The Mystery of ‘Cunning’ Murrell's Chest?


A large chest or trunk was given to Southend’s Museum by the Murrell family. It’s on view there and said to be the most requested item to be seen by visitors. It’s of a fair size and in good condition. A solid kind of furniture with carved front panels, the kind of chest that would hold a wedding trousseau or the family linen and seems unlikely to ever have been buried. James Murrell died in 1860.
Was this the chest buried by landlord Tyrrell in the garden behind James Murrell’s Endway cottage, following Murrell’s death, to do away with the Cunning Man’s legacy for good? The one his son Buck Murrell dug up again soon afterwards?

    The Garden of Cunning Murrell.
It’s a quite different trunk or box described by Arthur Morrison and illustrated by artist J. L. Wimbush for the Strand Magazine in 1900, in which they rummaged in the company of Murrell’s son Edward, known as Buck. That would be in about 1890, some thirty years after Murrell’s death. A mix-up between the two trunks would seem unlikely.
There have been rumours about two chests and that would seem a plausible explanation. The chest illustrated in Strand Magazine must be the one Buck Murrell dug up. And what did it contain?
This is how Arthur Morrison described it:- ‘Then came our plunge into that dusty old box, and our inspection of the heaps of letters and papers – all the sorrow and sickness and bedevilment of Essex any time from ninety to forty years ago. Not to mention much of that of Kent, and even some from London.
There were many books of astrology, astronomy, and tables of ascensions; many old medical books and botanical and anatomical plates. A Bible and a Prayerbook, “New Tables of the Motions of the Planets, 1728”; many more such books, all adorned with numerous manuscript notes; and on the fly-leaves of “Hackett’s Astronomy” Cunning Murrell had worked out the times of eclipses of the sun to the year 1912.’
‘In the books of medical and herbal recipes Murrell had made a very large number of additions and alterations. Nicholas Culpepper’s knowledge and authority were freely challenged, and his statement as to quantity and preparation corrected, in the wizard’s small and crabbed handwriting. … numerous copies of Raphael’s almanac, dated between 1806 and 1850, were scrawled over and corrected in matters of prediction.’
Even some of Murrell’s school books had later been filled by this ‘man of mystic lore’ with ‘horoscopes and divinations of geomancy.’
‘…the main interest of the whole collection lay in the manuscripts. Of these the first and chief were certain unbound home-made books, dealing with conjurations, astrology, and geomancy. The largest of these was a good sized quarto of about fifty pages, with the title, “The book of Magic and Conjurations.” The book set out with a particularization of the various angels of the planets and their functions on different days. Then many pages were devoted to a setting forth in straggling diagram of the sigils, spirits, intelligences, seals, and characters of the planets, with sacred pentacles and other cabalistic signs. Accompanying these were notes directing how the figures should be employed as talismans and amulets, and upon what metals they must be engraved. … The rest of the book was a recital of the conjurations to be used in different circumstances and on different days – the terms of which tended to confirm Buck Murrell in his oft-repeated assurance that his father was a good wizard and not a dealer with the devil – “the devil’s master,” in fact, not his servant. …
‘Two other of these manuscript books were something in a large duodecimo in size, but much thicker than the book of magic and conjurations. …’
‘It was not witchcraft, but astrology. A great mass of observations and notes on almost every possible combination of the planets, all in the familiar crabbed handwriting, with here and there a horoscope in diagram.’
‘The other small book was one of geomancy. This was the art which Murrell used to find lost property and coerce thieves into restitution. A great deal was claimed for this system of divination – so much, in fact, as to make one wonder that the wise man had any necessity for astrology. It would “resolve any question or doubt whatsoever”; it would “tell truth from falsehood and the place of anything.” The system was a complicated and obscure one. …’
Morrison also cast a doubtful eye over ‘…this same immense heap of odd scraps of paper … Murrell must have cast a scheme of nativity for almost everyone in South Essex in his time.” More down-to-earth and of practical use would be “little bits of private information, … Any particulars of the life or circumstances of anybody whatsoever which came to his ears were carefully noted down, and then, should it ever chance that this person or any of his connections came for cunning advice, Mr. Murrell could startle his client with his knowledge, and secure another undoubting disciple.’
When it came to the letters in that wondrous chest, Morrison exclaimed: ‘Never was raked together such a heap of superstition, credulity, anxiety, and touching faith.…’
Overall, he argued:- ‘But to describe or even to catalogue half the queer notes and scraps in this old chest would fill a small book. The odd recipes, the memoranda of the character, ages, and circumstances of all kinds of people, the letters inclosing “some more hair and fingernails,” the entreaties of the true lovers upon whose feelings Cunning Murrell played as upon a dulcimer, the requests of farmers to destroy the bedevilment which was upon their cows and crops – all would defy enumeration within reasonable limits.’
On his visit to Hadleigh, Arthur Morrison and the artist illustrator had to reclaim Murrell’s chest from Buck Murrell’s former lodgings and pay outstanding storage costs before opening it at the Castle Inn’s parlour. What happened to it afterwards is not recorded.
So, what happened to that second chest or trunk? Many of Murrell’s possessions had become collectors’ items. The historian Philip Benton, author of ‘The History of Rochford Hundred’ (1867), had ‘two human skulls phrenologically marked, and certain of the wizard’s books’.
That ‘wonderful glass’ with which Murrell could look through brick walls, Buck had sold on for half a sovereign. Obviously, that glass had been greatly undervalued, as that same curio collector had received his come-uppance when he swallowed another half-sovereign, which killed him. Hadleigh’s blacksmith Steve Choppen, Murrell’s creator of his explosion-prone iron witch bottles, had once examined said glass, which he declared to be ‘nothing but a clumsily home-made arrangement of bits of looking glass, such as might once have been bought at a toy shop.’
It’s unlikely that Murrell’s box would have been left at the Castle Inn, or maybe gone back into storage?
Strangely, there is another image that, allowing for a degree of artistic licence, might well be that very chest or box. Eric Maple (1916-1994) was a folklorist, researcher and author on witchcraft and folk magic in the late nineteenth and twentieth-century Essex. James Murrell was one of the subjects of his research. In this photo he is contemplating a holey stone and ‘the old Murrell chest’. This really looks as if it might have been buried?
Meanwhile the Murrell family chest is on view at Southend Museum. Is his personal box still languishing in some forgotten attic or garden shed? Or could it be, miracle of miracles, still waiting to be rediscovered in Southend Museum’s unfathomable stores? Underfunding has been a feature mentioned for years by interested parties as at most museums in the land, and I understand that some of the storage nooks and crannies in Southend have not been visited for ages.

{ WUNDERKAMMER, Southend’s Cabinet of Curiosities is on display at Southend Central Museum until October 2022.  Many Wunderkammer originated in royal treasuries, where the crown jewels and items of regalia were housed with other items of value for safekeeping. Cabinets of Curiosities were the precursors of museums.}

Central Museum, City of Southend, where the Cabinet of Curiosities is on display until October 2022

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