Cunning Crowther the ‘magician’

“Was old Heptonstall a hotbed of witchcraft?” (6 Apr.) reminded me I’d read that Northowram was the birthplace of a great 18th Century Yorkshire astrologer, author of spells for dealing with havoc caused by witches, and of remedies for the curing of ailments. He has even been referred to as a “magician.”

In the Halifax Parish Baptismal Register for December 1694, appears the entry:

“20: Timo. Joseph Crowther, Northowram.”

This agrees with the entry in Crowther’s own manuscript book, declaring that he was born on “Thursday, ye 20 of Dec., 1694, at 11a.m.,” as mentioned by William Harbutt Dawson (1860-1948) in his 1882 “History of Skipton.” Although it was unusual for a baby to be baptized on the day of birth, it was not unknown. And yet, the entry is out of Register order, having been added after the due date, in a different hand. This practice does occur from time to time, and should not mean the entry is invalid.

So, who was Joseph Crowther of Northowram? It seems he was the man of property of whom Oliver Heywood said: “…he built his sumptuous house by Norwood Green, 1671, and the out-housing, 1692…” Today, Northowram Hall stands on the site of his house. Joseph also endowed the old Bell School, Northowram, and died in 1711; his widow Susan died in 1717; both were buried in Halifax Parish Churchyard.

Early in life, Timothy sought his fortune in Skipton, and may have become estranged from his Northowram family, as he is not mentioned in his parents’ wills. Clearly he began the study of astrology early in life, for, according to Dawson, the first autograph entry in his Charm-book was made when he was only twenty. As an astrologer in the Craven district, he became very popular, people travelling long distances to consult him upon all manner of subjects: To have their planets ‘ruled’; to learn the whereabouts of stolen property, or to seek private advice. Because of him, Skipton residents invented a phrase “As cunning as Crowther.”

Crowther is even mentioned in John Wesley’s Journal, on 24th July 1761. The great Methodist preacher then records how he had received a report that the body of a murder victim had been discovered, after friends of the slain man had visited Timothy Crowther for advice.

In the manuscript copy of Crowther’s Charm-book there were many curious incantations and charms, some of which Dawson quotes in his history. Here is one:

“Remedy for a horse or cow that hath harm done by a witch.

“Take hair of each quarter, some of the hoof and horn, sew it up in a cloth, and in ye form of a ball; prick it full of pins and put in three needles. Boil it in ye afflicted water till ye pan be like to burn, then throw it into ye fire and say (three times) – Witch, Witch, Witch, thus shalt thou burn in hell. Take care that nobody come in ye house all ye time you are in doing of it; it must be done three times at ye change, full, and quarter.”

He also recorded a remedy for curing “The King’s Evil.” This involved taking “thirteen King Charles farthings and boyle ’em in soft spring water...”

There is no evidence that Crowther’s wisdom was ever used for malicious or evil purposes. But did he really believe in those remedies?

In the Skipton Parish Register is his burial entry:-

“1761. Feb. 24th. Timothy Crowther, Parish Clerk of Skipton.”

David C. Glover