In St. Anne’s Church in Woodplumpton on the Fylde lies a curious grave-marker – a large rock with a small sign reading:
“The Witch’s Grave
Beneath this stone lie the remains of Meg Shelton, alleged witch of Woodplumpton, buried in 1705.”
Upon her original burial, Meg apparently dug her way out of the grave and up to the surface – twice! – before the local townsfolk decided that the only way to stop her was to bury her vertically and upside-down, so that if she did begin to claw her way through the dirt once again she’d be going in the wrong direction. Just to be safe, though, they stuck a boulder on top. So who was Meg?
Also known as the Fylde Witch or Fylde Hag, Meg was born Margery Hilton in Singleton, some time during the seventeenth century. There are numerous stories concerning her sorcery, many focusing on her ability to shape-shift. In one such story, Meg tried to hide in a farmer’s barn in order to steal food from him, disguising herself as a bag of corn. Noticing he had one bag more than he should have, the farmer proceeded to stab each one with a pitchfork. As the fork touched Meg she screamed in pain, immediately returning to her usual form.
The idea of locals watching vigilantly for Meg’s tricks seems to be a theme in these tales, and another tells of the time when she tried to steal milk from a cow, turning the jug into a goose to fool the farmer. Seeing an old woman with a goose walking by, the farmer thought nothing of it, until he saw milk drip from the goose’s mouth. Realising who the woman was, he hit the goose with his walking stick, turning it back into the jug, and causing the milk to spill. Milk and egg theft are probably Meg’s most often-reported crimes – understandable for a woman who otherwise lived on a diet of boiled groats.
Possibly the most unusual story about Meg is recounted in Ken Howarth’s “Ghosts, Traditions and Legends of Old Lancashire”. She apparently made a promise to the Lord of Cottam, promising him “a hare to chase and hunt on the condition that he gave her a cottage on his estate at Woodplumpton near Preston. This was on the proviso that a certain black hound was not loosed in the chase.” Of course, during one of these hunts, the proviso was ignored or forgotten, and the hound caught up with the hare, biting it on the leg as it tried to escape through the window of Meg’s cottage. It was said that from then on, Meg always walked with a limp.
Brian Hughes of ‘The Fylde and Wyre Antiquarian’ makes some interesting suggestions about this story. He wonders why, given that Meg was so despised in the local community as to be labelled a witch, the Lord of Cottam would see fit to give her a cottage rent-free for life. In ‘The Haydock Papers’ by Joseph Gillow, Meg is described as living in “a wretched hovel called Cuckoo Hall”. Hughes speculates that the name ‘cuckoo’ could be a clue about Meg’s relationship with the Lord. Could his wife have been infertile, and could the “hare” that Meg was asked to provide actually have been an “heir”? This might all seem a little too fanciful, but considering all the wild tales about Meg’s life, who’s to say what is fact and what is fiction?
The manner of Meg’s death is as unusual as was her life – she was crushed between a barrel and the wall of her cottage. Was it an accident, an angry villager, or supernatural intervention?
After her famous attempts to dig herself out of the grave, she was finally laid to rest after an exorcism by the Priest of Cottam Hall. Here again Hughes takes issue, wondering why an accused witch would be buried in the churchyard in the first place, let alone after two escapes!
Keep an eye on your cattle...