Archaeology Field Trip: Cadbury Castle and its ancient landscape with Dr Clare Randall

The walk will comprise a tour of Cadbury Castle hillfort, looking in particular at areas which demonstrate the development in the use of the hill from the Neolithic period, through the creation of the hillfort in the early and Middle Iron Age, Roman use as a barracks, important post-Roman refortification and construction of a hall, through to the early medieval period, when it became a burh and a mint. The contemporary sites in the surrounding landscape will be discussed. There will be an optional visit to the South Somerset Archaeological Research Group base at Sutton Montis after the walk.

Cadbury Castle Hillfort

Cadbury Castle Hillfort

Dr. Clare Randall

Dr. Clare Randall

Clare Randall is an archaeologist and zooarchaeologist specialising in the prehistoric period. She currently works as an Archaeological Officer for Context One Archaeological Services Ltd, where she works on projects of all periods across the south west.

She was Research Assistant for the South Cadbury Environs Project, and completed her PhD at Bournemouth University studying the successive prehistoric landscapes around Cadbury Castle in conjunction with the information on livestock husbandry from the animal bones recovered during excavation of the hillfort and surrounding sites.

She has been Research Director of the South Somerset Archaeological Research Group, which continues to work in the area, since 2007.

The walk is on Saturday 1 July 2017 starting at 2.00pm at the car park at Cadbury Castle. The walk is FREE although a donation of £3 is encouraged to cover costs.

For further information about this walk and other forthcoming events contact the Museum on on 01305 756827 or check the website on or follow us on Facebook and Twitter

For Directions

Meet at the car park at Cadbury Castle, South Cadbury, Yeovil, BA22 7HA (The Camelot Pub is nearby)

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An Evening with the Curator Speed to the West: A Railway Journey in Art

‘Speed to the West:  A Nostalgic Journey’ by Paul Atterbury and Richard Furness

‘Speed to the West: A Nostalgic Journey’ by Paul Atterbury and Richard Furness

This Thursday, 24th March at 7.00pm at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, Richard Furness will talk about the development of the humble railway poster, and give a tour of the West Country using a series of stunning railway posters to coincide with the Museum’s extensive poster exhibition which runs until January 2017.

The talk will cover the historical development of railway posters over 130 years from the early Victorian lithographs through to modern digital images.  It will be based on the five south-western counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, which will be used to illustrate the enormous change in styles before we tour the region with some of the finest pieces of commercial art ever produced in the UK.

The talk is a stunningly visual introduction to the extensive poster exhibition being hosted by Dorset County Museum, which the BBC Antiques Roadshow expert Paul Atterbury and the Speaker have jointly curated.

Available to buy on the evening at £9.99 will be the brand new book ‘Speed to the West:  A Nostalgic Journey’ by Paul Atterbury and Richard Furness.

For further information contact the Museum on on 01305 756827 or check the website on or follow us on Facebook and Twitter

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Museum launches a new exhibition of stunning railway advertising posters of the 20th Century

Nothing is more evocative of the golden age of travel than the railway poster, and Dorset County Museum is thrilled to be staging an exhibition featuring over 50 famous examples that opens on 19th March. These beautiful works of art were created between 1916 and the 1970s with one aim in mind: to encourage holiday makers to escape the humdrum of every day life and travel by train to the resorts, towns, countryside and special places of Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.

A truly classic railyway poster advertising the trip to come: GWR poster from 1938 by Charles H. J. Mayo

A truly classic railyway poster advertising the trip to come: GWR poster from 1938 by Charles H. J. Mayo

The posters conjure up a bygone age of steam engines and old fashioned bathing suits, sunny beaches and the gentle clinking of boats in harbours. There are stunning and iconic landscapes too, immediately recognisable, painted in wonderful colours and promising days out filled with sunshine and relaxation. Town and city views are populated with elegant people, a streamlined locomotive heads a Pullman train – these images bring together the excitement, spectacle and nostalgia of the age.

On display alongside the wide range of posters are some 21st century items that use classic poster design principles, locomotive nameplates, old station totem signs and diverse railway publicity materials and ephemera celebrating the great holiday routes in the West of England. Together they will, without doubt, provoke many nostalgic travel memories.

Speed to the West has been curated by Antiques Roadshow expert and writer Paul Atterbury and Richard Furness, collector, writer and publisher of the Poster to Poster series that have become the definitive books on the subject, supported by the staff of Dorset County Museum.

Paul Atterbury said “During the interwar years the ‘Big Four’ railway companies found that art sold tickets, and between them commissioned an astonishing range of posters from the leading artists and designers of the day. This tradition was maintained, even expanded, in the 1950s and 1960s by the newly nationalised British Railways, whose legacy is a second golden age of posters. This is a wonderful collection that is well worth coming to see, and I’m very pleased to be involved with this exhibition.”

Richard Furness said “Dorset is a beautiful county whose coastline is the subject for some wonderful artwork. Having been studying, collecting and writing about railway art for many years, I am delighted to be playing a part in bringing this unique collection to Dorchester. This exhibition brings together posters spanning a century, and is rounded off with the latest GWR poster which demonstrates that the slogan ‘Speed to the West’ is still actively in use today. Visitors should have a lot to see and reminisce over. Do come and see us!”

Dr Jon Murden, Director of Dorset County Museum said “I’m really excited about this exhibition. The posters and railway memorabilia we’re exhibiting are within living memory for many people, forming a direct link to the past. Added to that, the posters are, of course, things of beauty in their own right and it’s great that they will be here in Dorset for people to see all year.”

A book, illustrating in colour the posters in the exhibition plus others that enrich the story, will be on sale throughout the exhibition priced at £9.95.

  • The exhibition ‘Speed to the West’ A Nostalgic Journey opens at Dorset County Museum on Saturday 19th March 2016 to Saturday 7th January 2017

For further information contact the Museum on on 01305 756827 or check the website on or follow us on Facebook and Twitter

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Lunchtime Concert: Flute and Harp Duo

Florence-AstleyOn Thursday 29th October at 1.00pm, Dorset County Museum is hosting a lunchtime concert featuring flute and harp duo Viginia Astley (flute) and Florence Astley (harpist).

Virginia Astley is a songwriter and musician now living in West Dorset. She studied flute and piano at Chethams School of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After signing to Warner/Chappell, she produced five albums including the celebrated ‘From Gardens Where We Feel Secure’ and has worked with musicians ranging from Pete Townshend to Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Florence Astley studied the piano and harp at the junior department of the Royal College of Music with Daphne Boden and Emily Jeffrey, before continuing her studies at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and subsequently at Dartington College of Arts. Florence currently performs frequently throughout Dorset.

Virginia and her daughter Florence regularly appear together as a flute and harp duo, and have performed at a wide variety of venues in Somerset and Dorset, including Montacute House, Forde Abbey and Athelhampton House.

Everyone is welcome at this free concert, although to cover costs, a small donation of £3.00 is requested. The concert will take place in the Museum’s Victorian Gallery.

For further information about this event contact the Museum on on 01305 756827 or check the website on or follow us on Facebook and Twitter

The Dorset Ooser

This monstrous wooden mask, a bull’s hair and horns mounted on its low brow, was used to scare people at midwinter gatherings. Another was reported at Shillingstone and there may have been many more throughout Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire.  The Rev. William Barnes defines Ooser, oose or wu’se, as ‘a mask…with grim jaws, put on with a cow’s skin to frighten folk. “Wurse” … is a name of the arch-fiend.’

The replica Dorset Ooser mask that hangs in the Writer’s Gallery of the Dorset County Museum was carved by John Byfleet in 1975 for the Wessex Morris Men and is often used in May Day celebrations at Cerne Abbas and in dance performances. DCM © 2015

The replica Dorset Ooser mask that hangs in the Writer’s Gallery of the Dorset County Museum was carved by John Byfleet in 1973 for the Wessex Morris Men and is still used in May Day celebrations at Cerne Abbas and in dance performances. DCM © 2015

From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 84, 1962, an article written by the H. S. L. Dewar. entitled ‘The Dorset Ooser

This extraordinary object, portrayed in the illustration, has, most unfortunately disappeared from human ken. Some 65 years ago it was in the possession iof the Cave family at Holt Farm, Melbury Osmond. When Dr. Edward Cave left Holt for Crewkerne in Somerset before the year 1897, he took the Ooser with him. Leaving Crewkerne for Bath in 1897, for the time being the mask was left in ‘the care of the family coachman. When Dr. Cave enquired for it subsequently, it appears that he was told it had been disposed of. It is suggested that it may have eventually found its way to America.

Dorset Ooser, Melbury Osmond. This horned mask was formeriy in me possession of Mr. Gave of Holt Farm, but has long since disappeared. DCM © 2015

Dorset Ooser, Melbury Osmond. This horned mask was formeriy in me possession of Mr. Cave of Holt Farm, but has long since disappeared. DCM © 2015

The hollow mask, for such it was, is said to have been in the care of the Cave family from time out of mind. But although it has now been lost to sight, the memory of it and its associations in the district still provide great interest to students of folklore and others. That the mask was the last of a long line of renewals can hardly be doubted, since it was made of wood as a base, and must have suffered periodically from woodworm and decay.

As can be seen in the illustration, the mark was provided with a lower jaw which was moveable, and gnashing teeth, the jaw being worked by a string. It was adorned with crisped hair, flowing whiskers, a beard, and a fine pair of horns. Between the eyebrows it bears a rounded boss for which it is difficult to find an explanation. The expression of the eyes conveys a really agonized spirit of hatred, terror and despair. That the head in its turn was intended to inspire terror in the minds of the foolish and the wicked is unquestionable. It is perhaps the latest representation of ithe Devil to be made and used in England. The Devil, be it said, whom the Church of England has recently decided to retain in the Catechism, no doubt with good reason. The Ooser was, nevertheless, an unorthodox representation of the King of Evil.

The tradition that inspired both the creation of the Devil at large and the manufacture of his varied images is, of course, nearly as old as man himself. We find his prototypes, probably connected with phallic or fertiility worship, in the Mesolithic period. At Starr Carr in Yorkshire some 9000 years ago, the primitive hunters of the Middle Stone Age were making skull-caps for ‘wear out of the skulls and antlers of deer. Archaeologists believe they were intended to be worn for ritual use in dances connected with their hopes for ‘successful hunting. The fertility of both the hunters and the hunted was something that had to be achieved for the perpetuation of the tribe and for its sustenance.

The rituals that inspired this kind of performance were already thousands of years old. We have only to turn to the painting of a man disguised in the skin and horned head of an animal in the cave of Les Trois Freres in France to see what is perhaps the earliest representation of a priest of this fertility cult, his face turned to the spectators for admiration. Antlers have been recorded as found near the heads of individuals buried in Bowl-barrows of the Early Bronze Age in Dorset.

Today, in the famous, annual horn-dance at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, the modern equivalents may be seen, though politely modified, perhaps descended from remote antiquity through various -media. Incidentally, the Abbots Bromley horns are said to be hung up in the Church between the ceremonies.

It is not difficult to trace the evolution of a god of an early cult, or a fertility spirit with attendant ritual., to the Devil of a succeeding religion. The new priests still needed to keep some of the images of the older faith, and to trot them out periodically for the edification of the people, or as a warning. The transition from god of pleasure or plenty to god of pain, often in a subordinate and derogatory position as a devil, was assured. For example, the crude fertility symbolism of the Giant of Gerne Abbas was preserved, probably through May Day revels, by the local inhabitants, with the presumed, though perhaps tacit assent of the Church, and of the Abbey of Cerne.

Thus it may well be, as the inhabitants of Melbury Osmond believe, the Ooser, originally an image connected with fertility worship, was eventually relegated to occasions for “Skimity Riding” (Information from Mr. K. G. Knight.), (sometimes rendered as “Skimmerton”) as in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and “Rough Music”. This performance may be explained by pointing out that before the days of the Divorce Courts and the popular press, public opinion had a good way of expressing interest in and disapproval of husband-beating, scolding, sexual unfaithfulness or irregularity, and cuckoldry. Many of these are, after all, often due to the uncontrolled excess of the urge to fertility. And so, when an aberrant pair, or an erring spouse was located, the man, or sometimes the woman, or both, were made to ride on a donkey or a horse, face to tail. Meanwhile the crowd made rude and rough music by beating on frying pans and ketitles, bull’s horns, marrow bones and cleavers. Such was the band with which they had earlier woken and serenaded the sinful. Elsewhere, the donkey was called a “celebrated Jerusalem,” a curiously inverted form of sarcasm. At Melbury it is related that the Ooser was brought out and paraded to complete such a show. Skimmity Riding is portrayed on a panel in one of the rooms in Montacute House in Somerset.

By now the once triumphant horn of plenty, fertility and power had become a symbol of scorn, horror and derision. The latest phase of all seems to have been when the Ooser’s head — or was the head itself the Ooser — on occasion used to be brought to the door of the tallet (hay-loft) of a barn to terrify the children of the village(Information from Mr. K. G. Knight.) should occasion call for it. The word “tallet” is of some interest here, since it seems to be akin to the Welsh : “taflod”, a hay-loft, and its use as a dialect word in Dorset could indicate a Celtic origin.

The tale is still told in (Melbury that it was sometimes used to scare grown up people as well as young ones, chains being attached, while lucifer matches were pushed alight into the head. One is tempted to visualize smoke pouring from the infernal nostrils. The story goes that once it was so used to frighten a stable-hand (Information from Mr. K. G. Knight.), and that in a fright he jumped through a window and so injured himself that his ‘life was despaired of. At one time it is said that the Ooser was kept in the Malt House, which was once a Button Factory, and now a Chapel. If one looks for a parallel elsewhere, Violet A If or d in her book on English Folk-Dances, records that a man used to accompany the ‘Christmas Wassailers at Kingscote in Gloucestershire, “dressed in a sack, his head in a real bull’s face, head and horns complete”.

