Staffordshire Folk and their Lore (1896) – some extracts and notes

Some notes on and interesting extracts from C.S. Burne’s Folklore journal article “Staffordshire Folk and their Lore” (1896)…

1) Male witches:

“Jack Rhodes the bank-ranger, he went to a witch in the Potteries about the mooney as he lost. […] I would draw your attention in passing to the use of the word witch for a male soothsayer. This is customary in that part of the county.” [In] “the Potteries […] The dark practices of magic are known among them; the simpler faith in apparitions [i.e.: ghosts] is comparatively less flourishing.”

This is relevant to the Jimmy Tunnicliffe character in the novel.

2) Trick or treat

Burne’s 1896 article also gives the lie to the modern idea that trick-or-treat at Halloween is an American invention and import…

“In the north [of the Midlands] (and also in Cheshire and North Shropshire), the festival of All Souls, November 2nd, is celebrated by parties of lads and children going round to all the principal houses begging for apples — and formerly for cakes and ale — and droning out:

  “Soul soul, for a apple or two If ye’ve got no apples, pears’ll do,
  Up wi’ the kettle and down wi’ the pan.
  Give us a big ‘un, and we’ll be gone.”

“He speaks puling [whimpering], like a beggar at Hallowmas,” says Shakespeare (Two Gent.),”

…from which we should infer that in his time this was also a Warwickshire custom.

Toffee apples do feature at one point in my novel. Though the time is Sept/Oct, not Oct/Nov, as I wanted to avoid actually setting it at Halloween (since that raises all sorts of unwanted modern connotations in the mind of the contemporary reader).

3) Friendly folk:

The article also notes the cheery and friendly reputation of Staffordshire people, for which they still have a reputation especially in Stoke, and their noted fluency of speech…

The cheery hospitable nature which distinguishes them [Staffordshire people] was noted in [Queen] Elizabeth’s time by Drayton in his Characteristics of Counties. Punning on the name, he says:

  “And Staffordshire bids ‘Stay, and I will beet the fire,
  And nothing will I ask but goodwill to my hire.’”

The same temper of “goodwill” and friendliness is met with throughout the county; and so is the same racy humour and readiness of speech.

4) Lyrical speech and turns-of-phrase:

Burne also notes the lyrical nature of the people’s speech, another feature of my novel…

“A stranger would suppose the people were continually quoting proverbs, but as often as not their epigrammatic sayings are the coinage of their own brain.” [He gives some examples] “When people naturally talk in this way, it is difficult for the folklorist to distinguish standard proverbs from improvised ones; here, however are two or three specimens. “Merry nights make sorry days.” “He’ll neither be satisfied full nor fasting.” “To get a wooden suit” — to be dead and buried. “To give a pea for a bean” — to give a present with an eye to future profits.”

Shakespeare’s character of Ancient Pistol probably gives a strong flavor of this sort of mellifluousness “speaking in proverbs”.

I also remember reading other accounts of the old “sing-song” nature of the pronunciation of the old North Staffordshire dialect.


Chapter nine of Spyders: what is historically correct?

This is a note about what is is historically correct in the North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem:—

The working-class outsider who inherits a great man’s fortune is one of the common ideas in Victorian novels.

Molded earthenware teapots had indeed been a Burslem staple, and would continue to be. Twyford had indeed invented modern sanitary ware at his Bath Works at nearby Cobridge, and later developed them at his purpose-built model factory at nearby Cliffe Vale.

Sissy Mint was a real chip-shop owner in Burslem, but he lived in the 1930s. He was one of the most well-known of the chip-shop men.

Herbalism still existed at that time. The Bibliotheca Staffordiensis (1894) talks of Culpers’s, a book not yet excised from Staffordshire’s libraries despite the many accounts of the alleged “occult” properties of the plants it described…

Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, and English Physician. Wherein several hundred herbs, with a display of their medicinal and occult properties”

See C.S. Burne’s fascinating 1896 article in Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review, “Staffordshire Folk and Their Lore“, for more details of archaic survivals of herbal and other folk beliefs in the county. Sadly I didn’t see this article before I finished the novel, or I would borrowed a few names and phrases from it.

1768 was indeed deemed a “bad year”, of many eclipses.

There was indeed a Brewery in Zion Street, Burslem. Not mentioned in the novel is the fact that a young trainee manager there was once the Nottingham murderer and alcoholic William Horry. But by the time he was a killer, he had moved to Nottingham.

The southerly facing illuminated clock dial of the Burslem Town Hall was indeed illuminated, presumably at that time by gas.

