Thursday, 3 November 2011



Time for a new direction now.

I hope that my new series of blogs will be of some interest to writers of historical fiction – or indeed that today’s offering may attract writers of period romance.

In recent years I have become particularly interested in the darker, less publicised aspects of 18th/19th/20th century social history. Sometimes these are no more than footnotes but they are significant in helping us to understand people in the past. I shall therefore be offering glimpses of bygone days, snippets of the past – crime, punishment, social conditions, beliefs – which may offer writers a hint for a plot or a scene.

Though my examples come principally from southern English counties, the stories they tell might well have come from distant parts of the world.

So to work... and here’s something odd. It’s a belief, a superstition, once widely held throughout Great Britain and it most probably transferred to other countries. I’d be interested to hear of instances beyond these shores.

It’s called love divination.

Who am I going to marry? What is he going to be like? And when shall I marry? These were – and perhaps they still are - natural speculations for many a young girl. The answers to such questions came from observing specific rituals.  

In the 1870s, Charlotte Latham, wife of the vicar of Fittleworth in Sussex, questioned many local people about their beliefs and recorded several strange procedures. On the night of the first new moon after New Year's Day, girls would sit alone on a gate or stile and, looking at the moon, recite:

‘All hail to thee, moon! All hail to thee
I pray thee, good moon, reveal to me
This night who my husband must be.’

Now this is an entry into the occult, the words intended to conjure up a living person’s wraith (the ghost of a living person). Little wonder if girls shivered with fear: little wonder if they did not always wait to find out.

And there were other sinister rituals. Two of these involved graveyard visits. Girls took the leaves of a yarrow plant from a young man's grave and then repeated the following wish:

‘Yarrow, sweet Yarrow, the first that I have found,
In the name of Jesus Christ, I plucked it from the ground;
As Joseph loved sweet Mary, and took her for his dear,
So in a dream this night, I hope, my true love will appear.’

Other girls might go to the graveyard with a handful of hemp seed which they would  sprinkle on the ground, all the while saying:

‘Hemp seed, I sow thee,
Hempseed, I sow thee;
And he that is my true love
Come after me and mow thee.’

Once the seed was sown, she looked over her left shoulder, expecting to see the wraith of her future husband mowing the already sprouting seed behind her. This spell was said to work only on days appropriate for divining the future – Midsummer’s Eve and St John's Eve, the 23rd and 24th June.

Another St John’s Eve strategy: girls would hang their newly washed blouses in front of the kitchen fire. Then leaving the kitchen door open they would sit in silence, waiting for the arrival of the wraith to come in and turn the blouse.

Believe it?

The past is another country: they do things differently there.

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