Some possible archaic survivals in North Staffordshire folklore

Here are some mentions of the more unusual and probably archaic items of North Staffordshire folklore and folk practice, picked from an examination of Jon Raven’s The Folklore of Staffordshire (Rowman and Littlefield, 1978)…

1) House spirits:

The introduction to the book mentions of the north of the county…

“the pottery bird-shaped whistles, built into old chimneys as a guards against evil spirits”.

One wonders if these might be linked with the Staffordshire dancing bear jugs and the grotesque early toby jugs?

But there were also more amenable house spirits which were deemed to live inside the home. A “hopthrust” or “hobthrush” was the name for a rough fairy, one of the lower orders of ‘working’ fairies. ‘Hob’ of ‘lob’ (as in ‘Lob Lie-by-the-fire’) was a common name for a ugly hearth spirit which worked for humans, commonly deemed to inhabit a nook near the main fire. The ‘o’ sound of these names re-occurs in the name of ‘knockers’, who are very similar ‘working’ spirits of the Staffordshire mines. The tapping of the ‘knockers’ in the mines was deemed by miners to presage a disaster. The antiquity of such names seems to be indicated by the similarity to the few very rare survivals of the language of the British Isles before the Romans — such as crock, noggin, gob, nook, and brock (brock being the folk name for a badger).

Interestingly, the name “toby” in “toby jugs” may then also be thought to be a relic of the very ancient “hob” — also ugly and likely to inhabit a hook in a nook by the fire. One of the key settings of my novel, Queen Street, in reality continues the popular knowledge of this, since it’s now a shop called The Hobby Goblin.

2) The White Rabbit:

There is mention of a Kidsgrove boggart that “does not harm travellers” but which shrieks to warn of disaster in the nearby mines. Possibly this is related to the white rabbit, mentioned several times in Burslem and Kidsgrove. Its sighting (outdoors/crossing a path) either predicted death, or else it was deemed to be a spirit of one already dead. A County Mayo man (of Ireland), who had lived at Golden Hill just north of the Potteries and near Kidsgrove, also reported the white rabbit, as recorded in Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). In the memory of “shrieking” there may also be a faint echo of a memory of the ancient Irish “keening” songs sung at funerals, and of the Celtic idea that some souls inhabit earthly butterflies for a while after death, if they cannot find their difficult way to the afterlife.

Down in South Staffordshire, at Bilston, during the late eighteenth century, the local colliers with cursed and haunted mines often resorted to a ‘cunning’ man (i.e.: a male herbalist and curse-remover, something which seems to have been common in Staffordshire) to cure them of the visitation. He was known to the miners as ‘White Rabbit’. The date of this report indicates that the name cannot have been influenced by Alice in Wonderland.

Possibly related is that Antiques Magazine (1955) recorded a rare ceramic…

“white rabbit sitting under the dome [which] was made of white salt-glazed stoneware about 1735 in the Staffordshire district”.

(I also wonder about a possible Cheshire folkloric origin for Alice’s famous White Rabbit. Since Lewis Carroll was from nearby Cheshire. But it appears that no such example has been unearthed by the eager scholars of Alice).

3) Clogg Almanacs:

“Almanacs of a rude kind, known as clogg almanacs, consisting of square blocks of hard wood, about 8in. in length, with notches along the four angles corresponding to the [special] days of the year [in a perpetual calendar], were in use in some parts of England as late as the 17th century.” — Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1902.

They do not seem to appear in Cheshire or Shropshire. Raven’s book The Folklore of Staffordshire claims of these that…

“The Staffordshire Clogg Almanacs were in use at the time of the Saxon Conquest, and it is clear from the available evidence that the customs associated with the [special] day[s marked on it] are very old.”

Here is an engraving of a Staffordshire clogg almanac, formerly in the Lichfield Museum, taken from the Anastatic Drawing Society’s volume for 1860. It was later described at length by the Rev. J. M. Gresley, in the Transactions of the Leicestershire Architectural and Archeological Society, Volume One, page 410…

For more on Clogg almanacs, see my longer article on them.


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