Welcome to my writer's log. I'm using this blog as my writer's notebook to keep a record of my writing and research activities. You're quite welcome to swing by and have a look.

By Helen Steadman, Aug 10 2017 07:08PM

Hello everyone,

Lovely Paul Owen Hunter from Chunkcast 54.8 recently interviewed me about my historical novel, Widdershins. If you'd like to find out more about the Newcastle witch trials, just click here.

Paul also DJs on Monday (7-9) and Wednesday (9-11) nights for North UK Radio. He's happy to take requests and shoutouts. It's a great show, with music for everyone.

Tune in here: (or download the app from iTunes or GooglePlay).

Happy listening!

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:52PM

Before writing Widdershins, I’d planned for some time to write a book about witches. But it was only in the course of carrying out initial background research in 2011 that I learned about the Newcastle witch trials, which were reported in Ralph Gardiner’s book.

This book has possibly one of the longest and most interesting book titles in recent history: England’s Grievance Discovered, in Relation to the Coal-trade; the Tyrannical Oppression of the Magistrates of Newcastle; their Charters and Grants; the Several Tryals, Depositions, and Judgements Obtained Against Them; With a Breviate of Several Statutes Proving Repugnant to Their Actings; With Proposals for Reducing the Excessive Rates of Coals for the Future; and the Rise of their Grants Appearing in this Book.

Ralph Gardiner’s book includes a deposition given under oath by John Wheeler of London, along with Elianor Lumsdel and Bartholomew Hodshon. In that testimony, Wheeler states that the Newcastle authorities imported a witch-finder from Scotland. In cahoots with the local bell ringer, the Scottish witch-finder arbitrarily rounded up thirty women from the streets of Newcastle, took them to the town hall and stripped them to the waist. He then proceeded to test them for witchcraft and found twenty-seven of them guilty.

What intrigued me most about Wheeler’s report was that the witch-finder was interrupted during his examination of ‘a personable and good-like woman’. The interrupter was one Lt Col Hobson, who revealed the witch finder as a fraud. As a result of Lt. Col. Hobson’s intervention, the woman being tested was declared innocent and set free. However, despite the revelation of the witch-finder being a fraud, fifteen (or sixteen) people were still executed for witchcraft and the witchfinder was allowed to go free.

                                 Source: England’s Grievance Discovered*
Source: England’s Grievance Discovered*

It’s not clear why one woman was set free. From John Wheeler’s statement, we can only assume that being ‘personable and good-like’, she was saved by her good looks. This strange state of affairs stuck in my mind. It’s very hard to understand why anyone at all might have been executed for witchcraft. But it’s even harder to come up with any rational explanation as to why the authorities felt justified in executing people once the witchfinder’s abilities had been proven fraudulent.

My novel Widdershins is my fictional attempt at imagining what might have gone on in Newcastle during these very strange witch trials, which resulted in the largest number of people executed for witchcraft on one day in this country.


Ralph Gardiner (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.

*A = hangman, B = bellman, C = two sergeants, D = witch-finder taking money for his work.

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:24PM

While carrying out research for my novel, Widdershins, I became intrigued why one woman was first found guilty of witchcraft at the 17th century Newcastle witch trials, but after the witch-finder was revealed as a fraud she was then set free. The woman was not named, but she was described by John Wheeler as a 'personable and good-like' woman, from which we might infer that her good looks saved her.

In his deposition, John Wheeler states that thirty women were brought into the town- hall. The witch-finder stripped them and then thrust pins into their bodies. Using this technique, he found twenty-seven of the thirty guilty.

In discussion with Lt. Col. Hobson, who was present, the witch-finder claimed that he knew whether women were witches or not based purely on their looks. When he began testing the aforementioned 'personable and good-like woman', Lt. Col. Hobson intervened and said 'surely this woman is none, and need not be tryed'. However, the Scottish witch-finder said she was a witch because the town had said she was a witch and that she must be tried.

According to Wheeler, the witch-finder then, 'in sight of all the people, laid her body naked to the waste, with her cloaths over her head'. He then drove a pin into her thigh, but she did not bleed. According to Wheeler, fright and shame had caused all her blood to contract into one part of her body. Of course, bending double would make the blood rush to her head. The woman was declared to be guilty and a child of the devil.

