Folk-Lore/Volume 7/Staffordshire Folk and their Lore
STAFFORDSHIRE FOLK AND THEIR LORE.
BY C. S. BURNE.
I prefer this title to the one announced for me, as I have always maintained that if you would study the folklore of any district properly, you must first of all study the district itself, and learn what manner of folk they are who dwell there; and as I know by melancholy experience that English geography, at any rate where my own county is concerned, ranks among the "things not generally known," I shall make no apology for beginning with the guide-book information that Staffordshire is an inland county, lying somewhat north-west of the centre of England, and surrounded by the counties of Derby, Warwick, Worcester, Shropshire, and Cheshire. The River Trent rises among the hills of the north-western corner, and runs a diagonal course through the county to the south-east, where it bends abruptly northwards, and, passing Burton and Tutbury, forms part of the boundary between Staffordshire and Derbyshire. I would ask you particularly to notice this diagonal course of the river (north-west to south-east), as it will give you a rough general idea of the physical conformation of the county, viz. a broad band of green valley and meadow land in the midst, with hills to the north-east and south-west of it. Members of the Folklore Society, travelling to Liverpool in September by the London and North Western Railway, will enter Staffordshire at Tamworth and quit it again just before reaching Crewe, following the general course of the river all the way. To the north, the ground, broken by hills and river-valleys, yet gradually rises to the Moorlands, a bleak, bare, stone-walled country, abutting on the Derbyshire moors. The hills on the south-west do not attain so great a height, and they are not bleak, but black; for here, around Wolverhampton, is the seat of the South Staffordshire iron trade. Thus you will perceive that tht)ugh the Black Country is chiefly in Staffordshire, yet Staffordshire is not in the Black Country, according to the popular delusion.
We have, then, a large agricultural tract in the midst of the county, with the Black Country, peopled by colliers and ironworkers, in the south, and a smaller industrial tract, the Potteries, around Stoke-on-Trent, in the north. There are, besides, other local industries—brewing at Burton, shoemaking at Stafford, silk-weaving at Leek Does this diversity of environment and occupation beget a corresponding diversity of folklore? you will naturally ask; and to this point I shall mainly address myself in this paper.
The agricultural population, who are the set with whom I am best acquainted, are great believers in ghosts and apparitions. Everywhere there are cross-roads which it is supposed to be dangerous to pass, stiles where clanking chains may be heard, lanes where black dogs and spectral horsemen rush past the belated wanderer. It is comparatively an ordinary occurrence for this or that lately deceased person to "come again" after death. A labourer at Norbury, in North Staffordshire, known to all my family, heard that his brother, lately dead at Sowdley, five or six miles away, "came again" at a certain stile. He "thought he'd best look into it; he doubted as how his brother might have summat to say; he thought as it was but right as some of the family should see him if he did come;" so he set out one evening after his day's work was done, and walked the five miles through the dark, dirty lanes to Sowdley, waited by the fatal stile hour after hour through the cold winter's night, till, as he said, "it come to five o'clock, and he hadna seed nothin', and he doubted as if his brother 'ad a bin comin' e'd a come afore that, and he doubted as he'd best go whoam;" and I never heard that he "essayed the adventure" a second time.
Another story from the same parish of Norbury has already been told in my Shropshire Folk-Lore, but that book is known to so few, that, as the story really belongs to Staffordshire, I shall make no apology for repeating it here. A short distance from the village there is a bridge over the Birmingham and Liverpool Canal which is always regarded as rather an uncanny place at night. A labouring man who had to cross this bridge with a horse and cart about ten o'clock one evening in January, 1879, arrived at home in an extraordinary state of fright and agitation, and related that just as he passed the bridge a black thing with white eyes sprang out of the hedgerow on to his horse. The terrified horse broke into a gallop; the man tried to knock off the creature with his whip, but the whip went through the Thing and fell from his hand to the ground. How he got rid of the intruder or reached home at last he hardly knew, but the whip was picked up the next day just where he said he had dropped it. The story of his strange encounter quickly spread, and this was the explanation that was offered by a local wiseacre: "It was the Man-Monkey as always does come again on the Big Bridge, ever since the man was drowned in the 'Cut.'"
