Superstitions Of Worcestershire
( Originally Published 1884 )
I send you some further notes regarding the superstitions of this county, in continuation of those which you published in your magazine for July.
In parts of this county, and of Shropshire, the following occurrences are considered unlucky :
To meet a squinting woman, unless you talk to her, which breaks the charm.
To go a journey on a Friday.
To help another person to salt at table.
To be one of a party of thirteen at Christmas.
To have crickets in the house.
To have a female come into your house the first thing on New Year's morning. So generally does this absurdity prevail, that in many towns young lads make a "good thing of it" by selling their services to go round and enter the houses first that morning.
To have a cut onion lying about in the house breeds distempers. To cross knives accidentally at meal times.
To walk under a ladder.
For the first young lamb you see in the season, or a colt, to have its tail towards you.
To kill a lady-cow (in Dorsetshire, called "God Almighty's cow ").
To see the first of the new moon through a window, or glass of any sort, is also unlucky. But, if you see it in the open air, turn the money in your pocket, and express a wish for luck during the ensuing month ; you are supposed to ensure it.
To have apples and blossoms on a tree at the same time, is a sign of a forthcoming death in the family.
To have a long succession of black cards (spades or clubs), dealt to a person while at play, is prophetic of death to himself or some member of the family.
When a corpse is limp, it is a sign that another death will happen in that house.
As to cutting your nails on a Sunday, the following couplet is very expressive :
Better a child was never born
Than cut his hoofs of a Sunday.
The itching of the nose is a sign of bad news ; if the ear itches, you may expect news from the living; if the face burns, some one is talking about you ; and when you shudder, a person is walking over the spot where your grave will be.
To leave a teapot lid open, undesignedly, is an indication that a stranger is coming ; and when a cock crows in your doorway, or a bit of black stuff hangs on the bar of the grate, it is a sign of a similar event.
A bit of coal popped from the fire must resemble either a purse or a coffin, and consequently good luck or death.
Tea-drinking is made to foreshadow a large number of the casualties of life, including the receipt of presents, the visits of strangers, obtaining sweethearts, and the like, merely from the appearance of the grounds.
A bright speck in the candle is a sure indication that a letter is coming to the individual to whom it points.
If the sun shines warmly on Christmas Day, there will be many fires in the ensuing year.
" A great year for nuts, a great year for children," is a common saying.
To present a friend with a knife, is supposed to have the effect of cutting off friendship.
A donkey braying is an infallible sign of rain.
To cut your hair during the increase of the moon, is said to insure its favourable growth.
The horse-shoe is still seen over doors in many places, and fastened to bedsteads, to keep witches away.
A pillow filled with hops, and laid under a patient's bed, is an undoubted cure for rheumatism.
In the rural districts, great faith is put in rings made of the shillings and sixpences given at the Sacrament, and many clergymen have told us of repeated applications having been made Ito them for Sacrament shillings, for the purpose of keeping away the evil spirit, or as a remedy for fits. Mr. Watson, in his " History of Hartlebury," says that he believes nearly every person in that district, who was subject to fits, wore such a ring ; and there is another parish in the county, where, I am told, even Protestant poor go to the Romanist priest to have the relics of saints applied for the cure of diseases.
A superstition exists in some parts of the county, that if pieces of the alder tree are carried in the waistcoat pocket, they will be a safe-guard against rheumatism. In Wyre Forest, near Bewdley, is a botanical curiosity, namely, the celebrated old Pyrus domestica, said to be the only tree of the kind growing wild in England. It is of the same kind as the " Rowan," or mountain ash, which was, and even now is, vulgarly worn as a remedy against witchcraft. It is much thought of by the common people, and there are various traditions concerning it. The name given to the tree is "the withy pear tree" the mountain ash being also called "the withy tree," and the leaves of this tree are very similar. One of our Naturalists' Field Clubs visited it in August, 1853. Vegetation was then entirely confined to its top boughs, which, however, still held a few pears on them.
Charms are still believed in to a great extent among the poor. In the neighbourhood of Hartlebury they break the legs of a toad, sew it up in a bag alive, and tie it round the neck of the patient. There were lately some female charmers at Fladbury. The peasantry around Tenbury and Shrawley have also great faith in charms, and the toad remedy is applied at the former place, the life or death of the patient being supposed to be shadowed forth by the survival or death of the poor animal. At Mathon, old women are entrusted with the cure of burns by charming, which they do by repeating a certain number of times the old doggrel rhyme, beginning,
" There were two angels came from the north," etc.
In the neighbourhood of Stoke Prior a charm was some time ago used by a labouring man for the removal of the thrush (or " throcks," as it is locally termed). He would put his finger into his mouth, and then into that of the child, rubbing the gums, while he mumbled out something terminating with "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," then put down the child without speaking another word, and leave the house without eating or drinking.
