© Copyright Chris Perera 2016
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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Cover design: BRADLEY STAPLEGUN © Chris Perera
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Taken from the
As collected by Mr Bentley P Peabody – Whittiford Folklorist
From various oral and printed sources
With an introduction by Mr Bentley P Peabody
“T’ent no use if’n you tells someone.” Sally Gobhook 1853 – well known Whittiford ‘wise woman’ who spent her final years in Peoghbury Workhouse.
Ask any old soul to tell you how a charm works prior to the outbreak of World War One (and in certain Whittifordshire villages, well into the middle of the 20th Century) and something akin to those very words, recorded well over a century ago, would most certainly have been your answer.
Don’t tell anyone!
Charming, you may think. But the reply was never meant as a personal slight. Ironically, those gifted individuals blessed with the ability to charm were often those most lacking in it. Sally Gobhook herself, was considered the bluntest of women, even referring to the local squire himself as a “dozy old turnip what a swine shat out” when he failed to take one of her cures correctly.
Charms. Spells. Divination. Herbal lore. These were the medicines and cures for the majority of Whittifordians whether born of noble blood or the lowest of humblest peasant stock. Even now, with Whittiford blood diluted as never before due to increased migration into and out of the county, vestiges of these rural beliefs may be found in small outposts. Now, however, they are under siege by the relentless forces of modernity, and what some locals witheringly call “proper medicine what works”. Undoubtedly, the old ways are on the cusp of disappearing forever, along with other fondly remembered oral habits and traditions.
I, myself, am the seventh son of a seventh son – rare in these days of an average 2.4 children, although, I confess, I have included in my calculations, three of my siblings who are “half-brothers” by a first marriage (both my parents remarried) and also, my own dear sister Jerry (Geraldine) a self-confessed Daughter of Sappho, who insisted she be included in this mystical septet (and nobody argues with Jerry).
Born the seventh son of a seventh son, or thereabouts, I am a natural charmer by birth, and if you don’t believe me, ask the former barmaid from The Cock at Berkin Green, who not only yielded to my charms but subsequently became Mrs Peabody! As every denizen of Whittiford would once have known, this is my birth-right.
Nevertheless, my own ability, mostly accomplished by slight-of-hand and a tot of brandy, is humble beyond belief when compared to the vast horde of lore once known to those in the know.
Of course, until recently, the practice of medicine (especially in rural areas) was little better than the peasant lore that it purported to surpass. With the cost of a “quack” beyond the means of most rustic labourers, including those who were semi-skilled and even those with a trade, it is no wonder that superstitions lingered on far longer out in the sticks than in the more sophisticated metropolises of Whittiford, Gloucester, Shrewsbury, Worcester, Hereford and so on.
It is worth noting here, that it was not only humans that could be charmed. Charming livestock was very popular in the remoter areas. The Wiltoch Hills were said to be particularly profligate, with locals often interfering in the affairs of their sheep and cattle against the advice of what we now call veterinarians. Nevertheless, many in remoter areas would argue (even today) that interfering with animals is perfectly natural, as long as the livestock is given a thorough seeing to by a sympathetic body experienced in such matters. The swine of Thruckmore (and some of the remoter farmsteads of Peogh Woods) were said to be no worse off in the hands of these spirited amateurs than if the so-called professionals had got stuck in.
One lady, a widow named Flo Gibber, is on record as being particularly delighted at the way in which a well-known charmer saved her old ass, which she depended on for her livelihood. And that, as recently as 1907!
Surprisingly, the bible, too, plays an important part in this form of rustic healing. It was long believed by the Whittiford peasantry that in the hands of a powerful charmer, the correct passage would bring comfort to many a tumescence.
Many of the following cures and remedies are taken from an old book belonging to a Mr E. Kersal written in his charming Whittiford dialect. These remedies, and indeed many of the symptoms, have been obscured by the passage of time. For the sake of authenticity, I have attempted to keep some of the entries exactly as recorded by Mr Kersal but in order to be more clearly understood by the modern reader, I have edited them into modern English, or embellished them with annotations of my own where I have felt it preferable to do so, though I have attempted to keep this to a minimum and hope that the reader will forgive my intrusions, finding them useful and practicable wherever they may be found and not (as found in many similarly edited tomes on local history) as overly long-winded as this sentence might imply.
