Faeries, spectral lights and October beer… Lamplugh’s 17thc troubles

Lamplugh register

Lamplugh register

According to a document from the village of Lamplugh, in west Cumbria, mid 17th– century parishioners were battling a plague of faeries, witches, will ‘o the wisps, man-eating dogs, fatally strong beer and spontaneous brawling. The document describes itself as a register of deaths for the period 1656 to 1663, and includes the following causes of death:

Two duels, fought with a frying pan and pitchforks – 1

Crost in love – 11

Mrs Lamplugh’s cordial water – 2

Frighted to death by faries – 42

Of strong October at the hall – 143

Bewitched – 7

Old women drowned upon the trial for witchcraft – 34

Led into a horse pond by a will of the whisp – 15

Vagrant beggars worried by Esquire Lamplugh’s housedog – 2

Sadly, as anyone who has looked at 17th– and 18th-century documents could tell you, this is not a 17th-century original. Handwriting changed markedly between the two centuries, and it’s clear that this was written quite some time after 1663. It could have been copied from an original – there are no other surviving parish registers for Lamplugh for 1650s and 1660s – but it seems more likely that this is an 18th-century joke.

Will o the Wisp by Arnold Bocklin, 1882

Will o the Wisp by Arnold Bocklin, 1882

It’s certainly the case that by the mid 19th century, it was fashionable for the educated to mock  ‘rustic’ traditions, as we saw with the last reports of need fires. But this document seems more personal; there were still people with the ‘Lamplugh’ surname in the area in the 18th century (in fact, one became Archbishop of York), so we can imagine hoots of laughter at references to Mrs Lamplugh’s poisonous cordial and Mr Lamplugh’s over-enthusiastic dogs. The sheer number of deaths with peculiar origins points to a joke, too;  people in past times may well have had a healthy respect for ‘faries’ and ‘will of the whisps’, but they didn’t think that they were massacring the local population.

But that 18th-century date, which seems so damning, is also interesting. The professional folklore-mockers and sentimental fairy revisionists didn’t really take off until the 19th century; my rule of thumb is that if a story is reported by the early 19th century, it probably represents a real, long-standing tradition. The Lamplugh document may not be a copy of a real parish register, but it could be an insight into beliefs that were still prevalent amongst ordinary people at the time.

For Lamplugh is an old, old place. It used to have a stone circle until it was removed in the 19th century, and it’s close to the Roman road. The name, ‘Lamplugh’ itself is old; it’s Celtic (Brythonic) and means ‘bare valley’. There are other old, pre-Viking stories about; the legendary King Morken and his tarn at Mockerkin; the kingdom of Gwenddoleu and Myrddin; and not least, innumerable stories about faeries, boggles and black dogs.

We know about these things because the folklore-mockers didn’t really succeed. Then, as now, when ‘offcomers’ point fun at local ideas, they keep quiet and carry on. It’s not that many decades since an old man in a nearby village, known to my family, was handing out wisdom that would have taken him to the stake (or the gallows, as most English witches were hung) three centuries before.

So the Lamplugh register is a bit of a fake, but it’s a fake that tells us that 18th-century west Cumbrians still suspected that they were living with faeries, spectral beings and witches. Oh, and drunken, pitchfork-duelling adventurers!

© Diane McIlmoyle 24.06.11 

  1. ‘Crost’ is ‘crossed’, i.e. a relationship that didn’t work out.
  2. ‘Faries’ = faeries
  3. Beer made in October was very strong, hence strong beer is ‘October’.
  4. ‘Ducking’, i.e. a suspected witch was tied to a plank and dunked in water. If she drowned, she wasn’t a witch. If she floated, she was a witch and was taken away to be hung. I’m not sure this happened in Cumbria; I will investigate.
  5. A will ‘o the wisp is a spectral light, often seen hanging over bogs. These days, they’re attributed to burning marsh gas.
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16 thoughts on “Faeries, spectral lights and October beer… Lamplugh’s 17thc troubles

  1. Thanks so much for this, Diane. An excellent article! And really interesting to hear about the 19th century mockers. I’ll bear that in mind, in future research.

