In 1821 Mary Calder, an elderly widow, inhabited a house in New Court, just off Moor Lane. Renting out the first and second floors, she kept the ground floor or parlour floor for her own use, and supplemented her income by taking in washing. Her lodgers on the first floor were a Mrs Walcot and her attractive and lively young daughter, Miss Walcot. The Walcots were close friends of Mrs Dale, who lived on the second floor with her husband. Mr Dale was a nervous man, not only because he owed the landlady ten weeks’ rent, but also because the old lady had threatened to “set God’s curse on him for attempting to cheat the helpless and the widow” if he did not pay up immediately. Mammy Calder, as she was respectfully known, may have been a widow, but she certainly was not helpless. Her neighbours, although modern people living in a great metropolis, described her as a terror, and whispered that she was a witch.
Mammy’s witchcraft seems fairly low key. If anyone crossed her, she would publicly kneel down in New Court and pray aloud that her enemies should find that “their food would not nourish, cats might not mew nor trees grow”. As life for the poor was hard and brutal, no doubt the neighbours experienced much misfortune, and so Mammy’s curses might have appeared to have come true. There was no mention of other witchy symbols—no familiars, no potions, no warts—but she did a good line in fortune telling. There was a constant stream of neighbours, mainly young women, coming to her bedroom to have their cards read and their futures told. Of course, the future of a young working-class woman in 1821 was not hard to tell: employment as a domestic servant, marriage if she were lucky, multiple pregnancies, possible fatal puerperal fever, and general hardship. Entertaining from her bed, Mammy no doubt made the future sound much brighter as she read the cards.
Having heard that they would meet a handsome dark-haired stranger—King of Clubs—that they would have a change of fortune for the better—ten of Diamonds—that they might make a wealthy marriage—nine of Clubs—and that they should avoid a jealous stranger—Jack of Spades—her clients paid up with ready cash or in kind by doing Mammy’s washing and ironing.
However, something suggests that Mammy Calder had not read her own cards when she complained to Mr Dale not only that he owed her money, but also that his wife had been rude to her. Mr Dale was genuinely scared of Mammy, and he hit his wife for being so foolish as to provoke the reputed witch. Mrs Dale then blamed Mammy for her lamming, and, not being of a superstitious frame of mind, she decided to enlist the help of her Walcot cronies to get her revenge.
Mrs Dale fashioned a model of a witch with a pointy hat, a birch broom and a deck of cards—Mrs Calder in miniature. When Dale was out, she hung the image so that it dangled from the Walcots’ first floor window for all to see. No doubt the neighbours enjoyed a discrete laugh at Mammy’s expense.
Mammy was not to be insulted, and insisted that the witch model be taken down immediately. Laughing, the triumvirate refused, and blocked the way when Mammy tried to force her way into the Walcots’ room. But she was not going to be beaten: she might be old but she was strong, thanks either to the laundering she did or to her supernatural powers. When Miss Walcot stepped forward, the Witch of Moorgate gave her a wallop, attacked her with “fists and nails”, and pulled her about the room by her lovely long hair. There is no record of what Mrs Walcot and Mrs Dale did, but the mini-Mammy was brought in from outside.
Mammy’s victory did not last for long. She was summoned to appear before Alderman Christopher Smith at Guildhall on a charge of violent assault against the person of Miss Walcot. The story was told, and the sprightly Miss Walcott was examined for signs of the assault. All that could be seen when she revealed “a very pretty white shoulder” to the Court was “a mark something like a scratch”.
Mammy denied being a conjuror or a witch or a fortune teller, insisting that, when she was not feeling too weak or sickly to get out of bed, she earned her living by washing and ironing, and that only the week before Mrs Walcot had paid seven shillings for her services. Mrs Walcot remarked tartly that the old woman earned more in bed telling fortunes than in honest labour. Mammy replied that it was not her fault if her gift for shuffling the cards had her grateful neighbours insisting on doing her work in exchange for a glimpse into their future.
Fortunately for Mammy these were modern times. Being a feisty, outspoken, husbandless, unattractive old woman did not mean that you were a witch—it would not result in a painful death. Alderman Smith decided that Mammy should pay the costs of the hearing, and that the case would then be dismissed. There is no mention of any reparation for Miss Walcot: clearly Alderman Smith was not as enamoured of her as the newspaper reporter who had admired her sprightliness, her hair and that white shoulder.
Whilst most people would probably have been relieved to have got away so lightly, Mammy Calder was furious at what she saw as an injustice. She announced that she did not have money to pay the costs, and that even if she did she “would go to all the prisons in the world before they should get anything out of her”. Alderman Smith sighed and ordered her to be detained until the money was paid. Officer Herdsfield then had the privilege of escorting her to Wood Street Compter, and was roundly cursed by the witch for his troubles.
Mammy Calder has been a fairly elusive subject. The chances are that she was the widowed Mary Hall who married Daniel Calder/Caulder in St Giles Cripplegate in 1808, only to die and be buried in the same church eight years later. I cannot help wondering if she ever got her rent money or the lodgers had all disappeared before she was released from the Compter.
My research for this post was carried out principally in contemporary newspapers and on Ancestry.
© london-overlooked 2018
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