Derbyshire Folklore: Ghosts, Witches, Spells and Halloween Traditions

For Halloween, here’s something more ‘otherworld’ than ‘underworld’: folk tales, superstitions and rituals, from Derbyshire, firstly relating to Halloween in particular, and then to ghosts, witches, and other supernatural beings in general. These are from a late 19th century collection by Sidney Oldall Addy, published within Household Tales and Traditional Remains.[i] The extracts are presented below as emphasised text, to differentiate from background information; some are paraphrased, others are directly quoted (endnotes indicate which.)

For Halloween traditions of the inter-war period, see a previous post on a sister blog.


Above: Turnip Jack-o’-lantern, Museum of Ireland (image: wikipedia). Turnips were originally carved in Ireland and parts of Britain (primarily to keep away evil spirits), before the tradition of pumpkin carving was imported from America.

Halloween rituals[ii]

Most Halloween ‘spells’ are for girls and women, to determine who they might marry:

Girls put a sprig of rosemary and a crooked sixpence under their pillows in order that they may dream of their future husbands.

Rosemary is traditionally associated with burial, often being used as an antiseptic when ‘laying out’ the corpse, it’s fragrance also used to disguise decomposition odours. It also symbolises remembrance. Bent or ‘crooked’ sixpences were often seen as talismans, commonly to bring ‘good luck’, but also to ward off evil spirits.[iii]


…go out in the dark and pluck cabbage-stalks. If on this eve you scatter seeds or ashes down a lane, and a girl follows you in the direction in which you have gone, she will be your wife.


If you eat an apple at midnight upon All Halloween, and, without looking behind you, gaze into a mirror, you will see the face of your future husband or wife.


At midnight let a girl go to a “four-lane-ends” or cross-way [see below], taking some barley with her, then let her sprinkle the barley and say:

Barley I sow, barley I trow,

Let him who will my husband be

Come after me and mow.

Then the future husband will come after her with a scythe and mow.

(Won’t be trying that one…)

Or the girl may sow hemp-seed in the garden and say:

Hempseed I sow,

Hempseed pray grow.


Let a girl cross her shoes upon her bedroom floor in the shape of a T[iv] and say these lines:

I cross my shoes in the shape of a T,

Hoping this night my true love to see,

Not in his best or worst array,

But in the clothes of every day.

Then let her get into bed backwards without speaking any more that night, when she will see her future husband in her dreams.


Halloween rituals were not just for romantic love; the following agricultural ritual, however, is likely to be related to fertility rituals.[v]

Farmers used to carry a candle down the garden on All Hallows’ Een, to see which way the wind blew. As the wind blew that night such would be the prevailing wind for the next three months.


Ghostly folklore[vi]

Wherever there is a “four lane ends,” or place where two roads cross each other, a ghost is to be seen at night.


Cross-roads are often said to be haunted by barghasts, boggards, or headless women. Thus “the boggard of Bunting Nook” (a place in Norton [Derbys.], near Sheffield, where three roads meet) is held up as a terror to children, and a headless woman is said to appear at the place where three roads meet between Cold-Aston and Dronfield, in Derbyshire. It is said that a headless woman used to be seen between Bowshaw and Hullat Hall, in Dronfield parish.


A barghast is described as a being which resembles a large black dog, having eyes like saucers. One of these beings is said to have appeared at a three lane ends”[viii] at Bury Hill, near Holmesfield. A woman who saw a barghast near these “three lane ends” said that it was invisible to her sister, who died a month afterwards.

If you see a barghast it will be visible to your companions if you touch them.


A headless woman is said to appear at midnight at an old house situate at Over Hurst, in the parish of Hathersage, Derbyshire.


There is an old farmhouse in the Peak Forest, in Derbyshire, at which, it is said, there once lived two sisters who loved the same man. To put an end to their rivalry one sister murdered the other, but the dying sister said that her bones would never rest in any grave. And so it happens that her bones are kept in a “cheese-vat” in the farmhouse which stands in the staircase window. If the bones are removed from the vat trouble comes upon the house, strange noises are heard at night, the cattle die, or are seized with illness.[vii]


In the night-time people who lie in bed sometimes hear the sounds of cock-crowing in the house downstairs when there are no cocks near.


People sometimes say that they see headless dogs, and that the appearance of such a dog is an omen of death.


A tale is told in Derbyshire about a mother whose daughter had died, and who was so overcome with grief that she could not be persuaded to go to bed for eleven weeks. At the end of that time her daughter appeared to her and said, “Mother, if you grieve for me thus I cannot rest in the kingdom of heaven.” After this the care-worn mother dried up her tears and ceased to lament.


The Devil is always in our midst at twelve o’clock, the hour of midnight. If a ghost appears, and you say to it, “In the name of the Lord, why visitest thou me?”  it will tell you what it has come for.


