The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland


St John’s Church and Witches’ Grave at Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, North Staffordshire.

St. John the Baptist’s Church at Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, North Staffordshire.

NGR: SJ 86929 49498. The old parish church of St John the Baptist at Burslem (locally called Boslem), Stoke-on-Trent, North Staffordshire, is located on Cross Hill and close by the B5051 (Woodbank Street) – the main entrance being on Anna Walk. St John’s is a brick-built church dating from 1717, replacing an earlier timber building which burnt down. In the late 18th century the apsidal chancel was added. It is a Grade II listed building. The embattled Per-pendicular west tower was probably built sometime during the 14th-16th centuries, although it is often referred to as 12th-century and Norman! Inside the church there are some in-scribed memorial stones recalling famous local people, and, also arched windows, one in the Venetian style, and an interesting font, while the west door has a Tudor arch above it. Outside in the large churchyard there are tombs with inscriptions remembering local pottery manufacturers: Enoch Wood and William Adams; and there is also the table-tomb of Molly (Margaret) Leigh, the Burslem witch (a place of pilgrimage for modern-day witches), though this monument faces in a different direction to the other tombs. Close-by Molly Leigh’s tomb is a Medieval stone coffin that has been hollowed out in the shape of a body and near the church-yard entrance a carved stone; these probably came from Hulton Abbey. There is also the grave of Joseph Brindley, brother of canal engineer James Brindley.

Fred Hughes writing in 2000 says of St John’s, Burslem: “The parish church of St John has been dated from as early as the late 12th century to the early 15th century, although unrecorded historical architects favour the 14th century. Its parent church dating from the Stoke Rectory Act of 1807 is St Peter’s at Stoke. The first incumbent rector of St John’s took office in 1532, one Thos. Heath, when the parish was divided into its parochial responsibility for four hamlets of which Burslem was the principal because of its stewardship of the church building. The other hamlets were Rushton, (Cobridge) Sneyd Green and Brownhills (Sytch).  A visit to the old churchyard of St John’s, south of the town centre, immediately tells the visitor that he is standing in a place of history. All about are stone slabs with chiselled inscriptions of the name of Adam, Allen, Cartlich, Colclough, Daniel, Egerton, Lees, Lockett, Marsh, Steel, Taylor, Turner, Wedgwood and Wood — names counted among the most famous potters who ever moulded clay.”

Inside St John’s on the vestry floor an inscribed stone which reads: “Here lies the body of Thomas, brother of John Wedgwood, who died April 8th, 1776, aged 68; also Mary, the wife of the above Thomas Wedgwood, who departed the 6th of July,……..” It was Thomas and John who built the Big House on Moorland Road in Burslem (1750). Also a wall tablet in memory of Daniel Haywood and Sarah his wife. He died in 1828 aged 91 years. Mr Haywood was one of the famous Haywood family who gave their name to the Haywood Hospital on Moorland Road, Burslem. Also, a flat stone near the Pulpit with an inscription that reads: “To the memory of Rev. Richard Bentley, Minister of Burslem, who died Apr 27th, 1780 aged 35.”Also of interest the larger of the two fonts, a very fine bust of John Wesley, and a crucifix that was modelled by Enoch Wood, who was a churchwarden before he became a master potter in Fountain Place, Burslem.

St. John the Baptist Church, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent (front view).