To turn to the subject of Magic: may I give you the views of an old man in the same locality, as expressed by himself to my eldest brother, who made notes of the conversation at the time? Some neighbours of "Owd Stock'on's" had been turned out of their house by the mortgagees. "Niver see sich a thing i' my life," he said; "their things wun all turned out i' the middle o' the road. Eh! I should na like to a bin them as did it. I should be afeard as they'd do summat at me." "Why, what could they do?" "Why, bewitch 'em to be sure. Our parson, he dunna believe in folks bewitchin' annybody. He towd me so hissen, a-going thro' Mr. Hyatt's cowpastur'. But there was Jack Rhodes the bank-ranger, he went to a witch in the Potteries about the mooney as he lost. He said, as soon as ever he saw Jack, 'You've come about that there money—there were so many with you—the amount was so much—you must not speak to anybody about it.' But he did, and towd everybody, and he never got the mooney back. But one night, when he was in bed with his fayther, the whole room was full of little red imps dancing all about. He said arter as the devil inna (isn't) black, but it couldna ha' bin the devil, it mun 'a bin some of his imps. However can them witches do such things? There was a young man as I knowd as wanted his moother to sell him a bit o' waste land as her cottage stood on close to Squire Morris's and s'he wouldna; so he brought one o' these ere men from Wolverhampton, and he give her a shilling, and arter that, when she was in bed at anight, something had used to come to her toe and creep up her till it got to her chest. She lapped her foot up with all manner o' things and put something with pins sticking out of it on her foot, but she never could get shut on it, and she had it to her dying day. Oh," he concluded, summing up the whole subject, "when I was in sarvice they'd used to bewitch the teams, but they darna do that now."
I would draw your attention in passing to the use of the word witch for a male soothsayer. This is customary in that part of the county.
The witches who were applied to lived, you will notice, one at Wolverhampton and one in the Potteries. This indicates the form which superstition takes among the industrial population. The dark practices of magic are known among them; the simpler faith in apparitions is comparatively less flourishing. The country waggoner, shepherd, or cowman, gets up in the small hours and tramps alone through the misty darkness to the silent yard or building where he must "fettle" his charges before the world—even the labouring world—is astir. Small wonder if his fancy conjures up strange spectres in the shadowy corners. Compare with this the habits of the colliers, for example. Till the present generation they kept equally early hours, but they go to their work in parties, through roads generally more or less lighted by the glow of neighbouring iron-furnaces. They do not imagine ghosts at every turn; but what they do, or did, fear in these early journeys is meeting a woman. If such a meeting should take place, all orthodox old colliers would turn back and refuse to go down the pit that day; for it was considered a sure sign of death. Their dangerous occupation, so liable to sudden alarms and accidents, disposes them, and still more their wives, to put great faith in omens, or as they say "tokens." To dream of fire portends a fire in the pit, to dream of a broken shoe is a sure sign of danger. A woman at Bilston waiting alone one evening for her husband's return from his nightly visit to the public-house, heard his hobnailed boots taken up and dropped violently on the floor three times in succession. She begged him, when he came in, not to go to work next day; but he would not listen to her, went, and in a few hours' time was brought home fatally injured by a fall of coal in the pit. The miners had also (I quote from Mr. G. T. Lawley, editor of the Bilston Mercury) a superstition known by the name of the Seven Whistlers. They believed that if these were heard about the mouth of a pit (and some of them used to hear, or pretend to hear them) there was sure to be a fatal accident if the colliers continued at work, and they straightway left off for the day. If the whistlers were heard over their heads as they were going to work they would not go down the pits that day. If a man be killed in a coal-pit, his fellows will not go to work again till he is buried; not as a sign of mourning, but out of superstitious dread. Ten or twelve years ago, the Rowley Regis Colliery Company summoned six of their men at the local police-court for refusing to work in compliance with this custom. The case was not pressed; and the only plea of the prosecutors was that the men had signed an agreement not to observe the custom except as regarded the pit itself in which the accident had happened, whereas the defendants worked at another pit in the same colliery, not at the one where the death occurred.