The name Ooser may be connected with “Wurse,” as William Barnes remarked, the name of the arch-fiend-himself in Layamond’s Brut. Others believe it connected with “Osor,” a name used in Italy in the 17th century for the Devil of the ‘Christians. It seems possible that the Ooser may claim relationship with such figures as the Mayday Jack-in-the-Green, or the Green Man of our Inn signs. He is likely enough an off-shoot from the 14th century and later Mummers’ plays. Some authorities hold that the older form of Mumming was “(Masking”, while Polydore Vergil relates that the disguising and mumming at Christmas were derived from the feasts of Pallas that were done with vizars and painted -masks. Again, it is known that in early ‘Christian times people ran about wearing masks upon New Year’s Day on the occasion of the Feast of Circumcision, imitating a pagan superstition. In ancient missals the words written in the mass for this day were : “Missa ad prohibendum ab idalis” A clue can very likely be seen also in Isaiah xxxiv. 14.

These masques or mysteries may have evolved eventually into the Morality Plays. In France, men and women (wearing such disguises are said to have been forbidden going to the Churches in 1598 at the instigation of the Bishop of Angres, and by State Legislation in 1668. A suggestion has also been made that “Ooser” is a derivative of “Guisard” or “Guiser”, connected with such words as “vizard,” “vizor,” or “vizard,” the old words for “Mummer” or “Guise.”

Mr. G. W. ‘Greening of Dorchester can recall the figure of a Beelzebub which puffed smoke, had four short legs and a tail like a crocodile, in a play performed by the Bradstock Mummers when he was a boy. It is a great pity that such figures as the Ooser should have faded into the mists of time. It is only due to the great interest taken in folklore by a few enthusiasts, and by Mrs. H. H. (Marshall, a daughter of Dr. Edward Cave, and by Mr. K. G. Knigiht of Evershot, and the very retentive memories of the older men and women of Melbury Osmond that many of the above details have been preserved.

Those who wish to pursue the subject may be referred to F. T. Elworthy’s Horns of Honour, and to Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries, Vol. ii (1891), p.289, or to any of a vast number of books concerning the Devil and his Works that are to be found in most public libraries. Skimmity Riding is discussed in Brand’s Popular Antiquities, and elsewhere.
It may be permissible to ask philologists whether there is any evidence that the ‘well-known Hampshire dialect word “Wooster”, meaning a lover, and “Wooster blister,” a mark allegedly caused by a lover’s kiss, is related to the Ooser?

  • The writer’s thanks are most cordially given to Mr. R. N. R. Peers, to Mr. G. W. Greening, and to Mr. K. G. Knight of the Melbury Estate Staff, for their interest in local traditions about the Ooser, and for the trouble they have taken in the matter. Last but not least, also to Mrs. H. H. Marshall, who has come forward with some new facts after this paper had been almost completed. It should be noted that “Ooser” is pronounced with a short, quick “s”, as in “boss,” not as in “nose.”

Apple Tree Wassail – Survival of a Tree Cult

Apple Tree WassailFrom the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 42 1922, an article written by the W. O. Beament, M.A. entitled ‘Apple Tree Wassail: Survival of a Tree Cult’

I propose for the purpose of this paper to consider firstly the ceremonies accompanying the Apple Tree Wassail which are, or were until lately, observed in the South West of England,and secondly to consider certain parallels to the rite which may be found at various stages of the civilisation of Western Europe.

It may then be possible to indicate some connection between the two, and to suggest a theory which accounts for what I believe to be a genuine pre-historic survival on English Soil. At the outset, I ought to explain that the theory which I shall outline at the conclusion of this paper is not intended to be the result of any research. It is simply an indication of the lines along which I believe a possible solution of the problems presented by the Apple Tree Wassail may be found.

At the present day the custom of wassailing the apple trees does not appear to be observed in Dorset; and when I first commenced collecting material for this paper I was not aware that it had been practised in our own county in recent times. However, our Vice- President, Judge Udal, has very kindly forwarded to me an extract from the manuscript of his forthcoming book on Dorset Folklore with permission to make use of it for the purposes of this paper. Judge Udal refers to an article in Folklore for 1918 from which it appears that the ceremony observed in Dorset did not differ in any important particular from those still to be found in the sister county of Somerset. When we turn to the latter county, there is an abundance of material for consideration ; and I propose to take as a representative account, and one which forms an excellent basis for discussion, the description of the ceremony given by Mr. Cecil Sharp in his note to Song 128, Folk Songs, from Somerset, 5th Series.

The rite appears to have been observed at Bratton on the 17th January, and the procedure as described by several witnesses is roughly as follows:

Meeting about seven in the evening, the wassailers proceed to the orchard which is to be the scene of their first celebration, and, forming a ring round one of the oldest of the trees, dance round, singing a particular song, to the words of which I will presently revert. Cider, sometimes warmed, is then thrown upon the tree or poured over the roots to the accompaniment of much shouting, stamping of feet, and firing of guns. Before leaving the tree a piece of toast soaked in cider is placed in the fork of the branches. Mr. Sharp states that, on enquiry of one of the revellers as to what became of the toast, he was informed that ” some say that the birds eat it, but I don’t know.”

There are five points in this ceremony which are worth considering :

  1. The Tree.
  2. The Song and Dance.
  3. The Libation of Cider.
  4. The Noise.
  5. The Offering of Toast

It may be interesting to consider them briefly in detail as they appear to-day.

1. SONG AND DANCE. I cannot obtain any very clear idea of the dance itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, it does not seem to-day to be a set figure; it rather has the nature of a wild gambol round a tree by a number of men joining hands in a ring. Probably the fact that they have already wassailed each other in cider before setting out has some effect upon their gyrations. The words of the song are at the present day more or less doggerel. As given by Mr. Sharp they run as follows:

Old Apple Tree we’ll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
The Lord doth know where we shall be
To be merry another year:
So blow well and bear well
And so merry let us be
Let every man drink up his can
And health to the old Apple Tree.

Then follows a spoken piece, cheering, shouting, stamping and gun-firing. I have come to the conclusion, as a result of comparison between this and similar ceremonies, that the words have in comparatively modern times been substituted for more ancient formula having practically the same meaning.It is perfectly clear that the wish expressed is for a good crop of apples in the ensuing year. It is rather curious that, in the Sedgemoor district, verses of the New Year Wassail Song are added to the Apple Tree Wassail.

2. SHOUTING, GUN-FIRING, ETC. The use of gunpowder, a comparatively modern invention, has led certain correspondents on this subject to suggest that we have a survival of a primitive method of pruning. The theory is that in early clays pruning was accomplished by beating the tree with a stick; and subsequently the firing of shot into the branches was used to obtain the same result. I am inclined myself to think that the gun-firing is merely a method of making a noise. Lieut. Latrobe-Bateman in describing his Congo Explorations in the middle of the last century has noted that natives belonging to the Mohammedan faith fire off guns at certain religious celebrations. In this case he knows that the object is simply that of making a noise. It seems rather more likely that the idea of noise-making should be predominant in a rustic ceremony such as wassailing, rather than that it should be necessary to prc-suppose a primitive method of pruning,for which not only does no evidence exist, but which is more over rather insulting to the intelligence of our ancestors.

3. THE LIBATION. This as it survives scarcely requires any comment. It can best be considered in the next section of the paper.

4. OFFERING OF TOAST. This is undoubtedly a real offering. Mr. Sharp’s informant was clearly of the opinion that it was not eaten by the birds, although twentieth century materialism had made him rather shy of expressing this belief openly.

None of the participants in the ceremony, however, appear to have any very clear idea as to whom the offering was made. It seems that we have here a case in which folk-memory is rapidly failing. Toast is still placed in the branches because it is remembered that once the offering was made to someone or something.

But in a few years, if the ceremony lasts as long, the reason will have been entirely forgotten; and I think this particular part of the rite will disappear entirely or we shall be definitely told that it is intended as an offering to the birds, probably in the hope that they will not attack the crop during the year.

In considering one or two interesting parallels to the Apple Tree Wassail, I should like to begin with a reminder that tree worship still survives in twentieth century England in other forms. The simplest, and the one which comes most readily to mind, is the Maypole dance. The Maypole is usually a dry pole perhaps with a sprig of green at the top, but was once, as Sir James Frazer has pointed out in the Golden Bough, a living tree freshly cut from the forest. It was also not so long ago that the “Jack in the Green” was a well-known figure in village festivities. It is rather curious that, while Sir James Frazer lays great stress upon these two survivals, he does not in the Golden Bough refer to the Apple Tree Wassail.

Bearing in mind then that ceremonies, which at the present time appear to have a value only as burlesque, are none the less religious survivals, we shall he less surprised to find that our West Country Apple Tree Wassail has behind it a long and honourable history. I must apologise for proceeding to state one or two facts which are probably well known to most of those present to-day, but my excuse is that their clue remembrance is essential to the considerations I wish to advance.

It must be kept in mind that religions, and especially primitive religions as distinct from magical cults, fall generally speaking into one of two classes they are connected with earth spirits or with sky gods. Without being irreverent, it may be stated that Christianity, following its predecessor Judaism, falls into the latter class; but this class is, at any rate in Western Europe, by no means the older. Men worshipped spirits of the earth before they worshipped spirits of the sky.

If one may make an extremely rough generalisation of the work of archaeologists in the classical lands of the Mediterranean, it may be laid down that the first peoples of that region of whom we have knowledge were agriculturists who worshipped earth deities, and buried their dead ; while, at a later date, they were encroached upon by, and ultimately fused with, pastoral invaders from the north, a taller fairer race who worshipped sky and storm deities and practised cremation. If in the light of some of these researches we consider the various points of the Apple Tree Wassail we shall begin to see some connection between our folk custom and the religions of the ancient world.

The ritual song and the ritual dance are both expressions of the same idea. The dance expresses the result in action, the song is an expression of the wish in words. Thus the first men to dance round the tree, in the hope that a crop might be secured to them, were performing in their early world a species of primitive ballet, endeavouring to depict in action and to sing in words the ideas of life and fertility; they imitated the desired result by showing themselves in possession of health, vigour, strength and agility.

The problem that presents itself at this point is: why they should dance round the tree ? The answer is that, just as gods have been made in the form of men and in the form of animals, so we are beginning to learn they have also been made in the form of plants. The tree is, if it may be so expressed, a kind  of super-plant. It has an intimate connection with the earth. It towers in the air and it is strong and, generally speaking, has a long life. It is extremely likely that originally the ceremony which we are considering was not performed round an Apple Tree at all, but round some forest tree, in all likelihood an Oak. This is perfectly easy to understand if it be remembered that primitive man has connected the idea of life, as expressed in plant or animal, not merely with the plants which he eats or the animal which he uses for food, but with those which are not good for this purpose. Thus we have Snake Tribes and Rat

Tribes when, generally speaking, the snake or rat is not a common article of diet. Totemism is far older and has exercised far more influence in religious developement than any idea of prayer for actual food. Thus assuming that originally our tree was a forest tree, that the religious idea grew weaker and weaker, and that people began to query why they did this thing, the ceremony, to make it appear more rational, would be transferred to a tree whose crop was actually of value as food, and in such a district as South-west England the natural tree to select would be the apple tree.

In the libation of cider we have an obvious magical survival. The cider is simply apple-juice, the blood of the tree, drawn from it last year. It may be assumed still to contain the life of the tree and is, therefore, poured back upon the roots or upon the trunk during the dead season of the winter in order that the tree may once more blossom and bear fruit. It carries from one season to another life and growth.

In this connection it may be interesting to note that the sacred tree and the sacred pillar are considered to be merely two aspects of the same thing. The tree is a living sacred pillar, a pillar is a petrified tree. Each is the house of a god or spirit, the place of its indwelling, a central point between the spiritual and material worlds.

Jacob, when he set up the Stone of Bethel, poured on it .wine and oil in consecration and named it the “House of God,” thereby indicating that for him at least it w r as the dwelling-place of the God of his fathers whom he proposed to serve.

The cider poured on the tree is not a drink for the spirit dwelling there. It is a rather more magical rite, indicating that the celebrant is trying to bring about a desired result by assuming it done. He pours cider because he wants cider next year.

In the sacred dance we have imitated the desired result; in the song we have expressed our wishes and hopes in words; by pouring cider we have done our best by physical means to secure that a comparatively dead tree will come to life. All this belongs to a very .early stage in religious thought, when gods and spirits are scarcely as yet conceived as such. Primitive man thinks not so much of deities as of divinities vague, half understood forces at work something like that which the natives of Melanesia call ” mana.” And this word is so expressive that it has passed into current anthropological jargon. Thus we have hitherto dealt only with forces which are more or less impersonal and can be controlled by magic, spirits not requiring to be sought in prayer because they are not regarded as possessing definite personal wills. It is the great distinction between magic and religion as we know it. With the former it is a matter of knowing how to do the right thing, while the latter is a question of personal relationship with a being. Now the noise brings us to the stage in which a being is introduced.

The shouting, stamping, and gun-firing, while they may in some measure express the joy of life, yet none the less are intended to awaken the spirit in the tree who has fallen asleep during the winter and must be aroused in good time if he is to do his work in the coming spring. Elijah’s taunt to the prophets of Baal was not merely sarcastic : to those w r ho heard it meant something real. They were used to shouting to wake up their god when they had any particularly heavy work on hand for him to do. So the Wassailers shout to arouse the spirit of the tree.

