The English Drinking Culture: A Brief History

When it comes to alcohol and the English people, there are two main traditions: the first is that we drink lots of it, and the second is that of claiming that things have never been so bad.

According to Public Health England:

Alcohol is now more affordable and people are drinking more than they did in the past… Despite recent declines in sales, as a nation we are still drinking too much… Most adults in England drink alcohol – more than 10 million people are drinking at levels that increase the risk of harming their health.

News reports over the past decade paint a grim picture: ‘Binge drinking turns alcohol into bigger killer of the working class than the well off’ (Daily Mail); ‘Supermarkets “overflowing” with cheap alcohol’ (Evening Standard); ‘supermarkets selling beer cheaper than water’ (Channel 4); ‘The middle-class women drinking themselves to death’ (Daily Mail); ‘The shocking extent of middle-class drinking revealed’ (Daily Mail); ‘Middle class parents fuelling teen drinking’ (The Telegraph); ‘Pill that replaces alcohol aims to end middle-class drinking “epidemic”‘ (The i); ‘Cheaper alcohol boosts calls for minimum prices’ (The Times); ‘The killer on Britain’s streets – super-strength alcohol’ (The Guardian); ‘Millions to call in sick with World Cup hangovers’ (Daily Star). And so on.

In reality, this is nothing new. Alcohol consumption has risen and fallen many times during English history, and each new generation has found some way to claim that things have never been so bad. The one interesting twist in the latest bout of alcohol-related hysteria comes in the form of a new concern that it is the middle class who are drinking themselves into oblivion; a welcome change from the historically more common narratives of working class degeneracy threatening the nation.

The fact is that England is, and always has been, a nation of drinkers. In fact, moralists of previous centuries would probably be pleased with how relatively little we now drink compared with the people of their times.

Both habitual and heavy drinking have been a part of English culture for as long as the English have been around. In the medieval period, daily drinking was the norm, but not, as a popular myth has it, because water was unsafe to drink (a myth put to rest by Jim Chevallier and Ian Mansfield). To quote from Ælfric’s Colloquy (10th century): ‘I drink ale… and water if I have no ale’. For everyday use, there was lower ABV ‘small beer’, but there was also the much stronger ‘godale‘ (‘good ale’), also known as ‘double beer‘. Cider, wine, and mead were also drunk. The medieval calendar was peppered with saints days and other religious festivals, and all of these were accompanied by heavy drinking:

Masquerade, the inversion of conventional authority, satire, sexual freedom, and considerable drunkenness were central to festive culture, including church-ales and religious feasts in medieval England.

Periodically, steps were taken to reduce the extent of such revellry. In 1448, Henry VI banned fairs and markets on traditional feast days and Sundays, due to ‘drunkenness and strifes’ causing ‘abominable injuries and offences done to almighty God’. In 1563, the Council of Trent warned against allowing religious festivals to be ‘perverted into revelling and drunkenness’. Protestant radicals, meanwhile, accused popular fairs and church-ales of being nothing more than an excuse for ‘bullbeating, bowling, drunkenness, dancing, and such like’. Had it been around in those days, the Daily Mail would have been appalled.

In the early modern period, the English drinking culture was again seen as a cause for concern. Ian Spencer Hornsey’s excellent book A History of Beer and Brewing provides the following examples:

1552: From ‘An Act for Keepers of Ale-houses to be bounde by Recognizances’:

Forasmuch as intolerable hurts and troubles to the commonwealth of this realm do daily grow and increase through such abuses and disorders as are had and used in common ale-houses and other houses called tippling houses, it is enacted that Justices of Peace can abolish ale-houses at their discretion, and that no tippling-house can be opened without a licence.

1572: Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of York, in a stern warning to the clergy of England:

Ye shall not keep, or suffer to be kept in your parsonage or vicarage houses, tippling houses or taverns, nor shall ye sell ale, beer, or wine.

1577: William Harrison, writing in his Description of England:

Certes I know some ale-knights so much addicted thereunto that they will not cease from morrow until even to visit the same, cleansing house after house, till they defile themselves, and either fall quite under the board, or else, not daring to stir from their stools sit still pinking with their narrow eyes, as half sleeping, till the fume of their adversary be digested that he may go to it afresh.

1583: Philip Stubbs, an Elizabethan moralist, writing about drunkenness:

I say that it is a horrible vice, and too much used in England. Every county, city, town, village, and other places hath abundance of alehouses, taverns, and inns, which are so frought with malt-worms, night and day, that you would wonder to see them. You shall have them there sitting at the wine and good-ale all the day long, yea, all the night too, peradventure a whole week together, so long as any money is left; swilling, gulling and carousing from one to another, till never a one can speak a ready word.

‘How they stutter and stammer, stagger and reel to and fro, like madmen’, wrote Stubbs, ‘some vomiting, spewing and disgorging their filthy stomachs, othersome pissing under the board as they sit’. A 2009 House of Commons Health Committee report states that towns across the country are at night ‘awash with drunks, vomit and disorder’; so, little has changed.

In his fascinating book, Man Walks Into A Pub, Pete Brown notes:

In 1577, there was an alehouse for every 120 of the population. By 1636, this figure was one for every ninety-five. From 1684, the annual production of common brewers (wholesalers) and brewing victuallers (retailers) was recorded, and together with the estimated production from private brewing they were turning out nearly nineteen million barrels [of beer] a year, or 2.3 pints per day for every man, woman, and child in the country.

And this wasn’t low ABV medieval-style small beer, either. In 1680, a member of parliament urged that ‘There must be a reformation of ale… It is as strong as wine and will burn like sack’.

Beer wasn’t the only popular drink towards the end of the 17th century, for brandy was also widely consumed. For political reasons (brandy being of French origin), the English were encouraged to abandon it in favour of gin. After 1694, gin cost less than beer and is estimated to have had twice the alcohol content of the gin sold today. Brown writes:

Consumption rocketed, and by 1742 a population one tenth the size of today’s was necking around nineteen million gallons a year, ten times the amount we get through now. Anyone was free to open a gin shop, and it is estimated that in some parts of London one in every four houses sold gin.

The epidemic of drinking that ensued worried the ruling class, who were concerned that a population so dissolute was endangering Britain’s wealth and would be unable to carry out military service:

An example comes from the opening of the Gin Act of 1736. It stated the law was needed because of the prevalence of gin consumption among ‘the people of lower and inferior rank’. This led to ‘the destruction of their healths, rendering them unfit for useful labour and business, debauching their morals, and citing them to all manner of vices’.

The Tippling Act of 1751 resulted in an increase in gin prices and decreased consumption. Beer returned to the fore, for:

While drunkenness was often spoken of affectionately when it was induced by beer, England’s national drink, gin was considered a foreign drink, and therefore less acceptable.