Bentley P Peabody
LEECHCRAFT, CHARMS and HERBAL LORE
For the releasement of suffering in children as recorded by Mr E Kersal:
Lower the child into a well by use of a bucket. When the bucket is full of ice cold water, bring it back up and tip child and water out onto the grass, reciting the following prayer: “Jesus Christ, I hopes them chilblains has gone, Amen to that”. It is said that the child will never again suffer chilblains as long as they do live, which sadly, often wasn’t long.
In years gone by, an old woman from Blednock was said to have drowned two of her own children using this cure for chilblains and a third died of pneumonia. But when challenged by a rural magistrate, she was able to prove the efficacy of the cure by demonstrating that none of her offspring had subsequently suffered from chilblains. The woman was let off with a pardon and poultry compensation, which lead to a rash of copycat cures.
This practice was stamped out by the County Wartfynder, a zealous former Shrewman, who despite his title, was tasked with seeking out any form of misconduct involving most types of skin blemish.
Beware the merrye monthe of May
For tho’ tis mostly glad and gaye
Ne’er into water stray
Lest the knobworm hav its way
Up until the final days of the reign of Queen Victoria, when knobworm (Tellus Manubrio Vermis) was entirely eradicated from all English water-courses, every Whittiford child would have known this ditty. The air beginning to warm with the season, most peasants took their first, and in many cases, only ablution of the year in May. Those with access to a babbling brook had little to worry about. A quick dip in the clean but chilly water and all would be well and sanitary. Not so for those who only had access to a pond. Though the water would be warmer, heated by the natural rays of the sun, the wily knobworm (so-called because the shape of its head resembled a ceramic door handle) buried in a state of suspension in the depths of the pond while the ravages of winter raged above them, would emerge from their slimy bottoms and make their way towards the warmth. Tiny and almost transparent with hunger, these bottom-dwellers would seek out the warm bodies of mammals in which to reproduce. The scrawny, near-hairless bodies of splashing humans were not, it was well-known, the natural home of these peculiar creatures. Nevertheless, they could be indiscriminate in their choice of burrow and when the more hirsute cavities of the larger domestic mammals were unavailable, they would settle for a less hairy target. The sufferer would not be aware that they had been “gobbled” (as it was known) by a knobworm until several weeks had passed. Symptoms would include retching, vomiting and being sick, but many country doctors would be fooled into thinking that it was just a reaction to some poorly cooked food, or that the sufferer was pregnant, causing much consternation to many a village lass, and in some cases, lad.
A wise man or woman would immediately be able to recognise the signs of knobworm by the victim's blueish hue. To treat it, a small bladderwort (often taken from the same water source) was inserted into the patient from “t'other end”* with a bucket of fresh well-water. The treatment was known to be exquisitely painful, but usually within 24 hours, the bladderwort would locate the knobworm (a natural food source) within the victim and consume it, before, sadly, perishing itself.
*the meaning of this is thought to be self-explanatory.
Until very recently, the taunt “the knobworm will gobble you” was used to frighten younger children into steering clear of stagnant water in many of the remote parishes.
Mr E. Kersal noted in his journal that a Mr P___ from the Wiltochs swore by the following practice.
Charm so that thy swine shalt know thee
Taketh a small helping of oats and the honey of the bee. Pat into a small cake and place against thine own brest whereupon thy naked skin doth rub it goodly. Go about thy labors hardly until thee swet most profuse. Starve the swine a day and a night til he be vexed with hunger. Feed the swine the cake so that his ardor may swell and his gratitude to thee be grate. Should thy swine be taken in unlawful manner and thee hath suspicions of his taker, his discovery may be made the easier by his coming to thee with great affection on betrayel of thy scent and much pleasure and arousel will he show thee on remembrance that once thou gavest him his oats.
Chase a mad dog o’er a cliff
Ne’er again will you by stiff
This practice was thought to have died out in Late Victorian times until a shocking scandal was unearthed in 1973 by the Whittiford Gazette.
