The book Black Country Stories and Sketches by John Freeman, published in 1930, is a wonderful insight into the Black Country of old, when folk behaved very differently from today and superstitions were rife.
When the book was compiled over 80 years ago the stories that were collected were probably as old again, and some of the superstitions you are about to discover are surely much older still: “The old fashioned people feared bad luck as they feared the devil, and of him they had a real fear. For signs and tokens they kept a constant and keen look out. A Bradley woman who was nursing her sick husband, lost heart when his favourite cup was cracked, and the part bearing his name fell out of its place; she knew then it had ‘come for his end.’ “An old collier who worked in Thorneycroft’s Field, used to tell with a serious voice, how that he heard the ‘Hell Hounds’ in the ‘Fiery Holes,’ and of what happened. ‘Heerd em did I; Aye lad! An’ they yelped an’ youked as plain as onny dogs ever did.
Did I goo to work then? I did’na, I knowed better my lad.
When my o’d ooman, dead this twenty ’eer comes Bils’on Wake, come’d down stairs I were frying a slice o’ ham, an’ what wi’ my hand shakin’ it fell in the fire, an’ her said, ‘Come away, thee o’d bofhumbler.’ ‘My wench,’ I said, ‘theed’st bofhumble if theed’st heerd the Hell Hounds! Thee should’st ha’ sid her face! her faather was killed the day he heerd ’em. But I could’na rest a’ whum, an’ got to the pit in time to see the bond goo o’er the pulley.’ “Most miners believed in the omen known under several titles, as Hell Hounds, Gabriel’s Hounds, or the Seven Whistlers.
To hear them was a certain sign of accident that day, and a return home was made. The sounds, so terrible to the old miners, were no doubt merely the cries and pipings of the migrant swans and geese during flight.
“Why the meeting of a woman in the early morning inspired such a dread amongst colliers, it is difficult to say. Yet hardly a man amongst them dared to go to work if on the way he set eyes on a woman.
“‘Drat thee, my ’ooman, why dus’na stop in thee whum, what hast got to goo pottering about at this time of day for?’ was a mild protest from an annoyed collier who following his superstitious instinct of fear had returned to his home.
‘Ma man hanna gone to the pit, he’s had a warnin’’ was a remark that created no surprise.
To dream of fire, or of breaking anything was a sure token of coming death or injury. No Black Country dame would permit another woman to let in the New Year, or ill-luck would certainly follow. The new-born year had to be announced by a man, and he had always to be a dark one.
“Every girl whistles now, but in the good old days it was held that: ‘A whistlin’ woman an’ a crowin’ hen bin nayther good for God nor men’ and both were regarded as dreadfully uncanny creatures. It is not many years since several neighbours waited upon a keeper of fowls in Bilston begging him to kill a hen that crowed, or ‘terrible bad luck would come to the neybooard.’ “The sight of crossed knives caused women to shiver with horror, and was held to be the omen of coming misfortune.
The ‘tick, tick’ of the little ‘Death Watch’ spider was listened to with awe, most believing it foretold a death in the family. No mother would hold up her baby to the looking glass, nor dared she herself view the new moon through the window pane, or bad luck would surely come. And if a woman shivered she was sure someone was walking over the spot where she would be buried.
“The writer was present at the funeral of a member of an old Bradley family, at which the dead man’s relatives spoke with bated breath of the prolonged howling of their dog on the night before the death. That was regarded as an unmistakeable token of the coming sad event.
“No housewife would throw down suds on Good Friday, to do so was thought to be an impious act that was sure to bring horrible luck. Nor did she care to see a chair twisted round on one leg, that was unlucky too.
Not very long ago an old lady was heard to object to the poking up of the house fire, averring her belief that to stir the fire was to stir up strife. She had known many quarrels to follow that action.