Despite opposition to the gin mania of the ‘inferior classes’, their ‘superiors’ were really in no position to judge:

However you explain it, it seems likely that a good part of the population of 18th-century Britain had, in modern terms, a significant drinking problem, greater the higher up you look on the social scale. Gout was everywhere amongst the rich and the gentry, especially in men, who were the heaviest drinkers. Men boasted of their ability to drink huge amounts and remain able to function. To qualify as a rake virtually required you to consume up to three bottles of port a day. During his time as Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger was said to take up to six bottles daily.

In the 18th century, water was avoided, although not due to fears of contamination. The Swiss travel writer Cesar de Saussure reported of his time in England: ‘Would you believe it, although water is to be had in abundance in London and of fairly good quality, absolutely none is drunk?’ ‘Men of all ages drink abominably’, wrote a Scottish MP to his wife.

The American founding father Benjamin Franklin spent some of his days living in London and worked in a printing house, where he was mockingly known as ‘Water-American’ for drinking water at work:

At my first admission into this printinghouse I took to working at press, imagining I felt a want of the bodily exercise I had been used to in America, where presswork is mixed with composing. I drank only water; the other workmen, near fifty in number, were great guzzlers of beer. On occasion, I carried tip and down stairs a large form of types in each hand, when others carried but one in both hands. They wondered to see, from this and several instances, that the Water-American, as they called me, was stronger than themselves, who drank strong beer!

We had an ale-house boy who attended always in the house to supply the workmen. My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six O’clock, and another when he had done his day’s work. I thought it a detestable custom; but it was necessary, he supposed, to drink strong beer that he might be strong to labor.

I endeavored to convince him that the bodily strength afforded by beer could only be in proportion to the grain or flour of the barley dissolved in the water of which it was made; that there was more flour in a pennyworth of bread; and, therefore, if he would eat that with a pint of water, it would give him more strength than a quart of beer. He drank on, however, and had four or five shillings to pay out of his wages every Saturday night for that muddling liquor, an expense I was free from.

An analysis of the recipes and production process of beer at the time suggests its strength was around 7% ABV. So, like so many other Englishmen and women of the time, Franklin’s colleague was massively exceeding modern government guidelines on alcohol consumption on a daily basis.

The English tradition of excessive drinking continued on throughout the nineteenth century:

The per capita figures show that alcohol consumption was actually rising at this period, peaking in the period 1875-1879. At all events, drunkenness was far more visible in an urban society than in the rural communities of the past.

The temperance movement started to take hold, however, through an alliance forged between Christian moralists and the owners of industry, whose concern with drinking lay less in its moral deficiencies than in its effects on the productivity of workers.

Alcohol consumption in England began to decline, although not at every level of society. While the workers were encouraged to follow a more sober path, the political class continued as before. Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916, ‘was regularly under the influence, and used to sway on his feet when speaking or answering questions in the House of Commons’. A popular musical hall ditty included the lines: ‘Mr Asquith says in a manner sweet and calm: another little drink won’t do us any harm’. The legendary wartime leader Winston Churchill was also a heavy drinker, particularly of brandy and champagne:

During the inter-war years, he once mischievously invited a party of Mormons down to Chartwell for lunch. They duly attacked the fizzy water and the orange juice with their accustomed gusto, while Churchill imbibed something stronger with equal vigour.

At some point, the chief Mormon turned to his host, and observed: “Mr Churchill, the reason I do not drink is that alcohol combines the kick of the antelope with the bite of the viper.”

Churchill fixed the Mormon with his most beatifically wicked smile, and replied: “All my life, I have been searching for a drink like that.”

Perhaps, Churchill’s search was completed following his visit to Copenhagen in 1950. The Danish brewer Carlsberg produced a new a beer to commemorate the visit, which we now know by the name ‘Special Brew’:

Following a Danish tradition of brewing new beers for special occasions, the recipe was intended to include ‘cognac flavours in its tasting notes’, marking Churchill’s liking for brandy. Carlsberg originally named the beer ‘V-øllet’ (literally, ‘the V-beer’), as a reference to VE and VJ day. Although, on receipt of two crates of the beer from Carlsberg the following year, Churchill wrote to thank the brewery for what he simply called the ‘commemoration lager’.

Special Brew is, of course, notorious today as one of the ‘super-strength lagers’ associated with ‘problem drinking’.

The last two decades of the twentieth century saw the resurgence of the English drinking culture. From the late ’70s into the ’80s, various youth movements emerged that were associated with heavy drinking. There were the skinhead and punk scenes: put simply, ‘they liked fighting and drinking’. The English two-tone and ska band Bad Manners put out a record titled ‘Special Brew‘; Oi! bands like the Cockney Rejects and the 4-Skins released songs with titles like ‘Fighting In The Streets‘ and ‘ACAB‘ (‘All Coppers Are Bastards’). And of course, there were The Sex Pistols, ‘flaunting their heavy drinking, playing poorly, and taunting and spitting on the crowd’.

Beyond the music scenes, there was the rise of football hooliganism, ‘lager louts’, and even ‘rural rioters’:

Football hooliganism in the 1980s was such a concern that Margaret Thatcher’s government set up a “war cabinet” to tackle it.

But the Iron Lady’s ministers were also deeply worried about another blot on the landscape – increasing levels of crime in sleepy communities up and down the UK.

The rise of the “rural rioter” caused such anxiety that home secretary Douglas Hurd commissioned urgent research into how to tackle the worsening spectre of “drunken mob violence” in the “shires”.

Against a backdrop of widespread football violence in Britain and incidents such as the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, when 39 Juventus fans died during the European Cup Final against Liverpool, Mr Hurd ordered senior police to investigate the problem of young people causing trouble in towns and villages after too many drinks on Friday and Saturday nights.

Previously unseen Cabinet Office files, released by the National Archives at Kew, west London, show that Mr Hurd saw “similarities between the rural rioter and the football hooligan”.

As for the lager lout:

In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis.

Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets.

The police panicked, the public fretted, and politicians were pressed to take action.

What was causing this rash of insanity? Who or what was to blame for this descent into madness?

In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.

The football hooligan phenomenon resulted in a government crackdown. The Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act (1985) made it a criminal offence to

  • Be drunk at a football ground
  • Drink alcohol within view of the pitch from 15 minutes before the start of the match to 15 minutes after the end of the match
  • Drink alcohol on certain coaches, trains and motor vehicles travelling to a football match.

The term ‘lager lout’ has fallen out of use, although a 2008 news article did warn of the rise of the ‘Saga Lout‘:

A new breed of older Britons is drinking too much on holiday and causing the sort of trouble normally associated with the younger generation, the Foreign Office warns today. An increasing number of 50-somethings – known as “Saga louts” – are over-indulging in alcohol and food and becoming abusive to locals, an analysis of surveys shows.

