Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Thomas Hollis buried with his horse

There is a tale in the small village of Corscombe, Dorset that an eccentric 
eighteenth century landowner Thomas Hollis is buried beside his favourite horse.
Hollis, English political philosopher and author, is principally remembered 
as a great benefactor to American colleges, especially Harvard, sending 
donations and numerous books.
He had attached himself to no religion and his one abiding belief was that  
had an immutable right to hold any religious belief that he wished. A rationalist who 
saw the fight for a free society in the American colonies as the major contemporary 
world event that had the potential to advance the human mind.

Now back to the horse...
Hollis died on 1st January 1774 (apparently after collapsing in one of his fields) and 
the horse was shot shortly after. They were both lowered into a ten foot hole in 
the middle of a field on the appropriately named Harvard Farm.
This followed the strict instructions he gave, down to the immediate ploughing over 
of the field so that no trace should remain of his burial place.

 Harvard Farm is close to the Sutton Bingham Reservoir and was at that time  
211 acres and sixth in size of his properties and which he was personally managing 
at the time of his death. 
The names of the fields his colonial interest such as New England field, Boston, 
Mayhew Cotton, Massachusetts and so on. 
The field Massachusetts tenuously retains its name in away as the farmers refer to 
it now as ‘Massy Field.’

Although he only spent four years in the village he has had great effect on 
the area, undertaking extensive repair to the local church. 
An eccentric man who when he lost his home because of a fire he walked out saving 
only one thing – his portrait of John Milton. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

The Witch of Affpuddle in Dorset

‘Her evil wish that had such pow’r,
That she did meake their milk an’ eäle turn zour,
An’ addle all the eggs their vowls did lay ;…
The dog got dead-alive an’ drowsy,
The cat vell zick and woulden mousy ;
An’ everytime the vo’k went up to bed,
They wer’ a hag-rod till they were half dead’

A Witch by William Barnes

A  clergyman, the Rev William Ettrick, Rector of Turners Puddle and Vicar of Affpuddle was left in no doubt about a witch called Susan Woodrow powers. ‘I was once incredulous about the power of witchcraft, but have no doubts remaining,’ wrote the Rev.

It had all started so promisingly, when Ettrick hired Woodrow to work in his garden at 

Turners Puddle. She was said to have green fingers and Mr and Mrs Ettrick ‘rejoiced’ at the ap-pointment. But their rejoicing was short-lived. Just four days after Susan’s arrival, the 
young and previously ‘hard and healthy’ horse that carried the rector around his scattered 
parish fell seriously ill. It was the first of several ailments for the poor creature, which died eight months later. I suspect that farrier John Adler’s dubious potions contributed more to the horse’s suffering than anything Susan Woodrow could cook up, but Ettrick thought differently. Despite admitting that Adler’s ‘poisonous Hotchpotch ointment’ had blistered the horse’s throat to the point that it could not eat and also ruined its lungs, he later paid his bill and ‘relieved him of the blame of killing the horse’, which he now ‘attributed to an evil influence’.

Meanwhile, all was not well in the garden that Woodrow was employed to tend. In April 1804 
Ettrick noted the failure of his grass seed, while on June 6 he complained that the higher 
garden was ‘still unplanted with potatoes’. This was hardly Susan’s fault, as the poor woman 
had been ‘long time hindered by sickness’. She planted the potatoes as soon as she returned but 
this was not the end of the matter. The potatoes sorted and stored by Woodrow for the winter
 became rotten whereas those ‘thrown up by ourselves in a careless manner as being less valua-ble’ were ‘quite sound and good’. The lost spuds had cost them £3.

Other produce fared even worse. The seeds of broad clover and sainfoin yielded ‘not a single plant’ between them, despite being fresh and well raked in. The bed of savoy cabbages and pars-nips also ‘failed entirely’, as did the raspberries and indeed ‘most of the gardening done by her at two shillings a day and drink’. It may be that Susan was no better at gardening than John Adler was at curing horses, but Ettrick was not convinced. ‘Everything she touched affords fresh re-membrances of her malignant and diabolical influence,’ he wrote in his diary.

