Nesta of the forest: Bournemouth’s witch
Nick Churchill charts the ups and downs of Elsie Annie Elizabeth Ashton, otherwise known as 'Nesta of the forest'
Published in March ’13
Psychic, medium, spiritualist, mental healer, psycho-analyst, folklorist, Nesta of the Forest carved quite a niche for herself in Bournemouth society and beyond in the 1930s. Prosecuted by the authorities but loved by her clients, she wrote the weekly Confidential Column for the Bournemouth Times having moved from Gloucester after being jailed for refusing to pay a fine of two pounds and eight shillings for telling fortunes.
‘Today, she is entirely a forgotten and neglected figure who, if she is remembered at all, is only a minor footnote in the careers of the celebrated inter-war psychical researchers such as Harry Price and Nandor Fodor,’ says researcher Andrew Parry who has a long-standing interest in Nesta’s life and times.
Between 1933 and 1939 she lived at 29 Commercial Road, Bournemouth where she would carry out private consultations and conduct weekly séances with her husband David (Tommy) Lewis, a ‘powerful deep-trance medium’.
‘She was a member of the spiritualist circles The Link, Men of the Trees and Druid’s Circle. The core of the circle consisted of Nesta, Tommy, her sister Ethel, a state registered nurse, and Reggie Wells, a local dairyman, her husband’s friend,’ says Andrew. ‘Occasionally the sitters were joined by a couple of retired naval personnel, Admiral Marshall and Captain Hall, and presumably unnamed others.’
During 1936 she invited the Society of Psychical Research (SPR) to visit the Druid’s Home Circle Sunday night meetings and hear the voices and the three languages spoken in the circle – the ancient British language of the Druids, the modern English they learnt and the prehistoric sounds of the first humans. Tommy was the trance medium for the Druids’ chief control, Davydd ap Owen, and would speak in his tongue.
She wrote: ‘I have never been controlled in all my life, I ‘see’ and ‘know’ things normally; and I am too scared or superstitious, call it what you will, to PRETEND to be in a trance. But Tommy does pass into deep trance and I know him so well, that he would scorn to pretend anything.’
As popular as she was with her readers, such activities also aroused much suspicion and she complained to the SPR research officer of her bitter persecution by Bournemouth Police, on the sole evidence of a policeman ‘who was so drunk that he had to ask for the use of the lavatory in my house’.
Twice indicted under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, as were most who were charged in relation to fortune telling, Nesta was fined £7 in May 1934 and £25 in March 1935. Intending to draw attention to what she viewed as the persecution of spiritualists she then framed a libel case against the owners of John Bull magazine, which had described her as a charlatan who made her living by fraud. She also campaigned for the repeal of the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which had been intended to dispel widespread belief in witches and was enacted to prosecute those claiming to have the powers of a witch.
Nesta’s claims she could foretell the future piqued the interest of the national newspapers and in one particularly lively exchange she was asked if it was true she had described a Bournemouth magistrate as ‘a smug old man who should be in a nursing home.’
‘He is in a nursing home, now,’ she replied.
But she lost the case and Britain’s last prosecution for witchcraft was Jane Rebecca Yorke in 1944 before the Act was finally repealed in 1951.
Nesta was born Elsie Annie Elizabeth Ashton in Newport on 13 June 1893. In her 1939 book, Charmed Magic Casements: Clairvoyant Glimpses by Nesta of the Forest, published by the Bournemouth Times and edited by the paper’s Nature Corner columnist Peter Phillips, she claims she made friends with fairies as a lonely child growing up in the Wye Valley.
She also writes about an encounter with an elemental creature in a hedge near Puncknowle – a name she interprets as ‘puck hole’, along with Pokesdown as a derivative of Pucksdown and Pug’s Hole near Talbot Woods as Puck’s Hole. Now, many is the reporter who’s seen strange things about their typewriter, particularly after lunch, but as further evidence Nesta offers Phillips’ account of ‘a creature he has seen perched on top of his typewriter, a queer little fellow, not more than two inches high, dressed in shades of brown and green.’
