Super Creepy British Superstitions that I Found in a Book Published in 1787

Dear Gentle Reader,

I have a Victorian romance How To Impress A Marquess coming out on November 1st.  To this end, I’m making an effort to promote my work.  I’ve made an agreement with myself to write more posts about my books, my craft, and what guides the decisions I make as an artist (see The Right Words At The Wrong Time ). You know, gentle marketing. And part of my brilliant marketing strategy (<–sarcasm) was to do something about my languishing Facebook page. So I’ve started this cool thing called “Vintage Verbiage” where I post interesting old terminology on my page, keeping to the strict schedule of posting whenever I feel like it.  Vintage Verbiage is fun, but most importantly, it’s quick, so I can focus my creative energies on A.) actually writing books B.) writing posts about the books I’ve actually written.  

Naturally the second day into Vintage Verbiage, I became completely sucked into some historic weirdness that has nothing to do with my books and kept me entranced for hours. I even had to call my friend and babble on like an excited geek to her about it.

I had to post the information!  I had to.

This creepiness cannot be lost forever in the cosmic digital archives of Google Books like that final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the ark is hidden in a vast warehouse. Never to be found again.

So, I’ve figuratively blown the dust off A Provincial Glossary: with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions by Francis Grose of A Classical Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue fame and excerpted from the Superstitions section below.  I’ve tried gallantly to clean up the translation, but I might have missed an f-to-s here and there, and I’ve left other words in their archaic form.  Enjoy.

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OMENS PORTENDING DEATH.

THE howling of a dog is a certain sign that someone of the family will very shortly die.

A Screech owl flapping its wings against the windows of a sick person’s chamber, or screeching at them, portends the same.

Three loud and distinct knocks at the bed’s head of a sick person, or at the bed’s head or door of any of his relations, is an omen of his death.

A DROP of blood from the nose, commonly foretells death, or a very severe fit of sickness: three drops are still more ominous.

Rats gnawing the hangings of a room, is reckoned the forerunner of a death in the family.

Breaking a looking-glass betokens a mortality in the family, commonly the master.

If the neck of a dead child remains flexible for several hours after its decease, it portends that some person in that house will die in a short time.

A Coal in the shape of a coffin, flying out of the fire to any particular person, betokens their death not far off.

A Collection of tallow rising up against the wick of a candle, is styled a Winding Sheet, and deemed an omen of death in the family.

Besides these general notices, many families have particular warnings or notices; some by the appearance of a bird, and others by the figure of a tall woman, dressed all in white, that goes shrieking about the house. This apparition is common in Ireland, where it is called Ben-Shea, and the Shrieking Woman.

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Mr. Pennant says, that many of the great Families in Scotland had their dæmon, or genius, who gave them monitions of future events. Thus the family of Rothmurchas had the Bodach an Dun, or the Ghost of the Hill; Kinchardines, the Spectre of the Bloody Hand. Gartinbeg house was haunted by Bodach Gartin; and Tullock Gorms by Maug Monlach, or the Girl with the Hairy Left Hand. The synod gave frequent orders that enquiry should be made into the truth of this apparition; and one or two declared that they had seen one that answered the description.

Corpse Candles are very common appearances in the counties of Cardigan, Carmarthen, and Pembroke, and also in some other parts of Wales. They are called Candles, from their resemblance, not of the body of the candle, but the fire; because that fire, says the honest Welchman, Mr. Davis, in a letter to Mr. Baxter, doth as much resemble material candle-lights, as eggs do eggs; saving that, in their journey, these candles are sometimes visible, and sometimes disappear; especially if anyone comes near to them, or in the way to meet them. On these occasions they vanish, but presently appear again behind the observer, and hold on their course. If a little candle is seen, of a pale or bluish colour, then follows the corpse, either of an abortive, or some infant; if a large one, then the corpse of someone come to age. If there be seen two, three, or more, of different sizes—some big, some small—then shall so many corpses pass together, and of such ages, or degrees. If two candles come from different places, and be seen to meet, the corpses will do the same; and if any of these candles be seen to turn aside, through some bye path leading to the church, the following corpse will be found to take exactly the same way.

