Cambridgeshire - Folklore

The following are just a few items of folklore associated with the fenland area. Some of the items are not exclusive to the area but they do indicate how communities of the past were influenced by nature. Many beliefs were held up to the early part of this century and even though they may seem primitive many people today do not like to break a mirror, or walk under a ladder, believe a needle held on a string can determine the sex of an unborn child, throw salt over their shoulder, etc.

NATURE

It was an old fenland belief that if a Monkey Puzzle Tree was planted on the edge of a graveyard it would prove an obstacle to the devil when he tried to hide in the branches to watch a burial. Cypress was feared because it was believed to be the tree graveyard ghosts sheltered under in bad weather and Yew was thought to offer the same service for witches who made their brooms of Hawthorn. Elder was also associated with witches who were thought to have a particular liking for the tree and for this reason it was not to be touched, sawn, or in any way tampered with after dark. Judas Iscariot was believed to have hanged himself on an elder and the wood for the Cross of Calvary was believed to have been made of elder. Holly was thought to offer a protection against witchcraft and those on a lonely nightime walk would protect themselves from witches by carrying a branch cut from a hedge. Coachmen did not like to drive at night without a whip with a handle made of holly wood.

The self igniting gas present in the swamps of the undrained fens often appeared on the surface of the water as small flickering flames called Jack 0' Lanterns. These were greatly feared as it was believed that they could entice a wayfarer off the path at night time and to certain death in the marsh. Whistling was thought to encourage the Jack o'Lanterns to appear. The safest thing to do on seeing them was to make for the nearest shelter or if none were available to lie face down until the lights disappeared.

HEALTH

Cow Dung was used as a poultice to cure problems such as Abscesses, Boils, Ulcers, etc. until as recently as the end of the last century. There is a recorded case of a man from Littleport Fen who developed a large abscess in the middle of his back and Addenbrookes Hospital at Cambridge decided his case was hopeless. The local handy-woman applied a poultice of fresh cow dung and mares urine and within a month the patient was out of bed and was able to return to work. The problem occurred when the man was 38 years old - he died in 1931 at the age of 75!

The fen malaria or Ague had many remedies a few of which were - scratching the legs with a holly branch; wearing a dock root tied across the thighs; smearing bees wax on the soles of the feet; a dried pigs bladder cut open, smeared with goose fat and worn as a chest protector; a strip of red flannel worn around the waist; a dried rats tail carried in the pocket. The application of the hand of a dead person was believed to cure Cysts and Cancerous growths, while carrying corks in the pocket or keeping a holed stone under the bed prevented Cramp.

May 1st was not a lucky day for a fenland mother to give Birth. To prevent the event happening on this day the mother would be made to jump up and down vigorously on April 30th in an effort to ensure delivery before midnight. If this tailed she would be given a strong infusion of horehound and rue to drink followed by a good dose of gin with laudanum or poppy juice. This put her to sleep for 24 hours! On the other hand a baby conceived during a thunderstorm was sure to grow up strong and healthy.

THE CALENDAR

Plough Monday was the day when it was customary for ploughmen and boys to draw their ploughs through the villages threatening to plough up the doorsteps of anyone refusing to give them money. In many places they wore fancy costumes and blacked their faces. At Whittlesey the day following Plough Monday was Straw Bear Tuesday and the custom has recently been revived. Traditionally a man completely covered in straw was led by another and made to dance in front of peoples houses, in return for which money was expected.

Hallowe'en was the night fen dwellers stayed indoors as it was believed witches held their meetings on this night. Food was placed on the doorstep to appease any witch who might approach the house, salt was put in the keyholes and a cockerel was killed and its tail feathers hung on stable doors. On St Thomas's Day [21st December] old people made the rounds of the more prosperous houses and farms seeking money or small gifts for Christmas. The day was also known as Gathering Day or Mumping Day.

LEGEND

Tom Hickathrift the Giant was a legendary giant of the Wisbech area whose memory is preserved in names in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, for example at Emneth, Hickathrift Farm and Hickathrift House can be found near Hickathrift's Corner. A nearby field is reputed to be the site of his castle and their was once a hollow called Hickathrift's Washbasin, although this has long been built over.

The Devil at March. It is said that many years ago the people of March wanted to build a church near the market place. The devil thought that the fens belonged to him and when the building started he pulled everything down so that each dawn saw the labours of the previous day wasted. A cross was put up to drive the devil away, which had the desired effect, but the church was never built. The base of an old stone cross stands by the road between the market and St Wendreda's church and the story probably grew up to explain the existence of this cross.

[Extract from the BBC Radio Book - The Cambridgeshire Fens]

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Last Updated on: 29 May 2000
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