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.
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!
- ‘Crost’ is ‘crossed’, i.e. a relationship that didn’t work out.
- ‘Faries’ = faeries
- Beer made in October was very strong, hence strong beer is ‘October’.
- ‘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.
- A will ‘o the wisp is a spectral light, often seen hanging over bogs. These days, they’re attributed to burning marsh gas.