A William Wyeman of Preytle Doughty was found to have poisoned forty-seven Miniature Poodles and a Pekingese over the course of twenty-five years by feeding them slithers of amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, a highly toxic form of toadstool that sent the dogs mad. He then drove them to a disused quarry in the Wiltochs and chased them to the edge of a precipice. The hallucinating canines would launch themselves into mid-air (presumably believing that they could fly) where they would meet their grisly fate at the bottom of the quarry face. Those quaking canines that did not “take flight” were booted to their doom by a rugby-style conversion.
It was later revealed that Mr Wyeman had been a fanatical rugby player as a youth, but a glittering career was cut short by a small and rather excitable dog that had somehow got onto the pitch and felled him in the final minute – just as he was about to touch down what would have been a sensational winning try. Chronic back pain as a result of his injury forced him to retire early and it is thought that this unfortunate experience unhinged his mind, as from that day forth, he swore vengeance on “all the small canines that blight our blessed earth”.
Ironically, after a couple of weeks in prison, he was given access to the prison chiropractor who was able to cure him, once and for all, of his backache.
Mr E. Kersal, a learned gentleman by all accounts, tells us that even within its own boundaries, county traditions may vary.
The following account of wart charming was transcribed by a forgotten Whittiford folklorist. It was found among some cuttings during a house clearance up in Ramchurch just after the First World War. It was credited as having been told by a Mr Rollick, who was probably one of the Ramchurch Rollicks whose graves can still be found in the local church.
The best cure for warts and the only one I know of to be an ‘undred per cent proven is to steal a pelt from the Shrewman. Wrap the wart up in the pelt for a day and a night. Then stab the pelt nine times with the tail feather of a woodcock saying:
“tis the devil wart gave me this lump, and now I got the ‘ump”
bury the pelt in the ground but make sure none sees you do it or knows you done it or where you done it. The wart will die as the pelt rots. If it don’t work – you bin spotted no matter how careful you thinks you was and you must start the process all over again, but be careful –
if the Shrewman catches you then your warts will increase tenfold!
Here are some more from around the county:
Rub the wart with cheese, in pertikler, Peoghbury Blue. Bury the cheese in a mole hill and the wart will vanish with the moles*
*there is some dispute, locally, about whether this is actually a cure for warts, or a method for getting rid of moles. Cheese, especially Peoghbury Blue, is known to frighten moles. It is believed that too much exposure to the scent puts the moles in a kind of trance whereby they think that they are squirrels and try to run up tree trunks. This, of course, leaves them easy prey for predators. I have not, personally, seen this phenomenon and the practice is now banned but I have talked to many rural dwellers who remember witnessing “cheesing the mole” when children.
During the great cheese famine of 1764-5, a Peoghbury man was stoned to death by a drunken crowd for mole cheesing. Maddened by a proliferation of moles on his land, the man had deliberately ignored a county-wide ban on the practice until exhausted cheese stocks could be replenished. It was said that neighbours became suspicious when they noticed that the man’s normally carbuncle-riddled face became unusually smooth as the year wore on. So too had his similarly carbuncle-riddled smallholding!
To remove warts, hide in a cow ‘til them all gone*
*_sadly, the meaning of this, as with so much folklore, is lost to us._
Mr E. Kersal recorded that this cure was known only to a few farmers in the more pastoral area around Preytle Doughty and Skirrup. In Bissleford and Ramchurch it was completely unknown.
In the Wiltochs, where sheep farming was more common, one old boy was heard to say “I ‘eard o’ cows but I ‘ent never sin one with me own eyes.”
In 1622, a family found living on a remote smallholding in the Wiltochs refused to believe that cattle really existed, dismissing them as mythical creatures like the sphinx or basilisk. When offered a pale of milk as proof, they refused to touch it, claiming it to be “the devil’s seed” despite the unlikely quantity.
Ice cold water is the best bet, straight from the well at dawn. Take the water in a pail and throw it over a horse. When it bolts, tread carefully on the hoof prints for a mile. Repeat every day for a month and the hives will be gone.
But be careful – if you walk backwards in the hoof prints, the devil will get you!
The following cure was given by a hermit at Pokel Hale, who was famed for being particularly hirsute. He refused to speak and merely mimed the treatment, which was transcribed by a local priest thus:
“Ego potest non esse te calvitium tunicam pellis. Si vos volo ut subsisto comas deciduis, quin et tu in caput tuum: efferbuit coctio.”
