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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Dorset's Weird and Wonderful Year of 2014

From Big Cats to Crop Circles, May Day Frolics to Strange Discoveries. This 2014 has been a busy year for weird and wonderful news in Dorset.

Dark Dorset looks back with a selection of twelve stories taken from our blog scrapbook and facebook page.

JANUARY - Friday 24th January 2014
  • News Clipping: Big Black Cat Spotted By Wessex FM Listener

A couple from Moreton spotted something highly unusual prowling across West Stafford Bypass last night.
READ MORE - Source: Wessex FM  - 24th January 2014
FEBRUARY - Friday, 7th February 2014

  • News Clipping: Britain's Beasts: Monstrous Myths or Tropical Truths?

With recent reported sightings of a crocodile in Bristol’s River Avon, we look at some of Britain’s more exotic, possibly mythical, wildlife inhabitants.

READ MORE - Source: Country File Magazine - Friday 7th February 2014

MARCH - Monday, 24th March 2014
  • News Clipping: ‘The Bishop, the Devil and the Boot’ – Katherine Barker’s reading of Sherborne Museum’s medieval wall painting

Early in March, the Somerset & Dorset Family History Society Research Centre hosted a talk by Katherine Barker for the Sherborne Museum Association on a medieval wall painting discovered in 1962 during renovations to a house in Sherborne. Katherine has very kindly enlarged on her original note describing the talk, to enable us to provide a more thorough record of her investigations.

READ MORE - Source: Somerset & Dorset Family History Society, Monday, 24th March 2014
APRIL - Friday 11th - Sunday 13th April 2014

  •   Event: Thomas Hardy and Dorset Folklore Conference and Exhibition

A joint conference of The Folklore Society and the Thomas Hardy Society exploring Wessex folklore, folk customs and rural traditions, and the works of Thomas Hardy. Including a temporary ehibition at the Dorset County Museum.

READ MORE - Source: Dorset County Musum Facebook, Friday 11th - Sunday 13th April 2014

MAY - Thursday 1st May 2014
  • Event: May Day 2014. Giant Hill, Cerne Abbas, Dorset

On May Day, The  Wessex Morris Men, who perform their annual ritual dance at the Trendle, at sunrise. The morris dancers accompanied by the Ooser then process into the village to dance in the square outside The Royal Oak.

Morris dancers of England Facebook Thursday 1st May 2014
JUNE - Friday, 13th June 2014
  • News Clipping: Gerald Gardner: Blue plaque for 'father of witchcraft'

Gerald Gardner, regarded as the founder of modern paganism, has been honoured with a blue plaque at his former home. The plaque, donated by the Centre for Pagan Studies, was unveiled at the house in Highcliffe, Dorset, exactly 130 years after Gardner's birth.
READ MORE - Source: BBC News Friday, 13th June 2014

JULY - Monday 14th July 2014
  • News Clippings: First crop circle of the year appears overnight in Dorset wheat field sparking new interest in who or what has made it

The first crop circle of the year has appeared in a field near Blandford Forum in Dorset leaving locals stumped over who or what created it. Covering an enormous stretch of wheat field, the 400ft pattern, which is made up of geometric lines and circles, emerged overnight.

 READ MORE - Source: The Daily Mail, Monday 14th July 2014
AUGUST - Sunday 10th August 2014

  • News Clipping: Uncovered: hidden tunnel where the infamous Judge Jeffreys walked more than 400 years ago

    A ‘Legendary’ tunnel has been uncovered underneath a Dorchester shopping street.The passageway used by the notorious Judge Jeffreys, who instilled widespread fear during the Bloody Assizes of 1685, has been rediscovered underneath Antelope Walk. 
READ MORE - Source: Dorset Echo, Sunday 10th August 2014
SEPTEMBER - Thursday, 18th September 2014
  • News Clipping: Paranormal sightings study reveals Devon is a hotspot for vampires

Devon is a hotspot for vampires, a study into paranormal sightings has revealed.
Nine cases have been reported in the county over the last century - more than in Dracula's homeland of Transylvania. While Dorset comes 6th in the ranking

READ MORE - Source: Exeter Express and Echo

OCTOBER - Sunday 26th October 2014
  • News Clipping: Witches, fairies and the Beast of Broadwindsor: mysterious tales of West Dorset told in new book

On a windswept West Dorset hill dotted with spindly trees, legend has it that a coven of witches are at work.  Author Louise Hodgson, of Corscombe, who meets me on the hill, has researched the folklore surrounding this spooky tale – and what she has found out is spine-chilling.

