The Dorsetarian

Dorset Ghost Walks

If you are looking for something different this year, then ghost tours can provide some great entertainment, especially if they're ghost tours after dark.
Alistair Chisholm's Dorchester Ghost Walks
Weymouth Ghost Walks
Haunted Harbour Tours
Granny Cousin's Ghost Walks of Old Poole Town
The Bridport Ghost Walk

Bullock's Heart stuffed with Thorns

Location: Farmhouse, Hawkchurch, near Axminster (now in Devon)

Heart Attack

Witches were once commonplace in Dorset, and the belief in witchcraft was never stronger than in the outlying villages and hamlets - such as Hawkchurch.

In 1884, one of its residents made an unusual discovery, for found lodged up a chimney of the farmhouse was a stuffed bullock's heart studded with thorns, pins, and nails.  John Symonds Udal in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 wrote:

"An interesting illustration of that to which Mr. Roberts alludes occurred some forty years ago in the parish of Hawkchurch, West Dorset, an account of which appeared in the Bridport News in March, 1884. A new tenant had recently entered into possession of a house in the village which had just been vacated, when it was necessary to displace what was thought to be a lodgment in one of the chimneys. The obstruction was got out, and was found to be neither brick nor stone, but a bullock's heart, into which was stuck a quantity of the prickles of the white thorn, some nails, pins, and other things. This bullock's heart, in exactly the same state in which it was removed from the chimney of the cottage at Hawkchurch, is now, or was, in the Literary Institute at Bridport, and was exhibited at the meeting of the Dorset Field Club at that town in July, 1889, when I myself saw it. It presented a very dry, shrivelled, and almost mummified appearance, evidently having been in the smoke for many years. A correspondent suggested that as the late occupant was a bachelor, possibly he might have used the " charm " to ward off the attacks of the ladies and to prevent " witches " from getting access to the house by means of the chimney! This correspondent is undoubtedly right in conjecturing that the obstacle in the chimney was intended to act as a charm, for a bullock's heart so placed was always considered by superstitious Dorset folk to be the most effective way of keeping witches or fairies out of a house, as it was by the chimney they were generally supposed to effect an entrance. More especially is the charm to be depended upon if the animal's heart (as in this case) be previously studded with prickles of thorns, nails, or pins, in the same way as Mr. Roberts mentioned with regard to pieces of bacon used for the similar purpose. In order to make the charm more efficacious, " maiden " thorns should be used ; that is, thorns that have been grown the same year in which they were picked.

The same paper in April, 1901, mentions a similar case as occurring at Shipton Gorge, which carries the belief in such practices in West Dorset up to the beginning of the present century.   It says :—

" A week or two ago the son of Mr. Fowler, sweep, of Bridport, while sweeping a chimney in one of the cottages in Ship ton came upon a curious relic of past days. He had reason to go up the chimney, and about eight or ten feet from the ground he found an old canvas bag, hanging or fixed in a cranny of the wall, and inside this was discovered, wrapped in paper, a hard and dried bullock's heart, stuck through and through with thorns and pins. This is the fourth heart of the kind found in chimneys in the neighbourhood within the last few years. This was one of the charms against the witch's spell in days gone by, and was hung in the chimney with the idea that the pins and thorns added torment to the witch and broke her spell."

The late Mr. Bosworth Smith, in his Bird Life and Bird Lore (1909), p. 366, spoke of the belief in the " evil eye ", and in the bewitching of cattle and persons, as still lingering on in Bingham's Melcombe and the surrounding villages. And he mentioned the practice of sticking pins into a bullock's or other animal's heart as still followed in that neighbourhood. But in the instance he there gave of this having been carried out only a year or two before, the " charm " would seem to have been used rather as a remedy or cure for the bewitching or overlooking than as a preventive against the spell being cast. In this case the heart, " bestuck with pins till it bristled all over with them ", was set before a fire ; and then " as it begins to glow and frizzle the power of the witch or wizard gradually diminishes, and when at last it burst with the heat the spell is broken and the witchcraft over."

Bullock's Heart impaled with Hawthorns

Bullock's Heart
impaled with Hawthorns

At Wyke Regis, Weymouth, there once lived an old woman who was suspected of practising witchcraft, for it was believed she had overlooked a young girl. A gypsy informed the girl's mother to hang a bullock's heart stuffed with pins inside the chimney, which in time would break the spell.  The mother did this and when the heart dried out, it fell into the fire and was burnt to a cinder. Later when her daughter recovered, the old witch was seen in a fit of rage claiming that some one had been meddling in her affairs.

Mentioned in the 'Dorset Year Book 1942-3'. The Police station at Frampton, near Dorchester found a Bullock’s heart in their chimney.

‘During the fitting of a new firegrate at the Police Station nearly forty years ago my mason dislodged a bullock’s heart stuffed full of pins’

At Marshwood, near Lyme Regis another bullock’s heart placed up chimney. J.B. Lang paper on ‘Charming of cattle’, 'Procceedings of the Dorset Natural. History. & Archaeology. Society. 91 (1969)'

"A farmer complained his cattle had been ‘overlooked’ and were all gradually dying off. He was told to take the heart out of the last animal which had died and push the heart, stuck all over with pins and nails, up the chimney so that the ‘overlooking’ would pass back again where it had come from."

Hermann Lea wrote in his paper on 'Some Dorset Superstitions' published in ‘Memorials of Old Dorset’ by T. Perkins and H. Pentin, 1907, with regards to this strange folk superstition.

"In a case where the horses were dying from some obscure complaint, the victim was told to cut out the heart of the next animal that died and boil it in water containing sage, peppermint, and onions; when cold, it was to be stuck full of new pins on the one side, and on the other with "maiden" thorns — i.e., thorns of the present year's growth — picked by a maiden — woman or girl — and inserted by her. This done, it was to be hung up on a nail in the chimney of a neighbour — the one accused of being the witch."

For more information about the history and superstitions that surround folk charms. Visit APOTROPAIOS. It also includes a page on Folk Magic in Dorset. An inventory of concealed finds from the county compiled by Jeremy Harte.