YORKSHIRE FOLK TALK: Customs and superstitions
CUSTOMS AND SUPERSTITIONS.
THE system of hiring farm-servants in the whole of the East and a considerable part of the North Ridings is one which seems first to call for some remark. Until recent years, when improved arrangements have been adopted, it was not too much to say that this institution was one of the curses of the country. That system, which till a few years ago was practically a universal one, and is still largely made use of, is called the Martinmas system. The statute hirings - statties as they are designated locally - take place, as far as the farm-servants themselves were concerned, at the worst possible time of the year. St. Martin's Day is on November 23rd, and the days are then about at their shortest and darkest, and the roads at their dirtiest. The only thing that can he adduced in favour of such a time is that farm work is then at the slackest.
St. Martin may be considered to be the patron saint of the East Yorkshire farm-servants; but it is to be feared they lightly regarded his name.
Almost without exception Martinmas was the season for the lads and lasses to change their spots as they call their situations, and it was the occasion for a general holiday and merry-making all through the district. Martinmas week is a time of much social entertainment. Friends and relatives then meet at each others' houses; parties, dances, and amusements of various kinds are got up and being the one great holiday of the year with the young folks, the time passes all too quickly.
Those servants who are hired under this system are bound legally to their masters for one year. When the farmer engages a servant he gives him what is variously called his Jest, Gods-penny, or arles, which is a small sum of money varying from about two to ten shillings; if the fest be returned before the appointed day the servant is freed from the engagement, but if the money is retained the agreement is then binding.
These statute hirings were, and still are, held at the same time of the year in all the principal market towns.
As I remember them when a boy, it would be hard to describe a hiring day in one of our East Riding agricultural centres; such scenes of riot and disorder were they. Well do I recollect going through the streets of Pocklington on more than one occasion when the great festival was being held. It was throng deed and no mistake. In the first place, the streets were more probably than not inches deep in mud and sludge all iv a posh, as we should describe it in our country speech. Farmers and their wives, farm lads and lasses by hundreds, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, crowded the market-place; carriers' carts, gigs, vehicles of all descriptions poured into the town and teemed into the streets their living freights. Jack and Tommy, Joe and Harry, lustily greeted Polly, Sally, Jane, and Maggy; loud and hearty were the salutations between friend and friend joyous and exuberant were the spirits of these stalwart specimens of humanity. Although there was an element of business in the proceedings, the young folk had come there to enjoy themselves, and enjoy themselves they did. The actual hiring of the servants took place formerly only in the open street, which presented an animated appearance, and might be termed a kind of slave market. No doubt the farm lads and lasses were free to choose, and they received certain wages for their work; hut their build, muscle, and general physique were minutely scanned by those who engaged them: and well was it for them if their constitution was sound and robust; for the work to which they were called, though not disliked by those who could stand it, was no light matter. From daylight to sunset it was one continuous round all the year through. Ploughing and sowing, harrowing and rolling, washing and milking, work in the hay-field and work in the corn-field; hedging and ditching, an occasional threshing day with its attendant hard work, livering corn, plugging or scaling muck, foddering t' beeas and sike likethese and countless other operations connected with the farm kept the youths and maidens perpetually a-gait. But after all, it was a healthy life. Early to bed and early to rise, with plenty of good wholesome food, preserved them in the rudest health; and if only the place to which they engaged themselves was a good meat spot, as it was called, that is to say, if they were well fed, all went well. A brother clergyman, of more than forty years' standing, once told me that in all his experience he never once had occasion to visit a sick case in the farm-servant class. The Yorkshire plew-lads, especially those in the East Riding, are as fine and well-developed a race as one can see anywhere; an army composed of such material might do wonders. But to return to the market-place of Pocklington. Martinmas Day there was a pleasure-fair day. The entertainments provided for the young men and women were of varied kinds. Rows of stalls lined the street, where all manner of meats and drinks were sold which would have disagreed with the constitutions of any ordinary mortals to an alarming extent, but which were indulged in freely and with impunity by these 'bruff' East-Ridingers. On these occasions 'cheap Jacks' and 'quacks' carried on a brisk trade; shooting-galleries and Punch and Judy were attractions to not a few, and shows of fat women, wild beasts, one-eyed and six-legged monsters, and all manner of horrors were literally besieged by uproarious crowds of claimants for admission, till the places fairly reeked again. It was a splendid harvest for the show-keepers, especially if the day was wet, and under that condition of weather the public houses were unfortunately also crammed almost to suffocation. It was from this point of view a sad sight. Boys and girls, lads and lasses, men and women were crowded together in the parlours and passages of the inns in a state of wild excitement, uproar, and confusion. Music, if such it could be called, and dancing went on merrily; coarse jests were freely indulged in; and songs of every description were bawled out in solo and chorus, and shouts of approval rent the air. It was like pandemonium let loose. All this naturally tended to demoralise the young people, and the results can be better imagined than described. It was only to be expected indeed that after a year's work and drudgery there should be some relaxation,
and it was right that these hard-working farm-servants should have their enjoyment like anyone else; the only melancholy part about it was that it did not take a less debasing form. Happily the worst part of the old system is now done away with. The statties go on as of yore, but they are conducted in an altogether improved fashion. Both clergy and laity combined to get rid of the worst phases of the institution, if possible, and rooms are now hired in every town in which the girls are assembled by themselves, and can be engaged by the farmers' wives in an orderly and befitting manner; the Girls' Friendly Society and other kindred institutions all help in the same good cause, and although occasional brawls and disturbances take place, yet there is no comparison between the state of things now and what it was thirty years ago.
There is no class so difficult for a clergyman to deal with as the farm-servants engaged under the Martinmas system. They are a constantly shifting part' of the population. They like changing their 'spots,' and if possible, bettering themselves; and so at the twelve-month end away they go to fresh scenes. Sometimes they will stay on another year or more in the same place, if they can come to terms with their employers, but these cases are exceptions; the rule is for them to shift. They are at work all day, and so are tired at night, and go to rest early. The late well-known authoress of Plowing and Sowing appreciated the difficulties of their case as much as anyone, and with noble self-sacrifice she devoted herself some thirty years ago or more to the work of endeavouring to raise the moral and religious tone of the farm-servants near her home in the East Riding. No one could be better qualified for such a work than she was: for years she persevered in her task; but with all her special gifts and qualifications, the success that she achieved could not be said to be very encouraging, although she went through so much. Still, after what has been said, I feel bound to add that when these same farm lads marry, have homes of their own, and settle down in life, they turn out generally well-conducted and decent members of society.
Although the work on the farms was hard, yet the plough lads took an interest in it, and especially in their horses. The agricultural horses in the Wold country are fine well-bred animals, and as I best remember them - namely, twenty to thirty years ago - they used to receive every care and attention on the part of the lads whose duty it was to look after them. It was a really pretty sight to see, as I have seen times and oft, a waggon load of grain being led from one of the highly cultivated Wold farms down to the railway for transmission to the West Riding or elsewhere. There was the strongly-made but not ungracefully shaped pole waggon, yoked whereto were three or four handsome black or bay horses with well-groomed glossy coats, their manes and tails generally arranged in neatly made plaits and intertwined with ribbons of varied hue, yellow and red, blue and green. There sits the waggoner, mounted on the near-side horse, a lad, say, of twenty summers, a fine strong healthy-looking fellow as any one need wish to see; he has the four 'in hand' and his whip-stock rests on his thigh. He is well and warmly clad, and his black wide-awake with a peacock's feather at the side, together with his red and blue variegated waistcoat add to the picturesqueness of the turn-out. As they near the bottom of a slack, crack goes the whip, and 'whoa-up Bonny,' 'Duke,' 'Star,' or whatever the horses' names may be, and away they go down the end of the slope kicking up the dust or throwing up the mud, till they are pretty nearly half way up the opposite side of the rise, when the horses have to stretch their limbs for a few paces till they are at the top of the hillock, and so again on they go, making light work of their task.
