Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Letters of Dora Harcourt

Telling the bees - and draping the hives in black ribbons

TWO hundred years ago people knew precisely what they must do when someone died: Tell the bees. While the unfortunate soul was being carried to his or her final resting place, someone from the household would be seeking out the nearest beehive and telling the bees about the death. The hives might even be draped in black ribbons and some of the funeral cake left at the entrance to the hive for the bees to enjoy.

It's just one of the strange customs revealed in my new book that details superstitions, customs and folklore from West Cumbria at the start of the 19th Century. The Letters of Dora Harcourt  reveals some curious, intriguing and downright daft superstitions of our ancestors. Dora was actually a 'posh' Londoner - a Sloane Ranger from the Georgian era - but she spent several months staying with her relatives a couple of miles south of Whitehaven. Her father - Cecil Harcourt - had a keen interest in folklore so asked her to write to him with the various customs and bits of folklore she witnessed. Her letters are full of such delights as a Christmas mummers play, new year's eve traditions, harvest festival customs, maypole dancing and even superstitions surrounding funerals. 
Barring Out

One of the most interesting is barring-out. Pupils in village schools in the north of England would 'bar out' the teacher, barricading the school door so he couldn't get in. They then demanded days off for holidays before they let him back in. The custom died out once school holidays became a legal right in the mid-19th Century.

The letters were re-published by Dora's father in 1850 in Arts Illustrated Magazine to share her memories of rustic superstition. They have lain forgotten ever since but recently the magazines have been digitized and so a search of keywords 'Whitehaven' and 'folklore' brought them to light. And having found this rich resource, I thought the letters deserved to be republished for a wider audience. My partner, Lesley Park, and I have annotated the letters explaining the reason behind some of the superstitions and also saying if any of them survive today. Lesley's mother - Babs Park - for example maintains the new year custom of not doing any washing on New Year's Day in case she 'washes out' any of her relatives!

The Letters of Dora Harcourt is available from Amazon for £5 (Kindle £3). A deluxe hand-bound and stitched edition for £15 is also available from my online bookstore or  Lowes Court Gallery in Egremont.

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