Under the shade of the episcopal palace at Cuddesdon, at Wheatley, near Oxford, about sixty-five years ago, a female clerk, Mrs. Sheddon, performed the duties of the office which had been previously discharged by her husband. At Avington, near Hungerford, Berks, Mrs. Poffley was parish clerk for a period of twenty-five years at the beginning of the last century. About the same time Mary Mountford was parish clerk of Misterton, near Crewkerne, Somersetshire, for upwards of thirty years. A female clerk was acting at Igburgh, Norfolk, in 1853; and at Sudbrook, near Lincoln, in 1830, a woman also officiated and died in the service of the Church. Nor was the office confined to rural women of the working class. Mr. Ellacombe remembered to have seen “a gentle-woman acting as parish clerk of some church in London.”
There are doubtless many other instances of women serving as parish clerks, and one of my correspondents remembers a very remarkable example.
In the village of Willoughton, Lincolnshire, more than seventy years ago, there lived an old dame named Betty Wells, who officiated as parish clerk. For many years Betty sat in the lowest compartment of the three-decker pulpit, reading the lessons and leading the responses, and, with the exception of ringing the church bell, fulfilling all the duties of clerk.
But Betty was also looked upon as a witch, and several stories are told of how she made things very unpleasant for those who offended her.
One day there had been a christening at which Betty had done her share; but by some unfortunate oversight she was not invited to the feast which took place afterwards. No sooner had the guests seated themselves at the table than a great cloud of soot fell down the chimney smothering all the good things, so that nothing could be eaten. Then, too late, they remembered that Betty Wells had not been invited, and perfectly confident were they that she had had her revenge by spoiling the feast.
One of the farmers let Betty have straw for bedding her pig in return for manure. When one of his men came to fetch the manure away, she thought he had taken too much. So she warned him that he would not go far—neither did he, for the cart tipped right over. And that was Betty again!
We know Betty had a husband, for we hear that one evening when he came home from his work his wife had ever so many tailors sitting on the table all busily stitching. When John came in they vanished.
A few people still remember Betty Wells, and they shake their heads as they say, “Well, you see, the old woman had a very queer-looking eye,” giving you to understand that it was with that particular eye she worked all these wonders.
The story of Betty Wells has been gleaned from scraps supplied by various old people and collected by Miss Frances A. Hill, of Willoughton. The unfortunate christening feast took place after the baptism of her father, and the story was told to her by an old aunt, now dead, who was grown up at the time (1830) and could remember it all distinctly. The people who told Miss Hill about Betty and her weird witch-like ways fully believed in her supernatural powers.