A number of articles include stories about the activities of so called Witches at the Old Church of Wallsend (Holy Cross). The following story appeared in the Monthly Chronicle in 1888, and again in 1951 in M. A. Richardson’s Local Historians Table Book (available in local libraries), so it must be true.
I denied my baptism, and did put the one of my handis to the crowne of my head and the other to the sole of my foot, and then renuncet all betwixt my two handis, ower to the Divell.
Issobell Gowdie’s confession.
Witches at Wallsend.
Monthly Chronicle; April 1888.
North-Country Lore and Legend.
Burns made Alloway Kirk eternally famous in his weird tale of “Tam o’ Shanter”; but Old Wallsend Church, which is said to have been at least once the scene of a still more strange adventure with witches than heroic Tam’s, has not found a bard like the Ayrshire ploughman to celebrate it in verse. We can therefore only give a plain, unvarnished, prosaic account of the affair, as it used to be told, doubtless with much more pith than we can put into it, by that extraordinary humorist and mystery-man, Sir Francis Blake Delaval.
At what definite period the witch adventure took place it is impossible now to tell. Sir Francis died in 1771, and already in his clay it was “once upon a time,” and “one of the Lords of Seaton Delaval,” without further specification as to when and to whom it occurred. The adventurer, whoever he was, is said to have been returning home from Newcastle after nightfall. When turning up the road past Wallsend, at the foot of the eminence on which the old church stands, he was surprised to observe the interior of the edifice brilliantly lighted up. Being, of course, curious to know the cause of this untimely illumination, he rode to the gate of the burying-ground, left his horse in charge of a servant, and walked forward to a window, where, like Souter Johnnie’s drunken crony “Wow, he saw an unco sicht.”
Upon the communion table, at each corner of which was placed an inverted human skull containing some inflammable substance that burned brightly, he saw extended the body of a female, unconfined, and partly unrolled from the winding sheet, while around it, apparently occupied in the preparation of charms, sat a number of withered hags, one of whom was at that instant employed in cutting with a knife the left breast from the corpse. The beldam who operated as dissector, and who, with stubbly beard, ugly buck teeth, red fiery eyes, and withered, wrinkled skin, seemed the likest imaginable counterpart of one of Macbeth’s witches, handed the severed breast to one of the other hags, who went off with it in the direction of the belfry, where she was lost to sight. Delaval, who believed he saw before his eyes only a set of detestably wicked old women, fit to be burned at the stake for their dealings with the foul fiend, as well as for their desecration of the consecrated building, determined that he would make an effort to stop their proceedings. So he applied his strength to the door of the church, burst it open, and rushed in, to the utter consternation of the assembly. Each of the hags endeavoured to save herself by flight. Some climbed up to the roof, and took their departure through the openings in the belfry; others managed to get out at the door or the windows. But Delaval succeeded in laying fast hold of the beldam in whose hand the knife still gleamed, and managed to tie her hands behind her back with his pocket handkerchief, in spite of her struggles and curses.
When Delaval had taken a hasty look at these devilish preparations for love and hate, charms and incantations, he hastened off with his captive, and bound her on horseback behind the servant. He kept her securely until she could be brought to trial; whether at the assizes, the sessions, or the baron’s own court, tradition sayeth not; but certain it is that she was fully convicted of being a witch, as well as a sacrilegious person, and sentenced to be burnt on the seashore in the vicinity of Seaton Delaval.
And now followed the most marvellous part of the story – so marvellous, indeed, that we must beg our readers to take it, as we ourselves do, with a grain of salt. When the sentence was about to be carried into execution, the witch requested to have the use of two new wooden dishes, which were forthwith procured from the neighbouring hamlet of Seaton Sluice. The combustibles were then heaped on the sands, the culprit was placed thereon, the dishes were given to her, and fire was applied to the pile. As the smoke arose in dense columns around her, she placed a foot in each of the utensils, muttered a spell, cleared herself from the fastenings at the stake, and soared away on the sea-breeze like an eagle escaped from the hands of its captors. But when she had risen to a considerable height, one of the dishes which supported her lost its efficacy from having been, by the young person who procured them, dipped unthinkingly in pure fresh water; and so, after making several gyrations, the deluded follower of Satan fell to the ground. Without affording her another chance of escape, the beholders conveyed her back to the pile, where she perished amidst its flames.
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Newcastle upon Tyne (1909-1910)
Mr. R. Blair read a letter he had received from Mr. John T. Greener, now of Hull , but a native of Wallsend, the following are extracts from it:
‘Seeing the mention in the Weekly Chronicle concerning the Old church (Holy Cross) and churchyard at Wallsend, I cannot refrain from mentioning to you an incident that I have never forgotten, though I have not seen the dear old spot for nearly forty years. Born at Wallsend in 1837, I well remember my mother taking me to witness the last burial that took place in that old churchyard, which was in the summer of 1842. She took me on to the wagonway bridge, so that we could get a good view while they were carrying the corpse up the old stone steps, and then we proceeded towards the grave. The deceased was an elderly lady named Cavers, who died in a self-contained house adjoining the old ‘Red Lion Inn’ at Willington Quay, at the time kept by Mrs. D. Scott, mother of the late Mr. John O. Scott. There were then two portions fenced off by iron palisadings close to the south entrance to the burial ground, and the deceased was interred in the first enclosure. I believe that portion was claimed by the Henzell family, but whether the deceased had been a relative, I could not say. Now at the time, and a good many years after, there still remained the church door, and that was at the south side of the porch, although it was partly off its hinges, it was too heavy for us boys to move, the four walls of the porch were still extant, a little higher than the door, but in deplapidated state, and the foundations of the walls were still visible. Among the many gravestones (and there were a great many) there was one which, I think very few of the whole parish ever went into the ground without visiting, it stood right at the east side of the ground, and on it was a verse we all had off by heart, it was thus:
‘Remember Man, as thou pass by
As thou art now, so once was I
As I am now, so must thou be;
Prepare thyself to follow me.’
Since that time certain officious persons in the village fenced the old place in to keep horses, cows, etc., in, and tried to prevent the public from using it. Then the place soon went to wreck and ruin. It was the prettiest spot for the scenery at that time between Newcastle and Shields.’
There is much more on the history of Holy Cross Church here: