Friday, 30 July 2021

Fairies of the Whitby Area

Bridge at Beck Meetings

After a year and a half of hiding in the house avoiding Covid, and not reading nearly as many books as I had intended to, I've had my covid vaccines and the world is finally starting to feel like a safer place again. Last week I ventured out to the Whitby area on a careful and cautious socially distanced holiday that involved a lot of early morning wanderings before the car parks filled up, and a lot of Yorkshire banoffee ice cream in Runswick Bay! 

This post will focus on fairy sites and sightings of the Whitby area, for lack of a better geographical description! Some sites are further north and south along the coast, and others further inland, but all are within reasonable proximity to Whitby. There are many more sites further west into the North York Moors and beyond but I will save those for a future visit and blog post!    

Thanks to Percy Shaw Jeffrey's Whitby Lore and Legend (1923) we know that fairies were sighted in the Whitby area as far back as 1650. Jeffrey was assisted in his research by folklorist Major Fairfax-Blakeborough, who gave him access to his father's research and his great-great-grandfather's diary, as mentioned below. He writes, "There is a very circumstantial and interesting account of some Whitby fairies in Major Fairfax-Blakeborough's old diary under the date ye 7, 1650, as follows:- 

"Very earlie in ye morning Ralph Blackburn, George Pickersgill, Anthony Thompson and Mary his wife, having to goe to Whitby when they came nigh unto Anthony Barker's small close they one and all espied many fairies disporting themselves righte merrilie in their splightlie midnight revels. They watched yem for some time, until one dancing a little space from ye ringe discovered yem when, giving a signal, they departed on the instant, and not one of them kennd wither. Alle ye witnesses are of good report. Thys pleaseth ye Townsfolk mightly, none been seen syn Dan Outhwaite war murdered eight year cum next Candlemas.

Ye fairies were oft seen after thys, even by mysen as late as a week ago, T.R. (Thomas Rogers, who transcribed the notes from the original MS in 1695)."

A note has been added to this: "Me Thos. Dodd seed Fairies in our close mony a time at Beck Meetings. T.D." 

Beck Meetings

 Jeffrey notes that Beck Meetings is a small village near Staithes, and elsewhere in the book writes "even so late as 1870, when any Staithes fishing coble was driven into Whitby by stress of weather, the thirteen members of the crew would walk home to Staithes through the dark winter evenings hand in hand, in order to give them other confidence against the various terrors that fly by night." Gutch's Folklore of Yorkshire (1901) also mentions Staithes folk and tells that "fearless as are the fishers in their daily juggling with the dangers of the sea, yet so fearful are they of nameless spirits and bogies, that I am assured I should be unable to find a volunteer who for a couple of sovereigns would walk by night to a neighbouring village of Hinderwell, a couple of miles distant." Folks certainly seemed to be scared of something lurking in the nearby area after dark.


The Hob-Hole Hob of Runswick Bay

In Runswick Bay are a series of arched caves and holes reaching deep into the cliffs along the shoreline. The most famous of these was known as Hob-Hole, and according to Young's A History of Whitby volume 2 (1817) it was 70 feet long and 20 feet wide at the entrance, with a double pillar that has since disappeared. Leyland's Yorkshire Coast and the Cleveland Hills (1892) tells that the caves were excavated by the action of the sea, but the jet-diggers have now destroyed the "cavernous features of the haunt of the Hob, whereto he was want to beguile the unwary that there they might be destroyed by the incoming sea." Most sources describe the Hob as a benevolent character, and according to Young "his powers were exercised in curing young children of the hooping-cough. When any child in Runswick or the vicinity was under that disease, one of its parents carried it into the cave, and with loud voice thus invoked the demi-god of the place: 

"Hob-hole Hob! My bairn's got kink-cough:

Take't off; take't off!"

 Illustration of Hob-Hole from Young's A History of Whitby vol  2 (1817)

The caves as they stand today are still extremely dangerous and should not be entered as the rocks are unstable and can fall down at any time, you can safely view them from a distance at low tide though.