Other alleged victims of Woodrow’s ‘satanic influence’ included six gallons of vinegar, which ‘failed unaccountably’ to turn sour; a dog’s death; and a pig’s sickness. The bizarre irony of his own words is lost on Ettrick when he comments that the ailing pig was ‘killed to prevent it dying, and salted for food’.
On 22 July 1804, Elizabeth Ettrick gave birth to the couple’s fourth child. The event was attended by five women with Susan Woodrow as midwife. The baby boy had a ‘peculiar and most vexatious illness’, which required 24-hour care. Ettrick likened the condition to a ‘demonical possession’, which had begun ‘immediately after the child was snatched from his mother’s arms by a hag and reputed witch’. 

To counter her work, Ettrick tied a charm, inscribed with sacred words, around the baby. The remedy had an immediate and ‘wonderful’ effect, bringing about a ‘sudden and entire peace, and healthy symptoms in all respects’. The baby’s recovery coincided with Susan’s absence for two weeks. When she returned, the child suffered a relapse.

‘We have reasons very strong and many to ascribe to this ill-looking and worse-tempered wretch: the sufferings of this child, the curse upon the horse, etc,’ wrote Ettrick. ‘She has often dropped expressions that excite great suspicion and express pleasure  trouble, saying it was right, and as it should be, with a malignant grin, but never once offered the bare civility of wishing the child better, which is most surprising, so much as we have befriended her.’
The Ettricks resolved to sack Susan but delayed for weeks. What prompted William finally to act was a dream in which an ‘ill-omened black-looking bird’ flew around the parlour and pitched on his head. With great difficulty against its ‘hideous cries’ and attempts to hurt him, he wrung its neck, yet even the cat refused to touch it. Ettrick believed this symbolised ‘our final victory and the truth of our suspicions of what she was – not meat even for a cat’.

Woodrow was sacked on 4 January 1805 but refused to accept her dismissal, returning later to ask what she had done wrong and try to ‘worm herself into our good opinion’. If Ettrick believed this was the end of the matter, he was to be disappointed. In the last diary entry that we are aware of in September 1805, he reported the mysterious ‘dwindling away’ of the family’s bees, ‘Susan having had her hands on them last year’. Whether her influence contributed to William’s decision to leave his parish three years later, we cannot be sure. 

History records that Ettrick was a keen diarist and kept numerous papers and accounts, the family also records that some of these papers were placed within a large glass bottel and passed down through the generations. The bottle remained sealed for 100 years until it was given to the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester where it was opened to reveal the personal accounts within.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Disappearing Hedgerows

Britain’s hedgerows are an important part of our countryside not only for the wildlife but also for the diversity of flora that can be found in these micro environments but the folklore which is part of our heritage is in danger of being lost as well. These oral traditions have been passed down through the generations and usually safeguarded by the housewife who would have turned to the hedgerow for food and for medicine. The more everyday ailments could be treated by a quick visit to the hedgerow. Having just rudimentary medical knowledge this herbal lore was indispensable for the families well being and would have been used in many different ways, both herbal and culinary, with a wealth of folklore for each plant.
The superstitions and charms surrounding the plants were also an important part of their lives and governed many of their everyday actions. The seasons of the year were celebrated using these plants and in some cases performing a central role in the celebrations.
May Day which harks back to pagan festivals was celebrated as the beginning of summer and on May Day Eve communities would go out and bring in the ‘May.’ Spending the night outdoors they would greet the first light with drums and blasts on cow horns to welcome  in the summer and then return home laden with branches of May blossom (Hawthorn) to decorate their homes.
And we were up as soon as any day O
And to fetch the summer home,
The summer and the May O
For the summer is a come O
And the winter is a go O

We all know the tradition of the Maypole which once upon a time would have been
practised in every community but in pagan times it would have been a living tree that our ancestors would have danced around, clapping their hands on the bark to wake the spirit within.
Overseeing the celebrations would be the May Queen, decked in hedgerow flowers, and keeping her company would be the King (the Green Man) also decked in Oak and Hawthorn leaves. Children would fashion wild flowers and blossom into garlands and carry them around the village calling at every house, receiving a May Day cake from the householder as a reward.

