A Fisherman’s ‘Lucky Stone’ from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland.


Cullercoats Fish Lass (1883) by Winslow Homer.

1.  Introduction

2.  The donors

3.  The folklore of holed stones

4.  Newbiggin-by-the-Sea

5.  The Newbiggin fishing industry

6.  Northumbrian fishing folk

7.  The William’s Twizzell

8.  Afterword


1.  Introduction.

At the front of the Sympathetic Magic Display, case 61a, in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, is a perforated black limestone beach pebble with a string attached through a hole. The museum’s accession book states that this is a “Beach pebble of black limestone bored by a pholas, hung behind a door in the cottage of William Twizel, fisherman, as a ‘lucky stone’.” (Humble, 1908). Apparently several of these stones hung by varous doors of the cottage. The stone comes from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, and was donated in 1908 by a Miss Humble, Alexander James Montgomerie Bell, and William Twizel (actually Twizzell) in 1908. There is no mention of a William Twizel in the 1901 census. However, there were several William Twizzell’s (various spellings) in Newbiggin one being born in 1822 and who died a retired fisherman in 1913. The most likely donor is a William Twizzell who was born circa 1829 or 1830 and who died a retired fisherman in 1909.

Image (268)

2.  The donors

Miss Humble is described as a field collector but little else is known about her. Accession records in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, say she was a resident of Newbiggin. However, the name is fairly common in the north-east and it was not possible to identify her in either the 1891 0r 1901 censuses (england.prm.ox.ac.uk/collector). Much more is known about James Alexander Bell. Born in Edinburgh in 1846 he was an undergraduate at Balliol and matriculated as an Exhibitioner in 1864, gained his BA in 1869 and took his MA in 1871 (Oxford University Alumni 1500-1886). The obituary of Bell describes him as a career academic, teacher and antiquarian, and amateur archaeologists. He worked sometimes as a tutor and had more formal roles as a schoolmaster (Marlborough, Fettes) and college lecturer and examiner (St John’s, and Worcester). Alexander Bell was also known for his work and research on the Wolvercote gravels and deposits near Oxford (Nature, 1920). He died in 1920 aged 74 and his artefact collection was sold to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Alexander Bell lived in 1891 with his wife Anna and children Archibald, Evelyn, Mary, and William at Rawlinson Road in Oxford. At this period he was engaged in private tutoring in classics, geography and geology (RG12. 1166. 87.). The family was still there in 1901 when Alexander held a position of private tutor at a public school (RG13, 1381- 35.). Indeed, Alexander’s son Archibald Colquhoun Bell (born 1886), and who had a long naval career, also became a donor to the Pitt Rivers Museum around 1920 (England.prm.ox.ac.uk/collector).

3.  The folklore of holed stones

The Newbiggin stone “…a pebble of black limestone, bored by a pholas, was hung behind the door of William Twizel’s cottage…” (Ettlinger, 1943). Such holed stones were “…evidently regarded as magical as early as the second millennium B.C., as shown by the excavations at Tell el Ajjul (ancient Gaza)…” (Murray, 1943). As such these stones were deliberately place with three in a room and one in a grave.

The hole in the Newbiggin stone was made by a burrowing bivalve mollusc called Pholas dactylus. Also known as the ‘Common Piddock’ or ‘angelwing’ it is similar to a clam and bores into a range of soft rock sub-strata including chalk, peat, clay, and sandstone (www.marlin.ac.uk/species). This elliptical shaped boring bivalve, which can reach 12 cm in length, is found at everal sites along the east coasts of Northumbria and Yorkshire. It stays in its burrow for its entire eight-year lifespan. It is recognised by its typical whitish colouration and is also known for its bio-luminescence  (wikipedia.org/wki/Pholadidae; www.marlin.ac.uk/spcecies).

Image (269)Pholas dactylus or the Common Piddock.