The toast in the branches takes us one step further. Toast which is intended to disappear is obviously of no use unless it is consumed by somebody or something, and we have here an instance of the actual offering made to a god or spirit. It is rather interesting to query whether it is given in order that the god may do something in return, or as a bribe to induce him to refrain from doing harm. As a matter of fact in early religion God and the Devil are very  much one and the same. It might be noticed in this connection that the vegetation spirit in Syrian mythology is Adonis, and his connection with Aphrodite is a matter of common knowledge. Aphrodite is always accompanied by birds her doves have become a proverb. Is it then too fantastic to suggest that here in

Central Somerset we have a direct survival of rites which in the golden days of Greece centred round the worship of the Maiden of the Sea-Foam?

I have already hinted at what is possibly an explanation of the survival of such rites as tree-cults in Britain. There seems very little doubt that such cults were originally the property of a people who were agriculturists, whose religion was the worship of earth divinities and who buried their dead. We know as a matter of certainty that this was the case in pre-historic times in Greece and other lands around the Mediterranean.

The early culture of Crete, of Mycenae and of the traditional site of Troy has afforded abundant evidence of the fact that the phenomena which I have just mentioned occurred together. Moreover from the same sources we know that at some time a pastoral people worshipping Olympian deities came down upon the Mediterranean from the North and were fused with the original inhabitants of the basin, the result of which fusion can be seen in the strangely assorted collection of gods and goddesses which make up the Hellenic and Latin Pantheons.

Now it is a well-known fact that, even when one race is conquered by another, the ideas and institutions of the conquered survive with strange persistence.

Thus there will be no cause for surprise if it be suggested that vegetation cults have persisted from very early times, and through various stages of civilisation, down to the modern world. It remains for us now to endeavour to connect the known facts of the Mediterranean area with the survivals which we find in our own country. I would suggest as a basis for further investigation a theory somewhat on these lines:

Tradition and modern research alike lead us to believe that, when the Mediterranean race was squeezed between the mountains and the sea by the increasing pressure of the northern invaders, an outlet of escape was found in the far west, along the Spanish shores and into Gaul. The peculiar religious observances of an agricultural people can be traced along this route and into Britain. The traces of Neolithic culture in this country show that we are dealing with a people whose physical features, as far as can be ascertained, resemble those which Sergi has ascribed to the Mediterranean race; a people whose religious observances, so far as any evidence remains to us, were akin to those of primitive dwellers in the Mediterranean basin, and whose belief in future life and survival after death was connected with the under-world rather than with a heaven in the sky. I would suggest then that, in common with other survivals of tree-worship and vegetation cult, the Apple Tree Wassail is a survival of that common stock of religious experience possessed by those early inhabitants of Southern and Western Europe whom tradition has called in various places by the names of Pelasgians, Ligurians and Iberians.

These people, whom we know to have contributed to later Greek religion those elements dealing with the under-world, the gods of the sea, the vegetation demons and those divine or semi-divine beings who possess the power of appearing in the form of beasts such as Dionysus would, as long as they remain agriculturists, practise their particular cults; and that these would, moreover, be learnt by any races who came into contact with them who wished to change from the wandering pastoral life to the more settled occupation of agriculture. Primitive man knew very well that it was useless to carry on an occupation until he had first of all put himself right with the spirits whose special concern that occupation was. This fact alone would explain how the ceremony could survive through various changes of civilisation and religion, and would also explain why so many of these customs have been able to make honourable terms even with triumphant Christianity.

The Apple Tree Wassail is one of the more obscure of these ancient rites, but it is none the less interesting, and I have endeavoured to put forward an analysis of its elements and a suggestion as to the lines on which further investigation may be pursued.

Note.  An article in Folk-lore, Volume XXXI, page 307, by Miss M. A. Berkeley, in commenting on some of the conclusions reached by Miss J. L. Weston in her work From Ritual to Romance, points out that Avalon in Afalon has the traditional interpretation of the ” Isle of Apples,” and that Mr. Cook has in the “European Sky and Tree God ” connected the ” Apple tree of Avallach ” the “god” of Avalon with magic trees of Irish legends and with the grove of Nemi. After shewing the connection of the Holy Thorn with sacred trees in general Miss Berkeley proceeds to set out evidence for the existence of an important and widely-known cult of the life principle at Glastonbury in early, and even in historic, times. The whole of the article is most suggestive in connection with the persistence of the apple cult in Somerset in modern times.

The Black Death in Dorset

Black Death in Dorset From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 43 1923, an article written by the Rev. Canon J. M. J. Fletcher, M.A. entitled ‘The Black Death in Dorset (1348 – 1349)’

It has frequently been pointed out that the middle of the fourteenth century appeared to be the time of England’s greatest glory. France had suffered a crushing and unexpected defeat at Crecy in 1346. In the following year Calais was taken. And when Edward III, in the height of his triumph, landed at Sandwich on October the 14th, 1347, the whole country seemed to be carried away with excitement at the success of their King. To all appearance an era of glory, of peace, and of plenty had arisen. It was the golden age of chivalry. And, in various parts of the country, tournaments were held to celebrate the establishment of the Order of the Garter, which appears to have been instituted by the King in order to hand down to posterity the memory of his martial prowess.

Such was the England upon which the great pestilence fell in the summer of 1348. It has been described as having been

“a turning point in the national life. It formed the real close of the mediaeval period and the beginning of our modern age. It produced a break with the past and was the beginning of a new era. The sudden sweeping away of the population and the subsequent scarcity of labourers raised, it is well recognised, new and extravagant expectations in the minds of what are called the lower classes; or, to use a modern expression, labour began then to understand its value and assert its power.” (F. A. Gasquet, The Great Pestilence, p. xvi.)

For two years or more, previously, there had been rumours of a mysterious disease which had been raging in the distant east, and by which, in a brief space of time, whole districts were depopulated. China and India more especially suffered. Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia were depopulated. Cairo lost daily, while the plague was at its height, from 10,000 to 12,000 persons. (Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages (translated by Babington) 2nd Edit., 1835, p. 21.)

Its specific causes are unknown. The opinion of the time connected its appearance with contemporary physical phenomena of a remarkable kind. Parching droughts were
succeeded by convulsions of the earth and crackings of its surface from which a fetid and poisonous vapour was projected into the atmosphere, the corruption of which was afterwards increased by malarious exhalations from swamps caused by incessant deluges of rain. To the panic-stricken imagination of the people, the pestilence seemed to be advancing to their destruction in the palpable form of a thick stinking mist.

The Death CartThe pestilence found its way to Europe along the great trade routes, being carried by the trading caravans which brought spices and gums and silks and other produce of the eastern markets. An Italian writer (|Gabriele de Mussi, Ystoria de Morbo. quoted by Gasquet, Op. cit.. pp. 4, 17, &c.) tells how the infection was brought to Genoa. Some number of Italian merchants had resorted to a place called Tana, north of Constantinople and under the rule of the Tartars. Tana was besieged and taken by the Tartars; and the Christian merchants, who were violently expelled from that city, were then received, for the protection of their persons and property, within the walls of Caffa, which had been built by the Genoese in the Crimea. This, too, was attacked by the Tartars, and the inhabitants were hard pressed. Suddenly the plague broke out amongst the Tartar host. At first they were paralysed with fear; and then, turning their vengeance on the besieged, and, in the hope of communicating the infection to their Christian enemies, by the aid of the engines of war they projected the bodies of the dead over the walls into the city. As far as possible the plague-infected bodies were committed to the sea. Before long, however, the air became tainted, and the wells of water poisoned. In this way the disease spread so rapidly in the city that few of the inhabitants had strength to fly from it. From the Crimea the plague seems to have found its way to Constantinople, which, at that time, was the great centre of communication between the Asiatic and European countries. It reached Italy in the early days of 1348, being brought from the Crimea to Genoa and to Venice. Boccaccio (Boccaccio, Decameron, Introduction) tells us graphically of what happened at Florence. All classes were affected. Magnificent dwellings were rendered desolate, sometimes to the last inhabitant. Riches were left with no known heir to inherit them. People of both sexes dined, apparently, in the best of health, and at supper time were lying dead. Stricken children were forsaken by their parents. The poor languished on the highways, in the fields, or in their own cottages, and were dying like animals. Flocks and herds wandered unwatched through the forsaken harvest fields.

The pestilence reached France about the same time that it reached Italy. From Genoa it was brought to Marseilles, where in a month 57,000 were carried off by the sickness. It reached Avignon, where Pope Clement VI held his court, in the early days of January, 1348. Here, in the first three days, 1,800 people are said to have died ; and in the seven months that the plague lasted no less than 150,000 persons in the surrounding territory died. The Pope found it necessary to consecrate the Rhone, that bodies might he thrown into the river without delay, as the churchyards would no longer hold them. He himself lived in seclusion in his palace at Avignon, keeping up constant fires and allowing no one to approach him.

Weymouth Harbour

A view of the harbour as it appears today. At the time of the Black Death Melcombe Regis Harbour was to the right and Weymouth Harbour to the left

The pestilence first attacked England in the summer of 1348. It was probably brought from Calais, being conveyed by fugitives who came to England in hopes of escaping from it. It appears certain that the first place attacked was Melcombe Regis, or Weymouth, which at that time was apparently almost as important a port as Bristol or London.

” In the year of our Lord 1348, about the feast of the translation of S. Thomas (July 7th),” writes the Author of the Eulogium Historiarum, (Eulogium Historiantm, Vol. Ill, p. 213.) a contemporary monk of Malmesbury, ” the cruel pestilence, terrible to all future ages, came from parts over the sea to the south coast of England into a port called Melcombe, in Dorsetshire. This plague, sweeping over the southern districts, destroyed numberless people in Dorset, Devon and Somerset.”

The plaque on Custom House Quay which records the part that Melcombe Regis played in the story of the Black Death

The plaque near ‘The George Inn’, Custom House Quay which commemorates the event when the Black Death entered Dorset

Bristol more especially suffered. Other dates given for its first appearance in this country are July 25th and August 1st, while another contemporary monkish chronicler (Henry Knighton, Chronicon Ltyccstrcusis (Rolls Series), Vol. II, pp. 58, &c.) states that it began in the autumn of the year 1348. News of its actual presence had not apparently reached the Bishop of Bath and Wells (Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop, 1329-1363.) on August 17th, for on that date he sent letters throughout his diocese ordering processions and stations every Friday, in each collegiate, regular, and parish church, to beg that Almighty God would protect the people from the pestilence which had come from the east into the neighbouring kingdom. The same bishop, a little later, issued a mandate which he ordered to be read clearly and distinctly in the cathedral on the 10th of January, 1348-9. (Wilkins, Concilia Magn. Brit, 1737, Vol. II, pp. 745-746 (Ex reg. Wellen., fol. 333). In it he speaks of the pestilence having left many parishes destitute of spiritual care and without a priest. Numbers of people were dying without the Sacrament of Penance, in consequence of the infection, and through dread of the disease. And he directs that it shall be made generally known that, if a priest cannot be found, confession of sin may be made to a layman, or even in case of necessity to a woman; though, if the penitent recovers his health, confession is again to be made to a priest. Moreover, in the absence of a priest, the Sacrament of the Eucharist may be administered by a deacon. And if no priest can be found to administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, then, as in other cases, faith in the sacrament ought to suffice.

It is said that from June 24th until Christmas it rained either by day or by night almost without exception. And no doubt the abnormally wet season,’ unhealthy as it naturally was, would aid the development of the sickness.

Black Death VictimThe Pestilence appears to have been some form of the ordinary Eastern, or bubonic, plague (Gasquet, The Great Pestilence, p. y; Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages, pp. 4-27; Villani, quoted by Dr. Jessopp in The Black Death in East Anglia; Chronicon GalfricU le Baker de Swyhebroke, Oxford 1889, pp. 98-100). It showed itself in swellings and carbuncles under the arm and in the groin – sometimes in size as large as a hen’s egg, at others smaller and distributed over the body; but in addition there were special symptoms, from one or more of which the patient suffered, which seemed to differentiate it from the common type, viz.:

  1. gangrenous inflammation of the throat and lungs,
  2. violent pains in the region of the chest,
  3. the vomiting and spitting of blood,
  4. the pestilential odour coming from the bodies and breath of those affected.

Though many recovered from the carbuncles and glandular swellings, it is stated that none did from the blood spitting. Sometimes the patient died within a few hours, though more usually the sickness lasted from three to rive days before death.

From the absence of contemporary statistics it is impossible to tell what proportion of the population was swept away by the plague. Platina, of Cremona, (B. Platina, Lives of the Popes (Clement VI) who lived about a century later, conjectures that, during the three years that it raged in Italy, ” scarce one man in ten escaped.” The same proportion is given for England by some of the Chroniclers,( Galfridus le Baker, Op. cit., p. 98; T. Walsingham, Historia Anglicana (Rolls Series), Vol. I, p. 273; Annales Monastici (Rolls Series), Vol. Ill, p. 475. ) who are followed by Stow and Barnes. (Barnes, History of Edward III (Cambridge, 1688), p. 435; Stow, Survey of the City of London, Vol. I, p. 129, Vol. II, 61. 62.) This must of course be an exaggerated conjecture. But, in all probability, the population of the whole country before the plague was somewhere approaching rive millions, of whom perhaps the half perished in the fatal year. A certain amount of evidence, however, can be obtained from various ecclesiastical documents, such as the records of institutions to vacant benefices, lists of ordinations, &c. And, if I seem to deal mainly with ecclesiastics, I would point out that it is because such statistics are to a certain extent available; and, what is more, that they are practically the only ones that are, with the exception of what may be surmised from the Court Rolls. I propose for the most part to confine myself to the county of Dorset, merely stating beforehand that, in January, 1349, Parliament, which was to have met at Westminster, was prorogued until April, (Rymer, Fcedera, Vol. V. p. 655.) in consequence of the deadly pestilence having broken out and daily increasing in severity, so that grave fears were entertained for the safety of those attending. In the early spring it was again found necessary that it should be prorogued indefinitely. (Ibid, p. 658.)

