Forest Gate's unique place in the history of witchcraft

Thursday 17 March 2016

Our last post featured some heroic local women's fight for the vote, this one looks at a rather less public spirited local woman.

It is the case of 72 year old Forest Gate resident, Jane Rebecca Yorke, the last person convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, in 1944. It was a fascinating case that:

Led to the scrapping of the law,

Involved four days court action in West Ham, and

Was taken up by the Director of Public Prosecutions, who referred it for

Trial at the Old Bailey, before a leading judge who has previously supervised a number of  other "witchcraft trials"

Received massive coverage in the local press (over 8 densely packed full broadsheet page columns of the Stratford Express) at a time of newsprint scarcity and rationing.

Unusually for a relatively minor case,  still merits its own substantial file in the national Public Records Office, including a full transcript of the West Ham Police Court proceedings.

Caused panic within the more formal Spiritualist movement within the UK.

Saw Yorke represented in court by William Daybell, whose firm of solicitors continues to practice in the Broadway in Stratford today.

The above is all the more surprising when a study of the court transcripts suggests that the case was little more than that of a rather clumsy, small-time, local con artist, who prayed, overwhelmingly, on the fears and gullibility of poor, vulnerable, East End women.

At the time, Yorke was widowed and lived at 198 Romford Road (see photo of the house, today, below). She was charged with:

Conspiring together with persons unknown to pretend to exercise, or use, a kind of conjuration (magic spell) and that through the agency of Mrs Yorke, spirits of deceased persons appeared, and that the spirits were communicating with living persons present.
The charges related to seven events occurring over three dates in May 1944, West Ham magistrates heard on 11th July. On the July date she was remanded on bail until the end of the month, when a full three day trial took place at the local Police (former name of Magistrates) Court. 

These appearances resulted in extensive coverage in the Stratford Express of the time (see extracts from clippings, below).

198 Romford Road today - the
 basement was the "scene of crime"
On the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Jane Yorke was then remanded for trial at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) in September later that year.

At this trial she was found guilty on seven counts by the Recorder of the Court, Sir Gerald Dodson, and was fined £5 and bound over, to keep the peace and not re-offend, for three years.

The relative leniency of the punishment has subsequently been put down to her age, disability and previously reported good behaviour. All in all, this was an anti-climatic outcome for a case that attracted so much attention and had such significant long term effects.

Judge Dodson told Yorke, at the conclusion of the Old Bailey trial, that she "had been trading on the susceptibilities of poor distressed people" and that it was necessary "to protect women who had gone( to her) in their sorrow and bereavement to get some spurious comfort".

The case was the last conviction in England under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and, because of its nature, lead to a repeal of that Act, and replacement by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, 1951.

Nobody ever claimed Yorke had been a witch, but the Witchcraft Act was, apparently, the only legal device available, at the time, for arresting and charging her for being a phoney medium. 

The replacement 1951 Act effectively recognised that, and updated the legislation to be more specific about fraudulent mediums.

Sir Gerald Dodson, judge at
the Old Bailey trial of Jane Yorke
Mr Elam, the prosecutor at the Old Bailey, said that the Yorke case was not a trial of Spiritualism, but that she was pretending to be able to do something, which in fact, she knew she could not do.

Following Yorke's conviction, some Spiritualist meetings due to be held elsewhere in the country, were banned, with her verdict being used as justification. This caused some consternation within the Spiritualist community, who sought legislative clarification of their status - hence the 1951 Act.

The Yorke case is covered in Malcolm Gaskill's book: Hellish Nell, Last of Britain's Witches and Gerald Dodson's memoirs: Consider Your Verdict, as well as in the Stratford Express of the time.  This article is based on these sources, together with her extensive file at the Public Records Office.

Jane Yorke was arrested on 10 July 1944 at her Romford Road home.  "Why after 23 years? ... All I have got to say is that I am a born medium", she told the police.

Part of Stratford Express
 coverage, 14 July 1944
The case against her was that she held séances in the front room of her basement where "spirits" spoke through her Zulu guide.  He apparently, impressed the sitters with his "war cry" of "Umba, Umba, Umba"!

Three police officers - Sub Divisional Inspector William Watt, Sergeant William Holliwell and Women Police Constable Constance Larner - had attended these events and described them in court.

Their testimonies suggested that each of the events was attended by around 20 - 25 people (almost all of whom were women), each of whom was required to pay 1/- (5p) and place a personal item on a hymn book. 

Yorke then appeared to affect a trance and spoke through "communicants" who passed on messages from alleged deceased people to some of the attendees.

She claimed that Queen Victoria was a frequent communicant, as was Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who, himself had been a slightly eccentric Spiritualist).

Apparently, Mrs Yorke "scrunched up her face" when she was "conveying messages from Queen Victoria". One "message" from the late queen, is said to have guaranteed the success of D-Day : "Get your red, whites and blues ready".

Public Records Office
 file of the Yorke case
Conan Doyle, allegedly, told one sitter that the War would be over by October 1944.

Acting under cover, the police inspector was told that he had lost his father in the First World War, the policewoman that her dead baby was beside her holding a bunch of roses and the sergeant that his brother had been burned alive during a bombing mission in World War 11. The police officers testified that none of these "facts" relating to alleged relatives was true.

The court also heard of messages from alleged dead relatives of other attendees, who according to those present, had not existed.

All of these claims were, presumably, reasonably easy to prove, or disprove. When they were shown to be inaccurate, Yorke blamed the effects of World War 11 bombings on her lines of communication.

Some of her messages, however, came relatively close to terrifying her audience. In one case she impersonated the brother of one of her sitters.  He had been killed in a World War ll flying mission (this part was almost accurate) and told the woman that "a loved one is going to meet a serious accident but I fear it will be fatal."

The sitter was not told who this person was to be, but was advised to "take care of her husband".  She, understandably perhaps,  responded by "crying bitterly."

The prosecutor at the trial said that Mrs Yorke appeared to have a Zulu spirit guide and that at the sittings she appeared to go into a trance.

For the prosecution, Divisional Inspector William Watt said that Mrs Yorke had an old age pension of 10/- (50p) per week. She had been interested in Spiritualism for 30 years and had been actively engaged in it for the previous ten.

Part of Stratford Express
 coverage, 29 July 1944
She had lived at the Romford Road house since 1914 and her husband, James, who assisted her at Spiritualist meetings, had died the previous year (1943). The police superintendent said that the case had come to light following a complaint. Observations were kept on her house and, according to the prosecutor:
It was quite clear that the majority of the women (attending) were either widows or mothers of men lost in the war, and from my own observations, it was obvious that a number had been on more than one occasion and that Mrs Yorke relied very largely on an extremely keen memory in dealing with them.
Given the inaccuracy of much of what she told the under-cover police officers at the seances, it would have been surprising if she was not as inaccurate in her "messages" from other alleged spirits to other attendees.  

If so, it begs the question of why those attending returned to hear Yorke so frequently, unless they were both vulnerable and desperate.

Guilty: part of lengthy
 Stratford Express coverage
 of Old Bailey verdict,
 September 1944
Mrs Yorke, from the dock, said that she did not charge for private sittings or circles (clearly not true, according to the accepted police evidence), but that there was a bowl in which people could drop money if they cared.  She said that she did not know what she uttered during séances.

Gerald Dodson, the Recorder, in sentencing Yorke, said that he wanted an undertaking from her that the harmful practice would be dropped and that he had no desire to deal with the case in any other way.

The Home Office took the records of this and earlier cases and drafted a law that excluded mention of witchcraft, which didn't feature in her case, and instead focused on the practice of fraudulent Spiritualist Mediums - hence the 1951 Act. 

This satisfied "legitimate" Spritualists, as the Yorke case and outcome had subsequently been used by the police in a number of localities elsewhere in the UK to prevent advertised Spiritualist meetings from happening.

Unfortunately, little else is known of Jane Yorke. No publicly available pictures of her seem to have survived and there are no verifiable details of her death, although she may have been buried in Hackney in the early months of 1953.

It is not clear whether anyone has heard from her since.

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