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Weird Norfolk: The wise woman of Irstead

PUBLISHED: 17:00 21 July 2017

Irstead village views. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Irstead village views. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

archant 2017

She was the wise washerwoman of Irstead whose predictions, proverbs and observations were shared across Norfolk in the late 1700s and early to mid 1800s.

Mrs Lubbock was born in the late 1700s and her wisdom on a huge range of subjects had, she said, been passed down to her through the generations.

In 1849, the Reverend John Gunn published a paper on her in Norfolk Archaeology, having collected her sayings “as they fell from her mouth, as nearly as possible in her own racy language” and noted that “her venerable lore is not without its inconveniences and drawbacks. It has exposed her to the suspicion of witchcraft.”

Gunn added: “When asked how she came by them, she replied that she learned them, when a child, of her father, who was very fond of old proverbs.Education she had none, but, as is usual, her memory and imagination have been exercised the more on that account.

“In the year 1813 she was left a widow with several children and she has since maintained herself by carrying on the humble occupation already mentioned. That employment she continues in her 80th year, declaring she would ‘rather die in a ditch than go into the workhouse’”

Mrs Lubbock had various proverbs. For example, Candlemas Day (February 2) – if it was fine and clear, “the shepherd would rather see his wife on a bier”, if the sun shone it would snow before May, farmers should have half their turnips and half their hay and candles shouldn’t be burnt at all past February 3.

She believed Valentine’s Day should be held on February 13 not 14 and told the story of Robert Staff, who used to keep The Maid’s Head Inn at Stalham, opposite the church, who believed he could tell who was going to die or be married in the course of the year by watching the church porch on St Mark’s Eve (those who went in singly were to die, those who went in couples were to marry). Working on Good Friday was, she said, bad (“if work be done on that day, it will be so unlucky that it will all have to be done over again” and rosemary flowers on Christmas Day.

She believed dogs could be quieted by pulling off one’s left foot show and turning it, that if it rained on a Sunday before mass it would rain all week, that if anyone hears a cuckoo’s first note when in bed, illness or death will follow and that hard winters don’t follow an autumn where acorns have been plentiful.

Salt added to a wash would keep out thunder and turn away foul spirits and spirits of the dead would haunt the places where they had hidden their treasure.

She felt it particularly fortunate to live in Potter Heigham (“That blessed are they that live near Potter Heigham and double-blessed them that live in it”) but there was bad news for those who believe in little people: “there used to be fairies in old times – there are no such things now.”

Mrs Lubbock’s wisdom was published by Fuller & Ray and appeared in European books.

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