starts off in Mediæval stone and segues into brick. Less than 100 years af­ter Humpty-Dumpty’s great fall, a child called Wil­liam Halls was bap­tised at St Mary’s-at-the-Walls (the walls be­ing the perime­ter of Ro­man Ca­mu­lo­dunum). A long note in the reg­is­ter ac­com­pa­nies his bap­tism, de­scrib­ing in de­tail the de­for­mi­ties that poor Wil­liam was born with. His jaw, mouth and nose hadn’t formed prop­erly, and he was also poly­dactyl; he only lived for 24 hours. The de­tail in this en­try should not come as a sur­prise when we con­sider it was writ­ten by Philip Mo­rant, an­ti­quary and his­to­rian, who per­haps re­alised his key role in record­ing the world around him for the his­to­ri­ans of the fu­ture.

In Man­ningtree in 1709, Wil­liam Gib­bins was buried, ap­par­ently “the tallest man in Brit­tain.” Was he in­deed? Alas, noth­ing in the reg­is­ter has been left to tell us any­thing more about this in­trigu­ing chap – his height, for one thing, is a rather im­por­tant fact that has been omit­ted.

More de­tail ex­ists about Ed­ward Bright, the semi-leg­endary 18th-cen­tury “fat man of Maldon” (see FT58:55), who tipped the scales at 43.5 stone (276kg). His waist­coat can still be seen to­day in Maldon Mu­seum, the marsh­land town where he worked as a gro­cer and chan­dler (there is even a road named af­ter him in the town). A bet was made in a pub that ‘seven hundred men’ could fit in­side Bright’s waist­coat: the bet was lost be­cause seven men from the Dengie Hundred (Hun­dreds are an old way of di­vid­ing up coun­ties into smaller ar­eas) could fit in­side it, but clearly not 700. Pic­tures cir­cu­lated of the seven men stand­ing in­side the waist­coast, and a bronze re­lief de­pict­ing this clearly chuck­le­some mo­ment hangs on the wall of a Maldon shop­ping cen­tre.

When Bright died of ty­phus in 1750, the vicar, Wil­liam Ben­ton, went to great pains to record in the reg­is­ter the re­mark­able ar­range­ments made for the fu­neral: “His cof­fin was three feet six inches [107cm] over the shoul­ders, six feet seven inches [200cm] long, and three feet [90cm] deep. A way was cut through the wall and stair­case to let it down into the shop; it was drawn upon a car­riage to the church, slid upon Rollers to the vault made of brick­work: & in­terr’d by

“His cof­fin was slid upon Rollers & in­terr’d by the help of aTri­an­gle and Pul­leys”

the help of a Tri­an­gle and Pul­leys.” Still mar­vel­ling at Ed­ward – the size he had reached at a com­par­a­tively young age, and the fact that his li­bido had shown no sign of flag­ging – Ben­ton records that “he was 29 years of age the first of March last; has left a widow now big wth her sixth child.” But all this aside, Ben­ton fin­ishes his long note in the reg­is­ter by fondly re­mem­ber­ing Bright as “a very Hon­est Trades­man, a face­tious com­pan­ion, comely in his per­son, af­fa­ble in his tem­per, a kind hus­band, a ten­der Fa­ther and valu­able Friend.”


One of the most fa­mous of the English witch-hunts be­gan in the 1640s in Mist­ley, un­der the aus­pices of Matthew Hop­kins, self­styled Witchfinder Gen­eral. In some cases, you can look through parish reg­is­ters and re­con­struct the fam­i­lies of the ac­cused and their ac­cusers. Mist­ley’s parish reg­is­ter gives us clues that ex­plain why Hop­kins was in the vil­lage in the first place: he was, it seems, the step­son of Mist­ley’s rec­tor.

When he was buried in Mist­ley in 1647, a note be­side his burial in the reg­is­ter says he was the “son of Mr James Hop­kins min­is­ter of Wen­ham”. There are wills that pin­point the Hop­kins fam­ily as liv­ing in Great Wen­ham in Suf­folk, not far over the bor­der from Mist­ley. Hop­kins’s fa­ther had died by 1634, and Mist­ley’s rec­tor, Thomas Witham, had lost his wife (who re­joiced in the highly un­usual but clearly Pu­ri­tan name of Freegift) in 1633. It would make sense for James Hop­kins’s widow to have mar­ried Thomas Witham, and a burial in Mist­ley in 1641 for one John Hop­kins “sonne to Marie Hop­kins (wiffe to Mr. Tho. Witham par­son)” is very good ev­i­dence to sug­gest that Matthew Hop­kins was Thomas Witham’s step­son.

