Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Butter Boggart



By Peter Rogerson
In my review of Karl Bell’s The Magical Imagination, I mentioned that there was a story from my own area which I intended to look into, So here it is; the story of the mysterious appearance of butter in an isolated country cottage.

The Place

The locality was one of two cottages known as Knowsley Cottages (the other being unoccupied at the time), lying just to the west of Moss Lane (now Moss Vale Road) which ran from the Barton-Stretford turnpike in Lostock (now Lostock Road) to Gammershaw Lane (now Stretford Road) in Urmston. The lost village of Lostock was divided between the civil parish of Davyhulme (latter part of Urmston Urban District) and the Borough of Stretford toward the end of the 19th century.

Before the building of the Urmston and Flixton railway stations, the villages of Urmston, Flixton, Davyhulme, Lostock, Croft and etc were rural places, where according to Edwin Waugh writing in 1857 “Even now, the scattered inhabitants are mostly employed in agriculture, and their language and customs savour more of three centuries ago than those which we are used to in manufacturing towns”

Of these locations Lostock was the most underdeveloped, and much of the medieval field system remained. The area remained rural until the mid 1930s when there was a major housing development.

The Personnel.

At the heart of the story lies Samuel Warburton, baptised at St Michael’s Church Flixton on 23 June 1793, and his younger brother William baptised there on 21 October 1799, the sons of William Warburton and his wife Betty Muddiman who were married at St Michael's on the 19th of October 1784.

Then there is Samuel’s wife Ann Royle, daughter of Benjamin and Betty Royle baptised at St Michael’s on the 27th of July 1788, and whom he married at the Collegiate Church in Manchester on the 12th of January 1815.

The final person in the household is Ann’s great niece Mary Maria Hopwood who was baptised on 22 August 1841 at the Manchester Collegiate. Samuel, Ann and Mary Maria are the core household, William has come to lodge with them after loosing his job as a schoolmaster in Hulme. The Warburton brothers are devout members of the Primitive Methodist denomination, and the family’s life seems uneventful until the morning of Sunday 22 January 1854, when something very strange starts to happen. The Manchester Times of 4 February takes up the story.
During the recent week a number of the inhabitants in the villages of Stretford and Barton-upon Irwell, near Manchester have had their wonder excited by a report that in a certain cottage situate in the latter township, occupied by persons of quiet habits and of rather advanced age, there had been innumerable instances of butter spontaneously and marvellously presenting itself, on the floor, the furniture, and the clothing, and even the beds of the occupants, for which they could assign no cause, and by which they were very much alarmed.

The news of this spread to Manchester and Salford. Our reporter found the matter exciting the curiosity a of several individuals who had business at the New Bailey (1) on Thursday. One of them, a farmer, who is the owner of land in the vicinity of the cottage, had himself witnessed the circumstance, and was unable to find any rational solution. Police-constable Bent, (2) whose duties lay in the neighbourhood of Stretford, had also visited the place, but although tolerably clever in detecting parties who are in the habit of illegally taking butter away, lie was unable to discover who could be the contributor of it in the case under notice.

With the view of tracing the odd story about the wondrous butter to its source, our reporter proceeded to the place on Thursday afternoon. The topic, he found, was even rife in the railway Carriages between Manchester and Stretford. Half an-hours walk from the Stretford station sufficed to reach the scene of the alleged mystery, and which, it would seem, was threatening to supersede the good offices of that useful animal, the cow, which has hitherto had the sole monopoly of supplying us with butter. The cottage is situate about six miles west of Manchester, between Stretford and Barton Bridge, a little to the right of Moss Lane, a few hundred yards beyond Lostock Hall. There are two double-story thatched cottages adjoining, having gardens and door in front, but only one of these is tenanted. There is no other house within 200 yards, and the others are thinly scattered, and at greater distances.

The cottage, which has a brook running close at his rear, is occupied by Samuel Warburton, a man about 60 years of age (who we understand, has a small income, and weaves a little cotton plaid in a room within the house), his wife, William Warburton (a brother), nearly 60 years old, and a girl about 12, the daughter of a relative. William Warburton has also a small income, and was, during some part of last year, a schoolmaster in Hulme, (3) but is not now so engaged. On entering the cottage, our reporter found these four persons within, and a very few words sufficed to explain the object of his visit, for that was anticipated, as many had already preceded him to make inquiries. A glance around the apartment revealed the fact that he was in the fat of the land, for butter seemed to have budded from every description of substance from living boughs of holly to dead veneers of mahogany, and even glass.