A naturally holed flint, also in the Pitt Rivers Museum, was “…found attached to a hammered peg, buried beside a brick wall of a workhouse in Thame (Oxon), built in 1836.” (Ettlinger, 1943). Holed stones were therefore built into walls as amulets. A carter called Kimber, and employed by General Pitt Rivers at Rushmore, had one nailed to his door. Another example in the museum is from Northern Ireland whre a holed stone was used as a charm to keep pixies from stealing the milk. Holed stones are known variously as hagstones, witch stones, holey stones, snake stones, thunderstones, dobbie stones, and in the north-east of England sometimes as adder-stones, with geodes referred to as eagle-stones (Simpson, 2000; www.nothernearth.co.uk, 2008).

As can be seen the use of naturally holed stones was widespread in farmyards where “…holed stones were fastened to the hose or byre door…to keep way witches or pixies, or just for good luck.” (Ettlinger, 1943). Naturally holed stones were used as protection against “…unworldly misfortunes from the evil eye (which they might be thought to resemble)…” (www.northernearth.co.uk. 2008). Belief in the protective powers of holes stones was widespread and they were regarded as magical devices to protect both man and beast. Holed stones were attached to cattle stalls, horse stables (where they are often referred to as witch-riding stones), and in Whitby (1894) for example, such stones were tied to front door keys “…to ensure prosperity to the house and its inmates.” A similar post-medieval use was found for prehistoric stones axes. These were used to protect the inhabitants of households and buildings, eith animal or human, from spells and were called ‘witch hammers’. Known to have been used for barns in Durham.

A very early allusion to holed stones was during the 15th century when they were used as charms against nightmares (Opie, 1989), with stones of this type “…sometimes regarded as preventives of bad dreams.” (Murray, 1943). Holed stones were often hung on bed-posts to deter demons, including the night-hag, the night mare, or s succubus (www.weymouth. 2008). It was believed earlier that a “…stone with a hole in it hung at the bed’s head will prevent the nightmare. It is therefore called a Hag Stone from that disorder which is occasioned by a Hag or Witch sitting on the stomach of the part afflicted. It also prevents witches riding horses, for which purpose it is often tied to a stable key.” (Hazlitt, 1905). Hag stones, also called witch stones, fairy stones, eye stones, witch stones, nightmare stones, or occasionally Ephiates Stones, were perforated flints, stones or polished pebbles. In bygone days they were commonly seen hanging above the household doors. In a similar vein hag stones were either carried on one’s person or worn around the neck on a string (Rankine, 2008).

As with Newbiggin-by-the-Sea fishermen, boatmen in Weymouth in 1894, fastened holed stones to the bows of their boats as charms to keep their craft safe. It was “…not uncommon for row boats at Weymouth to have ‘holy stones’ tied to nails or staples in the bows…(Colley-March, 1906). Again, the intention was to keep witches and evil spirits away from the boat, with boat ropes often threaded through beach-holed-stones for the same purpose (www.Weymouth, 2008). As well as holed stones found on a beach others, such as hag stones. were also fastened to the bows of boats to protect them at sea (Rankine, 2008). As one local Weymouth fisherman once ventured, these Holy stones were “…beach pebbles with a natural hole through them…holy through having a hole through them, of for being sacred, or both, I know not.” (Colley-March, 1906).

4.  Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.

Newbiggin-by-the-Sea has been for centuries a maritime locality of some importance, as a large fishing village, a grain import port, lifeboat station, and eventually seaside resort. Situated on a fine and broad bay it was, in the 18th and 19th centuries, a large fishing village on the Northumberland coast (Tomlinson, 1888).


Newbiggin-by-the Sea. Launching the ‘Ada Lewis’ circa 1907.