Claymore Well Fairies

At Claymore Well near Kettleness, according to Young's A History of Whitby vol 2 (1817) "the fairies in days of yore were wont to wash their clothes, and to bleach and beat them; and, on their washing nights, the strokes of the battle-door were heard as far as Runswick!". Atkinson's Forty Years a Moorland Parish (1891) explains that the Battledore was an old-fashioned implement used to smooth newly washed linen, now replaced with the mangle! 

The Black Dog of Kettleness

Although possibly not one of the fairy folk, I feel a quick mention should be made of the curious exorcism of the black dog of Kettleness. Yorkshire boggles and boggarts were known for their shape shifting and could appear in many forms including cats and dogs. 

The Reverend Dr Donald Omand recieved a letter in the 50s from a schoolmaster who claimed that himself and two friends had experienced a wave of terror when looking over the shore at Kettleness and had seen a huge hound, "so large it could not be mortal", that appeared from thin air and disappeared as silently as it had appeared. They were left with a strong sense of evil and believed an exorcism should be performed. Omand agreed to their request and as they set off at night to the shore at Kettleness they saw "what looked like a huge black hound, but bigger than any member of the canine species, known to man. It was moving straight in our direction". The schoolmaster fled back to the car and Omand performed an exorcism, splashing holy water in the dog's direction, and it disappeared. A more in depth account and further information can be found on Simon J. Sherwood and Wendy E. Cousins paper, The Black Dog of Whitby and Kettleness

In a curious twist to the story, at nearby Goldsborough once stood a Roman signal station and when excavated it was found to contain the skeletons of 2 men and a large dog who had met with a violent end. Some say the dog's jaws were clamped around the neck of one of the men. Further details can be found in the Yorkshire Journal issue 3 Autumn 2014. 

Kettle Ness, as viewed from the cliffs above

Mulgrave Woods, Sandsend

Young's History of Whitby vol 2 (1817) tells that a mischievous fairy named Jeanie of Biggersdale lives in the woods "at a place so called at the head of Mulgrave woods". Presumably this is referring to Biggersdale Hole Waterfall, marked on present day ordinance survey maps. 

"A bold young farmer, perhaps under the influence of John Barleycorn, undertook one night, on a wager, to approach the habitation of the sprite, and call to her: but his rashness nearly cost him his life; Jeanie angrily replied that she was coming, and while he was escaping across the running stream, he fared worse than Burn's Tam O'Shanter, when pursued by Nanny the witch; for Jeanie overtaking him just as his horse was half across, cut it into two parts, though fortunately he was on the half that had got beyond the stream!"

Atkinson's Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect (1868) tells that a hobthrush lives in the woods in a certain cave, and that when addressed replies:

"Hob-trush Hob! where is thou?

Ah's tying on mah left-fuit shoe;

An' Ah'll be wiv thee - Noo!" 

Katherine Simpson's Jeanie o' Biggerdale and Other Yorkshire Stories (1893) gives the same rhyme but with the first line being "Biggersdale Jeanie! where is thoo?", in this book Jeanie is described as "the wicked sprite, or bogle, that haunted the mill and glen. Was it not well known that her mocking laugh was never heard but as the forerunner, or accompaniment, of accident or calamity". She was said to bring misfortune on those who inhabited Biggersdale Mill, and resented it being constructed. 

I do wonder how much is fiction or whether many many years ago a woman named Jeanie lived in these woods. Or perhaps she is a nursery bogie character, and children dared each other to call to her inside the cave and then run away before she could catch them? I would love to hear from any locals who have their own stories to share.

The Sandsend Bogey

The infamous Sandsend Bogey, according to Jeffrey's Whitby Lore and Legend (1923), was supposed to live in a cupboard in Mr Snowden's Cottage, and "it used to accompany the fishing boats when they put out to sea, sitting quietly in the bows, and its presence was welcomed by the fishermen as it foreboded a good catch. But after a while, it became more enterprising and, as it took to frightening the village children, the inhabitants of Sandsend petitioned the priest of Lythe, who came to their rescue and exorcised the Bogey with bell, book, and candle, so that thereafter it appeared no more."