The servants engaged at Martinmas are for the most part boarded and lodged at the farm-house, or with a hind as he is called; that is to say, a sort of foreman among them, but living at a house other than that at which the farmer himself lives. This custom largely prevails in the East Riding, especially on the Wolds, where the farms are very large, sometimes extending to 1500 acres or more.
Besides the carnival of Martinmas, there are other lesser times of relaxation or rejoicing.
Harvest festivities, though still kept up to a considerable extent in East Yorkshire, are not held on such large or varied a scale as they were a generation ago. Means of rapid locomotion, the use of machinery, and gravitation towards the towns, have tended to do away with many interesting local customs which in former days added to country life a charm peculiarly its own.
The Mell Supper still retains its name and some of its old features amongst us at the present day, though shorn of much of its lustre. Its name is by some thought to speak for itself almost, mell or 'meal' being probably the same as the Icelandic mjol and Danish mel. The last sheaf that is gathered in, here in the North Riding, is called the mell sheaf, and the expression We 've gotten wer mell is the same thing as saying the harvest is finished. It may be interesting to note in passing what some of the names are which are given to the last in-gathered sheaf in Denmark. In South Jutland, for instance, it is called enken or enkemanden, the 'widow' or the 'widower' ; in Vendsyssel it is named stodder or 'beggar,' and is driven home covered with rags; in Samso and Funen its title is 'the old man,' and in Sealand 'the old woman.' Similarly, the last load is called in West Jutland kvoedeloes or 'songload,' and is driven to the farmstead with singing and rejoicing. This is very much what is done, or used to be done, here, and perhaps in almost every country in Europe.
No mell supper can take place without dancing, and formerly the advent of ' guisers' formed one of the great features of the entertainment. These 'guisers' were men with masks or blackened faces, and they were decked out in all sorts of fantastic costumes. The starting of the dancing was not always an easy matter, but by degrees, as the dancers warmed to the work and as the ale horns came to be passed round, the excitement began to grow; this was increased by the arrival of the 'guisers,' and then the clatter of the dancers' boots doing double-shuffle and various comical figures, set the entertainment going at full swing. The 'guisers' would at times come uninvited to the feast, and as a rule they were well received, but sometimes the doors would be barred against them and their entrance stoutly resisted.
About fifty years ago it was very common when the 'shearing' of the corn was finished for three large sheaves to be bound together; for these, races were run by the women amid the greatest excitement. This also was called the mell sheaf, and would contain about a bushel of corn, and in the days when wheat was at such a high price as it once was the prize was worth having.
The mell doll is rather more a thing of the past, though it is probable that there are still many old people who can recollect it. It consisted of a sheaf of corn dressed in the costume of a harvester, and gaily decked with flowers; it was in fact a sort of rough and ready-made doll on a large scale.
I have been informed that at Kilburn, on the Hambleton Hills, the mell sheaf was tastefully made of various kinds of corn plaited together and covered with ribbons, flowers, &c. When the guests were ready for the dance, the mell sheaf would be placed in the middle of the room, which was frequently a disused one, and they danced round it. It was made like a figure and was sometimes called the mell doll.
At the time of which I speak, harvest thanksgiving services in churches were of course quite unknown; the introduction of this custom is surely a good and sensible one, as connecting religious observances with that which is man's natural occupation - the tilling of the land; in this matter we are but reverting to ancient usages which might perhaps be extended with advantage.
Fifty years ago seed-time had also its festival, though on a lesser scale, as well as harvest. At the backend, when the early sowing had been completed, the farmer made a sort of feast for his men, the principal feature of which was a 'seed-cake,' which was given to each of them. The cake did not get its name from anything that it contained, for it was in fact an ordinary sort of currant or plum cake, but from the occasion. On these minor festivals the men had as much ale to drink as they liked, and right well they enjoyed themselves. This old custom has, I believe, now quite died out.
The Christmastide observances in East Yorkshire, as elsewhere, are, and still more, have been in the past, many and various. The season is always looked upon as a time of joy even by the poorest. On Christmas Eve the houses are decked with 'hollin' or other evergreens, which are never burnt afterwards, but thrown away. The Yule clog used to be brought in and placed upon the fire along with a piece of that from the previous year which had been carefully preserved for good luck, in the same way as the Yuletide candle was. The Christmas candle is always a feature in the furnishing of the feast. It is lighted by the head of the house, and generally stands in the centre of the table, round which the members of the family sit to partake of the frumety and other dainties that deck the board. No other candle must be lighted from it, and before the family retire to rest the master of the house blows it out, leaving what remains of it to stand where it is until the following morning. The unconsumed piece is then carefully stowed away with other similar relics of former years; sometimes quite a large number of such pieces are accumulated in the course of years: it is considered in some localities highly unlucky to disturb these remnants during the year. It was further thought unlucky not only, as I have said, to take a light from the Yule candle, but also to give a light to any one on Christmas Day; so that in former times, before matches were invented as we have them now, the question used to be asked before retiring to rest on Christmas Eve, 'is your tunder dhry?' In former times the Yule candle was looked upon as almost a sacred thing. If by any chance it went out, it was believed that some member of the family would die during the ensuing year, and if anyone in snuffing it extinguished the light, that person would, it was thought, die within the year.
The old Christmas customs hold their ground much more firmly in the North than they do in the South of England. How they originated it would be rash to surmise, but that some of them are survivals of old heathenish customs there can, I think, be little doubt.
In the matter of the Christmas feasting there is nothing so distinctive of it as in the making of the frumety. He is no Yorkshireman who does not know what furmety or frumety is. It is one of our institutions. As regularly as Christmas comes round preparations are made for the manufacture of this Yorkshire dish. The name is clearly derived from frumentum, though when it was introduced into the country there is, so far as I am aware, nothing to show. The principal ingredient in this dainty, as the name implies, is grain, and that grain is wheat. On Christmas Eve there is scarcely a household but what makes frumety. If the people have no wheat of their own they always beg some from one of the neighbouring farmers, and' with this object in view the boys go round the villages and outlying farmsteads on St. Thomas' Day. To make the dish in orthodox fashion takes some time. The usual order of proceeding is this. First of all, the wheat is soaked in water for about a day: it is then put into a bag, and beaten upon the floor a few times in order to knock the hullins off, or the more effectual mode was sometimes adopted of thrashing the wheat contained in the bag with the flail; after which the hullins are separated by simply putting the whole into water, when the outer coat of the wheat rises to the top, and the pure corn is thus extracted. It is next put into the oven to cree for two or three hours; milk is then poured upon it in a pan which is put upon the fire to boil; sugar is added, together with nutmeg or other spices according to people's tastes and fancies. It is a dish which is highly appreciated. It is eaten by the whole household on Christmas Eve as they sit round the table with the Yule candles burning. It is customary also to have Yule cakes 'to' the frumety; these are small round cakes with currants, citron, and other ingredients: each person has one. There is no dish so universally par-taken of throughout the whole of East Yorkshire, not excepting Yorkshire pudding, as this. It is, however, never eaten at any other season than Christmastide, and as a rule on no other day than Christmas Eve, though some families will also make it on, or keep what is left till, New Year's Eve.