Omens, or tokens of death, adhere to the popular belief to a more general extent than any other relic of superstition, perhaps one-third of the population attaching more or less credit to them. It would be impossible to enumerate all these idle fancies ; but among them are prominently the howling of a dog, a winding-sheet in the candle, and the issuing of light from a candle after it has been blown out.
The custom of burying exclusively on the south side of church-yards prevails very generally in the rural districts of this county, except where the smallness of the ground or the extent of the population have rendered it compulsory to use the north side, which, however, was formerly reserved for suicides and strangers. Many fanciful theories have been invented to account for this preference of the south side ; but the most probable is, that as the principal en-trance to the church was usually on that side, it was natural for burials to be there also, that the deceased might have the benefit (so accounted in those days) of the prayers of the congregation as they walked to and fro and beheld the inscriptions.
Mr. Allies tells us of a remarkable superstition that prevailed not many years ago at Suckley, where the country people used to talk a great deal about " The Seven Whistlers," and that they oftentimes at night heard six out of these seven whistlers pass over their heads, but that no more than six of them were ever heard at once, for when the seven should whistle together there would be an end of the world. This is supposed to have some reference to fairy lore, and is still believed by the Leicestershire colliers, who, when they hear " the whistlers," will not venture below ground, thinking that death to some one is foreboded. The superstition has probably a German origin.
"Touching for the King's Evil" was, in old times, an established institution. In 1666 the Chamberlain of the Worcester Corporation spent L10 14s. in an entertainment' to Mr. Greatrix, "an Irishman famous for helping and curing many lame and diseased people, only by stroking of their maladies with his hand, and therefore sent for to this and many other places." Valentine Greatrix, surnamed the Stroker, was a great proficient and master of the art ; and by a letter of his (still in existence) to the Archbishop of Dublin, it appears that he believed himself to be inspired by God for the purpose of curing the disease. He was entertained with great hospitality at many of our citizens' houses, and was thus fortunate in having a long start of the mesmerizers of the present day. The parish register of Chaddesley Corbett contains a " Mem. that Nov. 24, 1685, a certificate was granted to Gervase Burford to be touched for the King's Evil; and two years later King James II. was at Worcester, and attended at the cathedral for the purpose of touching persons affected with the evil. This has been said to have been the last known instance of that superstition ; but we believe that Dr. Johnson was " touched" by Queen Anne in 1712.
Bells were formerly a prolific source of superstition. There is a valley in Nottinghamshire, where a village is said to have been swallowed up by an earthquake, and it was the custom on Christmas Day morning for the people to assemble in this valley and listen to the fancied ringing of the church-bells underground. At Abbot's Morton there is a tradition that the silver bells belonging to the abbot are buried in the site of his old residence there. At Ledbury, a legend relates that St. Katharine had a revelation that she was to travel about, and not rest at any place till she heard the bells ringing of their own accord. This was. done by the Ledbury bells on her approaching that town. When the church at Inkberrow was rebuilt on a new site in ancient days, it was believed that the fairies took umbrage at the change, as they were supposed to be averse to bells ; they accordingly endeavoured to obstruct the building, but as they did not succeed, the following lamentation was occasionally heard by the startled rustics
" Neither sleep, neither lie,
For Inkbro's ting tangs hang so nigh."
In many places in this county, when the master of a family dies, the old nurse goes to the hive of bees, knocks, and says :
"The master's dead, but don't you go;
Your mistress will be a good mistress to you ;"
a bit of black crape is then pinned on the hive. It is firmly believed that but for this precaution the bees would all desert the place. A correspondent at Pershore says, "While conversing with a farmer's wife in this neighbourhood, I was gravely informed that it was certainly the truth, unless the bees were 'told' when anybody died in the house, something would happen either to bees or honey before long. She considered it a great want of foresight not to go from the house in which the 'departed one' had breathed his or her last to the hive without delay, and ' tell the bees' what had happened." If a swarm of bees return to their old hive, it is believed that a death will happen in the family within the year. This superstition probably prevails nearly all over the Kingdom, and is believed to be of great antiquity.
In Oxfordshire, it is said that if a man and his wife quarrel, the bees will leave them. In Devonshire, the custom is (or was in the year 1790) to turn round the bee-hives that belonged to the deceased at the moment the corpse was being carried out of the house; and on one occasion, at the funeral of a rich farmer at Cullumpton, as a numerous procession was on the point of starting, a person called out, " Turn the bees ;" upon which a servant, who had no knowledge of the custom, instead of turning the hives about, lifted them up, and then laid them down on their sides. The bees, thus invaded, quickly fastened on the attendants, and in a few moments the corpse was left quite alone, hats and wigs were lost in the confusion, and a long time elapsed before the sufferers returned to their duty.