A scene from the former Weymouth attraction 'The Timewalk' shows a plague victim receiving the last rites from a priest while his distraught family look on

A scene from the former Weymouth attraction ‘The Timewalk’ shows a plague victim receiving the last rites from a priest while his distraught family look on

Dr. Gasquet gives the number of Institutions in the county of Dorset during the seven months from October 1348 until April 1349, as 5, 15, 17, 16, 14, 10, and 4, or a total of 81, whereas the previous average had been only one a month. That is to say that during those months there were more than eleven times the usual number of Institutions. The learned Doctor must have dealt, I think, only with Institutions to benefices conferred by the King or by some monastic or other quasi-public body; for from the episcopal registers, which are preserved amongst the muniments of our own Cathedral at Salisbury, and which I have examined carefully, the number of actual Institutions to Dorset benefices will be found to be 4, 17, 28, 21, 12, 12, and 6 – making a total of 100. And furthermore in these numbers are not included Institutions due to vacancies which had been caused by resignation or exchange. The pestilence still lingered on during the next four months, May to August, when the Institutions, owing to death, numbered 9, 3, 11, and 5.

West Chickerell appears to have been the first parish to be deprived of its Incumbent, for his successor was instituted on September 30th, 1348. His oversight of the parish, however, was but a short one, for another Institution to West Chickerell was necessary on the 6th of the following March. During October, 1348, there were Institutions to Warmwell on the 9th, and to Wool, Combe Keynes (Wool and Combe Keynes, however, were held in plurality by John Glanvill in succession to Richard Palmere. Consequently the loss by death was only one and not two.) and Holy Trinity, Dorchester, on the 19th. From then the deaths of Dorset clergy followed one another in quick succession. The parts of the county most affected were the districts within a short distance of the coast, and the villages through which the Winterbourne passes before emptying itself into the Stour. Bincombe changed its Incumbent both in November and in March; Worth Matravers lost both Rector and Vicar; at East Ringstead (Osmington) there were two changes in a short space of time; Tyneham suffered early in November ; Warmwell, Combe Keynes and Wool have already been alluded to; Winterbourne Monkton, Winterbourne Houghton, Winterbourne Came, and Radipole doubtless caught the infection from Weymouth or from Dorchester. At Wareham the Incumbents of Lady S. Mary, S. Martin, S. Michael, and S. Peter (two ?), as well as the Prior of the alien Priory, (Onginalia Roll, 22 Edw. Ill, m. 4.) were amongst the victims; There were new Incumbents at Milborne S. Andrew in November and again in February. Between November 17th and November 20th there were eight Institutions, seven of which apparently were due to the death of previous Incumbents, viz.: — on the 17th at Kingston Russell, (Here, as elsewhere at implies for, or on behalf of . Xo doubt the clergy were usually instituted at Salisbury, or wherever the Bishop might be at the time.) on the 18th at Cerne Abbas, East Lulworth, and East Morden (as well as one at Catherston Leweston, through resignation), on the following day at Toller Porcorum and Winterbourne Zelston, and on the 20th at Langton Long, Blandford, of the Chantry Priest. At Langton, although the Rector lived through the visitation, another Institution to the Chantry followed in June. Then there were Owermoigne, Aff puddle, Chalbury (twice), West Chaldon (now united to Chaldon Herring) both in December and May, West Knighton, and Stafford. Along the Valley of of the Winterbournes, Clenston S. Nicholas suffered most severely, there being fresh Institutions on December 7th, March 6th, April 8th, and yet again on May 3rd; while Winterbourne Houghton had three changes, viz. : on December 18th, March 5th, and June 7th. The Winterbournes Steepleton, Stickland, Whitchurch, and Zelston all lost their clergy, as, too, did Sturminster Marshall, which lies near the junction of the Winterbourne and the Stour. Not far away is Spetisbury, which lost two of its Rectors as well as two Vicars. Lytchett Matravers and Hilton, two other sufferers, are in the same neighbourhood. Lower down the Stour from Sturminster Marshall we come to Wimborne Minster, (Close Rolls, 23 Edw. III. January 31 and June 17.) two of whose Deans died in quick succession. Here the Win, or Allen, joins the Stour; and along the Win there were fatal cases amongst the clergy at Witchampton, Wimborne S. Giles, and Wimborne All Saints.

Blandford Forum, on the Stour, so far as its clergy were concerned, seems to have escaped the ravages of the disease; but Blandford S. Mary, Pimperne, Tarrant Monkton, Tarrant Rushton, Okeford Fitzpaine, Shillingstone, Farnham, Iwerne Courtney, Hammoon, Fontmell Magna, Iwerne Minster, Ibberton, Marnhull, Thornton (early in December and again in the middle of April), and Stour Provost all were bereft of their parish priests.

On the other side of Dorchester, of the coast towns, Bridport was one of the first to suffer, the institution taking place on November 9th, 1348, while the new Incumbent
himself succumbed just three months later. From the Bridport Corporation Records (Historical MSS. Commission. Appendix to Report, p. 475) we find that there were two Bailiffs of the town in each year; but in the 23rd year of Edward III (1349-50) four bailiffs are named, as having held office, Edward Stone, John Grey, William Hichecoke and Richard Laurenz in tempore P&stilcntice. The Abbot of Abbotsbury fell a victim quite early to the ravages of the disease, and, before his successor was appointed, the Vicar also died. Portesham, Puncknowle, Litton Cheney, Askerswell, Compton Valence, Allington, Bradpole (twice in the space of three months), Pilsdon and North Poorton were deprived of their clergy, as were Maiden Newton, South Perrott, Hooke, Toller Porqorum, Chelborough, Chilcombe, Chilfrome, Broadwinsor and Buckland Newton.

The northern part of the county was not nearly so much affected, though Gillingham lost one of its Chantry Priests at the beginning of December, 1348. Shaftesbury, however, suffered most severely. The Abbess herself, fell victim to the terrible disease, which also proved fatal to the Incumbents of S. Peter and S. Andrew, S. Martin, S. Laurence (both in November and in May), S. Mary and S. John, and later in the year S. Ronald. In addition to these, the Monastery lost its Chaplains, both at the altar of S. Nicholas and at that of S. Curas, while the House of S. Thomas was bereft of its Custodian.

For Sherborne, there were Institutions for the Free Chapel of S. Thomas on January 12th; and on the 18th of the same month a new Abbot was elected. Castleton, hard by, had previously lost its Vicar before December 21st. At Bradford Abbas, not far away, a new Vicar was instituted on December 1st. He can but have lived for a few days, for just twelve days later, on December 13th, in consequence of his death a successor was instituted; and about eight months afterwards, on the 20th of August, 1349, the death of this successor is noted, and there was yet a third Institution. Chardstock, farther S.W., on the borders of Devon, saw changes of Incumbents on March 8th and on December 8th.

Enough has been said to show how widely spread the ravages of this terrible disease were in the County of Dorset.

Although our own Bishop, Robert Wyvil, was spared, for his episcopate lasted from 1330 until 1375, yet two of our Metropolitans died of the plague. John de Ufford was elected Archbishop of Canterbury upon the death of John Stratford, and received the temporalties on December 14th, 1348; but he died of the plague before his consecration, on the 20th of May, 1349. He was succeeded by Thomas. Bradwardine, who was consecrated on the 19th of July, 1349. This great and good prelate, writes Dean Hook, (W. F. Hook, Lives of the Arclibisliops of Canterbury, Vol. IV; p. 106.) who had known how to administer

“the consolations of religion to the wounded in camp, and to the dying on the field of battle, regarded the post of danger as the post of honour. He hastened to England, prepared to lead the way to the abodes of sickness, sorrow, and death.”

He landed at Dover on the 19th of August, and after doing homage to the King, who held his court at Eltham, on the 22nd, he proceeded to London. At once he sickened of the plague, and died on the 26th of August.

There was a return of the plague in 1361, and, great as had been the mortality amongst the clergy of Dorset in 1348-49, at this later visitation it was, if anything, greater. Amongst the victims of this second pestilence was Thomas de Brembre, Dean of Wimborne Minster, and founder of a chantry in that Collegiate Church. Wimborne had lost two Deans during the time of the preceding visitation. And this was not all, for the Bishop of Worcester, Reginald de Bryan, who had formerly been Dean of Wimborne, died in his Cathedral City of the plague. Amongst other Dorset Incumbents who died were those of Canford, Lytchet Matravers, Moor Crichel, Hinton Martel, Chalbury, Gussage All Saints (two), West Aimer, Iwerne Minster, West Parley (two, viz. on August 27th and on September 6th), Pentridge, Edmondsham, Tarrant Gunville (two), Long Crichel, Belchalwell, Pulham, and Buckland Newton; and at Shaftesbury, S. Peter (two), S. Martin, and S. John.

It will be interesting just to look at the comparative numbers of deaths amongst the clergy in the neighbouring counties of Wilts and of Hants.

In Wilts, the Institutions, according to the Registers of the Bishop of Salisbury, in 1343 were 15; in 1347, 29, which number would be above the annual average. In 1348 they had risen to 72, and in the following year to 103. In 1361, during the second visitation of the plague, they were 128. At Ivychurch Priory, in Wilts, a house of Augustinian Canons, the ruins of whose abode are still to be seen some three miles or so to the east of Salisbury, the whole community was carried off with one single exception.

In Hants, the number of Institutions in December 1348 was 7; in January, 12; in February, 19; March, 33; April, 46; May, 29; June, 24; July, 18; August, 11 ; and in September 12; or during the ten months, 211, which would be about ten times the annual average.

What has been said of the mortality amongst the clergy will imply that there must also have been a terrible mortality amongst the people in general; although no doubt, in the exercise of their office amongst the sick and dying and with the dead, the clergy would be more especially exposed to the risk of infection. It is quite evident that the ranks of the clergy must have been very seriously diminished. And consequently, steps had to be taken to supply the places of the parish priests and chaplains of the religious houses who had died in such great numbers. The regular times of Ordination, at the Ember Seasons, had to be disregarded; and not infrequently men who had only attained to the minor orders — deacons, and even acolytes — were instituted to vacant benefices before being raised to the priesthood. Over and over again we read of permission being given for considerable numbers of men to be ordained priest who were under the canonical age. And sometimes they were passed very quickly through the various orders to the priesthood. It has generally been considered that it was partly due to this that there was a marked decline in the spirituality, as most certainly there was a deterioration in the intellectual attainments, of the clergy.

“So great,” writes the chronicler, (Henry Knighton, Chronicon Leyceslrensis, Vol. II, p. 63.) “was the dearth of clergy that many churches were deprived, and were wanting in divine offices, masses, mattins, vespers, sacraments, and sacramentals. It was difficult to get a chaplain for less than £10, or 10 marks, to minister in a church, instead of for four or live marks, or two marks with board (cum mensa), as before the pestilence when there were plenty of priests. It was difficult to get anyone to accept a Vicarage for 20 marks or £20. But in a short time a great multitude whose wives had died of the plague, many illiterate and mere lay- men, barely able to read, still less to understand, became candidates for orders (conjiuabant ad ordines).”

There was a natural reaction upon the religious life of the nation. One good result, however, was the foundation of Winchester College, of which the plague was the proximate cause, the ultimate cause being the wish to have a learned clergy to carry on the duties of the church and the business of the state. And in the first clause of the Statutes of New College, Oxford, William of Wykeham’s other great foundation, the munificent Founder sets forth with great clearness the objects of his foundation, and shows that what he intended was to provide educated clergy, who were not monks, but seculars, to fill up the gaps caused by the Black Death.

And the recurrence of the pestilence, in some places at any rate, drew attention to the advisability of better sanitary conditions. In one of the Close Rolls (Lit. Clans, 35 Edward III, Feb. 25, quoted in Stow’s Survey of the City of London (1720), Vol. I, p. 129.) is a King’s letter relative to Butchers’ Hall Lane, or Stinking Lane, London (25th February, 1361).

“Order that all Bulls, Oxen, Hogs, &c., should be led as far as to Stratford or Knightsbridge to be slain, instead of being killed in the city, and the putrified blood running down the streets, and the bowels cast into the Thames, whereby the air is corrupted and sickness and other evils have happened.”

Although at first the scourge fell most heavily upon the labouring classes, it was not long before it produced a marked improvement in their social status, and eventually a general enfranchisement of servile labour. In numberless manors so many of the peasants had been swept away that the land could not be tilled, but lay fallow and neglected. The old method of farming by bailiff gave way firstly to the system of stock and land lease, (Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages, pp. 277-280, &c,) and gradually to that of ordinary tenant farming. And, partly from lack of labourers, and partly because it was found to be more profitable to “grow” wool than corn, large tracts of land which had formerly been cultivated were converted into pasture. And, indeed, labour was in such request that it could make its own terms; and, in spite of statutes and enactments and branding and fines and imprisonments, men were not content to be bound down as in past days to reside always in their old neighbourhood and to work for a mere pittance. The Statute of Labourers was passed in 1349, immediately after the first visitation of the plague, with the idea of compelling labourers to work for the wages formerly accustomed to be paid, and confining them to their own counties. This and subsequent laws passed were but imperfectly obeyed, and eventually,

“under the dread of servile war, the abolition of compulsory service and all the other demands of the populace were tacitly but surely accorded. Thus, within fifty years of the visitation of the Black Death, serfdom and villainage were practically abolished in England, and the labourer, released from his bondage to the land, was free to carry his thews and sinews to the best market” (W. Warburton, Edivard III, p. 144.).

In addition to the authorities noted, the following works may be consulted.