    • Usually the clue is when the faeries transform from human-sized ambivalent beings to cute little fairies with wings *gags*. But I’m sure you’ve noticed that! Thanks for coming over, as ever 🙂

  2. Original or not, it certainly conjures up some lovely mental pictures!! Especially the duel fought with frying pan and pitchforks! If it did happen, would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the village that year 🙂

    • Me too! As long as we remembered not to drink either the October beer or Mrs Lamplugh’s cordial!

      Thanks for visiting : I love your blog and I suggest anyone here goes over for a read 🙂

    • Hello Kate! It’s a funny one, this, because I almost didn’t do it because a) the story is relatively well known and b) it’s clearly written a century after it says. But it kept bugging me… those causes of death clearly sound a bit mad, but they don’t sound Victorian.

      Cumbrians really, really hate people coming in and laughing at their traditions – as I suspect this was doing – but at least the 18th-century observers knew what they were talking about, unlike the Victorians who misinterpreted what they saw.

      So, roll on faeries and witches 🙂

  3. Two duels fought with a frying pan and pitchforks – now there’s an image to conjure with (even if it is a joke from a century later). Why two, I wonder? Perhaps the first was inconclusive so a rematch was necessary. And pitchforks, plural – should one imagine one of the combatants with a frying pan in one hand and a pitchfork in the other, rather like a spear and shield, or one combatant with a frying pan and the other with two pitchforks. You could spin a story out of that one line alone 🙂

    • I have a feeling that the whole thing was an ‘in-joke’ and that many of the ‘deaths’ referred to real details of that crowd’s life – Mrs Lamplugh’s horrible cordial, Mr Lamplugh’s out-of-control dogs, the fearsomely strong beer… and perhaps a pitchfork-frying pan battle? It conjures an image of their lifestyle! 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing the process of sorting the “mocker” or debunker from the sincerely intended report. It sheds a bit more light when the layers of the story are thus illuminated. Of course, we who are now so much more enlightrned would never believe in superstition. *self-deprecating chuckle*

    • The more I read about the 19th-century debunkers, the crosser I get on behalf of the Cumbrians! Even now, locals are quite cagey with outsiders, and I’m sure it dates back to those days. I suppose it was a small sample of what later became the colonial horror – the so-called educated taking the mickey out of customs that had served out-of-the-way communities for generations.

      On this theme, I was trying to find out what the old name of Thirlmere was – two smaller lakes were combined to create a reservoir in 1894 – and you can’t really. I suspect the locals just called is, ‘ut watter’, but when pressed, said, ‘oh, y’mean Leathes’ Watter’, because a chap called Leathes owned some land at one end of one lake. That had the oh-so-educated outsiders seriously bemused, and stating four different names for one lake! Revenge… 🙂

  5. Pingback: Hubble, bubble… here are some Cumbrian witches… | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  6. Well! 🙂

    Gave me a giggle and I was sad to think it wasn’t real… having trawled a few Parish Register’s myself and had a smile or two over a few entries, in the past!

    Sadly no such goings on in my part of Shropshire – not even the odd joke!

    I did find a huge amount of inkblots splattered around one particular entry once tho’… the recorder had crossed out what he’d begun to write and replaced it with, “(child’s name) bastard! By the body of (mothers name) whore of (fathers name)…” Which clearly left the following generations to the indignation he felt at the time!

    But no Witches, faye or even the odd duel… probably plenty of ale swilled but none put down to death… well not before 1812 anyway…

    Gota love PRs tho 🙂

    • It is a cracker, isn’t it? And whilst it’s not what it purports to be, it still tells us plenty about what people believed at the time.

      Love the Shropshire parish register story – I wonder whether the recorder took it on himself or whether the husband had come marching in!

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

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