The Witches of Castle Street

Over 350 years ago two witches lived on Castle Street, Liverpool. This story is not a myth, it comes from a contemporary account from their long-suffering landlord. The authors have located the exact location of where that was. Now wrap up warm and come with us as we explore the witches’ coven.

Two witches lived next to Liverpool Castle in the mid 17th century. There is no documented evidence of scenes like the above happening but it is fun to speculate. Although it does not depict Liverpool Castle it does have a house in the approximate location of the witches’ house in relation to the castle. Image: Frontispiece of Pandaemonium, or the Devil’s Cloyster, London, for J. Walthoe, 1684

The Witches’ Landlord

Sir Edward Moore of Bank Hall was one on Liverpool’s largest landowners in the 17th century. Between 1667-8 he drew up a list of his rental properties to advise his 11 year old son and heir William (died of Smallpox in 1672). This fascinating document gives us an incredible insight into the landscape and its occupants of 17th century Liverpool.

In instructing his son, Moore often gives detailed descriptions of his properties, the rent paid and how much is should be raised when the opportunity arises. He also describes the character of his tenants, some of which are leading figures in the town at that period. Moore’s instructions to his son are often humorous and spiteful, verging on character assassination:

Peter Lurting of Juggler Street (High Street)
For a house, late Tatlock’s. He is a very knave, and hath deceived me twice. I charge you never trust him; but if it lie in your power, let him know I have marked him out for a knave. He was the man who would neither give me his vote when I stood for a parliament man, neither would he give me his vote when I stood to be mayor of this town; but treacherously, contrary to his promise and faith, having engaged at his going out of his mayoralty to name me,and so give his vote for me.

Tenants from Hell

Perhaps the most fascinating entry is of a family of witches that were tenants of Moore in Castle Street. After a trial a widow named Bridge had confessed to being a witch since the death of her mother 30 years before – her mother also being a witch. Bridge and her unmarried sister Margaret Loy had inherited their Familiars (evil spirits in animal form) from their destitute mother who had nothing else to leave them. Also living in the household was Widow Bridge’s daughter.

Widow Bridge
A poor old woman. Her own sister, Margaret Loy, being arraigned for a witch confessed she was one ; and when she was asked how long she had so been, replied, Since the death of her mother, who died thirty years ago ; and at her decease she had nothing to leave her, and this widow Bridge, that were sisters, but her two spirits ; and named them, the eldest spirit to this widow, and the other spirit to her the said Margaret Loy. God bless me and all mine from such legacies : amen.

It is surprising that Moore allowed them to live in his house but he did so even after their lease had expired. Not only that, he didn’t even increase their rent. It appears this was more out of fear than charity. The daughter in particular appears to have been particularly troublesome, so much so that Moore asks God to intervene:-

This house is out of lease, yet for charity I permit this old woman to be in it only for the old rent; whenever she dies put her daughter out of it, for she is one of the wicked, drunken, swearing, and cursing women in England, and a lewd woman besides. God bless us from her : amen.

Once the Moore’s could be free from their cursed tenants, Moore had great plans for the plot of land:-

This is a brave place to build on a gallant house and a great back side. You may have one pound a year rent, three rent hens, and three days’ shearing, for it; or, may be, you may lay the next house at the south end to it ; and then it would be a most stately place indeed.
Consider well what you do, two houses being better than one.
Rent at present, £0 13s. Od. Vide Mercer’s directions, the next house to it, for more about this house convenience.

The Lancashire Witches

The most famous account of witchcraft in Lancashire is the trial of the Pendle Witches in 1612 when ten were executed for witchcraft. James I had considered himself an expert on witchcraft and published a book on the subject in 1603 entitled Daemonologie. Under his son, Charles I (1600 – 1649), trials of witches were frequent. In 1633 another trial saw seventeen of twenty suspects found guilty but unlike the 1612 case, they were spared death sentences and appealed to the sceptical Charles II (although the first ten years of the Restoration had seen a rise in Witchcraft trials).

An example of the belief in the Witchcraft after that period is demonstrated in 1644 when the Royalist commander Prince Rupert attacked Liverpool during the English Civil War. Rupert’s white poodle named Boy, was suspected to be a Familiar with supernatural powers. Boy died at the Battle of Marston Moor on 2 July 1644.

