Hadleigh's White Wizard "resurrected" for just a few days

James 'Cunning' Murrell (1785-1860)

By Robert Hallmann

It started with: “We are all dressing up. We think you could be ‘Cunning’ Murrell.” I struggled, wriggled, prevaricated – in the end I asked Tom King of the Echo for help. He announced an audition in the paper. Artist David Hurrell produced a cracking likely likeness and 'Wanted' posters mysteriously appeared about Hadleigh to advertise the Hadleigh and Thundersley Community Archive Launch on 17th September, 2011. Of course, nobody else turned up to the audition and I ran out of excuses. 

I was badly cast. I am not the seventh son of a seventh son, people aren’t that productive anymore. By all accounts James Murrell was a small man. Some descriptions have been recorded, not least by author Arthur Morris about 1900.

‘Mrs Watson described him as ‘wearing a hard hat and a bobbed tail coat, his hands behind him, he used to walk along humming loudly and lost in thought…’.

‘On our way to discover the wizard's son we called on Mr. Stephen Choppen, the smith who had made the witch-bottles. He was long retired from the smithy… Steve Choppen had no witch-bottle to show us, for the last had been exploded long ago, but he had the cunning man's spectacles—a quaint and clumsy instrument, with circular glasses and ponderously thick iron rims. The narrowness of the space between the sides showed the wizard's head to have been a small one, and, indeed, he was an extremely small man in every way, by the descriptions of a dozen people.’

‘His personal effects were in great demand as souvenirs, and some were preserved with superstitious reverence for many years.  His whalebone umbrella was in the possession of a local undertaker until a few years ago, an elaborately carved chest is now in the hands of a lady at Southend-on-Sea…’ (Probably the one in Prittlewell Museum? RH)

‘And should the new curate come, what was she to do, asked Ann Pett. He too must go, said her father, propped up in bed with his iron-rimmed goggles perched on his nose, all ready to peruse his manuscript book with its cabalistic signs and sigils. “For I be the devil’s master as be well knowed”, he muttered. “Clargymen den’t bother me in the oad time, they shan’t now.”

Still, it was a fun meeting…

Photo:The imaginative artist's identikit picture

The imaginative artist's identikit picture

David Hurrell

Photo:Seen in Hadleigh churchyard - the ghost of James 'Cunning' Murrell, alias yours truly... An imposter

Seen in Hadleigh churchyard - the ghost of James 'Cunning' Murrell, alias yours truly... An imposter

Karen Bowman

Photo:Collecting mushrooms in a graveyard?

Collecting mushrooms in a graveyard?

Karen Bowman

Photo:Old and crotchety

Old and crotchety

Lyn Manning

Photo:The only place he still recognised was Hadleigh's fine old church.

The only place he still recognised was Hadleigh's fine old church.

Karen Bowman

Photo:Have you seen this man?

Have you seen this man?

Tessa Hallmann

Photo:He wasn't always so old. Here with Karen Bowman

He wasn't always so old. Here with Karen Bowman

Lyn Manning

Photo:With 'wench' Lyn Manning

With 'wench' Lyn Manning

Tony Manning

Photo:How do you tie a cravat?

How do you tie a cravat?

Tessa Hallmann

This page was added by Robert Hallmann on 26/09/2011.
Comments about this page (Add a comment about this page)

I was born in Thundersley and my grandfather on my mother's side is a Murrell. My mother was born in Laindon, Essex. Murrell is an unusual surname, so I wonder if I have any connection to him; Hadleigh being only a short distance from Thundersley. I always thought Cunning Murrell was from Pitsea? My side of the Murrell family originally comes from Ramsholt and Bawdsey in Suffolk and they were certainly there in the 1700s because there is a tombstone in Ramsholt churchyard of that date. I'd be interested to know if anyone has done any research on Cunning Murrell.

By Madeleine Davies
On 12/03/2013