INTRODUCTION: Homespun Religion
Superstitions once inhabited every corner of many old-fashioned homes – especially in Hull, once the greatest deep-sea fishing port in the world. Taboo beliefs were not just a once-a-week activity but saturated every moment; and every nook and cranny of the home. In that sense, superstition was very much a homespun religion. It came from within the home rather than being imposed upon it by some outside religious order.
This article follows an imaginary walk through a traditional family home. That is, from the front doorstep up to the bedroom, and even the chimney-stack had its sacred signs attached to it. Many families of Hull unwittingly kept superstitions alive in the domestic magic of their daily routine.
I wish to convey a wide range of good-and-bad luck beliefs that occurred in some households on some occasions. I am not suggesting for one moment that everybody who lived in our port performed every one of these rituals every day. The rituals are the ones I have been told about over years of interviewing and researching this topic. In essence, it is a fun meander through a pre-1950s family home.
There are certainly tons of taboo objects to cram into this imaginary house. The only way to squeeze them all in is to present them in list form under key headings as we move from room to room. Equally, this is not the place for a detailed explanation of where the omens originated. For that, please consult my book SUPERSTITIONS: Folk Magic in Hull’s Fishing Community – https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00EWOBIJM.
MOVING HOUSE: Friday Flit / Short Sit
Even before setting foot in a new home, taboos paved the way. Friday was the unluckiest day of the week to flit from one house to another. One ditty went “Friday flit / Short sit”. Neighbours sometimes brought lucky symbolic gifts to welcome a new family into their street. Some items included: lump of coal, slice of bread, piece of wood, bag of salt – each with its own symbolic meaning. An unlucky omen was the No.13 on the front door.
THRESHOLD TABOOS: First Footing
The front door is a symbolic threshold when stepping between the outer public and inner private worlds. Threshold rituals were especially observed in Scotland with first footing on New Year’s Day (Hogmanay). Carrying a new bride over the threshold on the honeymoon is a strong superstition. The belief goes: Whoever first sets foot over the threshold after the wedding will be the boss within their marriage! By carrying his bride, the husband ensures that he will be the boss within the marriage. Is that true ladies?
Visitors who enter by one door must leave the same way. Anyone returning home unexpectedly must sit down and count to ten before leaving again.
Dropped front-door keys were an ill omen. Bad luck is averted by stepping upon the keys before picking them up. I once saw a teenage lad dashing across a busy Greenwood Avenue.
He dropped his keys and suddenly stopped – in the middle of heavy traffic – to step on the keys before picking them up – thus, endangering his life even more. Needless to say, he survived and got to the other side.
If going indoors with an umbrella, it must be folded up. It is believed to be very unlucky to have an umbrella up inside the house. An Irish lady once told me that “the roof will fall in“. I suspect that the inverted logic is that an umbrella protects one outside and the roof protects the occupants inside – who knows!
HEARTH of the HOME: Fire Magic
Once safely indoors, there is still no shelter from superstitions. A central homely focus was the fire-place. It was at the heart of the traditional home – a sort of ‘domestic shrine’.
Sparks shooting into the room were a form of fortune telling – depending upon the shape of the flying ember: a circle-shaped spark stood for a cradle and foretold the arrival of a baby in the family; oblong stood for a coffin, especially if it popped out of the grate silently; square shapes meant a letter would soon arrive in the post; and a ship-shape predicted a trawler tragedy.
One mother told her children, upon seeing a jet of hissing white steam from a piece of black coal, “Look, your dad’s ship is steaming up and getting ready to sail home“.
A flake of black soot on the grate signified that a stranger was due to call.
ANIMAL MAGIC: Domestic Divinities
Black cats had nine lives so were lucky in the home. Some trawlermen took the family cat with them for a three-week trip to the Arctic waters – a form of travel insurance! Auspicious birds accidentally falling down the chimney into the living room was an ominous sign of a death in the family.
I am, however, saving animal superstitions for a future issue of The Hull Hub – so I will not say any more about animal magic.
FOOD MAGIC: “The Table is Our Church”
Beattie Ware (former Lord Mayor of Hull) told me about her superstitious mum Sarah Eccles (née Fisher) who brought eight girls into this world. When seated for a meal mum often said, “The table is our church“. Sarah taught her children that you could speak to God or Jesus in your own home. You did not need to attend a special place of worship to get in touch with the spiritual dimension.
THE TABLE: New Shoes!
A family will go hungry if anyone sits on the table. They will “want for dough“. New shoes on the table offends its role in feeding the family. An Irish belief is that shoes on the table “will walk away with your luck“. One might believe that old shoes would be more unhealthy and unlucky than new ones, but that is the inverse logic of many superstitions.
BREAD: Staff of Life
Loaves baked on Good Friday, Passover or Christmas Day were lucky.
A bread crust was sometimes placed in a man’s sea-bag at the start of each trip. A cut loaf must not be up-ended on a breadboard for fear that it mimicked a sinking ship. Never throw bread on the fire or you will “Feed the Devil”.
SALT of the EARTH
A Yorkshire expression goes: “For every grain of salt spilt, a tear will fall“. Tears and the sea both contain salt. Spilled salt must be thrown over our LEFT shoulder into the Devil’s eyes to blind him so that he cannot play havoc in your life. In paintings of The Last Supper, Judas is sometimes depicted near a spilt salt cellar.