The village was originally called, in 875, South Wallerick, but after the Danish invasion of that year it was renamed Neubegang or Newbegining (eventually Newbiggin). The port has a long and varied history. An early reference is from 1199 when it is recorded as a toft or homestead.  However, by 1240, it is recognised as a fishing port equal in importance to Newcastle and, as early as 1352, large amounts of corn were being shipped to Newbiggin (Tomlinson, 1888; www.black 2008). Its importance as a port for shipping grain at one time made it only third in importance to London and Hull (www.newbigginbythesea. 2008). Evidence of shipping activities obviously date back to the early 14th century, with the port given its toll authority in 1316. Newbiggin-by-the-Sea is on the coast of Northumberland 15 miles north-east of Newcastle. At Newbiggin point is the church of St Bartholomew


St Bartholomew’s Church (1846) at Newbiggin Point.

built in 1846 to replace the original of the 14th century. It is believed to be the site of a small church that existed before 1174.

It was during the 19th century that the Newbiggin fishing industry went from strength to strength (www.black. 2008), the expansion being due to mid-19th century to first world war herring boom when “…travelling the herring…” became a way of life (Robinson, 1991).In 1885 the population was 717, by 1891 it had risen to 1388, and by 1911 there were 3466 inhabitants. However, the modern size of Newbiggin is a result of the one-time coal mining industry. For what was previously a hive of maritime activity in Newbiggin has become a thriving holiday destination (www.newbigginbythesea. 2008).

5.  The Newbiggin fishing industry

In 1626 there were only 16 fisherman working 4 cobles out of Newbiggin. Yet, in 1831, there were 27 boats which rose to over 140 in 1969 (www.black. 2008).

A coble is a distinctive type of open fishing boat, with flat bottom and high bow that was developed on the coast of north-east England (Robinson, 1991). This type of boat responded well to both sail and oars, and its high bow was required for north sea sailing. The shape of the coble boat was also favourable for launching from a beach into surf. In addition it was ideal for being hauled into shallow sandy beaches from that self-same surf. Cobles were usually launched from the beach using an axled wheel support (Robinson, 1991). Most cobles were crewed by three men and a boy and each boat belonged to a family.


Coble and castle from Lindisfarne Harbour. Photo by Stephen Trainor (2007)

The design of a coble, which used a lug sail at sea, contains relics of Norse influence but also evidence of Dutch origin. Herring was fished for by larger cobles but from 1871 onwards was replaced by open keeled boats called ‘mules’ which operated from 1875 onwards (Robinson, 1991), a known coble was the ‘Sweet Home’, owned by Thomas, William, and John Taylor. A modern coble has a diesel engine, no lug sail, and is launched by tractor. By 1991 only 9 boats were operating out of Newbiggin and they fished mainly for salmon, white fish, shellfish, but line fishing had been abandoned.


Crabbing coble off Filey off north Yorkshire, by Ernest Dade (prior to 1936).

6.  Northumbrian fishing folk

North-east of England fishing families are very close knit and often intermarried and as a result shared a handful of surnames, with families even living in certain areas of Newbiggin (Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 22.1.2005). Indeed, fishing folk in Newbiggin and elsewhere (e.g., Cullercoats) were members of a “…distinctive clan and rarely married outside of it.” (Peacock, 1991). In 1861 there were 21 families called Armstrong within Newbiggin, and everyone of them were fishing folk (communities.northumberalnd.gov.uk, 2008). In Newbiggin common fishing family names included, as well as Armstrong, Robinson, Dawson, Storey, Dent, Renner, Brown, Taylor, Lisle, and Twizzell (Newcastle Eventing Chronicle, 22.1.2005).

The cottages of fishermen, as with those of coal miners, were usually built around squares or in uniform rows. This arrangement of dwellings allowed for the publically carried out domestic routines, including line-baiting by fisherwomen (communities.northumberland.gov.uk. 2008). A fisherman’s cottage, typically, comprised one large room with an open range, a loft storing fishing nets and ropes where the children slept in summer. Prior to fresh water plumbed through in 1911, families obtained their supplies from public wells. Water for domestic chores was from a rain barrel.