The late-’80s to mid-’90s was the era of acid house and the rave scene. Many younger people swapped beer for LSD and ecstasy tablets, and were more likely to be seen guzzling bottled water at events than pints of lager. But then, along came Oasis:

When we think of the Nineties, the monobrow image of the Gallagher brothers is stamped indelibly across the decade. It is surely one of the oddest love affairs in pop history, when a gang of heavy-drinking scallywags were clutched to the bosom of the nation, celebrated from Coronation Street to Downing Street while waving two fingers at everyone, including each other. Oasis did something no pop group since the Beatles had done, infusing the whole country with their self-belief.

‘It’s a crazy situation’, sang Liam Gallagher, ‘but all I need are cigarettes and alcohol!’

The rave era was over, and ‘lad culture’ was on the rise, just in time for the 1996 UEFA European Football Championship:

Vindaloo Na Na Euro 96 was peak, unrelenting LAD. It was a whole year of chest beating, public urination and chanting ’til one’s throat was sore. Crumpled cans in passionate fists, waking up with curry on your face and looking in the mirror asking, “OOO ARE YA?”

Beer-fuelled hooliganism made a comeback and two thousand England fans rioted in central London.

At the same time, the media was also stirring up a moral panic over the growing popularity of so-called ‘alcopops’ – sweet, soft-drink type bottled drinks containing vodka and other spirits:

For a brief spell in the mid to late 1990s one could almost have been forgiven for believing the end of civilisation was nigh, and alcopops were to blame. The headlines of the day reflect a heightened sense of alarm about the effects of such drinks.

“Judge’s fury at alcopops”, “Designer drinks lead young astray”, “Alcopops sale led to death” and “Alcopop blitz as more kids get hooked on booze”.

A 1997 advertising industry article notes:

Not so long ago it was Ecstasy and the rave scene. Now it’s alcopops – the moral majority’s latest bete noir. Alcopops are being blamed for everything, prompting calls for them to be heavily regulated or even banned. Church leaders, politicians, pressure groups and the media have all jumped on the anti-alcopops bandwagon, falling over each other to accuse the drinks industry of deliberately targeting juvenile drinkers and of causing an increase in underage drunkenness.

Products were withdrawn and product launches cancelled. Eventually, the fuss died down and there are only a handful of alcopops-type drinks still sold today.

The 2000s were marked by concern over binge drinking, antisocial behaviour, women’s drinking, and underage drinking. 29% of young adults were classed as ‘binge drinkers’ in 2005, and in 2008 underage drinking in Britain was reported to be ‘among the worst in the world’. At the same time, a 2008 report also suggested that ‘alcohol consumption has levelled off by youth, as well as young adults, since the turn of the century’ and that ‘some of the most highly publicised excesses of 1990s alcohol-frenzied leisure may have run their course’.

By 2013, binge drinking was down to 18% and more than a fifth of the population said they drank no alcohol at all. ‘Dying habits: UK cuts down on heavy drinking and smoking’, reported The Guardian. ‘These 3 charts show Britain’s young people are giving up alcohol’, claimed Business Insider in 2015. Media reports from 2017 include: ‘Number of Britons regularly drinking alcohol drops to 12-year low’ (The Independent); ‘More than a quarter of young adults in the UK do not drink alcohol’ (The Guardian); ‘Rise of teetotalism: almost half of Brits shun regular drinking’ (The Telegraph). All of this while Public Health England states that one in four adults in England (10.4 million people) are drinking too much.

These conflicting messages and reports are unsurprising, as the history of drinking in England shows that the levels of use have gone up and down in various periods. No doubt, at least if the past is anything to go by, we should be getting new claims of a growing epidemic of English boozing some time in the next ten years or so. The fact is that drinking is, and always has been, an integral part of English culture. The history of the English drinking culture suggests that we are really pretty tame these days compared with some of our forebears. We are certainly no worse.

Make mine a pint.

The English Tradition of Football Hooliganism

The 2018 World Cup is under way, and numerous stories warning of English hooliganism can be found in the press. ‘More than 1,200 UK football hooligans blocked from flying to Russia’, reports The Telegraph; ‘Mobs of ageing English football hooligans heading to World Cup to get “payback” for brutal Marseilles attacks’, warns The Sun; and ‘England hooligan firms’ hardcore UNITING to “wipe the floor” with Russian Ultras’ says The Daily Star.

Once again, we will hear about a tiny minority ruining things for the peaceful majority of ‘real fans’. But how historically accurate is it to claim that the ‘beautiful game’ is being sullied by the yobbish behaviour of a minority of modern fans?

Not very.

Football was, from the off, a game infused with violence:

Football originated, in a rudimentary form, in England in the thirteenth century. A game played between villages, often on religious holidays and using a pigs bladder as a ball, it was so violent it was almost incomparable to the modern form of the game.

Teams from rival villages would essentially battle with each other, the aim seemingly to kick the ball into the other village’s church. It was banned in 1349 by King Edward III of England, partially because he felt it was distracting his subjects from their military training, but also because of the social unrest which inevitably surrounded the brutal game.

But what of the modern game?

Even when football took on a form closer to today’s, social unrest was rarely far away. In the 1800s violent outbreaks were reported at matches, with the riot act having to be read out at a game in Derby in 1846.

As the nineteenth century wore on and the rules of the game became increasingly rigid the violence continued, with mobs either attacking the opposition’s fans or on occasion the players themselves.

English football hooliganism, then, is as old as the game itself.


See this interesting article on the origin of the word ‘hooligan’. The word was originally used to describe youth street gangs in nineteenth century London, who engaged in violence at a music hall, exhibited threatening behaviour, and were even linked to murder. Sound familiar?

The English love of spicy foods: A brief history

There is an enduring myth that English food has always been somewhat bland and flavourless, and that the English palate has traditionally favoured foods lacking in spices and seasonings. The contemporary widespread enthusiasm for spicy foods is seen as a recent development, which has come about largely thanks to post-war immigration.

The notion of English food being bland is, however, historically illiterate and largely rests upon associating the austerity foods of the war-torn twentieth century with all of English cooking. As this article in The Economist rightly notes, ‘the bland, overboiled, boarding-school food of the mid-20th century, far from representing the real English palate, as many believe, was the product of hardship and not a lack of imagination’.

At least as far back as the Middle Ages, English food has employed a wide variety of seasonings and spices. It wasn’t the case that English people in general disliked such ‘foreign’ flavours, but rather that they were largely the preserve of the wealthy. Prior to the advent of modern globalisation, acquiring these varied flavours took a lot of effort and cost a lot of money:

Spices were very much a luxury commodity, especially in medieval England and Europe as a whole. Spices were much sought-after and highly prized so it was not surprising to find that they featured heavily in the banquet menus of Europe’s noble and rich families. Indeed, the royal courts of Europe relished the use of spices in their food.