If anyone stole any trifle from the body of a man killed in the pit, it was believed that the ghost of the deceased would haunt him at his work till he had made restitution. For the dark mysterious pit, rather than the cheerful upper world, is the chief scene of the phantoms of the collier's imagination.
"They had a belief," says Mr. Lawley, "that there were beings called 'mining dwarfs,' who, if well treated, would occasionally do the miner^s work in the silent hours of the night, but if ill treated would break his tools, drop the roof, ignite the fire-damp, and play all kinds of mischievous pranks. 'Knockings' in the mine were frequently heard proceeding from these dwarfs; and these usually preceded some accident. These 'Knockers' were said to help the miner and give him the warning, on condition that he never sought to discover their identity or show too inquisitive a mind respecting their doings. If he did, they would do him hurt, and leave him to do his work without further assistance from them."
The disused coal-pits were said to be inhabited by "Raw Head and Bloody Bones." These, I am told, are a kind of creatures which are half human, half animal, and very dangerous to man. They would sometimes come out of the pits and beg for food and orfier articles at the cottages, and it was necessary to give them whatever they asked for. But I doubt if they were (at least, within memory) much more than a bugbear to scare children with, and to prevent them from going too near the old pit-mouths.
To pass to Trade Customs. Lock-making is in some ways a very old-fashioned trade, and the journeymen locksmiths retain a custom which almost amounts to selling themselves into slavery. They frequently receive their wages in a lump sum on engagement, and bind themselves to work for no other master till they have worked off the debt.
Agricultural servants, both men and women, are hired at Christmas for the year, receiving a shilling as "earnest" of their wages to "bind the bargain." Christmas is the hiring time for farm-servants in Cheshire and North Shropshire also; but in Wales and South Shropshire, on one side of the county, the hiring-time is in May; and in Derbyshire, on the other, it is in November; while in Warwickshire and most of the Midland Counties it is at Michaelmas. I need not point out to you that these varieties may practically be reduced to two modes of reckoning the year: by the legal quarters (Michaelmas, Christmas, &c.), and by the seasons of summer and winter, anciently considered to begin in May and November. Thus we have in Staffordshire, Cheshire, and North Shropshire (where they hire at Christmas) a local variant of the general South Midland custom of reckoning the year by the legal quarters, while in South Shropshire and Wales, on the westward, and in Derbyshire, to the north-eastward, we have two varieties of the more ancient reckoning by seasons. Professor Rhys, we know, considers that the May and November reckoning is the ancient Celtic one, while the Michaelmas or Christmas observance represents the more modern Teutonic or Roman ecclesiastical civilisation; and I am much disposed to agree with him.
I have before referred to the small and compact district of the Potteries, situated in the middle of North Staffordshire. Now the potters, down to a comparatively recent date, used to engage themselves by the year, like the farmservants, but they entered into their agreements in November; and November is still the settling time, when rates of wages are revised and questions between employer and employed are determined. If Professor Rhys's theory be correct, the occurrence of a sort of oasis of November reckoning in a particular trade in the middle of a general Christmas reckoning is very interesting, as indicating a possible Celtic origin for the local trade. And the potting industry, in a rude and humble form, appears to have existed on the spot from so remote a period that the date of its beginning can only be guessed at, The name of the old Staffordshire many-handled loving-cup, the tyg, has been derived from the Latin tegula, a tile; and the character of the potters certainly accords with a possible Celtic ancestry. They are volatile, impulsive, excitable, endowed with considerable artistic skill and musical talent, qualities certainly not possessed in the same measure by Staffordshire people in general.
Variations of festival custom are also met with. In South Staffordshire, Midlent or Mothering Sunday is a great day, when absent children revisit their parents' home and are feasted on hot roast veal; while in the north of the county the festival passes unnoticed.
In the north (and also in Cheshire and North Shropshire), the festival of All Souls, November 2nd, is celebrated by parties of lads and children going round to all the principal houses begging for apples—and formerly for cakes and ale—and droning out:
"Soul soul, for a apple or two
If ye've got no apples, pears'll do,
Up wi' the kettle and down wi' the pan.
Give us a big 'un, and we'll be gone."
