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Johnnie Johnson

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Blogs by Johnnie Johnson

11/3/2011 8:26:48 AM


I hope that my planned series of blogs will be of some interest to writers of historical fiction – or indeed that today’s offering may attract writers of period romance.

As a historian in recent years I have become particularly interested in the darker, less publicised aspects of 18th/19th/20th century social history. Sometimes these are no more than footnotes but they are significant in helping us to understand people in the past. I shall therefore be offering glimpses of bygone days – crime, punishment, social conditions, beliefs – which may offer writers a hint of plot or a scene.

Though my examples come principally from southern English counties, the stories they tell might well occur in many distant parts of the world.

So to work... here’s something odd: love divination it’s called.

Who am I going to marry? What is he going to be like? And when shall I marry? Natural speculations for many a young girl. Throughout Great Britain the answers to such questions came from observing specific rituals.

In the 1870s, Charlotte Latham, wife of the vicar of Fittleworth in Sussex, recorded several strange procedures. On the night of the first new moon after New Year's Day, girls would sit alone on a gate or stile and, looking at the moon, recite:

‘All hail to thee, moon! All hail to thee

I pray thee, good moon, reveal to me

This night who my husband must be.’

Now this is an entry into the occult, the words intended to conjure up a living person’s wraith (the ghost of a living person). Little wonder if girls shivered with fear: little wonder if they did not always wait to find out.

And there were other sinister rituals. Two of these involved graveyard visits. Girls took the leaves of a yarrow plant from a young man's grave and then repeated the following wish:

‘Yarrow, sweet Yarrow, the first that I have found,

In the name of Jesus Christ, I plucked it from the ground;

As Joseph loved sweet Mary, and took her for his dear,

So in a dream this night, I hope, my true love will appear.’

Other girls might go to the graveyard with a handful of hemp seed which they would sprinkle on the ground, all the while saying:

‘Hemp seed, I sow thee,

Hempseed, I sow thee;

And he that is my true love

Come after me and mow thee.’

Once the seed was sown, she looked over her left shoulder, expecting to see the wraith of her future husband mowing the already sprouting seed behind her. This spell was said to work only on days appropriate for divining the future – Midsummer’s Eve and St John's Eve, the 23rd and 24th June.

Another St John’s Eve strategy: girls would hang their newly washed blouses in front of the kitchen fire. Then leaving the kitchen door open they would sit in silence, waiting for the midnight arrival of the wraith to come in and turn the blouse.

Believe it?

The past is another country: they do things differently there.






In 1842 the wife of a labourer who lived on New Pound Common at Wisborough Green in West Sussex had been ill for a considerable time and could not understand why her illness was so protracted.  She had talked matters over with her neighbours and they had concluded that she was bewitched. They suspected that the witch was another local woman, described as 'a very decent, inoffensive creature' but of course, appearances can deceive. The sick woman along with her neighbours tried a number of stratagems to destroy the witch's power but all of these failed. Finally they somehow hit upon a scheme which they hoped might work. The Sussex Agricultural Express reports: 'They procured pigeons and tied them in pairs back to back by their wings and lighted a large fire, and stopped up [sealed] the room as close as possible; some of the poor pigeons they opened at the breast in order that the fire might burn their hearts while alive. How many were burned, the writer cannot say, but he heard a neighbour state that he himself had burned four, and he thought they should have destroyed the witch if the house had been closer [more tightly sealed]. It is supposed by the neighbours that a dozen to sixteen pigeons were destroyed in this cruel manner.’ During the whole hideous operation, as tradition demanded when counter-spells were employed, not a word was spoken. Sadly, the report contains no mention of the outcome so we do not know if the woman was effectively treated or if the police were called to deal with the matter of the pigeons. And what about the woman who was accused of casting a bad spell? There’s no record of this either.


Charlotte Latham’s work was published in the first edition of the Folklore Record as long ago as 1878. A vicar's wife, she had an insatiable desire to learn about the parishioners' lives and to record what she was told.. The Devil and babies figured frequently in local tales.

The baptismal ceremony was not regarded simply as a welcoming into the Christian community but it also contained an element of exorcism, the expulsion of the Devil from the newborn child. The north door of churches – the so-called Devil’s Door - was left open on these occasions for the Devil to make his exit though some churches blocked up the north door to prevent the Devil's entry.

One lady told Mrs Latham the following anecdote:
‘I was lately present at a christening in Sussex, when a lady of the party, who was a godmother of the child, whispered in a voice of anxiety. “The child never cried. Why did not the nurse rouse it up?” After we had left the church, she said to her, “Oh nurse, why did you not pinch baby?” and, when the baby's good behaviour was afterwards commented upon, she observed with a very serious air, “I wish that he had cried.”’

And why? Because with the crying the Devil would have been expelled from the child's body, original sin wiped out with one nip of the child's flesh.

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More Blogs by Johnnie Johnson
• A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES - Sunday, April 22, 2012
• A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES - Sunday, April 22, 2012
• A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES - Wednesday, March 28, 2012
• A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES - Friday, March 02, 2012
• A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES - Friday, March 02, 2012
• A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES - Tuesday, February 21, 2012
• A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES - Thursday, February 16, 2012
• A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES - Tuesday, February 07, 2012
• SNIPPETS OF THE PAST - Monday, January 23, 2012
• SNIPPETS OF THE PAST - Monday, January 02, 2012
• SNIPPETS OF THE PAST - Saturday, December 24, 2011
• SNIPPETS OF THE PAST - Saturday, December 17, 2011
• SNIPPETS OF THE PAST - Tuesday, December 13, 2011
• SNIPPETS OF THE PAST - Tuesday, December 13, 2011
• SNIPPETS OF THE PAST - Saturday, December 10, 2011
• SNIPPETS OF THE PAST - Thursday, December 08, 2011
• SNIPPETS OF THE PAST - Tuesday, November 29, 2011
• The Body Shop - Sunday, November 20, 2011
•  LOVE DIVINATION - Thursday, November 03, 2011  

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