The tradition of the “rat in the cider” is an old one, and I remember the BBC’s The Archers once spun a week’s worth of episodes out of it.

The ‘Green Man’ figure can still be seen in various places around Stoke. The artist Kate Lynch has done quite a bit of research on the topic, especially in Stoke old town.

The old Victorian ceramic-tiled underground toilets existed in Burslem town centre until very recent times. I went down into them myself, in the early 2000s. They were destroyed by the Council sometime in the mid 2000s.

Eugenics was then a current theory, and academically acceptable until the 1940s.

The ‘League of the Just’ did exist, although at a later date. In its later and more German form in the middle of the 19th century it was the place in which modern terrorism was theorised…

“Karl Heinzen was the first to provide a full-fledged doctrine of modern terrorism; most elements of latter-day terrorist thought can be found in the writings of this forgotten German radical democrat.” — Walter Laqueur, A History of Terrorism (2009).

…thus the novel’s fictional conflation of the group with The Terror of the French Revolution is somewhat justified.

What is historically correct in Chapter Eight of Spyders?

Some notes on the historical accuracy of Chapter Eight of the North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem:—

The Sytch is indeed just north of Burslem town centre, and appears to take its name from the old name for the Scotia Brook. There were such wastelands…

“The Burslem district, with its distinctive bottle ovens, a typical though vanishing feature of the Potteries scene, presents a built-up industrial landscape interspersed with several tracts of wasteland.” — A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 8 (my emphasis).

Here it is on the map of Burslem from 1800. There may be some confusion in the histories, because The Sytch appears to have been both a wasteland and the name of the road that ran alongside that wasteland…

Here is Paul Johnson on The Sytch, from his The Vanished Landscape autobiography of a 1930s childhood…

“The Sytch was the dark heart of the Potteries, an immense stretch of ground composed in almost equal parts of bare clay earth, black water, mud, industrial detritus both active and abandoned, and fumigerous furnaces, belching forth fire, ashes and smoke. […] The Sytch was desolation by day for, except when the wind was high, stagnant smoke clouds and a miasma of foetid mist which surged up from its black waters made sure that visibility was low and a semi-darkness prevailed.”

He may be mis-remembering somewhat, but the area was certainly the poorest in the district, and home to “fumigerous” small workshops that would not be tolerated elsewhere. The site of The Sytch is now said to be roughly on what is now the Trubshaw Playing Fields and the fields around the Brownhills High School, from there stretching up to the northern edge of Burslem…

BERT BENTLEY ARCHIVE - BURSLEM - Off Westport Road. The Sytch mill. The old mill house.

BERT BENTLEY ARCHIVE – BURSLEM – Off Westport Road. The Sytch and Sytch mill. The old mill house.

There were two parish surgeons in 1834, so it seems possible there was at least one resident town surgeon for Burslem in 1869. Medical training for women was not unknown at the time. For instance, America had the New York Medical College for Women by 1869. In 1887 Scotland opened the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, so the idea of Miss Craft going to Edinburgh to train enough to be a local part-time “jobbing” town surgeon is not as far-fetched as it might appear.

The efficient modern factory system of the division of labour, partly described in miniature in use at Craft’s workshops, has been said to have been the invention of ‘the Father of the Industrial Revolution’ Josiah Wedgwood of Stoke.

Some of the greatest grass engravers were indeed to be found at Wordsley in South Staffordshire.

Here are some visual examples of ocular devices of the type the novel envisages, although the simple middle one is closer to that in the novel…

Novels and fictions set in Stoke-on-Trent.

Following the publication of my own North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem, I thought an article surveying other fictions set in the Potteries might be fitting:—

The classic author of the Potteries is, of course, Arnold Bennett. The most approachable novels are generally said to be the serious coming-of-age novel Clayhanger (1910), the more comedic The Card (1910), and the women’s stories Anna of the Five Towns (1902) and The Old Wives’ Tale (1908). All Bennett’s work is now in the public domain, and can be found online in various formats including Kindle. The Card was filmed, partly on location in Burslem and Middleport, with Alec Guinness in 1952. The Old Wives’ Tale was filmed as the 1988 BBC six-part drama, Sophia and Constance.

Paul Breeze’s My Guitar Gently Weeps (1979) is a neatly structured tale of hard rock music and harder revenge, set in the industrial Midlands of the mid 1970s. It’s a portrait of the music scene just before punk, but with a whiff of the notoriously violent Action comic and of the skinheads of the times. A first novel, it was published by the major publisher Micheal Joseph. Here’s their blurb…

“In this gripping novel of revenge, a young musician turns implacable avenger when his whole reason for living — playing the guitar in a rock band — is ended by a brutal assault.”