Sometimes these Candles point out the places where persons shall sicken and die. They have also appeared on the bellies of pregnant women, previous to their delivery; and predicted the drowning of persons passing a ford. All these appearances have been seen by a number of persons ready to give their testimony of the truth thereof, some within three weeks of Mr. Davis’s writing the letter here quoted.

Another kind of fiery apparition peculiar to Wales, is what is called the Tan-we, or Tanwed. This appeareth, says Mr. Davis, to our seeming, in the lower region of the air, straight and long, not much unlike a glaive; mours or shoots directly and level (as who should say, I’ll hit), but far more slowly than falling stars. It lighteneth all the air and ground where it passeth, lasteth three or four miles, or more, for aught is known, because no man seeth the rising or beginning of it; and, when it falls to the ground, it sparkleth, and lighteth all about. These commonly announce the decease of freeholders, by falling on their lands: and you shall scarce bury any such with us, says Mr. Davis, be he but a lord of a house and garden, but you shall find someone at his burial, that hath seen this fire fall on some part of his lands. Sometimes those appearances have been seen by the persons whose death they foretold; two instances of which Mr. Davis records, as having happened in his own family.

The clicking of a death-watch is an omen of the death of someone in the house wherein it is heard.

A Child, who does not cry when sprinkled in baptism, will not live.

Children prematurely wise are not long-lived, that is, rarely reach maturity. This notion is quoted by Shakespeare, and put into the mouth of Richard III. Fond parents are, however, apt to terrify themselves, on this occasion, without any great cause: witness the mother, who gave as an instance of the uncommon sense of her boy, of only six years of age. That he having laid his dear little hand on a red-hot poker, took it away, without any one soul alive bidding him.

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CHARMS AND CEREMONIES

FOR KNOWING FUTURE EVENTS

ANY person fasting on Midsummer eve, and sitting in the church porch, will at midnight see the spirits of the persons of that parish, who will die that year, come and knock at the church door, in the order and succession in which they will die. One of these watchers, there being several in company, fell into a sound sleep, so that he could not be waked: whilst in this state, his ghost or spirit was seen by the rest of his companions, knocking at the church door.

Any unmarried woman fasting on Midsummer eve, and at midnight laying a clean cloth, with bread, cheese, and ale, and sitting down, as if going to eat, the street door being left open—the person whom she is afterwards to marry will come into the room, and drink to her by bowing; and afterwards filling the glass, will leave it on the table, and, making another bow, retire.

On St. Agnes night, 21st of January, take a row of pins, and pull out every one, one after another, saying a Pater-noster on sticking a pin in your sleeve, and you will dream of him or her you shall marry.

Another method to see a future spouse in a dream:—The party enquiring must lie in a different county from that in which he commonly resides; and, on going to bed, must knit the left garter about the right-legged stocking, letting the other garter and stocking alone; and, as you rehearse the following verses, at every comma knit a knot;

This knot I knit,

To know the thing I know not yet;

That I may see

The man (woman) that shall my husband (wife) be;

How he goes, and what he wears,

And what he does all days and years.

Accordingly, in a dream, he will appear, with the insignia of his trade or profession.

Another, performed by charming the Moon, thus:—At the first appearance of the New Moon, immediately after the new year’s day (though some say any other  New Moon is as good), go out in the evening, and stand over the spars of a gate or stile, and, looking on the Moon, repeat the following lines:

All hail to the Moon! all hail to thee!

I prithee, good Moon, reveal to me,

This night, who my husband (wife) must be.

The person must presently after go to bed, when they will dream of the person destines for their future husband or wife.

A Slice of the bride-cake, thrice drawn through the wedding ring, and laid under the head of an unmarried man or woman, will make them dream of their future wife or husband. The same is practised in the North with a piece of the groaning cheese.

To discover a thief by the sieve and sheers: Stick the points of the sheers in the wood of the sieve, and let two persons support it, balanced upright, with their two fingers: then read a certain chapter in the Bible, and afterwards  ask St. Peter and St. Paul, if A. or B. is the thief, naming all the persons you suspect. On naming the real thief, the sieve will turn suddenly round about.