The book reveals Nesta’s grasp of history was at best naïve. She links the ancient British chieftain Caractacus with Bran the Blessed, a king of Britain in Welsh mythology, suggesting Bran’s head – which continued to talk for 87 years after being severed – may be buried at Hengistbury Head to repel invaders. His association with the area, she suggests, is revealed in the names of Branksome and Bransgore.
The book also relates Dorset folklore such as the tale of two wicked old maids from Sturminster Newton who bewitched the village schoolmaster by sticking pins in a sheep’s heart, mixing it with frogs’ skins wrapped up in a cobweb soaked in owl’s blood and hiding it in a wood near his house. The teacher fell ill and was dying until his dog found the bewitched heart, which was then burnt by the villagers. He recovered and when the two old maids were heard screaming one night the village knew they’d been taken to hell.
The book includes Nesta’s encounters with ghosts at Bryanston House, Shaftesbury Abbey, Hamworthy Rectory, Scaplen’s Court in Poole and the 700-year-old Ensbury Manor where she met a cast of spectral characters from ‘fluttering Elizabethan ladies’ to ‘bewigged gallants’. She also claimed to have received a mauve crocus by paranormal transference and saw a secret Mass being celebrated during which medieval soldiers slaughtered the priest. After settling his spirit Nesta returned to the site of the Manor following its demolition in 1936 to see the flats that had been built in its place and ‘found that all the distressing vibrations had gone’.
She formed a more protracted relationship with the crying ghost girl of the Winter Gardens she first saw in 1935 shortly before Christmas, after the original glass pavilion had been taken down. Nesta saw a young girl sobbing as she limped through the Gardens clutching a black rosary and a piece of blue silk.
A year later she saw the girl again: ‘The Winter Gardens were deserted and I was alone, so rested wearily against the trunk of a friendly tree. For three consecutive years the strain of police persecution had broken my health.’
This time she followed the crying girl who was dressed in a servant’s black uniform and held her hands above her head as if to fend off an assailant. The girl crossed the Gardens and went up Richmond Hill to the Church of the Sacred Heart. Following her example Nesta lit a candle and saw a vision of the girl’s life from which she deduced the girl was a Belgian refugee from the Great War. A few days later the girl appeared to Nesta at home where she conjured a clairvoyant picture of a house in which she was running away from a tall woman wielding a stick. The young girl fell and struck her head against a large piece of dark wood furniture staining it with blood.
The girl returned on Christmas Eve and Nesta felt a ‘stunning blow on my head’ and again on Christmas Day prompting Nesta to search for the house she had been shown. Some weeks later she found it was for sale through Messrs Berry & Wood of Exeter Road who sent an agent to show Nesta around.
After receiving a blue silk pincushion embroidered with the girl’s name – Elise – out of thin air, Nesta saw the mahogany sideboard on which the girl had fallen and in the kitchen found the stick she’d been beaten with. This was broken up and thrown out of the house before they said prayers to lay the ghost of Elise.
By Christmas 1937 the new brick-built Winter Gardens had opened as an indoor bowling green and the house Elise had worked in had gone. As Nesta watched it being torn down an old crippled woman joined her and said she had worked at the house as a cook before the Great War and remembered a small girl with a TB hip.
Elise came back the following Christmas, again at Nesta’s home where she was holding her weekly séance with friends, including journalist Peter Phillips. Elise thanked Nesta for rescuing her and asked the spirit guide to get the pincushion for Nesta which she duly collected from the estate agent.
Nesta writes: ‘I do not say it is possible, I only say it happened, and swear that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so God help me, Amen.’
She left Bournemouth in 1939 to move to Cheltenham, where she married twice, but ended her days living alone in a basement flat. She succumbed to dementia and died on 9 February 1982 from bronchopneumonia.
In her later years she committed to charity work, but her belief in the paranormal seems to have waned. In a letter dated 7 November 1962 she wrote: ‘… now in my 70th year, I know for a certainty that all ‘witchcraft’ and ‘spiritualism’ is no more and no less than the sound waves and light waves and electricity which we now ‘harness’ and call radio, television, etc… I am, or at least was, a very well known White Witch in London, Newport, Bournemouth.’