Spices and spicy foods were a mark not only of sophistication but also of social status:

The importation of spices resulted in a highly spiced cuisine for the nobility and spices were seen as a sign of wealth. The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices. Spices were not only extensively used in the preparation of food but they were also passed around on a ‘spice platter’. Guests at banquets took additional spices from the spice platter and added them to their already spiced food.

Spices used in recipes of the time included black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, mace, allspice, cardamom, cubeb, spikenard, and saffron.

While the ‘common man’ of the time had little access to this variety of flavours, his time would come.

Fast forward to the 18th century and we find that the English enthusiasm for spices continued unabated. Henry Howard’s England’s Newest Way in Cookery (1708), for example, contains a recipe for ‘pickled melons’ that calls for cloves, mace, whole pepper, mustard seeds, three cloves of garlic, three shallots, sliced ginger, salt, white wine vinegar, made mustard, and a bay leaf. His pickled cucumbers recipe uses allspice, then known by the exotic name ‘Jamaica-Pepper’.

Hannah Glasse’s hugely popular The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) contains recipes such as ‘To make a currey [sic] the Indian way’, ‘To make India pickle’, and ‘To make Paco Lilla [piccalilli], or Indian pickle, the same the Mangoes come over in’. The English love of Indian food was well under way.

By the nineteenth century, people of all social classes were enjoying curries and spicy foods, and the first English curry house opened in London in 1810 – about half a century before the first fish and chip shop.

Alexis Soyer’s A Shilling Cookery for The People (1845) contains numerous references to cayenne pepper, curry powder, and other spices. A recipe for pan fried minced meat includes the instruction: ‘you may add a teaspoonful of chopped herbs, such as onion, chives, or parsley, or a tablespoonful of sharp pickles, or made sauce; a little cayenne, spices, wine, or vinegar, may also be used’. All of his recipes for minced meats, Soyer notes, ‘can be made as curries, and served with rice’. Charles Elme Francatelli’s A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852), meanwhile, teaches the reader ‘how to make a fish curry’ and also includes a recipe for curried rice.

While English working class families were enjoying well seasoned foods and curries, the upper classes developed a passion for hot sauce, and ‘devilled bones’ slathered in hot mustard and cayenne pepper. A critic of such hot food stated that ‘it knows no bounds’ and accused its enthusiasts of seeking to ‘annihilate the sense of taste’ with their spicy concoctions.

The war years were to put an end to the wide availability of spicy foods in England, as imports became harder to come by and rations consisted largely of more basic essentials. However, the post-war period saw the English people once again embrace such foods. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 saw the creation of ‘Coronation Chicken’, made using a curry cream sauce. It remains a popular sandwich filler today.

Curry houses started to take off in the 1960s and ’70s, and London’s Brick Lane, Birmingham’s ‘Balti Triangle‘, and Manchester’s ‘Curry Mile‘ are all hugely popular destinations. Add to this the current popularity of cuisine derived from South America, the Caribbean, Asia, the American South, and so on, and it’s clear that the English passion for spicy foods is back with a vengeance.

From medieval times to the present day, the English have long had a love for seasoned and spicy foods.

The British origins of Black Southerners’ folk beliefs

In his Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926), the white folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett presents the results of a lengthy field work study he carried out, and rightly notes the following:

Regarding the feelings, emotions, and the spiritual life of the Negro the average white man knows little. Should some weird, archaic, Negro doctrine be brought to his attention he almost invariably considers it a “relic of African heathenism,” though in four cases out of five it is a European dogma from which only centuries of patient education could wean even his own ancestors. This confusion of African and European lore only intensifies cultural differences…

[W]hen the Negro acquired in part the language and outward culture of the white man there would be a tendency to acquire his folk-beliefs as well. For these and other reasons to be brought out later, we must not be surprised to find a good part of the Negro folk-beliefs to be of English or European origin.

Here follow some examples:


In an article on ‘Negro Superstitions’ (1870), Thaddeus Norris states: ‘Of course there is the universal horseshoe branded on the door of negro cabins as a bar to witches and the devil’.

Over 50 years later, Puckett notes the widespread belief in the power of the horseshoe as protection against witches:

Horseshoes hung over the doors, windows, beds and in other parts of the house, are supposed to be a sure way of keeping these unwelcome visitants away. The Maryland Negroes say, “de witch got to travel all over de road dat the horseshoe been ‘fo’ she can git in de house, and time she git back it would be day.”

And a 1964 book on Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina reports the belief that ‘horseshoes nailed over the door will keep off conjuring influences’.

Puckett comments:

In England also this connection between witches and horses is well marked… In many parts of England the horseshoe over the door is used to keep out witches.

He is quite right. In Devon, for example, in order to ‘frustrate the power of the black witch’, the following was done:

Take a cast horse shoe, nail it over the front door, points upwards. While nailing it up chant in mono-tone the following:

So as the fire do melt the wax
And wind blows smoke away,
So in the presence of the Lord
The wicked shall decay,
The wicked shall decay.

The Rabbit’s Foot

A 1903 Encyclopaedia of Superstitions states that ‘If you search a negro’s pocket in the South, you will be as apt to find a rabbit’s foot in it as a razor’.

Puckett notes:

Europeans until quite recently valued a rabbit’s foot and carried it about the person as a charm. This is true of the Negroes (and many whites) as well, and they have a little story about Brer Rabbit disposing of the last witch in the world by putting pepper in her vacated skin. Thus Brer Rabbit is just “bawn ter luck” and his left foot will surely bring luck to you.

And also: ‘The phenomenal success of General Fitzhugh Lee of Virginia, in his gubernatorial race, was attributed by the Negroes to the fact that he carried a rabbit’s foot and a bottle of stump water’.

European belief in the power of the rabbit’s foot dates back to at least the first century. Pliny the Elder writes:

Bear’s gall [is] very useful for diseases of the joints, as are also the feet of a hare worn as an amulet, while gouty pains are alleviated by a hare’s foot, cut off from the living animal, if the patient carries it about continuously on the person.

Beliefs in the power of hares’ (or rabbits’) feet persisted for centuries. Writing in 1827, the Englishman William Hone notes an ‘antidote to witchery’ and states that his mother ‘carries a hare’s foot in her pocket, to guard against all attacks in that quarter by day’.

The English folklorist Sir Charles Igglesden (1861-1949) reported: ‘I am told that hundreds of mothers, even today, place a rabbit’s foot in the perambulator when a child is taken out by a nurse’, in order to prevent accidents.

The Lucky Coin

Tony Kail notes that excavations of former slave quarters in the South have turned up coins pierced with holes:

An 1834 half dime was found pierced along with a trade token that had been partially drilled on both sides. The half dime is nearly identical to those found in other slave dwellings in the South. Coins were frequently used as charms and worn on strings as a means of repelling evil or crossings. Dimes that had been pierced were in use in neighboring Mississippi.

Kail cites Puckett:

One “mojo” worn for good luck by an old Negro cook in the Mississippi Delta, included among other things such ingredients as a lizard’s tail, a rabbit’s foot, a fish eye, snake skins, a beetle, and a dime with a hole in it.

