Dobbies, boggles, ghosts and the 19th century journalist…

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but it’s very rare for me to include ghost stories on Esmeralda’s. It’s not that I haven’t looked at a few – always ones supposedly rooted in an historical event – but with one exception1, they don’t pass the simplest test of veracity. Some simply don’t marry up with historical events, like the Claife Crier2, and others, such as the Beckside Boggle3 and Hutton-in-the-Forest’s headless horsewoman4, are demonstrably fiction, with authors, publishing dates and so on. Brownie

I’ve also chosen not to spend a lot of time with our assorted otherworldly creatures – dobbies, boggles, barguests, elves, fairies, cappels, hobs and bogarts – partly because there are others tackling these5 but mostly because they’re almost impossible to define. Let’s look at a few attempts at definition by other historians: Henderson6, writing in 1866, suggests that ghosts and ‘bogles’ are interchangeable, although a ‘dobie’ is a ‘mortal heavy sprite’, which appears to be 19th –century Borders code for a ghost that’s none-too-clever. Sullivan7, in 1891, on the other hand, is confident that a ‘dobbie’ is ‘a kind of household fairy’ somewhat like a hobgoblin (and indeed similar to the one in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series). On the other hand, the more recent (2009) Geoff Holder8 has collected evidence to suggest that both boggles and dobbies are associated with murders and suicides. I, in my turn, have come across a dobby which pretends to be a threatening pile of stones at Dalehead, and another which is a ball of fire that enjoys chasing the unwary9.

I agree with all these historians that if the terms, ‘boggle’ and ‘dobby’ are used, the story was intended for local consumption, whereas if they involve jilted lovers, headless ghosts, ladies in white and pining puppies, they’re definitely 19th -century ghost-craze fodder. Twilight for the Victorian age, if you like. My personal theory is that the Victorians, who believed that their industrialised world meant that man had conquered nature, had to re-model older tales so that the protagonists were all human in some form. Hence a pre-1850 tale of a hobgoblin who helps around the house and finds buried treasure10, which itself may have roots in a pre-Roman genius loci (spirit of place)11, turns into a murdered maid who wreaks havoc with the butter.I’m not the first person to take issue with our ghost stories. In 1899, The Whitehaven News had an article titled, ‘A GENUINE GHOST: CAUGHT ON CHRISTMAS EVE’12. It told the story of the Old Hall Dobby at Plumpton, Ulverston. It would seem that the ‘groaning, the clanking of chains, the shrieks combined to make a perfect pandemonium of horrible sounds’ had all sorts of folk desperate to spend a night in the haunted room. ‘But one night was sufficient for the boldest,’ the article continues, whether the visitor was there ‘in the spirit of pure adventure’ or ‘actuated by a spirit of research in the mysteries of the supernatural’. Apparently the ghostly visitation was so terrifying that the farm owner only charged a nominal rent to the tenant farmer.

Some years later, Mary and Tom, a pair of servants from a neighbouring farm, were walking home from a Christmas Eve party when they sighted the ghost. It was all white, with a ‘grinning fleshless human skull enveloped in light’, making ‘heartrending groans’ and clanking chains. Tom was less convinced than Mary and decided to pursue the ghost, first taking the precaution of cutting a whippy ash sapling to take with him. After some slightly patronising dialect conversation doubtless fabricated by the journalist, Mary and Tom followed the ghost into the woods. The ghost then vanished into the earth with no warning. Tom ran forward and found a hole in the ground… containing a head-shaped turnip lantern (like a Halloween lantern) with a warm candle still in it, some chains and, you’ve guessed it, the farmer from the Old Hall, wearing a sheet. After a whipping from Tom and his ash sapling, ‘The Old Hall Dobby was never seen or heard again’. The article doesn’t mention an increase in the farmer’s rent.

You’ll have noticed that despite my tirade of the first three paragraphs, this Whitehaven News article used the terms ‘ghost’ and ‘dobby’ interchangeably. It was written in 1899, so it’s possible that the term ‘dobby’ had already lost its other meanings, or else the journalist was an offcomer who hadn’t grasped the subtleties. Whatever the case, this particular Old Hall Dobby was clearly an early professional in the tourist trade.

I do, however, have a postscript to this tale. The other way in which the word, ‘dobby’ was used hereabouts was to describe a type of holed stone which was hung above doorways and from rafters as protection from unwanted spirits (however defined). A few ‘dobby stones’ were seen and described by early folklorists. Marjorie Rowling13 saw two similar river stones with natural holes at Nether Levens Hall near Kendal, and another, which turned out to be a prehistoric stone hammerhead at Bleaze Hall near Kendal.