‘Good Morning, missus and master
I wish you a happy day
Please to smell my garland
Because it’s the first of May’

It was believed that on May Eve witches were at their most powerful and that the month would be ‘witch ridden’ so crosses were fashioned from Hazel and Rowan to hang over doorways and fireplace to prevent witches from entering. Even flowers from the children’s posies were a witch deterrent such as the Primrose, bunches were hung over doorways to the house and cowshed as it was considered to be very magical. Striking a rock with Primroses will open the way to faerieland but on a more practical note the leaves were used as a remedy for arthritis, rheumatism, gout, paralysis and a salve could be made for soothing wounds, burns.
The Bluebell had its uses; the bulb although poisonous, contains a sticky juice and was used as a sort of ‘superglue’ for bookbinding, (the toxicity of the juice also deters bookworms) and it was very effective for setting feathers upon arrows.
Another spring flower the Cowslip is known as the ‘little keys to heaven’ in some areas due to a tale that one day the angels noticed a small group of people trying to climb into heaven by the back door instead of the pearly gates. St Peter was so shocked at this lack of reverence that he dropped the keys to heaven; these fell to earth and took root growing into a Cowslip plant. It also has practical uses, the root has similar properties to aspirin and the flowers can be made into a calming tea, and is also beneficial for arthritis, insomnia, constipation and nervous tension.
The Foxglove with its impressive spike of pink flowers is extremely poisonous but even this plant was used medicinally. Digitalin can be extracted from the leaves and the juice from the plant was used for treating sprains and bruises. The folklore surrounding the Foxglove is as colourful as the plant.  The fox’s bushy tail was considered to be a charm against the devil and in response to a plea from the beleaguered fox God created the foxglove. This would ring its little bell shaped flowers when the huntsmen were approaching so giving the fox time to get away. It is also believed that the white markings inside the blooms are faerie fingerprints, again to aid the fox; the faeries would place the flowers over the fox’s feet so that they could sneak into the hen houses.

During the celebrations of the summer solstice handfuls of the plant St John’s Wort were thrown on to the bonfires. The plant blooms at this time and is believed to be at its most powerful on 24th June St John’s Day. It is very powerful against faerie spells and will protect against demons, witches and evil spirits. It is widely used medicinally for a variety of problems from depression to arthritis.

‘St John’s Wort doth charm all the witches away
If gathered at midnight on the Saints Holy day
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm’

With the warmer weather the housewife would have utilised more plants from the hedgerow. A simple cough could be treated with Colt’s Foot, for wounds the antiseptic leaves of Hedge Woundwort would be applied, Chamomile for indigestion and insomnia and the Lesser Celandine for haemorrhoids. The Common Speedwell was an all round cure, treating bronchitis, whooping cough, indigestion, gout, bladder stones, rheumatism and liver complaints. There was also remedies for female related problems; a distilled concoction of Lady’s Mantle to encourage conception or regulating menstruation by using a decotation of Groundsel. Morning sickness could be controlled using Chamomile and Meadowsweet and during the birth of a child Lady’s Bedstraw would be stuffed into the mattress to ease the pain. The plant Shepherd’s Purse was used to stop excessive haemorrhage and Yarrow tea would reduce the womb back to its original size.
For household matters the plants of the hedgerow were invaluable as well. Soap could be made from the Soapwort plant, various coloured dyes could be made from Hedge Bedstraw, Lesser Knapweed, Weld and Woad. Woodruff which has a scent of fresh mown hay was used to scent linen and to flavour summer drinks.
Wormwood although unremarkable to look at is extremely aromatic and was invaluable in the home; mixed with Fleabane was strewn on the floor to discourage the ever present fleas, also used to stimulate digestion and rid the gut of parasites.

Superstition and folklore played its part in the routine of the home, especially in the dairy where all the wooden pails and utensils were of Hazel or Ash to prevent witches curdling the milk. Hedgerow plants were used extensively in the dairy, leaves of the Butterbur were used for wrapping the pats of butter, Yellow Lady Bedstraw for curdling the milk, colouring the cheeses and making junkets while Nettle tops were used to scrub down the dairy to encourage cheese mold.
When making preserves the housewife would use a spoon of Rowan or Hazel to prevent the faeries from stealing it. Even the choice of wood for burning on the hearth was carefully considered; Elder, although its fruit was prized for making wine and cordial, was avoided as it was believed it would raise the devil. If accidentally put on the fire Herb Bennett or Marsh Marigold would be hung by the front door to prevent evil from entering. If an Elder had to be cut down the Elder Mother, the guardian of the tree had to be asked first.
‘Ourd gal, give me some of thy wood
An oi will give some of mine
When oi grows inter a tree’