We also read, in Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina, that ‘Many Negroes wear dimes with holes in them around their ankles to ward off conjure’.

Meanwhile, in Britain:

Coins which have been defaced in certain ways have long been regarded as lucky pieces across Britain, and have been widely carried or worn to ensure good fortune, or to protect against bad luck. From the early nineteenth century onwards, many reports focus on coins with holes in them.

The Lucky Pin

Puckett writes:

Found things often have their meanings, especially in the case of pins which, of course, represent domestic articles associated chiefly with women. Here again we have a strong European background — almost always this is the case with articles of this sort. “If you see a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck.” In England there is the same identical rhyme with the addition: See a pin and let it be (lie), All the day you’ll have to cry.

James Haliwell’s 1886 book, The Nursery Rhymes of England, provides the following version:

See a pin and pick it up,
All the day you’ll have good luck;
See a pin and let it lay,
Bad luck you’ll have all the day!

The Hangman’s Rope

Puckett writes:

Ravelings from a hangman’s rope are a choice ingredient for a hoodoo-bag, but this is hardly of African origin, since the Africans are not much given to this form of punishment, and since we find parts of the rope by which a man was hanged valued as a prosperity-charm in Scotland.

Such beliefs were not merely confined to Scotland. John Brand, writing in 1849, reports:

I remember once to have seen, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, after a person executed had been cut down, men climb up upon the gallows and contend for that part of the rope which remained, and which they wished to preserve for some lucky purpose or other. I have lately made the important discovery that it is reckoned a cure for the headache.

Brand also recounts a story about the hanging of Nicholas Mooney (‘a notorious highwayman’) at Bristol in 1752:

A young woman came fifteen miles for the sake of the rope from Mooney’s neck, which was given to her; it being by many apprehended that the halter of an executed person will charm away the ague, and perform many other cures.

A regional variation is also found in nineteenth century Devon:

A portion of a rope with which a suicide has hanged himself is a wondrous charm against all accidents, when worn around the person.


Puckett writes:

The Negro generally makes a wish, then opens his Bible. If he happens on the words, “and it shall come to pass,” then he believes his wish will be granted…

Many of the conjurers whom I know could read and write, and some turn this knowledge into direct use in sorcery, as where the Bible is used for purposes of divination.

A Scottish minister, writing in 1705, warns:

Or do you think to escape the guilt of sorcery, who let your Bible fall open on purpose to determine what the state of your souls is by the first word ye light upon?

John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s 1867 book on Lancashire Folk-Lore notes:

In modern divination, two modes are in popular favour—thrusting a pin or a key between the leaves of a closed Bible, and taking the verse the pin or key touches as a direction or omen: and the divining-rod.

‘Voodoo Dolls’

Puckett reports:

In rural districts of Georgia reputed witches may lay a spell by baking an image of dough representing a person, and sticking pins into it, thus causing the victim to suffer pain.

And again:

Make an image of a person out of graveyard snake-oil mixed with flour or sand, bake it good by an open fire, and you can give a person pains in any part of his body by sticking pins in the image.

Meanwhile, in nineteenth century Devon:

In Devonshire, witches, and malevolent people still make clay images of those whom they intend to hurt, baptize the image with the name of the person whom it is meant to represent, and then stick it full of pins or burn it. In the former case that person is racked with rheumatism in all his limbs; in the second he is smitten with raging fever.

The similarity between folk beliefs associated with black Southerners and the folk beliefs of the people of the British Isles are too marked to be merely coincidental. It would be entirely unsurprising to find that Southern blacks acquired the folk beliefs held by Southern whites and incorporated them into their own folk magical systems. It is possible that, in some cases, analogous West African beliefs were merged with European beliefs (the power of the rabbit’s foot is a strong contender for this), but in general it seems clear that the true origins of a number of black Southerners’ folk beliefs lie in Britain.

The Folk Beliefs of Nineteenth Century Devonians

Exeter, Devon, England Seen From Exwick from the book From Our Own Country (1898).

Despite Christianisation, the onset of scientific advances, and the Englightenment, the common people of Britain (and plenty of its more formally educated citizens) continued for a long time to adhere to a wide variety of magico-religious folk beliefs, some of which remain today both in the form of popular superstitions and in the realms of ‘alternative spirituality’and ‘alternative medicine’. Indeed, even today, in every major city, as well as some towns and villages, shops can be found offering a wide array of products and services of this sort.

The West Country county of Devon, where I grew up, was a bastion of such beliefs and practices, up to at least the beginning of the twentieth century, as a number of writings attest. In ‘North Devon Customs and Superstitions’ (1867), JR Chanter (author of Sketches of the Literary History of Barnstaple), for example, states the following:

Devon in general, and North Devon in particular, has been very retentive of ancient customs, habits, and superstitions. Its folk-lore is especially interesting from its local form of fairy, the Devonshire pixy. But the most noticeable fact connected with North Devon is, not so much the variety or specially local character of its superstitions and vulgar customs, as of their being still generally interwoven with the daily life of the population. In most parts of the country it is necessary, in order to gather up local customs or legends, to seek out ancient crones or noted legend-tellers; but no one can live in this district, and mix much with the country folks, without finding a general belief in witchcraft still existing, and old customs and superstitions in full sway. A great many of these are, or were, common to all England, but having gradually died out in the more busy parts of the country, have continued here, most probably from the isolated nature of the district, and the stagnant character of the agricultural population.

In 1900, these beliefs were still widespread, as attested by Sarah Hewett, in her book Nummits and Crummits: Devonshire Customs, Characteristics, and Folk-lore:

West Country people generally, and Devonians in particular, are exceedingly superstitious, in spite of all that has been done for them in the way of higher education, and the enlightening influence of the press. Dwellers in the hilly parts of Devon, on Dartmoor and Exmoor, and in the villages bordering upon them, are as deeply imbued with faith in witches, as their forefathers were in the days when Alfred was king.

JR Chanter gives examples of these beliefs and practices:

The medical repute of charms is, in fact, very prevalent; any sudden cure is proverbially said to act like a charm. The seventh son of a seventh son is still in great request to “touch” for fits; and a case of this came out on a legal enquiry only a week or two since. Warts and swellings are removed by various charms, such as skeins of thread knotted with the number of the warts to be removed, and struck across the warts as many times, and then buried; or striking with a witch elm wand, or a piece of stolen bacon; in each of which cases as the buried article decays so do the warts gradually decrease; or by depositing a given number of pebbles or peas in a bag, and losing it, but in this case the unfortunate finder gets the warts himself. But the most favourite remedy for warts, and indeed all swellings, is to have “words” said over them.

A portion of a rope with which a suicide has hanged himself is a wondrous charm against all accidents, when worn around the person.

