Folklore, Customs and Ghost Stories in Sherborne
by Elisabeth Bletsoe
Sherborne is a small market town in north-west Dorset; formerly a Saxon burgh. It evolved through the cloth, gloving and silk industries and boasts two castles, a Benedictine Abbey and the renowned public school for boys established since Edward VI. The town is embedded in varied countryside united by scarps of Jurassic limestone and marked by the presence of a number of moated sites, small castles and mansions set within landscaped parklands indicative of the division of the area among minor lords between the 11th and 13th centuries. While the town is notable for its history and architecture, reflected in the wide-ranging collections of local artefacts displayed in its Museum, Sherborne is also rich in intangible heritage, a subject on which I intend to elaborate further.
Customs and Traditions
|Hound Street Sheep Fair (undated)|
Originally one of the town’s three Lamb Fairs, Pack Monday Fair was held on the first Monday after October 10th (Old Michaelmas) and possibly dates from the 13th century. At first it was mainly agricultural, during the 18th century being held in a field in Coldharbour and in later years in Hound Street. Nowadays it is devoted to stalls, sideshows and a funfair and involves the whole town. Lyn Phillips, a native resident, recently described the day as one of “reunion and gathering” with friends and relatives coming from across the country and meeting up in one of the local pubs such as the Half Moon Hotel.
A flavour of the day in Victorian times can be gleaned from the second volume of William Hone’s Every-day Book where a correspondent described it as:
“ a mart for the sale of horses, cows, fat and lean oxen, sheep, lambs and pigs; cloth, earthenware, onions, wall and hazel nuts, apples, fruit, trees and the usual nick-nacks for children, toys, gingerbread, sweetmeats, sugar plums, etc. with drapery, hats, bonnets, caps, ribands, etc for the country belles, of whom, when the weather is favourable, a great number is drawn together from the neighbouring villages....”.
Jack Dimond remembers in the 1930s how the fair was
“the highlight of the year, with several hundred policemen drafted in, half of Sherborne folk taking part, village folk riding in on their bikes and several hundred gypsies descending with their horses for sale....you would get one home and find it was blind in one eye. It was a good time for settling grudges, after the fair dozens of windows would be smashed and not many dustbin lids left....a particular high spot was the fighting outside the pubs afterwards, I remember seeing two women going at it outside the New Inn, me and my mates thought that was marvellous.....the cells would then be filled for several days”.
|Pack Monday Fair, 1963|
There is some controversy over the origins of the name with some believing that it is a corruption of the word “Pact” referring to the agreement made between a master and labourer at the hiring fairs that were traditional for the time of year. Steve Roud, however, points out that this is a dialect form found only in Scotland and goes on to suggest that it could be derived from Pack Rag Day, the day on which families packed their belongings to move on at the end of their annual term of employment or from the similar Pack and Penny Day, referring to the days immediately after Old Michaelmas and Old Martinmas, which, given the timing of Pack Monday Fair, might seem appropriate. “Pack” is also a term used country-wide to refer to itinerant sellers and their wares, for example “pack-man”, “pack-horse” and the like. There is, of course, the local tradition that, after completing the restoration of Sherborne Abbey after a fire in 1490, the team of masons, led by foreman Teddy Roe (or Rowe), “packed up” their tools and celebrated by perambulating the town while blowing on cow’s horns.
There is little historical foundation for the story of the origins of “Teddy Roe’s Band”; nevertheless, the idea persists as a traditional precursor to the Fair. Hone’s Sherbornian correspondent remarked in 1826:
“Pack Monday Fair is annually announced three or four weeks previous by all the little urchins who can procure and blow a cow’s horn, parading the streets in the evenings, and sending forth the different tones of their horny bugles, sometimes beating an old saucepan for a drum, to render the sweet sound more delicious...”.
