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  • Writer's pictureGranny Bonnet

Tale of the Kittywitches

Updated: Sep 14, 2023


Picture of Kitty-Witches' Row wooden sign in Great Yarmouth

August 2017


Remember I said I'd tell you the tale of the kitty-witch? Well, it is the name for a small swimming crab that lives in the North Sea and the wide sweeps of Breydon Water which floods the marshes around Great Yarmouth. That much is very true but there were and are other stranger claims to the name too. Buffoons, who were ploughboys dressed as women begging on Plough Monday. Cockchafer beetles. A particular type of seabird. Mythical spectres dressed in white as well as women of ill-repute and of course, a witch.


Row signs in Great Yarmouth
Row signs in Great Yarmouth

Until the last war when it suffered extensive bombing, the older part of Yarmouth was contained largely within the town’s medieval walls. First mentioned in 1198, they developed in the 1200s – 1300s to form a unique town plan of buildings and very narrow streets running parallel to each other and called Rows. In some of these narrow and gloomy alleys it was possible to touch both walls with arms outstretched. One such, running from Middlegate to King Street was Row number 95 - KittyWitches, where at only 27 inches wide, you would have to turn crab-wise to pass through!

A family stand in Kittywitch Row, last century
Kittywitch Row

Some say 'kittywitch' is a derivation of the Dutch word kitwijk, meaning a house of ill repute, and certainly massive Dutch fleets fished for herring off-shore and traded in and out of the port. There are references to the kitty-witches who lived in the Row terrorising local residents once a year (like the plough-boys), when hideously dressed and with blood on their faces, the rough women trooped from house to house to levy (or demand) contributions!

Here's a song I wrote to commemorate a particular old Kittywitch reputed to carry her cat around in a sack!


 

Kittywitch

If you go to Yarmouth Town, Near the harbour you will find, Rows and rows of houses small, Some are short, others tall. Old upon on old, path over road, Stone and plaster, wood and lathe

Chimneys crooked, roofs not true, Windows blind and open too.


Down the lanes salt winds whip through, Briny draughts chill cobbles and grime, Some lanes are holy, others spawn crime. Choose where you walk with utmost care, You'll never be sure what lurks down there

Kittywitch, Kittywitch and her black cat,

Lurking in shadow her cat in a sack!


In a row of dank and dark, Houses cramped all damp and stark, Lives a weird woman old as Hell, She and her cat a-scrawny.

For ever she has lived in this place,

Never strayed far from her hovel.

She is the Kittywitch, leave her alone. Long before darkness, head for your home

Row 95 skinny and tall, Less than thirty inches wide! From this dark place the sun does hide. Flinted walls the cold does keep,

This is the alley the rats come homing; With cat and Kittywitch they lie, But in the night they all go roaming. Remember, less than thirty inches wide,

You cannot pass them side by side!

So, stay away from Kittywitch Row

With its cobbles and bricks a'mouldering, Give a wide berth until late morning-time When the sea-mist has drifted off shore. Unless you've a heart for witches and cats, Best stay away from this alley, For no one can say what Kittywitch does To those who dare enter and tarry!

No one can say what the Kittywitch does To those who dare enter and tarry!

Kittywitch, Kittywitch and her black cat

Lurking in shadow her cat in a sack!



"Kitty Kett" by Granny Bonnet
"Kitty Kett" by Granny Bonnet

 

Find out more from Time and Tide Museum

New Row signs provided by Yarmouth Preservation Trust

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