  • Seebohm, Articles in Fortnightly Review, Sept. 1, and 15, 1865.
  • Creighton, History of Epidemics in Britain, Vol. I.
  • Victoria History of Dorset, Vol. II, pp. 20, 21.
  • English Historical Rcvieiv, July, 1890, p. 524.
  • Stubbs, Constitutional History ,1875), Vol. II, p. 434.
  • Dr. Jessopp, Nineteenth Century, Vols. XVI, p. 915, and XVII, p. 599.
  • Stow, Annates, 384.
  • Thucydides. History of the Peloponesian War, Bk. II. sect. 47 — 57.

Related Sources:

On the Maze, or Mizmaze, at Leigh, Dorset

Pimperne Maze

How the Pimperne Maze looked before it was destroyed in 1730 © DCM

Here is an article written by Rev. William Barnes from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 4,  1881 entitled ‘On the Maze, or Mizmaze, at Leigh, Dorset’

Coker, in his History of Dorset, says of the Maze at Leigh, that ” formerly the young men of the village were wont, once a year, to go out and make it good; and the day was a day of merrymaking.” Not, we may believe, a day of merrymaking because they had made the maze good by righting up of the banks, which edged the paths; but that the maze was made good for the day of merry-making, which might have been that of the village wake, or the old May-day.

That the young and not the old men were most interested in the maze, would go to show that it was for their games, and not for any heathenish or other ceremony of their elders.

Phillips, in his “New World of Words,” A.D. 1706, speaks of mazes as in his time made in gardens. He says: — “Maze, in a garden, a place artificially made with many turnings and windings.” The maze seems to have had formerly, all over England, its day of favor among friendly gatherings at great halls, and at some of the village feasts, as had the old game of Pall Mall, and its later form under the name of Croquet, though the pleasure of the maze (a puzzle), was akin to that of other puzzles which are now put forth among friends in the house, or in the open air. The maze was formed of a cunningly drawn maze of winding paths, which any one who would try his skill was to thread so as to find his way out again in the shortest time, and the mirth of it was, I suppose, that of the outsiders who might see a bewildered wayfarer misgoing into passages that led to nothing but others of the same kind, and the glory of a walker who, knowing the clue, came out with a laugh against the others.

There was formerly at Pimperne a cleverly-shapen maze, which is figured in Shipp’s and Hutchins’ History of Dorset. The maze paths were sundered by banks, and overspread nearly an acre of ground; but it was entirely destroyed by the plough about 1780, and it speaks of one at Hilton, Hunts, of which the path is steined with pebbles, and gives Aubray as saying that there were many mazes in England ere the civil wars, which let in the Puritans as lawgivers, who gave little freedom to games and gambols, and whose laws once punished a boy at Dorchester for riding on a gate on a Sabbath.( Borough Records) A fine sample of a maze still kept up, and I believe often threaded by sightseers, is the one at Hampton Court, of which the maze path is edged by a hedge [of shrubs, as, I believe, were the paths of most of the broad mazes of the olden time, with fences of some thick shrubs, whether box. privet, yew, or hornbeam, or other such-like ones. Another maze, of which Londoners seek a merry use, is in the Rosherville Gardens, near Gravesend, and one has, I believe, been made in the grounds of the Crystal Palace. The Athenaeum, July 2, 1881, speaks of ” The St. Anne’s maze,” near Nottingham, as one of the most elaborate examples of which we have any account, though in 1797 it was ploughed up.

The History of Pimperne quotes Stukely, who writes of such mazes in Wales, under the name of “Caertroi.” ” Winding Castle,” the mazes of which are trodden by walking on the banks.

This old British name for a maze, “caertroi,” has, from want of a knowledge of Welsh, led to a mistake that the word “troi” meant Homer’s Troy, and that caertroi, a maze, meant “Troy-town,” whereas ” troi” means simply a turning or winding.

Witches’ Corner, Leigh Common.

Many years ago I was told by a man of this neighbourhood that a corner of Leigh Common was called “Witches’ Corner,” and long again after that a friend gave me some old depositions on witchcraft, taken before Somerset magistrates from about the years 1650 to 1064. The cases were of Somerset, and touched in some points Dorsetshire, and one of the witches’ sisterhood said that they sometimes met in Leigh Common. This proof of the meeting of witches in Leigh Common as the ground of the traditional name of witches corner is interesting as a token of truth in tradition.

Totnell and Chetnole.

I suppose Chetnole is mostly pronounced Chetnel. Totnell is the name of the hill or knoll or knowl, and means Toutknoll, or Spynell, or Outlook-hill, as being in times of trouble a spot taken by outspiers or outlookers. There are in Dorset several touts or spy heights, and the word to tout, to look out for customers is still well-known. That knoll would wear into nell is shown by the name of “Punk-knowl,” which in running talk is called “Punnell.” Tout was formerly tote, and has been shortened in names of other places, as Totton, Totcombe, in the hundred of Totcombe and Modbury. The spelling of names of places is not a trustworthy guide to their meaning or early forms. Nell in Totnell is, I believe, a narrowing of the sound noil, as i in Huntsmin for huntsman. Such a narrowing is common in Latin, as Desilio for Desalio, and so it is in Welsh. Tot is the head of many other place names.


Is, I believe, Chetknoll, but Chet must have been in Saxon of some such form as Cet or Cete. Cete would mean a cabin, cottage, or cell. Was there ever a hermit’s cell there, as at Hermitage ?


Hay is the Saxon Haeg – (1) a hedge, and (2) a hedged ground.    Hay dun would mean the down with a hedged field or fields on it, one not all open.


The winter inclosure for cattle, but Winterhays, I believe, took its name from a family of Winterhay, and as being Winter-hay’s inclosures, but then they took their name from some Winter-hay.

Calehay, by Leigh.

The Calf or Heifer inclosure, used much as a run for young stock.

Rouch Hay.

Enclosure of rough ground or grass.

Bodies in Trenches 2013

Archaeology National Trust SW

A good time to review some of the discoveries of the past year. Much of what we have written here is to do with work that National Trust archaeologists have carried out themselves. However, resources dictate that I usually need to a ask archaeological contractors to carry out recording work.

Here are some of the discoveries from repairs, developments and service trenches that needed excavating this year. At some places, a trench can be dug where there is a near certainty that archaeology will be affected…even when the location has been chosen to avoid it. At others, we do not have enough information to know what will be discovered. Geophysics can help… but often it is difficult to know what lies beneath the ground.

In January, trenching for a new drainage system and fibre-optic cable line around the house at Montacute, Somerset was watched by Mike and Peter of Terrain…

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A Dorset Ghost Story: The Skull of Bettiscombe Manor

Here is an article written by Dorset folklorist and historian John Symonds Udal taken from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Volume 31,  1910 concerning the legend of the skull of Bettiscombe manor.

Part 1: Bettiscombe : The Legend of the Skull

The Skull of Bettiscombe Manor

The Skull of Bettiscombe Manor © DCM

So quiet and unobtrusive was the introduction to public notice of the story of this old skull that in the reference which heralded its first appearance in “Notes and Queries” [Circa 1872] (4th Series X., 183) no mention at all was made of its local habitat. I sent it simply as the record of a matter of pure Dorset folk-lore, a subject in which I was askeen then as I am now, and I have been collecting ever since ; so that my readers may imagine what a mass of more or less undigested material those intervening years must have brought me. (See “Notes and Queries” (4th Series, X., 183); and “Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries,” Vol. II., p. 249 ; VIII., pp. 308, 343 ; IX., pp. 315, 350, 352. )

My first note was in this wise :

At a farmhouse in Dorsetshire at the present time, is carefully preserved a human skull, which has been there for a period long antecedent to the present tenancy. The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year. It is strangely suggestive of the power of this superstition that through many changes of tenancy and furniture the skull still holds its accustomed place “unmoved and unremoved!”

Upon this the late Dr. Goodford, Provost of Eton, wrote to “Notes and Queries” (p. 436) inquiring whether I had not made a mistake as to the county, and stating that there was a similar superstition attaching to a house at Chilton Cantelo, in the adjoining county of Somerset.

I may say here that the superstition, or variants of it, attaching to this skull is not by any means peculiar to Dorset, or even the West of England.

I accordingly replied to Dr. Goodford (p. 509) giving him further particulars, both as to the locality and what I had heard of and about the skull. I there stated: –

The farmhouse (formerly, I believe, an old Manor house), now called Bettiscombe House, in which the skull remained or still remains for aught I know to the contrary, lies in the parish of Bettiscombe, about six miles from Bridport, in Dorsetshire. I cannot ascertain tne time when this “ghostly tenant” took up its abode in the place, but it is tolerably certain it was some considerable time ago. It has, I understand, been pronounced to be that of a black slave; and the legend runs that it belonged to a faithful black servant of an early possessor of the property a Pinney who, having resided abroad some years, brought home this memento of his humble follower. It is reported that a member of the above family in recent years has visited the house, but was unable to give any clue that might assist in clearing up the identity of the skull.

Bettiscombe House

Bettiscombe House © JSUdal/DCM

In 1883, some ten or a dozen years afterwards, I ascertained from the Bridport News that a correspondent in a paper called The Oracle had alluded to the superstition existing with respect to the skull at Chilton Cantelo, and the Editor had also referred to the similar one attaching to Bettiscombe in terms no doubt taken from my earlier contributions to “Notes and Queries.” In the same year also the subject was mentioned in the Daily News, for a correspondent of the Dorset County Chronicle in February of that year made enquiries relating to the skull at Chilton Cantelo, which drew a reply from Mr. A. J. Goodford (a son, I believe, of my former fellow-correspondent), who gave certain particulars as to the Somerset skull.

I will now take up the story with regard to its Dorset rival.  In the second series of “Haunted Homes,” issued in 1884, Dr. F. A. Ingram quotes an account of the Bettiscombe Skull from an essay written by Mr. William Andrews on ” Skull Superstitions,” in the course of which the story is related of a visit paid to Bettiscombe Farm by Dr. Richard Garnett, his daughter, and a friend. The particulars reported as having been gathered by this party contained some new details, namely, the skull was that of a black servant who had lived in the service of a Roman Catholic priest, and there were dark hints of a murder. The black servant had declared before his death that his spirit would not rest unless his body were taken to his native land and buried there. On his burial in the Bettiscombe churchyard, the haunting began; fearful screams proceeded from the grave; strange sounds were heard all over the house, and the inmates had no rest until the body was dug up. Subsequent attempts to dispose of it were followed by similar results.

This was the first time I had ever heard anything of the kind, or that the owner of the skull had been the servant of a Roman Catholic priest, and that there had been any idea of foul play in the matter, or that there had ever been any skeleton other than the head in the house. My information had been mainly derived from an old lady in Dorset (still living), who in her younger days had often visited and stayed at the old manor-house at Bettiscombe, and who had learnt and treasured up the legend as she had first heard it before time and publicity had lent a somewhat heightened and conjectural aspect to the tradition. From her I subsequently received an indignant protest against these innovations. I have also myself several times endeavoured to refute in periodicals and otherwise this attribute of ” screaming,” but, apparently, to little purpose ; for only a year or two ago this same old lady sent me a copy of a periodical called The World and His Wife, in which appeared an illustrated article of ” Old Haunted Houses,” by Mr. C. G. Harper, whom we know in connection with our own county as the author of ” The Hardy Country,” published in the ” Pilgrimage Series ” in 1904.

The account given in this work agrees with that quoted from Dr. Ingram’s “Haunted Houses,” excepting the mention of a Roman Catholic priest as having been the black servant ‘s master.

About the same time “Pearson’s Magazine” contained a graphic description of the Screaming Skull of Burton Agnes Hall, Yorkshire; to which was appended a note to the
effect that ” another ‘ Screaming Skull ‘ is preserved at Bettiscombe in Dorsetshire,” and giving the same details referred to by Dr. Ingram.

So much for this sensational and, I believe, thoroughly unearned attribute to the very quiet-looking emblem of mortality known as the ” Bettiscombe Skull,” and I will now give you an account of a visit I paid to it myself a little later in point of time than the visit of Dr. Garnett’s party, and the account of which appeared in the “Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries” (p. 252 to 255).

I happened to be in the neighbourhood, and not having at that time seen the abiding -place of the “famous skull,” about which I had written some years previously, I determined to make an effort to do so ; and lest I should, by my visit, invoke the spell of any ” malign influence,” I took with me the rector of the parish and a neighbouring clergyman who happened to be with him at the time. Thus accompanied and protected, I arrived at the manor-house (situated in the Vale of Marshwood that vale as to which Hutchins quaintly observed, upwards of a century ago, “few gentry ever resided in this tract” and nestling at the foot of a picturesque combe not far from Dorset’s highest point the famous Pilsdon Pen) evidently an early Georgian restoration of a much earlier building, aa the oak beams in the hall of considerable age abundantly testified. The house boasted of a handsome oak staircase; but, if I remember rightly, the painted panelling was apparently of no older date than such restoration. Up this stair-case we were courteously conducted, and on arriving at a small door on the top landing opening on to the attic stairs a candle was lighted, and we prepared to make the ascent to the darker regions above, where the skull was supposed to dwell. To my surprise I found, on the door being opened, from one of the steps ” the skull sat grinning at us,” as related by Miss Garnett. On inquiry, I learnt that the skull had been placed there in order to save going up to the attic where it formerly rested, which, owing to the ruinous condition of the timbers, was a journey of no inconsiderable danger. However, the present situation not being at all in character with the genius loci, and the good “woman of the house” being besides somewhat fearful of its being carried off by one of the dogs from where it stood, I had little difficulty in obtaining her permission to reinstate the skull in its former place. So, taking it in my hands, I carefully picked my way by the aid of the lighted candle, followed by my companions, over the crazy and broken floor to where, on a niche by the side of the huge chimney breast, lay a brick the old shrine of the skull upon which I reverently placed it; and there I had the satisfaction of seeing it on more than one visit in later years. Upon one of these subsequent visits I, with others, made a careful examination of the skull; and we were inclined to doubt whether it was that of a black servant at all, but as the generally received opinion is that it is I will say no more upon that point. The skull was by no means a large one ; the forehead certainly was low but not receding. The upper half of the cranium only was preserved, the lower jaw being missing; its length was 7½ins., and in depth to roof of mouth Sins, (full). From a phrenological point of view the “bumps” at the base were highly developed. If I remember rightly, there were no teeth left in the jaw when I saw it.