The old-fashioned 'pepper cake,' the peberkage of Denmark, is becoming, or rather, I should say, has become, more a thing of the olden days. It is however still made in the moorland districts of the North Riding; while in the East Riding and other parts the very name is unknown. This, too, is a Yule cake; it is a kind of gingerbread, and therefore more pungent than the Yule cakes of other districts; hence the name. It has nothing to do with pepper, at least not at the present date, not even in Denmark; though there, some of the dishes are doubtless what we might call 'subtleties' : but during the time of my sojourn in that hospitable country I never detected so much as a whiff of pepper in their cakes. Pepper they use certainly: perhaps they use it more than we do, for they have the saying 'Munden lober som en Peberkvaern' (the mouth, or as we should say, the tongue, runs on like a pepper-mill), or 'Munden gik paa hende som en Peberkværn' (she chattered away at a fine rate). If our good friends the Danes liken the female tongue to a pepper-quern they must surely use that article of seasoning pretty freely in some of their concoctions, whatever they may do in their cakes; these, I can answer for it, at all events, are free from it, and Peberkager are merely gingerbread cakes, just as Pebernödder are what we know as ginger-bread nuts.
When the pepper-cake is eaten in the moorlands of the North Riding at Yuletide, cheese always is on the table as a concomitant, just as cheese and apple-pie go together all East Yorkshire over at all seasons.
There are many relics of old Christmastide customs which are still kept up in the district, such as the ploughstots and sword-dancers. Those connected with the sword-dancers are curious and interesting; they are described at some length in Henderson's Northern Folk-Lore, pp. 6770. The vessel-cup, which is a corruption of wassail-cup, is still commonly brought round by children in certain districts at Christmas. It consists of a small figure in a box which represented the Virgin Mary, the figure being encircled with evergreens and ornamentations of various kinds.
In some places, until comparatively recently, it was commonly believed that the oxen knelt in their stalls on St. Stephen's Eve; this, of course, was supposed to be in honour of the birth of the Saviour. It was so lately as this present year (1891) that I was speaking to a native of Westerdale about old customs, when I was told that it was quite within the recollection of my informant that the people in that dale used sometimes to go out at midnight on St. Stephen's Eve to try and see the owsen kneel as they were tied up in their byres.
From time immemorial great importance was attached to the first foot that crossed the threshold on New Year's Day. The 'lucky bird,' as he was called, should be one of the male sex, and with dark hair. At many a house in this part of the country any other visitant than that described would on no account be allowed to be the first to enter the house on New Year's Day. In some places still it is customary for a boy or man with dark hair to call at every house on that day in order that he may be the first to cross the threshold, that so luck may follow during the year to the household. In other districts a fair man is supposed to be luckier than a dark one. Who knows but what these old traditions may have come down to us from those early times when the fair-haired invaders contended with the darker complexioned aborigines for the possession of the soil? Possibly connected with this idea is the fact which I have frequently noticed among the people of some parts of the East Riding, that they do not, as a rule, admire any one of dark complexion; 'dark-looking' and 'queer-looking' are with them convertible terms. The Norse blood of the East Ridingers may in some measure account for this; the Scandinavians are par excellence a fair-haired race. At the present day no hair can be fairer and no eyes bluer than those of the people of Eastern Denmark and Southern Sweden.
Many were the vestiges of ecclesiastical customs that survived till lately in this part of the country from mediaeval times. To take a single case from this parish: there was at least one old custom here that was kept up until comparatively few years ago. This was the ringing of the 'compline bell.' No one knew even what 'compline' meant, or why the bell was rung, which it always was at six in the morning, strange to say, and six in the evening, every day during Lent every year. The peculiar and confused nature of this usage can only be accounted for by the fact that the designation of the matutinal office was gradually lost in course of time, and so the titles of the two services became merged into one.
I need not speak of those customs which are common to the whole country: the keeping of the village Feast, which is held on the day formerly set apart in honour of the patron Saint of the church. Of late years these village festivals have been shorn of much of their former glory; they now frequently go by the name of 'Club Feasts,' in consequence of the benefit-clubs holding their annual social gatherings on these days. In most places on these occasions there is a service at the beginning of the day in the parish church, when some clergyman is invited to address the members of the fraternity. The religious element, however, is not so marked here as it is in the village feasts of some other countries. I was acting as chaplain at Engleberg, in Switzerland, some years ago, when the greatest village festival of the year was held. A service of a very im pressive kind took place in the large church attached to the monastery there. The people flocked into it from all the country-side - men, women, and children - all gaily decked in their holiday attire; and very picturesque attire it was. They were in their places in the church before nine o'clock in the morning, when the service began. It lasted, if I rightly remember, about an hour and a half. The congregation was most attentive and devout, the singing admirable. The service ended, the people went out for the rest of the day and amused themselves in a seemly and rational manner, playing games, dancing, and so forth. It seems a pity that our Yorkshire village feasts are not more after the model of the Engleberg one. But good things are apt to degenerate, and it takes something like a revolution to restore them to their original state, if they are not exterminated altogether by the shifting tide of events.
It is remarkable how nearly all the days, great and small, that are observed throughout the district have an ecclesiastical nomenclature - sometimes distorted and corrupted, but quite unmistakeable. Events used to be spoken of as happening not upon arty particular day of the month, but in some such way as the following :- ' A week afoor Martinmas,' 'sumwheers aboot Thomas Day,' 'Cann'lmas,' 'A fo'tnith cum Barnaby,' Barnaby being a local fair held on the Feast of St. Barnabas; 'aboot Peter tahm,' i.e. about St. Peter's Day; 'Whiss'n Munda,' 'Paums'n Setherda,' i.e. the Saturday before Palm Sunday; 'Hallow E'en,' the vigil of All Saints' Day, and so forth.
The days of Holy Week were noted by means of the following familiar saying :- ' Collop Munda, Pancake Tuesda, Frutas We'nsda, Bloody Tho'sda, Lang Frida 'll nivver be deean whahl Settherda t' eftherneean.
It will hardly be believed when I say that some of our old folks would not know that the civil year now begins on January the 1st. I remember very well on one occasion having to enlighten an aged couple on this point, who were unable to fix New Year's Day any more definitely than by saying it was 'sumwheers aboot Kess'nmas'; but this same couple quite outdid me in their knowledge of the times and seasons of the local fairs and village feasts.
Another relic of mediaeval ecclesiastical terms survives in the saying, Tid, Mid, Miseray, Carling, Palm, Paste-egg Day. What Tid and Mid are, I cannot say with any degree of certitude; some suggest that Tid is a corruption of Te Deum, while Mid may be Mid-Lent. Miseray is evidently a corruption of the first Latin words of the penitential Psalm appointed for use in Lent, - Miserere mei, Deus. Carling Sunday was very generally observed till quite lately; it is the fifth Sunday in Lent. Grey peas were always eaten on that day, being fried with bacon or butter; the Cleveland dales-folk used to get their peas from Whitby beforehand, and I have heard them say they did not think it was Carling Sunday without peas. Palm speaks for itself. Palms however, or rather the substitution for them - the hazel with catkins - are now seldom used on Palm Sunday as they used to be. Paste-egg Day, also called by another corruption, Pace-egg Day, is Easter Monday; the derivation is obvious. On this and the following day it is the custom to roll hard-boiled eggs, coloured in various ways, and use them as playthings. Hence Easter Monday used to be called Troll-egg Monday: in the neighbourhood of Pickering, and probably in other places, it is still so called. Something of the same kind is, or till lately was, carried on in Denmark, where Paaskeleg, or, as we should translate it into Yorkshire, Easter laakin', is a term well understood, where old and young, men, women, and bairns, meet in the green fields near the town and play all manner of games. I should add that in former times Paste-egg Day was applied to Easter Day itself, and among the country folk the five latter Sundays of Lent and Easter Day were called respectively by the names just alluded to - Tid, Mid, Miseray, Caning, Palm, Paste-egg Day, no name being assigned to the first Sunday.
