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A History of Pudsey by Simeon Rayner

 

 

FOLK-LORE AND SUPERSTITIONS

The interesting study of folk-lore has, during the past few years, amongst the antiquarian students of the north, received a good share of attention; its revival has arisen from the fact, apparent to many, that the superstitions and practices and old sayings, so much mixed up with the every-day life of our venerable ancestors, were fast fading away from remembrance; were fast giving way to the reasonable age; and that now the time was really come when it was necessary to make haste to collect them before it was too late.
We live in an age of improvements, in an age when intercourse is made so easy by the aid of telegraphs and newspapers, steam and educational institutes, that we are fast stripping off superstition for reason; and when immigrations are constantly leading whole families from one district to another, and constantly breaking up the relics that have been preserved in such cases where those immigrations have been made from, it shows another reason for making good use of the time present.
We have all a love for, if not the belief in, "old wives tales;" we were nursed, suckled, taught and married on these beliefs, and in due course transmit the same to our descendants too much not to have a reverence for them.
So many of them can be separated from the really superstitious that are worthy of mention too, that a collection is in many points instructive, and fancy can picture to us a reason why some old careful Matty of the past should, to prevent a waste of nature's productions, impress on her descendants that it was really wrong or unlucky to burn anything green or of use. Some the teachings of experience, express in a quaint manner not easily forgotten, on unnatural and therefore not seasonable things-for instance, "a green yule makes a fat kirk yard;" against "bearded or whistling women," and so forth. We can and do believe that an unnatural season is productive of disease; and have all an antipathy to bearded, masculine, or whistling women.
By another flight of fancy we can call before us the advice of age to imprudent youth, suggesting, "That before you stir folks fires-that is, meddle with their business-know them seven years!" or the advice of age to careless youth, "Keep a thing seven years and it will be useful."
There are so many of this instructive stamp that it is worth while the collecting of them
"It is really lucky to have money in your pocket when the cuckoo sings," and so it is at any time. This list of really useful proverbial expressions is great, and we do not wonder that in the works published, which are all far from complete, the authors should suggest to persons who can find interest in the subject that it is a duty of theirs to seek up, before it is too late, unrecorded morsels in their districts.
It certainly has a tendency to excite our surprise to hear of some of the superstitions which existed in this district less than a half century ago. It seems strange, and looks almost incredible to us, to hear how extensive was the belief in witches, wizards, and witchcraft, and the power of charms and certain strange and absurd ceremonies which were practiced, by the fair sex in particular, in order to learn the secrets of the future, particularly those secrets which related to sweethearts and husbands. Did a young woman desire to know who should be her good lord in "the good time coming" (and no doubt this secret would like to be read even now-a-days), well, she must obtain the first egg laid by a pullet and boil it, but not a word must be spoken during the boiling or eating of it, else the spell would be broken! During the boiling of it she must sit and look into the fire all the time, sitting on something which had never been sat on before, as, for instance: a candle-stick, a flat-iron, or astride a fire poker or cowlrake, or an anything which the fertile imagination of a young lady could easily suggest. When boiled and eaten, she must then march off to bed without sound or speaking a word, then fall asleep, and sure enough she would dream of the man who was to be her sweetheart-so they said. However, should this ceremony fail of satisfying the spirits which have the secrets of the future in their keeping, she must obtain a peas-cod or "pea-swad," with nine peas in it, hang it up on the house door, and whoever came first in at the door, she must rest assured that her sweetheart would be of the same name. If this was not satisfactory, she must visit the nine wells at the "Hall-royd" ("royd," Saxon, an essart or ground cleared of wood), in the neighbourhood; and there the fair lady must take her handkerchief and wash it in the nine wells, she would then see the gentleman who would afterwards be her husband-so it was said. More might be added, such as "watching the porridge on St. Mark's eve," and "throwing over the pancake on Shrove Tuesday," customs which yet remain amongst us, and are practiced now for fun.