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CURES AND PREVENTATIVES

A SLUNK or abortive calf, buried in the highway over which cattle frequently pass, will greatly prevent that misfortune happening to cows. This is commonly practised in Suffolk.

A Ring made of the hinge of a coffin is supposed to have the virtue of preventing the cramp.

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Certain herbs, stones, and other substances, as also particular words written on parchment, as a charm, have the property of preserving men from wounds in the midst of a battle or engagement. This was so universally credited, that an oath was administered to persons going to fight a legal duel. ‘That  they had ne charm, ne herb of virtue.’ The power of rendering themselves invulnerable, is still believed by the Germans; it is performed by divers charms and ceremonies; and so firm is their belief of its efficacy, that they will rather attribute any hurt they may receive, after its performance, to some omission in the performance, than defect in its virtue.

A Halter wherewith anyone has been hanged, if tied about the head, will cure the headache.

Moss growing on a human skull, if dried, powdered, and taken as snuff, will cure the headache.

A Dead man’s hand is supposed to have the quality of dispelling tumours, such as wens or swelled glands, by stroking with it, nine times, the place affected. It seems as if the hand of a person dying a violent death was deemed particularly efficacious; as it very frequently happens, that nurses bring children to be stroked with the hands of executed criminals, even whilst they are hanging on the gallows.

Touching a dead body, prevents dreaming of it.

The word Abacadabara, written asunder, and worn about the neck, will cure an ague;

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To cure warts:—Steal a piece of beef from a butcher’s shop, and rub your warts with it; then throw it down the necessary house, or bury it; and, as the beef rots, your warts will decay.

The chips or cuttings of a gibbet or gallows, on which one or more persons have been executed or exposed, if worn next the skin, or round the neck, in a bag, will cure the ague, or prevent it.

A Stone with a hole in it, hung at the bed’s head, will prevent the nightmare: it is therefore called a hag-stone, from that disorder, which is occasioned by a hag, or witch, sitting on the stomach of the party afflicted. It also prevents witches riding horses; for which purpose it is often tied to a stable key.

If a tree, of any kind, is split—and weak, ricketty, or ruptured children drawn through it, and afterwards the tree is bound together, so as to make it unite—as the tree heals, and grows together, so will the child acquire strength.

This is a very ancient and extensive piece of superstition.— Creeping through tolmen, or perforated stones, was a Druidical ceremony, and is practised in the East Indie. Mr. Borlace mentions a stone, in the parish of Marden having a hole in it, fourteen inches diameter through which many persons have crept, for pains in their backs and limbs; and many children have been drawn, for the rickets. In the North, children are drawn through a hole cut in the groaning cheese, on the day they are christened.

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SYMPATHY

THE wounds of a murdered person will bleed afresh, on the body being touched, ever so lightly, in any part, by the murderer.

A Person being suddenly taken with a shivering, is a sign that someone has just then walked over the spot of their future grave. Probably all persons are not subject to this sensation; otherwise the inhabitants of those parishes, whose burial grounds lie in the common foot-path, would live in one continual fit of shaking.

When a person’s cheek, or ear, burns, it is a sign that someone is then talking of him or her. If it is the right cheek, or ear, the discourse course is to their advantage; if the left, to their disadvantage. When the right eye itches, the party affected will shortly cry; if the left, they will laugh.

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THINGS LUCKY AND UNLUCKY

IT is customary for women to offer to sit cross-legged, to procure luck at cards for their friends. Sitting cross-legged, with the fingers interlaced, was anciently esteemed a magical posture.

It is deemed lucky to be born with a caul, or membrane, over the face. This is an ancient and general Superstition. In France, it is proverbial: etre ne coiffee, is an expression signifying that a person is extremely fortunate. This caul is esteemed an infallible preservative against drowning; and, under that idea, is frequently advertised for sale in our public papers, and purchased by seamen. It is related that midwives used to sell this membrane to advocates, as an especial means of making them eloquent; and one Protus was accused by the clergy of Constantinople with having offended in this article. According to Chrysostom, the midwives frequently fold it for magical uses.

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A Person possessed of a caul may know the state of health of the party who was born with it: if alive and well, it is firm and crisp; if dead or sick, relaxed and flaccid.

