Barbara Jackson and Jill Owen: Mysterious Marks at Little Moreton Hall

review llittle moreton hall x1 cong

Leek historian (and former Chronicle deputy editor) Doug Pickford writes books that make the reader stop and think about how our ancestors see the world.

We say “get on the A34” or “turn left by the Red Lion” but mythical beings rarely come into it (unless you count the Mr Tree Face in Alsager). Yet our ancestors saw the world differently, a world of imps and pixies, standing stones, fairy groves and ghouls.

Mysterious Marks at Little Moreton Hall follows in Doug’s footsteps, looking at a time when superstition was part of everyday life; there really were spirits outside the house, and you needed to keep them out, perhaps as routine a job as getting the milk in, or chopping logs.

This is a slim (22 pages) pamphlet so a review could easily give the plot away, but here’s the gist.

Thanks to Little Moreton Hall avoiding being “modernised” during the Victorian period — it was maintained by the Moreton family until 1938, when it was handed to the National Trust — its original features survive unscathed.

Volunteer researchers looked at various marks spotted by people over the years: 256 burn marks, plus two other kinds of marks scored into the timbers. Research found the score marks differed from marks left in timbers as functional marks made by carpenters, and the burn marks were not just the result of candles being left to burn.

Some marks at the house are in positions where it is not possible or necessary to have a candle, and candles are subject to draughts and don’t create a targeted burn. In a wooden house, candles setting fire to wood are probably best avoided, too. Experimentation by two archaeologists showed that there was only way to make the marks and it was man-made (or woman-made of course) and deliberate.

No specific archive records have been found that could answer why the marks were made, and research has been done by only a few individuals, mostly in the South East of England and Norfolk.

Similar studies to the one carried out at Little Moreton Hall are now being done in the Manchester area and in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

The evidence is that the burns were made in situ by the householders or possibly by a specialist in the community — a “cunning” person as the book puts it, which is straying well into Doug Pickford territory: cunning folk were white witches, practising magic for good rather than evil.

Mysterious Marks at Little Moreton Hall looks at all the types of mark, suggests why they were made and discusses some of the wider issues of life at the time.

A fascinating little book, which will have you going back to the hall for a look at these mysterious memories of a more superstitious age.

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