Today I was going to look for a cursed stone imprinted with a cow’s hoof, after she kicked it in fury on realising she’d been tricked into being milked dry by a witch. However, as it appears the local petrol stations have now been milked dry I am not sure I can afford to go on a fifty mile round trip right now. Curse them.
I would have been heading over Church Eaton way, where old maps show a ‘Joan Eaton’s Cross’, marked at a crossroads just outside of the village. A lovely email I had recently had asked if I knew who Joan was, as there were rumours she had been a witch. Snippets in local newspapers confirm this to be a long-standing local legend, although there was an interesting suggestion from an article in the Staffordshire Newsletter that she may have actually been the village’s patron saint. As one of those rare creatures, a woman whose name appears in the historical record of a place, she was always going to be sanctified or demonised wasn’t she? This small triangle of grass at the junction of the roads to Little and High Onn is said to be either her grave or the site of her execution, possibly both. The name ‘Joan Eaton’s Cross‘ suggests there may have once been a marker of sorts here but if there ever was it’s long since been replaced by a ‘Give Way’ sign.
The story that I’ve pieced together from several accounts is that it was an encounter with the Dun Cow, a mythical creature the size of a bus, which ultimately led to Joan’s downfall. The owner of Redhouse Farm in Little Onn challenged her to have a go at milking it and Joan tricked the magical beast by using a sieve. When the cow realised it had been milked dry and done dirty, it kicked off and ran from the field leaving one of her hoof prints on a stone at the gate. Joan warned the farmer that if the stone were ever to be removed, Very Bad Things would happen. This pretty much confirmed the villagers’ suspicions that Joan was a witch and so she was taken to the crossroads where she was burned at the stake.
Now, as much as I love a classic witch/magical cow/cursed stone bit of folklore, I need to separate the curds from the absolutely no whey did that happen. The appearance of the Dun Cow is obviously the first red flag that there’s a fair bit of bull in the tale. That’s not just because huge and magical heifers don’t exist but also because a very similar version of the story is told in Warwickshire. Except they have the heroic Guy of Warwick slaying it and went as far as displaying one of its ribs (which was actually the tusk of a narwhal, a huge and magical creature which really shouldn’t exist given that it’s essentially a sea unicorn) at the castle for many years. These South Midlands counties are so extra. Secondly, the part where Joan was burned at the stake for being a witch is a ropey old trope given that witches in England were hanged. One element of the story for which there does seem to be some sort of evidence however, is the existence of the stone.
At some point, it was moved from its original location at Redhouse Farm to the gates of Little Onn Hall and, as Joan warned, a Very Bad Thing happened as all of the cattle in the area died. This new location seems to have made things even worse as became apparent when a man was thrown from his horse and killed, after being spooked by the stone. Greeting guests with a cursed rock at your gate is not particularly welcoming and so the hall’s owner tried to move it. Sixteen horses failed to pull the it from the ground and each one of them was dead within a fortnight. A local chap was then employed to dig away the soil from around it and beneath it in an attempt to bury it. He succeeded in sinking it a yard or so, but found himself six feet under within a week. From then onwards, the fate of the resident family at Little Onn Hall became forever bound to the cursed stone. If it sank further into the ground, it followed that their fortunes would founder. Intriguingly, one writer relaying the story described how the house was once owned by a well-know family whose name began with a ‘C’ (that’s the original writer being cryptic, not me). I’m fairly sure I know which family he was referring to and, for me, there is something uncanny about a family whose fate was supposed foretold by a sinking stone being onboard RMS Titanic when it sank. However, we will return to unearth that story another day as incredibly it isn’t the only curse connected to the family.
The stone was still there in August 1956, when the ‘Old Stafford Society’ visited and described it as being covered in marks resembling a cow’s hoof prints. I think I may have found it on Google Earth but obviously can’t make out any marks on it from here. Once this petrol nonsense sorts itself out, I’ll go for a closer look although I suppose I could always dig out my broomstick if things get really desperate…
Staffordshire Newsletter 18 August 1956
Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser 25 November 1846