Fishermen’s cottages in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea

The role of fisherwomen or ‘fishwives’ was a very important and arduous one. They were indeed the working partners of their menfolk. Within the village the fisherwomen collected limpets and baited lines with them, worked in the local smoke-house, and knitted the woollen ‘gansey’s’ and thick seaboot stockings for their men. In other words fisherwomen played an essential role in the industry, as well as in the sale of the fish.


Fisherwomen, Cullercoats (1881), by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

Prior to the coble putting out to sea the ‘fishwives’ carried the boxes and baskets to the boat, carried between 22 and 26 ballast sand-bags to the boat, and then helped launch the family craft into the sea. When the coble returned from its fishing expedition these fisherwomen – mothers, wives, daughters – assembled on the beach and hauled up the boat onto the sand. They then unloaded the boat, and proceeded to assist in the beach auction of the catch (Robinson, 1991). However, these fisher women had another role and that was the sale of fish within the surrounding district.


On the Beach (1881) by Winslow Homer

The term ‘fish wife’ has, unfortunately, a derogatory meaning attached to it. The archaic meaning is ‘a woman who sells fish’ but another definition (Oxford, 1999) states that a fishwife is “…a coarse-mannered woman who is prone to shouting.” Admittedly some north-east fishwives were “…buxom, ruddy-cheeked ladies who could take their liquor and swear as any first mate in a sailing ship…” (Peacock, 1986), and thus became renowned as “…mistresses of invective…”.  These hard-working fisher lasses were garbed in traditional pleated skirts and apron, as well as an over-cloak and knitted shawl. Their costume that resembled a kind of seafaring appearance “…consisted of a heavy blue serge skirt, blouse and cowl of the same material, and the suggestion of a sailors collar at the back, terminating with thick woollen stockings and ‘stout boots’.” (Peacock, 1986). They carried  their fish in creels – woven wicker baskets carried on their backs – throughout the neighbouring district. On occasion they visited all the ale-houses found on their way back and often had to be assisted home to Newbiggin.


Newbiggin fisherfolk

Over time the role of these fisherwomen changed. The last Newbiggin woman to carry the creel was Mrs Mary Hunter (nee Twizzell) who died in 1979. The last actual fisher lass who hawked fish using a mobile van was Mrs Mary Robinson (nee Armstrong) who died in 1987 (Robinson, 1991). One fishwife of note was Annie Twizzell, who may have been related to our William Twizzell, and who was married into the Newbiggin Dent family.

An episode in the history of Cullercoats fishing folk was the lifeboat saga during the loss of the coal brig called the Lovely Nelly in 1861. The Cullercoats lifeboat called ‘The Percy’ was alerted about the brig being driven to disaster on the coast at Brier Dene on January 1st. The lifeboat was dragged overland, though a blizzard, by six horses and local women and fishermen. After launching the boat and its crew fought through raging seas and rescued the stricken crew of the vessel. Only the cabin boy was failed to be saved. The heroic episode was immortalised in the painting of 1910 by Winslow Homer called ‘The Women’.


The Women (1910).  By Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

Much of the life of this fishing community was bounded by tragedy. Newbiggin fishing families regularly lost husbands, fathers and sons to the vagaries and dangers of Rudyard Kipling’s the ‘old grey widowmaker’ – the north-east coast and the North Sea. Many ship and boat losses were due to the carnage caused by the local north shore Black Middens and the Tyne estuary Herd Sands (communities.northumberland.gov.uk. 2008). For example in 1915 several men of the Brown and Taylor families were lost at sea – one of the coble’s in which they sailed and did not return was called the Mary Twizzell. Previously, in 1904, six husbands and a son were lost – a John Dent and six of the Armstrong family.

7.  The William’s Twizzell

A number of William Twizzell’s (spelt variously Twizel, Twisel, Twissell, or Twizzell) were living contemporaneously in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea between 1822 and 1913. One William was born in 1822 and died a retired fisherman in 1913 (Death Index, 1913). This individual is probably not the William Twizzell who’s ‘holed stone’ is in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, however a brief survey of censuses sheds light on the fishing community of Newbiggin.

