"He that will not merry be,
With a pretty girl by the fire,
I wish he was atop of Dartemoor
A-stugged in the mire."
MANY of our old towns and villages throughout the country have long been famous for certain characteristics, and some of these which pay special honour to the fair sex are embodied in local rhymes, which, if not in all respects quite complimentary, are generally quaint and goodhumoured.
A popular folk-rhyme informs us:--
"Oxford for learning, London for a wit,
Hull for women, and York for a tit."
The downs in the vicinity of Sutton, Banstead, and Epsom, in addition to being noted for their sheep, which have given rise to various rhymes, have been in other ways equally famous, if we are to believe the following:--
"Sutton for good mutton,
Cheam for juicy beef,
Croydon for a pretty girl,
And Mitcham for a thief."
But these are not the only places, as other folk-rhymes tell us, that can lay claim to producing pretty girls; for, under Oxfordshire, in Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes of England," these lines are given:--
"King's Sutton is a pretty town,
And lies all in a valley;
It has a pretty rng of bells,
Besides a bowling alley;
Wine in liquor in good store,
Pretty maidens plenty,
Can a man desire more?
There ain't such a town in twenty;"
with which may be compared a similar rhyme on Middlewych, in Cheshire:--
"Middlewych is a pretty town,
Seated in a valley,
With a church and market cross,
And eke a bowling alley.
All the men are loyal there,
Pretty girls are plenty,
Church and King, and down with the Rump--
There's not such a town in twenty."
Chambers, in his "Popular Rhymes of Scotland," quotes an old rhyme descriptive of places in the parishes of Bunkle and Chirnside; "but, alas," he says, "five of these little firm towns no longer exist, their lands being now included in large possessions:--
"Little Billy, Billy Mill,
Billy Mains, and Billy Hill,
Ashfield and Auchencraw,
Bullerhead and Pefferlaw,
There's bonny lasses in them a'."
The term, "Lancashire fair women," has long age become proverbial, in connection with which we may quote this note by Ray: "Whether the women of this county be indeed fairer than their neighboirs I know not, but that the inhabitants of some counties may be, and are, generally fairer than those of others, is most certain; the reason whereof is to be attributed partly to the temperature of the air, partly to the condition of the soil, and partly to their manner of food. The hotter the climate, generally the blacker the inhabitants, and the colder, the fairer; the colder, I say, to a certain degree, for in extreme cold countries the inhabitants are of dusky complexions. But in the same climate, that in some places the inhabitants should be fairer than in others, proceeds from the diversity of the situation--either high or low, maritime or far from sea--or of the soil and manner of living, which we see have so much influence upon hearts, as to alter in them bigness, shape, and colour; and why it may not have the like on men I see not."
Another folk-rhyme tells us:--
"Barton under Needwood,
Dunstall in the Dale;
Sitenhill for a pretty girl,
And Burton for good ale;"
which is similar to one told of the hamlets of Pulverbatch, in Shropshire:--
"Cothercot up o' the hill,
Wilderley down i' the dale,
Churton for pretty girls,
And Powtherbitch for good ale."
"Suffolk fair maids" is another popular proverbial expression, an allusion to which we find in Greene's "Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay" (Works, Edit. 1861, p. 153):--
"A bonnier wench all Suffolk cannot yield.
All Suffolk! Nay, all England holds none such;"
and Ray remarks on this expression: "It seems the God of Nature hath been bountiful in giving them beautiful complexions; which I am willing to believe, so far forth as it fixeth not a comparative disparagement on the same sex in other places."
On the other hand, we occasionally find a place mentioned as possessing no pretty girls, as in the following:--
"Halifax is made of wax,
And Heptonstall of stone;
In Halifax there's many a pretty girl,
In Heptonstall there's none."
A humorous rhyme on Camberwell runs thus:--
"All the maides in Camberwell,
May daunce in an egge shell,
For there are no maydes in that well;"
to which one, who, it has been suggested, was doubtless a Camberwellian, answered in clumsy doggerel:--
"All the maides in Camberwell towne,
Cannot daunce in an acre of ground."
It is proverbially said, too:--
"Castleford women must needs be fair,
Because they wash both in Calder and Aire."
In short, in accordance with an old adage, "England's the Paradise of Women," upon which Ray has this note: "And well it may be called so, as might easily be demonstrated in many particulars, were not all the world therein satisfied. Hence it has been said that if a bridge were made over the narrow seas, all the women in Europe would come over hither. Yet it is worth the noting, that though in no country in the world the men are so fond of, so much governed by, so wedded to their wives, yet hath no language so many proverbial invectives against women."
