The Mystery of the Mains Hall ‘Witch-Post’

In 2005-6 Adele Yeomans was renovating her home, the fifteenth– to sixteenth–century Mains Hall Manor, Lancashire. A self-proclaimed ‘tapper’, she’d been tapping the walls of an upstairs room and discovered that it was plasterboard. Wanting to strip the wall back to its original features, she pulled away several layers of lime plaster until she came across timber and wattle-and-daub – and with it a rather unusual find: what she describes as the ‘witch-post’.

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When I contacted Adele requesting to see this ‘witch-post’, she responded with enthusiasm, inviting me to her home. And so it went that on a frosty Monday morning I travelled up to Mains Hall Manor, a beautiful Tudor building majestically situated at the end of a very long drive.

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The manor acts as Adele’s part-time home but also as a wedding venue; the hall was still decked out with red carpets and opulent dining-sets following a weekend wedding fair. Adele met me at reception and walked me over to her office in the main house; a cosy room of dark wood, densely-packed bookcases, displayed curiosities, and a roaring hearth. The kind of room that a ‘witch-post’ – currently displayed above the fireplace – seems entirely in-keeping with.

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When Adele shows me her find, the first image that flashes into my mind is of the wooden metre rulers I used in school – and apparently Adele had a similar first impression. ‘My immediate reaction was, oh, this is a builder’s ruler or something, a measuring stick’, she tells me, laying it flat on the coffee table in front of me. It’s a wooden rod or baton, roughly the same length as a metre ruler, 38 inches long and one inch thick, and all along one side of it are inscribed markings. There are twelve distinct markings in total, irregularly spaced, in a variety of shapes: some of them look like flat-headed nails; another like a cross; and another is a half-circle with a line through it.

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The markings don’t seem to correspond with any distance measurements, so this probably does rule out its use as a measuring tool. But what else could the markings be? As Adele tells me, ‘at first I thought they look a bit runic. But then I thought hang on, no, not in a Tudor house, that’s not right’. If they are runes, they’re not any that people have been able to identify.

Other interesting features include the hole at one end, suggesting that it was possibly hung up vertically – which, as Adele points out, makes us view the markings from a different perspective.

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Then there’s the split, about two thirds of the way down, where the rod has broken into two pieces and been nailed back together again. Adele focuses on this feature; ‘You’d think if it was nothing of any value you’d just throw it away and get another one’, she muses. ‘But it was cherished enough to have been repaired’.

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This find appears to be unique; no other item has been found that is quite like this one, which makes ascribing both a date and an original purpose to it nearly impossible. That doesn’t stop people hazarding guesses though, and the most common theory is that it was hung up inside the wall as a charm or apotropaic device. ‘Let’s hope it was a good charm. Perhaps I should put it back into the wall and I’ll win the lottery’, Adele jests, before considering, ‘Maybe it’s a protection thing, something to protect the house or the owners’.

Adele is eager for answers; ‘I like a mystery’, she says, ‘but I’d love someone to tell me what it was’. I’d love that too, which is why I contacted several experts and asked for their opinions. Brian Hoggard, a specialist in apotropaic devices and creator of the web resource Apotropaios, noted the possible significance of there being twelve symbols, suggesting an astronomical connection, while Timothy Easton, an expert in timber markings and spiritual middens, made a very useful comparison with two objects discovered in a midden in Barley House Farm, Winston. In his 2013 paper ‘Four Spiritual Middens in Mid Suffolk, England, ca. 1659-1850’ (Historical Archaeology 47: 1), Easton describes two wooden sticks found amidst other deposits which, in his opinion, ‘may be crude, flatter versions of clog almanacs’ (2013: 17).

Clog almanacs are calendars indicating saints’ days, festivals, phases of the moon, etc., and were made by cutting notches and figures onto a long piece of wood. They have a very interesting history, detailed on this blog, and there are quite a few held in museum collections throughout the country: at the British Museum, for example, and a seventeenth-century one at Chetham’s Library, Manchester, shown here:

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Could the mysterious Mains Hall rod have been used for a similar purpose? Firstly, some of the symbols correspond with those on the other clog-almanacs: the crosses, the half-circle with a line through it.

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Secondly, the British Museum clog-almanac has a hole at its top for hanging, just like the Mains Hall rod. And, going back to Brian Hoggard’s point, the twelve symbols could indicate months. Granted, the Mains Hall rod is far less detailed than the others, but perhaps it was an example of cruder, more rudimentary craftsmanship. Or perhaps it was only meant to look like a clog-almanac, but was never actually used as one. Perhaps, as Owen Davies suggests, it was made by (or its making was advised by) a cunning-man/woman, who imitated the design of a clog-almanac but attributed it a different purpose. As for why it was found in the wattle-and-daub of a wall… Frustratingly, without speaking to the original concealers themselves, some mysteries simply can’t be solved.

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