With its pretty thatched cottages, ancient church and walls of warm Cotswold stone, it seems an idyllic spot. Yet in 1875 the picturesque village of Long Compton made national headlines as the scene of a brutal murder.
Defenceless 80 year old, Ann Tennant was stabbed to death with a pitchfork by James Haywood, a mentally unstable farm labourer and it was his motive for the murder which aroused the country’s morbid curiosity. Haywood was tormented by the belief that there were 20 witches in the Long Compton area, whose sorcery was preventing him from carrying out his work in the fields. Walking home one evening, he spotted Ann Tennant, one of these supposed witches, and stabbed her to death. No less than The Times remarked that she was: ‘an old woman, of harmless character, whose ill fame as a witch depended on her sex and age and absolutely nothing else’.
Long Compton and witchcraft
While it is easy to dismiss the fears that haunted Haywood as the delusions of a deranged man, belief in witchcraft was still widespread in the area at this time.
Richard Clarke, son of an eyewitness to the crime, wrote the pictured statement in 19281. Despite an awareness of Haywood’s insanity, he plainly does not doubt that the killer’s suspicions were fully justified. Indeed, after discussing the Tennant murder, Clarke’s letter proceeds, in an increasingly rambling and incoherent fashion, to relate other supposed instances of witchcraft in the area, including the tale of Granny Faulkner, a woman allegedly able to transform herself into different animals. You can see a full transcription of the statement in the attached document. Local observations that ‘there are enough witches in Long Compton to draw a wagon of hay up Long Compton Hill’, and that in Long Compton and nearby Lower Quinton ‘the influence of witches goes and comes like the full moon’, persisted well into the 20th century.
A sinister echo
It was not only women who were vulnerable to such blind prejudices, however. In the 1920s, folklorist and historian J. Harvey Bloom was told of how, in 1885, a young lad from Lower Quinton named Charles Walton ‘met a dog nine times on successive evenings…on the ninth encounter a headless lady rustled past him in a silk dress, and on the next day he heard of his sister’s death’. The incident seems to have left Walton widely mistrusted and even feared in the area, attitudes no doubt exacerbated by his solitary demeanour and the time he devoted to playing with toads, a traditional pastime of witches in the popular imagination. On the 14th February 1945 Walton was murdered on Meon Hill, Lower Quinton. It was widely suspected that he had, like Ann Tennant, been the victim of fears of witchcraft. Unlike James Haywood, Walton’s killer was never apprehended and that case remains unsolved.
1 Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR1892/1
This article was Document of the Month for the Warwickshire County Record Office in November 2010. Further articles can be found on their website.