The tooth ache is cured, and, what is more, perfect exemption from it for the future is supposed to be attained, by biting out a tooth from a corpse or skull…

Accidents, or any obscure ailments to cattle, are commonly attributed to their being witched, or “overlooked”, as the term is, and can only be cured by a white witch; and it is well known that more than one person in North Devon gains his livelihood by acting professionally as a white witch, that is, the country people call him the white witch, though he professes to be a cattle doctor.

In fact, if any one gets into trouble in any way, it is quite a sufficient explanation that he has been “evil-wished and overlooked,” and the white witch is forthwith called into requisition.

Omens, presentiments, and death-warnings, are much believed in hereabouts…

If any one offends an old woman, the severest reply she can make is to say she will have him witched; and an instance occurred only last week.

Hewitt gives a number of examples of folk cures, and writes:

The White Witch… is always willing, for certain pecuniary considerations, to dispense charms and philtres, to cancel the evil of the other [the malevolent Black Witch]…

In cases of sickness, distress, or adversity, persons at the present time (A.D. 1898) make long expensive journeys to consult the white witch, and to gain relief by her (or his) aid…

Pinches of powdered plants, scraps of inscribed vellum, dried limbs of loathsome reptiles, juices of poisonous herbs, blood, excrements, and gruesome compositions all blend together to make up the witch’s charms…

I have interviewed many a believer in the efficacy of charms, and from them obtained curious examples of miscellaneous articles claiming miraculous powers to heal. Besides the sale of charms the white witch cures diseases by “striking” and blessing.

The Cathedral city of Exeter seems to have been particularly associated with such practices. An 1844 journal article cites the following example:

It is usual with many persons about Exeter, when affected with ague [a fever or shivering fit], to visit at dead of night the nearest cross-road five different times, and there bury a new-laid egg. The visit is paid about an hour before the cold fit is expected; and they are persuaded that with the egg they shall bury the ague.

William Henderson, writing in 1879, reports that ‘there are still plenty of white witches in Devonshire’ and gives the following example:

At Bratton Clovelly, in Devonshire, a farmer’s cows were charmed, so that his milk yielded neither cream nor butter. He declared on oath that he had put whole faggots on the fire, but the milk would not boil, a proof that it was bewitched. He therefore resorted to the white witch at Exeter.

Hewitt writes:

The word “Abracadabra” written on parchment was given by an Exeter white witch, to a person who desired to possess a talisman against the dominion of the grey witch, pixies, evil spirits and the powers of darkness! It cost a guinea, and was sewn up in a small black silk bag one inch square. This was hung round the neck and never removed.

Devonshire folk magic centred on a belief in the power of both malevolent and benevolent witches, creatures, and spirits. In common with various other magical systems around the world, it blended these beliefs with elements derived from Christianity, the ‘official’ belief system of the time. Hewitt offers various examples.

‘To frustrate the power of the black witch’:

Take a cast horse shoe, nail it over the front door, points upwards. While nailing it up chant in mono-tone the following:

So as the fire do melt the wax
And wind blows smoke away,
So in the presence of the Lord
The wicked shall decay,
The wicked shall decay.

‘To destroy the power of a witch’:

Take three small-necked stone jars: place in each the liver of a frog stuck full of new pins, and the heart of a toad stuck full of thorns from the holy thorn bush. Cork and seal each jar. Bury in three different churchyard paths seven inches from the surface and seven feet from the porch. While in the act of burying each jar repeat the Lord’s prayer backwards.

As the hearts and livers decay so will the witch’s power vanish. After performing this ceremony no witch can have any power over the operator.

‘To cure sore throat’:

Read the eighth Psalm seven times for three successive mornings over the patient.

Interestingly, despite the Christian aspects, magical practices were not solely benevolent in nature. A number of examples can be found of the use of magic to cause harm.

‘The herring-bone charm to cause death’ (cited in Hewitt):

Sew into a garment which is worn next to the skin a long thin herring-bone. As the bone dries up, or withers, so will the person wearing it gradually pine away and die.

Henderson notes the following:

In Devonshire, witches, and malevolent people still make clay images of those whom they intend to hurt, baptize the image with the name of the person whom it is meant to represent, and then stick it full of pins or burn it. In the former case that person is racked with rheumatism in all his limbs; in the second he is smitten with raging fever.

Henderson, again:

It is said in Devonshire that you may give [ague] to your neighbour, by burying under his threshold a bag containing the parings of a dead man’s nails, and some of the hairs of his head: your neighbour will be afflicted with ague until the bag is removed.

Henderson cites an example of similar practices which were related to have been discovered in West Riding, Yorkshire, where a woman was wasting away to ‘nothing but skin and bones’:

She had no definite illness, but complained that she felt as if pins were being run into her body all over her. The village doctor was resorted to, but in vain. At last they applied to the Wise-man [white witch], who pronounced that some person was doing her harm, and advised them to search the garden for hidden spells. They did so, and found buried under the window a sheep’s heart stuck full of pins like a pin-cushion. The thing was removed and destroyed and the woman recovered.

How long such beliefs and practices persisted in Devon (and elsewhere), it is hard to say. Certainly, Devon seems to have been particularly resistant to the forces of modernity. Indeed, it would be unsurprising to find that some residual traces of these beliefs persist even to the present day, although the central role played by the white witch seems now to have been confined to the history books.

Backwoods Horror in Nineteenth Century Devon

Illustration from An Old English Home and Its Dependencies (1898)

A recurring theme in the ‘backwoods’ genre of horror films is that of a group of city dwellers either heading deep into the countryside for a weekend retreat or somehow getting lost or stranded in such a location. Invariably, the urbanites stumble upon some isolated farmhouse inhabited by a primitive, violent, and degenerate ‘hillbilly’ family, and few of them live to tell the tale. One thinks, for example, of families such as the Sawyers (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the Odets (Wrong Turn), and the Fireflies (House of 1000 Corpses).

Reading Sarah Hewitt’s Nummits and Crummits: Devonshire Customs, Characteristics, and Folk-Lore, published in 1900, we find similar themes in a chapter on ‘peculiar and eccentric Devonians’, where Hewitt offers the tale of the Cheriton family, also known as the ‘North Devon Savages’. The family became the stuff of legend, even being written about in the New York Times. Here are some excerpts from Hewitt’s account:

The Cheriton family, fifty years ago, resided in the parish of Nymet Rowland, a hamlet sixteen miles from Exeter, situated in the very centre of the most picturesque part of our fair county.

In the early days of their possession they were respectable, hardworking yeomen, living on and cultivating their estate to advantage. Then a son married badly, and the children of this union grew up idle and dissolute, consequently the farm was neglected and in a short time it fell into a low state of cultivation. Each successive generation sank lower in the social scale till a condition insensible to shame was reached.

The family lived in a most disreputable way. Their language was, as Tickler in his Devonshire Sketches, says, “too horribly foul for repetition: they poured forth copious streams of the dirtiest and most obscene words conceivable.”