The Fairies of Pannett's Park, Whitby

Johnson's Seeing Fairies (2014) includes a Whitby fairy sighting from July 1956 in Pannett's Park. "We were peacefully on a seat after an enjoyable but rather strenous walk when I noticed some considerable movement in a tree that grew at the foot of a wooded slope facing us. It was swarming with elves, and when I drew my sister's attention to it, she could see them too, but neither of us had any idea what they were doing so busily." She describes the elves as brown, and they seemed to be moving quite easily above, below, and between the branches.

Old postcard of Pannett Park

Roxby and Mickleby Fairy Mounds

In the Roxby and Mickleby areas the fairies were said to live in houes, or grave mounds, but the mounds had been dug into and ploughed over so "the former denziens had clearly been evicted and forced to retire", tells Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, Atkinson (1891). 

Fairy Cross Plains

The Reverend John Atkinson was a keen writer and collector of local Yorkshire folklore and customs, and he collected some wonderful tales of the fairies. In his Forty Years in a Moorland Parish book (1891) he tells of visiting an elderly parishioner and her husband who tells him of the fairies of nearby Fairy Cross Plains, she said they used to come down the hill by her door and go into a large culvert which conveyed the water of a small beck underneath the road about a stone's throw from the cottage. "A further question elicited the reply that it was a little green man, with a queer sort of a cap on him, that had been seen in the act of disappearing in this culvert." She said they lived under the ground, "why t'mouldiwarps (moles) dis, an' wheea not t'fairies?". 

Reverend Atkinson also spoke to a parish clerk who told him that his childhood had been spent near the Fairy Cross Plains, and that the fairy-rings just above the inn were the largest and most regular and distinct he had ever seen. He and the other children had amused themselves by running round and round in the rings, but never nine times, "you see if we had run the full number of nine times, that would have given the fairies power over us, and they would have come and taken us away for good, to go and live where they lived." The Reverend asked if he really believed that and he replied that he did, "for the mothers used to threaten us, if we wer'n't good, that they would turn us to the door (out of doors) at night, and then the fairies would get us." 

An interesting article on the Darlington and Stockton Times website by Nicholas Rhea titled Fryup - a dale of horses and fairy rings includes more recent fairy beliefs. Rhea tells he used to play there as a child but never found any fairies, though that is where they were thought to live and "some thought the fairy rings indicated the whereabouts of an underground fairy village". He says that it was not considered sensible to dance around the circles on the Eve of May Day or at Halloween as those nights were given over to the fairies, and that it was believed that sheep and cattle would never graze near the fairy rings and that locals believed it risky to try and remove the circles.  

Fairy Cross Plains, as seen on Google Maps

The Hob of Hart Hall

Hobs are said to be a type of domestic house spirit, similar to a Brownie, and most often found in very old farm houses. Atkinson's Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891) tells of a Hob at Hart Hall near Glaisdale:

"Hob would come unasked, unwarned, to the rescye, and the corn would be threshed, dressed, and sacked, nobody knew how, expect that it was done by the Hob. Unaccountable strength seemed to be the chief attribute ascribed to him". When the farm workers of Hart Hall were carting hay to save it from approaching bad weather a wheel slipped and the cart became stuck. They tried to pull it loose with both horses and men but efforts were in vain and as darkness approached they had to abandon it for the night. After they had retired to bed, "Hob went forth in his mysterious might, made no difficulty about extricating the locked-in wheel, and trailing the cumbersome load up the steep, broken road to the homestead, putting the hay in beautiful order on the stack, and setting the wain ready for the leading that would of course be renewed early in the morning".