READ MORE - Source: Dorset Echo, Sunday 26th October 2014

NOVEMBER - Wednesday, 26th November 2014
  • News Clipping: Peter Underwood, author and investigator, died 26th November 2014
Expert on the paranormal who wrote more than 50 books on ghost-hunting and the supernatural including 'Ghost of Dorset'

READ MORE - Source: The Guardian - Wednesday, 17th December 2014
DECEMBER - Monday 15th December 2014
  • News Clipping: Skull found on steps of Dorset Church is 500 years old

    A human skull abandoned on the doorstep of a Dorset church is more than 500 years old. Carbon dating was carried out on the remains which were discovered in July, by the church warden of Lady St Mary's Church in Wareham. Dorset Police said the tests established the skull dated from the 15th Century. The skull was left on the steps of the church, wrapped in tissue in a bag.

    READ MORE - Source: Western Gazette, Monday 15th December 2014

Friday, 26 December 2014

Boxing Day! The customs and traditions of St. Stephen's Day

Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days December 26th 1864, details the traditions of St. Stephen's Day.

St. Stephen
St. Stephen's Day

To St. Stephen, the Proto-martyr, as he is generally styled, the honour has been accorded by the church of being placed in her calendar immediately after Christmas-day, in recognition of his having been the first to seal with his blood the testimony of fidelity to his Lord and Master. The year in which he was stoned to death, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is supposed to have been 33 A.D. The festival commemorative of him has been retained in the Anglican calendar.

A curious superstition was formerly prevalent regarding St. Stephen's Day—that horses should then, after being first well galloped, be copiously let blood, to insure them against disease in the course of the following year. In Barnaby Googe's translation of Naogeorgus, the following lines occur relative to this popular notion:

Then followeth Saint Stephen's Day, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abrode, as swiftly as he can,
Until they doe extremely sweate, and then they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good,
And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare,
As if that Steven any time tooke charge of horses heare.'

The origin of this practice is difficult to be accounted for, but it appears to be very ancient, and Douce supposes that it was introduced into this country by the Danes. In one of the manuscripts of that interesting chronicler, John Aubrey, who lived in the latter half of the seventeenth century, occurs the following record: On St. Stephen's Day, the farrier came constantly and blouded all our cart-horses.' Very possibly convenience and expediency combined on the occasion with superstition, for in Tusser Redivivus, a work published in the middle of the last century, we find this statement: 'About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in, for then they are commonly at house, then spring comes on, the sun being now coming back from the winter-solstice, and there are three or four days of rest, and if it be upon St. Stephen's Day it is not the worse, seeing there are with it three days of rest, or at least two.'

In the parish of Drayton Beauchamp, Bucks, there existed long an ancient custom, called Stephening, from the day on which it took place. On St. Stephen's Day, all the inhabitants used to pay a visit to the rectory, and practically assert their right to partake of as much bread and cheese and ale as they chose at the rector's expense. On one of these occasions, according to local tradition, the then rector, being a penurious old bachelor, determined to put a stop, if possible, to this rather expensive and unceremonious visit from his parishioners. Accordingly, when St. Stephen's Day arrived, he ordered his housekeeper not to open the window-shutters, or unlock the doors of the house, and to remain perfectly silent and motionless whenever any person was heard approaching. At the usual time the parishioners began to cluster about the house. They knocked first at one door, then at the other, then tried to open them, and on finding them fastened, they called aloud for admittance. No voice replied. No movement was heard within. 'Surely the rector and his house-keeper must both be dead!' exclaimed several voices at once, and a general awe pervaded the whole group. Eyes were then applied to the key-holes, and to every crevice in the window-shutters, when the rector was seen beckoning his old terrified housekeeper to sit still and silent. A simultaneous shout convinced him that his design was under-stood. Still he consoled himself with the hope that his larder and his cellar were secure, as the house could not be entered. But his hope was speedily dissipated. Ladders were reared against the roof, tiles were hastily thrown off, half-a-dozen sturdy young men entered, rushed down the stairs, and threw open both the outer-doors. In a trice, a hundred or more unwelcome visitors rushed into the house, and began unceremoniously to help themselves to such fare as the larder and cellar afforded; for no special stores having been provided for the occasion, there was not half enough bread and cheese for such a multitude. To the rector and his housekeeper, that festival was converted into the most rigid fast-day they had ever observed.