The writing in My Guitar Gently Weeps is excellent. There was a sequel called Back Street Runner (1980), featuring the same character (but, given the plot of the first book, it’s perhaps unlikely that Back Street Runner was set in Stoke-on-Trent).

Wedgwood Butterflies (2003) is a mystery thriller novel by Peter Corbishley. Set in the Potteries in an indeterminate time period, the book stars Eric Rattlestone, a researcher in ceramics.

The contemporary novelist Stephen Foster set two of his works in the Potteries. It Cracks like Breaking Skin (1999) was a Faber and Faber first novel, set around families and football in Stoke…

“A novel about what it is to grow up. On street corners and market stalls, in back kitchens and swimming pools, across the walkways and the terraces of Stoke-on-Trent, Hewitt the man faces Hewitt the boy. Finding rare passion in the ordinary moments, he discovers what he is, who he might have been.”

Foster’s last publication seems to have been the Kindle-exclusive The Final (2011), set on Stoke’s big day at the F.A. Cup final match (14th May 2011).

Award-winning artist and writer Andi Watson made his debut with a Potteries novel of relationships. Breakfast After Noon (2001) is a substantial and powerful graphic novel set around the end of the 20th century, as many big ceramics factories and the giant steelworks at Etruria closed down, to be replaced by unemployment and family strife — while the New Labour government looked on and did little except scheme about how to demolish people’s terraced houses.

Necromantra (2005) is a novel by Phil Emery, a brooding Kafkaesque novel set in a dark fantasy version of the Victorian-era 1850s Potteries which Emery calls “The Hundred Towns”…

“In the Hundred, the working folk are kept in order by the masters who administrate the various mills, pits and manufactories. Strict records are kept in town halls, every death certified despite a crushing mortality. However, the old grim certainties face a new threat with the arrival of the necromancers — dark-skinned pilgrims who, by the chant of a strange mantra, are able to raise the recently dead, thus throwing the immaculate records of the town halls into chaos. In retaliation, the masters appoint a number of rectifiers to each town. Reviled and feared by most of the Hundred, their job is to ‘re-decease’ the ‘discrepancies’, as the risen are labelled.”

The Bonemill (2010) by Nicholas Corder is a short and fast-paced historical thriller novel set in Stoke in the 1820s, and intended for young teenage readers (i.e., the “young adult” market)…

“A teenage orphan, Joseph lives hand-to-mouth, keeping one step ahead of the workhouse. And he’s trying to contact his dead mother through his landlady and medium, Gerda. When offered a chance to earn a few extra shillings, Joseph jumps at the chance and is soon dragged into the deadly sideline business at the House of Recovery with the slimy local anatomist.”

The Green Stone (197?), by Graham Phillips, is only partly or tangentially set in Stoke. It was apparently one of those famous Panther paperbacks of the late 1970s, full of ‘earth mysteries’ and faux mysticism, and is said to have some scenes of…

“battling with the spirits of Victorian magicians in dank basements under Stoke-on-Trent”

Mel Sherratt’s crime novel Taunting The Dead (2011) is a gritty and atmospheric crime story set in Stoke-on-Trent.

There are also short stories. Such as “Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges (to be found in his collection Labyrinths) which is set in “a suburb of Fenton” but which the narrator reaches by alighting from his train at a fictitious rural halt called “Ashgrove” and then walking through a countryside of “confused meadows”. I have a short essay on the story on this blog.

A more substantially “Stoke” short story is by H.G. Wells. His story “The Cone” (1895) can be found in The Country of the Blind and other Selected Stories, or for free online since it is in the public domain. It’s a macabre story, apparently inspired by a news report of someone throwing themselves into an ironworks melting-pot and by Wells’s own time in the Potteries. He vividly evokes the works at Etruria in Stoke. For details of Wells in the Potteries, see my book on the topic.

The novelist and pioneering werewolf scholar (The Book of Werewolves, 1865) Sabine Baring-Gould set his novel The Frobishers: A Story of the Staffordshire Potteries (1901) in North Staffordshire. The work is freely available online. However, the author of The Bibliophile Dictionary encyclopaedia thought it a piece of political propaganda: “A study of the hardships and oppressions of workers in the pottery districts of North Staffordshire, the details evidently ‘got up’ for the purpose of instructing public opinion.”

There are also apparently some unpublished works, such as Robert P. Clarke’s Five Gold Rings, a philosophical novel of Kantian ideas set in his terraced house in Longport, near Burslem.

