Death of the Jagger
John Turner and the Mysterious Birth of Jenkin Chapel
The manner of John Turner’s death and the creation of Jenkin Chapel are two of the most curious bookmarks in the history of Cheshire’s peak border region. But by considering both events together with the darker history of the area, we may discover much of that curiosity is born from the old country superstitions that still held remarkable sway in local belief structure during the early part of the eighteenth century.
A Christmas Mystery
John Turner was likely considered something of a novelty amongst the people of Saltersford in the early eighteenth century. Beyond the occasional trip into the nearby town of Macclesfield, the vast majority of those living in the community would venture little further than the settlements that were dotted about the Pennine slopes around them. They would live, work and die within a few miles of the place they were born, finding love and all of life's trials within the locality. By comparison, Turner was an adventurer. As a jagger, working the trade routes of Derbyshire and Cheshire with his team of packhorses, Turner would transport salt from one place to the next and provide a vital link to rural populations right across the countryside; his name known by more people outside of his community than within it.
Naturally for those in his line of work, he was fit and rugged, and at 29 years old, already well versed in navigating all manner of terrain and weather in a landscape he had come to know intimately. Yet legend tells us how come Christmas Eve 1735, ultimately all of his experience and nous counted for nothing. Upon returning from business in Northwich - an area of rich salt production since before the Roman conquest - and barely a mile from his home at Saltersford Hall Farm, he became lost amongst heavy snowfall. The search party that set out on Christmas morning found his horses first. They were still alive, if in bad shape, strewn out along Erwin Lane. For John himself though, it was too late. The jagger was dead, frozen beneath the drifts...the print of a single woman's shoe pressed into the snow at his side.
It is easy to see why the tale of Turner's death has endured to capture the imagination of locals, historians, and novelists alike across the centuries since. It is something greatly helped no doubt by the fact that to this very day, a memorial stone survives at the spot of Turner's discovery in commemoration of the night he died; its inscription detailing both the snowstorm and the issue of the mystery footprint. The stone is a memorial to a tragedy laced with mystery that, looking back from the present day, could perhaps be viewed as an oddly fitting poetic end for someone in Turner's trade. Jaggers tended to make for quite mysterious figures, their constant travel making them privy to information that the rest of those living in their communities were not. As such, the popular image of Turner would have very much been a two-sided coin, and whilst many would have felt a genuine appreciation for his ability to bring news and gossip from further afield, there would always be a sense of suspicion around his traveling way of life.
The nature of his end, whilst a shocking moment for his local community, would likely have been just as powerful a source of rumour as it would be a point of sadness. Against this backdrop, it is understandable that an air of legend has risen locally regarding Turner's death. From stories of how his boundary-striding ways had brought him into contact with bandits and highwaymen to his body apparently disappearing shortly after it was found, all manner of connotations have attached themselves to the events of that distant Christmas Day. Underneath it all though, irrespective of the myth-making, I believe there is a story of real curiosity present here, and one that speaks from the wider history of this bleakly beautiful corner of the Cheshire borderlands. It is a place where the Devil, perhaps quite literally, is waiting to be found in the detail. Just two years before Turner's death, a country chapel had been hurriedly erected just a stone's throw from his home at the farm. Yet Turner would not be buried there. He couldn't, because the chapel had not been recognised by the church authorities.
It was not consecrated, and nor would it be for another 60 years.
There are spots located in every county of Britain that until relatively recently had remained untouched by modernity. These are the places where local traditions, customs, and beliefs have lingered on far longer than in the towns and larger villages; particularly where the auspices of industrialisation had seen fit to leave it comparatively late before arriving on the scene. The hamlet of Saltersford is one such place.
Taking its name from its location at the meeting point of several ancient salt routes, its setting amongst the Peak District foothills at the eastern edge of Rainow parish near Macclesfield serves to make it a relatively isolated settlement still today. Even the most remote places have their lords and ladies however, and placed firmly at the centre of local life, Saltersford Hall had been built in 1593 by the esteemed Stopford family. They were the family that also built Macclesfield's reputedly haunted Bate Hall and whose name subsequently rose to further prominence during the English Civil War on account of James Stopford having been a captain in the Parliamentarian army of Oliver Cromwell. Following the Civil War, the family found serious fortune in Ireland courtesy of Cromwell's bitter campaign of conquest across the country, but they were still the primary landowners in Saltersford come the time of John Turner in the 1730s, when word reached them of a strange new structure that had been erected on their land by a group of local farmers.
Initial thoughts on the building that had appeared at the site known as 'Jenkyncross' were somewhat confused. To all intent and purpose, the building looked an awful lot like someone had simply turned up and decided to build themselves a farmhouse. After all, with its saddleback roof and chimney stack, it had much in keeping with the look of the other farm dwellings dotted about the local landscape. Yet as inquiries were made, the true nature of the structure became clear. Led by John Slack, a yeoman of nearby Kettleshulme, locals had chosen the site as the spot on which they wished to build their very own chapel. Assuming the plot to be common land, they had assembled, organised their tasks, and worked to get the job done. The issue of ownership was as much news to them as it was the Stopford family, and a brief legal dispute duly followed but was resolved without too much difficulty on the condition that the land was retrospectively purchased by the locals for the sum of ten shillings. John Slack himself provided the bulk of the payment, but his fellow builders naturally contributed what they could. This was to be a chapel for all of their families, and all were keen to ensure that none of them were left out of its affairs. The design of the place, although unusual, was simply a reflection on the kind of structures that those who built it were used to maintaining, but whilst they may have lacked a tower (one would be added twenty years later), once inside the building, it was clear this was a serious project.
The nave was complemented by two rows of windows on either side, whilst an octagonal pulpit, traditional box pews, and wooden boards - which were hung from the wall of the chancel displaying inscriptions of the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments - gave the place a distinctly religious air. It is at this point that we should frame the creation of the chapel against the realities of life in the early 1700s. To decide to co-ordinate such an endeavour, let alone pay for its building and fulfilment themselves, there must have been a real source of motivation in play amongst the local community. A need, no less, for such a place of refuge to be created in the local landscape. The question, of course, is why? The needs of the locals had been tended to by the parish of Prestbury for hundreds of years, and whilst not an ideal location for religious service, local benefactors and the increasing growth of Macclesfield provided ample support in ecclesiastical matters.
Perhaps the creation of Jenkin Chapel could be seen as nothing more than an attempt to bring God closer to the community, yet the lack of consecration, which is unlikely to have been mere oversight given the dedication of the builders, is somewhat perplexing. More perplexing still, however, is the thoroughly unholy choice of its location.
Crossroads have long been known to be places that find themselves becoming bastions of supernatural connotations and this was something to which the locals of Saltersford would have been acutely attuned. Suicides, homicides, and suspected witches, were all often buried at such spots in line with the ancient belief that those who were likely to return from the dead and haunt the living would become confused by the splintered nature of the crossroads, and subsequently find themselves led away from the community they were once a part of.
At first, this might raise a few eyebrows as we comprehend a belief in the living dead from here in the twenty-first century, but the risks associated with the undead rising from their graves were a very real concern throughout medieval England; and for those living in isolated communities such as 1700s Saltersford, those kind of beliefs were far from antiquated. Tales of the revenant - a word taken from the French verb revenir meaning ‘to return’ - were once relatively common throughout the country, with one comparatively local story from Stapenhill in Staffordshire providing a keen insight into their nature; and making it easy to understand why most folks were keen to avoid such occurrences. Geoffrey of Burton, incumbent Abbot of Burton during the first half of the twelfth century, included a tale of local revenants in his work The Life and Miracles of St.Modwenna; the saint whose relics were held at the Abbey.
He relates how two villagers from Stapenhill had transferred their labours from the lands of the Abbey to that of Roger the Poitevin, an Anglo-Norman lord with substantial holdings in the area. A dispute broke out around ownership of the crops that the two villagers had been tending previously, and the pair were soon reported to have died in mysterious circumstances. Buried in the churchyard at Stapenhill, the first report of their return came that very evening, when they were sighted in the nearby village of Drakelow with their coffins carried atop their shoulders. They would then appear repeatedly on the nights that followed, walking around the village, shape-shifting into bears and dogs and banging on the walls of houses; and as they did, the family at each house they visited would fall gravely ill.