After this signal triumph, the parishioners of Drayton regularly exercised their 'privilege of Stephening' till the incumbency of the Rev. Basil Wood, who was presented to the living in 1808. Finding that the custom gave rise to much rioting and drunkenness, he discontinued it, and distributed instead an annual sum of money in proportion to the number of claimants. But as the population of the parish greatly increased, and as he did not consider himself bound to continue the practice, he was induced, about the year 1827, to withhold his annual payments; and so the custom became finally abolished. For some years, however, after its discontinuance, the people used to go to the rectory for the accustomed bounty, but were always refused.

In the year 1834, the commissioners appointed to inquire concerning charities, made an investigation into this custom, and several of the inhabitants of Drayton gave evidence on the occasion, but nothing was elicited to shew its origin or duration, nor was any legal proof advanced skewing that the rector was bound to comply with such a demand.* Many of the present inhabitants of the parish remember the custom, and some of them have heard their parents say, that it had been observed:

'As long as the sun had shone,
And the waters had run.'

In London and other places, St. Stephen's Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected. For a notice of them, the reader is referred to the ensuing article.


The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year's gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practiced universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year's gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes, as will appear from the following curious extract from The Athenian Oracle of John Dunton; a sort of primitive Notes and Queries, as it is styled by a contributor to the periodical of that name.

Q. From whence comes the custom of gathering of Christmas-box money? And how long since?

A. It is as ancient as the word mass, which the Romish priests invented from the Latin word mitto, to send, by putting the people in mind to send gifts, offerings, oblations; to have masses said for everything almost, that no ship goes out to the Indies, but the priests have a box in that ship, under the protection of some saint. And for masses, as they cant, to be said for them to that saint, &c., the poor people must put in something into the priest's box, which is not to be opened till the ship return. Thus the mass at that time was Christ's-mass, and the box Christ's-mass-box, or money gathered against that time, that masses might be made by the priests to the saints, to forgive the people the debaucheries of that time; and from this, servants had liberty to get box-money, because they might be enabled to pay the priest for masses—because, No penny, no paternoster—for though the rich pay ten times more than they can expect, yet a priest will not say a mass or anything to the poor for nothing; so charitable they generally are.'

The charity thus ironically ascribed by Dunton to the Roman Catholic clergy, can scarcely, so far as the above extract is concerned, be warrantably claimed by the whimsical author himself. His statement regarding the origin of the custom under notice may be regarded as an ingenious conjecture, but cannot be deemed a satisfactory explanation of the question. As we have already seen, a much greater antiquity and diversity of origin must be asserted.

This custom of Christmas-boxes, or the bestowing of certain expected gratuities at the Christmas season, was formerly, and even yet to a certain extent continues to be, a great nuisance. The journeymen and apprentices of trades-people were wont to levy regular contributions from their masters' customers, who, in addition, were mulcted by the trades-people in the form of augmented charges in the bills, to recompense the latter for gratuities expected from them by the customers' servants. This most objectionable usage is now greatly diminished, but certainly cannot yet be said to be extinct. Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefore from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employees, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

St. Stephen's Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day. In the evening, the new Christmas pantomime for the season is generally produced for the first time; and as the pockets of the working-classes, from the causes which we have above stated, have commonly received an extra supply of funds, the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night; whilst the 'gods,' or upper gallery, exercise even more than their usual authority. Those interested in theatrical matters await with consider-able eagerness the arrival, on the following morning, of the daily papers, which have on this occasion a large space devoted to a chronicle of the pantomimes and spectacles produced at the various London theatres on the previous evening.