The door had been closed but a few minutes, when a knock was heard. On its being opened, a gentleman remarked, " How do you do, Mrs Warburton; I have heard a strange story, and I am come to investigate it." He was desired to take a seat, and was tolerably silent while the inmates gave an account of what seems to them an inpenetrable mystery. They are all professors of religion, and attend the services of the Primitive Methodist Connection (4). This may not apply to the girl, but she seems steady, and has been several years with her relatives, who have occupied this house about fifteen years. William Warburton, the younger brother, we may remark, was the owner of the house in Urmston where the celebrated Tim Bobbin was born .(5) The following is the narration of the parties: (6)

Samuel Warburton: 'The first time we noticed anything particular was last Sunday but one. Just before breakfast, we saw several bits of butter on the floor, upon some of which we had trodden. William (the younger brother) had gone out, and we thought he must have accidentally spilled some. Nothing was said or thought of further until last Saturday, in the forenoon, when he again observed little bits of butter on the floor.

Mrs. Warburton: I said to my husband, it must have been done by William (who had gone to Manchester at the time), he must have had his coat amongst the butter, and then have shaken his coat, and so thrown the bits about; for I found them against the drawer, the cupboard, the sofa, the clock, the table, and all round.

Samuel Warburton: The girl sleeps in a bed in our room, and my brother William in another room. On Saturday night, they went to their beds about nine o'clock, but I stayed up with my wife, to have a little talk, and a pipe of tobacco. It would be after one when we went to bed. We noticed nothing on the stairs that night, but on Sunday morning there was not, I believe, a single step without butter upon it. It seemed, in many instances, as if we had trodden upon it on Saturday night. We followed the track into each room, and there were marks on the, carpets. At first we thought this had come off' our shoes, but we don't think so now. We found a piece upon my brother's bolster, also on his night cap. Than we examined the bed clothes, and we found some between the two quilts, which were on the top of the bed; and another piece, being the larger, at the bottom of the bed, where his feet might lie.

He had gone to Manchester, and it kept us busy all the forenoon clearing it away. A piece of paper we found at the top part of the bed by the girl, with butter upon it, but we believe that had only had the butter wiped upon it which we collected, and then accidentally let the paper fall. There were several bits of butter found in our room, too. On Sunday morning last, my brother got up first, as usual, had lighted the fire. He goes to the Primitive Methodist Sunday school, to teach. I and my wife came down stairs about nine o'clock, and we found that bits of butter were all about the floor, and sticking to the furniture.

Mrs. Warburton: I had occasion to go into the garden, and took my shawl out of the drawer; I saw nothing on the shawl when I went out, but when I came in, after a few minutes, there was a large piece upon it.

Will. Warburton: I found a piece inside my coat, before I set off to the school, in Urmston; (7) and when I came home there was a piece on my trousers.

Samuel Warburton: We kept picking it off the furniture, and still we found it, On Sunday, after dinner, it was again a on the furniture. As we sat by the fire we kept observing it on our clothes. We never saw it coming, an know not how it came. On Sunday evening, I and my brother were going to public service (8), but my wife and the girl, owing to it, did not like to stay by themselves, so we arranged for or my brother to stay with them. When I put my coat on to go there were pieces of butter on it, and my wife took a number off, and then, when she thought I were partly clean, she said, "Will't be off, while thou’s decent." (9)

Mrs. Warburton (appearing very serious): I could not keep straight with it, and I said, “Will’t be off while that only a bit like."

Samuel Warburton: When I come back from the preaching, they told me they had been standing by the fire, picking the butter off each other's clothes, They threw it into the fire and it burned.

