The Witch in the Bottle

By Shannon Blake


It is said that the Priory Church of Dunstable, England was once haunted by the ghost of a troublesome witch.

According to legend, Sally had once been regarded as something of a harmless eccentric within the community, a strange and lonesome woman who told fortunes and dabbled in medicine. But as she grew older, this opinion of her changed and people started to believe that Sally had been trained in the dark arts by her cat. Incidents and accidents that occurred in Dunstable, including sickness and fires, were attributed to the woman. And so, Sally was tried and found guilty of witchcraft. Her sentence: death.

On her way to the pyre, it is said that Sally cursed and swore that she would return to cause trouble for both the church and the town. And so, she did. Reportedly, Sally caused great pains to the church, including disrupting services, damaging church property and physically assaulting monks, some claiming to have been slapped by her ghost. In fact, she gave the church so much grief that outside help was sought in ridding the church, and the town, of Sally. The story claims that help came from a palmer, a religious pilgrim. The palmer concocted a lure, which he put into a bottle, and waited for the witch to arrive. As soon as Sally detected the smell, she was drawn to the bottle, and once inside, the palmer sealed her in. According to the story, the bottle was later buried in an unknown location on the church grounds to prevent Sally from ever escaping.

A poem was written regarding the event. The poem in full is 81 stanzas, but I believe the spirit of the poem is neatly encapsulated in this passage (E2BN, 2006):

The spirit in the bottle

Go softly where ye treade

The lady is a cunning one

Disturb ye not the wicked dead


Never tarry on a restless night

Lest ye finde what darkness means

For she will trouble thee until in sleep

And steal thy soul through dreams.

I first heard this tale in primary school, and this was as much of the story as I knew until recently. By half-recalling a few lines of the poem, I was able to uncover the story in full. But then I started wondering – was this a story that people believed? When we studied it in school it was given as an example of how one would write a myth or legend. Had it been written for that purpose, or had it come from local lore?

The simple answer: Sally is an entirely fictitious character, but ‘the story surrounding her creation is just as interesting’ (Lewis, 2008).

One night, local historian Rita Swift was researching, browsing issues of the Dunstable Borough Gazette, when she found the poem. After reading it, Swift decided she liked the writing and photocopied it. She made numerous inquiries, but it seemed no one recognised the poem, nor could they tell her anything about it. She persisted and eventually her research paid off.

Swift discovered that the poem was not written in the 1400s as she had originally been led to believe, but in 1875. In fact, what she found was the story of a negligent rector and a headmaster who wanted to save the church.

Reverend Frederick Hose’s tenure at the priory had caused many churchgoers to abstain from entering the building. Under his administration, the grounds had been neglected, and the church itself was deemed unsafe by architect George Somers Clarke (Swift, 2014).  In fact, the building was considered too dangerous to host mass and so, services were carried out in another building, locally known as the Iron Church, a former drill shed.  Too hot in summer and too cold in winter, the townspeople were not happy about these events and so, local headmaster Alfred Wire, decided to do something about it. He wrote a poem.

In writing this poem, Wire fabricated the mythology of Sally the Witch and created a poltergeist.

Wire started showing the poem to friends including W.J. Smith, the noted publisher. Smith published the poem free of charge and it spread. I hesitate to call the poem a success as it cost Wire and Smith their jobs, but it caught local attention. People started quoting lines of the poem to Rev. Hose, which infuriated the man. In a two-day fundraiser, the townspeople were able to raise ₤1000. At the time, that was plenty to restore the church to its former glory.

Earliest known photograph of the Priory Church sent by Fanny Collins to the Archbishop of Canterbury, 22nd June 1875 (Buckledee, 2014).
Earliest known photograph of the Priory Church sent by Fanny Collins to the Archbishop of Canterbury, 22nd June 1875 (Buckledee, 2014).

Wire’s story reminds us all of the power of story-telling and what it can accomplish. Through writing or speaking, one can change history; can convince a town it is haunted. Though it may not actually be possible to create a ghost by way of pure imagination, if you should ever happen to find yourself in Dunstable, watch where you step.



Buckledee, J. 2014. Dunstable Through Time. Stroud: Amberley Publishing.

E2BN. 2006. A Witch in the Bottle. East of England Broadband Network. [Online]. Available at:

Lewis, K. 2008. Sally the Witch – What, Why, How? BBC. [Online]. Available at:

Swift, R. 2014. Dunstable – The Iron Church. Bedford Borough Council. [Online]. Available at: