27 March 2016


Melanie Warren. Lancashire Folk: Ghostly Legends and Folklore from Ancient to Modern. Schiffer, 2016.

First things first, when any book has 'Lancashire' in its title, you need to define the word, does it refer to the ancient county of Lancashire including the great cities of Liverpool and Manchester and their surroundings, or does it refer to the truncated 'Lancashire' created by Edward Heath in 1972. In this case, it refers to the latter, the Lancashire from Preston northwards.
This book is essentially a gazetteer of (north) Lancashire towns and villages and the stories associated with them, with indexes of types, and map references along with some nice colour photographs. It should thus appeal not just to the American tourist market, which given its Pennsylvania publisher, is, I assume, its main target readership, but locals who want to reminisce about the stories they heard in their youth and perhaps pass them on to the younger generation. Some might be the basis for school story telling and essay competitions.

Here he usual fare of phantom monks, the lovers separated by religion, the witches, the visitations of the devil, the local boggarts, etc. and joined by some modern stories including urban legends set around Blackpool Pleasure Beach and in particular its ghost train. You will see that many of these modern stories reflect traditional themes and a fair proportion seem equally aimed at the tourist market. In other cases traditional tropes are employed to explain all sorts of anomalous personal experiences.

Despite the contrasting landscapes from the coastal plains to the bleak Pennine heights, the stories do not seem to differ all that much, indeed most could have come from any town or village in England, with some change in vocabulary. Perhaps this is because they are mainly literary traditions. The early Lancashire folklorists John Roby and James Bowker were essentially story tellers, influenced by the Grimm brothers and Sir Walter Scott, and the more scholarly works of Charles Hardwick, John Harland and T.T, Wilkinson who were heavily influenced by the anthropological theories of their day. 

Legend of Salmesbury Hall - 
Ancient Tradition or Literary Confection?

These authors’s stories form the basis of most modern collections of 'traditional' tales. Some of these even in their original may have had literary origins. One wonders if the story of Dorothy of Salmesbury Hall, a Catholic and her love for the Protestant heir of the Houghton family might not have been one such, with some local writer giving a regional flavour to an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet back in the eighteenth century?

The folklore thus presented is perhaps by and large the homogenised, expurgated fare for the tourist/heritage industry, producing a nostalgic portrait of a lost and largely imagined rural past, rather than a living lore. For example one might read right through this book without realising there is a substantial population of Asian origin in towns such as Blackburn and Burnley. 

Out there is, I suspect, a living lore which folklorists seldom hear and which is, by and large unprintable for a variety of legal and ethical reasons, in which the urban streets are haunted by the ghosts of the drug addict found dead in a public toilet, the murdered prostitute, the suicidal child, the hit and run victim, the victim of gang warfare and tales of demonic disc-jockeys in phantom cars with blackened windows. Such however do not make pretty tales or scenic photographs. (From not quite so recent a past, I could tell Melanie a tale from, in part, Fleetwood, as bleak and cruel as the sea itself, which would freeze the blood in her veins!). Not stories, these for school essays.

But of course many of the stories centred around picturesque old buildings and other tourist industry fare were probably as raw as this in their day, not least of course the Pendle witches, a tale of persecution and judicial murder. -- Peter Rogerson.

Read Peter Rogerson's accounts of some of Lancashire's urban folklore and legends:

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