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  • Writer's pictureGranny Bonnet


Updated: Sep 1, 2023

March 2020

A toad on a rock, image credit: Bernard Supont
A toad on a rock, image credit: Bernard Supont

Now is the time of year when frogs and toads emerge from their winter hibernation, safe to live out their lives in marsh or garden without persecution, but there was a time, not long ago when certain of them were caught for witching purposes…

A witch's familiars, woodcut from 1579
A witch's familiars, woodcut from 1579

Around the turn of the century, before large-scale farm mechanisation and in the time leading up to the First World War, horses were paramount. Farm-work and delivering of goods and people across the country very much depended on them. Therefore, to be a competent handler of those beasts, was to command a great deal of respect. In East Anglia, where the tradition of breeding horses had continued from the Iceni through to more recent times, heavy Suffolk Punches and lighter-framed Norfolk Trotters and Roadsters, were prized possessions. To know a Toadman or Toadwomen who could control them, was to have at hand the magical qualities of someone who had power over man or beast. As the title suggests, the process involved frogs or toads and the ritual associated with the calling depended on harvesting a particular bone taken from the skeleton of a toad - preferably one with a yellow collar or star upon its back. (In Norfolk we have Natterjack toads). The unfortunate creature, when caught was hung on a hawthorn spike for two days to dry, then buried in an anthill to be stripped of its flesh. The skeleton was then taken to a running stream preferably at midnight, on the Eve of St. Mark (24th April) where it was watched assiduously for the moment when the small pelvic bone detached and made its way against the water-flow, upstream. This was the time of torment for the would-be Toadman as he struggled against the temptation to draw the eye away. A report published in 1960 carries these words spoken by well-known Norfolk horseman Albert Love, born 1886. He calls the ritual ‘The Water of the Moon.’ ‘…But when you are watching it and these bones are parting, you’ll hear all the trees and all the noises that you can imagine, even as if buildings were falling down or a traction engine is running over you. But you still mustn’t take your eyes off, because that’s where you lose your power. Of course, the noises must be something to do with the Devil’s work in the middle of the night....’ It was imperative to keep watching and concentrating on the bone in order to overcome the power of evil, and when the bone detached and was successfully retrieved, the precious object became a potent amulet which conferred special powers on its owner. Several publications since the Country Horse-Doctor published in Swaffham in 1835 carry similar advice to Albert Love’s, that would enable the owner of the amulet or powdered bone to ‘… touch a Horse on the Shoulder to jade (stop) him and on the rump to draw (lead) him.’

Nowadays, such a person might be termed a horse whisperer. Suffolk blacksmith Hector Moore gave his only recorded interview in 1980 and when the interviewer, Paul Heiney, remarked that no-one would believe his tale, he replied: "'at don’t matter if they believe ya or not. That’s a wonderful old thing!" In world mythology and folklore, the connections between frogs and toads and magical practices are innumerable and ambiguous, as befits a creature that moves easily between the elements of earth and water. Thus, according to different beliefs, they can bring bad fortune or good. The word for ‘bewitchment’ in Norfolk vernacular was ‘tudding’, literally ‘toading’ and often Toadmanry ran in families. As to whether there are still people practicing such traditions today I don’t know, maybe you can tell me?


Picture of "The Toadman" book by Nigel Pennick
Pennick's book

In 2012, the well-known writer on folklore and magic, Nigel Pennick published 150 copies of his very special book called The Toadman, in which he explains other aspects of toad magic. But what is particularly significant is that 117 copies were bound in quarter toadskin and 33 in half toadskin. Nobody, of course, should harm our precious wildlife but for this purpose, Australian Cane toad was used, as it is a destructive, poisonous and invasive species on that continent, and for those wondering what toad-leather feels like: ‘It is very pliant, soft, and far thinner and delicate than standard leather. Its characteristic warty texture begs to be touched and understood, like some kind of witch-Braille.’

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