The belief in witches was very common amongst a large class of persons, and the fear of their power for evil showed itself in a variety of ways. For instance: if anything went wrong in their houses, their farms, or their work, they at once concluded that they were bewitched, noting so certain, and something must be done, or else there was no telling where it would end, nor what the consequences would be. And the "wise-man," or "wise-woman" must be consulted, who, of course, must be paid just the same as we pay our medical adviser now-a-days; and strange indeed are the stories one has often heard of the gullibility of their dupes.
I once knew a cloth weaver who, when he was a young man, had been prevailed upon-on one occasion when he had a poor web, or chain, as they are called in some districts-to get a quantity of "wiggin" and put it over the loom in order to destroy the effect or power of the witches. "Wiggin" or "Sipsap," as it is now frequently called in some parts of Yorkshire, is the Mountain Ash, and was believed to be a certain preventative for witchcraft. Sometimes it was put over beds in which persons slept, to keep off the evil power of witches; sometimes in stables over the horses and cattle, to prevent them from being witched, and frequently horse-shoes were nailed up behind doors in order to prevent them from being under witches' influence. I lately heard the following rhyme, which is rather appropriate:--
There was an old woman at Baildon,
Whose door had a horse-shoe nail'd on,
Because on one night
She had such a fright
With a boggart that was horned and a tail'd un.
I have seen a bed, which had been, I was informed, once marked all over the bed-head board with a strange cabalistic signs, because those who slept in it could not rest at nights. They were troubled with night-mare, consequently they were believed to be bewitched, and these strange marks were to drive away the evil influence of the witches. A farmer in the neighbourhood had a calf which died; it was at once settled out that it was bewitched, and that it must be burnt; accordingly the carcase was burnt. Charms were also bought from the so-called "wise-man" and worn to protect the wearer from the power or influence of the witches.
It is somewhat surprising to find in this, the nineteenth century, to what a large extent silly superstition prevails in the every-day life of a great mass of the people; how it is mixed up in the common daily conversation. For instance, one has often heard "I wouldn't go on Friday, because it isn't lucky." If going on a journey, "Don't turn back, because there's no luck after it." Is there a leafy smut shaking on your fire-grate, then "its a stranger about to visit you." Does a cider fly out of the fire with a hollow side, then "it's a coffin for you." If a corpse retains a soft fleshy feeling until the funeral, then "there will be another death among the near relatives of the deceased before a long time elapses." Do you break a looking-glass, then "there is trouble in store for you." Have you heard the ticking of a spider, of course "it's the death watch;" or the howling of a dog during the night, then "some one near you is going to die." I lately heard a person say, "They say he couldn't die easy because he was laid on a feather bed." Sometimes it is a feather pillow that is blamed. Sometimes old people will say, "You will never be able to raise that child, because it has a blue vein on its nose." Many persons will not give you a light during Christmas time, because it is unlucky to do so. If you have money in your pocket when you hear the cuckoo for the first time in a season, then "you will be lucky during the year". To spill salt is a sign of sorrow in store for you. I have heard of one family who gathered up all they could find (and they had a large lot of them) and took them with them when they removed from one house to another. If you bathe in the sea, be sure and bathe an odd number of times, and also duck yourself an odd number of times at each, if you don't it is unlucky. Has your child got a sore mouth, then try the following remedy, recommended by an old woman to a neighbour of mine. Obtain a live frog and put it in the child's mouth, and pull it out by the legs, and the child will be cured; and not only that, but ever afterwards, any person who might be suffering from sore mouth will also be cured, if the child who had the frog put into its mouth should blow its breath into the mouth of the persons afflicted. If you have warts that you want to be rid of, try some of the following remedies, which I have lately heard are certain cures. "Sell them to a friend, and then wrap up the money received (be in only a penny or more) and hide it, not looking at it again, and you will soon lose your warts." So my informant, a woman, told me, and she had known it done, she said, and quite successfully too. Another remedy is-"Rub them with a piece of raw beef, and then bury the beef somewhere, and as the flesh decays, so will the warts die." If this is not tried, then "Tie a piece of silk round the warts, cutting off the ends of the silk after tying, wrap up the ends so cut off, and lose them, and you will so lose your warts and not know how or when." So my informant did (again a lady) and she lost her warts and never knew how. One more remedy-"Rub them with a cinder and then throw it over your head, and whoever finds the cinder will get your warts." This reminds me of a practice we used to perform when I was a boy: when we found one of those hairy or downy caterpillars, found generally in hedge bottoms, and which we called "Tommy Tailyers," we used to throw them over our heads for luck.