This William Twizzell was born in Newbiggin in 1922 and is first recorded, as a fisherman aged 19, in the census of 1841 (HO107a, 1841). In 1851 (HO107, 1851) he is still a fisherman living in the ‘village’ of Newbiggin with his mother and brother. By 1861 (RG9 1861) they are resident in Main Street sharing a cottage with his sister and the member of the Brown family she had married. Their neighbours at this time were other Twizzell’s, Brown’s, Dent’s and Oliver’s (a Mary Oliver later married the William Twizzell whose artefact is in the Pitt Rivers Museum. In 1871 William was living in Vernon Place with his brother, sister Isabella Brown, and two nephews (RG10a. 1871). Their neighbours were still other Twizzell’s and Brown’s plus Dent’s and Oliver’s. By 1891 William was still at Vernon Place and still working as a fisherman aged 69 with the Brown’s (RG12b. 1891). By now the neighbours, apart from the Dent’s were other traditional fishing families such as the Armstrong’s, Morton’s, and Storey’s. This brief outline shows the nature of the local fishing community and the closeness of the families associated with it, including a William Twizzell whose wife was originally Ann Taylor.

The most likely owner of the donated ‘lucky stone’ is another William Twizzell whose life fits in with the conation history of the stone. Born in Newbiggin around 1829 to 1830 this William was recorded in 1841 (HO1017b. 1941) as a Twizell (note single z spelling) aged 10 and working as a fisherman (or fisherman’s boy). Still a fisherman in 1861 (RG9b. 1861), aged 30 and living with his mother and two daughters, in Main Street with the Storey’s, Armstrong’s and Renner’s for neighbours. All were fishing families. In 1881 (RG10b. 1881) William Twissell (now with two s’s) was living in Prospect Place with his wife Mary, two sons, two daughters (ne called Hannah Brown), and a granddaughter also called Hannah Brown aged 9 days. Neighbours included the Storey’s. William Twizzell had married Mary Oliver (born 1834) in 1861 (PRO, 1861) and she died in 1907 aged about 72. In 1901 William and Mary were living by themselves in their Prospect Place cottage where he was described as a retired fisherman. Times had changed by then. William still had some Armstrong’s as neighbours but his other neighbours, without traditional fishing community names, were now coal miners rather than fisherman. Both employments ironically were concerned with making a living out of the deeps. William died some two years after Mary aged 79, and his death was registered in Morpeth in 1909 (Death Index, 1909).

8.  Afterword

It can be seen that William Twizzell (born in 1830) had his name spelt differently in different censuses, and this explains the disparity of the name Twizel in the Accession Notes of the Pitt Rivers Museum. It seems that his death, and that of his wife Mary, suggests how the ‘holed stone’ in the museum came to be donated in 1908. The sequence of events may explain the journey that William Twizzell’s ‘lucky stone’ took from the door of his cottage in Prospect Place, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, to Case 61a in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

The people of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea were a god-fearing people and regularly attended services. Many of the fishermen and their families were of deeply religious persuasion and ardent supporters of either chapel or church and often “…the men were lay preachers…” (Peacock, 1986). It may seem odd that such a devout people would readily keep charms against witchcraft and as a protection against misfortune. It is no wonder that these hardy, short and sturdy people kept lucky charms, such as holed stones, as an additional recourse to a safer life. Newbiggin fishing families with their “…slatey blue eyes, the colour of the sea in front of their cottages…” (Peacock, 1986) from whence their livelihood as well as their sorrow came, also preserved their ancient Northumbrian dialect.

