The witches of Wearside and how they were rooted out by dunking or pricking their skins

Washington village green.
Washington village green.
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Lauren Watson studied the history of witches as part of her degree course at Sunderland University.

She was surprised to find that there was more activity in this area than was previously realised. This is what she found.

The pricking needle.

The pricking needle.

Sunderland is not particularly well known for witchcraft.

But this is probably because women accused of witchcraft were taken to court in Newcastle or Durham and so have been included in their records.

Accounts of witchcraft in the North can be traced back much further than the beginning of the witch trials of the 1600s.

Records as early as 1446 show that Mariot de Belton and Isabella Brane were executed for promising women they could make men fall in love with them.

Others, equipped with needles, would stand suspects in front of the town and prick their skin with needles. If she did not bleed, she was undoubtedly a witch. No thought was paid to blunt needles - to onlookers the lack of bloodshed was proof enough.

Lauren Watson

Old Sunderland was always frequented by many sailors and keel men who were traditionally superstitious.

Their fear of anything out of the ordinary may well have added to the hysteria that was so closely connected to witchcraft and other dark forces.

One particular figure who struck fear into the hearts of many a sailor and his wife in the eighteenth century was Sunderland-born Elizabeth Hobson.

From a young age Hobson apparently had the ability to see recently deceased neighbours and often they would appear to her in ominous visions days before they died.

One notable vision was of a sailor named John Simpson who she claimed stood over her bed, soaked through and dripping icy water onto her, days before he was drowned at sea.

There are accounts of Elizabeth visiting sailors’ wives, warning them to prevent their husband from returning to sea, a deadly omen that was welcomed by few.

While Hobson herself believed that she may be a witch, others felt she was in fact possessed by demons and an unsuccessful attempt exorcism on her was carried out.

Elizabeth, of course, can be considered lucky that nobody else considered her a witch. The trials and punishments suffered by anyone accused of witchcraft were certainly to be feared.

While tests such as dunking may seem like an incredulous myth, this common activity even took place in Washington’s pond – now covered over by the village green.

The Washington witch, Jane Atkinson, was thrown into the pond to see whether her nagging behaviour was a sign of witchcraft. It was ruled that if she floated then she WAS a witch and would be hauled out and executed. Accusers were so desperate to identify witches that they often dunked suspects three times in the hope that they would float. If they sank to the bottom then they were declared innocent, but of course this revelation usually came too late and the accused would be drowned.

Sadly, Jane Atkinson met her fate this way and she drowned at the bottom of the Washington pond.

In 1649, as fear of witches grew, the people of Newcastle petitioned for the council to bring witches to trial and witch-hunters were employed to tackle this increasing problem.

With the promise of twenty shillings per witch, corruption within this profession was rife. Witch-hunter Thomas Seovil claimed that he could identify a witch by her appearance. Others, equipped with needles, would stand suspects in front of the town and prick their skin with needles.

If she did not bleed, she was undoubtedly a witch. No thought was paid to blunt needles - to onlookers the lack of bloodshed was proof enough.

Years later, as belief in witches declined, Seovil confessed to a staggering 220 false accusations which had led to execution and he himself was sentenced to death.

While these so-called witches died at the hands of their accusers, their stories remain – and some say that Jane Atkinson can still be seen flying over Washington village green on All Hallows’ Eve…

So keep a look out – you never know.