Mother Red Cap, or the Crone of Camden

“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.

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.

C, who now lives at the site of Mother Red Cap

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17 thoughts on “Mother Red Cap, or the Crone of Camden

  1. What a wonderful blog. Mariner Warner is one of my favourite writers and I read that superb essay a while ago. As you say the Mi>perpetuum mobile persists, in spite of everything.

  2. A very nice article and I’m glad to know that Jinney Bingham’s ghost has good comapny.

    And I will seek out the Marina Warner article. Hadn’t heard of Mother Blackcap – she was Mother Shipton you say? I’ve been doing a little research and I notice that in 19th century pantomimes Mother Shipton’s name is coupled with that of Mother Redcap and also Mother Bunch.

    There was a reputed witch called Mother Redcap who lived at Horseheath near Cambridge and died in 1926. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about her such as her real name?

    There definitely should be more feral strumpets.

  3. Hello Jeremy, Thanks for reading. I don’t know about the Mother Redcap in Horseheath, unfortunately. It all merits further research.

    Have you read Angela Carter’s versions of Little Red Riding Hood in The Bloody Chamber? They seem to reference these Red Caps which have been almost erased from our common history.

  4. Hiya purlygrrrl………..

    No, I haven’t read Angela Carter’s version; although I have read the more overtly sexual alternative folk version where Red Riding Hood escapes by her own wit without either being eaten (Perrault’s version) or being rescued by the hunstman as in the usual modern version.

    Obviously I’ll have to read the Bloody Chamber. (I’m rather a fan of Tanith Lee who also did fairy tale retellings, most strikingly of Snow White, but that is off the track….here……mumble…)

    On the subject of red caps, I’m informed that the “redcap” is a country name for the Fly Agaric hallucinogenic mushroom. There are a number of Mother Redcaps on record, mostly reputed witches, and other references associating a red cap with witches without using it as a proper name. It seems the red cap came before the pointy hat.

    But then there was the 18th century Mother Redcap of Egremont who kept a sailors pub and sheltered sailors from the press-gang during the the First American war of Independence. This Mother Redcap was not so far as I know accused of witchcraft, accounts of her are as friendly as Stoker’s account of Jinney Bingham is hostile, but I think it is striking that Jinney Bingham was also said to have sheltered fugitives, notably the executioner of Charles I. The implication in the hostile account is that she did this just for money, but I’m wondering if the truth is that both women had radical or republican sympathies and what the implications of that might be!

    Enough from me,
    Jeremy

  5. Thanks Jeremy, there’s a lot to chew on here! I think your comments merit a post of their own really!

  6. Hiya….I’ve just managed to “see” Mother Shipton in that moth….I hadn’t realised before there were two Mother S’s looking at each other and was trying to resolve it as a single picture.

    Probably a metaphor for something.

  7. Hi,
    I live in Australia, and was always fascinated as a child when my (English) father told us stories about the Mother Redcap, which his sister owned.
    Now named the World’s End.

    My Aunt, Dorothy (Doss) Vale, owned The Mother Redcap in Camden for quite a few year, I believe., Her sister Gertrude Vale later owned The Blue Ball.
    I would love to know the full history and past owners of the Mother Redcap, to add to my family tree details.
    Many thanks,
    Pam Bolger
    Berwick
    Victoria, Australia

  8. Hi Pam, that’s fascinating. Thank you for reading. I hope anyone who has more information can find this post and get in touch with you.

  9. Just had a message on my Facebookrom my English cousin, Jim Holder-Vale, who spent some very happy times at the Mother Red Cap when our Aunt Doss Vale owned it years ago.

  10. My daughter, Louise Bolger (who has been a full time psychic/medium for over 20 years) “feels” the Mother Red Cap is haunted – any stories connected to this?

  11. Oh dear, with the cleaning up of Kentish town and yuppy expansion of the suburbs Highgate Hill is ever closer to becoming the centre of London!

    I came across this post while researching witchcraft folk legends for a book. In folk lore magic Red Caps are traditionally associated with witches who used them to levitate (with or without household items like broomsticks).

    I had no idea of the Mother Red Cap connection to Camden, something to look up next time I’m there, if the throngs of tourists don’t put me off.

  12. Hi Feral Strumpet (I just like writing that) and gang,

    I’ve just now found a good reference to Mother Redcap of Camden in
    Monthly magazine and British register, Volume 34 (1812). Its online.

    This is apparently another woman, not Mother Damnable/Jinney Bingham at all, she had been a camp follower of the Duke of Malborough’s (presumably John Churchill 1650-1722, thanks wikipedia) armies and kept the military custom after she set up a pub.

    It was of this Mother Redcap (according to the 1812 Monthly Magazine) that the famous lines were originally written:
    “Old Mother Redcap, according to her tale,
    Lived twenty and a hundred years by drinking this good ale,
    It was her meat, it was her drink and medicine beside,
    And if she still had drank this ale, she never would have died.”

    This rhyme has it seems also been used at other pubs signed Mother Redcap.

  13. Hi there,

    Keep up the good work on the history of the Mother Red Cap – a very interesting site.
    My Aunt Doss Vale (previous owner of the Mother Red Cap) would be thrilled to know of the ongoing interest shown. (Are you looking down from up there, Aunt doss?)

    Cheers,

    Pam
    Berwick,
    Australia

  14. very Interesting I had a strange encounter in this area. see blog of mine on world.press. My band earth played the underworld in 2009. Couldn’t tell where the ghost was in video, the moth was very cool though. We played with Stinking Lizavetta back in 2002-2003, an amazing band.

  15. Hello Dylan– Now I know who you are! Thank you for commenting on my blog– I feel honored. I am a big fan of your band, Earth– I first saw you play with Sunn O and Boris in London years ago, and most recently in Leeds this summer. I listen to your new album while I make the jewelry I sell, which is how I make a living now. I look forward to reading your blog and hearing about your explorations of the UK– a very mysterious place as you say.

  16. I found your site by googling mother red cap and as I read the information it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I’ll explain – I am a painter and have been working on a painting that this week I named as a working title ‘The Mother Red Cap’ – I have absolutely no idea why I decided to call it this other than it is starting to resemble a woman in a cap and I like the name – it’s quite iconic. About an hour ago I googled the name to see if I could learn something about the history and felt very spooked indeed. Last Saturday I visited a pub in Camden called ‘The World’s End’ – I have never been to this pub before and rarely visit London as I live in Brighton and saw no mention of it’s history or it’s orginal name. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I read on your site that this pub was originally called ‘The Mother Red Cap’ and that it was biult on the site where once a cottage stood that ‘Mother Red Cap’ actually lived in. I am not particularly supersticious but am seriously considering changing the paintings name!

  17. That seems a rather wonderful coincidence! It’s most auspicious, I would say. Keep the paintings name– it was meant to be.

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