A correspondent, who when a young man lived in the neighbourhood, tells me that no one could beat them at rough language, horseplay, and filthy discourse. They were a disgrace to the neighbourhood and a nuisance to their neighbours. One day, when passing the house, he was accosted by a woman of the tribe, who called him disgusting names, pelted him with mud and stones, performed indescribable offensive acts, and finally chased him brandishing a hay fork, with which she would have undoubtedly assaulted him had he not beaten a hasty retreat…

The farmhouse and outbuildings were originally trim and well kept, but had been gradually allowed to reach the last stage of dilapidation. The thatch was stripped from the rafters, and the rooms below received all the rain which fell, the wind played havoc with, and carried away every scrap it could dislodge. The windows had long been denuded of glass, and in winter were stuffed with bundles of hay or straw to protect the inmates from the severity of the weather; the air had free passage from basement to roof. A person standing in what was at one time the kitchen, could see the clouds passing and the birds flying above the roof. The doors were nowhere. The living room was almost destitute of furniture, and in place of seats a hole had been dug in the lime-ash-floor in front of the fireplace, which was on the hearth. Into this hole the legs of the members of the family rested as they sat on the bare floor around the fire…

Their land being freehold no one dared interfere with the family so long as they kept upon their own ground. Many strong efforts were made to clear them out of their holding but without success, and for many years these disgraceful conditions continued.

Over their social life one would wish to draw a curtain, for they regarded not the holy rites prescribed by the Church, nor the authority of bishops, arch-deacons, or civil laws. They had all things in common, and multiplied into a large family without marriage. Their conduct, habits, manners, and language, made them a terror and a nuisance to their immediate neighbours. Their misdeeds were the cause of their making frequent appearances before the magistrates in the local police courts. The surrounding farmers, after a time forbore to summon them as their ricks, stacks, barns, and homesteads were fired. By whom? None could tell, though pretty shrewd guesses were levelled at the Cheritons…

A former rector of this parish, a tall robust man, standing six foot, two inches, in his stockings, whenever he passed the premises was assailed with showers of stones and inexpressibly revolting abuse. The property has long ago changed owners, and of the fate of the Cheritons very little is known. The old folks are dead, and the younger ones have emigrated or married, thus breaking up a family notorious for evil in all its forms.

James Greenwood, in his 1883 book In Strange Company: Being the Experiences of a Roving Correspondent, writes of a visit he paid to the home of the Cheritons. He sets the scene in dramatic tones:

Hut, hovel, stye, or whatever else it should be termed, it is in every respect inferior to anything in the way of house architecture that can be met with in the most barbarous regions on the earth.

A mandan of the Indian prairies would laugh to scorn such an effect at hut-building; a man-eating Fijian would regard as a wanton insult the suggestion that the hideous structure at Nymet Rowland might serve as a pattern useful to be followed in his construction of a dwelling-place…

[T]he barbarian tribe of Nymet Rowland, squatting amid the model dairy farms and mellow apple orchards of Devonshire… care no more for the house they inhabit than the pig does.

He continues:

This was the inviting domicile for which I was bound; and the closer I approached, the more vividly rose to my mind the current stories of its redoubtable inhabitants — of the eldest son, the lawless villain with a gun who, on the smallest provocation, or none at all, would let fly at a peaceful neighbour; of the shock-headed amazons, who, from concealed parts of the premises, hurled bricks and other unpleasant missiles at strangers. I thought, too, of the offensive farmer who, guilty of no crime more grave than that of looking over the fence behind which these savages dwelt, was set on and so terribly cut and mauled, that, in the words of the local guide book, “he bears the marks of his barbarous treatment to this day.”

Greenwood knocked at the door, requesting water, and entered into the Cheriton home, where he found a group of women and children, as well as pigs, cocks, hens, and ducks. He describes their living area as follows:

There was not a single article of what could be called furniture to be seen — neither chair, nor stool, nor table. Ranged against the wall to the right was a long rough-hewn bench, and above it was slung a shelf on which were stacked a few odd bits of crockery, five or six yellow quart basins, and an old earthenware foot-bath patched and tied round with string, which, since a ladle reposed in it, and the idea of feet-washing among such a community was simply ridiculous, I presume was the family soup tureen. On the bench were a pile of onions, a monstrous loaf or two of hearth-baked bread, a battered tin pail three parts filled with milk, a ragged old saddle, and some jars and bottles containing apparently medicine for cattle.

There was no fire-place; but a ruddy glow smouldered from a hole in the floor of the earth, and over it, by an iron chain, a cooking pot was suspended.

Despite all of this, Greenwood has to admit the Cheritons aren’t actually all bad, despite their filthy living conditions and the presence of pigs, cocks, hens, and ducks in the house:

Bad as they may be, these North Devon barbarians — bestial, filthy, and inexpressibly vicious — they at least exhibited towards me, a chance visitor and complete stranger, an amount of hospitality that smote my conscience hard when I reflected how little I deserved it. A damsel of the tribe, aged apparently about twenty, with thick clouted boots on her feet like those of a maltster, and a white rag bound about her muscular jaws, caught up an antique pot or piggin of red clay, capable of holding, I should say, a couple of gallons. This she took out, and brought it back full. Then she got a little jug and half filled it with water out of another vessel, filled it up with milk, and presented it to me with the polite observation that “she wished as how it was cider, but they were quite out of it.”

Only when the parson (the parish priest) is mentioned, does Greenwood see another side:

“You’re a stranger?” said she, interrogatively.

I nodded.

“Don’t know the passen” (parson), “or any of them in these parts?”

“No; shouldn’t know them if I saw them.”

“There, I told thee so,” said she, turning to the others ; whereon, as though it was the constant recreation of their lives, and my entry had interrupted it, there arose a family chorus of the foulest abuse and cursing, directed against “passen” and all his friends, that might have made my blood run cold, only that I was stooping over the red-hot chumps and sticks to get a light for my pipe.

“Parson a bad sort?” I ventured to enquire.

“A reg’ler old,” spoke the young gentleman in the ashes, deftly picking up a stick with his toes, and thrusting it into the fire; “that’s what I’d like to do wi’ passen,” a sentiment which was highly applauded by the rest, one of the girls adding, in far more idiomatic language than I dare use, that she would like to perform upon the gentleman in question the operation of disemboweling.

Greenwood concludes his account by making further observations about the lifestyle of the Cheritons. He strongly implies incestuous practices:

The facts are simply these: Here is a man — Cheriton by name — who takes a woman as his mate; and the pair agree to defy decency and goodness in any shape for the remainder of their lives, and “to do as they like.” The den they inhabit at the present time is that in which more than forty years ago they first took residence. They can afford to keep aloof from their neighbours, their homestead being surrounded by about forty acres of good land, their own freehold. In the natural course of events, they have children; their daughters grow up and have children, and the latter in turn grow up and become mothers; but no one ever yet heard of a marriage in that awful family, or ever knew any male stranger to be on visiting terms with it. The only adults of the masculine sex ever heard of in relationship with the Cheritons are the old man, Christopher; his eldest son Willie, aged thirty-five or so; and the fourteen-year-old youth I have already mentioned.

