Weird Norfolk: The strange Norfolk whirlwinds sent by the Devil

A black and white picture of the wherry Albion on the Norfolk Broads. A wherry is a sailing boat.

A short, sharp blast from Old Roger had been know to tip over wherries on the Norfolk broads. - Credit: Archant Library

Did the ghost of Old Roger whistle up sandstorms in order to foil German bombers intent on wiping out Breckland aerodromes in 1941? There is a mention of a mysterious whirlwind or “Rodjon” in 1440, but in more recent years the so-called ‘plague winds’ have taken the more recognisable name, ‘Roger’.

“When the freshwaterman sees the waving of the reeds and sedges, he knows a ‘Roger’s Blast’ may hurl himself and his craft to the bottom,” said Robert Forby in his Vocabulary of East Anglia in 1825, while Sir Walter Rye spoke of strange whirlwinds called ‘Roger’s Blast’ in 1877. These were, he said, fairly common in Wroxham, Woodbastwick, Horning and South Walsham – today they are more commonly known as dust devils and are whirlwinds that spiral up from warm ground or over water.

Wherries come together on Wroxham Broad to celebrate the centenary of the building of the last wherr

Old Roger would often strike on calm days. - Credit: Archant / Antony Kelly

Whistling up the wind is one of the most common forms of weather magic which has been practiced for hundreds of years and can be used to summon either a gentle breeze or a storm. Some people were said to be able to literally whistle for the wind while others would make a ‘wind whistle’ from alder or willow wood, or use a glass bottle. The storms said to have been whipped up by Old Roger – a folklore name for the Devil – were said to have been made with a wooden flute of this kind.

In the American Philological Association’s publication of 1895, an article about Roger’s Blast said: “The superstition of a blast of wind caused by the Devil and used to work harm to mortals comes out in the old stories of witchcraft and witches themselves were thought to have influence over the air and sold winds, as they told stories, to the marines.”

In Scotland in 1662, there was a confession from a group of women accused of witchcraft that they could raise the wind whenever they chose.

"When we raise the wind, we take a rag of cloth and wet it in water, and we take a beetle and knock the rag on a stone, and we say thrice over: ‘I knock this rag upon this stane, To raise the wind in the devil's name. It shall not lie until I please again!’” When the ‘witches’ decided the wind should die down, they left the rag out to dry.

Shortly before Old Roger was called on to defeat Hitler’s attempts to bomb part of East Anglia (and the only time Roger is described as a ghost), there had been many letters about Roger’s Blast in The Times in 1938 after a hot, dry August when the whirlwind was spotted on numerous occasions.

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And in a letter to the EDP in 1946, an EA Ellis spoke of a “sudden whirlwind or ‘Roger’s Blast’” had felled 30 trees at Holt and asked if anyone knew the origin of the Norfolk name for this kind of strange weather phenomena. The author said they believed the term had come from Europe and was derived from the word ‘rogue’ but also wondered if it might be connected to an old children’s game with a rhyme about “Old Roger”.

The playground grave involves words and actions that tell the story of Old Roger who “is dead and gone to his grave” and an apple tree which is planted “over his head”. It includes a line about an east wind blowing apples from the tree and waking Old Roger who then gives a woman gathering them a scare. The song, however, is first referenced in 1876, many years after the legend of Old Roger became known.

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