With the onset of autumn there were many opportunities for gathering fruit and nuts from the hedgerows. Nutting Day would be celebrated when the Hazel nuts were ripe and the young girls dressed in their special nutting day gowns would collect the nuts, but not on the Sabbath as the devil would appear to help. The Hazel has always been considered to be a magical tree and to the Celts it was known as the Sacred Tree of Knowledge. They would use the wood for wands to be used in magical ceremonies and for divination; even now the best dowsing rods are still made from Hazel wood. This belief in the power of the tree is widespread and in some areas it is still the custom for new brides to be presented with bags of hazelnuts to encourage fertility in the marriage.
Blackberries were also prized not only for the fruit which could be preserved for the winter but also the leaves, taken as a tea, were a useful cure for colds, mouth ulcers, gum disease and diarrhoea. Chewing the leaves will help a headache while crushed leaves can be applied to small wounds.
Crawling under the arch of a bramble bush which has formed a second root was believed to cure rheumatism and children suffering from whooping cough were passed through a bramble arch while their parents would chant:

‘In bramble, out cough
Here I leave the whooping cough’

To the Celts the Blackberry represented the three aspects of the goddess: maiden, mother and crone. As the berries changed from white to red then black this signified birth, life and death while the seeds of the fruit were the promise of spring and rebirth. Wreaths made of bramble, Rowan and Ivy were hung over doorways to keep out evil spirits. This belief in the protective qualities of the bramble led to it being planted around fresh graves to protect loved ones against evil, although in some areas it was used to stop the dead from rising and returning as ghosts.
Holly and Ivy have always played an important part in the Christmas festivities. Ivy brings good luck, fun and happiness. It is also the symbol for fidelity and it was customary to hand a wreath of Ivy to newlyweds. Holly is also lucky and symbolised life and immortality and the custom of gathering it for Christmas symbolises that life and growth will return. Faeries and elves come in with the greenery for shelter during the cold winter months and in return they were supposed to behave themselves and cause no mischief. It is always important to remove the greenery from the house by 31st January, Imbolc Eve, as the more mischievous type of faeries would stay.
‘Down with the Rosemary and so
Down with the Baies and the Mistletoe
Down with the Holly, Ivie and all
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas hall
That so the superstitious find
Not one least branch there left behind
For look how many leaves there be
Neglected, there, maids trust to me
So many goblins you shall see!
Robert Hemick

Mistletoe is always included in the Christmas decorations which hark back to druid traditions as they considered it to be one of the most magical plants, believing it bestowed life and fertility as the white berries contained the sperms of the gods. The ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ has its origins in the Greek festival Saturnalia, a berry is removed with each kiss until the branch is bare, no girl could refuse to be kissed as it would mean she would not be married in the following year. In some areas it was customary to burn the Mistletoe on the twelfth night otherwise all the young people who had kissed beneath it would never marry.

 Even the weather was forecast using the trees from the hedgerow, in the south west it was ‘when the Blackthorn comes out we do never look for any nice weather’ while the rest of the country used the old favourite:
‘If the Oak before the Ash
Then we’ll only get a splash
If the Ash before the Oak
Then we’re sure to get a soak’

 It was during WWII that many of our traditional festivals and practices were put aside and never resumed once peace was declared, since then over fifty per cent of the hedgerows have gone. The loss of habitat for our native flora and fauna should give us cause for concern but also the loss of our folklore and traditions which is an important part of our heritage.

All these plants have much to offer but the remedies must be treated with caution as they can be extremely potent and may interact poorly with medication so it is important to consult a doctor or qualified medical herbalist if in doubt.

It is not usually an offence to pick fruit, foliage, fungi or flowers if the plant is growing wild and it is for your own use. However be careful which plants you pick as dozens of plants are protected. If you are in any doubt consult the Code of Conduct-Botanical Society of the British Isles: www.bsbi.org.uk

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Overlooked by his sister in law!

In the late nineteenth century in the town of Gillingham, Dorset a man 
applied for poor relief to the guardians of the Shaftesbury Union 
Workhouse on the grounds that he was unable to work. 
He had consulted a Doctor who confirmed that he was unfit for employment 
but could not specify a medical reason for his infirmity. 
The man himself knew the reason however; he claimed he had been 
overlooked by his sister in law! 
His wife then visited a local wise woman at Stalbridge in an effort to 
gain a cure. It brought relief for a while but then the illness returned with 
renewed vigour. 
He declined any medication from the Doctor saying that anything 
he, the Doctor, provided could not work against witchcraft.

The outcome of the case is not recorded.