Will Roebuck discusses the strange curse of witchcraft and satanic rites in Birdsedge.
A mysterious lead plaque discovered in a dry stone wall around 30 years ago revealed that Christianity wasn't the only 'religion' practiced in Yorkshire's remote Pennine hills.
It's well documented that the Quakers established early meeting houses at High Flatts and Lane Head between Huddersfield and Sheffield at the turn of the 18th century. Before the turnpike road to Sheffield (now the A629) was built in the 1820s, it was much more difficult to travel to many villages and hamlets. It's no surprise then that the area's isolated barns and farmsteads became ideal meeting places for the new Quaker religion, well away from the disapproving looks of more conformist christian worshippers.
Today, take a walk along Dearne Dike Lane above Birdsedge and you'll get some idea of the isolation that still exists around many farmsteads. This lane was once a main artery route upon which Medieval monks are understood to have traveled on their journey between Beauchief Abbey in Sheffield, and Kirklees Priory. It is a well trodden route that passes by the old Iron Age (or Roman) outpost at Castle Hill, Birdsedge, and which features in early documents and maps of the area.
But, what's less well documented is the discovery of a sinister lead plaque in a dry stone wall at Birdsedge. Measuring just 21cm x 21cm, the plaque reveals that some in the area practised the dark arts in a bizarre mix with more traditional religious observances. The story is referenced in David Bower's and John Knight's excellent book Plain Country Friends: Quakers of Wooldale, High Flatts and Midhope.
Curse of John Wood, New House Farm
I first saw the plaque back in the late 1980s when New House Farm's then owner, a family friend, invited me to take a look at it. The timing couldn't have been better. I was studying history at Royal Holloway, University of London and had just written a paper on the history of religion, folklore and superstition. The plaque had recently been found by an old Irish stone waller who had been repairing broken down dry stone walls around the farm estate. I saw that one side of the flattened lead had a curse written on it, stamped into the lead by old cast metal printing types. The curse was aimed at John Wood, a local Quaker landowner and one time resident at the farm during the 1800s.
"O THOU TRETCHEROUS ROGUE JOHN WOOD OF NEW HOUSE DENBY DALE I MAKE THIS THAT THOU REST NOT NIGHT NOR DAY BUT BELIKE THE WATERS OF THE TROUBLED SEA TOSSED TOO AND FRO WITHOUT A RESTING PLACE AND THAT THOU CANNOT SLEEP NIGHT NOR DAY NOR THAT YOU CANNOT DIE UNTIL THOU CONFESS THE WRONG THAT THOU HAS DONE ME TG AND JG AND MY FATHERS HOUSE BY AIDING AND ASSISTING A FORGED WILL AND ROBBING HIM AND ALL HIS SONS OUT OF LAND AND MONEY SIGNED IN THE MIGHTY NAME OF GOD AMEN"
The plaque also contained strange scratches. The reverse side was even more intriguing. It contained a 9 x 9 square table. In each of the 81 squares a number had been punched. Further research and subsequent discussions with experts revealed that this was a moon magic square, but it had been set incorrectly. Deliberate or not, whoever had made the curse was truly entrenched in the local superstitions of that time, including witchcraft and satanic rites. The table was intended to invoke malign lunar and planetary influences to give power to the curse. The scratches were witch marks. All documented in old reference books relating to the occult and written many years previously by people who really believed in black magic.
For those of you who are interested, the story does go much further. But, that's for discussion and debate offline.