Sally the Dunstable Witch
by Rita Swift
First published in the Dunstable & District Local History Society Newsletter March 2003THE ORIGIN
Although Sally is a fictional character the story surrounding her creation is none the less an interesting one. She was created in order to shame the rector of Dunstable into repairing the Priory Churchyard and by offering a humorous reason why it had perhaps become so dilapidated. Written in 1875 the ballad appears to have been forgotten until 1932 then lost and found again in 2002. Exodus 22 verse 18 - Thou shalt not let a witch live but Sally being fiction is one witch who really should survive.
The good people of Dunstable were very distressed about the state of the Priory Churchyard. In vain they pleaded with the Reverend Frederick Hose rector of Dunstable to clear the weeds and repair the fences, which would then stop the cattle and pigs foraging amongst the gravestones.
At this time the north aisle of the Parish Church was in ruins and the Reverend Hose was anxious to have it carefully restored, but it was proving a very costly business. As he never disclosed the church accounts it was assumed the real reason for his reluctance was insufficient funds. By collecting subscriptions the Churchwardens raised enough money for the work to be completed, however instead of being grateful, the Rector was furious and returned it all. So the churchyard continued to deteriorate even more.
The Reverend Hugh Smyth rector of Houghton Regis with the Reverend Hose were both on the board of trustees of the Ashton Elementary Church Schools and in 1875 appointed Mr Alfred P Wire as schoolmaster. Mr Wire soon became acquainted with the problem of the churchyard and wondered how he could assist but was warned the rector could be very vindictive if anything was done without his consent. A warning that later proved correct. Although the Reverend Hose was very clever and a good preacher he is also described as selfish, unscrupulous and unpopular so church services were poorly attended.
In the centre of the High Street and in front of the west end of the Church there was a rusty iron pump with a chained handle surrounded by a rusty iron fence. Underneath the roadway were large storage tanks that were now obsolete but originally had been constructed to hold the gallons of surplus rainwater coming from the Chiltern Hills. The location and pump inspired Mr Wire to compose a story about a witches curse and a possible reason why the churchyard was not being repaired. The result was a poem with 81- stanzas plus all the right ingredients including a touch of humour. Friends were very enthusiastic on reading it and Mr W. J. Smith, 14 High Street, Dunstable offered to print and publish the ballad free of charge. The author stipulated his name went on the title page not for credit but as a precaution against it being attributed to anyone else.
Boys being boys quickly learnt the poem and took great delight in shouting it about the streets. The Rector was not amused in fact he was furious and Mr Wire had to resign from his position but quickly found a new position. The Reverend Hugh Smyth of Houghton Regis sent for him and gave him a ten-pound note from the Trustees to help with the moving expenses - but without the knowledge of the Reverend Hose. He explained that having been a pillar of the community Mr Hoses' pride had been sorely wounded as the County had condemned his attitude to the churchyard.
After the schoolmaster had left the Reverend Hose wrote to the Education Department accusing Mr Wire of stealing sundry vases and scientific apparatus belonging to the School. Of course the allegations were proved false and the missing items found in Dunstable. The Priory churchyard was eventually put in order and the Corporation removed the rusty pump and fencing from the Square.
According to the poem Sally lived about 600 years ago. At first she just told fortunes and was quite harmless but as age did creep upon her with bad spirits she did play. She acquired a black cat for company that taught her the black arts that she used against her neighbours or anyone who offended her. Sickness in children and cattle, mysterious fires were all blamed on the witch. Eventually it became too much and the people went to the Prior calling for Sally to be tried for witchcraft, and if guilty, to be burnt, or boiled, or fried. The enterprising Prior though sold them charms to ward off the evil eye but when Sally counteracted them with more black magic he was eventually forced to bow to public opinion. At the trial it was a forgone conclusion that she was guilty and to be burnt alive directly with her pussy and her stick, and her soul tho Church doth banish, to the kingdom of old Nick.
Preparations were made in the Square with the Prior having his chair placed outside the Priory gateway for a grandstand view. In fact the whole event turned into a holiday with the Mayor and Councillors as guests of honour and the shops closing early at three. Sally was brought forth and put upon the pile. And the noise of people shouting I am sure was heard a mile. As the flames burnt around her the crowd suddenly fell silent as Sally waving her stick uttered a frightening curse. Where my ashes sink to day never any child shall play. For the earth that's under me till doomsday shall heated be. For good measure she also planned to haunt the Priory and be a general nuisance to the Prior and the monks. Right on cue when she had finished her curse, a terrible storm raged with thunder, lightening and hail, which forced everyone to go home. When the men returned to clear the site, although everything was soaking wet, they found the stones still red hot just as Sally had predicted. Out they could not put the burning, cold they could not make the stones; and no one for love or money would go near to move the bones. Back at the Church the Prior was cursing old Sally with Holy water and prayers when suddenly the big bell in the steeple began to toll. The priests fell to their knees, as they knew no living person was ringing it. When it stopped Sally's ghost was seen to glide right up to the Prior's side. She then set about him sending him sprawling and followed up by attacking the monks, singeing the prayer books and letting out a long, loud, satanic laugh. For months Sally plagued the Priory and as the stones in the Square were still red hot a fence was erected so children would not play there and get burnt.
The story of the curse soon spread far and wide but nothing and no one could exorcise the spirit until one night in dark December when the Priory gate was locked, after nightfall came a stranger and for entrance gently knocked. The stranger was a Palmer, a pilgrim returning from the Holy land complete with scallop, stick, palm leaf and relics who had come to rid them of their curse. Joyfully he was taken to the Church and as soon as they had entered Sally glided down from the rafters into view but the Palmer uttered some mystic words rendering Sally powerless. Holding out the empty bottle, thundered out 'just jump in there' an order she dare not disobey. Once she was in the bottle, it was corked, sealed and the Palmer buried it in the churchyard with a warning But if ere this broken be, out the wicked ghost shall flee and shall plague you ten times more than she ever did before. Stones were placed upon the site and with the spell broken the area on the Square soon cooled down. A deep well was dug for the witch's bones and a pump with a fence around it was erected on top. But of course over the years the exact burial place of the bottle was forgotten and as the residence of Dunstable were afraid of disturbing it the state of the churchyard became a local scandal.
Thus the churchyard goes to ruin
Graves and fences getting worse:
Everyone devoutly wishing
Not to free the bottled curse.
Rumour has it that a 'witch's grave' is in the churchyard complete with a spy hole in the gravestone.
Copies of the poem are available from Priory House Heritage Centre, High Street South, Dunstable (Tel. 01582 513000).
Page last updated: 23rd January 2014