It is reckoned a good omen, or a sign of future happiness, if the sun shines on a couple coming out of the church after having been married. It is also esteemed a good sign if it rains whilst a corpse is burying:

Happy is the bride that the sun shines on;
Happy is the corpse that the rain rains on.

To break a looking-glass is extremely unlucky; the party to whom it belongs will lose his best friend.

If, going a journey on business, a sow cross the road, you will probably meet with a disappointment, if not a bodily accident, before you return home. To avert this, you must endeavour to prevent her crossing you; and if that cannot be done, you must ride round on fresh ground. If the sow is attended with her litter of pigs, it is lucky, and denotes a successful journey.

It is unlucky to see, first one magpie, and then more; but to see two, denotes marriage or merriment; three, a successful journey; four, an unexpected piece of good news; five you will shortly be in a great company. To kill a magpie, will certainly be punished with some terrible misfortune.

If, in a family, the youngest daughter should be married before her elder sisters, they must all dance at her wedding without shoes: this will counteract their ill luck, and procure them husbands.

If you meet a funeral procession, or one passes by you, always take off your hat: this keeps all evil spirits attending the body in good humour.

If, in eating, you miss your mouth, and the victuals fall, it is very unlucky, and denotes approaching sickness.

It is supposed extremely unlucky to have a dead body on board of a ship at sea.

Children are deemed lucky to a ship; their innocence being, by the sailors, supposed a protection.

It is lucky to put on a stocking the wrong side outwards: changing it, alters the luck.

When a person goes out to transact any important business, it is lucky to throw an old shoe aster him.

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It is lucky to tumble upstairs: probably this is a jocular observation, meaning, it was lucky the party did not tumble down stairs.

It is unlucky to present a knife, scissors, razor, or any sharp or cutting instrument, to one’s mistress or friend, as they are apt to cut love and friendship. To avoid the ill effects of this, a pin, a farthing, or some trifling recompence, must be taken. To find a knife or razor, denotes ill luck and disappointment to the party.

It is unlucky to walk under a ladder; it may prevent your being married that year.

It is a common practice among the lower class of hucksters, peddlars, or dealers in fruit or fish, on receiving the price of the first goods sold that day, which they call hansel, to spit on the money, as they term it, for good luck: and boxers, before they set to, commonly spit in their hands, which was originally done for luck’s fake.

The first time a nurse brings a child to visit its parents or relations, it is unlucky to send it back without some gift, as eggs, salt, or bread.

It is held extremely unlucky to kill a cricket, a lady-bug, a swallow, martin, robin-redbreast, or wren; perhaps from the idea of its being a breach of hospitality; all those birds and insects taking refuge in houses.

There is a particular distich in favour of the robin and wren:

A robin and a wren

Are God Almighty’s cock and hen.

Persons killing any of the above-mentioned birds or insects, or destroying their nests, will infallibly, within the course of the year, break a bone, or meet with some other dreadful misfortune. On the contrary, it is deemed lucky to have martins or swallows build their nests in the eaves of a house, or on the chimneys.

It is unlucky to lay one’s knife and fork cross-wise: crosses and misfortunes are likely to follow.

Many persons have certain days of the week and month on which they are particularly fortunate, and others in which they are as generally unlucky: these days are different to different persons. Mr. Aubrey has given several instances of both in divers persons. Some days, however, are commonly deemed unlucky: among others, Friday labours under that opprobrium; and it is pretty generally held, that no new work or enterprise should be commenced on that day. Likewise respecting the weather, there is this proverb:

Friday’s moon,

Come when it will, it comes too soon.

Washing hands in the same basin, or with the same water, as another person has washed in, is extremely unlucky, as the parties will infallibly quarrel.

To scatter salt, by overturning the vessel in which it is contained, is very unlucky, and portends quarrelling with a friend, or fracture of a bone, sprain, or other bodily misfortune. Indeed this may in some measure be averted, by throwing a small quantity of it over one’s head. It is also unlucky to help another person to salt: to whom the ill luck is to happen, does not seem to be settled.

Whistling at sea is supposed to cause an increase of wind, if not a storm, and therefore much disliked by seamen; though, sometimes, they themselves practise it when there is a dead calm.