It is said that the following spectres used to be seen on the common at Cold-Aston, in Derbyshire. First, three tall, thin women, standing in a line, with three hour-glasses in their [139] hands;[ix] secondly, a tall man, three yards high, with an oak tree over his shoulder ; thirdly, a man with a scythe over his shoulder. The man who, as he alleged, saw these things on the common said that the appearance of the woman with the hourglasses meant that such or such a person had not more than three hours to live ; the giant with the oak tree came, he said, to tell whether that person was young or old ; the man with the scythe came to cut him down. In the appearance or vision which my informant mentioned, the oak tree was a young one, indicating that the man who was about to die was young.


It is said that ghosts have been seen recently in the same village. A very small, wizened old woman was seen by several people. She was usually found sitting against a wall, and when spoken to she vanished. A girl was much frightened one evening by seeing a white bird, resembling a goose, but covered with wings. She practised the spell of walking round it nine times, when it vanished. Another person saw a white calf at the very moment when her friend was dying.


About 1840 the parish clerk of Norton, in Derbyshire, and his apprentice went to play the organ, then standing in the west gallery of the church. The apprentice, whose face was turned towards the nave of the church, told the clerk that he could see a woman sitting alone in one of the high cloth-covered pews, and that he believed she was spectral. Thereupon they both rushed frantically down the steps, which were very tortuous and awkward. The clerk would never again play the organ in church in the dusk of evening.


At a lonely house near Stony Middleton, in Derbyshire, the ghost of a murdered woman is said to appear by night, and make holes in the loaves of bread in the house. One night the master and mistress of the house, who were bakers, sat up in order that they might see her. They did not see her, but the holes were made in the loaves just as before. The holes were so large that the loaves could not be sold.


At Highlow Hall, near Hathersage, it is said that a man dressed in white, and riding on a white horse, appears at midnight.


About midnight on New Year’s Eve a man at Eckington, in Derbyshire, said that he saw a spectre in the shape of a wild white horse. The colliers in this neighbourhood say that they often see this white horse.

Witches and Witchcraft[x]


Witchcraft may be acquired in the following way: When taking sacrament at church, instead of eating the cake which the parson gives you, save it, and wait until all the people have gone home. Then walk backwards round the church nine times, looking into every window and door as you go. Then return home, and, as you go, give the cake to the first living thing that you meet, be it dog, cat, or any other animal. [xi]

witch hat

Witches are dressed exactly like fairies. They wear a red mantle and hood, which covers the whole body. They always wear these hoods.[xii] An old woman living at Holmesfield, in the parish, of Dronfield, in Derbyshire, who wore “one of those hoods called ‘little red riding hoods’,” used to be called “the old witch.” The favourite meeting-places of witches are cross-ways, or “four lane ends,” or toll-bars, where they bewitch people.

witch hat

 If an old woman comes begging to your door never give her silver. If you do so she will gain some power over you.

witch hat

There was a wise woman at Killamarsh, near Chesterfield, whom people consulted when they were in any difficulty. She could tell a woman where her drunken husband was, and in this, it is said, she was never known to fail.

witch hat

If you are bewitched get a twig from a tree, cut it in two, and make a cross of it. You should carry this about with you, stitch it up in your dress, or put it under your pillow. By this means you will charm away any harm that the witch may have done to you.

witch hat

A girl in Derbyshire who was engaged to be married to a young man with light hair met a wise woman, or witch, who told her that she must marry a dark-haired man. She gave the girl a piece of paper, “shaped like half a diamond,” in which she pricked three marks with a pin. She told the girl to wear the paper in her bosom for three weeks, after which she would find the name of the dark-haired man written on the paper.

witch hat

In North Derbyshire the memory is still preserved of people who have sold themselves to the Devil. The names of people who have done so are mentioned. The wise man at Chesterfield was one of them.

witch hat

A story is told about an old woman at the Hallowes, in the parish of Dronfield and county of Derby, who baked oatcakes on Sunday, until one Sunday she was burnt to death.

witch hat

When a horse-shoe is nailed to a stable door to keep witches out the nails must not be driven through the shoe; they should be driven so as to hold the shoe by its sides.

witch hat

Farmers, early in the present century, were very particular about not having these horse-shoes disturbed or removed. [72]They would almost kill a man if he attempted to remove them.

witch hat

To keep the witch out of your house let the handles of your brooms be made of wiggin (mountain ash).

witch hat

Many women in Derbyshire carry about with them a little cross made of two twigs of witch wiggin as a protection against misfortune or witchcraft. It is worn concealed under the dress.

witch hat

An old woman living at Greenhill, near Norton, in Derbyshire, who was reputed to be a witch, could tell, it is said, who the next person to die in the village would be.

witch hat

A woman living at Eckington, in Derbyshire, was reputed to be a witch. She always lay in bed till twelve o’clock at noon. It was said that she held communion with the Devil, to whom she had sold herself, and that she had power to make people perform her commands. She once told a man to go to bed, when she wished him to be out of the way, and he immediately obeyed her.

witch hat

A woman living at Eyam, in Derbyshire, who was reputed to be a witch, had a bottle of “horse-nail stumps” which she shook and rattled before a person whom she meant to bewitch.[xiii]

Witchcraft and Magic Charms

In Derbyshire it is usual to drive a horse-shoe between two flags or stones near the door of the house, the circular part of the shoe being driven downwards. This is done to keep the witch out.


