Brownies of Bangor May 30, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
There follows a peculiar little story, from 1909, which has certainly not got the attention that it deserves from fairyists or from students of mass hysteria. Bangor, for those outside the UK, is a pretty town in North Wales. Brownies, meanwhile, are solitary fairies, typically, associated with houses in the north of England and parts of Scotland, NOT Wales. Note though that the word had been popularized by the late 1800s, above all, by the appallingly twee Juliana Horatio Ewing, who lent the word to Baden Powell, who used it for his girl guide movement. In any case, back to Bangor and let’s travel to the cemetery there.
Bangor people probably never realised before that the town contained such a number of children as were visible about eight o’clock, gambolling and shouting in both fear and delight in a disused cemetery in the middle of the town. The attraction (a correspondent writes) was a story which spread among the juveniles, though their elders had heard nothing of it, to the effect that little men with big eyes and long ears had been seen playing amongst the tombstones, and with one accord the children in hundreds trooped gaily to the cemetery and searched eagerly for the ‘brownies.’ Needless to say none of the fairies was seen, but the children, with shrieks and cries, searched every nook and corner of the old cemetery, peeping fearfully round every tombstone and under the dark yew trees. At last the din became so great that the police had to chase the children out of the enclosure.
This extract appeared in the Manchester Guardian (19 May) and it would be better to have a North Walian version to rely on. For example, was the word ‘brownie’ really used by the Bangor children or is this a Mancunian gloss (note that brownies were not traditionally found in Manchester either)? There is also the rather unusual description of big eyes (of course, folklore has lots of creatures with ‘eyes as big as saucers’) and more curiously ‘long ears’. It would be interesting to know when long ears enter fairylore: Beach is guessing post Tolkien with the influence of Spock cementing the change? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com BTW, if you like stories of human folly try this link for elvish cosmetic surgery.
However, the single most fascinating thing here, at least for Beach, is the striking parallel with a famous Leprechaun case from Liverpool, 1964. There too children went mad looking for solitary fairies, one if memory serves with an airgun. The first wave of fairy hunting took place on a bowling green in Liverpool, but the second wave included a group of children searching for leprechauns among the graves in a cemetery at Kirkby, just down the road from Liverpool. There also the police had to get the kids home to bed.
30 May 2013: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes ‘On long ears in fairylore – what about Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream? The Victorians often portrayed fairies/hobgoblins with pointed ears – John Henry Fuseli, for example, in The Nightmare. How much of the long ears comes from the Jester’s cap, which has become associated with some fairies like Puck? Even earlier, this image of “Puck” with several erect appendages (and again) And even further back, medieval demons: And this long-eared Jar Jar Binks-like creature from The Temptation of St. Anthony by Marten de Vos. I think the leap from medieval demons to Elizabethan/Jacobean fairies is a pretty logical one. The pointed ears were then given a pastel icing-sugar gloss by Victorian fairy artists.’ If Chris is right then presumably the long ears of fairies comes via demons and then ultimately from goats or donkeys, the models of demons? Thanks a million Chris!
31 May 2013: Aisla writes in with this thought. ‘I’ am wondering if the Bangor referred to in the Manchester paper is not the city of Bangor in Gwynedd, but rather the smaller Bangor-on-Dee of the race course fame. This Bangor is situated close to Wrexham and has a very historic church with many legends attached to it. It is closer to England and there are many connections between it and Liverpool. I think that brownies feature in the folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the name is said to derive from the Scottish Gaelic. They were considered a type of house spirit or elf. They do not feature in the traditional folk tales of Wales, nor were they associated with graveyards.’ In my experience Lancashire and Cheshire and Derbyshire don’t do brownies, they do boggarts. But otherwise everything else fits. Also Bangor-on-Dee is much closer to Manchester and would have been of interest to Manchester readers. Aisla has very likely cracked the problem then. Thanks a million, Aisla!
30 June 2013: Richard H writes: Bangor-on-Dee is and always was a small village, “children in hundreds” would have been an impossibility in 1909. Even today when the local school is attended by children from more villages than would have been the case in 1909 I suspect that the total number is not as much as one hundred. In addition to the above, the only graveyard in the village is the one that surrounds the church, it is still in use to this day. It is overlooked by two pubs and several houses, any unusual activity would most definitely have been be noticed. Thanks Richard!