Mrs. Warburton: At last I said, “Let's sit down, and let it do as it likes" for I was weary. It never came on our skins, but I found one piece between my dress and my petticoats, and two pieces on my cap, and the girl had some on her hair,

Samuel Warburton: On Monday morning it continued to appear on the furniture, and instead of burning it, as we had done, we determined to keep it. About nine o'clock, I d collected what I could see, and put it on that piece of pot on the table. I thought that it must be some black thing or other, and I have a Herbal, and read in this book that holly boughs were good against witchcraft. (10) I thought, "Well, I can easily get them, I'll try that." So I got three holly boughs, and I hung them up to the ceiling of the house, and in half an hour there was a piece of butter on every bough So that 1 am satisfied that holly boughs can do no good.

Mrs. Warburton: As we were going to wash, the girl was putting water into a boiler in a little scullery, and she called me to look at a piece of butter sticking to the side of the boiler.

Samuel Warburton: I weave a little plaid cotton, in a small room adjoining the kitchen, and, on Monday forenoon, when I went to work at my loom there were two pieces of butter on the cloth, and other two pieces on the panes of glass. I read a passage of scripture every morning; and on Monday I was surprised to find several bits of butter between the leaves of different parts of my Bible; and they were not in the places where I had read.

The Bible was then shown, and the greasy marks were visible enough. Of course there was nothing in the stained places referring to the importation of foreign butter, but to satisfy the curiosity of any who might wish to examine for themselves, we may state that the first mark was in 1st Saml. (Chap.6, v.5) and 1st Saml. (Chap.9, v.2-3); Isaiah (Chap. 57, v.1) and another between the v. and vii. chapters of Revelations.

It was stated that there had been no obvious accumulation since Monday noon, although a few bits were noted on the furniture on Tuesday morning which were not seen on Monday. On Tuesday the head family invited the Rev. J. Garner, Primitive Methodist preacher residing in Warde Street, Hulme (11) (and who was to preach in the neighbourhood) to take tea with him. The particulars of the unusual situation were discussed, but no explanation could be given.

No clear notion of the weight of the butter thus collected could be ascertained, but as the bits were only from the size of a bean to that of a nut, it would probably not exceed a few ounces,. although the master of the house said he must have burned hundreds of them.

In answer to various questions, it does not appear that it can be the interest of anyone to frighten them from the house. The house is so isolated, and there are no mischievous boys about, and no one has been near the house. No broken panes were observed, through which the pellets of butter could be introduced, nor does it seem likely they could have come from without, as they were found in the chambers, and inside two other small rooms down stairs, and at the time our reporter vas present there were fourteen or fifteen bits collected together, a few of which were brought to Manchester, and there can. be no doubt of its really being butter, from various tests; there were four or five bits adhering to the front of the mahogany drawers; two upon a bookcase, one of them on the glass; three on a waistcoat belonging to the younger brother, the schoolmaster, and three on the holly boughs. one it the frame of a sampler, and another or two on the weaving rooms, inside.

That there can be no such thing as butter springing out of glass, is evident enough; the whole must, of course, be a trick, but it has hitherto been so ingeniously accomplished, that the perpetrator of the deception is undiscovered. The bits of butter are very varied in shape, and although some of them have an appearance which would suggest the probability of their being sucked in the mouth and then ejected, yet others are so irregularly shaped as to preclude any such supposition. One thing was noticeable, however, that some of them had struck the surface obliquely (as drops of rain do when falling against vertical panes of glass), and thus slid along a little, and thus left a mark at the point of first contact. This ought to have been sufficient to have .prevented the idea which the old people seem to entertain, that the substance might possibly grow where it was found.

The young girl does not appear to have anything about her indicative of the artfulness which a series of' tricks of this kind would imply. The manner in which the old man and woman speak about the circumstances, and seem to be affected by them, would lead even an observer of the deceptiveness of human nature to acquit them of any participation it the fraud.

Probably the reader of the above will think that the “schoolmaster'' is the most likely person to explain the matter.

The rival Manchester Courier and Lancashire Advertiser also published the story on the same day, a shorter piece but giving some additional information.

The Manchester Courier and Lancashire and General Advertiser of Saturday 4th February 1854, p. 7 col. 7.
Mysterious production of butter in a cottage

The labouring population of Lostock near Stretford are in a state of some excitement in consequence of a mysterious and very novel mode in which butter has been supplied to the inhabitants of a cottage in Moss Lane, leading to Urmston from the turnpike and between Stretford and Barton Bridge.

