Peg Harper

Ursula Clark researched the history of a previous occupant of her house and made some rather curious discoveries:

The Seaton Ross Witch

In St Edmund’s Churchyard, not far from the church door, there is an old, weathered gravestone with a now barely legible, but decidedly curious epitaph:

The faults you’ve seen in me
Strive to avoid
Search your own hearts
And you’ll be well employed

The grave belongs to Margaret Harper who died in 1853. To generations of children raised in the village she was better known as ‘Peg Harper, the witch’, and if you saw a light in the distance on a dark night, everyone knew it would be ‘Peg Harper’s light’.

Newspaper article courtesy Will Blackburn

I first heard about Peg Harper soon after we moved to the village in 1994. I was told the story of how Peg had been witnessed enchanting and then disenchanting some carthorses as they passed her gate. The story appeared in local newspapers in the early part of the 20th century, by which time the prevailing view was that the cart horses simply got stuck in the mud and Peg Harper appeared to be the only person present with the sense to get them moving again. There may have been other stories in circulation as to why Margaret Harper was considered to be a witch but, if there were, they have been lost with the passage of time.

I became quite intrigued by her story. My fascination with her grew when we moved house, in 2002,  to a property behind the Methodist Chapel, discovering a few weeks later that we were now living in her old cottage.

The house bore little resemblance, externally at least, to the old thatched cottage described in the newspaper articles. Successive occupants had made many changes, not least the refacing of the old crumbling brick walls, giving the property a much newer exterior which, to the casual observer, belies its true age.

The house actually dates from the late 1700s and Margaret lived there from her marriage to William Harper in 1826 until her death twenty-seven years later. The only other building onsite that was likely to have been there in Margaret Harper’s time was a small outhouse of clamp brick to the east of the cottage. It was in a ruinous state but underneath the rubbish and rubble was a red brick floor, laid directly onto the earth, and in the back corner was the furnace base for a wash-boiler. This was quite probably where Margaret Harper did her laundry, like so many women of her generation, sweating over a cauldron of boiling water.

There seemed to be only two reasonable possibilities for Margaret’s reputation as a witch. The first was that she was indeed a ’wise woman’,  known to local people as being good with herbal or folk remedies. The second, more prosaic one, was that she had in some way become the target of malicious gossip. There was no concrete evidence of the former but actually quite reasonable evidence for the latter, not least that rather pointed epitaph!

If Margaret was targeted maliciously it was not for being an outsider.  Isolated rural communities could be suspicious of strangers but she was surrounded by a large family which had lived in the village for many generations. Her father and grandfather had also enjoyed long close associations with the village church as parish clerks. The problem seemed to lie with her marriage.

Margaret’s husband was a childless widower thirty years her senior. Through his first marriage he had amassed quite a sizeable portfolio of property which his nephews and nieces had a sound expectation that they were going to inherit. His unexpected marriage to the much younger Margaret will almost certainly have put paid to those expectations and no doubt ruffled a few feathers.

Eight years into the marriage William Harper wrote a will. Whatever the circumstances leading up to it, the will cut Margaret out almost entirely and referred to her in somewhat chilly terms. His nephews and nieces were once again lined up to be the beneficiaries of his money and his property, including the marital home. After her husband’s death Margaret would be allowed to live at one of his other properties in the village but would inherit nothing. This was clearly not a good prospect for her.

William lived a further eight years, dying of disease of the spine in 1842. But if his family was already planning on how they were going to spend his money they were about to be disappointed. Just two days before he died he wrote a new will in which he warmly praised his ‘loving wife’ – and pretty much left her everything.

This eleventh hour superseding of William’s 1834 will ensured that Margaret was able to live on at the cottage, in a secure financial position, until her death in June 1853, no doubt to the consternation and frustration of the thwarted beneficiaries.

It would almost certainly have caused quite a furore. They may well have felt Margaret had ‘bewitched’ him in whatever sense of the word, either into marrying her or into changing his will in her favour, or possibly both, but as they were unable to prove Margaret had done anything illegal their hands were tied. And yet maybe not their tongues…

This could explain the curious epitaph: if a third party was going to spread rumours about her perhaps Margaret was determined to have the last word and to set it in stone for good measure. It may however have proved to be something of a Pyrrhic victory over her detractors. The stories against her were so inconsequential as to have most likely faded away in time. Ironically it has been the enduring presence of the epitaph, presumably put there at her instruction, that has given the stories substance they probably didn’t deserve and in so doing kept the legend of ‘Peg Harper the witch’ alive to this day.

That ought to be the end of the story but it isn’t quite. For over 150 years nothing much was known about Margaret’s life until eventually I was able to establish her maiden name, the key to many a genealogical impasse. I discovered she was born Margaret Clark, sharing our family name and, astonishingly, more besides.

In 2016 whilst I was researching her life I also discovered that, far from being the ‘incomers’ we believed ourselves to be when we arrived here from West Yorkshire in 1994, our family has historic connections to the village through the Cook family whose names appear in the registers of St Edmund’s Church since the early 1700s. We now know that one of my husband’s direct ancestors, James Cook, was the miller at the unusual five-sailed Old Mill in the time before it became known locally as Prestons’ Mill.

As for Margaret Harper, she would have known James Cook because he was a fundamental part of the local industry that put the daily bread on her table. Not only that, but Margaret was related to him, albeit distantly through marriage, which of course means that Margaret turns out to be part of our wider family tree too!

But even that is not where the strangeness ends.

Following the revelations of my husband’s ancestry in the village I began to investigate more deeply my own ancestry which hails from the cotton-spinning towns of Lancashire. In early 2017 I discovered that before the Industrial Revolution drew them into the mill towns in search of work, my ancestors had lived for at least ten generations in the villages and hamlets around Pendle Hill, a place synonymous with one of the most famous witch trials in English history. Further research revealed that three members of my family had been amongst the accused: one, the older sister of my ten times great grandmother, escaped; the other two, a mother and son, were not so fortunate. On the flimsiest of ‘evidence’, they and seven others were hanged at Lancaster on 20 August 1612.

It is not known what became of the ancestor who fled but it is not difficult to imagine what the legacy must have been for the families caught up in such accusations of witchcraft. How very curious that my own family’s history and experience should have turned out to have connected so intimately, and resonated so closely, with those of the woman whose house we now occupy and whose story I had been compelled to investigate. What do they say about truth being stranger than fiction?!

Ursula Clark, 2023

sharing Seaton Ross's history