I have attempted my own translation of this cure using my ‘o’-level Latin and as far as I can make out it roughly translates as:
“I can’t help being hairy you bald coot. If you want to stop your hair falling out, why don’t you go away and boil your own head?”
The hermit subsequently refused to confirm whether the transcript was an accurate interpretation of the mime, casting doubt upon its efficacy.
It is not recommended that you try this at home.
“The only known cure for bed wettin’ is to wallop yor child ‘til them stops.” – Sheila Cart*
*sadly, despite being tried and tested, this remedy is no longer legal.
As recorded by Mr E. Kersal.
Toothache has, of course, always been a pain to get rid of. Many Whittiford remedies have been recorded and here is a small selection:
Biting the bark
A woman who lived out at Threap told her youngest, who was suffering awful chronic tooth ague, to “go out into the woods and bite the bark off an Elk*”
*_it is assumed that the original transcript is incorrect and that this entry should probably read either Elm or Oak as these large northern mammals were long extinct in Whittifordshire by the time of the peasant woman’s youngest child’s toothache._
also, Elks are not known to be covered in bark.
***and also, it is unlikely that an Elk would stay still long enough for you to bite it.
Charm for the ague of teeth
With the Holy Bible in your right hand, repeat these words:
Oh Jesus Christ my tooth hurts
Oh My God I can’t take no more
Oh Jesus Christ,
Oh Jesus Christ,
Oh God make the pain go away, please
Oh Christ, I’ll do anything
I’ll never do nothing bad no more,
If you just makes this cursed pain go
Oh Jesus Christ,
I’ll give up drinking,
I’ll give up wenching,
I’ll give up smoking baccie
Oh God I’d rather be driven over by an ox cart than go on like this
Oh my Dear Lord I’ve never ‘ad nothing as bad as this before
Oh Dear God please make the pain go, I beg you
Oh Jesus Christ,
Oh my God
Oh my God
The Cure for Toothake
Lick a carrot then take ‘im* out to the woods. Put ‘im* in the ground then draw the shape of a gob [ mouth ] round ‘im* so the rabbits knows where to get 'im*. Next day, the rabbits will 'av eaten the carrot and the toothake will be no more. Repeat up to one month.
If simptoms percyst, the tooth ain’t no good and be ripe for yanking out.
*in Whittiford folklore, carrots are always male
Sympathetic magic has always featured heavily in traditional healing methods. A peasant finding an object that symbolises their desire (in this case, to be cured of an ailment) will perform a symbolic ritual in the belief that a cure will be brought about by association. Many examples can be found amongst these pages, though mostly, the symbolism is now lost to us. The following is a rare example of healing by word association. You may feel that the cure is based on rhyme rather than reason. But can we be so sure that the cure does not work? *
At the stroke of midnight, nail an eel skin to the north door of a church then turn around thrice saying these words:
“Eel me please, oh Lord
By morning may my cramps be eeled
Oh eel me, eel me, Lord
Lay thy eeling ‘ands on me
That come the morning, I’ll be eeled
Oh eel me Lord, oh eel me”
It may have been mere coincidence but I resurrected this ancient remedy very recently after a severe case of stomach cramps and I have to report that after almost exactly one month to the day, my cramps had all but vanished! Any doctors reading this should feel free to get in touch via my publisher as I firmly believe that a serious scientific study of this remedy is long overdue.
Incidentally, I would advise seeking permission from the relevant church authority before embarking upon this particular curative as, speaking from experience, the current fine for vandalism of church property bumps the cost up substantially, making it far less competitive than, for instance, the current price of aspirin.
*yes, we can
on the Sabbath
Eat a radish,
the rash will vanish.
This was common practice in the Wiltochs, where radishes were once said to be imbued with all manner of healing properties and in some villages, radishes were revered as the “cobblers of St John the Baptist”. Even today, radishes are coveted by many in the Wiltochs.
The soothing of Welts
It is common knowledge among Whittiford folk that it takes two people to soothe the effects of welts and works best if one is particularly pious.
