“Before the good folk of this kingdom be undone,
Shall Highgate Hill stand in the midst of London.”
–prophecy of Mother Shipton
Beneath the history dusted off for tourists in ghost walks and Tower of London grotesques, the spurned of London persist in collective memory. We will never really know their truth, and this is even more so with women’s stories.
The unwritten persist in our imagination, amplified perhaps because of the silences surrounding them. Jinney Bingham, or Old Mother Red Cap is one who has taken on mythic proportions in my narrative of North London.
In the essay Old Hags, Marina Warner argues that the infamous crones of London, though their erasure may be almost complete, provide an ancient, “apotropaic” magic: they are “tomb guardians for the mean streets.”
Mother Red Cap is an old folklore archetype– shook down to us as Little Red Riding Hood. The red hood or cap was associated with witches; it belies the girl’s collusion with the wolf and her penchant for straying.
Mother Red Cap was also the name of a famous pub in Camden, up until the 80s. In Famous Impostors, Bram Stoker writes of its competitor across the road, Mother Black Cap and claims that there were also two witches after which these establishments were named.
Stoker goes on to explain that the black-capped woman was Mother Shipton, 17th century Yorkshire prophetess who foretold the Great Fire of London, now reduced to the panto dame. She faces off eternally, silhouetted on the wings of the Mother Shipton Moth.
But Mother Red Cap, Mother Damnable, “The Shrew of Kentish Town” or Jinney Bingham was also a real woman who lived in a cottage where the World’s End pub in Camden now stands.
She was the child of a brickmaker and a pedlar’s daughter. A mother at sixteen, her baby-dady was one Gipsey George sent to Newgate and hung at Tyburn for sheep-stealing. Stoker describes unkindly her series of lovers, some of whom, it’s inferred, died at her hand. Her parents were tried and hung as witches. She lived as a fortune-teller and healer in the house her father built on waste ground. In the end she was left with her “only protector”– a black cat. She traveled only at night under hedges or in the lanes as “the rabble bait[ed] her as if she were a wild beast”. The black patches on her cloak looked at a distance like flying bats.
Hundreds of people claim to have seen the devil enter her cottage– but he didn’t come out. Later, she was found dead with her crutch and a tea pot full of herbs, crouched by the ashes of her fire which had burned out. Her body was so stiff the undertakers had to break her limbs to fit her in the coffin.
And so she stayed in this spot, on the pub sign depicting her as brewster or witch, until the 1980s. In 1776 the space across from the pub was to become a second Tyburn, but what became of those plans I don’t know. Urban legend claims she still haunts the Underworld, the heavy metal club that is now in the spot.
The closest I’ve come to spotting her ghost was in Stinking Lizaveta drummer Cheshire Agusta’s possessed performance at the Underworld in 2007:
My friend C lives above the pub now. She has the cunning ability to be seemingly everywhere at once, and a joie de verve that in the time of Mother Red Cap could’ve got a woman in trouble. If Jinney’s ghost really is still there she has good company.