The Secret People (extract)

This extract is taken from ‘The Parish Healer’ chapter under Old Wives’ Tales – a dismissive expression normally used to indicate that a supposed truth is actually a superstition to be ridiculed. Such ‘tales’ were considered to be unverified claims with exaggerated and inaccurate details, often focussing on ‘women’s concerns’, discouraging unseemly behaviour in children, or folk cures for ailments ranging from a headache to in-growing toenails.

Old Women’s Sayings was a song published on ‘Broadside’ by a number of 19th century printers, the earliest being John Pitts and James Catnach. A broadside was a large sheet of paper printed on one side only. They were usually posters announcing events or proclamations, or simply advertisements. Broadsides are difficult to date accurately since all the printers copied each other’s work as a matter of course, but the earliest versions seem to date from c.1835.

Draw near and give attention

And you shall hear in rhyme

The old women’s saying

In the olden time.

High and low, rich and poor

By daylight or dark

Are sure for to make

Some curious remark

With some foolish idea

Your brains they will bother

For some believes one thing

And some believes another.


These are odds and ends

And superstitious ways

The signs and tokens

Of my grandmother’s days.

The first thing you will see

At the house of rich or poor

To keep the witches out

A horseshoe’s o’er the door;

Bellows on the table

Cause a row by day and night

If there’s two knives across

You are sure to have a fight;

There’s a stranger in the grate

Or if the cat should sneeze

Or lay before the fire

It will rain or freeze.

A cinder with a hole

In the middle, is a purse

But a long one from the fire

Is a coffin – which is worse;

A spider ticking in the wall

Is the death-watch at night

A spark in the candle

Is a letter, sure as life;

If your right eye itches

You’ll cry till out of breath

A winding sheet in the candle

Is a sure sign of death.

If your left eye itches

You will laugh outright

But the left or right

Is very good at night;

If your elbow itch

A strange bedfellow found

If the bottom of your foot itch

You’ll tread on strange ground;

If your knee itch you’ll kneel

In a church, that’s a good ’un

And if your belly itch

You’ll get a lot of pudden.

If your back should itch

I do declare

Butter will be cheap

When the grass grows there

If the dog howl at night

Or mournfully cry

Or if the cock should crow

There will be someone die;

If you stumble up stairs

Indeed I’m no railer

You’ll be married to a snob

Or else to a tailor.

A speck on your finger nail

Is a gift that’s funny

If your hand itch in the middle

You will get some money;

Spilling of salt

Is anger outright

You will see a ghost if the doors

Should rattle in the night;

If your sweetheart

Dreams of bacon and eggs

She’ll have a little boy

That has got three legs.

The cat washing her face

The wind will blow

If the cat licks her foot

It is sure to snow;

Put your gown or your jacket

On, inside out

You will change your luck

And be put to the route [sic]

If your nose itches

You’ll get vexed till you jump

If your great toe itch

You’ll get a kick in the rump.

If a girl snaps one finger

She’ll have a child it seems

And if she snaps two

She’s sure to have twins;

And if she snaps eight

Nine, ten, or eleven

It’s a chance if she don’t

Have twenty and seven;

If you lay with your head

Underneath the clothes

You’ll have an ugly old man

What has got no nose.

If you see a star shoot

You’ll get what you wish

If a hair gets in your mouth

You’ll get as drunk as a fish;

If your little toe itch

You’ll be lost in a wave

If you shiver there’s somebody

Going over your grave;

If you go under a ladder

You’ll have bad luck and fall

And so say bad luck

Is better than none at all;

So to please outright

I have told you in rhyme

The great superstition

Of the olden time.

Many of these sayings passed into family use although some differed around the country. For example, an itchy palm was said to show money was on the way, but some believe it’s the right hand, while others say: ‘Left hand receive,’ and rub the palm against wood. The explanation for the latter was that the receiver shook hands with the right hand, as they were receiving the ‘gift’ with their left. ‘It works every time,’ admitted one country woman. ‘It might only be a penny found in the street, but it has to be unexpected.’

In recent years, research has show that more and more of these old superstitions have more than a grain of truth in them, or have detected the logic behind the casual warnings. Whether they are fact or fiction, most people have grown up with their use within the family.

Melusine Draco

The Secret People by Melusine Draco is published by Moon Books – ISBN 978 1 78535 444 1 : UK£13.99/US$22.95 : 226 pages : in paperback and e-book format.

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