"He speaks puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas," says Shakspeare (Two Gent.), from which we should infer that in his time this was also a Warwickshire custom. But in some districts of South Staffordshire the eve of St. Clement's Day (November 23rd) is the date for this observance.
Are we to refer these differences also to racial causes? I doubt it. Mr. G. T. Lawley quotes extracts from diocesan and parochial registers showing that Mothering Sunday was observed down to the end of the seventeenth century by parochial processions to the mother-church of the diocese; and I am inclined to think that nearness to, or distance from, the cathedral church of Lichfield determined the observance or non-observance of the day. As to Clementing versus Souling, I believe we shall eventually find that the area of dementing coincides with the ancient area of the South Staffordshire iron trade, St. Clement being the blacksmiths' patron. His day was at any rate honoured in the county in very early times. In the Clog Almanacks preserved in the William Salt Library at Stafford, it is marked with a pot, evidently in allusion to the cakes and ale of the season. At Walsall, one of the principal towns in the Black Country, the municipal accounts were anciently made up on St. Clement's Day; and down to the year 1860 apples and nuts were provided on that day by the corporation, to be scrambled for by the population from the windows of the Town Hall. As much as "ten pots" of apples (that is, more than eight hundredweight) was consumed in this way. This is not, I believe, a solitary instance of the local use of St. Clement's Day as a settling day; and if an annual November settlement may be taken as an indication of race in the Potteries, why not, it may be asked, in the Black Country also? But I have not in this case met with any corroborative evidence, however slight; and if a November settlement, taken alone, is to stand as evidence of origin, what are we to say to the November election of the Lord Mayor.?
To return to the iron-workers and their characteristics. They can hardly be spoken of as one trade, but rather as many trades depending on one staple product. The various branches of it are very local. The great blast-furnaces and rolling-mills and foundries do indeed attract strong vigorous men from all parts; but the trades which partake of the nature of a handicraft (or rather, which did so partake before everything was machine-made) are carried on each in its own town or village from father to son, generation after generation. There are nailers and chainmakers at Dudley and Gornall; japanners at Bilston; locksmiths at Willenhall; bit and spur-makers at Walsall (where there is a large trade in saddlery also); and there is great rivalry between the villages, and rough jokes on each other abound. The Gornall nailers are the universal butt. To say a man comes from Gornall is as much as to say he is an oaf and a blockhead. "Gornall donkeys" they are called, and it is a well-known and well-understood insult to bray when a Gornall man passes by. "Who put the bulldog i' the cradle and the babby i' the kennel?" is the proper greeting to a Bilston visitor (I think it refers rather to the miners than to the japan-workers). The Willenhall locksmiths hold theirs to be the first of trades, as it requires so much more skill and delicacy than others, such as nail or screw-making; but their neighbours declare that the Willenhall publicans have to make recesses in their walls to accommodate the locksmiths' hump-backs. The Walsall men are supposed to be bandy-legged, owing doubtless to the habit of holding the saddler's wooden vice between the knees, with the feet closely touching each other. "He waddles like a Walsall duck." "As bandy-legged as the Walsall man, that stopped the pig in the entry"—that is, by touching the doorposts with his knees.
These and similar taunts are, it may easily be imagined, in great request at the Wake, or annual feast, of each parish. Parties are made up in the different villages to visit each other's wakes, as a kind of civility, like paying a call. The innkeepers are expected to treat their customers to a dinner of roast beef on these occasions, and one of the reproaches cast on the inhabitants of Wednesfield refers to this. It is said that the Wednesfield people were so stingy that they killed only half a cow for their wake, and left the other half for next year. The Darlaston wake, on the other hand, is a much observed one. There are said to be only two Sundays in the year when the Darlaston people don't put on the pot to boil for dinner. One is the Wake Sunday, when they roast the meat, and the other is the following one, when they have nothing left to boil. But in spite of this ready hospitality, the people of Darlaston (where the staple trade is making nuts and bolts, screws and files) enjoy nearly as great a reputation for stupidity as the Gornall nailers. They are called Darlaston geese; they are said to be bull-yedded, that is, to have more strength than brains. When they do think their thoughts are "mostly about nowt." They are great bell-ringers, but their neighbours say they know no more of the church than the belfry. "Who whistled the weathercock ofT the church steeple?" "Who shut the meadow-gate to keep the snow out?" are the polite enquiries proper to be addressed to them.