According to Atkinson's Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect (1868), he was "a farm-spirit 'of all work', thrashing, winnowing, stamping, the bigg, leading, &c. Like the rest of the tribe who ever came under mortal eye, he was without clothes - nak't - and having had a harding-smock made and placed for him, after a few moments of - it would seem, ill-pleased - inspection, he was heard to say- Gin Hob mun hae nowght but a hardin' hamp, He'll coom nae mair, nowther to berry nor stamp". Atkinson explains in his Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891) that stamp was the action of knocking off the awns of the barley previous to threshing it, and berry meant to thesh. Hamp was one of the English peasant's only garments, a "smockfrock-like article of raiment, gathered in somewhat about the middle, and coming some little way below the knee". 

Atkinson asked an elderly woman about the Hart Hall Hob and she gave a more detailed story, claiming that one moonlight night one of the lads of the farm had heard him working and peeked through a little hole in the boards and say "a lahtle brown man, a' covered wi' hair" working hard and striking the sheaves with the flail. The lad crept away unseen and related what he had seen to the other workers. They knew the winter nights were cold and were worried about "t' lahtle hairy man, amaist as nakt as when he wur boorn", "wiv nobbut thae au'd rags". They decided to make something to help him, and made a new outfit, as near as the boy had described him as wearing, "a sort of a coorse sark, or shirt, with a belt or girdle to confine it around his middle". They laid it in the barn before nightfall, ready for the Hob to find, and as in the previous tale he was not pleased with his new clothing!  

Hart Hall is now a Bed and Breakfast, but whether the Hob is still a guest or not I cannot say!

The Hob of Hog Garth

Another Hob dwelled at Hob Garth, south west of Glaisdale. Jeffrey's Whitby Lore and Legend (1923) includes a very early mention of the Hob from the diary borrowed from Major Fairfax-Blakeborough.

 "May ye 13, 1669. Nathan Warner of Castleton, thys daye had speech of the Hobman that hanteth ye Hob Garth from beyond whither he had been. Thys he sweare to an oath, and he is a man of good report and not given to vaine talk. Methought I once had sighte of hym mysen but not been ower certayne out (of it) I helde my peace, but after what warner declareth on oath, I hav smalle doubt that yt was hym I spied mysen, but I do not declare yt, the Lord knoweth." 

A more detailed account of the Hob's antics can be found in Richard Blakeborough's Yorkshire Wit, Character, Folklore and Customs of the North Riding of Yorkshire (1898). The author was told of the hob by an old man who worked on the Mulgrave Estate, whose grandfather Thomas Stonehouse lived at Hob Garth for many years and kept sheep. A misunderstanding arose between him and a neighbour Matthew Bland of Great Fryup. Matthew was said to have broken Thomas' hedge one night allowing the sheep to escape, and Thomas only managed to gather up five out of the forty missing before retiring to bed with a severe cold. The next morning much to his surprise he found not only the lost sheep returned to their field, but the hedge had been repaired too with new posts and rails. The next night every head of his enemy's cattle had been turned loose, but not by Thomas as he was still very ill in bed. Matthew recovered his cattle and Thomas' sheep were once again turned lose, and the neighbours did all they could to gather them again but few were found. Sure enough, the next morning all but four had been returned to the field again and further repairs had been made to the fence. The missing four were later found dead, having fallen into a disused quarry. The villagers began to talk, and they decided that it must be the hobman who was gathering up the sheep and repairing fences. "When this conclusion was come to, heads were shaken in an ominous manner, for evidently if Tommy was befriended by the hobman, Matthew would have to mind what he did."  

As soon as he had recovered, Tommy set off to see his sheep. It was late at night and a neighbour offered to drop him at the field and pick him up later when he returned. Tommy counted his sheep and cut some hay for them, and then sat by the gate waiting for his lift home....