Wheeler says that Lt. Col. Hobson had 'perceived the alteration of the foresaid woman, by her blood settling in her right parts' and he insisted that the woman be tested again. This time, her clothes were pulled up to her thigh, and he required that the witch-finder push the needle into the same place. This time, under the close supervision of Lt. Col. Hobson, 'it gushed out of blood' and the witch-finder cleared her and said she was not a child of the devil.

Shockingly, despite the fact that the Scottish witch-finder was clearly a fraud, and one prepared to send innocent women to a terrible death, he was still allowed to collect his wages and move on to further, even more lucrative work in Berwick. Even more shocking, fifteen(or sixteen) of the people he'd found guilty were still executed for witchcraft.


John Wheeler's deposition in Ralph Gardiner (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:12PM

My novel, Widdershins, is inspired by the seventeenth-century Newcastle witch trials.

The common council of Newcastle, in perhaps the earliest incidence of local authority performance-related pay, is said to have paid the witch-finder twenty shillings per witch.

Things were just as grim down south, where Aldeburgh spent over one-seventh of its annual budget on witch-finding. They had to pay for the witchfinder general, Matthew Hopkins, and a special tax was put in place to raise money.

But it seems that either inflation set in, or prices rose further north. When the Scottish witch-finder fled Newcastle following the trials, John Wheeler stated that he went ‘went into Northumberland, to try women there, where he got of some three pound a-peece’.

According to John Wheeler, Henry Ogle a former MP seized him, but the witch-finder got away again, this time mostly likely back to his native Scotland. There is a record of him there being paid six pounds for ‘brodding ’ a woman called Margaret Denham at Burncastle near Lauder. In addition to this eye-watering fee, it seems he also charged a further four pounds for ‘meat and drink and wyne’. More worryingly, two men were also paid forty-five pounds for guarding Margaret Denham for a month. It seems that the witch-finding industry was a most profitable one. Not least, because Margaret Denham was a wealthy woman who had to pay for her own testing and execution, which still left sixty-five pounds following her death.


Hugo Arnot's Criminal Trials, appendix, in J. Sands (1881) Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Time, Chapter 3 ‘Witchcraft, 1591’.

Ralph Gardiner (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.

Newes from Scotland (1591) 'Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last.' London: William Wright (in Special Collection Ferguson Al-a.36 at Glasgow University).

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:02PM

There is no definitive evidence as to who the Newcastle witch pricker was. In my forthcoming novel, Widdershins, my witch finder is the fictitious John Sharpe.

However, one possibility is that the Newcastle witch-finder might have been John Kincaid, the notorious witch pricker from Tranent in the south east of Scotland. Certainly, he was testing people in North Berwick shortly before the Newcastle witch trials. So, as he was a hundred miles away pricking people to determine whether or not they were guilty of witchcraft, it’s not inconceivable that Kincaid was the witch-pricker invited to cleanse Newcastle of its alleged infestation of witches.

D. Webster’s Collection of Rare and Curious Tracts on Witchcraft, includes a declaration from John Kincaid, Pricker when he was in Dirlton in June 1649. This declaration was witnessed by six local officiaries. Kincaid’s declaration discusses how he tested a man and his spouse for witchcraft.

It seems that the couple in question, Patrik Watsone and Menie Halyburtoun, presented themselves voluntarily to Kincaid at Dirlton Castle near North Berwick in Scotland. After testing them with a pricking device, Kincaid claimed ‘I found the divillis marke upon the bak syde of the said Patrik Watsone…’ and ‘…upon the left syde of the said Menie Halyburtoune hir neck a littill above her left shoulder…’ He found them both guilty after pricking the devil’s marks he claimed to find about their persons, and finding that these marks were insensible and did not bleed.

                              Witches consort with the devil in N.Berwick
Witches consort with the devil in N.Berwick

Following Kincaid’s revelation, the deposition of Menie Halyburtoune (again witnessed by six local officiaries) on 1 July 1649, subsequently detailed her copulating with the devil, following this spectacle being reported by her husband.