Never pass the salt-pot at sea – it must be placed down upon the table first. “Salt” is also a taboo word at sea. Instead, the cumbersome phrase “White stuff not put in tea” was used.
EGGS: Chuckle berries
Egg Magic rates very high in the world of folklore. The obvious link being with fertility. Thus, there was bound to be domestic taboos around chuckie eggs. A double yolk in the frying pan was a sign of good fortune to come.
The big question, however, is “Did you smash your empty egg shell up when you finished eating a boiled egg? If so, why?” The answer lies in the following poem by Elizabeth Fleming (1934) called Eggshells:
Oh, never leave your eggshells unbroken in the cup;
Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up,
For witches come and find them and sail away to sea,
And make a lot of misery for mariners like me.
They take them to the seashore and set them on the tide –
A broomstick for a paddle is all they have to guide –
And off they go to China or round the ports of Spain,
To try and keep our sailing ships from coming home again.
They call up all the tempests from Davy Jones’s store,
And blow us into waters where we haven’t been before;
And when the masts are falling in splinters on the wrecks,
The witches climb the rigging and dance upon the decks.
So never leave your eggshells unbroken in the cup;
Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up;
For witches come and find them and sail away to sea,
And make a lot of misery for mariners like me
For the trawlermen at sea the word ‘EGG‘ was never uttered. Instead they referred to it as a Roundabout or Chuckle berry.
TEA DRINKING: I’ll be Mother
Tea drinking is steeped in superstition. Who pours? A woman says, “I’ll be Mother” to prevent other women around the table from becoming pregnant and having red-haired twins. Bubbles floating in a teacup foretold of either love or money. There are numerous other tea-centred beliefs, but I’ll leave them for now.
CUTLERY: Crossed Knives
Still around the kitchen table, cutlery now takes centre stage. Crossed knives means a quarrel. Removing the lower one first, however, avoids an argument. “Drop a spoon / A visitor soon“. Dropped cutlery foretold who would call at the house: a knife meant a male caller; a fork a woman; and a spoon indicated that a child was on its way (someone in the family was pregnant).
Two spoons in the same cup forecast a wedding. Perhaps omens were a form of ‘fake news’ long before social media.
LADDERS: Never Walk Under
Stepping into the backyard we might see some ladders. A ladder propped against a wall forms the shape of a triangle; which in turn symbolizes The Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost. As a mere mortal, one must never walk through the sacred symbol of the holy triangle.
STAIRS: Never Cross
Now let’s venture upstairs. It is unlucky to cross another person coming the other way. If the first of two people walking upstairs trip, it is the sign of a wedding. Obviously, it was bad luck to trip going down the stairs. This definitely forecast a visit to the local hospital with broken bones!
BEDROOM: Feet Pointing to the Door
Beds must be aligned with floorboards to ensure a good night’s sleep. Feet must point toward the door. I am not sure why; perhaps it is to help the undertakers remove the body feet first – especially after rigor mortis has set in. I am told that in Robin Hood’s Bay, some of the houses are so small, the coffins have to be lowered out of the window.
A mattress must never be turned on a Sunday. Pillowcases are best pointed outwards to allow nightmares an escape route during the night. A diamond-shaped crease in the middle of a bed sheet was a sign of a death in the family.
DECOR: The Green Taboo
Green decor was very unlucky. It was avoided in furniture, wallpaper, curtains, materials, paintwork, or garments. “If a girl wore a green dress, she’d never wear it out“.
Car salerooms rarely stock a green vehicle because it will not sell in Hull. The manager at Halford’s Bike Shop on Hessle Road was told off for never selling any green-coloured bikes. Wool shops avoid this colour, especially for baby clothes.
Pearls and seashells were also avoided in home decorations: “If you take something precious from the sea, the sea will take someone precious from you“.
BROKEN MIRROR: Seven Years Bad Luck
A broken mirror results in seven years bad luck. Bed sheets were draped over mirrors during thunderstorms or when a corpse lay in the room. Never stare into a mirror for too long or the Devil will grin back at you. The mirror reflects our soul or spirit. So it is unlucky to break this fragile image. Equally, pictures falling in the dead of night meant a death was imminent.
WINDOW: Moon Magic
Never look at a new moon through a window pane. Turn your money over upon first seeing a new moon.
ROOF: Sooty Sweep at Wedding
The chimney-stack is associated with good luck. Meeting a sweep is very lucky for a newly married couple. Princess Elizabeth shook hands with a sweep prior to her marriage in November 1947. These days, sweeps make more money from weddings than actually sweeping chimneys. A good omen is to see a sweep’s brush pop out of the top of the pot. Abundance is associated with Father Christmas who clambers down the chimney – bearing gifts for young children.
Today we live in the Age of Science – not superstition. But there is a need to draw a distinction between them. Science is strong when dealing with certainty. Superstition is strong when dealing with uncertainty. By predicting the future, science tries to control our fate. But tomorrow never knows what will happen. Mother Nature and climate chaos might create a very uncertain future. There might then be a time when our primitive irrational thinking comes to the fore as part of humanities survival kit with its homely superstitions.