In 1971, Clare Fell recorded some archaeological finds in a paper in the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. Included was a prehistoric, holed axe hammerhead unearthed a few years previously at Plumpton Hall Farm, Ulverston.14 Was it one of Turnip Head’s props, or had the locals been warding off the dobbies – of the native variety preceding the Victorians’ obsession with ghosts – for generations before?

© Diane McIlmoyle 07.01.13

Note to all Boggle fans! Alan Cleaver, Cumbria’s premier expert on such things, will be talking about ‘Boggles and Beasties’ at the Beacon, Whitehaven on Tuesday, 8th January.

  1. The ghosts of Souther Fell. Not that the ‘ghosts’ per se can be attached to an historical event, but that it was extremely well witnessed at the time. I can’t account for it.
  2. What a load of tourist – erm – confection that is! Debunked by Collingwood, amongst others, shortly after it became current.
  3. The Beckside Boggle by Alice Rea published by T Fisher Unwin Ltd, 1886.
  4. The Ghost of Hutton by I Davidson published by R Scott Ltd, Penrith in 1932 and sadly large tracts were reprinted verbatim in a copy of Cumbria Life which is regularly flashed under my nose as ‘proof’.
  5. See Alan Cleaver’s website http://www.strangebritain.co.uk/and I recommend his e-book co-written with Lesley Park, Fairies of the Lake District. They also make very pretty, hand-bound books on relevant topics which can be purchased at their website or at The Rum Story, Whitehaven.
  6. Henderson, Folklore of the Northern Counties, 1866.
  7. Sullivan, Cumberland and Westmorland Ancient and Modern, 1891.
  8. Geoff Holder, The Guide to the Mysterious Lake District, 2009. There aren’t many easy-read local history books featuring ghosty type stories to which I would give any credence, but this is one of them.
  9. Dobbie Bank at Holker, 1809.
  10. Crosby Hall, Crosby Ravensworth from Sullivan (see above).
  11. You can see a load of stone carvings of these at Tullie House in Carlisle.
  12. The article was kindly provided to me by Alan Cleaver (see point 5). I think this was because he knows I have de-bunky leanings and an interest in Halloween-type heads… thank you!
  13. Marjorie Rowling, The Folklore of the Lake District, 1976.
  14. As pictured and described at the website of the Dock Museum, Barrow-in-Furness.
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7 thoughts on “Dobbies, boggles, ghosts and the 19th century journalist…

  1. HGreat article!
    Not sure if you’ve read this / are interested but in Guy Ragland Phillip’s ‘Brigantia’ dobbies are seen as equine- ‘water fiend’ ‘shaggy haired pony’ ‘If the traveller mounted the supposed steed ‘it instantly sprang with a wild shriek of laughter into the deepest whirlpool.’ That is a good description of a celtic water-horse or Brigantian dobbie. The word is thought to be cognate with ‘Dobbin’ and may have for its first element the Celtic dhu – ‘black.’ Possibly associated with the Black Horse of Bush Howe. Perhaps related to Du Y Moroedd ‘The Black One of the Seas’ in the Welsh Triads?

    • Aha! You raise interesting points, Lorna. And whilst it’s not difficult to find all sorts of speculation about the origin of the boggle/barguest words, you’re the first one I’ve seen on ‘dobby’.

      I agree that what you describe sounds likes a Pictish waterhorse, but I’ve never found a link here between a dobby and a horse or water, or, for that matter, the colour black. We do have our own variety of spooky black dog/cat, but that’s a cappel (chapalu or possible cat palug).

      I’m really not sure about Bush Howe, or the links Philips made to it. I’m always quite keen to link to Welsh folklore if I can, but I can’t make this one stick. Perhaps a site visit would encourage me!

      Thanks for coming over :)

  2. Thanks for this, very informative whilst reminding me of the pitfalls of investigating fairylore. My bible is Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies, but while greatly wide-ranging and entertaining, its very breadth results in some lack of nuance and subtlety in favour of generalisation, and of course much will have been published in the intervening decades. This kind of detailed localised and critical overview is very welcome. I still feel out of my depth, however!

    • Oh, I’m out of my depth with dobbies, too, Ed! This is much of the point, really. The word seems to have been used to cover a wide breadth of uncanny happenings with very little common thread. I’d love to know if the term once did have a more specific meaning, as per Lorna’s suggestion, but I don’t think we have enough relevant, local, OLD written records to say.

      Thanks for coming over!

  3. Tom ran forward and found a hole in the ground… containing a head-shaped turnip lantern (like a Halloween lantern) with a warm candle still in it, some chains and, you’ve guessed it, the farmer from the Old Hall, wearing a sheet.

    And he’d have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids!

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist, life clearly imitating art here. Backwards…)

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