The Witch Finder General and Malthouses

Our first stop on the recent trip up the east coast of Britain was in a little place called Mistley which is situated on the River Stour in Essex. You may have heard of Manningtree which is a little further up the river as it is the smallest town in England. Mistley’s use as a port can be traced back to the Roman occupation with archaeological evidence indicating that a Roman road connected its riverside to the important garrison town of Colchester (Camulodunum).


Both Manningtree and Mistley are attractive towns with Georgian and Victorian architecture. Manningtree was a centre for cloth in Tudor times with barges transporting it to London and it is believed that the reference to Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV as “that roasted Manningtree Ox” relates to the practice of roasting a whole ox at the town’s medieval annual fair.


Mistley is also the village where Matthew Hopkins lived – the notorious Witch Finder General, who struck terror into the local community during the 17th Century. 



In the 18th Century local landowner Richard Rigby MP attempted to develop Mistley into a fashionable spa town, symbolised by a swan. He hired the architect Robert Adam, to design and remodel the existing church. The two towers are the only remaining parts now after the centre section of the medieval church was demolished in 1870. It is the only known church modelled by Adams remaining.


We stayed at the Mistley Thorn which overlooks the quay and is a short stroll away from the riverside. The malting industry has declined in Mistley, and the majority of malthouses and stores, have become redundant over the decades, with the inevitable result that vandals and arsonists have taken their toll on the town’s industrial architecture. The quay is currently derelict and fenced off, causing much distress to locals.


The “Free The Quay” organisation have spent the last five years, or so, fighting for the reopening of what they maintain is a historical right of access since the Trent Wharfage Company decided to fence off the publicly accessible 130 metre section of the quay in 2008.


The Old Barley Stores on the riverfront have been converted into luxury apartments, meaning that Mistley still looks like a town of malthouses, even if people are now living where the grain was once stored.




Nearby is a food processing factory.   The English Diastatic Malt Extract Company  (EDME) was originally founded there in 1884. The site is now a specialist research & development facility. The whole area is filled with the distinct nostril stimulating smell of malting grains. Eating a granary loaf will never be the same again.


An evening stroll along the riverside was not very exciting. Passing the local ‘lads’ hanging outside the Towers in their souped-up cars, music blaring, cans of lager and dodgy smelling cigarettes was a tad unnerving, but we moved through them as quickly as possible and on to the riverside walk. Unfortunately the tide was out so we were faced with mud and sand banks. Brent geese, a couple of swans with their cygnets and some gulls waded in the mud. It might be a nice spot on a summer’s day with the tide in as it is tree-lined with lots of benches from where to take in the view. But on this evening it all felt a bit sinister.


Hence I changed my camera settings for a more dramatic effect.

The Mistley Thorn is a restaurant with rooms – large, homely and comfortable rooms, ours overlooked the river AND the road. With no aircon we had the windows open, but even in such a small place there is a lot of traffic noise especially early in the morning. The following night we closed the windows which do have secondary glazing, and there was no noise. However, in the unseasonable hot and humid weather we were having it was uncomfortably warm. The hotel serves excellent food and it does get very busy, we ate there both nights and can honestly say it is worth doing so. Breakfasts were equally delicious and all the staff we encountered were more than friendly. A good spot to stay if you want, as we did, to explore Constable country and the Beth Chatto Gardens and be close to Colchester and if you don’t mind the smell of malting grain…

We discovered that Mistley Thorn was the base of Matthew Hopkins, self appointed Witch Finder General, from 1642 at the start of the Civil War. Hopkins, the son of a Puritan minister, was born at Great Wenham, Suffolk in 1620. He was based in Manningtree & Mistley during the age of the brutal witch-hunts 1645-1647 during which 112 people were hanged for witchcraft, 82 coming from Essex. Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne were responsible for most of these. The witch finders were paid twenty shillings in fees and expenses for each successful prosecution, which became such a burden to the local towns. They were most successful in 1645 when 33 women were locked in cells in Colchester Castle and tried at the County Assizes in Chelmsford. All except one were found guilty. Fifteen were hanged in Chelmsford, four were hanged on the village green in Manningtree, nine were later reprieved and four died in the cells. Hopkins himself died of consumption in 1647. He is buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary’s church, Mistley Heath. The statutory offence of witchcraft punishable by death was repealed in 1736.

Witchfinders – A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy is by Malcolm Gaskill, published by John Murray 

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I have lived in the UK for most of my life, but when young I definitely had wanderlust and even ended up living in South Africa for several years which was a wonderful experience. I now look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

29 thoughts on “The Witch Finder General and Malthouses”

  1. What a lovely stroll with the two of you, Jude. I have never been in this area and I’m very impressed when I see how much you have already covered. Is there an area in teh UK you are not familiar with? 😉
    I really like the dramatic, colourful look of your images; I suppose they are not all due the camera settings? The postprocessing is very nice, well done!

    1. The photos were mainly done using the camera settings Dina, it is quite effective for bringing out the textures, but I am not so keen on what it does to the sky. On these days though the sky was mostly a solid grey! The images taken normally just looked so drab. As for the UK, I have an ongoing personal project that I will have visited or at least driven through, every county in England, Wales and Scotland. This east coast journey helped to plug a few gaps.

      1. I like your ongoing project, Jude. 🙂 It’s good to have some goals in front of you and something to look forward to. (Like the Hebrides) 😉

      1. Yes, it is hard to fathom how someone could merely insinuate that a person was a witch, thus setting into motion a horrible death.

  2. How whimsical the buildings at the beginning are. Everything looks clean and fresh, without much traffic, but I guess look are deceiving as you couldn’t sleep for the noise outside.
    Fantastic photos, Jude. Thanks for sharing. I feel I walked by your side during this tour. 🙂 ❤

    1. The traffic was a constant distraction until after midnight and then started again in the early morning. Odd as it is a road that really doesn’t go anywhere important.

  3. Just to make sure I’m on the same page … are malt houses what we would call beer breweries? If so, I can then image the smell 🙂

    The double-towered church with the church part now missing looks really interesting!

    For 2 small towns, it seems you got a lot out of them 🙂

  4. Witch Finder General – I immediately thought of Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s “Good Omens”. And some of your photos display just the kind of atmosphere I associate with some of the locations in that book. Great photos and narrative!

  5. Other than a bit of Suffolk and Kent, I don’t know the east coast, I’ve driven there a few times and it’s such a long, long way. Twenty shillings for each witch, no wonder he ‘found’ so many!

  6. We heard dreadful stories in Lancaster about witch trials there. Ghastly! I like that the old buildings are being reused for apartments. At least the people who have made their homes there will cherish and maintain the buildings and the facades retain their character.

    1. They do look nice from the outside and have a great view over the river and estuary. I guess you get used to the smell.

  7. Not an area I’m familiar with at all but it looks interesting – enjoyed the tour. There was a female witch finder in Scotland at one time who claimed to find witches by looking them in the eye. Unfortunately, when tested by the same women twice she gave different answers and was condemned as a witch herself. Thank goodness we are slightly more civilised now….

    1. Not an area I know either which is one of the reasons we stayed there, plus we needed to be in Colchester for a wedding a couple of days later and I needed a rest from the long drive. Turned out to be an interesting place.

    1. We set out to simply wander up the eastern side of the country, not knowing what we’d find, but there seems to be something of interest wherever you go. Though often you do have to look behind the obvious.

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