As already mentioned, Good Friday is sometimes called Lang Frida, which corresponds with the Danish Lang-fredag. In this part of the country it was considered unlucky or impious to turn the soil on Good Friday with spade or plough, or in any other way. Indeed, there is a strong feeling still surviving in some places of Friday generally being an unlucky day; for instance, I have heard of those who would not set a hen on a Friday, and of others that they would not allow a fresh servant to come upon that day. There is, too, very commonly a disinclination to begin a piece of work on Friday; the rule generally is to do so on a Monday. The saying 'Friday flit, short sit' is well known.
There was till lately a very strong tendency throughout the length and breadth of the district of which I am speaking to keep up all the old customs, to observe the days and seasons as they have been observed for generations. In no part of England, I should suppose, do they die harder than in East Yorkshire, unless it be Cornwall, perhaps. And not only is this the case with regard to the old ecclesiastical institutions, dating back to the middle ages, of which so many traces still survive; the times and seasons connected with agricultural operations were also duly noticedspring, summer, autumn, winter, seed-time and harvest, the new moons, May Day, Midsummer Day, with many more, have in days gone by been in some way or other specially honoured, nor are those honours yet forgotten quite.
Again, the terms employed by our country folk in speaking of the different parts of the day, are peculiar, and worthy of notice. In the first place, day and night are not used exactly in the ordinary way; for instance, if one asks, 'Did it rain last night?' we may be told 'No, but it rained at two this morning,' when it was pitch dark. Night is night, and morning is morning, in the strictest sense - with this extension, that neet begins at lowzin tahm, i.e. about 5 p.m. in summer and earlier in winter. At that hour in summer-time the plew-lad will perhaps stop his horses, pull up his watch like a bucket from a well, and say to the girl getherin' wickens, 'Anne, it 's neet.' She would simply say, 'Is 't?' and set off home. Morning begins at one o'clock, and although it extends, strictly speaking, till the following noon, yet the latter part of it - that is to say, from about nine o'clock till twelve - is always designated 'forenoon.' T' eftherneean (afternoon), extends from dinner till lowzin' tahm.
The old idea of the sun dancing on Easter Day is one that has extended itself to many parts of the kingdom. It was at one time very prevalent in this district.
I was informed not long ago, by an elderly man, that when he was in farm service fifty years back, it was the custom on Easter morning at sun-rise for the farm lads to get a bucket of water and place it so that the sun was reflected in it; if the sun glimmered, as he expressed it, it would be wet on that day, and if it shone bright and clear in the water it would be fine. But a more important prognostication was always made when the day was ended; for it was understood that if it was fair on Easter Day there would be a fine harvest following it, while if the morning were wet and the afternoon fine, the 'fore-end' of the harvest would be wet and the 'back-end' fine, and vice versa. This belief, too, was a very widespread one.
Another old Easter custom, and of a more animated kind, was the following. From Easter Sunday noon to Monday noon the men and lads, and from Monday -noon to Tuesday noon the women and lasses, used to take each others' shoes and impose some fine for redemption. My informant, the son of a clergyman who for many years held a living in the North Riding, says he well remembers the excitement under this old custom when he was a boy (1838-48). A notorious woman, a native of Welbury, used to come to that place all the way from Sunderland yearly, and timed her visit so as to enjoy the fun. No really modest and timid girl durst stir out alone. Big young fellows of eighteen, who defied the women and girls, were often overpowered by numbers, and had their boots carried off, the laces being cut. The rector's rather dandy pupil had his coat torn right up from skirt to collar when he attempted to walk through the village on the evening of Easter Monday. At this same place it is recorded that a nurse in a farmer's service, while walking on Easter Sunday afternoon with the children, was stalked, chased, seized, and robbed of her shoe by a young man in the farmer's coo-pastur opposite the rectory, and that she was seen limping back with only one shoe on. A fine, cheerily given, in return for 'Please for your buckle,' settled the majority of cases. The lasses took caps, whips, or anything else they could seize. Before a shoe was taken the demand in the form just given was always made. The word 'buckle' was of course a survival from the times when buckles were in vogue; they were not worn at the time spoken of.
In years gone by there could have been scarcely a village in North Yorkshire whose inhabitants did not connect the Eve of St. Mark's Day with death. The notion was that those who kept St. Mark's watch - that is, those who watched in the church porch at midnight from twelve till one - would see the spirits or forms of all those in the place who were to die in the course of the year following, pass into the church one by one. By some it was thought necessary that the watch should be repeated for three successive nights, but generally the vigil was on St. Mark's E'en only. Many times have old people spoken to me about those whose faith in this supposed power of looking into the future was unshaken and unshakeable. I should add that if he who kept watch on St. Mark's Eve should happen to fall asleep during the hour, it was understood that he would himself die during the year from that date. I remember being told of a case of this kind by a former inhabitant of Westerdale. There was an old dame in that neighbourhood who was noted for the accuracy of her investigations in this particular; only, in her case, the watch took place always on Christmas Eve instead of that of St. Mark. On one occasion, it seems, as she was keeping her vigil she fell asleep. It was consequently acknowledged by all who knew her that she was doomed to die before the year was out; accordingly, from day to day, she was watched with no little interest, in the expectation that she would sicken and die. However, time went on and she appeared in her usual health. Six months, nine months, ten months passed, and nothing seemed to indicate that her end was at hand. But during the twelfth month a change came over her; she became ill and took to her bed. Still she lingered on till it came to the last week of the fatal time, but she continued apparently in much the same state, though she was in reality getting weaker. The last day of the year came, and she was still alive, though it was evident she was rapidly sinking, and so it went on till within two hours of the completion of the year, when she quietly breathed her last. A case of this kind would make a profound impression on the minds of the simple folk, and would more than compensate for a dozen failures. I enquired of my informant whether the old lady was generally right in her prognostications, to which I received answer, in a tone that clearly betokened unswerving faith, 'Aye, sha was reet eneeaf.'
The customs connected with marriage festivities have changed a good deal of late years. The old custom, for instance, of running races for ribbons is not so prevalent as it was when I was a boy, and as I remember it in the East Riding, when the races used to be run by the young men down the 'town street,' generally immediately after the marriage service at the church was concluded. Sometimes it used to be arranged that the races should finish at the house of the bride's father. The prize was nearly always a ribbon or ribbons, very commonly a white one as representing the bride, and coloured ones similarly the bridesmaids. Now-a-days, where the traditional custom is still kept up, scarves or handkerchiefs are frequently substituted for ribbons. It was a proud moment for the victor on these occasions, and many a man will recount with delight and elation the number of ribbins he has won in such contests.
In some places the old custom for the bride and bridegroom on their return from the church to be presented at the door of the bride's house with a cake on a plate is still observed. The bride takes the cake and eats a portion of it, while the bridegroom lays hold of the plate and throws it behind him. The future happiness of the young couple is supposed to depend on the breaking of the plate. Sometimes the cake is cut into small pieces and thrown by the bride over her head and the plate broken. Another 'use' is for someone to meet the newly married couple at the churchyard gate carrying a live chicken. He follows the bridal procession to the bride's house, making the chicken squeak, and will not go away 'till the chicken is satisfied.'
