Marwood in 1853

By the Reverend Frederick Collison

The Reverend Frederick Collison left the following account of some of the manners and customs prevailing in Marwood when he took charge of the parish in 1853 (he resigned in 1885 and died in 1889):

Thirty years ago I undertook the charge of a North Devon parish. The manners of the people were not very different from those of Hertfordshire or Cambridgeshire but share some peculiarities of speech and some lingering traces of older times. The iron rule of the Department had not suppressed such irregularities as "you am" and "Us is" going, or "Her told me and I told she" and the prepositions still retained an antiquated use. "Not that I know BY" was as common an answer to an enquiry as it might have been when the Epistle to the Corinthians was translated. "The mother went AGAINST the daughter" who had been sent to market to help to carry her errands, and the children would tell you that they lived TO Westcott or Upcott. If you met a girl with a her head bandaged the explanation might be; "The poor maid went down to the SHUT because the water was good to eat, but it froze hard and the place was all to a glidder. The boys had been at their maxims and poor bled stapped on a slipper-slide, and got a dreadful vall, her tore her pitcher and broke her frock and cut her head", but the mother was "cruel glad" that she had "some good oils to strike it with, but it would be a brave while before she would lose the mark of it". When farmers got angry at a parish meeting they called each other "Thee" and "Thou" and a woman would tell you in praise of her husband that he "never thou'd" her.

Old people remembered the apprentice system when the labourer who could not maintain all his children handed over one or more to be fed, clothed and brought up, and the bigger houses in turn were bound to receive these apprentices just as their occupiers were liable to serve as overseers. Some of the farmers were very rough and barberous, and it was even said that some apprentices had been killed. Girls were set about the same work as boys to plough and harrow the ground, and would ride the farm horses astride like the boys, with less clothing than decency required. Once or twice I have myself seen a woman with a rope over her shoulder dragging a sort of plough which her husband was thrusting before him to cut the sod in order to break up a field for tillage. This was called "spading" and was extremely hard work.

If the weaker apprentices failed others grew up to be remarkably strong and healthy, capable of far more work than their sons and grandsons can now turn out. One who at 14 was set to plough against a grown man and got a thrashing if he did not turn out the same amount of work, wished in after life to apprentice his own son to a trade. The master with whom he worked advanced the fee and he repaid it by undertaking the drainage of the field. He has told me that for a month or six weeks he had no rest except on Sundays, but worked day and night and if he sometimes sat down for a few minutes "to catch a nug" he would get up and shake himslef and go on again to dig and fill in the drains.

Another whom I knew as a small farmer told me a similar story. After his days work he would go for the night to discharge the vessels which brought limestone from the Welsh quarries. This man's daughter went out to service (£3 was then reckoned a good wage) and saved £10 with which her father's first horse was bought. This woman afterwards married a blacksmith, who, being a seventh son, was thought to have the gift of healing certain diseases. The operator and the patient had to meet fasting on seven successive Sundays, or whatever had been the day of the week on which the blacksmith had been born. The operation was called "Striking" and seems to have resembled mesmeric passes, and the operator was said to be sometimes such exhausted by the process. No money could be taken for the cure but the patient gave a present.

An old woman who was suffering from a bad leg was one of his patients. She set out on a winter's morning when the steep lane was covered with a sheet of ice. Poor Nancy got a fall in which her lantern went out and her arm was broken, but she had the spirit to go on to her destination, and she assured me that she had received great benefit from the "striking". We have had other gifted men who had learned words by which they could stop bleeding. Their help has been offered to me to stop bleeding of the nose, but as I could not make a satisfactory declaration of faith, the experiment has not been tried in my case.

The pixies also were believed to maintain their ground in the West. I heard of a farmer who lost his way on the borders of the moor. No matter which way he went he always came back to the same spot, so that it was clear that the pixies were troubling him. Fortunately, he knew the approved remedy and having turned his coat, he soon reached home in safety. I knew a house where the cream was bewitched so that butter would not come. The mistress had a cake made with this cream, but the servants refused to eat it lest they also should be bewitched. I have known several persons "overlooked" by an evil eye, and in two cases a journey of 40 miles to consult the White Witch at Exeter was the necessary consequence.

But the most circumstantial account of a supernatural event was as follows: The Chancel of the Church required considerable repairs and while these were in progress I was accosted by a labourer who asked in a mysterious tone whether I had seen something which the masons had found. With a little encouragement he told his story. The maidservant from a farmhouse had gone to Barnstaple Fair declaring that she would find a sweetheart even if he were the Great Enemy. She was returning as she went when she was overtaken by a man who called himself Will Easton and begged leave to mount behind her on the horse. So they reached the farmhouse, but he would not cross the threshold. Afterwards she was visited by him, but he would never cross the "drekstool" though the mistress, who sometimes heard him singing, called out "thee's got a lovely voice, Will, but why don't thee let us see thy face?". The courtship was interrupted, and one night screams were heard from the house and Mary was found wedged in behind her bed in a place where you could not thrust your hand. But if it was a wonder how she got there, the wonder was increased when it was found that the ten men were unable to extricate her.

They called in the parson of the adjoining parish who, being a very learned man, was thought to be equal to the occasion. How he conducted the negotiation does not appear, but when he asked the spirit whether he meant to take immediate possession or whether he would wait until the little bit of candle which lighted the chamber was burnt out, the spirit consented to wait. The parson forthwith blew out the candle which was placed in a box and deposited for safety in the wall of the Chancel. My informant had no doubt that this was what the masons had found. He had known Mary in her old age and spoke of her strange manner and awful appearance.

The story was known to others and told again with some variation. One old woman remembered the awful night that Mary died and the churchwarden sat up all night reading the Bible. Some folks said screams were heard as she was carried away across the valley. She did not know about this, but she was sure there was something in it, for Jan Janson the tailor had told her son, and he was one of the men who had tried to get (Mary) out.

[Transcribed by John Lerwill, by permission, from the original at the Devon Record Office.]

23 Jun 2001 - Brian Randell