Monthly Archives: February 2017

TWO GLIMPSES OF SOMERSET IN THE  1860s

Shortly before Christmas in 1860,‘XYZ’ took a walk up Ham Hill and described his afternoon-out in a letter to the Editor of the Western Flying Post:

     ‘SIR, – It being Christmas time, with your permission, I will endeavour to add somewhat to the light reading you usually provide at this festive period by giving a short description of a pedestrian excursion to Ham Hill on a fine frosty day last week.  Often, as the same road may have been trodden by your readers, everybody may not perceive the same beauties and make the same reflections.  There is nothing remarkable, I must admit, in the footpath across the fields to Preston or in the road through Montacute; and it is only when you approach the foot of the hill itself that the real beauties of the neighbourhood force themselves upon your attention. 

     The day I selected for my peregrinations was, as I have said, frosty, and the sun shone with all the keen brightness customary at this time of the year.  Unluckily, however, a milk-and-waterish looking mist veiled the distant hills and hid many of the fine points in the view observable on a cloudless summer’s day.  With one long gaze I drank in all the beauties of the scene. Langport looked in the distance like a small seaport town, and the uninitiated would hardly be convinced that the expanse of water which was visible, was the result of the rains only. The numerous small towns and villages which lie between Langport and Crewkerne presented a most peculiar appearance.  The blue smoke, vainly endeavouring to overcome the atmospheric pressure, lay in massive-looking wreaths around the brows of the fine towers which invariably characterize the churches of Somerset.  The rays of the setting sun pierced through the heavy air and flooded landscape with a tint such as the artist Claude might have endeavoured in vain to convey to his canvas; and the metal on the church spires flung back the radiance in mingled hues of excessive brilliance.

     Turning with reluctance from the fascinating beauty of this picture, I looked towards Glastonbury.  There hung the mist in gauzy masses which seemed to place a limit to space and to annihilate the idea of anything beyond.  Then came the reflection that to a person twenty miles off gazing at the eminence on which I stood, I should appear enveloped in the same indistinctiveness.  The sun had now sunk behind the hills, and the first breath of the chill night air made me think of retracing my steps and bidding adieu to Ham Hill and the surrounding beauties.  I with no little difficulty reached the foot of the hill; and “stepping” the six miles in one hour and eleven minutes I arrived at home just in time for tea. 

     Wishing you, Mr. Editor, and your numerous readers all possible happiness on this glorious and Christian anniversary.’

   

To complete this glimpse of the Somerset 157 years ago, the following article from the Western Flying Post of Tuesday 1 January 1861 provides a homely glimpse into country life at that time:

     ‘On Wednesday last, the entertainment given annually to the workpeople on the Newton House Estate, by George Harbin Esq., took place amidst general rejoicing.  The annual treat has been generally prepared at the conclusion of harvest time, but with the snow lying thick upon the ground, and heavens threatening another fall, we can hardly designate it this year a “Harvest Home.”  Nevertheless the fare provided was as good and as thoroughly English as on all preceding occasions, and the workpeople assembled under the same happy presidency of Mr Dunning, the bailiff.  Loyalty as ever characterised assemblages of British workmen, and following in the footsteps of their worthy squire they drank to the health of the Queen – “good Queen Vic” –  with the lusty strength of English hearts.  Revelling in the blissful ignorance of politics, the meeting exhausted the list of homely toasts and flung forth their happiness in good old English ballads.  A joyous dance, in which those who knew how and those who didn’t joined, brought the evening’s conviviality to a conclusion.  The satisfaction of all present was testified by three hearty cheers for the beloved and respected donor of the feast after which the party separated.’

     The weather over the Christmas time in 1860 was a mixture of heavy rain followed by piercing cold and frost, followed by heavy snowfalls and a sudden thaw.  The Western Flying Post commented that the Christmas snowfalls were the heaviest for seven years with drifts over 10 feet deep in Dorset, and the lake at Barwick House was frozen to a depth sufficient to bear skaters.

Jack Sweet
February 2017

OLD SOMERSET CUSTOMS AND SAYINGS

    On 15 August 1906 ‘JVS’ sent a postcard called KISSING IN SOMERSET, one of a series about old English customs, to a Miss Crossman, of Westbury, Wiltshire, and this is what it said:
     ‘It is an interesting study that of tracing the history of old customs of various places. Some of them are undoubtedly of great antiquity, such as the Flower Show at Taunton, the origin is put down by some to the time of King Arthur and the Druids. Somersetshire customs have very much struck the attention of strangers who find in difficult to account for such a difference in adjacent localities. A Cockney who has lately been “doing” Somerset made a note of the following peculiarities in regards kissing in the different parts of the County.