In conclusion, we must not be too hard on the system of Christmas-boxes or handsets, as they are termed in Scotland, where, however, they are scarcely ever claimed till after the commencement of the New Year. That many abuses did and still do cling to them, we readily admit; but there is also intermingled with them a spirit of kindliness and benevolence, which it would be very undesirable to extirpate. It seems almost instinctive for the generous side of human nature to bestow some reward for civility and attention, and an additional incentive to such liberality is not infrequently furnished by the belief that its recipient is but inadequately remunerated otherwise for the duties which he performs. Thousands, too, of the commonalty look eagerly forward to the forth-coming guerdon on Boxing-day, as a means of procuring some little unwonted treat or relaxation, either in the way of sight-seeing, or some other mode of enjoyment. Who would desire to abridge the happiness of so many? 


Pantomimic acting had its place in the ancient drama, but the grotesque performances associated with our English Christmas, are peculiar to this country. Cibber says that they originated in an attempt to make stage-dancing something more than motion without meaning. In the early part of the last century, a ballet was produced at Drury Lane, called the Loves of Mars and Venus, wherein the passions were so happily expressed, and the whole story so intelligibly told by a mute narration of gesture only, that even thinking spectators allowed it both a pleasing and rational entertainment. From this sprung forth that succession of monstrous medleys that have so long infested the stage, and which arise upon one another alternately at both houses, outlying in expense, like contending bribes at both sides at an election, to secure a majority of the multitude.'

Cibber's managerial rival, Rich, found himself unable, with the Lincoln's-Inn-Fields' company, to compete with Drury Lane in the legitimate drama, and struck out a path of his own, by the invention of the comic pantomime. That he was indebted to Italy for the idea, is evident from an advertisement in the Daily Courant, for the 26th December 1717, in which his Harlequin Executed is described as 'A new Italian Mimic Scene (never performed before), between a Scaramouch, a Harlequin, a Country Farmer, his Wife, and others.' This piece is generally called 'the first English pantomime' by theatrical historians; but we find comic masques 'in the high style of Italy,' among the attractions of the patent-houses, as early as 1700. Rich seems to have grafted the scenic and mechanical features of the old masque upon the pantomimic ballet. Davies, in his Dramatic Miscellanies, describes Rich's pantomimes as 'consisting of two parts—one serious, the other comic. By the help of gay scenes, fine habits, grand dances, appropriate music, and other decorations, he exhibited a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, or some other mythological work. Between the pauses or acts of this serious representation, he interwove a comic fable, consisting chiefly of the courtship of Harlequin and Columbine, with a variety of surprising adventures and tricks, which were produced by the magic wand of Harlequin; such as the sudden transformation of palaces and temples to huts and cottages; of men and women into wheel-barrows and joint-stools; of trees turned to houses; colonnades to beds of tulips; and mechanics' shops into serpents and ostriches.'

Pope complains in The Dunciad, that people of the first quality go twenty and thirty times to see such extravagances as:

'A sable sorcerer rise,
Swift to whose hand a winged volume flies:
All sudden, gorgons hiss and dragons glare,
And ten-horned fiends and giants rush to war.
Hell rises, Heaven descends, and dance on earth,
Gods, imps and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
A fire, a jig, a battle and a ball,
Till one wide conflagration swallows all.
Thence a new world to Nature's laws unknown,
Breaks out refulgent, with a heaven its own;
Another Cynthia her new journey runs,
And other planets circle other suns.
The forests dance, the rivers upward rise,
Whales sport in woods, and dolphins in the skies;
And last, to give the whole creation grace,
Lo! one vast egg produces human race.'