Some places have enjoyed the unenviable notoriety of possessing loose women, if we are to put reliance in folk-rhymes like the subjoined:--
"Beccles for a puritan, Bungay for the poor,
Halesworth for a drunkard, and Bilborough for a whore."
According to a Leicestershire saying, "There are more whores in Hose, than honest women in Long Clawton;" the humour of this proverb, as Ray says, 'turning on the word hose, which is here meant to signify stockings, and is the name of a small village adjoining Long Clawton, which is comparatively very populous." A proverbial couplet current in Essex informs us:--
"Braintree for the pure, and Bocking for the poor;
Cogshall for the jeering town, and Kelvedon for the whore."
And to give a further instance, a Surrey folk-rhyme is to this effect:--
"Sutton for mutton, Carshalton for beeves,
Epsom for whores, and Ewel for thieves."
At one time, too, it was a common saying, "Who goes to Westminster for a wife, to Paul's for a man, and to Smithfield for a horse, may meet with a whore, a knave, and a jade;" with which may be compared the following old folk-rhyme on the Inns of Court:--
"The Inner Temple rich,
The Middle Temple poor;
Lincoln's Inn for law,
And Gray's lnn for a whore."
Herefordshire has long been famous for its four W's--its wine (cider), its wood (its sylvan scenery), its women, and its water (the river Wye), whence the saying, "Wine, wood, women, and water;" and a popular couplet speaks of:--
which, according to Grose, would seem to imply that "the Oxford knives were better to look at than to cut with; and that the London wives had more beauty and good breeding than housewifely qualities," with which may be compared a similar folk-rhyme:--
"Hutton for auld wives,
Broadmeadows for swine;
Paxton for drunken wives,
And salmon sae fine."
Cheshire people when referring to a girl noted for her good looks are wont to describe her as being "As fair as Lady Done," a phrase which is thus explained by Pennant, in his "Journey from Chester to London," 1793:--"Sir John Done, Knight, hereditary forester and keeper of the forest of Delamere, Cheshire, died in 1629. When James I. made a progress in the year 1607, he was entertained by this gentleman at Utkinton, etc. He married Dorothy, daughter of Thomas Wilbraham, Esq., of Woodhey, who left behind her so admirable a character, that to this day, when a Cheshire man would express some excellency in one of the fair sex, he would say, 'There is Lady Done for you.'"
Ray, also, tells us that, "The Dones were a great family in Cheshire, living it Utkinton, by the forest side. Nurses use there to call their children so, if girls; if boys, Earls of Derby."
It is also commonly said in Cheshire, "Better wed over the mixen than over the moor"--a proverbial adage which Ray thus explains: "That is, hard by, or at home--the mixon being that heap of compost which lies in the yards of good husbandmen--than far off, or from London. The road from Chester leading to London over some part of the moorlands in Staffordshire, the meaning is, that gentry in Cheshire find it more profitable to match within their own county, than to bring a bride out of other shires: (1) Because better acquainted with her birth and breeding. (2) Because though her portion may chance to be less to maintain her, such inter-marriages in this county have been observed both a prolonger of worshipful families and the preserver of amity between them."
We find the same proverb in Scotland, "Better over the midden than over the muir;" and it has also found its way to the Continent, for to a young person about to marry in Germany this advice is given, "Marry over the mixon, and you will know who and what she is;" with which may be compared the Italian admonitlon, "Your wife and your nag get from a neighbour."
A couplet popular in Wem, Shropshire, runs thus:--
"The women of Wem, and a few musketeers,
Beat Lord Capel, and all his caveliers."
Wem was the first town in Shropshire to declare for the Parliament. The story told--which gave rise to this rhyme--is that in 1643, Lord Capel, the King's lieutenant-general in Wales and the border counties, attempted to seize it from Shrewsbury before the completion of the fortifications, but he was repulsed from Wem by about forty troopers, with the aid of the townspeople. A smart piece of deception, it is said, was adopted, for old women in red cloaks were posted at carefully-selected spots, thus scaring the enemy, who took them for soldiers.
Another Cheshire adage tells us, "When the daughter is stolen, shut Pepper Gate," which Grose thus explains--"Pepper Gate was a postern on the east side of the city of Chester. The mayor ot the city having his daughter stolen away by a young man through that gate, whilst she was playing at ball with the other maidens, his worship, out of revenge, caused it to be closed up."
There are numerous items of folk-lore of a similar character; and the Scotch, when speaking of a changeable woman, remark, "Ye're as fu' o' maggots as the bride of Preston, wha stopt half-way as she gaed to the kirk;" on which adage, Henderson writes: "We have not been able to learn who the bride of Preston really was, but we have frequently heard the saying applied to young women who are capricious and changeable:--
"The bride took a maggot, it was but a maggot,
She wadna gang by the west mains to be married."