John Kincaid of Tranent was still at large as late as 1661, when he was reported in Dalkeith in Scotland. Here, he tested a woman called Janet Peaston, claiming he’d found two devil’s marks upon her body. When Kincaid pricked these marks, the woman felt no pain, and no blood was let. In fact, so little pain did she feel when pricked, she was unable to correctly identify the points on her body where she had been pricked. This is surprising, given that ‘they being preins of thrie inches or thairabout’. Yet, Kincaid still subscribed to his test under oath and this test was witnessed by seven people, among them, the local minister and elders including a Major.

We may never know the true identity of the Scottish witch-finder employed by Newcastle, but John Kincaid was a notorious witch-pricker who worked in the borders between Scotland and north-east England, and so he is certainly one possibility worth considering.


Newes from Scotland (1591) 'Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last.' London: William Wright (in Special Collection Ferguson Al-a.36 at Glasgow University).

J. Sands (1881) Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Time, Pitcairns' Justiciary Records, vol 111., p. 602 in Chapter 3 ‘Witchcraft, 1591’.

D. Webster (1820) Collection of Rare and Curious Tracts on Witchcraft and the Second Sight; with an Original Essay on Witchcraft, Edinburgh: Thomas Webster.

By Helen Steadman, Apr 9 2017 07:53PM

Hello again,

Just in case you missed it, here is the beautiful cover designed for my forthcoming novel, Widdershins, which was inspired by the seventeenth-century Newcastle witch trials.

Widdershins Front Cover
Widdershins Front Cover

Widdershins Backdrop with Book
Widdershins Backdrop with Book

The cover and backdrop were created by the marvellous people at Toucan Design, and they cleverly incorporate some of the key elements of the novel: elderberries and leaves, hawthorn leaves and witch prickers, with Jane Chandler and John Sharpe shown in silhouette.

And finally, here is a sneaky peek at one of the part illustrations that will feature in Widdershins. This was created by the talented Francesca Heward at Chess Heward Fine Art, and if you stay tuned, there are more lovely illustrations to come from Chess...

Part Illustration: Elderberries in a Basket
Part Illustration: Elderberries in a Basket

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Apr 9 2017 07:24PM

Hello again,

If you'd like to find out what inspired my forthcoming novel, Widdershins, which is inspired by the seventeenth-century Newcastle witch trials, check out my guest blog with the lovely Amy McLean. In the article, I reveal five things that inspire my writing, as well as five books that have inspired my writing (well, four that inspired me and one that had the opposite effect).

You can visit Amy's blog here.

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Feb 13 2017 11:58AM

Impress Books has signed my historical novel, Widdershins, which is a book about witches and witchfinders. (Click here if you'd like to read the full blog post from Impress Books.)

Widdershins was inspired by the real-life Newcastle witch trials that took place in the mid-seventeenth century, where fifteen women and one man were executed in a single day.

My novel tells the story of two people: John Sharpe, a Scottish witch-finder who came to Newcastle in the seventeenth century to rid the town of its witches; and Jane Chandler, an apprentice healer who used herbs to cure the sick.

Launch day is set for 1 July 2017, and although it feels like a long way off, it's only 138 days (not that I'm counting, or anything)!

What makes it all feel very real is that my book is already listed on Amazon and Waterstones for pre-order, complete with its very own ISBN! If you want a sneaky peek of the full synopsis, just click on one of the links.

In the meantime, getting ready for publication has been a new experience for me. As an editor and proofreader, I've often been involved in various aspects of publishing, but by looking down the other end of the telescope. So, it's been quite a novelty to be on the receiving end as an author.

Contract signing was very exciting, done in duplicate, and on paper with actual ink. It feels strange to deal with ink and paper when everything seems so virtual these days. Then came a long form to fill out all about me, my book, the cover and the characters.

Next came revisions. So far, I've been through two rounds of revisions with my editors (plural - I know!), which was surprisingly pain and anxiety free - for me, anyway, I can't speak for my editors...

Now, we're into cover design, and I was kindly consulted for any ideas and thoughts I might have. I've just seen an early mock-up, which was an excellent design. Soon, it will go to the designers to work up. I'm itching to see the next iteration, and I'll post the final cover here once it's available.

By the way, for anyone who wants to know, widdershins means going anti-clockwise, in the opposite direction to the sun, something which used to be associated with sinister goings on, witchcraft and occult practices. It's a word oft-used by DH Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, and Terry Pratchett...

Best wishes, Helen

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