In some of the North Riding dales, and probably in other places also, the antipathy to green as a colour for any part of the bridal costume is still very strong. I was once at a farmhouse in a remote district near Whitby, and, when discussing olden times and customs with an elderly dame, was informed there were many she knew in her younger days who would rather have gone to the church to he married in their common everyday costume than in a green dress. My informant herself was evidently one of those who held the same faith on this point as her early companions, for she instanced a case that had come under her own observation where the bride was rash enough to be married in green, but it was added that she shortly afterwards contracted a severe illness! Neither is blue much less unlucky as a colour for the wedding dress, at least if one may judge by the old saying anent the bride, that
She 's sure to rue.'
When the wedding party are leaving the church it was, and still is in certain places, a custom for a handful of coppers to be thrown to the children; and as the bride and bridegroom are on their way to and from the church a salute would be fired from guns filled with feathers: this, too, though still practised at some places, is by no means so common as it was formerly.
In olden days, before police and detectives were much thought about, many more offences against the law passed undiscovered than at the present time. Private adventure schemes, as we might word them, for the discovery of law-breakers must have been plentiful enough at one time; but they have now passed out of mind. Some, however, have survived until a com paratively recent date. One of the longest lived of these terrors to evil-doers was the custom of resorting to the Bible and Key for the detection of a thief. The method was a favourite one in many parts of the country, Yorkshire not excepted. The modus operandi was this: A key was placed in a Bible, and after having been bound round tightly with string, the Bible, with the key inside, would be hung from a nail in the wall or some convenient place. The name of the suspected thief would then be repeated three times, and if the key turned in the Book, the person who had been named was declared the thief- The female portion of the community sometimes had other, and to them more interesting uses for the Bible and key, I mean the finding out of their future husbands. In these cases the Bible would be opened at Ruth i. 16, 17, and the key placed in it there, and either fixed by a piece of string and the Bible suspended by another piece of string, or the key was simply placed in it at the chapter named and then set upon the table. The name of the wished-for husband was then mentioned, and if the wish was destined for fulfilment, the key in either case would be found turning towards the said verses.
Other means, however, of a less serious nature were resorted to by the country lasses of a generation or two ago for making the same momentous discovery as that just referred to. There is an example told me by one who had herself made trial of it. Twelve sage-leaves had to be gathered on a given day at noon, and put into a saucer: they were then kept in the saucer till the midnight following: at this hour the 'chamber' window was thrown open, and one by one the sage-leaves were dropped down into the road below simultaneously with each stroke of the hour on the clock. It was believed by the young maidens that the future husband would then be seen or his step heard in the street below.
Again, another tried method, not less curious than that just recorded, was the following: The first egg of a chicken was procured: this had to be boiled or Toasted. Those interested in making the test had each of them to stand on something upon which she had never before stood; it might be a pair of bellows or an iron baking sheet, or anything else ready to hand. The members of the company then took hold of the egg and simultaneously cut it into portions. Thereupon each one in strict silence took her share, ate it shell and all, and walked backwards to bed. It was thought that this device enabled them to dream who their future partners in life would be.
There was another quaint old custom practised by our fanciful forelders, of which I have been told, though I have not been able to ascertain exactly what the correct usage with respect to it was: accounts vary. This custom is in connection with what was called Love Posset, or Dumb Cake. The idea was that by a due observance of the ritual connected with its manufacture, a girl's future husband could be ascertained. The proper day for making Dumb Cake was the eve of St. Agnes. What all the ingredients of the cake were I know not, but one principal one was salt. I remember being told some years ago, by an old inhabitant in one of the dales, about the composition of this mystic cake. It was somewhat as follows : In the first place four people had to assist in the making of it, each taking an equal share in the work, adding small portions of its component parts, stirring the pot, and so forth. During the whole time of its manufacture and consumption a strict silence has to be observed. Even when it is being taken out of the oven each of the interested parties must assist in the work. When made it is placed on the table in the middle of the room, and the four persons stand at the four corners of the room. When set on the table the cake is divided into equal portions and put upon four plates or vessels.
The spirit of the future husband of one of the four would then appear and taste from the plate of his future bride, being only visible to her whose husband he was destined to be. As a preliminary to this, every door of the house had to be thrown open. The traditional hour for making the feast was midnight. My informant said that in her district this mystic repast was made on St. Mark's Eve. I cannot, however, think that this was general. The orthodox time was the eve of St. Agnes. An additional observance was for each damsel to take her portion with her up stairs, walking backwards to the bedroom; she was then to eat her share of the undainty concoction and get into bed. On carrying out strictly all the recognised forms and ceremonies she might thus hope in her dreams to behold her future husband.
Much more was I told about these functions connected with the Love Posset or Dumb Cake. Dreadful and unexpected things happened sometimes, especially when the feast was held on St. Mark's Eve. Possibly the spirit resented any deviation from the primitive custom of holding the rite on any other than St. Agnes' Eve ; at any rate, on one occasion of which I heard tell there was evidently something not altogether pleasing to the invisible powers; for, to use the words of one whose faith in them and other like mysteries was quite unshaken, when the doors were opened on the night referred to, 'there was a soughing and a rattling, the dog's hair stood on end, and a coffin came tumbling through the door and fell at the feet of one of the party, who died in that year.' And again, on another occasion there were such unearthly noises that the whole company rushed upstairs without even giving themselves time to close the doors. On the whole, therefore, it may be as well for those who may think of resorting. to the Love Posset or Dumb Cake method of determining who their partners for life are to be, to be careful not to attempt to hold festival on St. Mark's Eve or any other eve but on that of St. Agnes only.
Local peculiarities in the matter of customs and feasts exist, as might be expected, to a considerable extent. Thus, for instance, at Helmsley there is still held once a year what is called the Vardy Dinner. In the days before the Government appointed sanitary officers, Helmsley elected its own local committee to inspect the town once a year as regards sanitary matters. In the evening the inspectors met, supped, discussed, and gave their 'verdict.' Hence Vardy Dinner. The form, I am told, is still kept up, but chiefly for social purposes. The dinner is held annually, the committee having earlier in the day gone through the form of walking through the main streets, scrutinising at least the outside of dwellings as they pass. The Helmsley folk jokingly warn one another on this important day thus:- ' Look to your drains and chimneys.
A custom with a somewhat similar intention used to take place at Kilburn immediately before the village feast, which there is held on the Saturday after Midsummer Day. A man was dressed up to represent the Lord Mayor of York, and another to represent the Lady Mayoress. These two were then dragged through the village street in a cart by lads. As they went along they recited a doggerel and visited all the houses of the place, exhorting the people to tidy their gardens, trim their hedges, and make their tenements look generally respectable for the feast; in the event of these orders being disregarded a mock fine was imposed.
Some of the bee customs, or what we may call bee-lore, prevalent in the district are curious. They would be almost a study of themselves if carefully gone into. Of the habits of the bees I will say nothing; let Virgil speak about that. And as regards the customs connected with bees I will only just allude to one.
When a member of a family dies the bees must not be forgotten. Indeed, under certain circumstances connected with swarming they are thought to portend a death in the family; such for instance would be the case if they took it into their heads to swarm on the dead bough of a neighbouring tree. But when a death had actually taken place it was, and perhaps still is, no uncommon thing to put the bees into mourning. This was done by tieing a piece of black cloth or crape round the hives. But this was not all. When the funeral had taken place, and the party had returned to the house, the funeral feast began, the arval as it used to be called in olden days. On these occasions the feasting was, to say the least of it, substantial. Some of the humbler classes would half ruin themselves by their lavish expenditure at these times: funeral reform had not been heard of in those days unfortunately. But what about the bees? Well! they had to be feasted also, and feasted, be it observed, in identically the same way as the house-folk had been; that is to say, a small portion gathered from every item which went to form the entertainment indoors had to be placed in a convenient situation for the bees without; such small portions were collected generally in a saucer or plate. Bread, cake, tea, sugar, beef, ham, mustard, salt; even the wine was not omitted, this being steeped into the biscuits. The idea was that if the bees were not thus feasted they would all certainly die.