According to E.A. Ffooks, by the late 1880s this had been curtailed by the police to a few random blowings from 10.00 pm onwards on the evening immediately before the Fair until the party met up outside the Antelope Hotel at midnight, when the prelude to their performance was the striking of midnight by the Abbey bells. Some sources, for example, Brian Day, suggest that the bells struck thirteen, although this does not seem to be corroborated within living memory. Katherine Barker (2011) puts forward an imaginative theory on the Band’s origins, linked with the original Celtic Christian church of St. Probus which she suggests existed at the top of the town prior to the present Abbey, at the site where the Band currently assembles. According to the Exeter Martyrology, St. Probus’ Eve falls on the 10th of October and, to honour the occasion, a march may well have taken place along the curvilinear boundaries of the church enclosure or “lan”, with the title of a processional hymn, the “Te Deum”, evolving into the name “Teddy Roe”.
|Teddy Roe's Band, 1930s|
The Band is not, however, unusual within the context of rough music customs; many other fairs across the country were heralded in this way, which was, perhaps, originally connected with the public expulsion of evil. Lyn Phillips, who participated in the Band in the late seventies describes the “set, unwavering” route of the time, thus: “Start at the bottom of Bristol Road, just round the corner to The Antelope, turn right into King’s Road and proceed, turning right into Wootton Grove, then along turning right to the A30, turn left into North Road, straight across into St. Swithin’s Road, turn right into Long Street, across the road into Half Moon Street, turn left into Westbury, go along and turn right into Lower Acreman Street and straight over into Acreman Street, turning right into Cornhill and again right onto the A30. Turn right at the roundabout at Greenhill then walk down through Cheap Street to disband at the Cross Keys pub at 1.00am. There then used to be a disco outside the Cross Keys for about half an hour. In my year there were bagpipes in the Band as well as dustbin lids, saucepans, car horns and cowbells. Really, it was a horrendous noise!” Roud points out the Band’s association with vandalism and violence on a number of occasions, leading to its suppression by the police, despite which “it always seems to re-emerge”. Lyn remembers that people “would get bored waiting for it all to happen after the pubs closed at ten-thirty”; the rowdier element, she believed, was due to an influx from Yeovil. During the years of the police ban, however, former mayors Arthur Sweet and Alwyn Lugg would walk the route together at midnight in order to keep the tradition running. This is reminiscent of the time during the WWII blackout when participants would perambulate in silence apart from the jingling of coins in their pockets.
|Part of the Teddy Roe Frieze by Ruth Gervis
In 1831, the general disorder surrounding Pack Monday Fair escalated into three days of rioting after the Reform Bill, which aimed to promote a fairer electoral system, which was defeated in late September by the mainly Tory House of Lords. Serious disturbances broke out in many towns and cities. In Sherborne a mob gathered in Half Moon Street and when vicar and local magistrate John Parsons stepped forward to read the Riot Act, he was felled by a stone, after which the vicarage was looted, the cellar drunk dry and the furniture carried off. The most recent Fair, however, held on 17th October 2011, was generally considered to be the most peaceful and best attended for more than a decade, with almost two hundred people taking part in Teddy Roe’s Band as opposed to thirty-five on the previous year and over a hundred stalls lining the streets.
|Horn used in Teddy Roe's Band|
Sherborne Museum is fortunate enough to possess and have on display an ancient cow’s horn which was unearthed from a garden in Westbury (a street in the town) by a builder, Mr. McNally, who subsequently donated it for use in Teddy Roe’s Band, where it was played on several occasions. Accompanying this artefact is a frieze depicting the Band throughout the centuries, drawn by artist Ruth Gervis, illustrator of her sister Noel Streatfield’s books and a founder member of the Museum. A more recent donation is a ceramic mosaic made in 1969 and initialled J.S. which at one time graced the dining-room wall of the Sherborne Hotel before its refurbishment, when it was known as The Post House, showing figures from the Band as medieval players. Members of the Museum staff are keen to preserve knowledge of the tradition and as such we hope to host oral history workshops in order to record intergenerational memories of the event. There is also some talk of reviving a Children’s Band, which would walk on the preceding Saturday during daylight and which had a brief precedent during the fifties.
