Local historian Rita Swift is having a whale of time recounting the story of Sally the Dunstable witch.
The legendary sorceress was allegedly burned at the stake 600 years ago, with her malevolent spirit subsequently bottled and buried in Priory gardens.
It then turned out Sally was the invention of local headmaster A P Wire who was trying to shame the vicar into tidying up the churchyard. He penned an 81-verse poem about the Dunstable she-devil which became very popular, but which ultimately led to him having to resign.
Rita, a 78-year-old grandmother-of-two and vice president of the South Beds Association of National Trust Members, said: “Although the story is fiction, maybe there was a Sally many lifetimes ago who wanted to come back and just needed the right connection – stranger things have happened.
“We first met by accident in 2003 when I was doing some research at the library. An article popped up on Dunstable Gazette microfilm about Sally the Dunstable witch and I’d never heard of her.
“I asked around and was told it was only a poem, but several elderly friends remembered their grandmothers warning them not to go to the churchyard at night as the witch was buried there and watching.”
Rita learned there was a copy of the original poem in Luton Musem, together with A P Wire’s notebook.
She wrote an article for the local History Society newsletter and the poem was republished for the official reopening of Priory House. Dunstable Library asked if they could put it on their website and The Vine magazine made a similar request. In 2009 a variation on the saga was included in a book of Luton Poems and Dunstable Town Guides included her in their ghost walks.
Now the Queen can read about Sally too – she was given a presentation copy of the The Dunstable Timeline during her recent visit.
Rita has shared the story on radio and given numerous talks on the subject. She has also been asked to provide background information for a new film on the mythical character – Trapped Magic: The Broken Blade.
“I thought we’d laid Sally to rest,” Rita smiled. “But it looks like her story is just beginning. For a fictitious witch, she’s having a great time – I’m sure she was waiting for me to find her.”