The churchyard has many interesting tombs and memorial stones, some being named for local pottery manufacturers. A pyramid-shaped tomb in memory of the notorious publican William Frederick Horry, 1843-72, who was born at Boston in Lincolnshire. A large, stepped monument in memory of Enoch Wood, 1750-1840, the well-known pottery manufacturer of Burslem. A cross-shaped monument: In Memory of William Adams, Master Potter, 1746-1805. Also a monument with the inscription: In Memory of William Heath of Hanley (Sneyd House) Dd 1853. A small tombstone near the entrance gate recalls one James Bourne of Etruria, who died in 1806 aged 55 years, and his son Charles Bourne, who died Aug., 1814, aged 17. Also near the entrance an Egyptian urn monument in memory of the Parker family. Henry Parker of Burslem gave a stained-glass window to St John’s. Interestingly, there is a headstone with an inscription: In Memory of Joseph Brindley of Longport, In this Parish, 1779-1835. He was related to James Brindley, the famous canal engineer of Turnhurst Hall at Newchapel – possibly they were brothers? At the low church door entrance a memorial to the bell ringers of the 1800s. At the side of the church-yard entrance a long recumbent medieval stone that has carved decoration. And close by Molly Leigh’s tombstone (south-side) is a 15th-century hollowed-out coffin which was said to have once contained the body of Lady Elizabeth. These may have come from Hulton Abbey, a few miles from here. The abbey was founded as a Cistercian house in 1219 by Henry de Audley (d 1276) of Heighley Castle, Staffordshire. Sadly the abbey was dissolved in 1538.

The tomb of Molly Leigh in St John’s Churchyard, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent.

At the south side of the church is the now blackened table tomb of Molly (Margaret) Leigh, the so-called Burslem Witch or Hamil Witch – now alas without its inscription on the side, which has worn away. From time to time posies of flowers are left on the top by modern-day witches who come here on pilgrimage. Molly was born in about 1685 and lived the whole of her life in an old cottage at Jackfield on Hamil Road. Park Road schools now occupy that site. Her father Richard, some say he was called Ralph, was a pottery manufacturer at Jackfield, but he disowned his daughter at birth due to her disfigurement. Molly had a pet raven, or a blackbird, which would perch on the cottage roof, or the roof of the nearby Turks Head Inn, turning the beer sour, and, it would warn her of anyone approaching her cottage; Molly would get very angry with people and would curse them, shout at them, and stare at them until they left her alone; and she would use magic. Local folk bought watered-down milk from her because they did not wish to cause upset, knowing her to be bad-tempered. She kept her dairy cows at Jackfield with part of her humble cottage being an actual dairy! Molly was, by all accounts, a very eccentric person, but she was certainly “not a witch”. It seems that Molly was more a victim of the times and the depravity of those times, and, she was only a witch in the minds of the poor folk of Burslem in the 18th century.

Molly (Margaret) Leigh’s Tomb and Medieval Hollowed-out Coffin from Hulton Abbey.

When Molly Leigh died in March 1748 she was hated by the local vicar, Rev. Spencer, of St. John’s, Burslem, for her blasphemous denunciations of the church, which she had refused to attend. Rev. Spencer had already denounced her as a witch. Her pet raven had been found guarding Molly’s dead body which lay on the floor of her cottage in a hideous and contorted, agonised state. The body was taken to Barnfield Yard prior to burial in St. John’s churchyard on 1st April 1748. Rev. Spencer managed to capture her pet raven and seal it into the coffin! Molly Leigh’s body was later reinterred and a hollowed-out, table-top tomb built over her grave at right angles in a north-to-south direction; this now blackened tomb still points in a different direction to all the others in the churchyard – those people having died in the Christian faith. The ghost of Molly Leigh has been seen in the churchyard and on the site of her humble cottage at Jackfield and also at Hamil Grange; the cottage itself was demolished in 1894. We do know that in her will Molly left money for the poor and destitute of Burslem, so she wasn’t all that bad a person.

Fred Hughes (2000) also says that: “From the 1840’s we find the town’s children dancing around her unattended grave engaged in a ‘chase and search’ game; the ‘hare’ would run away singing. ‘Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh, follow me into all the holes I see!”. There is a variant of this which goes something like: Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh, chase me around the apple tree. The said apple tree, or hawthorn tree, grew beside Molly’s cottage, but it never bore any flowers or fruit, so the legend goes.

Sources / References & Related Websites:-

Hughes, Fred, Mother Town — Episodes in the history of Burslem, Burslem Community Development Trust, 2000.

Pickford, Doug, Staffordshire — Its Magic & Mystery, Sigma Press, Wilmslow, Cheshire, 1994.

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Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2022.