Hanging in the "Magic and Witchcraft" case in the court of the Pitt Rivers Museum is a strange object from Wellington in Somerset. [Pitt Rivers Museum number: 1911.32.7] It is a one and a half meter long string with a loop at one end through which feathers have been inserted along its length. The label declares it to be a:
"Witches ladder made with cock's feathers. Said to have been used for getting away the milk from neighbour's cows and for causing people's deaths. From an attic in the house of an old woman (a witch?) who died in Wellington."
This information is based on a note sent to the museum with the object in 1911 when it was donated by Anna Tylor, the wife of the famous anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor. This stated:
"The "witches' ladder" came from here (Wellington). An old woman, said to be a witch, died, this was found in an attic, & sent to my Husband. It was described as made of "stag's" (cock's) feathers, & was thought to be used for getting away the milk from the neighbours' cows - nothing was said about flying or climbing up. There is a novel called "The Witch Ladder" by E. Tyler in which the ladder is coiled up in the roof to cause some one's death."
This brief explanation is a highly summarized, and largely inaccurate version of the sequence of events that surround the discovery of this curious object. Even based on this description however, the label has embroidered the facts by suggesting that the ladder may have been used for causing deaths, when Anna Tylor's note only suggests that the plot of novel used it in this way. The history of this object seems to point to the ways in which the stories about an object may grow, allowing folk-lore itself to become folk-lorised.
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.
Chris Wingfield - Researcher