Other calendar customs in Sherborne, mentioned in Dorset, Up Along and Down Along, include ‘May Day’ when local children would descend with garlands decorated with chains of flowers, chanting:
“The first of May
is Garland Day
Please to remember
the King and Queen”
and Shrovetide where children would take cracked and useless crockery to their neighbours, singing:
“Here I come, I never came before,
If you don’t give me a pancake
I’ll break down your door”
At the conclusion of this song, crockery was thrown against the door and smashed, whereupon the neighbour was supposed to come out and toss a pancake for the children to catch. Similar traditions also existed at Marnhull and Blandford. In recent years, the event has been revived in what might be considered a more acceptable form by the manager of the town’s Three Wishes cafe which provides pancakes for a children’s tossing race and fastest flipper down Cheap Street, raising money for various local causes.
“Up to Lodge” is another Sherbornian tradition, described in Gerald Pitman’s Sherborne Observed (1983), where he quotes the Dorset County Chronicle, January 1890: “in accordance with old-established custom a large number of children from Sherborne and surrounding villages presented themselves at the Castle Lodge on Christmas morning and were each presented with two new pennies”, with the gate to the old road being opened to allow the public into Sherborne Park by the traditional route. This custom of gifting new-minted coinage has persisted since “time out of mind” although there is a tradition that it was oranges that were formerly distributed. Its origins are hard to determine; the Castle Estate records show the gifts were given from 1828-1855 to children and elderly men and women (with a total amount of £5 for distributing to children and £1 1s to the elderly). In 1886 there is an entry for “pence given to Children and aged Women” so, at that time, the custom seemed to be restricted to the very old or very young. Some 50 years later the gift was 4d for adults and 2d for children. It was maintained unbroken through two World Wars, although in WWI used pennies had to be given. In 1946, since there was another shortage of new-minted pence, half-pennies were substituted. Today, new decimal coins are given out in the Castle Estate Yard in continuance of the custom.
“Tolling Day” (September 23rd) goes back to the will of the Third Earl of Bristol (d.1698) whose monument can be seen in the south transept of the Abbey. The relevant clause runs thus:
“and provided also that the said churchwardens for the time being shall cause the largest bell in the tower of the said church to be tolled six full hours, that is to say from five to nine of the clock in the forenoon and from twelve of the clock to two in the afternoon on that day of the month whereon it shall be my lot to depart this life, every year for ever, otherwise this gift of ten pounds per annum shall determine and be void.”
Ann Smith, archivist at the Castle, believes that the custom continued until the outbreak of WWII in 1939. The Earl had also decreed that a sermon should be preached annually on the anniversary of his death; this fell into abeyance, but has recently been revived. A yearly payment was bequeathed to the Vicar of Sherborne, at that time impoverished since the Dissolution of the Abbey, which is still paid by the Estate today.
The “spectral geographies” of the town have been well mapped, most notably by Christopher Brown in Haunted Sherborne: a Tour of Ghostly Places (1975).
Unsurprisingly, he describes clusters of sightings focused around the two Castles and the Abbey, the School and the Almshouse, but also poltergeist activity in Long Street, a haunted house in Hound Street and a variety of spectres such as the Man in Black and the Grey Lady of Cheap Street, the Blue Lady of Sherborne House and the Black Parson of Newlands. The hauntings of former coaching inns The Angel and The Antelope have also been documented, as has the mischievous spirit in The Plume of Feathers. I do not wish merely to repeat this research, but to add more recent oral testimonies that I consider worthy of permanent record. Whether one believes in ghosts or not is immaterial; the stories they generate, however, may be seen as a place where we are invited to negotiate our present relationship to the dead while examining the elusive identities of the living, in a challenge posed to current traditions of thought.