Wakes are customary throughout the county. In Needwood Forest special cakes are baked for them, and in the Pottery towns they are found a practical hindrance to labour in the summer months. Staffordshire people everywhere love festivities. The cheery hospitable nature which distinguishes them was noted in Elizabeth's time by Drayton in his Characteristics of Counties. Punning on the name, he says:
"And Staffordshire bids 'Stay, and I will beet the fire,
And nothing will I ask but goodwill to my hire.'"
The same temper of "goodwill" and friendliness is met with throughout the county; and so is the same racy humour and readiness of speech. A stranger would suppose the people were continually quoting proverbs, but as often as not their epigrammatic sayings are the coinage of their own brain. "It's plain, Martha, as you haven't been used to have plenty, for you don't know how to use plenty," said a farmer's wife (true fellow-countrywoman of Mrs. Poyser), rebuking her handmaiden for "cutting the loaf to waste." "Giving's afore buying any day," said a small page boy, expressing satisfaction at an unexpected present. "Nay," said an old farmer, whose sons one after another failed in business, and appealed to him to set them up again, "if I was to be putting them on dry stockings every time they come in with wet feet, they'd never be off the hearthstone." "I mun work, or else I mun keep tooth-holiday," said a worn-out but plucky old labourer.
When people naturally talk in this way, it is difficult for the folklorist to distinguish standard proverbs from improvised ones; here, however are two or three specimens. "Merry nights make sorry days." "He'll neither be satisfied full nor fasting." "To get a wooden suit"—to be dead and buried. "To give a pea for a bean"—to give a present with an eye to future profits.
In physical characteristics the Staffordshire people are generally short and sturdy, with large heads, square faces, and strong jaws, and full sonorous voices; utterly unlike in appearance as in character to their Derbyshire neighbours, who are (normally) tall, raw-boned, loose-jointed, grave, and rather dull people; "strong in the arm and weak in the head," as the local proverb has it, wanting in the brightness and humorousness of our folk.
Thus in spite of all I have said of differences, I am inclined to think the Staffordshire folk come mainly from one stock, and that their variations of belief and custom have chiefly been differentiated, like the long arms of the colliers and the round shoulders of the locksmiths, by hereditary occupation and intermarriage in one locality from generation to generation. Some peculiarities, on the other hand, may really denote an intermixture of races, as I am much inclined to think is the case with the delicate features and pointed chins of the potters, the dark complexions of the Needwood Forest men, and possibly the long limbs and handsome faces of the Moorlanders.
One very curious settlement we have, locally reputed to be a separate race, the "Biddle Muir" men. Biddulph Moor is situated in the north-western extremity of the county, bordering on Cheshire. The people live in houses scattered here and there over the moor, and are said to have been muclT more peculiar a generation ago than they are now. They wore their hair, which is said to have been generally either red or black, cut short in front and hanging long at the back. Their houses consisted of two apartments, one entered through the other. The outer room was the abode of the cattle and pigs, the inner one that of the family. Tradition, according to the guide-books, says that they are descended from a party of Saracens brought home in the time of the Crusades by the lord of the adjoining manor of Knypersley. Their dialect is said to include many words which are unknown in the surrounding district, and which some have thought they could trace to an Arabic origin. (This is as it may be!)