I remember on one occasion talking to the widow of a farmer in the neighbourhood of Egton about these bee customs, and was somewhat amazed by her telling me of the ritual they thought proper to observe at the time of her husband's death with regard to their own bees. She dilated upon the nature of the feast, and went through a long string of viands, a sort of 'bill of fare' of what they set before the bees, winding up at the last, as if she quite enjoyed the relating of it, by adding 'aye! bacca 'an pipes an' all!' ' What ! ' I ventured to observe in astonishment, 'do you mean to say that the bees ate the tobacco?' 'Aye,' she added, 'ah seed it mysen.' I could say no more on that point, but it would seem as if these bees must have had some nautical blood in them, for I bethought me of the strong predilection sailors have for chewing tobacco. But the pipes were not yet accounted for, and so after a pause I said, 'Well! at all events the bees could not eat the pipes.' 'Bud,' she replied, 'they did 'owivver.' 'How in the world could they do that?' was my interrogation; 'Aw,' she exclaimed, 'they teeak a steean an' mash'd 'em up intiv a poodher an' mixed it wit' stuff an' gay it tiv em.' 'And did they eat it clean up?' I asked. 'Aye, hivvry bit ah seed it mysen.' Ee-preeaf or, in other words, ocular demonstration, cannot well be got over; and so there was nothing left for me but to express my wonder at the marvellous digestive power of the bees, and in the end to assent quietly to the fact that the bees had in some way or other made a clean sweep of the concoction. I thought possibly, after the action of the tobacco upon their systems, the bees might all have been found dead next morning, but I was assured that not one of them had been so found; on the contrary, it was evidently thought that it was their being fed in this way alone that had preserved them from dying with their master.
The science of Folk-lore is in these days making rapid advances, though it was not till very recently that it could be classed as a science at all. No one could have read the account of the international Folk-lore Congress held in London in 1891 without being convinced of the probability that a great future lies in store for this deeply interesting study. Many of the old superstitious ideas which go to form the subject-matter of folk-lore may seem to many absurd and unworthy of serious thought, but out of these light materials something, perhaps a great deal, connected with the early history of the human race may one day be extracted. This, the newest of sciences, is one to which any observant countryman may contribute something. We constantly meet with traces of the superstitious feeling in all classes more or less. In his opening address last year, the president of the Folk-lore Congress alluded in playful terms to the fact of his lately meeting a young lady who, as he expressed it, 'was the very muse of folklore.' If she met a number of cows she remarked whether they divided on the road or all kept to one side. If she found a crow's feather in the fields, she stuck it erect in the grass and wished a wish. Old pieces of iron she carefully threw over her left shoulder. She kissed her hand to the new moon. If there were three candles alight she blew one out, not from motives of economy, but because three lighted candles in a row are unlucky. She was perturbed by winding-sheets in a candle, and so forth.
I am not aware that our Yorkshire folk are more superstitious than some others; and although curious and strange fancies do exist in the minds of many of our older people beyond doubt, they are at all events not alone in that respect. That quaint old notions of this kind are held by others outside our own county the following remarkable instance, which came under my notice only quite lately, will clearly show. A Board of Trade enquiry took place at Hull last year (1891) with reference to a collision between a Hull steamer and a Scarborough smack off Flamborough Head. It seemed that when the collision took place the crew of the smack got on board the steamer, and the abandoned vessel, which became lost in a fog, went ashore five days afterwards on the coast of Scotland more than two hundred miles from the scene of the casualty. The officer of the coast-guard at Montrose, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, in the course of the evidence alleged that he went to the place where the smack went ashore and examined her. She was deserted, although there were no signs of any damage upon her whatever: He was therefore at a loss to know why she had been thus abandoned. He ascertained subsequently that she had sailed through some Scotch fishing-boats; the fishermen, seeing no one on board, thought she was a phantom ship ; they refused to touch her in consequence, even when she was on the rocks. Another officer of the coastguard, in corroboration of this evidence, stated that it was not possible that any one could have boarded the smack before she got on to the rocks. The people of a farmhouse informed the officer about the vessel, but nobody would venture to go near her, and though he offered four shillings an houra pretty strong inducement with a Scotchmanto anyone who would render aid in saving the ship's stores, none would go on board. It was found impossible to get her off the rocks, and she afterwards went to pieces.
As might be expected, it is in association with death that the superstitious feeling survives most strongly. With many minds the idea of walking through a churchyard in the darkness and alone would be altogether abhorrent. The same feeling exists with regard to places that are supposed to be haunted ; nothing would induce some persons to visit such scenes. The deeply superstitious natures of our country folk in former generations caused them to live so to speak in another world almost as much as in this. False and absurd as many of their notions were, there were others that were tinged with a picturesque interest, and betokened a deep-rooted faith in the unseen world. For these one cannot but have a certain respect. It was, for instance, with the idea that nothing should be done or left undone to arrest the passage of the spirit of one just deceased in its upward flight, that no sound was uttered beyond the faintest whisper and the window of the room where the body lay, thrown open. And when the spirit had actually fled to the place of departed spirits the body was not neglected, but carefully tended and watched till it had been reverently taken to the churchyard, there to be resolved into dust. Whatever arguments there may be in favour of cremation, I am quite sure that the idea of such a thing would be most repulsive to the minds of our country folk. On the other hand, many of the old notions associated with death were no doubt absurd in the extreme. It used to be a common belief, for instance, and is so still with many old people, that a sick person cannot die if laid upon a bed composed of the feathers of pigeons or of any wild birds. I was told not long since of one Jane H----, from the neighbourhood of Westerdale, that she was lying upon a bed of that description; that she was in extremis for a week, and when it was thought she could not die inconsequence of being upon a bed of wild birds' feathers they took her off it and laid her upon a squab, where, as I was informed, she died at once! It is also an idea with some that there is a connection between the lingering vitality of the dying person and the hopefulness of the bystanders or friends that the sufferer may be restored to health again. Thus I have heard it said that so-and-so could not die, for they would not give him up. This is a curious example of a belief in the kind of mesmeric influence of the mind of another upon the human body; at least such it would seem to be.
Many of the superstitious observances still kept up by some would no doubt be dropped if the observance of them involved personal trouble or inconvenience. It is a very easy thing to avoid walking under a ladder, for instance; but if the superstitious foot-passenger had to go half a mile round in order to accomplish his end, the chances are he would pocket his scruples and walk straight on. Still, even at this day, there are cases to be found where no little exertion or bodily discomfort will be endured in order to carry out some superstitious form or ceremony, the observance of which is calculated, no matter bow absurdly, to bring about some blessing or to ward off some danger.
I had a singular instance of this kind brought before my notice only quite recently: it happened, I believe, within a year or thereabouts of last summer. I was told of it by the vicar of a remote country parish in the neighbourhood of Whitby.