The inmates of the cottage are a couple named Warburton, near sixty years of age, a brother of Mr Warburton who is, we should guess between forty and fifty, and a girl of about 12, a relative of Mrs Warburton. Warburton has some little property and also follows and occupation of handloom weaver; the brother is a schoolmaster, but has been out of employment since Christmas, and the girl takes a share in the homework.

Last Sunday week when Mr and Mrs Warburton got up, they observed lumps of butter varying in the size from the bulk of a bean to that of a small nut and they thought that Mr William Warburton had been getting something to eat, and had been careless with the butter, which it should be stated, he purchases for himself along with other provisions.
The week passed over without any more appearances, but on the following Saturday morning, a quantity was observed on the floor. They thought it belonged to William, who had gone out, but they were puzzled, when in the course of the forenoon, they found it sticking upon the furniture, where they had not observed it before.

On Sunday morning they found it upon the steps heading to the bedroom, upon the bedroom floor in patches as though it had been trodden into the room, upon the beds, and upon various articles of clothing. In some places it appeared as if it had been patted on, in others as if it had been rubbed on by a finger. The old man and woman are members of the Primitive Methodist Society and the brother is a teacher in the Sunday School connected to the chapel of that body near the house, and on putting on his clothes to go to school he found the butter adhering to his clothes. It was with some difficulty he was put in proper trim to go to school , and when he came home at noon, he found a lump sticking to his leg.

While he had been out the old couple and the girl has so much to do in picking it off their clothes that they had not got the dinner ready, and they were both puzzled and worried. it got into impossible places, between Mrs Warburton’s gown and petticoat, inside the collar of a waistcoat and, on Monday, three lumps were actually found inside a bible. There was another visitation on that day, and on the last time we have heard of, appeared on Tuesday. The only man having heard that holly bushes are a check to witches, thought he would try if they were any good, though he had no faith in them, and got three, but they had not been up many minutes before a lump adorned them. Many persons have visited the house and declare, from having tasted it, that the substance is butter, rather old and “turnipy” but without any flavour of sulphur. It burns in the fire as butter would, and without any blue accompaniment. If any more should make its appearance, we will examine the matter and report more at length.
Despite this publicity neither paper ever referred to the matter again, and one has to presume after the Rev Garner’s visit the events ceased. No doubt if such a story were reported today it would be ascribed to a poltergeist, albeit a reasonably well behaved one. At the time William seems to have been the chief suspect, perhaps because people thought that a schoolmaster might be a better trickster than a young girl, but the latter clearly fits into Frank Podmore’s stereotype of the bored young girl.

Life cannot have been easy for a girl verging on her teens living with a strongly religious elderly couple in an isolated spot, and that may have been exacerbated by the arrival of schoolmaster William. Perhaps she had to give up her own room to him, hence her sharing a room with the elderly couple.
However as we saw, at the time it seems to have been attributed to witchcraft, or at least to some “dark thing”.

One explanation of the period would have been the actions of a boggart. Boggarts were quite well known in the district, the road at the southern end of Moss Lane, Gammershaw Lane, was the haunt of a notorious boggart, though no-one ever seems to have given a clear description of it. Along the Barton-Stretford turnpike was a house called by the Victorians the boggart house, though whether this referred to an alleged haunting, or was a Victorian euphemism for ‘bugged’, (local term for stupid or ruined) as that was how it was described in the 18th century Stretford Parish Registers.

Mary Maria stuck it out however, she was still there at the time of the 1861 censuses, and when Samuel died on the 25 June 1864, she was the main executor of his will. By 1871 she had gone and her widowed mother Mary Hopwood Snr. had come to look after her aunt.

The cottages remained in existence into the early twentieth century, apparently now run together into a house called locally “The Butterhouse” after the incident, but memories were vague and confused. In one of two histories of the district written for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria but not published until the following year. Richard Lawson, the Head Master of the Urmston Higher Grade School wrote;
“THE BUTTERHOUSE. This farmhouse still standing on the left hand side of Moss Road, was the subject of a supposed mystery, about the year 1848; it was then occupied by Samuel Warburton and his wife. A greasy substance, resembling butter was supposed to have unaccountably appeared on the walls, furniture, pictures but especially the leaves of the family bible; in fact everywhere except Sam’s suite of Sunday clothes. It is generally supposed the author of this ‘mystery’ was Warburton himself, due to mental alienation.” (Lawson, Richard. A History of Flixton, Urmston and Davyhulme. The author, 1898, p.123)

This area was finally urbanised in the mid 1930s and became an estate of semi-detached houses. No trace of the old cottages remains, and I have not been able to find a photograph of it.