The houses have now been replaced by ordinary good stone cottages, but there is still something noticeable about the people. My friend and coadjutor, Miss Keary, and myself visited the place in the summer of 1893, and were taken to see the school, where we were struck with the almost family likeness among the children. They had acorn-shaped heads, very gracefully set on their shoulders, oval faces, brown ruddy complexions, dark eyes, and hair in shades of auburn, the colour of autumn leaves. The men, too, whom we saw about, struck us as taller than the average Staffordshire men. We were informed that the Saracen tradition was supposed to relate only to persons of the name of Bayley, of whom there are many in the place, and we were taken to visit one of them distinguished by the name of "Mr. Bayley the auctioneer," though his principal occupation seemed to be that of a small farmer. Yes, he said, in answer to our questions, he believed his ancestors were undoubtedly Turks. They were brought over by the lord of Knypersley Castle, who made them Bailiffs of Biddulph, hence their surname, and gave them a piece of ground, still called Bayley's Hill, where they lived in tents (a curious detail!). All the Bayleys in the place were descended from these people, though they might not now consider themselves related to each other. (I suppose the rest of the inhabitants were considered to be descended from them in the female line.) We then went to see an old Mrs. Bayley, born a Bayley, of much humbler degree. She lived in a little whitewashed cottage on the side of Bayley's Hill, but she denied all knowledge of the history of her family, and was only intent on telling us that of her pigs. By way of excuse for what she seemed to think the folly of our enquiries, we quoted the head of the name as our authority, but were met with scorn. "Mr. Bayley th' auctioneer said that, did he? I reckon he learnt it wi' auctioneerin'!" and we came away baffled. It has always been my experience that local and family traditions are not kept up among the poorest classes.
Let us now leave these vague stories and speculations, and come to the firmer ground of fact. Staffordshire, until the development of manufactures in modern times, was a very thinly-peopled county, and a great part of it was forest-land. It is interesting to find how much folklore about trees and plants is still to be met with there. Needwood Forest, on the eastern border of the county, was only disafforested and enclosed within the present century; and the inhabitants even now have not learnt to keep their gates shut. I believe that careful investigation would show that it represents the area of an early tribal settlement; but for the present it must suffice to say that tree and plant superstitions specially prevail here. It is considered to be very unlucky to burn any green thing. I don't think this is general throughout the county; but two hundred years ago a more definite form of the belief prevailed. In 1636 Charles I., "taking notice of an opinion entertained in Staffordshire that the burning of fern doth bring down rain," caused his chamberlain to write to the sheriff and desire that it might be forbidden during the King's journey through the county. Burning elder is specially dreaded in Needwood. "If you do, you will bring the Old Lad on the top of the chimney," a Cheadle woman told me. An old man at Burton-on-Trent who had burnt some was always believed to have "seen something" in consequence. Some people at Newborough (one of the forest villages) put some on the fire, and a boy who was present cried with fright because "the Devil would be dowm the chimney in a minute." I have been used to hear on the other side of the county that the holly and ivy used to decorate the house at Christmas must not be thrown away, but carefully burnt at Candlemas. In Needwood I have not discovered how it is disposed of; but it must never be burnt, and some of it must be kept till next year to save the house from lightning. Mistletoe is everywhere kept all the year (for this purpose, as I believe), and in the Black Country it was formerly used to decorate churches. Mr. Lawley quotes entries of payments for mistletoe for this purpose from churchwardens' accounts at Bilston in 1672 and Darlaston in 1801. About three years ago an oak-tree in the old deerpark at Hanbury (in Needwood) was struck by lightning, and people came from all round to get pieces of the injured wood, to keep as charms to preserve their houses from a similar misfortune. At Eccleshall, on the other side of the county, a piece of hawthorn gathered on Ascension Day is the proper thing for this purpose, as I have heard more than once. A yeoman farmer's wife there tells me that it must be brought to you, not gathered on your own ground. She has a piece brought to her every year, and hangs it with her own hands among the rafters in the "cock-loft," which is now nearly full of these charms. She is an excellent authority for old customs, belonging as she does to a family so old that it is celebrated in a local rhyme or prophecy:
"While ivy is smooth and holly is rough,
You'll never want a Blest of the Hough."
I do not know what the Needwood people say to hawthorn, but they think it most unlucky to bring blackthorn into the house. A family with whom one of the minor rangerships of the forest has been hereditary for many generations were much annoyed not long since when a young lady new to the district brought a piece into their house. A friend of mine at Hanbury one day gathered a particularly fine piece, which she gave to the garden-boy to take up to the house for her daughter; but the latter never received it.
