Raising Spirits: How a Conjuror's Tale Was Transmitted across the
Enlightenment (Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic)
by Johnathan Berry
(The following is from p. 49 of the chapter entitled The Second Phase: Bristol and London 1760—79)
The magical tree story is not uncommon…
Another variant is told by the astrologer Raphael about a house supposedly built on the place where Perks had conjured his spirits (discussed in Chapter 6). A miner of considerable property' entertains with cider two rustics known 'for being expert in curious arts and secret mysteries' and invites them 'to afford him a specimen thereof'. The 'principal' William Flew, 'draws a large and open circle' around the mahogany table and 'after performing several mystic ceremonies and repeating several uncouth incantations' conjures up a tree 'nearly seven feet high' (annoying the man's wife whose table he has ruined!). 'Another mystic and equally unintelligible ceremony was performed which took up a considerable time' then 'several little men, of small stature and dubious form' enter, with sacks and axes and cut down the tree 'with such violence that the chips flew in all part of the room'. They collect the chips 'with great care' and vanish, but a man 'of a curious turn', who had secreted a chip in his pocket, found 'one of the devils suddenly standing before him and fiercely staring him in the face'. Flew told him 'he must give up the chip he had secreted or he would have no rest' so he did and the 'supernatural appearance, or demon vanished, and shortly afterwards the rustic magicians retired'.6
(The following picks up on p. 90 of the chapter entitled Astrologers)
It is set 'in the latter part of the year 17—... one bleak winter's evening, at the village of Downend', where 'Mr. W. S., a miner of considerable property falls into conversation on 'the subject of ghosts, visions, magic, and incantations, a theme which appeared of great interest', leading William Flew to conjure the magical tree. Raphael concludes:
The house (and orchard) where this wonderful scene of illusion was acted, is still standing in statu quo, and it is very remarkable that it was the identical spot where Thomas Perks is said to have raised spirits, as recorded in 'Sibly's Occult Sciences.'* It is said that there are a number of books buried hereabout, a tradition much believed by the inhabitants, for, in former times, it was the junction of four cross roads, and the centre of the forest of Dean. It is no less remarkable, that the above estate and premises is the hereditary property of the astrologer Raphael.
* See Sibly's 'Illustration of the Occult Sciences,' page 1121. Also Beaumont's 'History of Apparitions,' in each of which the above adventure of Thomas Perks with spirits is recorded."
How could he republish the story in 1831 without referring to this information, unless Raphael merely rewrote these stories off the cuff, inventing ties to himself to supply his characteristic cocktail of personal aggrandizement and mysterious transmission of knowledge? Yet there was considerable verisimilitude in the Abbots Leigh stories…
…This does not necessarily imply equal knowledge of Mangotsfield, the other side of Bristol (and nowhere near 'the centre of the Forest of Dean'!). But various Smiths lived there, including several Isaac Smiths -
Finally, what about Raphael's claims that this episode took place in a property which had belonged to his own family? I cannot identify a specific Mangotsfield property, but an 1804 mortgage for a property at Barton Hill (on the way out of Bristol towards Downend), involved an Isaac Smith (b. 1766, a haberdasher), only surviving son of Bristol hosier James Smith (1720-
William Flew was my 3rd great grandfather who was born about 1752 in Long Ashton, Somerset, England (just south of Bristol). He married Ann Davies in 1795 and died in 1836. I have documented the events with official English birth, death and marriage records. The place and dates coincide with those quoted in the following book.
While researching my ancestors, I ran across a reference to one William Flew, born about 1752. The following is an excerpt from a book exploring witchcraft and conjuring during the Age of Enlightenment (from the mid 17th century through the 18th century). It relates the story in which William Flew, who I believe to be my 4th great grandfather and the father of William Flew born in 1752, is said to have conjured a seven foot tall tree inside the house of a miner and the “little men” that showed up to chop the tree down and remove it. The person identified as Raphael was the professional name of Robert Cross Smith, 1795-
With seven known William Flews in our family line, we refer to this individual as William the Conjurer.