Hobnobbing with the Hobs

My first published article in the Fortean Times came as the result of Worms, Witches and Boggarts, a radio documentary that I made for BBC Tees in 2014, investigating some of the stranger little corners of traditional North-Eastern folklore. A tweet ahead of the programme’s broadcast led to the magazine’s editor, David Sutton, inviting me to contribute an article about “hobs”, the mischievious, hobbit-like figures of the North York Moors, to the FT’s Forum section. Since then, the feature has been adapted into a talk, which I’ve been delighted to give at the Weird Weekend North conference, as well as Hartlepool Folk Festival, Whitby Musicport Festival, the Pint of Science festival, and ar a folklore season at Middlesbrough Central Library. I’m always happy to take it on the road, if anyone is in the market for a very real hairy, short-arsed Northern man talking enthusiastically about his more mystical ancestors.

From the Fortean Times issue 330, dated August 2015, here’s the article in full…

HOBNOBBING WITH THE HOBS

Bob Fischer wonders whether North Yorkshire is falling back in love with its mystical, moorland hobs…

I’ve spent pretty much my entire life wandering idly around the rugged idyll of the North York Moors, but had never heard of the legends of the local hobs until 2010. Which seems odd, as they’d been around for a long time by then. Possibly – as we’ll discover – over 1000 years. And, to boot, I was brought up in the 1970s, when it seemed almost compulsory for primary-school age children to be steeped in all manner of rustic oddness as part of their daily education. So how did I manage to read The Hobbit at the age of eight without anyone telling me that my favourite moorland walks were filled with their own breed of dwarf-like, mischievous, hairy-footed men with a tendency to lurk around simple farming communities?

It took the chance discovery of a distinctive marker stone on windswept Gisborough Moor (O.S. Ref. NZ 646 124, if you’re that way inclined) to bring these enigmatic creatures to my attention. Carved into the stone is the legend ‘Hob On The Hill’ and – on the other side – the date 1798. It was the beginning of my ongoing fascination with these mercurial beasties. Many of whom, as documented in Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson’s folklore bible The Lore of the Land, were as domesticated as their literary near-namesakes:  

‘In Yorkshire, notable hob territory, they included spirits who “lived in” and did household chores… and some who, like the hobman of Marske-on-Sea, lived outside human society and safeguarded the community’.

Tales abound of hobs attaching themselves to remote Yorkshire farms, merrily threshing corn in barns overnight for no reward other than a bowl of milk, and becoming mortally offended – usually never returning – if farmers attempted to repay their efforts with labourers’ clothing to cover their customary nakedness. Although other hobs were more mischievous in their intent; indeed, one tale – referred to widely as the ‘Ay, we’re flitting’ story – tells of a household hob so disruptive that the family attempted to move house in order to escape him. It’s a story that Ryedale Folk Museum, an idyllic miniature village of pre-industrialised Yorkshire nestling in a nook of Farndale, has now claimed as its own, applying it to the dale’s resident hob, Elphi. The story is told in a pamphlet available in the museum…

‘The hens stopped laying. The milk turned sour. The butter wouldn’t churn no matter how long the wife turned it… the family decided they would have to leave and try their luck on another farm. They made all the arrangements and loaded their furniture and belongings onto the cart ready to go to their new home. By the gate, a neighbour passes and asked “Now then, is tha flitting?” Before the farmer could answer, a voice came from the depths of the cart. “Aye, we’re flitting”. They looked in horror, there was Elphi, the hob, going with them’.

So when did these tales begin to circulate? Clearly by 1798, belief in hobs was widespread enough for the stone on Gisborough Moor to bear their name. But it seems that their influence had been deeply felt in the region for many centuries before that. In his evocative 1891 book Forty Years in a Moorland Parish: Reminiscences and Researches in Danby in Cleveland, the Rev J.C. Atkinson recalls his visit to an elderly, female parishioner who regaled him with the couplet:

Gin Hob mun hoe nowght but a hardin’ hamp
He’ll come nae mair, nowther to berry nor stamp.

Baffled? Don’t worry, so was Canon Atkinson, because – despite appearances – not all of this archaic dialect belongs to North Yorkshire folk-speech. It’s essentially another warning not to offend your resident hob by leaving him work clothes, but the words ‘berry’ (meaning to thresh) and ‘hamp’ (a peasant’s smock), reports Canon Atkinson, ‘had no actual meaning to the old dame who repeated the rhyme to me’, concluding that ‘the word (hamp) seems to be clearly Old Danish in form and origin’.

