The Lancashire witch trials are one of the most famous in the country, focused primarily on an alleged coven centred around the area of Pendle Hill in the east of the county. Nearly 100 years later, fears that witches resided amongst the people of Lancashire remains commonplace. Much ill-fortune was attributed to their magics.
Meg Shelton, recorded in some accounts as Mag or Magery Hilton, was a local-born woman who resided on the Fylde, the belt of productive farmland that stretches inland from the Fylde Coast. Today, the coast is home to modern-day Blackpool and its wider conurbation. Researchers differ on the location of her home, with some placing it close to the church in Singleton and others suggesting she lived in a place known as Cuckoo Cottage, close to the footpath between Singleton and Kirkham.
However, there is no such disagreement on her final resting place, with the grave of Meg Shelton still to be found in the graveyard of St Anne’s Church in Woodplumpton, made distinctive by the large glacial boulder that marks the spot.
Living on the Fylde in the late 17th Century, Meg Shelton gained a reputation as a powerful and malevolent witch. She was blamed by local farmers and villagers for causing illness amongst their cattle. They also claimed she would drain whole herds dry of their milk overnight, the stolen milk carried off in a milking pail she enchanted into the form of a goose. She was also said to be able to take the form of various animals. One farmer even reported her spying on him in the form of a sack of grain, after said sack screamed and bled after he impaled it with a pitchfork.
Meg is said to have been found dead in her isolated home in 1705, crushed between a heavy oak barrel and the stone wall. Locals were convinced that her dealing with the devil in return for her magical abilities had resulted in her attracting the ire of the dark lord. Eventually, he had returned to claim the soul that was owed to him.
The ability for witches to return after her death was commonly stated, and the decision was made for Meg to be buried under cover of darkness in the graveyard at Woodplumpton in an effort to prevent her return. The next morning, the grave was found disturbed and the corpse lying close by in the dew-covered grass. This continued to happen, with villagers reburying her as darkness fell each evening, only to find a still corpse dragged free from the grave the following morning.
Ultimately, a priest was sent from nearby Cottam Hall to consecrate the grave to prevent her return. Perhaps unconvinced of the reliability of the priest’s warding, locals placed a large boulder over the grave in an attempt to prevent her clawing her way out. It is also said that this time, she was buried face down, tricking her into digging her way deeper into the earth if she were to reanimate.
The boulder remains in the graveyard at Woodplumpton to this day, marked with the simple inscription;
‘The Witch’s Grave. Beneath this stone lies the remains of Mary Shelton, alleged witch of Woodplumpton, buried in 1705.’
Unsurprisingly given its overt reference to a witchly inhabitant, supernatural rumours surrounding the grave site endure. Touching the boulder is supposed to elicit chills or cause one’s hairs to stand on end. Some locals maintain that the blessing, or perhaps curse, that keeps Meg bound to her grave must be periodically renewed by visitors circling the grave and spitting upon the stone. Lastly, the legend persists that circling the grave three times whilst speaking Meg’s name will result in her grasping hands bursting from below the boulder to snatch at the culprits. The church’s own website offers a more cheerful legend; standing on the boulder and rotating three times would result in a wish being granted.
The website of St Anne’s Church, Woodplumpton, carries its own information on Meg Shelton’s grave. It can be found here: