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The Witchcraft Bottle of Rouen Road

Beneath what would soon become a building filled with stories, something extraordinary was discovered: a witch bottle buried centuries ago to ward off evil.

The ghost of St Michael at Thorn. CREDIT: Photo: With permission from Nick Stone

It was 1967 and work had begun on the new state-of-the-art building for Eastern Counties Newspapers on a site that had suffered terribly during Blitz bombing. As the foundations were laid for Prospect House, contractors recovered skeletal remains from across the site and a curious pottery bottle, stoppered, filled with mysterious items, was uncovered.

Once opened, 63 iron nails, 38 bronze pins and human hair was found, items which were passed to Norwich Castle Museum. It is likely that another element of the bottle had evaporated: urine.

‘Witch bottles’ is the name given to 17th–century glass and stoneware vessels believed to have served as objects for ritual protection or as the containers of a ‘prepared cure’ against witchcraft.

Found concealed under or within buildings, in churchyards, ditches and riverbanks, the bottles often contain pins and nails, urine, hair, nail clippings, ‘spirit trap’ threads and thorns. The urine was believed to lure witches traveling through a supernatural “otherworld” into the bottle, where they would then be trapped on the pins’ sharp points.

Witch bottles are believed to have originated in East Anglia in the late Middle Ages and were introduced to North America by colonial immigrants, meaning the tradition continued well into the 20th century on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bellarmine's at the former Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham. CREDIT; Siofra Connor

Back in 17th century Britain, small containers such as these had a big job and were seen as legitimate, medically and scientifically grounded cures for particular kinds of bewitchment.

They may well have been buried as part of a ritual and purchased from travelling cunning folk, physicians, astrologers or healers.

Rouen Road was constructed as part of post war redevelopment in the 1960s to relieve King Street from through traffic. Prospect House was built on the former junction of Golden Ball Street and Rising Sun Lane: the sculpture by Bernard Meadows outside the building gives a nod to the Golden Ball pub sign with its burnished globe.

In 1962, the pub, nearby buildings and Rising Sun Lane were compulsorily purchased by the corporation to form the new road, whose name links it to Norwich’s twin city in Normandy, Rouen.

In the car park behind Prospect House, St Michael at Thorn is remembered on a blue plaque, a Norman church which was destroyed by an enemy bomb in 1942 which once served a short stretch of Ber Street and the steeply-descending streets towards the River Wensum.

Black and white photograph of an old Norwich church .
St Michael at Thorn pictured in 1931. CREDIT: George Plunkett

The skeletal remains found at one end of the site are likely to be from St Michael, which once served a community known as ‘The Village on the Hill’ and included a small Italian community.

Meanwhile, the skeletons at the other end of the site – along with the witch bottle – were found where, hundreds of years of years later, an idea for a project that catalogued Norfolk’s folklore was born in Prospect House.

And now, many years later, we are still enticing folklore lovers, stone spotters, paranormal investigators, cryptozoologists, folk horror enthusiasts, ufologists, magic users and all other curious souls to join us on our strange journeys around the county.

Further reading:

Other witch bottles were found close to this Rouen Road find. A 17th century bellarmine jar found buried upside-down and filled with iron nails and human hair was found in 1950 at a building on the corner of King Street and Music House Lane. It is held at Norwich Castle Museum, a note attached reads: “The contents of this early 17th century jar strongly suggests its use for witchcraft.”

Another was found on King Street during building work in 1970 when the St John’s Ambulance Headquarters were being built. A bellarmine ‘witch bottle’ was found 12ft underground – at the same depth as the cellars under the street - containing iron nails, bronze pins and human hair.

Witch bottle found at Swardeston, Norfolk. CREDIT: Siofra Connor

At the top of St Stephen’s Street in an area now occupied by a frozen food supermarket, a digger unearthed a witch bottle in 1960, buried under what would have been a house or shop’s frontage.

Recently, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford hosted a live online ‘unstoppering’ of a Norfolk witch bottle which had been found in 1893 from what was thought to be the courtyard or garden of the former Duke of Norfolk’s Palace in Norwich.

While it seemed to have been opened sometime after its discovery and the contents noted, it was subsequently re-sealed and hasn’t seen the light of the day for more than a century.

Watch the Norfolk genie (urine) escape the bottle here…

There is a wonderful account of what it was like living in this area in the early 1950s, before the wrecking ball fell, HERE.

Nick Stone’s Blitz Ghosts: St Michael at Thorn account:


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