Among the schoolboys in the playground and at their games there is a great belief in the effects of certain words and acts; and here we find a great quantity of them are used constantly and regularly, as well as in the schoolroom. It is not to be wondered at that the imagination of a youth is so full of them, when tradition is ever keeping them green in his memory, and each lad faithfully transmits, unknowingly, his part to the fresh boys. In the schoolroom we find them going to receive a caning without fear, simply because, from the most remote ages of schoolboy life, there has been handed down this-"That if you wet your hand and put a hair across it," you will not only be without pain, but also have the consolation and joy of knowing that the cane will split; it will split, if used enough, we dare say. Again, if possible, the master's cane is conveyed and dipped in urine, and returned to the master's desk to split all to pieces at the first stroke. But it is in the playground we must look for the greater part. Here we may hear the charm repeated-"A cross to loss, a ring to win;" and looking round find two boys at play with a third boy acting as helpmate to one of them, his help consists of giving the above as the play is going on, using the first part, "a cross to loss," as a cry to take away the success of his friend's opponent, and the other to encourage his friend. Signs on the ground, illustrative of the expression, are made. This third boy, in some cases, does it for friendship's sake, but in most cases it is a paid work: either in the words of the advertisement, by salary or commission. This boy will sometimes keep the ground clear with his cap, and sometimes is considered very lucky. In games of marbles the players have generally a lucky "ally" as "taw," and to take this away will be like taking the great Samson's locks-it will be nothing less than taking his strength.
Should you run a race, to prevent a stitch in the side, you have only to take a small bunch of grass in your left hand while running; and in bathing, to tie an eel skin round your leg, or the more common bit of bank or garter, you will be free from cramp while bathing. A rainbow is made to disappear by crossing it out, or putting two straws across each other, and weighting the four ends with bits of coal; this is a sure method, truly believed in by a schoolboy, and should it stay for a time after, when it does disappear it is from his charm. In rainy weather, the most effective means to bring fine weather is the repetition of the couplet-
Rain, rain, go away;
Come agean at t'washing-day.
When it snows they are killing geese in Scotland, and sending feathers here. To make a cockchafer spin and work for his liberty, pierce him with a pin; and the juice of the dock-leaf, with a suitable accompaniment of words, eases the pain from the sting of the nettle.
To tell if you like butter, a buttercup is held under your chin, and if there is shown the yellow reflection, you do like butter; all are found to be fond of butter, and, like the fortune we have told by the straggling gipsy, the verdict is made always on the right side, that allows of no doubters. To prevent another lad from growing put your hand on his head while he is in a stooping posture or on the floor, and pass one of your legs over it; and to catch a sparrow, there is the old story of putting salt on his tail.
Then, on Easter Tuesday, was the "barring out," now almost extinct; yet, in our recent recollection, it has been done in the immediate neighbourhood. Boys were masters on this day, the master was not barred out, but turned out and the school-door locked in his face, and then ensued a destruction of benches and desks, and other appliances. If you take a robin's nest it is unlucky; your sleep will be disturbed, you will be awakened by a tapping oat the window, and of course it is the robin coming to pick out your eyes. To bind an exchange one asks, "Is grass green?" And on receiving an affirmative reply, will say, "No swaps (exchanges) back, wol thi muther's a queen." To remove doubt, another formula is necessary, and by showing a wet finger and drying it over his head and re-showing it dry, while saying it, is a proof of the honesty of the doer, and is a clear removed of all doubts.
Happily these things are now of the past, but, in some out of the way place, one sometimes hears of the remnants of these absurd delusions still lingering amongst the most ignorant of the population.