|A Witch Bottle|
“You have to see something to believe it” remarked a retired resident of the Castleton area, who has lived with a haunting in his seventeenth century cottage for many years. On moving into the house, he and his wife started renovations: “We took off everything to the bare walls – we were picking out the wall in the end bedroom and it sounded hollow in one place, so we broke through and found rib bones and such. I took them down to a doctor in Long Street and he said ‘You know what they are, so take them home and burn them’ and like a damn fool I did”. Disturbances ensued from that moment on, with heavy footsteps being heard above the ceiling in the bedroom and on the stairs resulting in physical encounters and a strong feeling of a malevolent presence: “You only have to move something and he don’t like it. My wife said he bumped into her on the stairs and if there’s two of you, you can believe it.” Doors open and shut, the scent of lavender suddenly
manifests, objects go missing and are returned to the same place weeks later. When electricity was installed at the house and wires tracked in underground, two witch-bottles were found, one by the front door and one in the chimney-breast, with as yet unidentified contents. An expert on the subject advised that they should be returned to the original locations, particularly since the house had been the site of terrible quarrels and murders. “It’s still happening here...” insists the retired farmer, “but it doesn’t scare me none”.
One story in Christopher Brown does warrant repeating in full, since it has an interesting coda. He records that one woman claimed that the School Courts “bristled” with the presence of phantom monks and that she was afraid to cross them alone at night. Another woman also reported (p.11) that they had been to the School House one Sunday morning at about eight o’clock:
“She was coming under the arch which joins the school buildings to the east end of the Abbey when she saw “this thing come across the grass”. It was wearing a brown habit, was rather small and hunched up. According to this person it was in “a terrible hurry” and it disappeared through a blocked up doorway in the clergy vestry wall. She did not see its face but remembers distinctly its “long pointed hood”. This happened in the early 1960s and at the time certain excavations were taking place and some bones had been disturbed.”
|Phantom Monks of Sherborne Abbey|
I recently re-discovered these particular bones, which had been donated to the Museum in 1969 after a drainage ditch had been dug through what we later learned had been the monks’ old burial ground and which had been subsequently mislaid among our reserve collections of geology and pottery. After laying out the bones we identified at least two partial skeletons, one of which showed evidence of an abscess affecting the tibia which would have caused unrelenting pain if not eventual loss of life. They are now treated with due respect and conserved in an appropriate manner.
Christopher Brown also describes what he calls a “time slip” (p.17), a possible re-enactment of an accident that occurred centuries ago. A resident of Westbury, which roughly follows one of the main medieval routes into Sherborne, experienced the “creaking and scuffing” sounds of what she thought were men pushing an ox-cart, followed by a shriek, then anxious voices and the slamming of doors, while no person at all was visible on the street. The Curator and a steward at the Museum, a listed building once part of the Abbey Gatehouse, may also have witnessed such a “slip”, as the Curator describes in her own words: “Several years ago I was stewarding with MB. We had had problems with the security camera in the Gardner Gallery and only one screen, in Marsden [the upstairs exhibition space] had been working. We were talking and then found our eyes drawn to the screen as the other camera appeared to be working again. It should have been pointing at the Missal display but we were looking down at the bald tonsure of a man who appeared to be holding a bowl of something. Other people were walking by. It was obvious it wasn’t a current scene and after a minute or two I left M at reception and went into Gardner to have a closer look. I found the camera pointing down as someone had left it when the wiring was thought to be faulty and M said the screen went dead about the time I entered the Gardner Gallery. We couldn’t get it to work again and it was finally repaired a week or two later. We thought we were looking down at a monk doling out the gruel to the poor who would come for food – the former use of that property.”
The Curator also describes a more conventional sighting in the same building: “A few nights before Members’ Night [the Museum’s AGM held on Monday, March 28th, 2011] it might have been the Friday or Saturday night, I was coming out of the Link [exhibition corridor between reception and the Gardner Gallery] having put up some more text and sensed someone on the stairs. Thinking Jane, our cleaner, had just come in, I looked up and saw it wasn’t Jane but a lady in a long white cotton nightdress. She was holding a candlestick (an ordinary flat metal one that was a usual household item and not an expensive brass one). She had a white nightcap on and her hair was a wavy wiry gray – long, of course, but not plaited. She turned and looked at me – not a glare but a stern look – she had a slightly hooked nose. As she was nearing the half landing I am not sure if she turned the corner or just vanished!”
