EDITORIAL & NEWS

“Strange how superstitious these countrymen are!”: 19th Century Superstition in Derbyshire

by Margie Deck & Nancy Holder

As we advance to page 3 of the “The Terror of Blue John Gap” manuscript, we see that our Dr. Hardcastle is dismissive of young Armitage’s fear of a possible dangerous sheep-stealing creature, remarking “Strange how superstitious these countrymen are!” and “How absurdly easy it is for a legend to arise in a lonely countryside!” Hardcastle’s remarks sent us searching to see if we could find out how superstitious some of Armitage’s neighbors might have been. We quickly learned the answer: a whole lot superstitious.

The area around Derbyshire has a rich history of folklore, myth, legend, and superstition, encompassing a wide range of thought, from an Arthurian epic tale like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” to a very simple household superstition such as the danger of possessing a peacock feather. Rev. T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, M.A., Oxon., writing in 1884, noted, “The possession of a peacock’s feathers is said to bring ill-luck and misfortune to the owner.” Mr. Llewellyn Jewitt tells us that in Derbyshire and the surrounding counties this superstition is prevalent, and that he has seen people “perfectly horrified when a child or other person has unwittingly brought a peacock’s feather into the house, as it is believed to bring loss and various disasters, including even illness and death to the inmates” (English Folklore, 90-91).

19th century Derbyshire had a plethora of superstitions about death. On her blog Notes of an Antiquary, Dr. Kirsten Jarrett lists some of the most common beliefs, including, “A feather bed was not conducive to an easy death” and “Another death in the family was supposed to soon follow shortly if the joints of a corpse are loose.” She explains how many of the superstitions were the result of fear, including fear of body stealing, possible reviving of the supposed dead, or possible theft of the deceased by the devil.

Not all the superstitions were so dire. Thiselton-Dyer also wrote, “In Derbyshire, when a young woman wishes to know who her future husband is to be, she must go into the churchyard at midnight on St. Valentine’s Eve, and as the clock strikes twelve, run round the church repeating, without stopping, the following lines: “‘I sow hempseed, hempseed I sow; He that loves me best, Come and after me mow.’ Presently the figure of her lover is supposed to appear and follow her” (English Folklore, 99).

Armitage might have had some superstitious ideas about love and death, but as Hardcastle will soon learn, Armitage’s fear of what might be in the cave was totally justified.

Copyright 2022 Margie Deck & Nancy Holder


COMMENTARY & CREATIVITY

Damning with Faint Praise: Dr. Hardcastle’s Impressions of Armitage

by Tamar Zeffren

The caustic judgment present in Dr. James Hardcastle’s acerbic remarks regarding Armitage’s theory about the local “Terror” requires no effort on the reader’s part to, as it were, surface. Employing “superstitious” — deriving from the Latin superstitionem and connoting fear of the supernatural and avowed beliefs, rooted in fear or ignorance, that are considered incompatible with truth or reason — in his very first observation about this neighbor in the Midlands delineates Hardcastle’s perception of Armitage as lacking in critical and analytical skills. Moreover, Hardcastle associates Armitage’s presumed deficit of scientific reasoning as an immutable characteristic of his rural context, rather than consider whether Armitage, as an established inhabitant, may actually possess more insights into the environment than a temporary visitor convalescing.

continued . . .


The Terror of Tuberculosis

by John P. Knud-Hansen

The late Dr. James Hardcastle, a 36-year-old physician, left behind a diary detailing his encounter with the Terror of Blue John Gap. He had the diary delivered to his friend, one Seaton, who published it, and thus Hardcastle is our narrator.

continued . . .

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The autograph manuscript of “The Terror of Blue John Gap” reproduced above is courtesy of Dartmouth College Library, Rauner Special Collections, MS-93: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Transcription

all overgrwon with bushes. It is a goodly passage which the Roman miners

have cut, and it intersects some of the great waterworn caves , so that if

you enter Blue John Gap you would do well to mark your steps and to

to have a good store of candles or you may never make your way back to

the daylight again. I have note yet gone deeply into it, but this very day

I stood at the mouth of the arched tunnel and peering down into the

black recesses beyond I vowed that when my health returned I would

devote some holiday to exploring those mysterious depths, and finding

out for myself how far the Roman had penetrated into the Derbyshire

hills.

Strange how supersitious these country men are! I

should have thought better of young [deleted: Aldridge / inserted: Armitage] for he is a man of some

education and character, and a very fine fellow for his station in

life. I was standing at the Blue John Gap when he came across the

field to me

"Well, Doctor" said he "you're not afraid

anyhow"

"Afraid!" I answered "Afraid of what?"

"Of It" said he, with a jerk of his thumb towards

the black vault "Of the terror that live in the Blue [deleted: Gap / inserted: John Cave"]

How absurdly easy it is for a legend to arise in a [deleted: -illegible- / inserted: lonely]

countryside. I examined him as to the reasons for his weird belief.

It seems that from time to time sheep have been missing from the

fields, carried bodily away according to [deleted: Aldridge. / inserted: Armitage.] That they could

have wandered away of their own accord and disappeared among

the mountains was an explanation to which he would not listen. On

one occasion a pool of blood had been found and some tufts of wool.

That also I pointed out could be explained in a perfectly natural

way. [deleted: Finally / inserted: Further] the nights upon which sheep disappeared were

invariably very dark cloudy nights with no moon. This I met

with the obvious retort that those were the nights which a

common place sheep stealer would [inserted: naturally] choose for his work. On one

occasion a gap had been made in [deleted: stone dyke / inserted: wall], and some of the


The full story as it was printed in The Strand is available at
The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.