Illustrated Tales of Staffordshire by Helen Harwood, delves into the folklore and modern stories of the West Midlands county. Spooky Isles talks to Helen about her new book
Illustrated Tales of Staffordshire Interview with Helen Harwood
SPOOKY ISLES: Thanks for talking to us, Helen. It’s evident from your latest work, Illustrated Tales of Staffordshire, the county has loads of thrilling folklore to devour. What sparked your interest in this often overlooked aspect of Staffordshire’s history?
HELEN HARWOOD: Coming from North Staffordshire, I grew up with the local stories such as Mollie Leigh. The Poison grave and the Thorncliffe Mermaid. They encouraged my interest in history, traditional customs and music. Particularly as Staffordshire is generally overlooked and its legends are often unfamiliar even to those living in the county.
It’s enthralling how you’ve unearthed the local myths and customs, like the annual spectacle of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and the eerie tale of the Burslem witch, which is a favourite on Spooky Isles. There seems to be a fascinating underbelly of folklore beneath Staffordshire’s more documented heritage. What drove you to bring these lesser-known tales to light?
The Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance is probably the best known and one of the oldest county traditions attracting large crowds, some travelling a distance to witness it. While, of course, Mollie Leigh was a real person accused of witchcraft in 17th, 18th century Burslem. I feel that it’s important for these tales and customs to not be forgotten and that both locals and visitors alike should be able to learn about the area’s heritage.
I’m curious about the unusual locales you’ve explored in the book, places that hosted bizarre events and quirky tales. Among these, are there any spots you’d personally recommend for someone seeking a spooky weekend adventure in Staffordshire?
Staffordshire is a large county extending from the Moorlands in the North to Kinver Edge in the South hosting a variety of sometimes concealed locations with surprising stories to tell. One interesting and spooky place is the entrance to the old Harecastle Canal Tunnel near Kidsgrove, the reputed home of the Boggart.
You take a lot of time exploring the curious customs rooted in the county’s pottery and mining industries. How did you find the intertwining of Staffordshire’s industrial past with its folklore? Did one aspect illuminate the other in unexpected ways?
The Industrial Revolution, canals, mining and pottery in North Staffordshire and mining in South Staffordshire provided work that was often hard and dangerous which in turn, created their own myths and legends, while continuing to encompass the older traditions such as well dressing and beating the bounds. Interestingly, many of both rural and industrial customs contain an element of Thanksgiving and warnings of impending disaster.
The mention of the Thorncliffe Mermaid, Poison Grave, and the Crooked House piques curiosity. Could you share a bit on which of these places or tales you found most compelling?
Sadly, the Crooked House has fallen victim to arson, though there is a campaign to have it rebuilt. While in the Moorlands, an inland mermaid supposedly living in a remote bottomless pool is an interesting legend. However, I find the poison grave to be the most intriguing, as Sarah Smith claimed that she was murdered and to write the accusation on her gravestone as an act of revenge for all to see. No one knows why she was so specific about the half a pint of poison and how she came to drink it.
What is your personal favourite folktale from Staffordshire?
I think my favourite folk tale has to be the humorous stories associated with the Wychnor Flitch. When a flitch of bacon was awarded to couples who proved not to have argued for a year and a day. Records show that only three couples ever claimed the flitch.
And lastly, with Halloween around the corner, Staffordshire seems like the perfect place to delve into the spooky and eerie. Where in the county would you say one could have the quintessential spooky Halloween experience?
Tutbury Castle would be a good place to spend Halloween it has a spooky reputation and was where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. Though one of the more unusual spooky places are the Bloody Steps at Brindley Bank aqueduct near Rugeley. It is where the body of murdered Christina Collins was carried up the steps. Her spirit is said to still haunt them.