The village soon found itself in chaos, living in fear of the nightly terror and so by way of intervention, the Bishop of Lichfield granted permission to open the graves of the two men to investigate. When the coffins were prised open, the two men were found to look very much alive, the cloths that covered their faces, soaked in blood. They cut off the men's heads first. Then took out their hearts and burned them at a nearby crossroads. Almost instantly, those villagers which had fallen ill in the wake of the night-callers suddenly found their health restored in an act of miraculous recovery attributed, naturally, to the invocation of St Modwenna.
Its instances like this, whatever the reality of the panic, where bodies were examined after death only to be found in a perceived state of second life, that would go on to help build our more obvious vampiric traditions across Europe. The classic ‘wooden stake through the heart’ solution of popular retellings itself is an attempt to fix the body to the earth beneath it. The idea of the undead roaming the village was not a particularly desired outcome for those who suffered a mysterious or strange end to their time on earth, and the solution of a crossroads burial quickly gathered credence in the centuries that followed examples such as that at Stapenhill. And so, the significance of Jenkyncross in such matters would be crystal clear in the consciousness of the local population.
Yet such an unholy site would make much more sense if the chapel was an attempt to tackle something far more troublesome than the issue of inconvenient worship. It is a view that would be understandable too, given the faith-threatening events that the community had lived through less than eighty years before.
Black Magic Memories
Life in seventeenth century Saltersford was inextricably connected with that of the neighbouring settlements that lay within the parish of Rainow; the village of the same name lying just under three miles to the west. And it is in the nature of the events which took place in 1650s Rainow that provide the real context to our tale of the mysterious Jenkin Chapel.
Throughout Europe, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the process of identifying those that were believed to be practitioners of witchcraft transform into a dark art itself. With both religious fervour and the possibilities of political favour fuelling an expansive appetite for the matter across all levels of society, the hunt for witches was as much a stake of authority as it was a genuine concern of the Church. Such were the levels of interest in the subject that in 1599, King James IV of Scotland - he would become King James I of England in 1603 - published his own study on Witchcraft entitled Daemonologie. It was a move directly inspired by his own deeply held beliefs regarding the topic. James had personally presided over the North Berwick witch trials of 1590, believing a curse to have been responsible for the storm that prevented his new bride, Anne of Denmark, sailing to Scotland in 1589.
By the seventeenth century, witch-hysteria had long since become established as a national obsession, with more than 500 people being formally tried for acts relating to witchcraft across England since 1560. 112 of those would be hanged as a result. So it would have been quite the story if two of that number were to have come from the same tiny, rural Cheshire settlement. Sadly, for Rainow women Ellen Beech and Anne Osbaldeston that was precisely the case. The following accounts of their actions are taken from the records of the Chester Michaelmas Assizes of September 1656, a session at which they were both tried and convicted before subsequently being hanged on October 8th;
Ellen, wife of John Beech, late of Rainow, in Cheshire, Collier, on the 12th of September 1651, and on diverse other days as well before as after, at Rainow, did exercise and practice the invocation and conjuration of evil and wicked spirits with which she consulted, entertained and rewarded. On the said 12th September the said Ellen Beech did exercise certain witchcrafts upon Elizabeth Cowper, late of Rainow, spinster, whereby she, from the 12th day to the 20th of September, did languish and upon the 20th day died.
Regarding Anne Osbalderton, Ellen’s neighbour, the account states a considerable number of charges relating to her alleged involvement with witchcraft;
Anne Osbalderton on that same 12th September practiced certain wicked and devilish acts upon John Steenson, husbandman, which caused his death on the 20th of September. On the 30th of November 1651, Anne used enchantments upon Anthony Booth of Macclesfield, gentleman, causing his death on the 1st April following.
Two more entries are mentioned for Anne; that a Barbara Pott was cursed on the 20th November 1651, dying on the 20th January the following year and that four years later, on the 17th July 1655, she practiced ‘sorceries’ on John Pott, a yeoman of Rainow, who too died less than a month after.
It is often stated that those accused of witchcraft were little more than the folk of a community most considered to be odd and as such, tailor-made scapegoats for any ills that may befall others around them. This may well have been true, but for the people of Rainow and Saltersford, such a formal acknowledgement of witchcraft being an active force in their community would have been viewed in very literal terms. It would be the defining moment of their religious lives.
Memories would have lingered, casting their shadows long into the time of Slack and his fellow builders; something illustrated particularly well by the fact that chapel trustee Edmund Pott was a direct descendant of the aforementioned Barbara Pott, victim of the hanged Anne Osbaldeston.