So much for the skull itself. Its surroundings were certainly of a character to add to the mystery of its existence there. The dark attic extended over the entire area of the house ; the floor was in a very unsound and unsafe condition, and evidently, from its appearance, had long been the home of bats, owls, and other ” fearful fowl,” for which easy access was afforded by the many openings in the ancient, massive, and dilapidated stone-tiled roof ; to say nothing of a nest of young birds I myself discovered close to the skull’s resting-place.

Close to the chimney-breast above-mentioned is a rectangular hole or shaft in the floor, of about 3ft. by 4ft. 6in., and of considerable depth, extending to the bottom of the floor below, where the back of a bed -room cupboard touches. At first I thought that this cupboard was an old-fashioned “powdercloset,” but after careful examination I was inclined to think that it might have had some connection with the aforesaid shaft, which may well have been intended for and used as a ” priest’s hole ” or hiding-place in the earlier and more troublous times that might have fallen upon Bettiscombe, as upon so many other places in the West of England. This conjecture is borne out by the fact that one end of the vast attic is divided off by a lath-and-plaster partition in which was inserted a small doorway, constituting a chamber of about 15ft. by 12ft. immediately under the tiles, and containing a small, round, brick fire-place with two window apertures at the end, which were stopped up. This would have formed a secure retreat from any sudden surprise, when, if danger became more imminent by a threatened search of the house, it might be averted by a timely resort to the “hole!” Of course it may have had other uses, but a better place of concealment or confinement can hardly have been imagined.

From time to time I have heard other rumours as to the ownership of the skull, one amongst them that it belonged to a young lady who had died, or had been made away with, after a long period of confinement in the house. To this story, if the skull be that of a woman, the existence of this partitioned-off chamber lends a certain amount of corroboration ; but of the black servant variant, as related by Miss Garnett, I do not remember ever to have heard.

Whatever may be its origin, the superstition is still, I will not say believed in, but sufficiently established to afford protection to the skull around which it clings ; an amusing instance of which I can relate. A former tenant of the farm once, in incredulity or in anger, threw the skull into a duck-pond opposite the house. A few mornings afterwards he was observed stealthily raking out the pond until he had fished up the skull, when it was returned to its old place in the house. It was said that Farmer G. had had a bad time of it during the interval and had been much disturbed by all kinds of noises!

Whether these noises were caused by any other agency than that of the bats, owls, &c., before mentioned, operating upon a conscience rendered unusually susceptible by such a terrible ” act of desecration,” this deponent knoweth not. Suffice it to say that there the skull rests in its accustomed place, there in the words of Macaulay

“To witness if I lie.”

And there may it long remain to attract and awe those visitors and lovers of folk-lore whose reverent feelings may lead them to make a pious pilgrimage to its shrine, but not, let us hope, to the annoyance of the “good woman of the house,” who must find it hard sometimes to retain her good nature under the many inquisitive and often irreverent remarks of her visitors.

I have recently endeavoured to turn these pilgrimages to some practical account ; and on my last visit to Bettiscombe before leaving Dorset I procured a ” Visitors’ Book,” on the fly-leaf of which I wrote the account of the history of the skull and its superstition as I had first heard it, and as it appeared in “Notes and Queries” some twenty years ago.

I further suggested to the good wife of the occupant of the farm (who was the churchwarden of the parish, which had little but the offerings of a very limited agricultural class to support its church) that a box should be kept in the hall for the purpose of obtaining contributions for the much-needed repairs on the church from such visitors as might be willing to make some slight return for the kindness with which they are invariably received und shown over the house.

After laying the “foundation coin” of this now charity I turned my back on the old house, feeling assured that its ” ghostly tenant ” would no longer pine for burial when by staying above ground it might afford the means of benefitting that church in whose soil it ought now to he resting.

I there added that in the Bridport News of September,1890, appeared some verses on “The Skull at Bettiscombe,” from a Lyme Regis correspondent, which afforded evidence that the writer was aware of the suggested black servant origin of the skull and of the story that it had at one time been thrown into the water. These lines, though not devoid of literary merit, were written in rather too jocular and flippant a vein for me to include them in my more serious collection of matters bearing on the subject. (Conf : an interesting parallel to this superstition amongst the natives of British New Guinea which I gathered from a Blue-Book on the affairs of that dependency (1899) and an account of which I sent to “Notes and Queries” (7th Series X., 461).

During a short holiday which I spent in England in 1906 I paid another visit to Bettiscombe, and found matters in much the same condition as when I was there last. The property, which had for some time parted from the possession of the Pinney family, had again recently changed hands, and another tenant acted as the custodian of the skull. This good lady, apparently for the convenience of her visitors, kept the skull safe from injury in a band-box, but the whole was kindly produced for my inspection; whilst I found that the old attics to which I had on my earlier visit reverently returned it were as ruinous and dangerous to traverse as ever Perhaps this was the reason for the change in the skull’s resting-place, but it had a depressing effect upon me though at this time I was aware, of course, of the greater interest that might justly be attributed to the skull in connection with my recent discoveries in the Island of Nevis, which will form the subject of the second part of this paper. I felt that the charm of the old associations had, for me, in great measure departed.

Matters, too, were not improved by finding that the object for which I had instituted the “Visitors’ Book” had evidently not been achieved. There were but few names in it, and I could only imagine that it must have been servants and not the village charities who had meanwhile benefitted by the largesse of the benevolent. May I hope that the opportunity of the skull doing some good whilst it does remain above ground may presently be recovered?

Part 2:  Nevis: The Story of the Skull and its Owners.

It must be seen from what has been said that considerable interest has always been attached to the person to whom the skull belonged, and that it has been generally accepted that it  had “belonged to a faithful black servant of an early possessor of the property a Pinney who, having resided abroad some years, brought home this memento of his humble follower.”

In my paper in the “Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries,” it will be remembered that I had thrown some doubt as to the skull being of a negroid character at all; but the other is the more generally received opinion, and it is upon that being the correct one that the interest of this part of my story attaches.

In my capacity of Chief Justice of the Colony it is my duty to go on Circuit from time to time to the principal Presidencies constituting the Leeward Islands, and in February, 1903, I was on duty in Nevis. One day on passing through a sugar plantation there I by chance inquired its name, and was informed that it was called “Pinney’s” ; and further inquiry elicited the fact that until about a century ago it had belonged to a family of that name. The story of the Bettiscombe skull at once flashed across my memory, and I thought how strange and withal interesting it would be if I had come across the actual home or source of the legend!

A day or two later I was paying a visit to Fig Tree church in the same island to inspect the marriage register of the great Nelson and his widow-bride Mrs. Nisbet when, on entering the edifice, which had been restored a few decades ago, my attention was arrested by a handsome marble armorial slab inserted in the floor of the centre aisle, bearing a long Latin inscription in memory of John Pinney, only son and heir of Azariah Pinney. Both father and son were styled “Armiger.” The latter is stated to have been born on May 3rd,1686; to have served several high offices in the island, including that of Capitalis Judiciarius (Chief Justice) (all of which offices were, of course, abolished since, if not before, the federation of the Leeward Islands in 1871) ; to have married in 1708 one Mary Helme ; (These Holmes must have been connected with persons of that name in Gillingham, Co. Dorset, for in the Nevis ” Common Records,” Vol. II. (1740). is registered a Power of Attorney from Thomas Helme, of Gillingham, in the County of Dorset, Butcher, to John Frederick Pinney, Esq., and others in America (sic). and to have died on December 11th, 1720, leaving him surviving ” duos puerulos, filiolam unam,” which, genealogically speaking, means two sons and a daughter.

The old-fashioned name of “Azariah” Pinney at once struck me as familiar, and as peculiarly applicable to the many Puritans in West Dorset ; and a reference to my Hutchins’ “Dorset” on my return to Antigua told me that it was one of the family names borne by the old owners of Bettiscombe and Blackdown. The arms, too, engraved on the stone are the same as those mentioned by Hutchins as belonging to the Dorset Pinneys, namely, Gules: three crescents or, from each a cross-crosslet fitchee argent.

Here was indeed a find and a great help towards the theory that I was beginning to form as to how a black servant skull if a black servant it was could have got to Bettiscombe !

Hutchins (3rd Ed., Vol. II., p. 276 s.v. “Bettescombe”) states as follows :

”A farm here of about 150 per annum was leased to the Pinneys. Azariah Penney, Esq., built a handsome house here, and on his death was succeeded by his cousin, John Frederick Pinney, Esq., M.P. for Bridport. He died 1762, without issue, and his estate descended to his nephew, John Pretor, who assumed the name of Pinney and was Sheriff of this county, 1764.”

Further, a brass plate on the wall of Bettiscombe church gives (amongst others) the name of “Azariah Pynney of Nevis, Esq. (youngest son of John Pynney, of Bettiscombe, Clerk, sometime Vicar of Broad Windsor), Ob. 1719, age 58, buried in London.”

But how did Azariah Pinney come to be described as of Nevis? It is true that the result of the troubles which ensued between King and Parliament, and later, when religious factions became so intolerant and bitter, was that many estates in these new Colonies were granted out to English settlers, and that many emigrants came out to commence life anew in what was then a new world. But there was still another way. Before the great black expatriation began, so as to afford labour for the American and West Indian plantations, we hear of numbers of convicts being sent out from England to cultivate those plantations, the victims of harsh laws and harsher judges, the common respite from or alternative to execution. The Puritan name “Azariah” might almost have prepared one for the sequel, for no doubt could be felt upon which side he would be found in any conflict of creeds.

Accordingly one is not surprised to find the name of “Azarias Pinney, of Axminster,” occurring amongst those 251 persons who were convicted of high treason at Dorchester on September 16th, 1685, at the conclusion of the Monmouth rebellion, and who was sentenced by Judge Jeffreys to be executed at Bridport with twelve others, ” the sheriff to see execution done according to his orders.” It is interesting to note that amongst those who were sentenced as above, but as to whom neither place nor time of execution had been ordered ” all which were carried back to be kept in safe Custody till further Orders are taken for their disposal  “appears the name of ” John Pinney.” (See “A further account of the Proceedings against the Rebels in the West of England,” September llth, 1685. (Reprinted from a contemporary broad-sheet in the possession of Mr. A. M. Broadley in ” S. and D. N. and Q.,”  Vol. VIII., p. 226 (1903).

Whatever might have become of John Pinney it would seem from the above extract that the fate of Azarias Pinney was sealed and the death sentence carried out.

Montravers House, Nevis

Montravers House, Nevis © JSUdal/DCM

Shortly afterwards I mentioned the result of my discoveries to Miss Julia Huggins, an old lady who lives at “Montravers,” the mansion or big house of the sugar plantation of ” Pinneys ” and who is the sole surviving grand-daughter of Edward Huggins, who had purchased the estate, as already mentioned, about a century ago, from the Pinney family, who evinced great interest in the inquiry which I was making, and sent me later the following extract from a book entitled

”Under the Blue Flag, or the Monmouth Rebellion,” by Mary E. Palgrave:

“1688, James II.

“Azariah Pinney, to Mr. Jerome Nipho, who shipped him to Nevis to work on his plantation on board the ‘ Rose Pink.’

“A. Pinney was from Bettiscombe, nr. Lyme Regis.”

It would seem, therefore, as if the death sentence on Azariah Pinney had been commuted, for it was no uncommon thing. I believe, for judges in those days and for Judge Jeffreys in particular to make large sums of money by disposing of their convicts to persons who would send them to work on their plantations abroad. If this story from Miss Palgrave’s book be true it would account for the fact that an Azariah Pinney was living in Nevis at the end of the seventeenth century. But he must soon have emerged from the condition of a “white slave” in Nevis to that of a landowner and a landowner of some means to have been able to purchase a sugar estate containing a large number of acres, and to which he had, apparently, given his name. (Many estates in the West Indiett are to this day called after the names of their former owners.)

Hutchins states, as we have seen, that Azariah Pinney left his estate in Bettiscombe (he does not allude to the exodus to the West Indies, the story being apparently unknown to him) on his death to his cousin, John Frederick Pinney, M.P. for Bridport, who, dying in 1762, left it again to his nephew (it should be cousin), John Pretor, who assumed the name of Pinney and was sheriff of Dorset in 1764.

But the identification of this Azariah Penney of Hutchins with Azariah Pinney of Nevis is very convincing to my mind. I am in possession of evidence obtained in Nevis that estates
there became the property of this John Frederick Pinney, which, on his death in 1762, passed to a John Pinney, who came out to Nevis in 1764, the date Hutchins gives as that of his shrievalty of Dorset, and whose son, John Frederick (the second), parted with the Nevis estates to Edward Huggins, of Nevis, in 1810 or 1811.

In an old “Plantation Book,” kindly lent to me whilst I was in Nevis by Miss Huggins, appears an inventory of slaves and other chattels taken from time to time belonging to the Pinney Estates in the parish of St. Thomas, Lowlands, in the Island of Nevis. He gives a list of those slaves born since the death of John Frederick Pinney, Esq., who died November 2nd, 1762, and who were living on the 23rd of June, 1793, consisting of about 40 boys and girls. At the same date (1783) occurs a list of black “and other slaves” (!) purchased by John Pinney, and now living, since his first arrival in Nevis, December the 23rd, 1764. Then follow the names of these new purchases in 1765-7, amongst which occur the names of  “Weymouth,” ”Bridport,” and if anything further was necessary to show where their owner John Pinney came from “Bettiscombe” !

