A Bottle, a Witch and several Banshees

The readers of my blog will know that I have recounted the unhappy marriage of William and Catherine Ettrick which ended in separation in the 1760s. The Ettricks had two children who were old enough to be aware of their parents’ troubled union, and their father’s aggressive, sometimes violent actions towards their mother. Nowadays we want to know how children are coping when their parents are fighting and we know that domestic violence is a psychologically damaging environment in which to grow up. It is very difficult to ask how children in the past felt in this sort of family life. The records simply don’t offer the kind of evidence we need to discover how children viewed their situation, though it is very clear that family members and servants always acted promptly both to save and remove children from violent scenes.

I did manage, however, to find out something about the Ettricks’ two children when they grew up. There is far more information about the youngest child, William Ettrick junior, born in 1757, because he left a diary. Although I am unable to say that he and his sister were damaged by their childhood, they were certainly as eccentric as their father.

Even the means by which we know about William junior’s life is strange. His diary was sealed into a glass bottle and bobbed through the waves of time, hidden somewhere in the Ettrick family’s possession, until it was rediscovered in 1912. It came into their solicitor’s possession when their line ran out and he dealt with their estate in the early 20th century.  His papers and correspondence are in Dorset and Tyne & Wear record offices now and would make fantastic sources for anyone interested in the period.

After his parents separated, William junior was sent off to school in York and Newcastle. In 1778, as soon as he turned 21, he left home for University College, Oxford. As he described it, he ‘decamped from Barnes, the cave of despair, penniless – friendless’. Essentially, he was running away from his father. He was ordained and elected a fellow and tutor in 1785. He took up the rectorship of Affpuddle and Tonerspuddle near Dorchester. William refused to talk to his father in this time, and sent his mother a substantial proportion of his stipend every year. She died in 1794 and William Senior contacted his son, spending the next few years trying to persuade him that he should marry and produce heirs. William was now 38 years old after all! William Senior seems to have been senile in his last years, and when his son visited to show him his grandchildren, he recorded with dismay that ‘the tyger revived as if it had never slumbered;’ indeed, he noted, their grandfather ‘cast them out like live toads’.

William junior now exerted his independence from his father even more. He married a local woman, Elizabeth Bishop, on 17 April 1800. Their daughter was baptised on Christmas day 1800, and a boy (yet another William) was born the following summer. In marriage, he and his sister Catherine acted very similarly. Catherine offended her father by marrying William Budle, a ‘common brewer’ in Sunderland, in 1788, leading her father to disinherit her so that her brother gave her a life annuity of £300 from his inheritance. William also went against his father’s wishes by marrying his servant. It is likely that Elizabeth was pregnant when he married her and he also got himself into great difficulties because he was trying to retain that year’s stipend from his Oxford Fellowship, which depended upon him being a bachelor. He needed both to convince locals they were married, while not marrying until after he got his stipend paid. It didn’t help that William then performed his own wedding ceremony! After several more children, the couple had to get married again in 1806 to ensure they were properly wed and their children legitimate.

When William Senior died in 1808, his son returned to his natal home, family in tow. The family grew to ten children (born in William’s middle-age) and lived in some happiness at High Barnes, although William and Elizabeth retired to Bath in their late years, only occasionally visiting Sunderland. William seems to have been happy with Elizabeth until her death in 1837 – a 37-year marriage in all. He had problems with his own children. The eldest son died in 1806, and a younger son was bankrupt twice before he was 21. Still, he seems to have remained in contact with all his offspring, though he disapproved of various husbands, and in 1827 deplored his daughter Kitty naming his granddaughter Rominetta. As he told her, that was alright while she was a baby, but she’d be ridiculed as an old woman called Rominetta! William’s favourite daughter, Mary, died in 1836. Like his father, William lived an astoundingly long life, dying at 90 in 1847. His heir was his son Anthony, who never married.

He diverted himself in his years in the North-East by writing theological tracts, often on the apocalypse, and pursuing a number of quarrels and grudges with his neighbours, and his boys’ schoolmasters. His vendettas included his sister. He recorded being offended that their conversations were largely about when her money would be paid. In 1817 he referred to her ironically as a ‘kind & grateful Creature!’ At the end of that year she wrote to him announcing that her husband had died. William disliked her tone and complained that she was a ‘woman of … draconic spirit, who has no heart or affections or religion at all, is beyond all things disgusting’. In May 1823 he recorded a dream where he was walking in the garden when scorpion-like creatures rose out of the ground. He interpreted them as the ‘root of evil’ and wondered if they foretold anything. Perhaps they heralded the death of his sister, since he was discussing administering her will in September that year.


Image courtesty of Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, William was a surprisingly superstitious man for a clergyman. While living in Dorset, William and Elizabeth employed Sarah Woodrow who worked on their garden and later as a nurse to one of the baby girls. In 1804 William recorded in his diary that the family was suffering calamities. Their horse died, their potato crop failed and their infant daughter was taken very ill, crying for several nights. William decided that Sarah was the problem: she was a witch; she made the other children cry if she passed them, she caused William nightmares, and she’d made his infant ill. He took charge and fought his child’s ‘demonical possession’ by writing sacred words on a ‘phylactery’ and tying it round her body, after which she suddenly improved. In January 1805 he dismissed Sarah since her ‘crimes’ were ‘all works of darkness’.

William grew even more concerned with the supernatural as he aged. When Mary died in 1836 he recorded in his diary: ‘the wailing of the Banshees have visited us for some months past and more strongly as the evil grows near’. In fact more was to follow as his wife Elizabeth died 6 months after her daughter. The Ettricks seem to have had a mobile banshee, for when Anthony inherited he did not live at High Barnes, but in a small farm near Sunderland. Nonetheless, when he died in 1883, the village populace apparently heard the Banshee wailing round his house, and after he died a spectral chaise and horses were heard driving to his farmhouse door! A grandson of William Junior died in 1902 and the family recorded that a noisy poltergeist attended his death, almost driving the doctor and nurses out of the house; a great grandson declared the banshee scared him more than the tomb. A writer who wrote up their history in the 20th century declared that the whole family record consisted of ‘dreams, spooks, bordering on insanity’!

Some of this biography is based on Mrs Sherwood’s Account of William Ettrick’s Life (1980) D1854/3, Dorset Record Office. The rest is from the collection of Ettrick papers held in Tyne & Wear Record Office.

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