Another common expression is, "Take a seat on Maggy Shaw's Crocky," which is a broad, flat stone, near to the brink of a precipice, overhanging the seashore, about a mile to the north of Eyemouth. Tradition says this stone was placed over the remains of an old woman who had hanged herself, and who is said frequently to be seen at night resting upon it, in the shape of a white sea-mew, sitting lonely on the--
Green with the dow o' the jauping main."
Sometimes one may hear a Scotch peasant use the phrase, "Ye breed o' Lady Mary, when you're gude, ye're ower gude," which Kelly thus explains: "A drunken man one day begged Lady Mary to help him on his horse, and having made many attempts to no purpose, he always reiterated the same position; at length he jumped quite over. 'O, Lady Mary,' said he, 'when thou art good, thou art over good.'" Another common phrase is, "Gae kiss yourlucky--she lives in Leith," which Allan Ramsay thus explains: "A cant phrase, from what rise I know not, but it is made use of when persons think it is not worth while to give a distinct answer, or think themselves foolishly accused."
It is commonly said in Buckinghamshire, in reference to a marriage of unequal age, "An old man who marries a buxom young maiden bids fair to become a freeman of Buckingham," that is, a cuckold. A Shropshire proverb, in which there does not seem to be much point, says, "He that fetches a wife from Shrewsbury must carry her into Staffordshire, or else he shall live in Cumberland," with which may be compared the following old rhyme:--
"Women are born in Wiltshire,
Brought up in Cumberland,
Lead their lives in Bedfordshire,
Bring their husbands to Buckingham,
And die in Shrewsbury."
On the Kentish coast the white clouds which commonly bring rain are nicknamed "Folke Stone Washerwomen;" and in Cornwall we find the expression, "Grained like a Wellcombe woman;"--Wellcombe is about three miles from Morwenstow, the women in this neighbourhood being remarkably dark. At the present day, too, one may often hear the Sussex peasantry use the phrase, "Lithe as a lass of Kent," and in Northamptonshire a current expression used to be, "She is quite an Amy Florence."
Another old proverbial phrase which, at one time or another, has given rise to much discussion is, "As long as Meg of Westminster," which, says Ray, "is applied to persons very tall, especially if they have hopple height wanting breadth proportionately. But that there ever was," he adds, "such a giant woman cannot be proved by any good witness. I pass not for a late lying pamphlet, entitled, 'Story of a monstrous tall Virago called "Long Megg of Westminster,"' the writer of which thinks it might relate to a great gun lying in the Tower, called Long Megg, in troublesome times brought to Westminster, where for some time it continued."
Fuller, writing in 1662, says, "The large gravestone shown on the south side of the cloister in Westminster Abbey, said to cover her body, was placed over a number of monks who died of the plague, and were all buried in one grave."
Turning once more to Scotland, there is a small village named Ecclesmagirdle situated "under the northern slope of the Ochil Hills, and for some considerable part of the year untouched by the solar rays." Hence the following rhyme:--
"The lasses o' Exmagirdle
May very weel be dun;
For frae Michaelmas till Whitsunday,
They never see the sun."
Corncairn, situated in Banffshire, is an extensive and fertile district, adjacent to Cornhill, where the well-known Cornhill markets are held. It was long noted for the industry of its inhabitants and the thrift of its women, which seems to have given rise to the following folk-rhyme:--
"A' the wives o' Corncairn,
Drilling up their harn yarn;
They hae corn, they hae kye,
They have webs o' claith, for bye."
In Gilburn, Linlithgowshire, there is current a curious traditionary couplet. The story goes that an unfortunate lady lived with a Duke of Hamilton, very many years ago, at Kinneil House. She is said to have put an end to her existence by throwing herself from the walls of the castle into the deep ravine below, through which the Gilburn descends. Her spirit is supposed to haunt this glen; and it has long been customary for the children in the neibourhood, on dark and stormy nights, to say:--
"Lady, Lady Lilburn,
Hunts in the Gilburn."
But, it has been suggested, it is far more likely that Lady Lilburn was the wife of the celebrated Cromwellian colonel, who for a time occupied Kinneil House.
Similarly, a dishonest milk-woman at Shrewsbury, who is condemned to wander up and down Lady Studeley's Diche, in the Raven Meadow--now the Smithfield--is said to repeat this couplet:--
"Weight and measure sold I never,
Milk and water sold I ever";
which at Burslem, in the Stafford-shire, has been associated with an old witch, locally known as "Old Molly Lee."