This is im­por­tant when we con­sider at what point Matthew Hop­kins joined the witch-hunt­ing fray. Thomas Witham’s daugh­ter, Su­san Ed­wards, ac­cused lo­cal woman El­iz­a­beth Clarke of us­ing witch­craft to bring about the death of her son. At the time, Mist­ley had no in­cum­bent: Witham went to Lon­don as a preacher in 1643 and, in the tur­moil of Civil War, wasn’t re­placed un­til his son John Witham took over in 1647. With Hop­kins as step­son of the in­cum­bent and son of a vicar him­self, and with Su­san the wife of an im­por­tant and wealthy Mist­ley res­i­dent, they had author­ity in the parish and were plugged into so­cial net­works, which in­cluded the Jus­tices of the Peace who would pros­e­cute the ‘witches’.

So when Matthew Hop­kins took to the stage as a Witchfinder, he was in fact aveng­ing the death of his (step-) nephew. What­ever ex­cesses his later witchfind­ing might have reached, it ap­pears to have be­gun as a per­sonal, fam­ily vendetta.


In 1884, an earth­quake vis­ited north-east Es­sex. It caused ter­ri­ble struc­tural dam­age, killed two peo­ple and (as you shall soon see) prob­a­bly set the stage for a haunt­ing. But it wasn’t the first time the area had known the ground to shake. Thurs­day 8 Septem­ber 1692 was a mem­o­rable day, for at about two o’clock that af­ter­noon an earth­quake was felt across a wide area of Europe – not just in Eng­land, but also in France, the Nether­lands and parts of Ger­many. At the very mo­ment this quake struck, two stone­ma­sons were at the top of St Peter’s church in Colch­ester, plas­ter­ing the steeple. Both men swore after­wards (no doubt they swore at the time, too, when their scaf­fold­ing wob­bled) that “the steeple parted so wide in the midst that they could have put their hand into the crack or cleft, and im­me­di­ately shut up close again with­out any dam­age to the work­men who ex­pected all would have fallen down or to the steeple it­self. Most of the houses here and else­where shook, part of a chim­ney fell down on North Hill, and very many who were sen­si­ble of it were

taken at the same time with a gid­dy­ness in their heads.” This tes­ti­mony was writ­ten in St Peter’s parish reg­is­ter by the rev­erend in­cum­bent, who signed his name, thus giv­ing the re­port an air of author­ity.

Af­ter sev­eral years of care­fully record­ing in his parish reg­is­ter the storms and bad win­ters that dam­aged his par­son­age, Rev­erend Roberts of Rayleigh found him­self re­port­ing strange­ness in the skies. On 22 April 1715, “there was a to­tal eclipse of the Sun be­tween nine and tenn of the clock, and was vis­i­ble here at Rayleigh, & when that glo­ri­ous Lu­mi­nary was ob­scured sev­eral stars ap­peared for some min­utes.” Less than a year later, on 6 March 1716, “be­tween seven & eight a clock in the evening were seen me­te­ors or fiery Ap­pari­tions, which caused a Ter­ror in the Be­hold­ing.” Wil­liam Whis­ton’s pam­phlet, pithily en­ti­tled An Ac­count of a Sur­priz­ing Me­teor Seen in the Air, March the 6th, 1715/16, at Night, re­ports his ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing the me­teor over Arch­way in Lon­don. He vividly de­scribes the me­teor, and the ef­fect of strange lights on the clouds, and goes on to say that the North­ern Lights were seen over Lon­don at the same time. By 1715, the Age of En­light­en­ment was hold­ing sway over many minds; even so, a me­teor shower danc­ing through the heav­ens with the North­ern Lights must have been amaz­ing to see; no won­der it “caused a Ter­ror in the Be­hold­ing”.


Lan­gen­hoe is a vil­lage of build­ings scat­tered along the road to Mersea Is­land. This an­cient road boasts a 2,000-year-old Ro­man burial mound, and lo­cals claim to have heard a metal­lic clank­ing as they have passed it, as if a sword had struck the shield of a ghostly Ro­man war­rior. But from the late 1930s and on into the 1950s, strange re­ports came from Rev­erend Merryweather, who claimed that Lan­gen­hoe church was haunted.

All man­ner of phe­nom­ena were re­ported: full ap­pari­tions of robed fig­ures passed through long bricked-up door­ways; Gre­go­rian chants filled the church when it was oth­er­wise empty; snatched words from an­cient con­ver­sa­tions were over­heard; can­dles be­haved oddly; even the ghost of a man in a tweed suit was seen. The haunt­ing ex­tended be­yond the church: in a nearby farm­house, Merryweather claimed to have ex­pe­ri­enced an in­vis­i­ble woman’s em­brace. Rev­erend John Cran­mer Den­ing vis­ited Merryweather and wrote The Rest­less Spir­its of Lan­gen­hoe: The Ex­cit­ing True Story of a Haunted Es­sex Church. As the Angli­can clergy aren’t sup­posed to com­mune with the spir­its, Den­ing has to spend part of the book jus­ti­fy­ing his in­ter­est in para­nor­mal mat­ters. It per­haps helped that the haunt­ing of Bor­ley Rec­tory (see FT229:31), 22 miles (35km) from Lan­gen­hoe,

was fresh in the minds of the Es­sex clergy: the Bishop of Colch­ester had had his hair parted by a lev­i­tat­ing stone at Bor­ley, so he was open to Merryweather’s re­port of Lan­gen­hoe’s ghosts.