|Ludbourne House Porch|
Situated a short distance from the Museum, Ludbourne Hall in South Street is a mid-19th century building with a fine ashlar front and a rusticated Doric porch. Formerly a private dwelling, it became a group of offices and is currently a residential home for the elderly. “With an old place like that, you expect things,” says DS, a former care worker at the home. “There was an elderly lady I rather liked; she had an old picture of herself in a favourite dress, rather like my mum’s wedding dress, bought with all of her coupons. When she slipped away I saw her walk through the kitchen in that dress and I thought “Ah, Mrs. T’s gone”. Things were always happening like that.” The most vivid event she experienced there was rather unusual. A certain resident was dying of thyroid cancer and required two people to administer the controlled drug morphine. DS recalls her colleague, E., saying that she had seen a ghost in the room: “The air was very thick with something – normally we would open a window when someone was passing on, but we didn’t this time as it was cold; I remember snow was on the ground. In the half-light, I was walking down the corridor with a cup of tea for another resident and noticed a quivering, like the Northern lights. I walked towards it and it came towards me. It looked like an elastic window – square with the top and bottom joined – making its way along like a concertina. It was black in the centre, like nothing from this world. It passed by my right shoulder and went into the dying old lady’s room. As it went by the tea in the cup formed a small vortex on the surface. It was hot when I started out but when I brought it to the other resident she pronounced it stone cold. The next time I went into the thyroid patient’s room, she’d passed. Later, I was told not to mention it to the night staff.”
That the people of Sherborne value their town’s traditions and customs can be evidenced by their continued existence into the present day. With regard to the descriptions of unexplained phenomena, the narratives they engender are as much a part of Sherborne’s story as any economic or social historical events and can be considered in terms of Colin Davis’s elegant definition as: “an irrecuperable intrusion not comprehensible within available intellectual frameworks but whose otherness we are responsible for preserving”.
My gratitude goes to Ann Smith, Archivist for the Castle Estate, Sherborne and to the local residents who provided their testimonies.
- Barker, Katherine: Sherborne’s Pack Monday Fair – a fresh insight, lecture given at a day-school of the Dorset Local History Group, “Dorset Folklore and Folklorists: poetry, words and music”, (Dorset County Museum, November 26th, 2011)
- Brown, Christopher.: Haunted Sherborne: A Tour of Ghostly Places, published by the Abbey Bookshop, The Parade, Cheap Street, Sherborne, Dorset, (1975)
- Dacombe Marianna R. (ed.): Dorset Up Along and Down Along: a collection of history, tradition, folklore, flower names and herbal lore (3rd ed.), The Women’s Institute, Longman’s Ltd., Dorchester, (1935, 1951)
- Day, Brian: A Chronicle of Folk Customs: a day-to-day guide to folk traditions, Hamlyn Publishers, London, (1998)
- Pitman, Gerald H.D.: Sherborne Observed or Fortune’s Fold: A Handbook to the Conservation Area and its setting”, The Abbey Bookshop, The Parade, Cheap Street, Sherborne, Dorset (1983)
- Roud, Steve: The English Year: a month-by-month guide to the nation’s customs and festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night, Penguin Books, London, (2006)
Elisabeth Bletsoe is fascinated by local myths, legends and folklore. She is also a radical landscape poet whos work is informed by her knowledge of botany, folklore, geology and history. Her work can be found via this link www.shearsman.com
Elisabeth is also the chairman of the 'Sherborne Museum Association'. Sherborne Museum is open to the public from Easter to Christmas on Tuesday to Saturday inclusive 10.30.am - 4.30 pm. The museum have a vast photographic archive of the town which includes a large section on 'Pack Monday Fair' and 'Teddy Roe’s Band' as well as other folklore traditions.
Private visits can be arranged. Tel: 01935 812252 or visit www.sherbornemuseum.co.uk