The success of the new entertainment was wonder-fully lasting. Garrick and Shakespeare could not hold their own against Pantomime. The great actor reproaches his aristocratic patrons because:

'They in the drama find no joys,
But doat on mimicry and toys.
Thus, when a dance is in my bill,
Nobility my boxes fill;
Or send three days before the time,
To crowd a new-made pantomime.'

And The World (1st March 1753) proposes that pantomime shall have the boards entirely to itself. 'People of taste and fashion have already given sufficient proof that they think it the highest entertainment the stage is capable of affording; the most innocent we are sure it is, for where nothing is said and nothing is meant, very little harm can be done. Mr. Garrick, perhaps, may start a few objections to this proposal; but with those universal talents which he so happily possesses, it is not to be doubted but he will, in time, be able to handle the wooden sword with as much dignity and dexterity as his brother Lun.'

The essayist does Rich injustice; the latter's Harlequin was something more than a dexterous performance. Rich was a first-rate pantomimic actor, to whom words were needless. Garrick bears impartial witness to the genius of the exhibitor of the eloquence of motion. In the prologue to a pantomime with a talking-hero, produced after Rich's death, he says:

'Tis wrong,
The wits will say, to give the fool a tongue.
When Lun appeared, with matchless art and whim,
He gave the power of speech to every limb;
Though masked and mute, conveyed his quick intent,
And told in frolic gestures all he meant.'

At this time the role of Harlequin was not considered derogatory to an actor as it is now—Woodward, who established his reputation by playing such characters as Lord Foppington, Marplot, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, was equally popular as the party-coloured hero.

In the hands of Lun's successors, Harlequin sadly degenerated; and when Grimaldi appeared upon the scene, his genius elevated the Clown into the principal personage of the pantomime. The harlequinade still remained the staple of the piece, the opening forming a very insignificant portion. John Kemble himself did not disdain to suggest the plot of a pantomime. Writing to Tom Dibdin, he says:

'The pantomime might open with three Saxon witches lamenting Merlin's power over them, and forming an incantation, by which they create a Harlequin, who is supposed to be able to counter-act Merlin in all his designs against King Arthur. If the Saxons come on in a dreadful storm, as they proceeded in their magical rites, the sky might brighten, and a rainbow sweep across the horizon, which, when the ceremonies are completed, should contract itself from either end, and form the figure of Harlequin in the heavens. The wizards may fetch him down as they will, and the sooner he is set to work the better.' —Dibdin's Reminiscences.

Dibdin himself was a prolific pantomime author; and we cannot give a better idea of what the old-fashioned pantomime was, than by quoting the first scene of his Harlequin in his Element; or Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, performed at Covent Garden Theatre in 1807. The dramatis persona consist of Ignoso, the spirit of Fire; Aquina, the fairy of the Fountain; Aurino, genius of Air; Terrena, spirit of Earth; Harlequin (Mr Bologna, Jr.); Columbine (Miss Adams); Sir Amoroso Sordid, guardian to Columbine (Mr Ridgway); and Gaby Grin, his servant (Mr Grimaldi).


A beautiful garden, with terraces, arcades, fountains, &c. The curtain rises to a soft symphony. Aurino is seen descending on a light cloud; he approaches a fountain in the centre of the garden, and begins the following duet:

Aurino. Aquina! Fountain Fairy!
The genius of the Air
Invites thee here
From springs so clear,
With love to banish care.

AQUINA, rising from fountain.

Aquina. Aurino, airy charmer,
Behold thy nymph appear.
What peril can alarm her,
When thou, my love, art near?

Terrena rises from the earth, and addresses the other two.

Terr. Why rudely trample thus on Mother Earth?
Fairies, ye know this ground 's my right by birth.
These pranks I'll punish: Water shall not rise
Above her level; Air shall keep the skies.

It thunders; IGNOSO descends.

Igno.' Tis burning shame, such quarrels 'mong you three,
Though I warm you, you're always cold to Inc.
The sons of Earth, on every slight disaster,
Call me good servant, but a wicked master.
Of Air and Water, too, the love I doubt,
One blows me up, the other puts me out.
Nay, if you're angry, I'll have my turn too,
And you shall see what mischief I can do !