Drowning a cat at sea, is extremely unlucky.

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MISCELLANEOUS SUPERSTITIONS

THE passing-bell was anciently rung for two purposes: one, to bespeak the prayers of all good Christians for a soul just departing; the other, to drive away the evil spirits who stood at the bed’s-foot, and about the house, ready to seize their prey, or at least to molest and terrify the soul in its passage: but by the ringing of that bell (for Durandus informs us, evil spirits are much afraid of bells), they were kept aloof; and the soul, like a hunted hare, gained the start, or had what is by sportsmen called Law. Hence, perhaps, exclusive of the additional labour, was occasioned the high price demanded for tolling the greatest bell of the church; for, that being louder, the evil spirits must go farther off to be clear of its found, by which the poor soul got so much more the start of them: besides, being heard farther off, it would likewise procure the dying man a greater number of prayers.

The toad has a stone in its head, very efficacious in the cure of divers diseases  but it must be taken out of the animal whilst alive.

The ass has a cross on its back, ever since Christ rode on one of these animals.

The haddock has the mark of St. Peter’s thumb, ever since St. Peter took the tribute penny out of the mouth of a fish of that species.

Most persons break the shells of eggs, after they have eaten the meat. This was originally done to prevent their being used as boats by witches.

A Coal hopping out of the fire, in the shape of a purse, predicts a sudden acquisition of riches to the person near whom it falls.

A Flake of soot hanging at the bars of the grate, denotes the visit of a stranger from that part of the country nearest the object: a kind of fungus in the candle predicts the same.

A Spark in the candle denotes that the party opposite to it will shortly receive a letter.

In setting a hen, the good women hold it an indispensable rule to put an odd number of eggs.

All sorts of remedies are directed to be taken three, seven, or nine times. Salutes with cannon consist of an odd number; a royal salute is thrice seven, or twenty-one guns. This predilection for odd numbers is very ancient, and is mentioned by Virgil in the eighth Eclogue, where many spells and charms, still practised, are recorded; but, notwithstanding these opinions in favour of odd numbers, the number thirteen is considered as extremely ominous; it being held that, when thirteen persons meet in a room, one of them will die within the year.

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It is impossible for a person to die whilst resting on a pillow stuffed with the feathers of a dove; but they will struggle with death in most exquisite torture. The pillows of dying persons are therefore frequently taken away, when they appear in great agonies, lest they may have pigeons feathers in them.

Fern feed is looked on as having great magical powers, and must be gathered on midsummer eve. A person who went to gather it, reported that the spirits whisked by his ears, and sometimes struck his hat, and other parts of his body; and at length, when he thought he had got a good quantity of it, and secured it in papers and a box, when he came home, he found both empty.

Anyone wounded by a small fish, called a Sting Ray, which often happens in catching sand-eels, will feel the pain of the wound very severely till the next tide.

The Reverend Mr. Shaw, in the History of the Province of Moray, in Scotland, says, ‘When a corpse is lifted, the bed of straw, on  which the deceased lay, is carried out, and burnt, in a place where no beast can come  near it: and they pretend to find next morning, in the ashes, the print of the foot of the person in the family who shall first die.’

Although the devil can partly transform himself into a variety of shapes, he cannot change his cloven foot, which will always mark him under every appearance,

A Manuscript in the Cotton Library, marked Julius, F. 6, has the following superstitions, practised in the lordship of Gasborough, in Cleveland, Yorkshire:

Anyone whistling, after it is dark, or daylight is closed, must go thrice about the house, by way of penance. How this whistling becomes criminal, is not said.

When anyone dieth, certain women sing a song to the dead body, reciting the journey that the party deceased must go.

They esteem it necessary to give, once in their lives, a pair of new shoes to a poor person; believing that, after their decease, they shall be obliged to pass bare-foot over a great space of ground, or heath, overgrown with thorns and furzes; unless, by such gift, they have redeemed this obligation: in which case, when they come to the edge of this heath, an old man will meet them, with the self-same pair of shoes they have given; by the help of which they will pass over unhurt: that is, provided the shoes have no holes in them; a circumstance the fabricator of the tale forgot to stipulate.

