Folklore section from “Memorials of old Staffordshire” (1909)

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“SOME LOCAL FAIRIES”, from: Memorials of old Staffordshire (1909).

BY ELIJAH COPE OF LEEK.

WITHOUT making any attempt to account for the great amount of fairy lore in the moorlands of [north] Staffordshire, I will give a few typical examples and, where needful, what explanation seems necessary.

I stayed one night with an old woman named Grindy, who lived on a little farm near Mixon, in the hills east of Leek. After supper we had a long chat about old times and old people we had both known. We sat in a room she called the parlour, which was furnished with quaint old oak furniture, and some part of the room was wainscotted with oak panelling. As the weather was cold, and partly on account of my visit, a fire had been put in the quaint old grate. We sat till nearly midnight, and only a few pieces of wood glowed in the bottom of the grate. I was then startled by what seemed to be several raps on the table and one loud rap on the wainscot near the fire. The old lady did not pay so much regard to the noise as I did, but merely remarked that ” Old Nancy has come as usual.” I asked her who Old Nancy was. She replied that she was an old fairy who had been about there, goodness knows how long ; and that her mother told her about the fairies and counselled her to be good to them and always leave some bits of cake or other food either on the table or other convenient place in the house. Her mother had said that fairies were good and honourable little folk and would never steal anything so long as people were kind to them, and that they would do many bits of work in and about the house in payment for food. I asked the old lady if she had ever seen “Old Nancy ” or any of the fairies. “No,” she said, ” I don’t know that I have, nor have I any wish to see them. They don’t like people to watch them nor to interfere with them in any way.” […]

On the following morning we had an early breakfast, and I walked about the farm buildings, and tried to get up a conversation with a servant-man who was busy amongst the cows, but to all my inquiries about fairies, ghosts, and witches he gave a vague and evasive reply.

As a worker amongst oak for very many years, I don’t think there is any great difficulty in accounting for the noises on the table and wainscot. It is the nature of oak to swell in a damp or even cold atmosphere, and to contract in a hot or even warm atmosphere. The fire in the room had caused the oak to contract, and the noise was caused by its pulling itself away from its cross-bands.

Towards noon I started on my way home by Mixon Mines. I called at a cottage to see a Mrs. Frith, whom I cautiously drew into conversation about fairies. She put a shawl or wrap over her head and walked about half a mile on the way home with me in the direction of Mixon Hay farm. When in the second field from the village she pointed to the lower part of the meadow, and told me that her mother had spent hours there watching fairies dance round a ring, and had described the different coloured garments they wore. She said she did not think they were so very honest, for she had missed many articles of clothing which had been forgotten and left out on the garden fence all night; but added sympathetically, “Poor things, they must have clothes from somewhere and of some kind.”

The late Mr. Billing, who, some years ago, lived on a little farm on the hillside between Moridge End and Hollinsclough, was a firm believer in fairies. He was one of the few people I have met with who had seen them dance in a ring, and also seen them about the farm buildings. I learned from him many strange stories about fairies and their habit of taking babies from their human mothers and leaving their own children in the place of them. Such children are called changelings, or children that have been changed. The following story is a type of many. Most children who were ill-shapen, dwarfs, cripples, or otherwise deformed, and especially if they were lacking in speech, were supposed to be changelings! Mr. Billing told me that when he was a boy a poor woman, who lived at a cottage near him, gave birth to a baby that was perfect in every way, but very small. When about a month old, its mother took it into a hay-field and laid it on a heap of dry hay. As the sun was very hot, she put an umbrella over it. After about an hour or so she returned and found the baby asleep, but she fancied its features had changed. The dreadful thought came into her mind that the fairies had taken her baby and left one of their own in its place ! Worst of all it did not appear to her, judging from what she had heard about fairies, to be well born or aristocratic, but a common ” Hobthurst,” which is a fairy of low birth, low habits, and by no means industrious, but fond of sitting by the fire and leaning against the hob. She decided, however, to take it home, to be kind to it, and to treat it in every way as her own.

The child grew but little, and never learned to talk. Still she was very kind to it, hoping that some day or some night fairies might snatch it and return her own a wish that was never realised. Compensation, however, came in another way. One day, when clearing out an old cupboard that had been built into a recess of the house, she found a large number of gold coins wrapped in a piece of old linen rag. She was overjoyed at her good fortune, and thankful she had kept the child and been kind to it; for she was quite satisfied that the fairy to whom the child belonged had put the money there. For over three years she found money occasionally hidden in various parts of the house, chiefly in the thatch. Eventually, however, the child sickened and died, from which time, though she diligently searched, she never found a coin of any kind.