Hot-cross-buns, or other bread made on a Good Friday, are sup-posed never to grow mouldy, and if kept for twelve months, and then grated into some liquor, will prove a great soother of the stomach-ache; acorns, dried and grated, will have the same effect.
The colliers at Dudley, in the event of a fatal accident to one of their number, all in the same pit immediately cease from working until the body is buried. A certain sum is also spent in drink, and is called dead money. The same custom, more or less modified, prevails in many districts.
The poorer people of Offenham will by no means allow any washing to be about on a Good Friday, which would be considered the fore-runner of much ill-luck.
In the year 1643, when some thieves plundered the house of Mr. Rowland Bartlett, at Castle Morton, among other things they took a " cock eagle stone, for which thirty pieces had been offered by a physician and refused." These eagle stones were ratites, a variety of argillaceous oxide of iron ; they were hollow, with a kernel or nucleus, sometimes movable, and always differing from the exterior in colour and density. The ancients superstitiously believed that this pebble was found in the eagle's nest, and that the eggs could not be hatched without its assistance. Many other absurd stories were raised about this fossil. At Mathon, some people believe that if land is left unsown in a field there will be a death in the family within the year;
A lingering belief in witchcraft still remains among the ignorant of our population, both rural and urban. From the Townsend MSS. it appears that in 166o one Joan Bibb, of Rushock, was tied and thrown into a pool, as a witch, to see whether she could swim ; but the old lady resented this in a plucky manner, brought her action against "Mr. Shaw the parson," who appears to have been the principal instigator of the ducking, and made him pay L20 no trifling sum in those days. In the same year four persons were brought from Kidderminster to Worcester gaol, accused of exercising the black art, and of speaking against the King ; they were all ducked in the Severn (Cooken Street, or " Cucken Street," as it is spelt in some old maps, being no doubt the line of route on these occasions). Only about ten or a dozen years after that we find a prebendary of Worcester (Joseph Glanville) seriously writing a book, entitled " Some Considerations touching the being of Witches and Witchcraft," which engaged him in a controversy that lasted as long as his life. The statute 9 George II., c. 5 (1736), at length repealed the disgraceful Witch Act, and stopped all legal prosecutions against persons charged with conjurations, sorcery, etc. ; yet what has once taken so firm a hold of the popular mind is not to be so easily eradicated; and Dr. Nash, who wrote his " Worcestershire" towards the close of the last century, asserts that not many years previously a poor woman, who happened to be very ugly, was almost drowned in the neighbourhood of Worcester, upon a supposition of witchcraft ; and had not Mr. Lyon, a gentleman of singular humanity and influence, interfered in her be-half, she would certainly have been drowned, upon a presumption that a witch could not sink. Later still, Mr. Allies informs us, that when the late Mr. Spooner kept a pack of hounds, whenever they passed through a certain field in Leigh Sinton, the hounds would in-variably run after something which nobody could see, until they came to the cottage of an old woman named Coffield, when they would turn back again, the old witch having safely got into her own " sanctum."
The exploits of Mrs. Swan, of Kidderminster, who pretended to discover stolen property for everybody else except what she herself had lost, and who died in an awfully tempestuous night in November, 1850, when her cats so mysteriously disappeared, cannot yet be for-gotten; nor the recent existence of the "Wise Man of Dudley," and many others of the same class, though not quite so celebrated, who are now living. Some of the Mathon people still believe that witch-craft makes their pigs waste away; and when convinced of the fact, they kill the animal, and burn a part of the flesh, to prevent any ill effects to those who eat the remainder.
Mr. Lee informs us of a pear-tree in Wyre Forest, the fruit of which is now hung up in the houses of the peasantry as a protection against witchcraft ; and there is a place called " Witchery Hole" in Little Shelsey, concerning which, whenever a violent wind blows from the north, the people say, " The wind comes from Witchery Hole," insinuating that certain "broomstick hags " had something to do with raising the wind.
SUPERSTITION ON THE DEATH OF GREAT MEN.
A superstition prevails among the lower classes of many parts of Worcestershire, that when storms, heavy rains, or other elemental strifes, take place at the death of a great man, the spirit of the storm will not be appeased till the moment of burial. This superstition gained great strength on the occasion of the Duke of Wellington's funeral, when, after some weeks of heavy rain, and one of the highest floods ever known in this country, the skies began to clear, and both rain and flood abated. The storms which have been noticed to take place at the time of the death of many great men known to our history, may have had something to do with the formation of this curious notion in the minds of the vulgar. It was a common observation hereabout in the week before the interment of his Grace, " Oh, the rain won't give over till the Duke is buried."
A Saturday's change, and a Sunday's full, Once in seven years is once too soon.
If the moon changes on a Sunday, there will be a flood before the month is out.
Look at the weathercock on St. Thomas's day, at twelve o'clock, and see which way the wind is, and there it will stick for the next quarter.