Somewhere about the time alluded to there was a serious outbreak of measles in the village - mezzles as they are called in the folk-speech. Scarcely a family escaped. Not far from the village a small farmer lived with his wife and two children. The parents felt in considerable anxiety for their little ones, lest they should catch the disease. The father, however, seemed to be satisfied in his own mind that if the children could be put through a certain prescribed ceremony of seemingly traditional usage they would be proof against infection from the disease. It will hardly be guessed what the ceremony was. First of all, it was absolutely necessary that a donkey should be procured. But unfortunately there was not one to be had in the place. In order to get one, they would have to go to a village on the sea-coast, which lay at least four miles distant. Nothing daunted, they accordingly made their pilgrimage to the village referred to. The donkey was in due course obtained, and the whole party - father, mother and two young children - wended their way to the beach. One of the children was then put upon the donkey with its face to the tail; three hairs were next drawn from the tail of the animal, put into a bag, and slung round the child's neck. The donkey was then made to go up and down a certain distance on the sands nine times. This done the same process was repeated with the other child. It must be added that all the time the donkey was in motion a thistle was held over the head of the child. Such was the function; and when done they all returned home as they had come. By a singular coincidence the children in this case escaped taking the epidemic ailment, and as a consequence the parents were the more confirmed in their belief in the efficacy of these strange precautionary measures.
The belief in fairies and witches would even yet seem hardly to be clean gone; while a generation ago it was much stronger than is often supposed.
A correspondent from the borders of the North and West Ridings tells me of the strong belief in fairies that existed among the people of his district when he was a boy. It seems he used to talk to an old inhabitant who, as he confessed, had often 'seen the fairies.' Figures of men and women gaily clad, of full size, and in rapid confused motion, he said he had often watched in early summer mornings. He used to tell of an unbelieving horse-dealer who had stayed the night with him. At dawn the old farmer saw the fairies, as he had so often done before, and called up his guest, who, unbeliever though he declared himself to be, hurried out as he was, very lightly clad, and sat so long on a wall watching them that he caught a rheumatism that he never was cured of. Many other things did the old man relate, which unfortunately have passed out of recollection; and he into the unseen world. Now the people will not open out as their fathers used to do, though perhaps their imaginations are not inferior. By the way, a young woman, into whose house this same gentleman once went, told him that she had never seen fairies (though her relations often had', but she had smelt them. On his asking what sort of odour he was to expect so that he might be similarly favoured, she went on to enquire if he had ever been in a very crowded 'place of worship' wherein the people had been congregated for a length of time. Such was the description; a very different one had been looked for; but it is the unexpected which happens. It was supposed that the young woman who was such an adept at scenting out the fairies was in reality trying to give an idea of the gushes of hot air one sometimes comes across on broken ground during summer time.
To talk with one who believes in the power of the wise man or witch, seems almost like conversing with one from another world. Many a time, in days gone by, have I been told stories of what the witch could do and of the dread in which she was held, stories which it was evident the narrators firmly believed in, in spite of all that one could say to the contrary; and although such people might confess that wise men and witches are just at the present moment rather scarce articles, still they seem to have a kind of lurking notion that they might easily crop up again at any time: the old ideas are hard to uproot. I shall not easily forget a certain occasion when I was speaking to an old man on some ordinary topics, when somehow or other we got upon the subject of witches. He was generally a very stolid, matter-of-fact sort of old fellow, who did not apparently take any very keen interest in anything particular; still he had, as it seemed, his fair complement of wits. On this occasion, when recounting the doings of a certain witch whom he had seen and whose name he told me, his wonted stolidity quite deserted him; I do not now remember the details of the story sufficiently well to repeat it with any degree of accuracy, but I do well recollect how his countenance, as he went on, was lit up with a degree of animation that was quite extraordinary, especially for such an old man (he was then past eighty), and for one who in general was so imperturbable: he fairly quivered again, and his eyes wore a wild appearance which I had never before seen in them. His belief in what he said was as deep rooted as anything could possibly be, and I never before realised so fully as I did then, the hold that such ideas must have had upon the men of former generations. How far those who gave themselves out to be possessed of the supposed powers of the wise man or the witch believed in them themselves, I will not pretend to say, and I do not know that I have ever been face to face with one such myself, so that I could hold an examination.
So many stories have been recorded of the performances of wise men and witches in days of old, that anything one has heard from time to time from old people touching on the subject seems merely like a repetition of what is already well known. I shall not, therefore, have much to say that has not been already said by others. Why witches were supposed to be such enemies to horse-flesh I am at a loss even to guess; this must have made them especially unpopular in Yorkshire: certain it is that a horse-shoe was very commonly nailed upon the stable doors in order to prevent their entrance there. Mr. Henderson, in his book on Folk-lore, says he remembers a farmer telling him 'how one of his horses had more than once been ridden by the witches, and he had found it in the morning bathed in sweat, but he had nailed a horseshoe over the stable door, and hung some broom over the rack, and the horse had not been used by the witches since.
On the subject of horses and witches I remember having a conversation with an old dame not many years ago. I think the conversation started about wicken wood, which she knew about very well as a preventive against the power of the witch, though she was unable to tell me precisely, or indeed at all, what the nature of the wood was, for in the course of conversation I said to her, 'Can you tell me what they call the tree from which they get the wicken-wood?' 'Naw,' she said, 'Ah 's seear ah can't, bud ah knaw 'at wicken-wood 's t' stuff 'at they mak whip-stocks on for witches.' I professed surprise that they should do such a thing now or at any time, and added that at all events I supposed she had never heard of any case where the fact of the whip-stock having been made of wicken wood had been of the slightest use for the supposed object. 'Aa, bud ah ev,' she replied; and went on to say that a witch used to hant (haunt) a certain 'brig' which she named. 'Did anything ever happen at the brig?' I enquired. 'Happen! aye; an' ah 'll tell ya an' all.' ' I should like to know what it was,' I said. 'Whya then,' she continued, 'Yah day (it wer a good bit sen noo) sum lads was cumin' wi carts, an' as seean as ivver they com near-hand t' brig t' fo'st draught was stopped; t' lads leeak'd, bud they couldn't see nowt; then they shooted on him ti gan on, an' he tell'd 'em 'at he couldn't: t' hosses couldn't storr; all was stopped.' To the best of my recollection there were four or five carts altogether, when some impassable barrier seemed to stop the way over the bridge. But my old friend continued her story by saying, 'Noo, yan o' t' lads had gitten a wicken-wood whip-stock; an' when he com up he said he would try; an' then summat leyke spak ti t' draughts, "here 's t' lad cumin' wit' wicken-tree gad"; an' away they went; sha (the witch) couldn't stop 'em then.' Such was the story of the power of the wicken-tree whip-stock almost verbatim as it was told me, and not a shadow of a doubt did my informant seem to have of the literal truth of it.
Sometimes the witch was regarded as a downright pest in a neighbourhood, and when by any chance she disappeared from the scene, which even these mortals did in course of years, there was often as much rejoicing as if a savage wild beast had been slain. I have heard of one of this sort who used to live in a small village in the North Riding with her daughter. The mother and daughter were on anything but good terms, in fact they were incessantly quarrelling and fighting. The two, however, were very equally matched sometimes the victory lay with the mother, sometimes with the daughter, till one day matters had got to a parlous state, and there was a regular pitched battle; in fact, it was a life or death struggle between them. To use the words of the old man who remembered the scene and told me of it, 'eftther they 'd fowten (fought) t' main o t' 'day, t' dowtther preeaved t' maastther, an' sha killed t' witch.' The news spread like wildfire, and amid the greatest excitement the whole toon soon assembled round the door of the house where this desperate encounter had taken place. Just at first there were, no doubt, some feelings of horror at the shocking scene that lay before them ; but 'eftther things had gotten sattled,' as my old friend expressed it, the people could do nothing but rejoice that so dangerous and hated a character had been ' putten oot o' t' rooad.'