When Billing had finished his story, I asked him if he believed it to be true. “Certainly I do,” he replied with some warmth and drawing himself up to his full height. “Certainly,” he repeated ; “don’t you ?” I had to admit that there were some difficulties in the way of accepting it as true. “In the first place,” I said, “where did the fairies get their coins from? They either had melting-furnaces and dies to stamp their gold or they stole it.” My doubts quite offended the old man, who told me plainly that I was an infidel, and that he made it a rule never to give shelter to an infidel, which I took as a broad hint that I had better be going. He positively refused to shake hands with me or to say Good-night, but quickly said in a low voice, “All things are possible to Providence.”

Most fairy dances that I have heard of have taken place in low boggy ground or damp and undrained meadows, principally the former. The following, however, though of a common type, took place in the Victoria Gardens, which lie on the lower part of Leek, sloping northwards from the old church. A working man rented a piece of garden on the lower part of the ground. After his day’s work in the silk mill, he went to spend an hour or so weeding some vegetables. When too dark to see the weeds he went to his little wooden shed, or summer-house as he called it, lit his pipe, and sat for sometime thinking. Eventually he fell asleep. How long he slept he did not know, but it must have been nearly daybreak when he awoke. Going to the door of his shed he was greatly astonished to see a number of little people dancing round a ring, dressed in most gorgeously coloured costumes. Their motion was slow at first, but after a little time grew rapid. The man became excited, and went a few yards nearer to the dancers to get a better view of them. Still the motion of the dancers became more rapid, and in proportion the man became more excited, till finally, losing control over himself, he went close to them, and, clapping his hands together in applause, he called out, “Well done, my little folks, the one with the blue frock dances best.” The spell was broken, the dancing fairies vanished, and the man, standing near the spot where the fairies had been, rubbed his eyes in utter astonishment.

I remember when a boy walking with my grandfather from Ipstones to Leek, by way of Basford, and through the fields where stand the remains of an old stone cross. My grandfather took me a little out of the footpath to a field to show me some rings where fairies were said to dance. The rings were a little larger than an ordinary cart wheel, and the ground of a different colour from the other part of the field. Some time afterwards I paid a second visit along with other boys, and found the rings were gone. The farmer had given the land a dressing of gas-lime, which had killed the fungus that had formed the rings.

Probably the district most inhabited by fairies lies near the Bottom lane leading from Ipstones to Bradnop. There are several farms, mostly of small acreage, called Lady Meadows. The subsoil is clay and the ground wet, except in dry weather. Most fairies of that district seem to have been of a very industrious race. For a piece of cake and a bottle of home-brewed ale they found and restored to their proper places lost iron pins that belonged to ploughs. They prevented hedgehogs from sucking the milk of cows in the night-time. They were encouraged to be about the house by presents of tobacco and little delicacies in the form of food. Their little tobacco pipes were sometimes found in the fields, and the ploughman who turned one up whilst ploughing was said to be lucky. The ill-natured housewife who would not encourage nor reward their industry was often in trouble. Her oven would not bake bread properly; her knitting needles fell out; the flat-irons were either too hot and burned the clothes, or they were too cold and would not iron clothes properly. The things in the house were put in disorder in the night-time. Even her garters refused to remain fastened, and her hair would persist in falling down. The worst mischief, however, happened in the night-time. The farm dog would bark; crockery was found broken or damaged ; the cream was taken from the milk; the wife’s Sunday cap torn to pieces; and the husband’s tobacco stolen. In the end it paid the housewife to be generous and kind to the little folks.

I have often found that witchcraft and fairy lore have been linked together. Some of the witches I have known have blamed fairies for mischief reputed to them; as, for instance, when people could not make a light with the flint and steel, the mischief was sometimes charged to the fairies and sometimes to the witches, and occasionally to both. I have known and been intimately acquainted with witches, and have known and seen their methods of work, and what are called their black arts, which no respectable and well-bred fairy would descend to.

On the whole, I have found that fairies are respectable and industrious little folk, very harmless if properly treated, and though occasionally given to little acts of roguishness are by no means wholly bad. They are rapidly dying out. Education and science are making their existence intolerable. When they are entirely gone the world will be poorer by the absence of many moral stories told of them, and many high and noble lessons learned from their characters and actions.

  [See also William Purcell Witcutt’s memoir “The Valley of Phantoms” (circa 1930s).]

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