A dialect which owes its origins to a language spoken by Angle mercenaries from southern Denmark in the 5th century AD, and which was the forebear of much of modern English (Arnold, 2008). The dialects of north-eastern England (including ‘Geordie’, Northumbrian, and ‘pitmatic’) still retain features no longer to be found in modern English, and possessing a vocabulary not found elsewhere. The Venerable Bede of Jarrow, circa 672-735 AD, wold have understood the meaning of many words still current in Northumbria (including Newbiggin) and Newcastle and Tyneside, because today (see: www.northeasternengland.talktalk.net/GeordieOrigins) “…the only part of England where the original Anglo-Saxon has survived is in the north-east.” Bearing this in mind it is not surprising that ancient superstitions should also linger in communities that preserve so much of the past. In many respects it is the whole of the background to William Twizzell’s ‘lucky stone’ that needs to be considered. True, it does not look much but, for a long time, such stones meant a lot to a lot of people a lot of the time.

This article is an updated and illustrated version of the original printed on line as a contribution to the England: The Other Within Project of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford in July 2009.

References and sources consulted

Arnold, P. J.  Northumbria was here first.  Newcastle Journal. 4.11.2008.

Colley-March, Dr H.  ‘Witched fishing boats in Dorset.’  In: Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries. X, 49-50. 1906.

communities.northumberland.gov.uk.  2008.

Death Index. 1909 Public Records Office, PRO vol 10b, page 286.

Death Index. 1913. Public Records Office. PRO, vol 106, page 479.

England.prm.ox.ac/collector (2008).

Ettlinger, H.  Documents of British Superstition in Oxford.  Folklore, March 1943.

Hazlitt, W. C.  Brand’s Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Faiths and Folklore. London (1905).

HO107a.  Public Records Office, Piece 836, Book 18 (1841).

HO107b.  Public Records office, Piece 836, Folio 18, (1841).

HO107.  Public Records Office, Piece 2418, Folio 485, 1851.

Humble,Miss.  Accession Book entry per A. M. Bell esq. February 10th, 1908.

Murray, M. A.  Folklore.  May, 1943.

Nature.  105.  August, 1920.

Newcastle Evening Chronicle.  22nd January, 2005.

Opie, I. & Tatem, M.  A Dictionary of Superstitions.  OUP. 1989.

Peacock, B.  A Newcastle Boyhood 1898-1914.  Newcastle upon Tyne Libraries, 1986.

Oxford Concise Dictionary, 10th edition.  1999.

Oxford University Alumni 1500-1886.  biblio.tu-bs.de/cgibin.

PRO.  1861.  Public Records Office, Jan-Mar qtr, vol 10b, p142 (1861).

Rankine, D.  Crystals: Healing and Folklore.  Capall Bann. Cited in: http://www.ladyofthehearth.com.

RG9a.  3875.68.  Public Records office. England census, 1861.

RG9b.  3875.32.  Public Records office. England census, 1861.

RG10a.  5168.68.  Public Records Office. England census, 1871.

RG10b. 5168.88. Public Records Office. England census, 1871.

RG12a.  166.87.  Public Records Office. England census, 1891.

RG12b. 4260. 100. Public Records Office. England census. 1891.

RG13. 1381.35. Public Records Office. England census. 1901.

Robinson, J.  Newbiggin by the Sea: a fishing community.  Northumberland County Library, 1991.

Simpson, J. & Roud, S.  A Dictionary of English Folklore.  OUP, 2000.

Tomlinson, W. W.  Guide to Northumberland. 1888.

www.black.uk.net/places/northumberland/newbiggin.  2008.

www.marlin.ac.uk/species.  2008.

www.newbigginbythesea.co.uk/history.  2008.

www.northeasternengland.talktalk.net/Geordieorigins.  2008.

www.northernearth.co.uk.  2008.

www.weymouth.gov.uk.  2008.


Filed under Volume 2

2 responses to “A Fisherman’s ‘Lucky Stone’ from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland.

  1. I am an astrologer and several horoscope websites online. My main role is matching kundali online. I have many clients who need my services with remedies. I want to know can you provide the desired lucky stone to my clients over India. What would be rates and if you have some pdf document of rate list, please share.

    I am waiting for your feedback.

Discussion & Comment Welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s