1. New Bailey: the old prison in Salford, opened in 1787 and closed in 1868.

2. Police Constable Bent. James Bent (1828-1901), In 1853 he was the constable for Lostock and Davyhulme. By 1868 he had risen to the Superintendent at Stretford in the Lancashire Police. He was noted for his work with destitute children, and was author of My Criminal Life. (1891) He does not refer to the incident in this book, but does confess that as a young man he was much afraid of ghosts and the like, mainly from reading too many “penny dreadfuls”

3. Not traced; in the 1851 census William was lodging with John Owen a farmer at Pownall Fee in Cheshire, probably a distant relative, Samuel and William’s grandfather was John Owen alias Warburton. Hulme was a suburb of Manchester, already it was an industrial area. In 1851 the population was 53,482

4. Primitive Methodist, a radical evangelical and essentially working class breakaway from the mainstream Methodist Movement, starting from a camp meeting at Mow Cop in Staffordshire in 1807. Regarded as ‘emotional’ and ‘enthusiastic’ by its critics. Both its founders William Clowes and Hugh Bourne believed in witches and boggarts. Handloom weavers and petty property owners like the Warburtons were the sort of people attracted. By 1854 the denomination was edging much closer to respectability. and

5. Tim Bobbin, John Collier (1708-1786) was a Lancashire dialect writer of both prose and poetry, he was the son of a local schoolmaster, and was born in a house in Church Lane (Church Road) in Urmston. However the actual house was demolished by this period, and its exact location was disputed, Warburton presumably owned one of the cottages on the most probable site. For more details on Collier and his house see the Waugh reference above.

6. These purport to be verbatim transcripts, yet they are all in suspiciously standard English, not the heavy local dialect (briefly used in the bit about Sam’s suit.

7. I have not been able to locate this Sunday School

8. Possibly the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Davyhulme Road built in 1853.

9. The couple may have been bilingual in standard English and Lancashire but it is perhaps more probable that the editor has standardised the speech and perhaps altered in other ways.

10. Briefly mentioned in A Dictionary of Superstitions edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem Oxford University Press, 1992 pp.200-01 and Steve Roud The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. Penguin Books, 2003 p.250.

11. James Garner 1809- 1895, was a noted member of the Primitive Methodist Community (born in Leake, Nottinghamshire) and spent much of his career in the nearby Cheshire town of Sale.

* * * * *

Knowsley Cottages can be see marked to the bottom left of the large letter 'R'

The Lostock area was relatively unchanged as late as 1910, and a comparison with a modern map can be found here. You should enter 'Sale' township and move slowly north-west at high magnification to find the locality.


Readers Comments:
  1. Anonymous5.5.12
    An excellent piece of research. It's always interesting to see the original sources for these stories. Great detective work.
  2. Anonymous31.7.15
    I am thrilled to bit to read this :) I have been a resident of Lostock, Stretford for 32 years and only just begun to explore its local history and inhabitants. Many references in the tale told resonated with me, Tim Bobbin :), for a while one of our local pubs in Urmston was named 'The Tim Bobbin', (may still be so) a Wetherspoon's. I have been trying to find out more about Lostock Hall, any info on this would be lovely. I have seen for sale on ebay Lostock Hall milk bottles, fascinating, there was no doubt a dairy farm there and it appears to have been where Lostock park is presently. A neighbour of mine in Chatsworth Road, Lostock, by Humphrey Park Holt, made mention of a pig farm and a rubber manufacturers (he thinks) and that the area was some kind of pound (sp?) for pigs; the area Lostock side of the railway line and on the land where the school and housing exists today (c/f Lostock College). The forgotten village of Lostock it certainly is, it seems, I have been trying all afternoon to find some information on Lostock Hall and Lostock in general and Lostock Village area does not seem to appear fully on any O/S maps, that I can find. So I am delighted to have found this piece and thank you for sharing the same. Kind regards.