Some Curious Fairy Charms from the Royal Forest of Dean
Rev. L. J. Gallowbridge D. D.
My first recollection of becoming aware of the charms peculiar to the locality comes from shortly after being newly installed in the Parish of Newland in the Royal Forest of Dean.
I was reading a sermon on the efficacy calling upon the divine creator when in perilous straights, (giving as example the Israelites being pursued by the chariots of Pharaoh, while attempting to exit Egypt via the Red Sea). I could not but notice that a number of my congregation, those of more immature years, to be precise, who appeared to be somewhat distracted from my salient missive. Their attention was wholly absorbed by something beyond my ability to perceive from my position in the pulpit.
At the conclusion of the service I contrived to intercept the children on their departure from the church yard. When I demanded of them just what they had found so absorbing, they were at first reticent to divulge, but after reminding them of the eternal consequences facing those who turn their backs on the word of our lord, they relented and, with some reluctance, and shuffling of feet, each proffered a example of the most curious rustic token.
Each held in their hand a small wooden disk. Some of a rough circular shape, others more ovaloid, (presumably cut from the limb of some local tree,) from each of which peered a face. These diminutive portraits, (for I later learned that they were indeed painted from living creatures) looked out with all manner of comical, and outlandish expression. Some grimaced as if afflicted with a tooth ache of gargantuan proportions, others winked as one with the knowledge of a previously considered unknown secret. Others however had the calm and reverent countenance of the elders of old.
While I could not approve of the children’s earlier distraction, I could not ignore the skill and accomplishment of the unknown artists displayed by these miniature forms.
I determined to resolve the matter and disciplined the assembled miscreants by confiscating the silent initiators of their recent juvenile transgression.
The following day I had time to review my newly acquired collection of tokens. Laying them out on the desk in my study, there were nine of them in total. Again I found myself marvelling at their charm. Generally, they were similar in form but different in detail and condition. Some showed signs of age while others were in pristine state. In every case the artist had exquisitely captured the expressive nuances of the sitter. Each piece bore the image of an individual face, and as I looked on them more closely I began to perceive that these diminutive images were not human at all, but the inhabitants of the Fairie realm.
I reflected upon the implications of this unexpected realisation and resolved to discover more about these singular objects. I immediately sought out my housekeeper Mrs. Markey, and enquired if she might have any knowledge of them.
Her reply was a most unexpected revelation. I was informed that the small wooden objects were commonplace throughout the district, being considered to be powerful talismans of good fortune. They were known to protect the carrier from being ‘taken’. A curious term, I thought, and on being asked to explain further, she added, in an barely audible voice, ‘by the little folk’. After that statement she continued about her business, and would say no more on the matter.
I found that my interest in these objects growing, and wondered how I might learn more about them.
Later in the day, while walking in the garden, I came upon old Armitage deadheading the rose bush in the shade of the green house. A man of indeterminate but undoubtedly advanced years, and I deemed, the perfect individual to enlighten me further on the matter of the subject of my enquiry.
I was not mistaken.
I sat and listened to his deep forester’s voice, while he provoked unexpected volumes of gray-white smoke from the ancient incinerator he used in place of a tobacco pipe. He had known the ‘bogle-clocks’, as he termed them, since early childhood. “Folks thought ‘em be lucky,” he said, and spoke of his mother pushing one deeply into his pocket, before allowing him to set out of the house. To ‘keep the goblins at bay’, he recalled. All his friends carried them, sometimes more than one at a time, in their pockets, or knapsacks. He even knew a lad who’s mother would stitch them into his clothing.
The ‘bogle-clocks’, he informed me, would be passed down through families, often being gifts at the birth of a new child. If none were forthcoming within the family, a substitute would be sought from a neighbour. And while they were highly valued, they were never sold, but given in exchange for a penny.
He told me a story of a young lad, of his acquaintance, who had been taken by the goblins, and was discovered some days later, by a gamekeeper, wondering in a bewildered, almost somnambulant state, amongst nearby ruins.
When I enquired if he had one of his own. He answered with a laugh, saying that he ‘didn’t hold with such nonsense!’ Then he reached into his waistcoat pocket, producing what could be the most perfect example I ever seen, and added, ‘Better safe than sorry.’
The ‘bogle-clock’ he held in his hand was roughly circular about two inches across and perhaps a third of an inch in depth. It surface was smoothed with age, and had the patina of a well used banister, or newel post. While the reverse was left plane and undecorated, displaying the natural growth rings of the tree from whence it came. The obverse was decorated with the splendid dark-eyed countenance of an aged, and wise man. At least I would have taken him for a man, had not the tops of his ears been distinctly pointed. Clearly a fairy portrate if ever I saw one.
“’Ad it since I wer’ born.” said Armitage, “An’ it wor m’father’s, an’is father’s afore ’im. Bin in m’family fer long’r than any can recall.”
I enquired regarding their manufacture, saying that I should like to meet an artisan who painted such portraits. It being in my mind that a present day maker would be able to tell me more of their history.
Armitage informed me that he had never heard of anyone ever making them, adding that they could be found unexpectedly under bushes, or at the back of seldom used drawers, but no one made them.
With that he stuffed his pipe into his pocket, and went of to address the wisteria around the porch.
A few days later I came across Armitage in the rectory kitchen drinking tea with Mrs. Markey. He suggested that I “may’st do wurs th’n enquirer about th’ matter o’the bogle-clocks” with a Mrs. E. Hayward of Pembroke Street, Cinderford.
Thanking him warmly for this new information, I resolved make time to visit Cinderford at the earliest opportunity.
From The Gloucestershire Antiquarian, vol. 31, 1894.