Tiddy Mun: The Vengeful Spirit of the Ancholme Marsh

Study a map from the 19th century and the old settlements of North Lincolnshire follow the high ground. Chains of Old Norse homesteads stretch in a chain across ancient ridges, and the market town of Brigg (from the Old Norse “bryggja”, meaning ‘jetty’) marked narrow point in the sodden marshland that spilled out from the banks of River Ancholme.

Once called the Lincolnshire Carrs (from the Old Norse “kjarr”, meaning ‘swamp’), this isolated wetland in the shadow of the rolling Humber marked the southern boundaries of the Anglo-Norse world of the Danelaw, leaving their place names, dialect words and log boats behind them, and the boundaries between the world of spirit and the world of men.

These dark lonely waters drew hermits, Anchorites, and the Gilbertine priory of Newstead on Ancholme, and birthed tales of dead men’s voices and cold sepulchral fingers grasping at the ankles of the unwary, dancing will o’ the wisps leading travellers to their deaths, witches who rode blackened branches, and – in the words of folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs (1898-1980) – “queer, primeval, dangerous spirits, breathing pestilence.”

According to a tale recorded by the folklorist and novelist Marie Clothilde Balfour (1862-1931) in Legends of the Carrs (1891), when the Carrs were drained to reclaim marshland for farming, cows grew sick and died, milk curled, ponies became lame, and walls collapsed in.

The date of this blight is difficult to place. The Carrs were first drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th century, and in further grand feats of ingenuity in 1767, and in 1825, and for Balfour’s storyteller who may have been a young girl at the time of the 1825 drainage, the three phases may have become one, mottled with older tales of the Dutchmen to create a sense of more recent trauma.

Tiddy Mun had once protected the Carr-dwellers from floods, but now his sacred soil and swamp had been violated. His fury was as unstoppable and insidious as the treacherous swell that had once been his demesne.

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An illustration of a spectre in a marsh, by Irving Montagu (1893)

Tiddy Mun dwelt deep in the green water of the Carrs, venturing out only when the mists gathered and cloaked his passage. He controlled the rise and fall of the waters, and were he not appeased, disease and ruin. He appeared as an old man with mottled white beard, a limp, and a laugh like the hollow cry of the lapwing.

‘Twor sort o’ shivery like when tha set round tha fire, to hear the screechin’ laugh out by the door, passin’ in a skirl o’ wind an’ watter ; still tha only pulled in a bit nigher together, an’ lispit wi’ a keek ower tha shouther, ” ‘Arken to Tiddy Mun!”

It was sort of shivery when you sat around the fire, to hear the screeching laugh out by the door, passing in a shriek of wind and water; still you only pulled in a bit nearer together, and listened with a peep over your shoulder, “Listen to Tiddy Mun!”

The Carr-folk would implore him to protect them from flooding, and – according to Balfour – were so fearful of his anger that they extended no aid to the Dutchmen, offered them no food or drink, nor let them cross their thresholds.

As far as they were concerned the fears were soon justified and Balfour’s elderly storyteller recalled an old rhyme:

“Tiddy Mun, wi-out a name
White heed, walkin’ lame;
While tha watter teems tha fen
Tiddy Mun ‘ll harm nane.”

“Little Man, without a name
White head, walking lame;
While the water teems the fen
Little Man will harm none.”

The tale goes that the first Dutchmen to tame the fen were spirited away and drowned in the deep, dark bogholes where their bodies were never recovered. However, this great feat of engineered prosperity could not be so easily halted – in 1635 the New River sprung up alongside the meandering old one that had once fed the marsh – and Tiddy Mun’s vengeance grew indiscriminate in response.

As the livestock ailed, babies grew sick, and crops failed, the Carr-folk refused to believe Tiddy Mun was responsible and turned on local women believed to be witches, and “said ‘Our Father’ backwards and spat to the east” to ward off the marsh’s more mischievous boggarts, the todlowries.