Of note among autobiographies that evoke the poverty during the Great Depression of the 1930s are the major books by Arthur Berry (Three and Sevenpence Ha’penny Man), and Paul Johnson (The Vanished Landscape: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries). Also heavily autobiographical is Arthur Berry’s book of stories The Little Gold-Mine. See also Tales of old Hanley (1992) by Fred Leigh.

Rhoda Broughton was the niece of the horror fiction pioneer Sheridan le Fanu. Broughton was once… “one of the most popular novelists of the second half of the nineteenth century”, but is now almost totally forgotten. She left Staffordshire (Eccleshall, a few miles to the SW of Stoke) as a young woman and lived most of her life in Oxford. A volume of her ghost stories was published in 1995, Rhoda Broughton’s Ghost Stories, and I suppose it may just be possible that one of these stories is set back in the Staffordshire of her youth, perhaps even in the Potteries?

Priscilla Masters’s short children’s book Mr. Bateman’s Garden (1987) is a fantasy set in the gardens at Biddulph Grange, North Staffordshire — although it seems unlikely that it includes a depiction of Stoke-on-Trent.

As for poets, Charles Tomlinson’s The Stoke Poems was published as an audio book by Keele. It collected all his Stoke and Staffordshire poems. So far as I know there has never been a print edition. Also see Arthur Berry’s 2007 collection Dandelions, and some of the poems of John Wain. Nov 2011 also saw the Kindle republication of the 1899 volume The Writings In Prose and Rhyme In North Staffordshire Dialect by the Potteries Poet by William Steele.

Oral storytelling is well represented by Alan Povey’s tales of his Owd Grandad Piggott character, set in the Potteries. LP albums and CD collections of the stories have been available in the past, and have been broadcast on BBC Radio Stoke — but the character doesn’t seem to have yet made the transition to podcasts.

In the local dialect, “A. Scott” (Wilfred Alan Bloor, 1915-1993)… “wrote over 400 Jabez tales in North Staffordshire dialect for the local Sentinel newspaper between 1968 and 1993.”

There was also a paperback book The Stoke Story: fiction and memoirs. This was published as a 2002 competition anthology. Despite being published by Stoke-on-Trent Libraries, it seems never to have been listed on book databases or on Amazon, and is now unobtainable as a purchase. I have placed the contents page online here.

(My thanks to Fred Hughes for pointing out three of these books).

Update: In late 2012, two new novels set in Stoke-on-Trent:

* Jonathan Taylor, Entertaining Strangers. Jonathan grew up in Trentham, and has used the city as a backdrop for a novel of eccentricity, obsessions, and fiery visions.

* A.N. Wilson, The Potter’s Hand. A historical novel of the interior life and work of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous pottery maker.

What is historically correct in Chapter Seven of Spyders?

This is a note on what is historically correct in Chapter Seven of the North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem:—

The Burslem Workhouse. The original local workhouse is imagined in the novel as lasting into the late 1860s, but in reality the old one became the Scotia Pottery in 1857 and soon after was sold to Bodley & Harrold…

“The old parish workhouse was sold by the guardians in 1857 for £1,000 after several unsuccessful attempts to secure more. It was bought by James Vernon who converted it into the Scotia Pottery” — A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 8.

The newer and purpose-built Wolstanton & Burslem Union Workhouse at Chell served a wider area than simply Burslem. It had 132 inmates in 1839. It had around 160 adult inmates listed in the 1881 census. This suggests that my estimate of about 100 Workhouse inmates from Burslem town (then a town of 22,000) would be about the right number for 1869.

The Lyme was a real local forest, although long gone by 1869. It gave its name to Newcastle-under-Lyme.

There was a North Staffs Fox Hunt. See the book: A History of the North Staffordshire Hounds and Country, 1825 to 1902. Also the 1995 updating by Simon P. Huguet, The North Staffordshire Hounds: a history of the North Staffordshire Hunt, 1845-1995.

Mrs. Mary Brougham the bookseller was a real historical figure. See the historical notes on the previous chapter for full details. She did indeed commission some fine ceramic Parian miniatures from local artisans.

The Free Trade Movement was real. See the book The Free-trade Movement and its Results for details.

The various trades of Birmingham, Burton, and Leek are correct. However, leather was more in Walsall.

The Cat Motor is an obvious invention. There was however much activity in this area in the mid 1800s, and Dr. Morton suggested that the history of static electricity in the UK could be…

“divided into three periods … the second, a period extending from 1800 to 1869”.