Then there are in various places curious reminiscences of forest-rights. Dr. Plot, writing in 1686, mentions a certain oak-tree near Tirley Castle on the Shropshire border, under whose boughs offences against manorial and ecclesiastical law might be committed without rendering the offender liable to punishment. And at the present day there is among the grand old oaks of Bagot's Park, in Needwood Forest, a peculiarly wide-spreading one, known as the Beggars' Oak, beneath whose branches, so the popular belief has it, any wayfarer has the right to a night's lodging. This tradition must date from a period earlier than the enclosure of the park from the forest, and must point, like the preceding one, to some prehistoric common right, disregarded at the time of the enclosure, but still existing in the popular imagination.
Another instance of ancient rights—Wrottesley Park, granted to the Wrottesleys by Edward III. in 1347—is bounded by a belt of uncultivated land, a sort of "green lane," called the Deerleap, a name which is also found (under a slightly different form) in a pre-Conquest list of boundaries preserved at Wrottesley. The same name, the Deerleap, is also given to a field adjoining an old park at Norbury, existing in the fourteenth century, but now long destroyed. For an explanation of this name we must go to the neighbouring county of Salop, where the owners of an old park, existing in 1292, but now cut up into fields, claimed the right of the buck's leap, namely, the right to cut timber to repair the park fence for the space of a buck^s leap—five yards—on their neighbour's land outside the park. This right, which I need not say is unknown to the statute-book, was actually exercised in 1892.Again, we may trace the forest influence on annual sports and festivals in the Horn-dance at Abbot's Bromley. At the parish wake every year, on the Monday after the 4th of September, six men carrying stags' horns on their
THE HORN DANCE, ABBOT'S BROMLEY, STAFFORDSHIRE.
Photographed September, 1893.
[To face page 382.]
shoulders perform a country dance. Another dancer, the Hobby Horse, wears a wooden horse's head and caparison, a boy carries a crossbow and arrow with which he makes a snapping noise in time to the music. A woman carrying a curious old wooden ladle for money and a clown make up the party. The articles used in the dance are kept in the church-tower in the custody of the vicar of the parish. Dr. Plot, in 1686, mentions this custom, which seems then to have been in temporary abeyance, doubtless owing to the Civil Wars. The dance, according to his account, took place in the Christmas holidays, and the stags' horns were painted with the arms of the landowners. Some traces of the paint still remain. "To the Hobby Horse Dance," he says, "there also belonged a pot, which was kept by Turnes, by 4 or 5 of the cheif of the Town, whom they call'd Reeves, who provided cakes and ale to put in this pot," after the manner apparently of "sops in wine." It was then, I suppose, shared as a "loving-cup" among the spectators. Every well-disposed householder contributed "pence apiece" for himself and his family; and with the levy thus made, together with the contributions of "forraigners that come to see it," was defrayed, first, the cost of the cakes and ale, then the expense of the repairs of the church and the support of the poor. Tradition says that when the money collected was used for these public purposes, the dance was performed in the churchyard on Sunday after service. Now, of course, the dancers have the proceeds for themselves.Dr. Plot distinctly says that the horns are "Raindeer" horns; and recent visitors have corroborated this. If this be really the case, there seem no limits to our conjectures upon the age and origin of the custom; and at any rate Abbot’s Bromley is as likely a place as any in the county to preserve traditions of immemorial antiquity. It is situated not in, but on the borders of, Needwood Forest, and is one of the estates with which Wulfric Spot, Ealdorman of Mercia, endowed his foundation of Burton Abbey in 1002. Before that date it must have formed part of the possessions of the Ealdormanship, as its neighbour, King’s Bromley, continued to do down to the time of Edward the Confessor, after which it passed to the Crown. The place has thus had a continuous existence, with singularly few vicissitudes, of some nine centuries at least. A good deal has already been said here about this dance, I believe; but what I want to suggest to you to-day is that it is a dramatic form of the morris-dance, performed in the woodland characters of stags and huntsmen. Observe that the deer are evidently the deer of the lords of the manor, marked with their coats of arms, while the dance is the common act of the villagers as a body. The care of the property of the dance was entrusted to their official representatives, ecclesiastical and civil; the expense of the common cup was defrayed by common contributions at a fixed and equal rate; the money realised was devoted to a common public object. I believe the primary intention of the dance to have been the assertion of some ancient common right or privilege of the village in regard to the chase. Written records might be lost or destroyed: such an “object lesson” as this was a constant proclamation of their ancient rights to the whole village and to the “forraigners” who came to see it. It is just the same principle as caused little boys to be “dumped,” ducked, and beaten at the parish boundaries in the annual
perambulations, long before, and long after, parish maps had come into existence.