When a maid takes the pot off the fire, she sets it down in great haste, and with her hands stops the pot-hooks from vibrating; believing that our Lady greeteth (that is, weepeth) all the time the pot-hooks are in motion.

Between the towns of Aten and Newton, near the foot of Rosberrye Toppinge, there is a well dedicated to St. Oswald. The neighbours have an opinion, that a shirt, or shift, taken off a sick person, and thrown into that well, will shew whether the person will recover, or die: for if it floated, it denoted the recovery of the party; if it sunk, there remained no hope of their life: and, to reward the Saint for his intelligence, they tear off a rag of the shirt, and leave it hanging on the briars thereabouts; where,’ says the writer, ‘I have seen  such numbers, as might have made a sayre rheme in a paper myll.’ These wells, called Rag-wells, were formerly not uncommon.

The Reverend Mr. Brand, in his ingenious Annotations on Bourne’s Popular Antiquities, mentions a well of this kind at Benton, in the neighbourhood of Newcastle. Mr. Pennant tells us of two in Scotland: these were visited for many distempers, where the offerings were small pieces of money, and bits of rags.

The fishermen every year change their companions, for luck’s fake. On St. Peter’s day they new paint their boats, and give a treat to their friends and neighbours; at which they sprinkle their boats with ale, observing certain ceremonies.

The seventh son of a seventh son is born a physician; having an intuitive knowledge of the art of curing all disorders, and sometimes the faculty of performing wonderful cures by touching only.

To conclude this article, and my book, I shall transcribe a foreign piece of Superstition, firmly believed in many parts of France, Germany, and Spain. The account of it, and the mode of preparation, appears to have been given by a judge: in the latter, there is a striking resemblance to the charm in Macbeth.

Of the Hand of Glory, which is made use of by housebreakers, to enter into houses at night, without fear of opposition.

I Acknowledge that I never tried the secret of the Hand of Glory, but I have thrice assisted at the definitive judgment of certain criminals, who, under the torture, confessed having used it. Being asked what it was, how they procured it, and what were its uses and properties ?—they answered, first, that the use of the Hand of Glory was to stupify those to whom it was presented, and to render them motionless, insomuch that they could not stir, any more than if they were dead; secondly, that it was the hand of a hanged man; and thirdly, that it must be prepared in the manner following:

Take the hand, left or right, of a person hanged, and exposed on the highway; wrap it up in a piece of a shroud, or winding sheet, in which let it be well squeezed, to get out any small quantity of blood that may have remained in it; then put it into an earthen vessel, with zimat, saltpetre, salt, and long pepper, the; whole well powdered; leave it fifteen days in that vessel; afterwards take it out, and expose it to the noontide sun in the dog days, till it is thoroughly dry; and if the sun is not sufficient, put it into an oven heated with fern and vervain: then compose a kind of candle with the fat of a hanged man, virgin wax, and sisame of Lapland. The Hand of Glory is used as a candlestick to hold this candle, when lighted. Its properties are, that wheresoever anyone goes with this dreadful instrument, the persons to whom it is presented will be deprived of all power of motion. On being asked if there was no remedy, or antidote, to counteract this charm, they said the Hand of Glory would cease to take effect, and thieves could not make use of it, if the threshold of the door of the house, and other places by which they might enter, were anointed with an unguent composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen, and the blood of a screech owl; which mixture must necessarily be prepared during the dog days.

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3 Replies to “Super Creepy British Superstitions that I Found in a Book Published in 1787”

  1. These are great. I particularly liked: “Rats gnawing the hangings of a room, is reckoned the forerunner of a death in the family.” Not to mention, the sign of a serious vermin problem.

    Congratulations on your new book!

  2. I found one that will be useful in one of my projects – whistling up a storm – I’m trying to find out what life would have been like for a large family migrating on a clipper-ship from England to New Zealand in 1862 from the point of view of the children. Papa’s diary is not much help, he doesn’t mention his wife at all and only mentions his children when discussing the “howlers, whingers and whiners” in the other deck cabins. I can imagine the reaction from the sailors when one of the passengers starts whistling …

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