This John Pinney could be, of course, no other than John Pretor,(This is corroborated by a copy of a letter (110 date) which appears at the end of the above-mentioned ” Plantation Book,” evidently written from one member of the Pinney family to another, in which mention is made of ” our uncle Pretor,” and invoking the assistance of ” Mr. Nelson ” towards obtaining some appointment which the writer desired.) who assumed the name of Pinney, as stated by Hutchins, on succeeding to the estates of his cousin, John Frederick Pinney, M.P. for Bridport, in 1762. That he was living in 1795 is evident from the fact that the ” Plantation Book ” records a list of slaves who in that year were conveyed by him to his son, John Frederick Pinney, whilst there also occurs a list of those retained. This second John Frederick Pinney would seem, however, to have presently parted with the Nevis estates, for I find in the same book ” a list of slaves on the estate of the late John Pinney, Esq., purchased by and now belonging to Edward Huggins, taken on the 1st of January, 1811,” the period at which, no doubt, the estates also passed into the hands of Mr. Huggins, whose sole surviving grand-daughter, whom I have already mentioned, still occupies the old and roomy house at Montravers (where some of the old mahogany furniture may still be found; Miss Huggins has kindly sent me a couple of old leaves from the “Plantation Book ” upon which an inventory of the furniture, taken in the year 1794, has been made. It is surprising to see what a quantity of handsome furniture the well-to-do sugar planters of the West Indies must have had out there in those days, though there is very little of it to be found out there now. Miss Huggins tells me that it appears that it was intended to take the inventory in  1783, but it was not done ; and she alludes to the fact that a picture of Azariah Pinney mentioned therein had been taken away by a Miss Weekes, and says what I endorse ” a pity she did not leave it ! ” No doubt this lady was a relation of the family, as John Pinney (Pretor) had in 1742 married Jane, a daughter of W. B. Weekes, of Nevis.

"Old Slave Dungeons" Montravers, Nevis

“Old Slave Dungeons” Montravers, Nevis © JSUdal/DCM

Probably this was done when the Pinneys left Nevis for good and settled in England. Is nothing known of this portrait amongst the Pinneys of Somerton Erleigh, in Somerset?), picturesquely terraced by lichen-covered and moss-grown steps flanked by old iron railings, with the solidly-built stone “slave-dungeon” long disused, a little to one side below the house ; whilst the old-fashioned entrance-hall has many features of the “Chippendale period” in it, as shown by its old mahogany cupboards on the walls. From here, through the arch-way, may be seen the quaint old garden, now somewhat over-grown, perhaps, but restful and charming, in which many rare and beautiful tropical trees and shrubs are still growing in profusion, notably the “King” and “Queen” of flowers, the blossoms of the former being pink, and the latter a bluish-mauve colour, slightly darker, perhaps, than our Dorset “corn-cockle.” The all-spice trees, too, with their dark green leaves, are beautiful to look upon, so tall and straight ; whilst the kind-hearted old lady does not forget to provide food in her garden for her and my dear friends, the monkeys (the pretty West African “green monkeys,” Cercopithecus calletrichus, which must have come there with the slaves in the old days, who make many audacious trespasses from the neighbouring and wooded “Peak” mountain (The “Peak” is the highest mountain in Nevis some 3,000ft. to 4,000ft. in height, and on the top extends a huge extinct crater which looks quite capable of repeating the disaster which its fellow, Mont Pele, brought upon St. Pierre, in the adjacent island of Martinique, in May, 1902. The summit is nearly always capped with light, fleecy clouds, which no doubt was the reason for the name given to it by Columbus when he discovered these islands in 1493,) to feed upon the luscious plums which grow there the “Trinidad” or “Governor” plum, and the “Java” plum, which latter, I am told, disappeared after the last hurricane to say nothing of the oranges, which are here of a particularly sweet and delicious flavour. Near the centre of the garden stands an old drip-stone, an obelisk in shape, which formed and in many places does so still the sole West Indian filter.

Pleasanter quarters these than Dorchester gaol for an ex-convict of the Monmouth rebellion, well may we exclaim! But was the Azariah Pinney mentioned by Hutchins and who returned from Nevis evidently a prosperous man (That Azariah Pinney was well-established in business in Nevis may be gathered from the Court records in that island, amongst which may be found a certificate of purchase to Azariah Pinney and Richard Meriwether, of London, merchant planters, of land formerly of Robert Lorey, containing 20 acres, in satisfaction of a certain judgment dated 2nd May, 1710 (?). Two Powers of Attorney from merchants in London to Mr. Azariah Pinney of Nevis, merchant, dated 20th December, 1714, and 25th October, 1715 respectively, are also recorded. I have recently (1909) been perusing some very fragile old papers, temp: Queen Anne and George I., sent me by Miss Huggins, in which Azariah Pinney is referred to one dated 26th May, 1719 (the year of his death), conveying an estate in Gingerland, Nevis, to him to secure the advance of 1,000.) , and who, it is said, died in 1710 and was “buried in London,” the same person as the “Azarias Pinney, of Axminster,” sentenced to be executed at Bridport by Judge Jeffreys in September, 1685? Is it a fact that after that clear sentence and place of execution named, he was respited and shipped to Nevis? I should have thought that it would be very unusual for any person sent out under such circumstances not only to obtain his freedom so soon, but to amass money or estates. What authority had Miss Palgrave for the statement that Azariah Pinney (“from Bettiscomb”) was transported to Nevis in 1688, as the above extract from her book would infer? Is this date not a mistake for 1685? At that time these doubts appeared so serious to me that I asked the question whether there must not have been two Azariah Pinneys, one” of Axminster,” sentenced by Jeffreys and executed at Bridport in 1685 and the other, “from Bettiscomb,” shipped to Nevis in 1688 (1685 ?) as stated by Miss Palgrave ? But the coincidences were almost too startling to credit this. One thing, however, was certain that Azariah Pinney of Nevis, who died in 1719 and whose tablet is in Bettiscombe church, could not have been the Azariah Pinney who, as Hutchins states, restored the old manor-house at Bettiscombe and died in 1760. Fortunately for me, a few months later (December, 1903) in the same periodical,

Mr. Vere Langford Oliver (recently elected a member of this club), who is well known in my part of the West Indies as the author of an important work “The History of Antigua” in three volume (1894-1899) containing the genealogies of numerous families in the Leeward Islands, was able to give me some most interesting and valuable information, consisting of extracts from wills and other documents which he had obtained in his researches relating to the families of these Islands. To that same number of the ” S. and D. Notes and Queries,” curiously enough, Mr. Oliver had contributed certain particulars relating to the “Monmouth Rebels” and had referred to Hotten’s ” Original List of Emigrants ” (1874), by which we learn that very few of these rebels seemed to have suffered the death penalty. They were mostly young and able-bodied men of the agricultural class, and the King’s clemency was extended to them on condition that they were transported to the plantations to serve for ten years. The Island of Barbadoes, at that period the wealthiest and most important British West Indian Colony, seemed to have procured most of them. These white servants were not necessarily sold to the highest bidder, but were allotted to such estates as were deficient, and there were special Colonial Laws passed for their proper treatment. They had to serve in the Militia, and were generally occupied in various responsible posts connected with the cultivation of the sugar plantations. Such of them as were educated and had friends no doubt did not serve their full time, and as soon as they were free obtained grants of land and became merchants and planters.

From the foregoing it will be seen that the question to whom the skull at Bettiscombe belonged has now become merged in the more interesting inquiry what became of “Azarias Pinney, of Axminster,” who took part in the Monmouth rebellion? From the information furnished by Mr. Oliver it is now made clear that there were two Azariah Pinneys ; one, the Monmouth rebel, son of the non-conforming minister, the Rev. John Pinney, of Bettiscombe (who was succeeded in his living in the neighbouring parish of Broadwinsor by the famous Thomas Fuller), born circa 1661 probably at Bettiscombe or Broadwinsor and who was respited and shipped to” Nevis, whence, returning to London, he died and was buried there in 1719 ; the other, his nephew, Azariah Pinney, of Bettiscombe (who I take to be the son of his sole surviving and elder brother Nathaniel, who married Naomi Gay, and who had, apparently, steered clear of the perils and attractions of the Monmouth rising), and died, or rather his will was proved, in 1760.

That the respite from execution which enabled this to be effected was not unlikely, notwithstanding the explicit orders given by Judge Jeffreys for his execution at Bridport, we know, when we consider how, contrary to popular belief, perhaps, comparatively very few of these convicts actually suffered the death penalty. The remarks of Mr. Oliver on this subject are very interesting; and the West Indies, and especially Barbados, would seem to have benefitted largely by these respites.

Mr. Jerome Nipho, or Nepho, would appear to be one of the largest consignees of these unfortunates, and must have done very well for himself out of their disposal. This Nipho, as we learn from a note on page 393 of Mr. Allan Fea’s “King Monmouth” (1902), was Secretary to Mary of Modena, Queen Consort of James II. ; and it was through him, as we now learn, that Azariah Pinney escaped with his life. Mr. Oliver, therefore, confirms Miss Palgrave’s statement, so far at all events as that he was respited from execution and disposed of to Nipho. But, apparently, one George Penn, or Penne, seems to have secured the ransom for Azariah Pinney from Nipho for the sum of 65, and Mr. Oliver gives interesting particulars as to this taken from the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1851. The entry showing this, taken from some old Pinney accounts, is very curious and will bear reproducing:

Bristoll, Sep. 1685.

” Mr. John Pinney is debitor to money pd Geo. Penne,
” Esq. for the ransome of my Bror Aza ; August 1685, £65.”

So far as I know Azariah had no brother named John then living, though Mr. Oliver tells me that there was a John Pinney, possibly an elder half-brother, living at Bristol in 1685, and surely it was only in September that he was tried and convicted in Dorchester. As Mr. Oliver observes, this John Pinney can hardly be identical with the John Pinney, or Penny, in Dorchester gaol in Sept. 1685. This latter, possibly a relation of Azariah and already alluded to by me (pp. 310-313), was, we learn from Mr. Oliver (p. 344), also respited, put on board the “Happy Returne” at Weymouth, and was sold on arrival at Barbados to Capt. George Perwight before the 8th of the following January. I wonder if there are any records of his future life or descendants in Barbados; but I imagine that he had not the same opportunities allowed him of doing so well for himself as Azariah had in Nevis.

This matter of the respite of Azariah Pinney is further alluded to in H. B. Irvings’ recent ” Life of Judge Jeffreys ” (1898), p. 307, where he mentions that ” Mr. Prideaux was given to Jeffreys, as Azariah Primly (Pinney) was given to Mr. Nepho, and the Taunton maid to the Queen’s maids of honour, that is to say as a prisoner, whose friends could ransom him by paying the money to the person to whom he had been ‘ given.’ ‘

Azariah Pinney, of Nevis, we may take it then, was the founder of the family fortunes in the West Indies, and having attained to some influence in Nevis probably purchased the estates which afterwards bore his name, (What is now known as ” Pinney’s Estate,” was, I am informed, formerly known as “Sharlows ” or ” Charloe’s ” the name, probably, of a former possessor of the property and which were sold by the representative of the family and then owner of those estates to the Huggins family about a century ago, as I have already mentioned.

Mr. Oliver’s extracts from the will made in 1718 by Azariah Pinney, of Nevis, described therein as a merchant, show that he left a widow, Mary, and an only son, who was appointed sole executor. Substantial legacies were given to his grandson, George William Pinney, at 21, and to his grand-daughter Sophia at 18, and a smaller one to his nephew, Azariah Pinney, of Bettiscombe. These two grand-children were, of course, two of the three surviving children left by the testator’s only son, John Pinney, whose monumental slab exists in Fig Tree Church, Nevis, already mentioned by me (in my former paper), and who is there described (in Latin) as having been born on May 3rd, 1686, and as having died on December 11th, 1720. The date of John’s birth as here recorded gives rise to rather interesting considerations. Did Mary, the wife of Azariah Pinney, accompany her husband to Nevis on his restoration to comparative freedom? Who was she?

According to the monumental inscription in Fig Tree Church there appears to have been another son of this John surviving him; and from the will of John Pinney’s widow Mary (nee Helme), we learn that this son was John Frederick Pinney, then described as her only son, to whom she left everything ; her other children (the two legatees under their grandfather Azariah’s will) being evidently then dead. This will was proved in London by John Frederick Pinney, only son and executor, in 1735. John Pinney, the father, seems to have died before proving his father Azariah’s will, or having made one himself, and eventually administration to both estates was taken out by John Frederick Pinney, the grandson, in 1742.

This John Frederick Pinney was then the sole lineal descendant of Azariah Pinney, of Bettiscombe, nephew of the Azariah Pinney, of Nevis, and heir to all the West Indian properties. But he was also to become the heir to the English family property as well under the will (made in 1758) of his cousin Azariah Pinney, of Bettiscombe, nephew of Azariah Pinney, of Nevis, who, although he does not seem to have possessed any West Indian estates himself, was evidently a man of means, and rebuilt the old house at Bettiscombe. He appears to have been married, for he expresses a desire in his will to be buried with his late wife in Wayford ; but he does not appear to have left any issue.

He left all his estates in strict entail to the above-mentioned John Frederick Pinney, his cousin; with remainder to John Pinney, of Herwood, Thorncombe ; remainder to John Pretor, son of Michael Pretor, deceased, on his taking the name and arms of Pinney. The will was proved by John Frederick Pinney in June, 1760, then M.P. for Bridport. And so it was, as Mr. Oliver observes, that the younger branch of the family settled in Nevis, and eventually inherited the Bettiscombe property on the extinction of the heirs in the elder line.