They decline communication with the world outside the boundary hedges of their estate. Accidental encounters with civilized beings are invariably accompanied by conflict, physical or verbal. No one knows when a child is about to be born in this mysterious settlement, for they dispense with the service of a doctor and nurse each other. No one knows to whom a child belongs when it is born, nor are the neighbours usually aware of the fact until by chance some one gets a glimpse of the infant two or three months afterwards. Supposing the members of this awful tribe to be so inclined, they might dispose of their infant dead and nobody would be the wiser. The horrible suspicion is, that they herd together like brutes of the field, and breed like them.

Greenwood also describes the Cheritons as living off subsistence farming:

Of the five-and-thirty or forty acres owned by the Cheriton savages, not a fifth part is under cultivation; it being their practice to grow no more than suffices for their personal consumption, and that only in the way of potatoes and cabbages, and a little wheat which they dry and grind for themselves. They breed a few sheep — a mere dozen or so. They hire no labourers, the whole family engaging in the necessary field-work; the females helping at the plough, assisted by an old horse and a bull.

Greenwood’s account of the Cheritons (as well as that found in Hewitt’s book) contains many elements found in modern rural horror films: A violent clan living in squalor on a run-down old farm; a hatred of civilisation and religious authority; a house shared with animals; the suggestion of incest; and the traveller who escapes back to the safety of urban modernity:

” They’ll be home with him presently,” said old grand-mother savage, who sat rocking the awful baby that was squeaking like a snared rabbit.

“Who will be home with him?” I asked.

“My old man and Willie,” she replied.

Willie was the young fellow who had nearly smashed the unoffending farmer; so, inwardly thanking her for the timely hint, I bade the interesting family good-morning, made for the five-barred gate that grew out of the black mud, and sought the sweet highway.

In many ways, then, the Cheritons are forerunners of the type of rural family found in contemporary horror stories.

Were the Cheritons actually as bad as some said? It is hard to tell. Certainly, they seem to have been in conflict with their parish priest, for, in addition to the material found in Hewitt and Greenwood’s accounts, the New York Times article on the family states that ‘[t]he outcasts known as the “North Devon Savages,” were brought some time ago to public notice by the clergyman in whose parish they reside’.

Why the Cheritons hated this clergyman so much, we may never know, although one can’t help but suspect that at least some of the Cheriton mythology may have in fact been concocted as a pretext for stripping them of their land. The Cheritons hurled abuse at ‘the “passen” and all his friends’; perhaps those ‘friends’ were moneyed landowners who didn’t like rural riff-raff getting in the way…

Hot Sauce and Devilled Bones in Nineteenth Century England

In nineteenth century England, cayenne pepper was a very popular ingredient, and had been for many years. Indeed, Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), for example, contains 53 references to ‘Chyan pepper’. In addition to simply sprinkling powdered cayenne pepper on food, there was also the option of purchasing commercially produced salts, sauces, and vinegars infused with cayenne (AG Payne, 1886, pp.24-26).

A leading product of the period was Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce, described at the time as ‘a very hot sauce’ (Payne, p.25), which was, according to advertisements in London newspapers (1869 and 1870), ‘pronounced by connoisseurs the best sauce’. These connoisseurs were largely drawn from the English upper classes. Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce was promoted at the International Exhibition of 1862 as follows:

This sauce is used as a relish to roast meat, game, poultry, steaks, chops, cutlets, fish, soup, gravy, &c. Its thorough adaptation to this purpose has won for it a first class among sauces, and extensive patronage in the houses of the nobility and gentry, and in the clubs.

‘The clubs’ is a reference to the private members clubs of London, where the wealthy gathered to drink and socialise. In addition to enjoying foods laced with cayenne sauce, the patrons of these clubs were also big fans of a snack known as ‘devilled bones’. Since 1964, Americans (and now many people in other countries) have been accompanying late night bar room sessions with Buffalo wings; fried chicken wings coated in a cayenne pepper hot sauce. Long before that, 19th Century Englishmen were enjoying a similar combination.

Devilled bones was a simple dish made by combining ‘the bones of any remaining joint or poultry, which has still some meat on’ (Soyer, 1858 [1845], p.159) with butter, hot mustard, and cayenne pepper. The meat was scored so the seasonings would permeate throughout (Payne, p.25), then coated with this ‘devil sauce’ and briefly cooked until hot. There were various different recipes, depending on the location. For example, the members of Boodle’s Private Members’ Club (which exists to this day) in St James’s Street, London, were served devilled bones coated in a mixture of butter, dry English mustard, black pepper, salt, curry powder, cayenne pepper, and Worcestershire sauce.

A simpler recipe can be found in Mary Davies’ The Menu Cookery Book (1885, p.181), a book intended for ‘moderate people with moderate incomes’:

Take the leg, back, or wing bones of turkey or fowl, score them a little with a knife, butter them well, then lay mustard thickly over, sprinkle cayenne or common pepper on, and broil. Serve very hot.

Basically, then, an early form of hot wings.

While hot sauces and devilled bones were very popular, not everyone was a fan. Kettner’s Book of the Table (1877, p.157), for example, contains the following disparaging remarks:

It is the great fault of all devilry that it knows no bounds. A moderate devil is almost a contradiction in terms; and yet it is quite certain that if a devil is not moderate he destroys the palate, and ought to have no place in cookery, the business of which is to tickle, not to annihilate, the sense of taste.

Eventually, the hot sauce and devilled bones trend died out, a fact bemoaned by the essayist EV Lucas in his 1924 book Encounters and Diversions (pp.19-20):

Britons, who were never to be slaves, are slaves once more, principally to cynical Italian caterers. Where are certain simple delicacies of yesteryear? Where is that ancient nocturnal amenity, the devilled bone? After the theatre, how agreeable it once was, too many years ago, to seek the Blue Posts in Cork Street and be sure of devilled bones!

A head waiter is quoting as saying that ‘nobody asks for them now’.

Visit any major supermarket (and plenty of smaller shops) in England today, and you can purchase a wide variety of hot sauces, including cayenne sauces, although Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce is sadly nowhere to be found. Asking for devilled bones in a pub or bar will most likely result in a look of confusion on the part of the barkeeper. Ask for hot wings, however, and there’s a fair chance you’ll be served some, particularly in the larger chains (although, recently, Buffalo wing sauce is being replaced by trendy Sriracha hot sauce).

Hot sauce and hot wings seem like something relatively new and exotic in England today; however, they actually have an English pedigree dating back to at least the nineteenth century.