Moving with times is traditional

RECORDS: the United Reformed Church at Low Row in Swaledale – where people’s names are not what they seem

RECORDS: the United Reformed Church at Low Row in Swaledale – where people’s names are not what they seem

First published in Countryman's Diary by

THIRTY-one years ago today, we moved into our present village house – and we are still here. With four children and an increasingly desperate need for a study in which to compile my books and articles, as well as maintaining my ever-expanding library and files of research cuttings, we required large and spacious premises.

As a consequence, this house, complete with double garage, was built to cope with our requirements. We were, and still are, its first and only occupants.

In that time, I have continued to produce books and articles but our children are now adults with careers, homes and families of their own. The house itself has constantly changed – for example, we have upgraded the kitchen, installed an Aga, modernised the bathroom and shower room, added fitted furniture to some bedrooms, built an upstairs library and made a second study for my wife’s use.

She has created a garden from what was little more than a building site and in addition, we’ve built a conservatory, terraced the garden complete with fish pond, and decorated the house inside and out on many occasions with replacements of furniture and fittings.

When we moved into our previous house – a lovely, atmospheric stone cottage of indeterminate age complete with oak beams and a sagging roof – it was a Friday and the wise old folks of the village quoted the oft-repeated saying “Friday flit, short sit”, meaning we would not reside there for very long. However, our stay was 14 years. Coincidentally, we also moved into this house also on a Friday, and today we clock up 31 years in residence.

So much for wise old sayings and wise old people!

However, in spite of us living and working in a modern age, there were many rituals and considerations that were considered necessary when beginning one’s occupancy of a house, whether it was brand new or not. I have come across people who would never move into a house on a Friday or upon the 13th day of the month, and some older village folk said that one of the first tasks upon moving into a different house was to walk into every room while carrying a loaf of bread and plate of salt.

That was supposed to bring good luck to the new home while an older belief was that it showed to the spirits already in residence that you intended them no harm.

In return, they would not trouble you.

This is perhaps evidence of centuries of ancient customs and superstitions that have evolved into modern practices, sometimes without us knowing why we do them.

Another example of this is hanging a horseshoe on some part of the house to bring good luck – this, in fact, was the old method of keeping witches and evil spirits at bay.

If you were a married couple moving into your new home, then it was customary to carry the bride across the threshold – always via the front door – and once installed in the new home, umbrellas should not be placed on beds.

The front door has long been one of the most important parts of any home. In many cases even today, particularly in rural areas, front doors are not used on a daily basis but retained only for special occasions. These would include weddings and funerals, or perhaps visits by important people.

In the case of funerals, the corpse had to be taken out feet first and always by the front door. If this was not possible, then a front window would be utilised but if that window was too small, then it would be taken out to facilitate removal of the coffin. Back doors and side doors were never used for such important occasions.

Another important part of a new home, or indeed any home, is the hearth. In modern times, the importance of a domestic fire has dwindled considerably due to current methods of heating the home and to modern cookers.

In the not-too-distant past, however, a fire was vital for those needs and the hearth was the most important feature of the house.

It was always kept scrupulously clean. Until the 17th century, the fire was in the centre of the house and never allowed to die out. It was built on an earthen floor with the smoke rising to filter away through the thatch. It was the inglenook hearth with its smoke hood and thick wall against which the fire burned continually to provide warmth, comfort and cooking facilities, that became the 17th century equivalent of luxury.

One of the lingering practices that is considered illmannered is to stir another family’s domestic fire, and of course, we must never allow fire to leave the house on New Year’s Day. Ashes and so forth are kept until January 2.

And finally, in these days of dwindling Christian beliefs, few of us now have our new homes blessed by a priest, although this is done in some non-Christian homes.

My son spent several years in Thailand where the people use a complex form of blessing for their homes and I think most of us have some kind of personal and private ceremony to begin our lives in new homes, such as opening a bottle of champagne.

At times, it is difficult to separate custom from superstition, but many of our ancient beliefs originated from the need to do certain things which our forebears believed were necessary to survive in the rather harsh conditions.

ONE of the factors about village life is that living in the vicinity are many people with identical surnames.

This is the result of many generations of family life but it is not always the case that each person is related to all the others.

I know lots of village people with identical surnames but who claim not to be related to those of like nomenclature.

There are many sources, including the internet, for discovering how and why this should occur and many of us are aware of the Welsh custom of identifying all the various Joneses as Jones the Bread, Jones the Milk, Jones the Meat and so forth.

However, I have come across an old practice in rural Swaledale where people were known by several names in an attempt to properly identify them.

If, for example, a man had the same surname as many more, his own name would identify his ancestry and thus identify him among the others. The example I have been given is this: a man might be known locally as Peter Tom Willie with others known as Mark Jamie Jess, Dicky Tom Johnny and so forth. By this method, Peter Tom Willie would in fact be Peter who was the son of Tom and the grandson of Willie. Such people were not necessarily baptised with those extra names but it was a purely local method of identifying one Brown from another.

However, it seems this was not the only system of identification in Swaledale. If a man had a local surname that was numerous in the district – say Alderson – along with a common surname, e.g. Thomas, then all the Thomas Aldersons would be allocated a secondary method of identification.

There might be Grain Tom, Glowermoor Tom, Screamer Tom, Pie-dish Tom, Tarry Tom, Tish Tom, Tripey Tom or Trooper Tom.

I am told of one Swaledale character whose name was Sammy Will Kit. A man arrived seeking a Mr Calvert and asked Sammy if he knew where the fellow lived.

Sammy said he had no idea.

The man continued: “His first names are Samuel William Kitchener, Sammy Will Kit for short ...”

“Oh, that’s me,” said Mr Calvert. “I’ve never been called Calvert for years.”


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