Ignoso throws the fire from his wand; the flowers all wither, but are revived by the other fairies.

Terr. Fire, why so hot? Your bolts distress not me,
But injure the fair mistress of these bowers;
Whose sordid guardian would her husband be,
For lucre, not for love. Rather than quarrel,
let us use our powers,
And gift with magic aid some active sprite,
To foil the guardian and the girl to right.


Igno. About it quick!
Toss This clod to form shall grow,
Aqui. With dew refreshed
Aur. With vital air
Igno. And warm with magic glow.

HARLEQUIN is produced from a bed of party-coloured flowers; the magic sword is given him, while he is thus addressed:

Terr. This powerful weapon your wants will provide;
Then trip,
Aur. Free as air,
Aqui. And as brisk as the tide.
Igno. Away, while thy efforts we jointly inspire.
Terr. Tread lightly!
Aur. Fly!
Aqui. Run!
Igno. And you'll never hang fire!

IGNOSO sinks. AQUINA strikes the fountains; they begin playing. TERRENA strikes the ground; a bed of roses appears. Harlequin surveys everything, and runs round the stage. Earth sinks in the bed of roses, and Water in the fountain. Air ascends in the car. Columbine enters dancing; is amazed at the sight of Harlequin, who retires from her with equal surprise; they follow each other round the fountain in a sort of pas de deux.' They are surprised by the entrance of Columbine's Guardian, who comes in, preceded by servants in rich liveries. Clown, as his running footman, enters with a lapdog. Old Man takes snuff views himself in a pocket-glass. Clown imitates him, &c. Old Man sees Harlequin and Columbine, and pursues them round the fountains, but the lovers go of, followed by Sir Amonoso and servants.

And so the lovers are pursued by Sir. Amoroso and Clown through sixteen scenes, till the fairies unite them in the Temple of the Elements. The harlequinade—left is full of practical jokes, but contains no hits at the follies of the day throughout it all; the relative positions of Clown and Sir Amoroso, Pantaloon, or the Guardian (as he is styled indifferently), as servant and master, are carefully preserved.

Since Dibdin's time, the pantomime has under-gone a complete change. The dramatic author furnishes only the opening, which has gradually become the longest part of the piece; while the harlequinade—left to the so-called pantomimists to arrange—is nothing but noise. Real pantomime-acting is eschewed altogether; Harlequin and Columbine are mere dancers and posturers; and Clown, if he does not usurp the modern Harlequin's attribute, is but a combination of the acrobat and coarse buffoon. The pantomime of the present day would certainly not be recognized by Rich or owned by Grimaldi.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A Dorset folk charm to combat the recession 19th Century style

On this day in 1882 a farmer's wife who lived near Bridport, took a gamble with four pounds. She entrusted the money to two travelling women who claimed that they could treble money, and who asked for just a few shillings in return for their financial acumen.

They marked the coins with astrological symbols, and hid them. The farmer was having none of this and demanded to know where they had put the loot. Despite his wife's warnings that it must be left undisturbed until Easter Sunday, the farmer dragged the truth from her and discovered that the two strangers had stuck something up the chimney.

The something turned out to be a cloth-wrapped, pin-stuck smoked pig's heart stuffed with polished farthings. That was that: the spell was broken, and so the four pounds was never trebled. That is the non-cynic's way of viewing it.

Animal Hearts used as Folk Charms

Witches were once commonplace in Dorset, and the belief in witchcraft was never stronger than in the outlying villages and hamlets - such as Hawkchurch.

