In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, at the front of the Sympathetic Magic case, 61 a, is a black limestone beach pebble with a string attached through a hole. This ‘lucky stone’ [19808.11.1] once hung behind the cottage door of a William Twizzell, fisherman of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. The hole was made by a burrowing bivalve mollusc called Pholas dactylus, or common ‘piddock’.
The stone was donated in 1908 by the Oxford academic researcher Alexander James Montgomerie Bell, a Miss Humble of Newbiggin, and William Twizell (actuall Twizzell). The stone was one of a number that hung in various places around the cottage. William Twizzell died in 1909, his wife Mary having died in 1907. Newbiggin-by-the-Sea was for centuries a maritime locality of some importance, as a large fishing village, a grain import port, lifeboat station, and eventually seaside resort.
The exhibit is an example of holed stones that have been regarded as magical or sacred since time immemorial. Many were affixed to dwellings, byre or stable doors to keep way witches and pixies, as protection against the evil eye (which they were said to resemble), or as time passed just as good luck charms. These stones are known variously as hagstones, witch stones, holey stones, Holy stones, snake stones, thunderstones, dobbie stones, and in the North East of England sometimes as adderstones.
In days of yore it was common to see such stones hanging above cottage doors, or attached to bedposts to deter ‘nightmare’. Nor was it uncommon for such holed stones to be attached to the bows of rowing boats to keep evil spirits away and protect from the sea.
The fishing families of Newbiggin and the North East are very close-knit and often intermarried, sharing therefore a handful of surnames. A common local fishing family name was Twizzell. Newbiggin fishing folk were a god-fearing people and regularly attended church and chapel. It may seem odd that such devout people would readily keep charms against witchcraft and as a protection against misfortune. Yet it may not be so strange after all.
Newbiggin fishing families regularly lost husbands, fathers and sons to the vagaries of that old grey widow-maker the North Sea and Tyne estuary. It is no wonder then that these hardy, short and sturdy people whose eyes resemble the colour of the sea from whence their livelihood came, kept lucky charms, such as holed stones as an additional recourse to a safer life.