Molly Downer, the Last of the Witches, Bembridge Isle of Wight.
The Isle of Wight Miscellany was published between January 6th 1844 and March 26th.1844 in weekly numbers. (Alan Parker in his Guide to Sources gives 2nd., 9th., and 23rd., March 1844 only.) This weekly magazine was printed by E. Hartnall *and published by him every Saturday evening at his office in Cross Street, Ryde and each week consisted of twelve pages in crown octavo, 7..5 inches x 5
inches and included items of local interest by local authors and poets. Some were pure fiction and some were based on fact or legend. The magazine failed because of the lack of support.
In 1985 I was fortunate to purchase a neatly bound copy of the full run, which after page 144 included several articles in the same copper-plate hand-writing, which the author, which I presume was Mr E. Hartnall, states, were written for inclusion in later numbers. The material in these ( and in the published numbers) is most interesting and includes this history of the last of the ‘witches’ at Bembridge, Isle of Wight, based “on the oral tradition”.
Molly Downer, that last witch, was the subject of a ballad by J. Brammell in Ballads of the Wight which paints a different picture to that of 1844 and she is also mentioned in the recent ‘Genealogist’s view of Bernbridge’by J.E.Meadows,1996. On page 41 “Molly Downes was a reputed witch, She lived in a cottage at Hillway with her mother. Originally their home had been Bembridge Farm in the 18th century.”
I hope that, by bringing this story to the notice of local historians, it will stimulate further research.
*Ebenezer Hartnall, published the Isle of Wight Observer in 1844. He then went to London, returning in 1858 to become the editor of the Isle of Wight Mercury. He also produced the Ryde Ventilator, a small sheet about the Ryde Town Carnival. He was involved in a libel action, which was tried in Winchester. He was fined and he died soon after. He has been called the ‘Father of Journalism’ on the Island
The Last of Witches.
In a dilapidated cottage not far from Bembridge Farmhouse, for many years resided Molly Downer, an old maid who had the local reputation of being a witch. Molly was the illegitimate child of a clergyman of the eststablishment (Mr.Barwis of Niton) who at his death left her an annual pittance barely sufficient to support life. In youth and middle age she possessed none of the personal attributes of a witch. Her person was tall and not ungraceful, her features well defined and regular her hair fair, and her large blue eyes, singularly full of animation and expression, and until well past her prime she was remarkably neat even gay in her apparel and fond of the company of the other sex, whose attention, if rumor err not, she was extremely desirous to attract, yet it should seem in vain. She had one female friend to whom she was a long time inseparably attached, but who unfortunately became one of those who love the lords of others. an offence so heinous to the rigid virtue of Molly, whose chastity none ever impeached, that she from that instant wholly and perseveringly, renounced the world, the flesh and (not) the devil, at least so said the gossips of the neighbourhood. Her domicile was a ruinous cottage standing isolated in a garden which forcibly reminded one of the sluggard so eloquently described in Holy Writ. She was rarely seen abroad, and admission to her residence was a favour so special as to be vouchsafed to a very few and indeed only the charity that endureth all things could be induced to enter, such were the filth and squalor within.
Dirt seemed to be holy in her eyes, and the spiders sacred, for they spun their webs at will unfearful of the destructive besom. The persons who supplied her with necessaries, which they did without recurring orders from a long knowledge of what she required, deposited their articles on a broken stool beside her door on which she also placed at stated time money in payment, and on no account were they allowed to enter. A charitable lady. who by unobtrusive kindness contrived to ingratiate herself with the recluse, to supply her with a series religious tracts, which she placed in a cavity of the fence wall, and wherein they were duly replaced after perusal, for it was extremely rare that even this favoured visitant was allowed an audience with Molly or an entrance to the Hovel; when that boon was granted it was by personal invitation
That Molly was a genuine veritable witch the ignorant and consequently superstitious neighbourhood thought it imperious to doubt, though positive evidence of the fact was nohow to be had, and the good old custom of subjecting suspected persons to the infallible ordeal in such case made and appointed, was unfortunately said some, fallen into misuse, such a thing not having occurred time out of mind. The circumstantial evidence of her having made a compact with the Evil one, rested principally on the fact that in her chimney were suspended several bottles
supposed to contain deleterious compounds and maleficient philtres, potent to accomplish the ends of Witchcraft and that she, the said Molly, had in her possession sundry dolls variously formed, amounting in number to fourteen, to which she was extraordinarily attentive, dressing and undressing, and adjusting their miniature garments with a solicitude truly maternal, and, for the worst is to come, changing the positions of innumerable pins which it was her supreme delight to thrust, into the persons of these dumb innocents that were the representatives, so said the neighbours, of many ill-starred individuals who had incurred her malediction. It was held as faith that she had exercised her hellish influence on Harriet, a young girl who unfeelingly and thoughtlessly haunted and mocked in an outrageous manner, on which Molly emphatically cursed her, and summed up her denunciation with a wish that if ever any good fortune were likely to befall her, she might die before possession, and not long after the said Harriet was afflicted with a paralysis fatal to articulation and partially so to her faculties, which deprivation lasted until her death in the latter part of the year of grace 1847 and which by a singular coincidence, occurred the same day as that of a person who bequeathed her a legacy of twenty pounds The manner of her death was quite in accordance with her character. The person to whom she was least reserved, the lady who supplied her with books, calling one day to reclaim the last loan and to leave another found they had been removed from their depository, approached the house which was fastened, and on knocking, she received no reply, and becoming anxious she called together some of the neighbours, whose attempts to arouse Molly being equally futile, they at length forced open the door, and found her lying dead on the pavement of the back room of her abode. the doors and windows were all fastened on the inside and neither the defunct nor her home, nor her goods and chattels exhibited the least symptoms of violence.
She lay on the ground a corpse decently composed; her clothes adjusted neatly around her, her hands crossed as is sometimes done when a body is laid out her eyes and mouth tightly shut, and no visible sign of a death struggle about her, as if she had died in her bed and received from friendly hands the last sad offices charitable love renders to the remains of the object of its affection.
It was thought that Molly possessed some secret hoard, but none was discovered, and to appease the itching curiosity of the neighbours the Minister of the parish caused the body to be taken from the coffin (wherein it had been placed as it was found) and stripped to ascertain whether money or anything of value was there secreted, but the search was a fruitless one.
Out of a superstitious fear Molly was then reclothed, recoffined and consigned peaceably to the grave with unshorn rites in Brading churchyard, where no memorial points out the resting place of the last witch of the Wight.
Molly was also by repute a Charmer, that is one having the power suddenly and imperceptibly to remove and heal many of the minor ills that flesh is heir to and this without use of visible means.
Even the village schoolmaster, whom one would expect to know better, had implicit faith in her curative power. However this belief is by no means a rare one. Here are many persons that positively avow that they had similar ailments cured by the same mysterious agency.