If a woman’s sweetheart is cold to her, or does not visit her when he ought to come, she should take the shoulder-blade[xiv] of a lamb, and, as she goes upstairs, say these lines :

It’s not this bone I wish to stick,

But my true lover’s heart I mean to prick;

Wishing him neither rest nor sleep

Until he comes to me to speak.

When she has reached her bedroom she should stick a penknife into the shoulder-blade.


In 1888 a man and a woman living at Cold-Aston, in Derbyshire, were engaged to be married. The wedding-ring was bought one Saturday, and the marriage was to be celebrated on the following Monday. But, in the meantime, they quarrelled, and the marriage did not take place. On the Monday evening the boys in the village made a straw image of the man, which they burnt in the street opposite to his door, and they also burnt a straw image of the woman opposite to her door in the same manner.[xv]


Lately, at the same place, when a man was a ran-tanned,” that is, when a straw image of him was made, and he rode in effigy, the image was taken round the village on three successive nights, and it was burnt on the last night. The carrying round of the image was accompanied by a number of people beating tin cans, and making a great din. It is said that if you carry the image round the village on three successive nights the man cannot “have the law” of you. In this case the man had quarrelled with his wife, and the wife’s friends caused the image to be made and carried round.


At Curbar, in Derbyshire, a young man was untrue to the girl who loved him. The girl thereupon took a live frog, stuck its body full of pins, and buried it. It is said that the young man suffered such severe pains in all his limbs after this that he came back to her an abject penitent. She then unearthed the frog, and removed the pins from its body. After this the pains left him, and he married her.[xvi]


If your lover has forsaken you, and you want to bring him back to you, take a live pigeon, pluck out its heart, and stick pins therein. Put the heart under your pillow, and your lover will return to you.


To keep evil spirits away get a bit of wood, make a cross of it, and nail it to your bedroom door.


When bread is baked it is usual to make a cross upon the flour in the pancheon when the bread is in the state called “sponge”.


If butter does not come properly when you are churning tie a “withy of wiggin” (sprig of mountain ash) round your churn.


For All Soul’s Day – a time when deceased loved ones were traditionally given special consideration – there will be another post with extracts from Household Tales: ‘Death and Burial in Derbyshire: Superstition and Ritual


[i] Household Tales and Traditional Remains. Collected in the Counties of York, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham, published 1895.

[ii] Extracts copied from the text

[iii] An interesting article on the superstitious use of ‘crooked’ sixpences can be found here.

[iv] Addy comments that the ‘T’ ‘represents the hammer or sign of the god Thor’.

[v] Studies of ritual and mythology have long seen a close relationship between death and fertility (classic texts that discuss structural opposition in ritual are Arnold van Gennep’s 1909  The Rites of Passage, Emile Durkheim’s 1912 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, and Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process, 1969. However, these theories are now somewhat dated, and numerous, more nuanced, theoretical frameworks have been developed in recent decades (for a very basic summary of archaeological approaches, see here; a good overview is provided by The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, edited by Timothy Insoll, whose books on the topic are well recommended); various academic papers on the topic are freely available online, e.g. through, such as here).

[vi] Extracts copied from the text

[vii] Extracts paraphrased from the text

[viii] ‘Triviumt’ (ibid.).

[ix] ‘Evidently the Parcae or Noras. Instead of the distaff or the threads of life they carry hour-glasses’ (ibid.).

[x] Extracts copied from the text

[xi] Ditto.

[xii] ‘Compare “Little Red-cap” (Grimm’s Household Tales, No. 26), Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, and our “Little Red Riding Hood.” This connection of witches with fairies is very remarkable, and we seem to get here the dress of the ancient priestess who was covered with a mantle. Compare (lie Old high German, hæchel, a witch, and the Old English haccle, a cloak.’ (Addy, footnote)

[xiii] ‘This is an interesting survival of savagery. When the African soothsayer or sorcerer gives his response he shakes a small gourd filled with pebbles. Macdonald’s Africa, 1882, i. 44.’ (ibid.).

[xiv] ‘Spatulamancia, or divination by the shoulder-blade, was an ancient practice. See instances in Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology, passim.’ (ibid.).

[xv] ‘This custom arose from the belief that the burning of the image would cause pain or death to the person whom it was intended to represent.’ (ibid.).

[xvi] ‘My informant tells me that she knew these people well, that the young man’s tortures caused a great stir in the neighbourhood, and that she thoroughly believes the story’ (ibid.).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.