He was left in no doubt that his older parishioners, even on the cusp of the 20th century, firmly believed in the veracity of stories whose telling, he implies, had been equally relished by Scandinavian invaders over a thousand years earlier. ‘It was impossible to doubt for a moment her perfect good faith’, he writes. ‘She told all with the most utter simplicity, and the most evident conviction that what she was telling was matter of faith, and not at all the flimsy structure of fancy or of fable’.

In March 2015, Tees Archaeology‘s Peter Rowe met me in his Hartlepool office, and cited the descriptive nature of names like ‘Hob on the Hill’ as further evidence of a Danish influence. ‘The Anglo-Saxons, and the Scandinavians after them, were very keen on descriptive place names,’ he told me, ‘and you pick that up in a lot of local places. So “Hob on the Hill” is a hill, and it’s associated with the folklore of hobgoblins. There’s nowhere that you’ll see this written down in the history books, as these places weren’t really connected with settlements and nobody was taxing them, but I would say there’s a good chance that the hob place names are Anglo Scandinavian or Anglo Saxon. So we’re talking around 600-900 AD’.

If Peter and the good Canon Atkinson are correct, it appears that widespread belief in the North Yorkshire hobs persisted for at least a millennium. So when did their influence begin to wane? The turn of the 20th century, it seems, was something of a hob watershed, and by 1905, even the once-legendary Elphi was firmly residing in the where-are-they-now file. That year saw the publication of Gordon Home‘s The Evolution of an English Town (the town in question being Pickering), which reported – after discussions with local folklorist Richard Blakeborough, who’d done the legwork – that  ‘after most careful enquiry during the last two years throughout the greater part of Farndale, only one person has been met with who remembered hearing of this once widely known dwarf’.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that by the time I’d started exploring the moors 70 years later, stories of the humble hob had ceased to seen as factual local history and had drifted into the fantasy realms of Tolkien and his ilk.  

But are they making a comeback? I sense a whiff of a hob revival in the air. In 2010, two Teesside artists, AJ Garrett and Rebecca Little of the Peg Powler Art Collective, became so fascinated by these relatively obscure nuggets of folklore that they ran a ‘Mop Top Hob Shop’ in an empty shop unit in Stockton-on-Tees, encouraging local children to draw their own impressions of the local beasties. ‘We couldn’t find anything about them on the internet,’ Rebecca told me, ‘so we went to Middlesbrough Reference Library, and searched through books for hours.’

‘Kids take to it,’ chipped in AJ. ‘They say “So there are these little creatures in the middle of the countryside, and some of them are good and some of them are evil… OK!”, and they just go for it’. AJ and Rebecca still have many of the pictures drawn that day, showing an ingenious variety of hobs sporting horns, fangs, pointed ears and – in one impressive application of artistic licence – what appears to be a stetson.

Then there’s the small matter of Elphi’s second wind. Ryedale Folk Museum now plays host to ‘Elphi’s Trail’, a treasure hunt of hob-related artefacts designed to gently guide younger visitors around the attraction’s exhibits. The museum’s director, Jennifer Smith, followed the trail with me, and I couldn’t help but notice that one of the stopping points, ‘Elphi’s House’, was a tiny cottage whose roof had been constructed from an old hardback edition of Forty Years in a Moorland Parish. It seems Elphi, at least, remains as mischievous as his reputation suggests.

‘It’s a really lovely way to get children to engage with the museum’s collection and the area’s history,’ Jennifer told me. ‘I think museums have got more astute in realising that people are interested in things that you can’t see or touch, so they’re doing more about that intangible heritage, and sharing these stories in all manner of different ways. There is absolutely a resurgence of interest’.

Meanwhile, over on the North Yorkshire coast, professional storyteller Rose Rylands finds that the guests on her regular folklore walks are equally fascinated by tales of the coastal hobs dwelling in the region’s various caves and coves. I met Rose on the windswept beach of Runswick Bay, where a benevolent hob with the power to cure whooping cough lurks in a darkened recess of the cliff face; and we spent an idle afternoon wandering slowly up the coast to Boggle Hole, another renowned hob hotspot.

Rather strangely,’ Rose insisted, ‘I had an e-mail last spring from a gentleman who swore to me that, when he was a child, he was walking down this very stairwell when he saw a man-cum-creature… and he described, exactly, a hob. It ran across the path in front of him. It was there, and it was gone. I have to confess that I haven’t followed up this particular enquiry, but sometimes it’s good to leave a mystery right where it is’.

‘Aye, we’re flitting’? Don’t you believe it.  

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