Esther the Nonington witch. A conspiracy of silence?

The parish of Nonington did not escape the horror and injustice of the “witch-hunts” in Puritan Kent. In his 1932 book “Those Superstitions” Sir Charles Iggleston tells the sad story of the persecution and death of Esther, a “witch” who lived and supposedly practised her “craft” somewhere in Nonington. Unfortunately the location of Esther’s house was not recorded.

Esther, no surname known, was an elderly woman who scared ignorant inhabitants of Nonington into believing they had acted in a sacrilegious manner which led them into Satan’s clutches, thereby causing their everyday misfortunes. Esther told the misfortuned villagers that the only way to end their ill-fortune was to visit her house for a consultation and cross her palm with silver. Eventually, some parishioners seem to have concluded that it was in fact Esther herself who was “influencing the Evil One” and bringing about their misfortune and bad luck for financial gain. Their thinking was that Esther was in fact perpetrating a devilish protection racket and an crown of angry villagers seized Esther and carried her three miles to Adisham pond so that they could confirm her guilty of “witchcraft” by “swimming” her.  

To be “swum” the accused was taken to a stream or pond where they were stripped to their underclothes and had their big toes and thumbs tied together cross-wise before being summarily thrown into the water for divine judgement with rope tied around their waist to enable their retrieval after the ordeal was over. If during the “swimming”  the accused drowned they were declared innocent, but if they floated they were judged to be a witch and hauled out for trial.  If found guilty at trial, as they  inevitably were, the accused were then often sentenced to be publicly hanged.

When  Esther and her captors arrived at Adisham pond the hapless Esther was bound hand and foot in the prescribed way and summarily thrown into its waters by the  accusatory Nonington parishioners for a divine judgement, and the “swimming” appears to have proved Esther’s guilt proven beyond all doubt, at least to her accusers, Igglesden goes on to describe the infliction of their death sentence on the hapless woman by the righteous mob: “Yelling and mad with wrath, they pelted the poor old creature with stones until ‘a farmer called upon his men to rescue her’, but she died, and so her persecutors said she must be a witch!”
Justice had indeed been done.

Although the parish of Nonington was well supplied with ponds at this time it would appear that none were thought suitable by the inhabitants of the parish to administer “justice” to a witch. The large pond in the neighbouring parish of Adisham which was directly in front of the parish church was well known for being deep and dangerous and some 140 years after this awful event William Hasted wrote of Adisham and its pond: “The village, consisting of about ten houses, is situated, not very pleasantly, in a bottom, having a large and dangerous pond, through which the road leads, in the middle of it; near it, on a hill, stand the church and court lodge”.At present the date of Esther’s ordeal and subsequent death in unclear, but it most likely occurred between 1640 and 1660. There is no record in the Nonington parish burial records of any Esther or Ester being interred in St. Mary’s churchyard during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She would almost certainly have been buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard with no record kept of the burial or grave because of her alleged crimes and how her death occurred.
Esther body may also have been buried in unconsecrated ground due to her alleged crimes and cause of death although Nonington suicides during this period had their causes of death listed in the records and appear to have been buried in consecrated and not in unconsecrated ground as was the custom elsewhere. Those found guilty of witchcraft were often buried under heavy rocks or slabs to prevent them rising from the grave.

The true reason for the absence of any entry for an interment is that it’s highly likely that after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 any “respectable” parishioners of “some standing” in the parish of Nonington who were either involved in Esther’s extrajudicial “trial and execution”, did not participate but allowed it to take place, or who did not act afterwards to report or record it with the judicial authorities would not want any record of that event. Nonington appears only to have had three recorded vicars during the 17th century, the first two recorded are James Hathway in 1611 and Samuel Wells in 1652, it’s therefore possible that the event occurred prior to Samuel Wells taking office. In the absence of clergy parish records and annual returns to Church authorities were kept and prepared by members of the Parish Vestry, some of whom may have been involved in the death of Esther, or at the very least must have been aware of it as the “trial” was well attended and done out in the open. It should also be asked what was the parish constable, usually a member of the Vestry appointed by the local magistrates, doing at the time?

The Boys of Fredville and the Hammonds of St. Alban’s Court were the two main land-owning families within the parish of Nonington and must have been aware of it, at the very least after the event. The Boys were very prominent in local politics and held positions of authority before and during the Civil War and Commonwealth periods. Both families also acted as magistrates, as did other prominent land-owners in the parishes surrounding Nonington and Adisham. The Archbishop of Canterbury also owned the Curleswood Park estate, now mainly covered by the village of Aylesham, to which the the Nonington parishioners and their prisoner would have passed close by. Were any of the land-owners complicate in the trial? Probably not, but the lack of any record of the death or legal action afterwards would indicate they allowed it to be concealed. It would appear to be a conspiracy shrouded by the mists of time of which the true facts may one day come to light!


  • admin

    Thank you for the information regarding the Hammonds and for your kind comments regarding the website. I’m glad it is of interest to you, it makes it worthwhile running the site.

  • Elizabeth Smith

    Sir Edward Neville, 1st lord Abergavenny was son of Ralph de Neville 1st earl of Westmorland and Lady Joan de Beaufort daughter of John of Gaunt, Edward Neville married Elizabeth Beauchamp Lady Abergavenny daughter of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester and Isabel Despenser before oct 18 1424 had brought him great estates which came to her line with FitzAlan and Despenser lines. Edward Neville son George b 1440 Married Margaret Fenne. son Sir George Neville b 1469 married Mary Stafford daughter of the 3rd Duke of Buckingham. daughter Ursula married Sir Wareham St. Leger Knt. daughter Anne St. Leger b 1556 married Thomas Digges had son Sir Dudley Digges my gran Lady Anne Digges married Anthony married Hammond married second Juxon no records Anne called Anis by the church records. burial not found. Story about a skeleton found half buried in the road? looking for Anne has co-created amazing experiences I hope to find her story. Anne’s daughter also Anne married Sir William Wooton and he was a rector in Milton Keynes. thank you so much for the post about Beauchamp Woods.

  • Elizabeth Smith

    Lady Anne Hammond nee Digges married Anthony Hammond died 1661, she married second Sir George Juxon. Anne died 1664 her burial record says a name Anis which sometimes was used to say witch. Sir Anthony died 1661. Women could not hold land and there was lots of it…Sir George Juxon does not appear in records anywhere but in a litigation about rectory of womenswold? with Sir John Marsham his daughter Elizabeth Marsham married William Hammond Anne”s son they were cousins because Elizabeth Hammond was Anthony Hammonds sister whom married Sir John Marsham. I could not find Anne’s buriel resting place in Nonnington st Mary’s Church. Why did they call her Anis? Why are her records mistakes in the peerage books. She is a descendant to Edward 3. Why are all the wills missing? who withdrew them from the archive? Thank you very much for this website. Thank you Peter Hobbs

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