In 1884, one of its residents made an unusual discovery, for found lodged up a chimney of the farmhouse was a stuffed bullock's heart studded with thorns, pins, and nails.  John Symonds Udal in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 wrote:

"An interesting illustration of that to which Mr. Roberts alludes occurred some forty years ago in the parish of Hawkchurch, West Dorset, an account of which appeared in the Bridport News in March, 1884. A new tenant had recently entered into possession of a house in the village which had just been vacated, when it was necessary to displace what was thought to be a lodgment in one of the chimneys. The obstruction was got out, and was found to be neither brick nor stone, but a bullock's heart, into which was stuck a quantity of the prickles of the white thorn, some nails, pins, and other things. This bullock's heart, in exactly the same state in which it was removed from the chimney of the cottage at Hawkchurch, is now, or was, in the Literary Institute at Bridport, and was exhibited at the meeting of the Dorset Field Club at that town in July, 1889, when I myself saw it. It presented a very dry, shrivelled, and almost mummified appearance, evidently having been in the smoke for many years. A correspondent suggested that as the late occupant was a bachelor, possibly he might have used the " charm " to ward off the attacks of the ladies and to prevent " witches " from getting access to the house by means of the chimney! This correspondent is undoubtedly right in conjecturing that the obstacle in the chimney was intended to act as a charm, for a bullock's heart so placed was always considered by superstitious Dorset folk to be the most effective way of keeping witches or fairies out of a house, as it was by the chimney they were generally supposed to effect an entrance. More especially is the charm to be depended upon if the animal's heart (as in this case) be previously studded with prickles of thorns, nails, or pins, in the same way as Mr. Roberts mentioned with regard to pieces of bacon used for the similar purpose. In order to make the charm more efficacious, " maiden " thorns should be used ; that is, thorns that have been grown the same year in which they were picked.
The same paper in April, 1901, mentions a similar case as occurring at Shipton Gorge, which carries the belief in such practices in West Dorset up to the beginning of the present century.   It says :—
" A week or two ago the son of Mr. Fowler, sweep, of Bridport, while sweeping a chimney in one of the cottages in Ship ton came upon a curious relic of past days. He had reason to go up the chimney, and about eight or ten feet from the ground he found an old canvas bag, hanging or fixed in a cranny of the wall, and inside this was discovered, wrapped in paper, a hard and dried bullock's heart, stuck through and through with thorns and pins. This is the fourth heart of the kind found in chimneys in the neighbourhood within the last few years. This was one of the charms against the witch's spell in days gone by, and was hung in the chimney with the idea that the pins and thorns added torment to the witch and broke her spell."
The late Mr. Bosworth Smith, in his Bird Life and Bird Lore (1909), p. 366, spoke of the belief in the " evil eye ", and in the bewitching of cattle and persons, as still lingering on in Bingham's Melcombe and the surrounding villages. And he mentioned the practice of sticking pins into a bullock's or other animal's heart as still followed in that neighbourhood. But in the instance he there gave of this having been carried out only a year or two before, the " charm " would seem to have been used rather as a remedy or cure for the bewitching or overlooking than as a preventive against the spell being cast. In this case the heart, " bestuck with pins till it bristled all over with them ", was set before a fire ; and then " as it begins to glow and frizzle the power of the witch or wizard gradually diminishes, and when at last it burst with the heat the spell is broken and the witchcraft over."
A Bullock's Heart
impaled with Hawthorns
At Wyke Regis, Weymouth, there once lived an old woman who was suspected of practising witchcraft, for it was believed she had overlooked a young girl. A gypsy informed the girl's mother to hang a bullock's heart stuffed with pins inside the chimney, which in time would break the spell. The mother did this and when the heart dried out, it fell into the fire and was burnt to a cinder. Later when her daughter recovered, the old witch was seen in a fit of rage claiming that some one had been meddling in her affairs.

Mentioned in the 'Dorset Year Book 1942-3'. The Police station at Frampton, near Dorchester found a Bullock’s heart in their chimney.  

‘During the fitting of a new firegrate at the Police Station nearly forty years ago my mason dislodged a bullock’s heart stuffed full of pins’

 At Marshwood, near Lyme Regis another bullock’s heart placed up chimney. J.B. Lang paper on ‘Charming of cattle’, 'Procceedings of the Dorset Natural. History. & Archaeology. Society. 91 (1969)'

"A farmer complained his cattle had been ‘overlooked’ and were all gradually dying off. He was told to take the heart out of the last animal which had died and push the heart, stuck all over with pins and nails, up the chimney so that the ‘overlooking’ would pass back again where it had come from."
Hermann Lea wrote in his paper on 'Some Dorset Superstitions' published in ‘Memorials of Old Dorset’ by T. Perkins and H. Pentin, 1907, with regards to this strange folk superstition.

