OS Grid Reference: SD 8263 3764. For a long time now it had been thought that an ancient stone circle stood in the grounds of Hoarstones House at Fence, near Burnley, Lancashire. But it seems there never was ‘such a monument’ there and so it must be regarded as ‘a myth’. Indeed I am told that the whole thing ‘is a myth’. However, there are a number of boundary stones around the edges of that estate – some of which have been made into gateposts! These boundary stones might therefore be the ‘Hoarstones’ that gave the place its name? Originally the name was spelt: Whoarstones or Woarstones, I am reliably informed. Hoarstones has long been associated with the Pendle Witches with Pendle Hill being a reminder of those times a couple of miles to the northwest. The present-day Hoarstones House dates from about 1895 when it was rebuilt out of an earlier 16th century building. More recently an iron cross was discovered in the walls! The boundary stones-cum-gateposts are located beside Harpers Lane and Noggarth road at Fence near Burnley. Hoarstones estate is, of course, on “private land”.
I was told by the owner of the house that the whole idea of there being a stone circle in the grounds was nothing short of ‘a myth’. So we can then rule out there ever being a pre-historic stone circle in the grounds of Hoarstones House, but there are, however, a number of former boundary stones that have been adapted as gateposts at the eastern edge of the estate. These stand beside Harpers Lane, with one large stone embedded into a wall, while another possible boundary stone-cum-gatepost is located at the side of Noggarth Road. It’s possible these stones and some of the stonework of the house came from the small quarry at the northwestern side of the Hoarstones estate? The witches of Pendle did not, therefore, dance around or within the stone circle, but they “might” have visited, or been at, a more probable stone circle a mile or so to the northwest. This was located in the fields below Faughs (Spen Brook) but it is “now” ‘a destroyed monument’ with very little to see now. There are a couple of ancient sites in Southern England that also have the same name ‘Hoar-stones’.
The meaning of the word ‘Hoarstones’ and the place-name at Fence, Lancashire, which was first mentioned in 1547, would seem to be: ‘Stones or (a stone) designating the bounds of an estate, or a local landmark’. And could also be: ‘a stone used anciently to mark boundaries’ or, ‘a stone erected anciently as a memorial’ (as of an event). Whoarstones or Woarstones being Old Norse for ‘Idola-trous Stones’ or maybe even ‘Witches Stones’. This would seem very apt for Whoarstones at Fence being, as it might have been, associated with the Pendle witches, which now seems very tenous. The iron cross found in the walls of the late 19th century historic Hoarstones House may have been used as a defense against witchcraft, and would therefore have come from the original 16th century building, which back in 1633 was occupied by the Robinson family, according to John Dixon (1990). Hoarstones is mentioned in ‘Mist Over Pendle’ by Robert Neill (1951) but not apparently in ‘The Lancashire Witches’ by William Harrison Ainsworth (1884).
Walter Bennett (1957) tells that “Trouble was renewed in 1633 when Edmund Robinson of Wheatley Lane or Fence, a lad aged about twelve, came home late one night and told his father that he had been kidnapped by a witch and taken to a barn at Hoarstones, where he had seen about forty witches pulling on ropes to obtain milk, butter and “smoakeing flesh,” but making such foul faces that he was glad to escape, only to encounter the Devil as he ran home. This tale was reported to two Justices, who sent the witches, said to have been at Hoarstones, to Lancaster for trial at the Assizes. Meanwhile, the boy and his father went to churches in the district, even as far as Kildwick, and singled out witches in the congregation. As a result it was reported in London in May 1634 that “A huge pact of witches had been discovered in Lancashire whereof it is said 19 are condemned and there are at least 60 already discovered and yet daily more are revealed; they had a hand in raising storms which endangered His Majesty (Charles I) at sea in Scotland.”
Bennett goes on to say: “As a result of the royal enquiry, all the accused were acquitted. The boy, Edmund Robinson, confessed that his tales were all false and had been told in the first place in order that his father would overlook his action in going to play instead of fetching the cows to the barn as he had been ordered.”
Arthur Douglas (1978) adds to the above, saying: “Then there is the matter of the feasting witches. Over the years the feast at Hoarstones has become confused with the so-called great assembly and feast of witches at Malkin Tower. The one is not the other, but the two are so alike as to consign the whole of Edmund Robinson’s evidence irretrievably into the copy-category.”
John A Clayton (2007) tells that: “Baines confounds Malking-Tower with Hoar-stones, a place rendered famous by the second case of pretended witchcraft in 1633. John also tells of a walled-tree, an ancient holly, existing in the Fence area of Hoarstones. He says there is a similar walled-tree near Malkin Tower (Blacko), a place that was long associated with the Pendle witches, who had gathered there in 1612, at the home of Old Mother Demdike, or so we are told.
Thomas Sharpe (2012) has a map showing the Hoarstones stone circle and the one at nearby Faughs in relation to other (sacred) Pendle landmarks.
Just recently a lost standing stone or boundary stone has been re-discovered at Spurn Clough (OS grid reference: SD 8249 3685), just across the Padiham by-pass, and only a few hundred metres from Hoarstones Lodge. This old standing stone used to stand in the field but had been cast down into the stream. The owner of Hoarstones House recently told me that that particular field used to belong to them! See the Link, below.
Sources and related websites:
Bennett, Walter, The History Of Marsden And Nelson, Nelson Corporation, Nelson, Lancashire, 1957.
Clayton, John A, The Lancashire Witch Conspiracy — A History of Pendle Forest and the Pendle Witch Trials, Barrowford Press, 2007.
Dixon, John & Mann, Bob, Historic Walks Around The Pendle Way, Aussteiger Publications, Barnoldswick, 1990.
Douglas, Arthur, The Fate of the Lancashire Witches, Countryside Publications Limited, Brinscall, Chorley, Lancashire, 1978.
Sharpe, Thomas, The Pendle Zodiac, Spirit of Pendle Publishing, 2012.
See also ‘Merriam-Webster’ website and ‘Your Dictionary’ website.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2018.