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  • Victorian Will o’ the Wisp June 3, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback






    Beachcombing is in a Victorian country mood this week – the kind that comes and goes. It should be no surprise then that he’s decided to give a short extract from one of his favourite Victorian country books, the autobiography of John Wilkes, a gamekeeper based (for much of his professional career) at Stanstead.

    Now John was, to use the modern lingo, ‘full of himself’, but every so often he had an encounter that jarred even his colossal self-esteem. When the following took place (pp. 66-68 in our edition) he was in his late teens. He had been left in a pit to shoot a lurcher – a poacher’s dog – by his father and their wretched assistant Dick. John’s father was based at Chesham in Bucks and worked out of German House for a Mr Fuller.

    ‘It was a bright moonlight night, and I sat in this old saw pit for about two hours and a half without seeing or hearing anything, when, all at once, I became aware of something at the end of the pit jumping and dancing about, here, there, and all over the place. It came up to the side of the pit, very close to my head, and then disappeared, suddenly, like a bladder bursting. Next I saw it hanging on the side of a tree; it left the tree, though I could not see it do so, but immediately reappeared skipping round the pit. I could not make it out at all; at first I thought it was an owl, and then I remembered that an owl would fly and not hop, skip and jump. Last of all, the thing hung on to a branch of the tree, in the full light of the moon.

    I forgot all about snares, and dogs, and poachers, and father’s orders, and simply let fly at it, determined to find out what it was. Nothing fell, nothing flew away, the result was just the same as if I had shot at a bubble; indeed, the thing itself was just like a soap bubble that a child might blow through a long clay pipe. It was as large as a common or garden hen, but shaped something like a pig’s bladder blown out, and, when I had shot, it seemed as if all the wind had escaped. Up I jumped out of the pit, and rushed up to the tree to pick up what I had shot, for, though I saw nothing fall, I am a pretty dead shot, and I scarcely believed I had missed my quarry. Nothing there; neither fish, flesh, fowl, or even a feather.

    Father and Dick now arrived, and found the gun standing in the pit, and me, alternately, gazing up into the tree, or groping on the ground. ‘What did you shoot at?’ growls father. ‘Something,’ I replied, feebly. ‘Well what was it?’ ‘Something,’ was all I could say, again, dubiously staring at the tree, or feeling the ground, all the while. ‘What was it you shot at?’ insisted father. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Well, what was it like?’ Then I told them how it jumped here and there, and appeared and disappeared, all around me; whereupon my father up with his hand, and gave me a heavy clout over the side of my head. ‘You cracky,’ he raved. ‘You shot at the shadow of the moon; now you’ve spoilt the job entirely.’ So he took up the snares and we all went home, he grumbling and growling all the way, and I was very glad to get to bed out of his sight, I can tell you.

    Next morning, Dick and I went to examine the place by daylight to see if we could find any trace of what I had shot at ; needless to say, we searched in vain, I could see that I had shot just were the thing was, for there were the marks in the tree. I think it must have been what they call a ‘Will o’ the Wisp’, or ‘Jock o’ Lantern,’ that is, a kind of vapour; I had never seen one of them before, but I’ve seen plenty since.

    Beachcombing has long had a dilettante’s interest in Will o’ the Wisps and it seems that we can talk, ET-style, about close encounters of the first, second and third kind with these floating clouds. The first kind is a sighting of an object that could easily be explained by science as marsh gas. The second kind is a sighting of an entity that moves (often away from the viewer) with or as if with a mind of its own. The third kind has said entity reveal some hidden treasure, Viking tomb or magic potion to the viewer. The third kind is mainly restricted to Welsh and Cornish folktales. John seems to have managed a one and a half.

    Beachcombing has in his filing cabinet a short list of anomalous phenomenon involving gamekeepers and poachers. Can anyone volunteer anymore? drbeachcombing[AT]yahoo[DOT]com

    Arthur Byng and Stephen Stephens, The autobiography of an English gamekeeper (John Wilkins of Stanstead, Essex) (London 1892)