St John’s churchyard, Burslem, Staffs. Last resting place of Molly Leigh. You can’t miss her grave – it’s the only one set north to south, at a right angle to all others. And upside-down. Because Molly was apparently a witch…
Over the last 200-odd years, many of the details of Molly Leigh’s life have become blurred or lost – did she die young at 28, or aged 63? Were her family wealthy yeoman farmers, or poor cottagers? Still, the core of her story remains the same. And, as far as many people, then and now, are concerned, Molly was a witch.
Margaret Leigh was born in Burslem, now one of the Six Towns of the Potteries, in the 1600s. Margaret, or Molly as she was known, was said to have been an odd-looking child, and it’s been suggested she may have had a physical deformity. It was also said the strange little girl had an adult mind from birth.
Molly lived with her mother and stepfather, with some reports saying they were a fairly comfortably-off farming family, others that the Leigh’s were poor. However, it seems certain that, from an early age, Molly earned her living selling milk from her herd of cows to the people in Burslem.
But, in those superstitious times, being different, looking different, led to people viewing Molly with suspicion. She became well-known, if mistrusted, in the town – and was constantly accused of watering down the milk.
As Molly grew older, she remained a solitary, eccentric character, known for a quick temper. Her cottage was some distance from the town at Hamil Grange (then known as the Jackfield), in the middle of a forest. She kept a pet blackbird, some say a jackdaw or raven, which would sit on her shoulder when she brought milk into Burslem.
The gossip among the townspeople was that Molly practiced the black arts. Not surprising, as throughout the countryside, women – particularly those who lived on their own in remote places – were often labelled as witches.
The parish church of St. John the Baptist has been in existence since the Middle Ages and was rebuilt in 1717, retaining the late west tower of 1536
And, it seems, Molly had made a dangerous enemy. In an age of near-compulsory churchgoing, she rarely attended. The Rector of Saint John’s Church in Burslem, Thomas Spencer, accused her of being a witch.
He also claimed Molly sent her bird to sit on the sign of the Turk’s Head pub, where he was a frequent visitor, and its presence had turned the beer sour. In addition, Molly was blamed for various ailments suffered by the townsfolk.
It seems however that, following his accusation, some sort of a grudging stalemate came about between Spencer and the townsfolk, and Molly Leigh. She was not arrested – despite being accused of being a witch – and never stood trial for any misdemeanour. Or perhaps her accusers were just too scared to take things further?
Was she dead..?
However, despite her witchy status, Molly and the townsfolk managed to live together tolerably well. And then, aged 28, Molly apparently died – although, as with many other conflicting accounts of her life, other reports say she died aged 63. Whatever her age, Parson Spencer officiated at her burial in St John’s churchyard.
Molly’s grave today
But the superstitious townspeople had concerns – was this witch really dead? They were even more troubled when her bird started to make a nuisance of itself in the town. So, apparently, a deputation went to Molly’s cottage in the woods. Afterwards, witnesses swore Molly had been sitting there by the fire knitting, with her bird. The visitors fled…
Spencer decided to take action to reassure the terrified locals. He was said to have had her tomb exorcised by three different clerics – and it’s rumoured two died in the process.
The story also goes that Spencer and other locals opened up her grave, and put Molly’s captured blackbird in with her – still alive. Then, curiously, Spencer had Molly’s body moved. Instead of lying in an east-west direction, normal for Christian burial (come Judgement Day, the dead would wake and sit up to face God in the west), it was turned north-south.
And, as an added precaution, Molly’s grave was replaced upside-down – leaving no chance for poor Molly to sit up and meet her Maker!
Still the wrong way for Molly…
Even today, in St John’s churchyard, Molly’s grave is easy to spot. It’s around 4ft high, and at a different axis to all the others. And this in itself is something of a puzzle – who paid for such a costly memorial? It seems unlikely it was Molly.
Still, other archive reports say Molly Leigh did, in fact, leave a will, including details of property left to her family, and her wish that part of the money from her estate be used each year to buy bread for the local poor and for widows. In addition, she apparently requested a women’s hospital be built. Not the sort of legacy you might expect from a wicked witch?
Molly’s reputation has come down over time, still holding a mysterious power. Sybil Leek, self-styled witch and associate of the famous Satanist Aleister Crowley, visited Burslem in the 1940s or 50s, and walked round the town with a jackdaw on her shoulder, claiming she was Molly’s descendant.
Plus, apparently, a Pagan association offered to pay for a railing round the grave – an unusual offer for a C of E churchyard!
The peaceful churchyard – but is Molly at peace?
Do you dare..?
As recently as the 1980s, when the local council was carrying out restoration work in St John’s churchyard, Molly’s grave, then in poor repair, was mended – and restored the wrong way up again! It seems some folk would still prefer not to take any chances. Molly’s grave also remains the focus for witchy goings-on today, with reports of figures dancing there on All Hallows’ Eve.
And down the years – and still today – children would dare each other to run three times around her grave, chanting words said to make Molly’s apparition appear.
‘Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh, you can’t catch me…’,
‘Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh, chase me round the apple tree…’,
In 2013, director Ray Wilkes made a low-budget movie based on elements from Molly Leigh’s story. The film, which was named best drama at the Portobello Film Festival, London, tells the story of a troubled 7-year-old who summons the spirit of a witch.