     Clevedon girls keep quite still till they are well kissed, and then say “I think you ought to be ashamed.” Highbridge girls when kissed close their eyes in ecstasy, and do not open them again until the process ceases. Bristol ladies on being kissed suggest a walk to Keynsham, where they expect a little more of it. At Wellington, the ladies receive a salute with Christian meekness and follow the Scriptural rule, – when kissed on one cheek, they turn the other also. A Taunton girl, when kissed at once proposes a walk to Vivary Park. The Burnham girls act decidedly on the give and take principle, and object to being under any obligation. A Wiveliscombe girl on being kissed proposes a night visit to some neighbouring Druidical remains, some ancient inscriptions on which are considered to have talismanic power in influencing her dreams and future destiny. A Glastonbury girl insists on giving a return after four kisses. When a lady at Wells is kissed she blushes and says nothing. The ladies at Weston-super-Mare on being kissed smiles and simpers, puts on her hat and coat and proposes a visit to the Café, and have tea, junket and syllabubs in the romantic woods. A Bridgwater girl, while you are kissing her, falls in your arms and sighs aloud, “O! how nice – do it again.” Minehead girls say “Now if you go kissing me “Ma” will hear, but if I make the gate creak kiss me then, and she will not know the difference.’

     And now a few old Somerset sayings together with their explanations from the Somerset Year Book of 1922

Bedlam WindBedlam (at South Brewham) had the reputation of being a bleak place. It was said that a bellows-maker of some eighty years ago, one John Chamberlain, was in the habit of going there to get the wind to put in his bellows, hence their good quality.
Cadbury FuneralWhen a deceased person is not greatly regretted by his relatives, or when the friends are likely to mark the occasion by festivities, Castle Cary people remark:. “Ah that’ll be a Cadbury Funeral – dry eyes and wet droats!”
Fleas Arrive on March 1stThis is a common belief in certain parts of the county. At Yeovil it is said that on that date they come marching down Hendford Hill, and at Crewkerne similarly down Cemetery Hill! Housewives should be very careful to sweep their front door steps early on this morning, as they may thus drive away the inquisitive beasts.
Little Cup MakersA nick-name for people of Wincanton. Sweetman has recorded what he believed to be a “very old legend.” The story goes that once on a time a traveller was going along a high road in this neighbourhood, when he heard a loud cry from a ditch: “Help, help, please pull me out.” The traveller stopped and enquired “Who are you?” when he received the reply “The liddle cup maker o’ Wincanton.” “Then stay where bist,” retorted the other “If thee’d bin a big-cup maker I’d a helped thee, but a liddle-cup maker, never!”
Langport Men are jocularly reputed to be web-footed. This is no doubt attributed to the low lying and marshy nature of the surrounding country, which during the winter months is often under water.

Market TownsRhymes similar to the following are no doubt found in several parts of the county:-
Hadspen, Honeywick, Pitcombe and Cole,
Higher Shep’n, Lower Shep’n, Stoke and Knowl,
Higher Zeals, Lower Zeals, Wolverton and Penn,
There bain’t twelve zich market-towns in England again.

Nick-NamesIn the same way that Somerset people are sometimes called “Cuckoo-penners,” the inhabitants of certain towns and villages have been given names, complimentary or otherwise, by their neighbours. Many of these have interesting stories behind them, but in many cases the reasons for the appellations have been entirely lost. Here is a short list:-

Barton Rats Curry Clowns Ruishot Cheats
Beckington Bees Frome Dumbledores Stoke Bulldogs
Burrow Hounds Keinton Mice Stoke Pero Candlesticks
Charlton Bulldogs Kingweston Candlesticks  Wincanton Little Cup Makers
Cary Chickens Lyng Long-dogs Wellington Roundheads
Chewton Bunnies Langport Ducks
Crewkerne Moon-douters  Road Wopses

And finally, my late father used to say ‘boychap’ to describe a boy who was not yet a man (a chap) but who was not still a boy – a youth to you and me.

Jack Sweet
February 2017

Gallery
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