Earth currents had indeed only just been discovered in 1869. The Stoke inventor Oliver Lodge — a partial inspiration for Miss Craft (the inventor in the novel) — apparently made one of the first practical local demonstrations of electricity as a boy at Hartshill in 1868. Like Craft he was a science prodigy, and later was a key player in the invention of radio.

Mrs. Brougham’s casual mention of Mr. Morlock Bones and his assistant Moriarty again shows the reader they are in an alterative history. Morlock Bones is, of course, a play on the name Sherlock Holmes. Morlock is my allusion to the ‘morlocks’ in H.G. Wells’s famous The Time Machine. Wells published a macabre story set in Stoke, in the same year that The Time Machine was published.

The description of the Rousseau psychographic portrait is correct, and is based on this painting of him…

Rousseau wore this type of dress in the Staffordshire Moorlands, and did indeed go hunting herbs on the moors. Erasmus Darwin did once try to meet with Rousseau in the Moorlands, but the paranoid Rousseau rebuffed him.

Rousseau did indeed give his five children into the care of the state. The extreme Jacobins of the French Revolution indeed adored Rousseau. And…

“The Jacobin leaders were explicitly disciples of Rousseau […] It was Rousseau’s followers who prevailed in the French Revolution, especially in its destructive third phase” — from Rousseau and the French Revolution.

The real Thomas Wedgwood was indeed interested in educational theory in his youth. See the biography for more details.

What is historically correct in Chapter Six of The Spyders of Burslem.

This is a note on what is historically correct in Chapter 6 of the North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem, set in 1869:—

The description of differing times is broadly correct. The passage of measured time was not yet wholly uniform in provincial England in 1869.

The animosity toward women readers is correct. A old colleague of mine once wrote her M.A. dissertation of the subject. Here is a report of a debate, given in the Journal of the Society of Arts (2nd April 1869), on the topic. This is advocating in the other direction…

The novels mentioned are of the time, but Middlemarch was only begun in 1869 and did not see print serialisation until 1871.

The famous fantasy novel At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald was indeed in that year being serialised in Good Words.

There was indeed a Mrs. Brougham, Bookseller, in Burslem. As well as selling books she held what then amounted to a local lending library and a local records service before the opening of the Wedgwood Institute library in the 1870s. She seems to have inherited the business from her father(?), Mr. Stephen Brougham, since he is mentioned in regard to his marriage as a Burslem bookseller in The New Monthly in 1816. She appears as “Mary Brougham, printer” of Burslem, and appears to have operated as such from 1828 into the 1850s, whence the printing seems to have taken a back seat to the bookselling.

Mrs. Brougham also appears to have had a sideline in commissioning brooches from the finest local artisans, since in 1851 it was recorded that “The elegant Parian Brooches manufactured by Mrs. M. Brougham, of Burslem, had received the patronage of Queen Victoria”. This fact features in the novel, and is tied into the visit of the Queen to Burslem.

The real Mrs. Brougham appears to have been connected with the Burslem and Tunstall Literary and Scientific Society (founded 1838, seems to have later floundered and was re-founded in 1849 as a Mechanic’s Institute which lasted until 1854).

Charlotte Cotton was another female bookseller in Burslem at the time. For a small town of 22,000 to support two booksellers suggests good sales and a wide readership.

The Potteries has indeed been called the cradle of the nation’s comedy, although at a later date.

In 1869 about nine out of ten of the town’s children and youth did indeed have some form of schooling, and could read and write.

I remember reading years ago that some historians had changed their views on the history of British education, and had come to see the penny schools as providing a generally good service, regulated by the market because paid for weekly and directly, and the compulsory state education as often inferior to what it replaced. I assume in the novel that people in a prosperous working town would pay a shilling (five pence) a week rather than a penny. This supposition seems to be backed up by this quote from the Journal of the Society of Arts, 1869…

“Penny schools [in England] used to be laughed at, and then the fee was raised to twopence and threepence; and when the parents found the value of the education which was given they were willing to give even another penny, and thus more teaching [staff] power could be provided.”

My grandmother has bad memories of being schooled by nuns, and this is reflected in the narrators’ comments about the potential cruelty of compulsory education run by religious zealots using corporal punishment.

Blackshaw was, I seem to remember from my research reading, a real chemist in the Burslem Market Square. Lovatt was a real drapier (gent’s outfitter), and there was a Commercial Bank of England branch.

Toni Chilterni the barber is a name some people may recognise 🙂

Pigeon racing may have been a gambling sport at that time, since cock fighting had been abolished.