“Who amongst the generation of elders has forgotten the classic custom of reading signs of good or bad fortune in the doings of birds. To see a single crow anywhere meant that someone was sure to die. We saw rooks, with the glee of childhood, we chanted: ‘Crow, crow, get out of my sight, or else, I’ll have your liver and lights.’ “No man ever courted sweet maid with more ardour than the Black Country maiden courted ‘Good Luck.’ On the evening of St Thomas’s day she placed a sprig of evergreen under her pillow, then hoping to dream of her lover, she fell asleep whispering, ‘Good Saint Thomas, stand by my bed, and tell me when I shall be wed?’ That interesting when? They had many ways of asking it.
“All remember the blowing of dandelion ‘down’, or the counting of the fateful plum stones while crooning, ‘This year, next year, sometime, never.’ “But the question whom shall I marry? That was more exciting still, and girls had many playful modes of trying their luck. One, was to carefully pare an apple without breaking the skin, then toss the paring over the left shoulder, when it would fall into the shape of the first letter of the young man’s name. Another way, was to take a blade of spiked grass, and count the spikes downwards, to the incantation: ‘Whom shall I wed? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich man, Poor man, Beggar man, Thief; What shall my gown be? Silk, Satin, Muslin, Rags.’ “The chestnut test was a favourite one. Two nuts were placed side by side on the bar to roast. If the two roasted soundly and steadily together, it meant a happy marriage, and long life together, but if one fell into the fire, then one lover would die early.
“Old time Black Country hospitality was of the heartiest, and it was counted rare good luck to have a film of soot detach itself from the bar of the fire-grate. It was called a ‘stranger,’ and the youngsters used to watch it with intense interest, clapping their hands while they shouted: ‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.’ The quivering little flake was supposed to detach itself on the fortunate day, but if it fell into the fire no visitor was expected.
“In the days when every housewife baked bread, she never omitted to slash a cross into her dough for good luck.
Without it, the bread was bound to be heavy as lead. When she laid her leaven on Good Friday, she believed the bread made would keep fresh the year through, and did not forget to give each child a dab with the batch-bag, which was supposed to prevent for a full year the possibility of catching cold.
“To make the fire draw or tinder up, she used to place a poker through the upper bars of the grate. This old fancy still clings to some ancient dames. If she stumbled when going upstairs, she expected good luck, or if she found a crooked sixpence, or a stray black cat came into the house. When the palm of her hand itched, she gleefully said: ‘there’s money coming to me,’ and would rub her hand on her mop-stall, or the back of a chair, as she repeated the ditty: ‘Rub it on wood, and it’s sure to come good.’ On her first sight of the new moon, she was careful to ‘turn her money,’ it was then sure to multiply.
“We laugh at many of the fears of the old time folk, but the things they feared seemed very real to them. Old Dame Dumby of Willenhall, prayed nightly: ‘Four corners to my bed, four angels to me sped; one to watch, one to pray, and two to drive the devil away.’” To this prayer she often added another: ‘Good Lord deliver me from witches, evil-wishers, polecats and devils, all creeping things, and all things with long tails. Amen.’ The old lady became a Methodist convert in the early days of 19th century, but found it very hard to give up her superstitious incantations.
“It was commonly believed that the devil accompanied by troops of imps, visited pit workings, causing accidents and doing many malicious and spiteful things. When unusual sounds, or lights or sulphurous smells were noticed, the old collier concluded infernal creatures were about, and hastily snatched his belongings and made for the pit-bottom, shouting a warning as he went.
“Black Country people were not astonished to hear of the devil appearing anywhere, or in any shape. An old shoemaker, who used to walk from Walsall to Moxley to work, filled his mates with terror on his arrival one morning, by a story that would stir ridicule today. But he firmly believed it, and so did they. On his way he turned into an old shed. During the night a fellow had hanged himself from a rafter, but the body had fallen, lying in a heap on the floor, and upon it sat the devil in the shape of a black cat.”
Do you know any Black Country superstitions that that perhaps your grandparents used to speak of? We’re looking for unusual ones. If you have some to share, call us, or email jworkman@black countrybugle.co.uk.