Betsy Laundry was a witch, not a fire starting, oath spitting, vexing kind of a witch, Betsy’s charms cured ills, Betsy’s spells righted wrongs and she was a useful member of the community. Betsy had lived in her cottage in North Hill for as long as anyone could remember. One day, Betsy bent down to take a tray out of the range, she put it on the table set for one and went back to the range to put on another log. After eating a corner of her supper, she crept onto her knees and lifted a slab of hard, black, ragged stone called slate from her kitchen floor. She lifted the slate floor each day to check on her companions. The five toads were crouching in the cool darkness under the kitchen slabs. Then, this morning, as each morning, Betsy went out to look in amongst the ditches for toads for her collection.
She walked across the field to the river Lynher. It was a rainy day, a mist hung over the fields and the river, the water was black. Betsy folded her equally black hair over her shoulder and scrabbled about in the marsh by the river, searching. There was a lot of different birdsong so Betsy had stopped her scavenging to listen and she hadn’t heard a boy and a girl come up behind her. The boy was crying and the girl was pushing him forward to talk to Betsy. ‘It’s my brother, he’s afeard of you but he has an awful nettle sting and we were hoping you might help,’ said the girl.
‘That I can do something about,’ said Betsy, her skirt half an inch thick with mud, ‘Come here.’ Betsy scrabbled about some more, looking for something on the edge of the field. She held up a dock leaf to the sting and said,
‘Out nettle, in dock:
Dock shall have a new smock.’
The boy gaped at Betsy because the nettle sting had gone. ‘Thanks,’ he said.
‘Now, I expect you’ll be wanting to see my toads,’ said Betsy.
The two children followed Betsy across the field and into her cold kitchen. ‘Fire has gone out, I’ve been out the kitchen too long.’ The children huddled together and watched as Betsy carefully moved the slab. Five toads sat hunched in the earth, their black eyes watched the children. ‘I expect you’ll be wanting to hear why I’m keeping them? Well, I’ll tell you and just you two, in all these years. Long ago, witches like me weren’t accepted as part of North Hill village, or anywhere else for the matter. Every witch was hunted and tried at Launceston. Most were seen to lose their lives but I’m telling you, they didn’t, not entirely. Their bodies all disappeared and their voices too but something was left behind. All those years ago, my job was to turn the witches into toads just before they were due to die. Trouble was, I never found the toads very easily, I tried to follow them as they scurried away but I wasn’t always successful what with all the crowds gathered around. Every day, I go out looking and some days I find one. The toads are very good at charms and they are the reason I have continued to live for all these years.’
Told by Anna Chorlton, from a fragment collected by Barbara Spooner.
In the days before vets and the NHS, every village had a witch to provide herbal remedies and charms to heal people and livestock. A lucky village had a good witch who could nearly always help her villagers.
Charm for a Burn
There came three angels out of the east:
One bought fire and two brought frost.
Out, fire, in, frost:
In name of father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Midsummer Love Charm
Hemp-seed I saw,
Hemp seed I grow.
Who will my true love be
Come after me and hoe.
Charms for Thorn Pricks
Christ was of a virgin born
But was pricked by thorns.
It did never bell nor swell-
Trust Jesus that never will.
Christ was Crowned of thorns;
The thorns did not bleed but did not rot.
No more shall thy finger, in the name
of father, Son and Holy Ghost the same.
Ref: Donald R. Rowe ‘Traditional Cornish Stories’