Some of Merryweather’s ex­pe­ri­ences can doubt­less be ex­plained away by the struc­tural dam­age caused to the Nor­man church dur­ing the 1884 Colch­ester Earth­quake. Vir­ley’s church, six miles (10km) from Lan­gen­hoe, was ut­terly de­stroyed by the quake, and the dam­age to Lan­gen­hoe’s church would lead to its de­mo­li­tion in the 1960s. Cracks in the walls, both seen and un­seen, would lead to draughts that blew out can­dles, and winds gust­ing through from dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions and at dif­fer­ent speeds com­bin­ing with vary­ing air tem­per­a­tures could well cause the au­di­tory phe­nom­ena Merryweather ex­pe­ri­enced, par­tic­u­larly the ethe­real Gre­go­rian chant­ing. But how could it ex­plain the vis­ual phe­nom­ena? It de­pends on which the­ory of haunt­ing one sub­scribes to, but per­haps the vi­o­lent shak­ing of the earth had un­set­tled dor­mant mem­o­ries within the stone-tape, or had reawak­ened slum­ber­ing spir­its.

Not that this has much to do with parish reg­is­ters, as Merryweather’s notes on the haunt­ing were kept in a di­ary. But he be­lieved that the ghosts he en­coun­tered were con­nected with the Walde­grave fam­ily (rel­a­tives of this au­thor) who were linked with the Bor­ley haunt­ing: at one point, they had owned the manor of Lan­gen­hoe.

Lan­gen­hoe’s reg­is­ter cov­er­ing 1792-1812 con­tains a photo of Merryweather tucked be­tween the pages, as well as a post­card show­ing the earth­quake dam­age suf­fered by the church. Added af­ter a pre­vi­ous in­cum­bent’s care­ful cur­sive records of bap­tisms and buri­als 100 years be­fore, there are nu­mer­ous notes in Merryweather’s hand about the Walde­graves, in­clud­ing quotes from Paul Ta­bori’s Harry Price: Bi­og­ra­phy of a Ghost Hunter and AC Hen­ning’s Haunted Bor­ley. Hen­ning was Bor­ley’s rec­tor and had ex­pe­ri­enced ghostly phe­nom­ena too; he may even have been an ac­quain­tance of Merryweather’s.

Merryweather must have made these notes dur­ing the haunt­ing of Lan­gen­hoe; it is easy to pic­ture him, like an MR James char­ac­ter, por­ing over books and parish records in the vestry of his haunted church, look­ing for an ex­pla­na­tion for his un­canny ex­pe­ri­ences. And then, like so many oth­ers be­fore him, whether writ­ing about storms, earth­quakes, poly­dactyl ba­bies or a death caused by over-in­dul­gence of gin, he recorded it in the pages of his parish reg­is­ter.

If you’re able to read old hand­writ­ing (or happy to learn how), and keen to find parish reg­is­ter forteana your­self, the Free REG project ( is look­ing for vol­un­teers to tran­scribe parish reg­is­ters from across the UK.

NOTES 1 Back­ground on Matthew Hop­kins’s in­volve­ment in witch tri­als comes from Mal­colm Gaskill’s bril­liant Witch find­ers: A Seven­teeth­cen­tury English Tragedy (Lon­don: John Mur­ray, 2006); see also his ar­ti­cle in FT198:30-36. On find­ing the fam­ily link be­tween Hop­kins and Ed­wards, I con­tacted Gaskill as he hadn’t in­cluded it in his book. He ex­plained that he had missed it when re­search­ing Hop­kins, but that another his­to­rian, Frances Tim­bers, had spot­ted the Hop­kins/Ed­wards con­nec­tion. She men­tions it in her ar­ti­cle “Witches Sect or Prayer Meet­ing?: Matthew Hop­kins re­vis­ited” in the Women’s His­tory Re­view (vol. 17, 2008, pp21-37).

Per­haps the vi­o­lent shak­ing of the earth had reawak­ened slum­ber­ing spir­its

LEFT: Panic on the streets of Colch­ester dur­ing the Es­sex earth­quake of 1884. BELOW: The church at Lan­gen­hoe sus­tained ter­ri­ble dam­age.

LEFT: Eward Bright, the 18th cen­tury “fat man of Maldon”. BELOW: Bright’s waist­coat com­mem­o­rated in a bronze re­lief.

ABOVE: Light­ning strikes fea­ture reg­u­larly in par­ish reg­is­ters; churches were often vic­tims.

ABOVE: The Great Storm of 1703, “the most out­ra­geous tem­pest that ever was heard of”.

ABOVE: The photo of Rev­erend Mer­ry­weather tucked into the pages of the Lan­gen­hoe par­ish reg­is­ter, along with a post­card show­ing the badly dam­aged church fol­low­ing the Es­sex earth­quake of 1884. BELOW: An il­lus­tra­tion show­ing the in­te­rior of the church,...

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