But this branch now, too, fails in direct issue, for according to Hutchins, John Frederick Pinney died without issue in 1762 and his estates descended to his second-cousin, the above-mentioned Pretor, afterwards high sheriff of Dorset (1764), who took the name and arms of Pinney. This statement as to the failure of issue is borne out by the extract
furnished by Mr. Oliver from the will of John Frederick Pinney (made in 1761), who is described as of Bettiscombe, and was apparently unmarried. He left all his estates in
Nevis and in England to John Pretor, following the devise in his cousin Azariah’s will, with additional remainders over. This will is proved in 1762 by John Pretor (Pinney). So that this John Pretor may be said to have succeeded to the family property under both wills. And here the Nevis blood also, notwithstanding the seven children of John Pinney (who died aged only 34), expired with his last surviving son, John Frederick Pinney, for I take it that the Pretors (a Dorset name) were not connected through any Nevis member of
the family.

And so the history of the family as unfolded by the “Plantation Books” on the estate in Nevis appears drawing to a close as the period connected with the history of the Bettiscombe skull begins to dawn.

John Pinney (Pretor) who pays a visit to Nevis in 1764 settles in 1765 certain of his estates and a portion of his slaves on his son John Frederick (the second), and the two of them disposed of the estates in Nevis bearing their name, as I have already stated, to Edward Huggins in 1811.

Apparently it was not long after the disposal of these estates to the Huggins family that the last of the Pinneys removed from Nevis, for I find, in looking over an old abstract of title which comprises these later dealings, traces of a desire to dispose of their remaining property and business in the Island and to retire to the old country. This they eventually did.

John Pinney, who had married Jane Weekes, of Nevis, died on January 23rd, 1818, and from the recital of a marriage settlement executed in 1801, we learn that the name of John Frederick’s wife was Frances. Under the will of John Pinney, John Frederick Pinney, Charles Pinney, and the widow Jane were appointed executors, and John Frederick Pinney also residuary legatee. This Charles would appear to be a younger son of John Pinney (Pretor), and to be engaged in business with his elder brother, John Frederick. It is believed that having left the West Indies they retired to Bristol, and set up as merchants there. Miss Huggins indeed tells me that both John Frederick and Charles did so first one and then the other both in her father’s life-time. At all events the last document I can find in Nevis with which they are connected was in 1830, and which, apparently, disposed of the remaining Pinney lands to the Huggins family. In this document John Frederick is described as the eldest son and heir of John Pinney, deceased.

But it may interest my readers to learn that this Charles Pinney, who about this time was Mayor of Bristol, was the hero of a very interesting law case Rex v. Charles Pinney, Esquire an account of which is to be found in the third volume of “Barnewall and Adolphus’s Reports” (1832), p. 947, and which I came across quite accidentally. In this case, Charles Pinney was charged, on an information filed by H.M.’s Attorney General, with neglect of duty in not having, as Mayor of Bristol, taken proper steps to suppress a riot in that city in October, 1831, during which the mob attacked and burnt the Bridewell, partly destroyed the Bishop’s Palace, demolished the Customs House, and burnt several other institutions and houses. The case was tried at bar in the King’s Bench at Westminster by a special jury of the county of Berks. The trial began on October 25th, 1832, and lasted seven days, and ended, after an elaborate summing-up by Littledale, J., in the acquittal of the defendant. Eminent counsel were engaged on both sides. The case was further interesting from the fact that after a day or two Lord Tenterden, C.J., was obliged to discontinue his attendance through illness, under which he had for some time been labouring, and which in a few days terminated fatally.

This brings me down to modern history, and to a time not long after, I should say, the skull must have taken up its abode at Bettiscombe, so that I will not attempt to trespass further upon private family history. But I should be glad if any later member of the Pinney family could say when the occupation of the old home at Bettiscombe was given up (I have said that for many years it had been let as a farmhouse, Colonel Reginald Pinney, a direct descendant of John (Pretor) Pinney, and now re.siding at Broadwindsor, Dorset, has recently informed me that the Pinneys lost Bettiscombe by not renewing the lease with the Brownes of Frampton, Dorset. John Frederick Pinney had quarrelled with the owner of Frampton at that time, and neither would nominate a life (the tenure being lifehold), so, on the death of John Frederick Pinney, the manor reverted to the survivor Browne. In the meantime, Azariah and his cousin, John Frederick Pinney, had built Racedown Lodge, in the parish of Thorncombe (the future home of Wordsworth, the poet), so their successor John (Pretor) Pinney removed to this place). or when the skull is first known to have made its appearance there.

It will have been noticed that two members of the family were concerned in the Monmouth Rebellion, Azariah and John. This circumstance, and the transportation to the West Indies, are confirmed by a letter that I recently received from the before-mentioned old Dorset lady to whom I had written, telling her of the result of my visit to Nevis. She writes to me : “It confirms a lot of the old legend, and that the son who did return brought his own black servant and the skull of the servant of his dead brother. It used to be said that these brothers were sent to Jamaica for work instead of being butchered after the Monmouth Rebellion.” But this is a variant of the legend of which I was not previously aware. Nevertheless, how the terrible results of the great tragedy seemed to linger in the memory of the people of the West!

Before I finish I should like to be allowed to give one more small yet pathetic incident which may fittingly close all reference to Azariah Pinney “the Monmouth Rebel.”

Considerable alterations had been made, as was only to be expected, in the old house at Montravers since Azariah’s time, in particular, the addition by Mr. Huggins of a spacious stone wing, which bears the marks of an incomplete finish, the result, probably, of that depression in the sugar-cane industry which has caused so many of the old estates (Pinney’s amongst the number) to pass into the hands of English West Indian merchants and ” advancers.” On one occasion the old dining-room the building being mostly of wood was being pulled down, and Miss Huggins told me that she remembered as a child this being done, and that as the workmen were ripping a board from the ceiled partition under one of the windows out fell a soldier’s coat, with all the buttons scattered on the floor ! Wonder and amazement were expressed by all that the coat had been built up in that way, but the matter has always remained a mystery. An inquiry from me could elicit nothing more than that ‘ ‘ it was certainly a soldier’s red coat,” and that Miss Huggins believed that the buttons were of silver or brass, but much blackened or tarnished; nothing of either had been retained. The question naturally arises, whose coat could this have been? The answer as naturally suggests that it was Azariah Pinney’s uniform which he wore at Sedgmoor it is very unlikely that he was actually captured in the fight and which was either taken out with him to Nevis then to some extent a free man or, more probably perhaps, had been sent out to him there when times had become less troublous. Otherwise, what was the occasion for hiding it? This would hardly have been the case had it formed the uniform of a local Defence Force, raised to meet the Frenchman when he came prowling round those coasts, what time Nelson came courting his widow-bride in Nevis in H.M.S. Boreas (Mr. Oliver refers iu an extract from the ” Minutes of Council of Nevia for 1693,” to ” Lieut.” Azariah Pinney being chosen one of the two Commissioners to assess Charles Town) It is a pity that not even one of the buttons has been preserved so as to show whether there remained upon it aught of the Duke’s cypher, or other badge by which its identity could have been established. Yet it is not a very wide conjecture to imagine that this faded old coat with tarnished buttons was all that was left as a memorial of the youthful ardour and zealous faith of this follower of the “Protestant Duke,” put away when Azariah Pinney came home to die, and forgotten during that century and a half until it came upon the astonished gaze of those from whom all knowledge of the history of the exile had long since passed away.

So far, then, no additional light has been thrown on the history of the skull, or as to which member of the Pinney family brought the skull to Bettiscombe. Was it John Pinney (Pretor) and what time he, in conjunction with his son, John Frederick (the second), disposed of the estates a century ago, and returned, we may presume, to end his days in England?

If so, may not one’s imagination easily lead one to believe that it was the skull of old “Bettiscombe,” the slave purchased by him in 1765 (who at that time, after many years
of faithful service, was undoubtedly dead, for his name no longer appeared in the last list of slaves entered in the ” Plantation Book”), taken by his old master with him to the very place, indeed, from which his trusty servant had taken his name, as “a memento of his humble follower ! ” If this be so, one can understand the history of the legend better, and the motive that prompted the home-bringing of the now famous skull. The rest is easy for the simple country folk to weave, and is, at the best, a form of superstition, as I have said, by no means confined to West Dorset.

In conclusion, let me say that though I may be wrong in many of my surmises and deductions I do not think that it is often given to one, in trying to penetrate the uncertainty and myth that surround the investigation of so many of our local superstitions and pieces of folk-lore, to come across, as I have, so many minor items of interest connected with an event that appeals so strongly to West of England folk as the Monmouth Rebellion. Whether I have been as successful in tracing the history of the Bettiscombe skull as I have been lengthy in suggesting its connection with that period of English history, I must leave my readers to judge, but I am very much afraid that their patience, as well as my subject, has at length been exhausted.

P.S. I append a rough pedigree of the Pinney family connected with Nevis, constructed from such materials as I had before me, which may be of some service to my readers.

Pedigree of the Pinney Family of Nevis

Pedigree of the Pinney Family of Nevis [Click image to enlarge]


Since writing the above, I have been referred to George Roberts’s “Life of the Duke of Monmouth ” (1844), from the second volume of which I have made the following ext acts relative to the subject matter of my paper

Mr. Roberts says (p. 237):

“The desire to procure white labour for the plantations in the West India Islands, instead of the black slaves, was very great in this country. The sugar trade flourished at the close of this reign in a remarkable degree. Extreme cupidity was displayed in order to get hold of parties to send out. …….At a time when courtiers, favourites, and soldiers were rewarded by having condemned prisoners given to them as a present, the value of a man for working in the plantations was soon ascertained, and great was the scramble for the booty. This was the case with respect to the Monmouth men who it was intended should be executed. Let it not be supposed that transportation to the West India Islands for ten years was a punishment of absence alone from their homes a very severe punishment of itself. Those who had purchased or laid out money to procure convicts did so for the sake and with the expectation of profit ; they became the absolute masters of the recent slaves, and could only be repaid by the sale of individuals or from the result of their labour…………”

“These persons became either in reality slaves or banished persons, according to their circumstances. Of so great a number my researches have only slightly developed the history of four individuals.”

One of these fortunately happened to be Azariah Pinney, of whom Mr. Roberts gives (p. 243) the following account, the materials for which, he states in a foot-note, were derived from letters supplied to him by a member of the family then living at Somerton House, Somerset :

“Mr. Azariah Pinney having been sentenced to death for high treason, was pardoned and given to Jerome Nipho, Esq. Rich and poor were alike given to some individual for his benefit, as shown in the preceding list of prisoners to be transported, and were conveyed to Bristol. Mr. A. Pinney’s destination was the Island of Nevis. His father clearly refers to this as a matter of choice, and would, had he been consulted, have advised about it. He parted with a wife and child, and proceeded at the age of 24 years to his place of banishment. Mr. A. Pinney soon ceased to be a slave

Mr. Azariah Pinney sailed in the “Rose Pink” Captain Wogan and soon experienced the evils of shipwreck and fever. In one of his father’s account books £117 3s. is entered for expenses to send him away to Nevis.

The banished gentleman had to pay ten days’ expenses at Bristol. He visited London and York before sailing. Mr. Azariah Pinney kept a diary, now lost, for his son’s information and improvement. He became a nourishing man, and his son was eventually Chief Justice of Nevis. Still his letters have complaints of storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and a ruinous invasion of the French.”

From the kindness of Colonel Reginald Pinney I am able to give an extract from the will of the Rev. John Pinney, of Bettiscombe, dated April 10th, 1702, which refers to the Monmouth Rebel and his son John :

“I give to my son Azariah fifty pounds sterl., one feather bed one bedstead and furniture for it, if he shall live to return unto England. I also do acquit him of all debts owing to me, and to his son John. I do give all my books and manuscripts provided he be consecrated and employed in the ministry.”

From what I have said we know that Azariah’s son preferred the law as a profession and eventually became Chief Justice of Nevis, and here he died and was buried in 1720.

Related Sources:

  • Dorset County Museum: Haunted Objects – The Waddon Skull

Extract taken from “A Book of Folklore” by Sabine Baring-Gould, 1913.

The Waddon Skull

The Waddon Skull © DCM

“There was a “screaming skull” at Waddon, in Dorsetshire, about fifty years ago, kept respectfully in a recess on the stairs; but as it was liable to be fractious and cause disturbances in the house, it was given to the Dorchester Museum, where it now is. The story about it is that it was the head of a black servant, and it bore on it the mark, of a cut from a sword. The servant went to his master’s room at night, and the latter, believing him to be a burglar, killed him by mistake. He was killed in the bedroom over the dining room. The owners of Waddon were the Grove family of Zeals, in Wiltshire. When Miss Chafyn Grove died some years ago, her cousin, Mr Troyte Bullock, inherited, but with the property had to take the name of Chafyn Grove.

A few miles distant from Waddon is Bettiscombe. Here also is a “screaming skull”. The house was rebuilt in Queen Anne’s reign, but the richly carved wainscoting and fine old oak stairs pertain to the earlier house that was pulled down when the present mansion was built. This was done by Azariah Pinney, who had joined Monmouth’s forces, and was exiled to the West Indies, he being one of those who escaped sentence of death by Judge Jeffreys at the “Bloody Assizes”, held at Dorchester, after the Rebellion. His life was spared through the influence of a friend at the Court of James II. He remained in the West Indies for a period of ten years, and then returned with a black servant, to whom he was much attached; and then the man died; but whether the skull be his, or, if so, why it was preserved above ground, none can say. It would seem probable, however, that it was taken along with the wainscoting out of the earlier house.”


  • Further analysis of the Bettiscombe Skull and the Waddon Skull can be found in the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Volume 119, 1997 : A tale of two skulls: superstition in Dorset at Waddon and Bettiscombe’ by MS Ross and Linda O’Connell, pp51-58