Woodcut from a Civil War newsbook, depicting the quarrel between Roundheads and Cavaliers. Image: http://www.cromwellmuseum.org

A stage play entitled The Late Lancashire Witches, written by Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome, was published in 1634. The play is based on the subject of the 1633 Lancashire witchcraft trials. Undoubtedly it is William Shakepeare who shaped the popular depiction of witches in his play Macbeth (first performed in 1606, and appears in his first Folio 1623):

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Widow Bridge’s mother had died 30 years earlier, circa 1637/38. This puts her death in the period after the 1633 trial. How their mother died is not known. By the time Widow Bridge and Margaret Loy took over the Castle Street house, it was far less likely they would have been executed. However the last execution in England of someone accused of Witchcraft took place in Devon in 1685 – almost two decades after the Moore Rental.

Below is a short summary of witchcraft trials in Britain from the official UK Parliament website:

  • Formal accusations against witches – who were usually poor, elderly women – reached a peak in the late 16th century, particularly in south-east England.
  • 513 witches were put on trial there between 1560 and 1700, though only 112 were executed. The last known execution took place in Devon in 1685.  
  • The last trials were held in Leicester in 1717. Overall, some 500 people in England are believed to have been executed for witchcraft.
  • In 1736 Parliament passed an Act repealing the laws against witchcraft, but imposing fines or imprisonment on people who claimed to be able to use magical powers.
  • The Act was repealed in 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act which in turn was repealed in 2008.
  • In 1824 Parliament passed the Vagrancy Act under which fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism became punishable offences.

Who was Widow Bridge?

It is likely that Widow Bridge was a young adult at the time of her mother’s death 30 years prior to the Rental, giving an estimated age of 50 and a birth date circa 1618. This places her mother’s birth in the late 16th century or very early 17th. As Margaret Loy was unmarried, and the house was in her sisters name, we may presume she was younger and may have been an infant when her mother died. We know the Widow had a daughter but neither the daughter or the deceased father are named.

Of her husband, Moore mentions another person named Bridge who also lives in Castle Street. Thomas Bridge may have been the widow’s brother-in-law or possibly her son. Thomas Bridge lived at the east end of the Dry Bridge that ran over a recess used for spinning (possibly a rope walk to manufacture rigging for ships). Moore was so amused that someone named Bridge should live near a bridge he named the area ‘Bridge Alley’ and even composed a poem about it:-

Remember the reason why I named it Bridge’s alley was because it lay betwixt two bridges, the one at the west end, where never water runs under, made for to spin under, (vide Will. Bushell, Castle street,) the other at the east end is Thomas Bridge, my tenant, a drunken fellow ; upon which these verses were made as follows : —

In old, bridges for water were,
But these are made for other fare ;
The one for spinning, and, it’s so said,
The other’s for the drunken trade.
Let this he set to England’s wonder:
Two bridges, and no water under
!

Where was Widow Bridge’s house?

Locating the sites of 17th century houses in Liverpool is extremely difficult. There are few records and no accurate maps. In the case of the Castle Street Witches though we are fortunate. Moore mentions Widow Bridge in relation to another tenant Mercer Gills who lived next door:-

Consider well whether you had best lay this and Widow Bridge’s house together, according as you meet with an able tenant.

In 1899 Moore’s Rental was published alongside editorial notes by William Fergusson Irvine. Irvine mentions the location of both Widow Bridge’s house and her next door neighbour:-

(Widow Bridge’s house was) Probably on the site of a portion of Scottish Chambers and a portion of Mr Dwerryhouse’s shop, Now No. 52 Castle Street. (P.77)

(Mercrer Gill’s house) was probably the last house in Castle Street as one goes in a southerly direction, and was on the west side of the street. Its site seems to be now occupied by Mr. Dwerryhouse, watchmaker, and India Rubber and Gutta Percha Co. Ltd.’s premises, No 54. At right angle to Castle Street at this point ran Castle Hill alongside the Castle Moat. The drawbridge must have crossed the moat within a few yards of what are now the entrance steps of the North and south Wales Bank. (P. 78)

Let us first examine the houses Irvine mentions. Goad’s insurance plan is from 1888, the exact time he wrote his book. It shows numbers 52 and 54 next to the North & South Wales Bank, which he says would have been the location of the castle’s drawbridge.

Goad’s Insurance Plan of 1888
The same area in 1848

Irvine says of Mercer Gill’s house; ‘this was probably the last house on Castle Street’ – by this he means the last house before you reach Castle Hill (the road), which would have run between the house and the moat. In a paper about Liverpool Castle from 1927, F. Charles Larkin provides maps showing the position of the castle in relation to the modern street layout of his time. We have added the positions of the two houses (52 & 54).