There is much more that I could add, did the limits of this paper permit. I have said nothing of our local municipal customs; of the Tutbury Bull-running, now disused, nor the Whit-Monday Bower at Lichfield, still continued. Nor have I entered on the traditions of our old families. I can but barely mention the breed of goats in Bagot's Park, on whose existence the existence of the Bagot peerage depends; the black calf occasionally occurring among the wild white cattle in Chartley Park, whose birth portends a death in the Ferrers family; the aloe in the gardens at Sandon Hall which flowers before the death of the Lord Harrowby of the time; the custom, once common among our old families, but now kept up only by the Dyotts of Freeford, of burying their dead at midnight by torchlight, and, what is more singular, without the presence of any relative.
Much more might be said too of the beliefs of the poorer classes. As to death, for example: a farmer's wife of my acquaintance at Eccleshall lost her husband in the summer of 1892, and in her grief and distress forgot to tell the bees. Some time after all the hives but one were found to be deserted, and she hit on a plan for preserving this last. She gave it to her little boy, and explained to the bees that they had a new master and must stay and work for him. At the other end of the county a pit-sinker's widow was about to marry again. Her daughter in grief and indignation went to the churchyard arid told her father. Then as to marriage: quite of late years the idea that a wife might be held like any other property on a lease for a term of years came to light in the police-court at Stone; and in the Black Country there are plenty of authentic cases (not, I am glad to say, very modern ones) of wives being haltered and led through a turnpike gate, toll being paid for them like cattle, and sold in open market.
And I regret especially that I have been able to say so little about early local history; for I hold the belief that this study is particularly necessary to folklorists. Theories grounded on folklore alone seem to me very one-legged affairs, sure to topple over unless they can be supported by the results of kindred studies; and I should be sorry if any of the theories I have advanced were to be taken as proven results, not as suggestions thrown out for further examination. All students of newly-discovered branches of human knowledge must, I suppose, knock their heads against the ends of many blind alleys before they find the clear road to the desired goal; but even mistakes and unsuccessful attempts are not without their uses if they put others on the right scent; and so long as we are content to go slowly and are careful not to be "cocksure," but to keep before our minds the possibility that even we may make mistakes, I have no fear but that we shall discover our North-west Passage at last.
- Compare Bunyan's use of the word: "Simon the Witch" (Pilg. Progress, pt. i.).—Ed.
- The day of election of Lord Mayor has been altered at various times. Formerly the election took place on the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude (28th October). In 1346 it was changed to the feast of the Translation of Edward the Confessor (13th October). Twenty years later (1365) an order was made to revert to the old custom; but the order was soon ignored, and the election took place as a rule on the 13th October until the year 1546, when the election was ordered to take place thenceforth on Michaelmas Day (29th September), which custom has remained unchanged to the present time. (Royal Commission on London Government, 1893, vol. ii., p. 24.)—G. L. Gomme.
- Common local surnames derived from forest surroundings and occupations are Wood, Plant, Beech, Ash, Hollis, Oakley, Parker, Archer, Bowyer, Fletcher.
- Natural History of Staffordshire, ch. viii., § 23.
- I can obtain no definite information as to the date of the grant of Bagot's Park, but tradition says it was given to the Bagots by King John, who also gave the ancestors of the ancient breed of goats preserved there, on the preservation of which the existence of the Bagot family and their estates is imagined to depend.
- Photographs by Mr. Alfred Parker, of Uttoxeter, of the party who dance and of the above-mentioned objects are reproduced by kind permission in the accompanying plates.
- Paget, Bagot, and Wells.
- Leofric, Earl of Mercia, died here. It appears in Domesday Book as having belonged to Harold T. R. E., his sole possession in Staffordshire, doubtless through his marriage with Eadgifu, Eadwine and Morkere’s sister. It then passed to the Crown; hence its distinctive name of King’s Bromley.
- Folklore, vol. iv., p. 172.