A Visit to the Horniman Museum Stores

A few weeks ago Ceri and I met up with Tom Crowley, curator at the Horniman Museum, and other guests he had assembled to examine the collection of charms in their stores. Philip Carr-Gomm and Ollie Douglas, Curator at the Museum of English Rural Life, were among the small group that threaded through the post-industrial wasteland around North Greenwich station to the old Victorian school building that now houses the Horniman’s collections.

Tom had set out an array of objects for us, some of which were from the collection of the folklorist Edward Lovett (1852–1933). He was a pioneer amongst early folklorists in seeking out the folk magical practices of London’s populace, while his fellow collectors busied themselves in the countryside where the ‘relics’ of old practices and beliefs were thought to have survived longest. Lovett’s book Magic in Modern London (1925) contained an array of stories of his encounters with charms and their owners. Here is his account of ‘buying the wind’:

One day I was somewhere near Billingsgate, it was about the year 1912, and whilst chatting with some of the men I noticed a penny nailed to the mast of a small boat. As I looked at it and wondered what it meant, one of the men said: “I bet you don’t know what that means.” I admitted that I did not. So he said: “Well, we found that in a cod’s stomach.” This sounded so like a “yarn” that I naturally said: “But how on earth did it get there?” And then he told me how, when sailing boats are becalmed, one of the crew will climb the mast and throw a penny into the sea “To buy the wind”.

Lovett eventually sold his collection of charms to what was then the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum and the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, as well as the Horniman.

Back to our Horniman visit, and amongst those items on display were numerous holed stones or hag stones for protection against witches, and good luck more generally, and an array of First World War amulets and talismans collected from Italian, French and British soldiers.

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One object struck me in particular. It was a prehistoric, polished stone hand axe from Eynesbury, Huntingdonshire, which was, so the label stated, carried by a farm hand to protect him from a witch called Anne Izzard. Neolithic and Bronze Age stone axes had been used since the medieval period for protection, and were sometimes known as thunderstones. They have been found concealed in roofs to ward off lightning. As to Anne Izzard, she was at the centre of a much reported assize trial in 1808.

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Anne lived in Great Paxton, now in Cambridgeshire, though formerly in the county of Huntingdonshire. She was suspected of being a witch and on one May evening in 1808 a mob broke into the cottage where she and her husband Wright Izzard lived, and dragged her out of bed and into the yard where she was stripped, scratched with pins, and severely beaten with a piece of wood. The scratching was to draw blood and so break the spells she was thought to have put on several villagers. She received the same treatment the following evening, and word was put out that she was to be swum. Anne fled to a neighbouring village and instituted legal proceeds for assault. Nine villagers were subsequently prosecuted at the assizes and sent to prison.

Those wishing to know more about Edward Lovett’s collection should read Jude Hill, ‘The Story of the Amulet: Locating the Enchantment of Collections’, Journal of Material Culture 12 (2007): 65-87.

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