When the Rental was written 1667-68, just after the Great Fire of London, the castle of Liverpool (C. 1237-1726) was still standing. As can be seen from the reconstruction by Edward Cox, the castle was surrounded by a deep moat/ditch. From the gateway a drawbridge led to what became know as Castle Street.

The witches’ house would have been situated just in front of the drawbridge. Visiting dignitaries would have witnessed first-hand the drunken and lewd behaviour of Widow Bridge’s daughter as they entered. No doubt they were relieved when the drawbridge was raised after them!

Close to their house and right next to the moat was the town Gaol. Although the dates for this is unknown, it was certainly in an early period as in 1737 the function of the town gaol was transferred to the Tower of Liverpool at the bottom of Water Street.

Top image: Reconstruction of the castle of Liverpool by Edward Cox, with authors’ modelling added.
Bottom: The authors have shown the position of numbers 52 and 54 Castle Street over a map by F. Charles Larkin. Image: HSLC

With the location of the two houses found, we can now reveal where they were located in relation to modern Liverpool. As the narrow Medieval street layout was widened in 1786, this now puts the locations firmly in the middle of Castle Street. Looking down Castle Street Mercer Gill’s house is the first house with the witches’ house behind it. Both houses would be immediately in front of the building that is now the Liverpool Gin Distillery. No doubt the ‘drunken’ daughter of Widow Bridge would approve!

Artists impression to show the location of the Old Gaol and two houses behind it: Bygone Liverpool
The location of the two houses would be immediately in front of the Liverpool Gin Distillery. Image: Google Street View

A painting of the town from 1680 gives us an opportunity to see Liverpool at the period the witches lived there. The painting below is a later copy of the ‘Peters Painting’ so called because it had been the property of the Town Clerk Ralph Peters.

Liverpool in the 1680s, a later copy of the (Ralph) ‘Peters Painting’ from 1680. Image: NML.
A detail of the area around the castle drawbridge. The witches’ house may have been the building immediately to the left of the castle. Image: NML.
A watercolour showing the widening of the west side of Castle Street in 1786. Image: Herdman collection, LRO
A detail of the painting showing what could well be the houses of Mercer Gill and Widow Bridge being demolished.

Apart from the Town Hall, the present buildings in Castle Street date to the 19th century at the earliest. Yet, surviving links to the era of Edward Moore’s Rental (and earlier) surround the location of the Witches’ house in the form of street names – and not just Castle Street itself. Just behind their house is Moor Street (a corruption of Moore) was named by Edward himself. Over the road from this is Castle Hill, originally this was raised ground that faced the castle moat, now it is much reduced and is little more than a motorcycle parking bay. Next to Castle Hill is a 19th century building called Castle Moat house, so called because its site straddles over the castle moat. Between Moor Street and Castle Hill is Fenwick Street that was named after Moore’s wife who was a coheir of Sir William Fenwick of Meldon Hall in Northumberland.

Further down Castle Street towards the Town Hall, on the left hand side, can be found the Sanctuary Stone. This is a small circular marker made of stone said to have been carried by glacier from Borrowdale in the Lake District. It’s purpose was to show the boundaries of the ancient market founded by King John in 1207. It therefore predates Moore’s era by several centuries.

A visitor from the 17th century may be taken back at the present width of the streets and stare in wonder at the grand buildings that replaced their small humble homes, but they would certainly know their way around by the surviving street names. They may also comment that the present Town Hall (completed in 1754 with later improvements) is in a much more sensible location than in the middle of the street as it was in their day.

Moore Street crosses Fenwick Street to Castle Hill. Moore had properties on all three of these streets. Originally Castle Hill was longer and reached Castle Street The houses of Mercer Gill and the Witches were on the corner of it. Image: Bygone Liverpool
A plaque from the nearby Victoria Monument which stands on the site of the castle.

There is every possibility that some of the foundations of the Witches’ house still survive under the road of Castle Street.

Although now the only spirits to be found above ground are in the Gin Distillery, just in case, as Moore would say ‘God bless us from her : amen’.

Feel free to share this post but please credit the authors, you can also follow us on Twitter @bygoneliverpool.

13 thoughts on “The Witches of Castle Street

  1. Fantastic I went and explored the site and made a tik tok video on witchtravels which I have shared and praised your by gone liverpool write up.

    Like

    1. Hi Louise, that’s great, I’m glad you enjoyed the blog and it’s great you did a video of your site visit, no doubt we’ll revisit the area in the future because the old castle site holds many fascinating stories. Thanks for sharing the post too.

      Like

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