"In a case where the horses were dying from some obscure complaint, the victim was told to cut out the heart of the next animal that died and boil it in water containing sage, peppermint, and onions; when cold, it was to be stuck full of new pins on the one side, and on the other with "maiden" thorns — i.e., thorns of the present year's growth — picked by a maiden — woman or girl — and inserted by her. This done, it was to be hung up on a nail in the chimney of a neighbour — the one accused of being the witch."
Source: Dark Dorset Website: Bullock's Heart stuffed with Thorns

Sunday, 14 December 2014

'Merry Meet' issue 54 out now!

Merry Meet Issue 54 Autumn 2014
Merry Meet Magazine is an independent quarterly journal of Folklore and Pagan Heritage, produced and edited by local musician and author Jerry Bird. 

In Issue 54 Autumn 2014, articles include:
  •  News & Comment
  • An Old Mummer at the Chequers, Wheeler End
  • King Arthur: Warlords, Wizardry, History & Prophecy by Hannah Spencer
  • The Lost Stone Circles of Dorset (Pt 2)
  • Twelve Days of (A Dorset) Christmas
  • Reviews: Wassailing - Reawakening an Ancient Folk Custom by Colin & Karen Cater; The Shortest Day - A Little Book of the Winter Solstice by Karen Cater; Mumming Plays in Hardy's Wessex by Jerry Bird
  • Folklore Diary
Current Stockists
    For more information visit www.merrymeetmagazine.co.uk

    Mumming Plays in Hardy's Wessex by Jerry Bird

    Mumming plays, like several other winter customs, have enjoyed a huge revival in modern times, largely due to the enthusiasm of morris sides. This academic paper, a version of which was read at the Folklore Society conference in April of this year, delves into the mysterious origins of the Christmas mumming play, before examining its extent and importance in the County of Dorset.

    Thomas Hardy famously used a mumming play as a dramatic device in his novel Return of the Native, and seems to have had an abiding interest in folk-drama generally; his last published work which was not poetry was The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, billed as a 'play for mummers'. He came from a long line of folk-musicians and his cousins performed in the Puddletown play. Despite this, the play he used in his novel appears not to have a local origin, though his description of the players was accurate, and he later borrowed a genuine Dorset script to write a new version for a stage production of Return in the 1920s, thus inadvertently becoming an early revivalist.

    The author has collected together numerous references to mumming plays in Dorset, and the paper is well illustrated with photographs from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and elsewhere. The incident in which the Fordington mummers did battle with the Bockhampton band in Dorchester in 1845 is covered, with contemporary newspaper accounts reproduced here in full for the first time.The author explores the social and economic background to this event in the context of the upheavals of the time amongst the rural workforce, which included rick-burnings and the'Swing riots' as well as the Tolpuddle Martyrs' trial.

    The Symondsbury Mummers
    The well-known folklorist John Symonds Udal, author of Dorsetshire Folk-lore was an early collector of mumming plays, and fortunately the author was able to have access to his original play scripts and notes. There seems to have been a distinctive character to West Dorset plays in particular, which incorporated other traditions such as the 'hobby horse' and the Dorset Ooser.

    The Appendix includes the scripts of ten Dorset plays, including Hardy's own version. These are well annotated with extensive notes, and illustrations, including some musical notation and a photograph of one of Udal's original scripts.

    Like most academic offprints, the presentation is somewhat plain, being a straightforward reproduction of pages from the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Proceedings, bound with a plastic clip. Like the Proceedings, however, it is printed to A4 format, and so is equivalent to a paperback with over twice its number of pages, and is some 36,500 words long.

    • Mumming Plays in Hardy's Wessex is available, printed to order, from Merry Meet Magazine at the address below, or from the website www.merrymeetmagazine.co.uk, priced at £ 12.50 inc. UK p&p. The price is the actual cost of production and postage.

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