Carefully take an adder and show ‘im the welts. With t’other ‘and, carefully stroke the welts with the adder’s tail nine times. Meanwhile, t’other person says,
“Mister Adder, if you please,
cure this sinner’s vile disease,
Then put the adder in a silk bag and take ‘im outside. Let ‘im go free and when ‘e sheds ‘is skin in a month or so, the welts will be soothed.
Cure for Adder Bite
A Mr Evans, writing in 1840, gives this account of walking through some bracken and being bitten by an adder and the cure he received.
“Twas a partikler fine evening in the Lord’s month of June and I were walking out near Peogh Woods when I was delivered of a sharp sting in the lower part of my leg. On looking thuswards I was dismayed to see an adder slinking off looking right guilty and was forced to seek assistance from a gypsy woman what lived nearby. She right away bade me drink several mouthfuls of some mistletoe wine, which though vile of taste, soon made my head feel considerable lighter, then she bade me give her a silver shilling and ran off to the Shrewman. On her return, she showed me a three-legged shrew she had obtained and stroked the bite nine times. Then she buried the shrew live and told me to sleep. Next morning, the shrew had gone and I went on me way, though my head now felt heavy. In one month, the adder bite was all but gone. ‘Tis nothing short of a miracle – I can’t find no other way to explain it.
Incontinence (in children)
“The only known cure for soiling ‘emselves is to wallop yor child round the back of the ‘ed ‘til them stops.” – Sheila Cart*
*sadly, despite being tried and tested, this remedy is no longer legal.
Incontinence (in the elderly)
“Wallop ‘em round the back of the ‘ed ‘til them stops.” – Sheila Cart*
*those still practising this remedy should do so warily – the law now interprets this, as with so many of the “old ways” as assault.
Cure for Vole’s Breath
When you has voles breath and none will come close you must follow these simple instructions:
Take a pat of butter and offer it to the Shrewman. If luck be with you, he will give you a shrew. If he don’t you must leave immediate and return with some cheese. He won’t never say no to cheese but you must always offer him butter first, just in case. When you has the shrew you must take it and wait til the first sunny day. You must get up real early and go out into the world. You must hop forward on the right foot and back on the left, biting the shrew as you do so and sing this song:
“Chew on a shrew when the morning be sunny,
All year long you’ll smell of honey”
You must take care not to hop forward on the left foot and back on the right or the devil will get you.
From that day forth, your breath will always be sweet and never smell of voles.
Alas, there is no record of whether it should be a living shrew or dead, so those wishing to attempt this ancient cure are advised to experiment – assuming that they can find a Shrewman!
Nowadays, Mad Chicken is, of course, thought of as no more than a relatively harmless child’s illness and rarely warrants even a day off school but at one time, Mad Chicken was a killer. The peasant population was terrified of contracting it. Having said that, it was relatively easy to treat if caught in time as the following transcript, as transcribed by Mr E. Kersal from an older source, illustrates:
“Me Ma ‘ad begun acting partikler pekuliar and there was nothin’ I could do with ‘er. The first sign I saw that summat was wrong was she wouldn’t come inside for ‘er supper. We was ‘avin’ boiled chough which I knew to be ‘er fav’rite but even that wouldn’t draw ‘er in. I telled me eldest to get down to old Sheila Cart what lives near the old mill. ‘Ee come back with a small bag of ‘erbs. The only one I knowed was lavender coz I could smell it. I ‘ad to tie it around me ma’s neck and peg ‘er to a gate post overnight. Being winter it were bitter with frost and next morning she was stone cold dead but the Mad Chicken was gone so I reckon the cure was as good as Sheila ‘ad ever made.”
“‘Ee dunna wanna go getting the chumps in winter”
- so said the highly respected wise woman Mary Chipple on the gallows, her advice still being sought even as she prepared to meet her maker. The enquirer, who yelled out his question from a large crowd that had congregated to watch her execution, was assumed to be suffering from a particularly painful dose of chumps
“ ‘ee get some cow parsley and ‘ee get some cow slip and ‘ee get some cow. Rubs yerself all over ‘til the chumps starts to sing (we think this is a typographical error and should really mean “sting”). When ‘ee fall down like ‘ee goin’ to pass away ‘ee raise eyes to the ‘evans and say these words:
Oh Lord, I begs your pardon,
I begs your pardon, oh Lord.
May Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven
Nab off me chumps with his sword”
It is said that the executioner himself, paused in his duties to allow the wise woman to deliver her final cure and that he relinquished his duties completely soon after, unable to reconcile bringing about the end of a woman who had relieved the suffering of so many.
Incidentally, it is not recorded whether the sufferer took her advice or whether his painful dose of chumps cleared up but it is assumed that he may have had to wait – for cow parsley and cow slip are both summer plants!
“No one never died of raspberries,”
Alas, the poignancy of the above statement was not lost on three generations of Whittiford peasantry. For it was this very statement that lead to the untimely demise of the aforementioned wise woman, Mary Chipple.
A wealthy landowner named Jeremiah Crowley had called for Mary Chipple after discovering a dose of raspberries on his precious Jack – his wayward son and heir. Jack, a well-known rake in his early twenties and known to enjoy the pleasures of the gentle sex, was followed by his pious father and on being confronted, was discovered with a dose of raspberries down below (the family home was famed for its well-stocked cellar, which is where the boy was caught). His condition no longer a secret, the landowner sent for Mary Chipple, fearing that his son’s raspberries would be exposed.
Poor Mary Chipple chafed at being dragged all the way from Bledknock to the outskirts of Whittiford (now a short journey by car but in those days, an exhausting trek across country). Upon learning of Jack’s raspberries she laughed hysterically and poured scorn upon the young man crying “From cock’s first crow ‘til crow’s first cock, your ball and chain will ever flop”*
*the meaning of this, as with so much lore, is lost in the mists of time.
The furious and over-protective Jeremiah threw her out with no payment, not realising that her own anger was due to the unnecessary way she had been frogmarched across country – raspberries, though a little uncomfortable, clear up of their own accord after a month or so, and rarely return. Poor Mary Chipple had to make her own way home at dusk and in revenge, blackened the good name of Jeremiah Crowley by exposing his son’s doings.
Sadly for Mary, she had sworn an oath of secrecy. Upon learning of her disloyalty, Jeremiah reported her to the authorities and she was soon brought to justice. Accused of “blacking up the squire” a capital offence at the time, she was swiftly found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Once upon a time, it was believed that tantrums were a form of possession caused by the devil crawling into a child’s ear.
“The only known cure for tantrums is to wallop yor child round the ear ‘ole ‘til them stops.” – Sheila Cart*
*sadly, despite being tried and tested, this remedy is also no longer legal.
About the author
Chris grew up in a variety of dwellings in rural Herefordshire. After studying in Bournemouth, he moved to London where he spent several years working for a major play publisher. He subsequently left both metropolis and publisher for a life aboard a narrowboat with his wife and two children.
He has had his comedy sketches and monologues performed all over the UK and having lived in Hertford, Hereford and Dorset (née historic Hampshire) he is pleased to confirm that hurricanes are indeed a rarity.
Chris Perera is the sole and exclusive owner of Whittifordshire, a fictional county in the West Midlands, where most of his writing is set.
If you have enjoyed this collection, your adventures in Whittiford need not stop here. Why not subscribe to for occasional news updates or follow Chris on Twitter @WhittifordPress and Instagram @whittifordshire . Whittiford Cures is published in conjunction with Whittiford Wilds and Eugene In His Own Words.
Coming soon: A Toothpick for Alfred Jarry.
©Chris Perera www.whittiford.com
Warts. Baldness. Teeth ague. Cramp. Bed wetting. Mad chicken. Do you suffer from some or all of the above complaints? Has a visit to the doctor or chemist failed to soothe the said symptoms? Perhaps the moment has arrived for you to travel back in time in search of a cure? Download this free ebook by Chris Perera and learn about the traditional cures of Whittiford. Discover how to soothe welts the old-fashioned way, with the simple application of the humble adder! Find out how a harmless dose of raspberries once led to the untimely demise of a well-known Whittifordshire wise-woman. Learn what to do if you get bitten by an adder, however humble. Delve into these historic cures and glean from within, the wisdom of bygone ages. Disclaimer: the author does not endorse the use of any of the cures contained within and furthermore, dismisses anyone silly enough to apply them as a complete fool - you have been warned!