If the witch was sometimes a pest to a neighbourhood generally, she must have been so especially to the farmer; for not only did she ride his horses, but played sad havoc in the dairy, and worked all manner of evil against his cattle both great and small. In those imaginative days it must have cost the farmer as much trouble, one would think, to keep the witches away from his herds as the crows from his corn.
It was not so many years ago that I was told of rather an exciting encounter which took place at a farm I have frequently heard of; and the neighbourhood of which I have often visited. At the present-time it happens to be occupied by a man I know very well. The struggle was between the farmer himself and a witch that was the plague and terror of the neighbourhood. I cannot give the precise date of the battle, as the schoolboy does; but I judged from what my informant said, that it took place seventy or eighty years ago. It happened that the said farmer had lost a large number of cattle. He was a very superstitious man, and the only way in which he could account for the loss of his cattle satisfactorily to his own mind was by attributing it to the work of 't' aud witch' who frequented the district. This was the more surprising, for, as I was told, 'his missis had awlus behaved well ti t' witch'; that is to say, whenever she had been to the house the mistress had given her food and treated her, as she thought, hospitably. It was plain, however, to the farmer and his wife that something had at length offended her ladyship, and she had wreaked her vengeance upon them by destroying his beasts.
One morning after this the witch was seen by the farmer in his fold-garth. Thinking, of course, that she was there for no good purpose, he accosted her, and asked her what she was doing there; whereupon, as we say in Yorkshire, sha wer varry saucy. This was too much for the farmer, so without further words he took the law into his own hands and began to bray her violently on the back with his stick. She held her ground unflinchingly: he next dealt her a heavy blow with his fist. Upon this she seized a thorn stick which happened to be near at hand, and then the fight waxed hotter and hotter; blow after blow was dealt in quick succession,
Like hail upon the housetops fell the strokes; panting they fought - the farmer and the witch - in even contest; swelling bruises formed upon the limbs of each, till at length the witch with fiendish force gave such a gash that blood trickled from the wound; whereat she paused and shrieked in horrid glee, non ah a'e tha.' It was enough; she had gained her point, and she departed. The farmer was in great distress; he knew not what to do to avert the dread consequences: he felt that his enemy had him in her power. The only thing left for him was to betake himself to the wise man. The wise man told him that the witch had wished him a bad wish, but he said that he would give him the best advice he could. It was a favourite and well-known remedy, though in this case it proved unavailing. He was without delay to go home and procure the heart of a beast, make up a fire in the house, carefully fill up all 't' kyehooals, nicks i' t' deears an' crivices ti keep her [the witch] oot.' Then, according to ancient usage, he was to take the beast's heart and prick it all over with pins, and roast it upon the fire. The savoury odour, or whatever it was, would attract the witch to the house, and she would come to the door and yell like a dog. Those in the house when she thus came were neither to speak nor stir, and then she would go away. All this happened, it was asserted, as it had been foretold by the wise man: the witch came, yelled, and went; but a day or two after the wounded man bled to death. 'Aye,' said my informant, who quite believed in the witch's power, 'sha 'd gotten ower mich ho'd on him!' Even the beast's heart and pins were powerless on this occasion: this time 't' au'd witch preeaved t' maastther.'
Even until quite a few years ago it was thought, and may still be so, in some places, that the witches' power was supreme. I have heard, for instance, of a mother losing her first-born son. It was remembered that so-and-so had wished the mother a bad wish. The event corroborated the half-formed idea that the evil-wisher was a witch, and the half-formed idea developed into a deep-rooted belief. In this case I was told that the mother's adversary had wished a bad wish, and it had 'fallen on t' bairn,' which soon died.
Scarcely less strange than such ideas as those just alluded to, was the extraordinary faith in the efficacy of many fanciful remedies for all manner of diseases: they would of themselves fill a volume.
One of the strangest cases that ever I heard of was one that was brought to my notice at a friend's house near Yarm. The lady of the house told me that only a short time previously she had been calling to see a poor woman, one of whose children had the 'thrush.' The mother firmly believed that if one born after the death of his father were to blow three times down the child's throat the disease would beyond doubt depart; indeed, so implicit was her faith in the virtue of the remedy that my friend told me that had she seemed to doubt the power of the means used, the mother would have felt quite hurt.
This reminds me of a cure for the whooping-cough (these, by the way, might be recounted by the dozen), which was resorted to in a place I know very well. It is as follows : Catch a frog, and put it into a jug of water; make the patient cough into the jug; this smits the frog, and the patient is cured. 'Did it do any good?' was asked in a certain case. 'Yes,' was the answer, 'the frog took it, and coughed as natteral as a Christian.' Another singular cure for the same malady is for the child to be passed nine times over the back and under the belly of a donkey. Mr. W. Henderson, in his Folk-lore of the Northern Counties, gives an instance of this having taken place at Middlesbrough, which operation was actually witnessed by a friend of his.
But there are charms for animals as well as for human beings. The Vicar of a parish near Yarm one day noticed in his kitchen a number of little sprigs of hazel, with catkins upon them, stuck into various objects round the fire-place. On asking the senior servant why she had made the decoration, she said it was Jane (the junior maid), who had gathered them and stuck them about because they were good for the sheep at lambing time!
The cures for warts are many and various. It is remarkable to find what strange methods were sometimes resorted to. Here is one which seems to be rather out of the beaten track of medical remedies. A common black slug is caught, and rubbed several times over the wart. The slug is then fixed tightly to a thorn on a hedge or elsewhere, and then left to die and wither away. It is supposed that simultaneously with this withering away of the creature the wart will also consume away and disappear. Only it is essential that the patient shall not again look at the slug, otherwise the healing power would be arrested in its operation.
I was told of another remedy, by a farmer whose sister's warts had been supposed to have been removed by the following means. It was the night of a new moon; indeed it was necessary that so it should be for the efficacy of the means used. The young woman had on no account to look at the moon, but some one had to go out and observe in which quarter of the heavens she was, and then come and lead the patient out into the garden, whereupon she had to stoop down and rub the warts all over with the soil without attempting to look at the quarter where the moon lay, and return to the house at once. I was assured that in this case the operation was a complete success!
It is believed by many that these excrescences may be brought on by washing the hands in water in which an egg has been boiled. An old lady, a native of one of the dales, once told me that she was always very careful to throw away water in which eggs had been boiled for fear of its being used for washing purposes.
There is a widespread belief that if the cock crows in the house, or if the fowls enter it, visitors may be expected. I remember very well going to a farm house in Cleveland once, and being told by the farmer that they had been looking for a visitor because the cock had been crowing on the doorstead. I wonder what the Irish peasantry have to say to this; their string of callers must be incessant.
Happily hens do not often crow, but when such a portentous event does actually take place, the unlucky bird is generally immediately killed, as its existence is supposed to bring nothing but misfortune upon the household; à propos of this there is the old saying,
'A crowing hen, and a whistling maid
Both bring bad luck';
another form of which runs thus:-
'A whistling maid and a. crowing hen
Are fit for neither gods nor men.'
When leaving a house for a journey it is deemed unlucky that at the time of departure there should be thruffoppen deears, that is to say that both front and back doors should be open at the same time if the mistress of the house be leaving home by the front door, for instance, the servant maid will instantly run to the back door if it be open, and shut it. And after the journey has been begun it is thought to be unlucky if the first person met be of the female sex. Under these circumstances it is a man who brings a prosperous journey.