"Presently an old man accosted him, and begged him not to fret about the lost sheep, as they would be more than compensated for when lambing time came. The old chap told him that Bland had on both occasions been guilty, but that he had not to mind. Just then his friend drove up. Tommy bade his new acquaintance good-night, thanked him, and got into the cart. No sooner was he seated, than the good neighbour asked him what he meant by saying good-night and thanking nobody at all. It transpired that the owner of the cart had not noticed any one speaking to Tommy. In the end he thought the old chap ’war a bit waak an rafflin.’ Anyway, when lambing time came, though the weather was very severe, and every one else, and more particularly Bland, lost many lambs, Stonehouse never lost one. Ewes, during Tommy’s absence, were found safely delivered of their lambs, and mostly had two, and never a black one amongst them. ‘An’ noo that war a larl bit sing’lar, warn’t it? Bud then, ya knaw, i’ them daays when t’ hobman did tak ti yan, ya war yal reet i’ t’ lang-run; an’ ivvery wo’d ’at Ah’ve tell’d ya’s trew, ’coz Ah’ve heeard mah gran’father tell t’ taal ower an’ up agaan; bud it’s a gay bit sen noo,’ wound up my informant. The hobman was described as a little old fellow, with very long hair, large feet, eyes, mouth, and hands, stooping much as he walked, and carrying a long holly stick. The date of the story would be about 1760."

Egton Grange Fairy Butter

Atkinson's A Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect (1868) tells that "Egton Grange has (as alleged) been famous within the memory of living persons for the nocturnal proceedings of the said elves; one of their pranks being to fling their butter so as to make it adhere to the gates and doors of the premises". An Elderly lady near Fryup told Rev Atkinson that she had never seen a fairy but had frequently heard them making butter whilst servant at a farm. She said there was a certain gate and she had heard the fairies at their work "as plain as plain, and in the morning the butter was clamed (smeared) all over main part o' t' gate." A History of Whitby vol 2 (1817) explains that fairy butter is a type of yellow soft fungus that grows on dead wood, and that "when found in houses it is reckoned very lucky!" 

The Fairy Child

Atkinson's Forty years in a Moorland Parish (1891) tells a most curious tale of a fairy bairn, told to the author by an elderly lady near Fryup. "She had known a lass quite well, who one day, when raking in the hayfield, had raked over a fairy bairn. "It was liggin' in a swathe of the halfmade hay, as bonny a lahtle thing as ever you seen. But it was a fairy-bairn, it was quite good to tell. But it did not stay lang wi' t' lass at fun' (found) it. It a soart o' dwinied away, and she aimed (supposed) the fairy-mother couldn't deea wivout it any langer".


What do fairies smell like?

I will leave you with my favourite snippet of folklore from Yorkshire, concerning the important question, what does a fairy smell like? Morris writes in Yorkshire Folk Talk (1892) of a lady who had never seen the fairies (though her relatives often had) but she had smelt them! 

"On his asking what sort of odour he was to expect so that he might be similarly favoured, she went on to enquire if he had ever been in a very crowded 'place of worship' wherein the people had been congregated for a length of time. Such was the description; a very different one had been looked for; but it is the unexpected which happen. It was supposed that the young woman who was such an adept at scenting out the fairies was in reality trying to give an idea of the gushes of hot air one sometimes comes across on broken ground during summer time."

Sources and Further Information

A History of Whitby volume 2, Young (1817)

Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect, Atkinson (1868) 

Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, Atkinson (1891)

Yorkshire Folk Talk, Morris (1892)

Yorkshire Coast and the Cleveland Hills, Leyland (1892) 

Jeanie o' Biggerdale and Other Yorkshire Stories, Katherine Simpson (1893)

Yorkshire Wit, Character, Folklore and Customs of the North Riding of Yorkshire, Blakeborough (1898)

Folklore of Yorkshire, Gutch (1901)

Whitby Lore and Legend, Jeffrey (1923) 

Seeing Fairies, Johnson (2014)

The Black Dog of Whitby and Kettleness, Simon J. Sherwood and Wendy E. Cousins

Fryup - a Dale of Horses and Fairy Rings, Nicholas Rhea, Darlington and Stockton Times 

Yorkshire Journal issue 3, Autumn 2014