John_Sell_Cotman_-_Drainage_Mills_in_the_Fens,_Croyland,_Lincolnshire_-_Google_Art_Project

Drainage Mills in the Fens, Croyland, Lincolnshire (circa 1835) by John Sell Cotman, showing the wetland in the south of the county

When all of this was to naught, the Carr-folk knew in their hearts that Tiddy Mun was responsible and in sheer desperation hoped that a gesture of returning the water that had been stolen would convince him that they had no part in the clearing of the fen.

Tha corned i’ threes an’ fowers, joompin’ at ivery sough o’ wind, an’ screechin’ at ivery snag […] every one wi’ a stoup o’ fresh watter in ‘s hand; an’ whiles it darkened, tha stood a’ togithur, lispin’ an’ flusterin’, keekin’ i’ tha shades ower tha shouthers, an’ ‘arkenin’ oneasy-like to tha skirlin’ o’ tha wind, an’ tha lip-lap o’ tha rinnin’ watter. Come tha darklins at long last, an’ tha stood all on ’em at tha dyke-edge, an’ lookin ower to tha new River, tha ca’d out a’ togither, stra’ange an’ loud, “Tiddy Mun, wi-out a name, Here’s watter for thee, tak’ tha spell undone!” an’ tha teemed tha watter out o’ tha stoups in tha dyke splash sploppert!

They came in threes and fours, jumping at every sound of the wind, and crying out at every branch […] every one with a cup of fresh water in their hand; and while it grew dark, they stood all together, listening in excitement, peering into the shadows over their shoulders, and listening uneasily to the howling of the wind, and the lap of the running water. Come the night at long last, and they all stood on the edge of the dyke, looking over to the New River, they called out together, strange and loud, “Little Man, without a name, here’s water for you, take your spell undone!” and they poured the water out of the cups into the dyke.

At first only silence greeted their rite, but then the darkness around them erupted with wailing and moaning of the dead children, pleading like their living kin for Tiddy Mun to undo his curse.

This harrowing aside, unexplained in Balfour’s text, most likely refers to the folk belief that marsh lights –  Jack o’ lanterns, yet to meet their destiny as decorative vegetables, will o’ the wisps and corpse lights – were the souls of unbaptised babies. A reminder that infant mortality was high and its cold touch was felt by every family.

An’ tha wor women as said ‘at tiddy hands ‘ad touched ’em, an’ cold lips kissed ’em, an’ soft wings fluttered round ’em that night, as tha stood waitin’ an’ arkenin’ to tha woful greetin’.

And our woman had said that tiny hands had touchds them, and cold lips kissed them, and soft wings fluttered around them that night, as they stood waiting and listening to the woful greeting.

This cacophony died and was replaced by only the lap of the water and then suddenly, the call of the lapwing. Tiddy Mun’s rage had been calmed.

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Roman Canal, Lincolnshire by Peter de Wint, circa 1840

Tiddy Mun returned to the Folklore journal – where Balfour’s Legends of the Carrs was first published – almost a century later in 1987. Darwin Horn posited in Tiddy Mun’s Curse and the Ecological Consequences of Land Reclamation (paywall) that all of the misfortunes levelled at Tiddy Mun’s rage could be explained by changes to the eco-system wrought by marsh drainage.

Ferriby Sluice, erected in 1640 and rebuilt in the 1800s with a more efficient system of drainage ditches, prevented the brackish salt water of the Humber Estuary flooding the Ancholme at high tide. This dramatically changed the acidity of the soil, creating conditions under which Johne’s Disease could thrive – the bacteria spreads in alkaline or neutral soil, and causes sheep and cows to become emaciated and lose their appetites.Horn also explains that as the water level fell suddenly, the surface of the soil would have developed a hard crust, causing discomfort in ponies used to the soft, springing landscape of the Carrs, and explaining “lameness.” The change in water lever would have also led to a rapid compacting of the soil, the shifts of which would have caused walls to slip and crumble as they did under Tiddy Mun’s Curse.

Other ecological effects responsible for the poor health of animals and the supposed curdling of the milk were the move from natural marsh vegetation as a food source to farmed rape, wheat and oats.

Though sicknesses carried by mosquitos and flies such the “marsh fever” or “ague” was commonly attributed to England’s pre-industrial wetlands, the eco-system of the swamp is perfectly suited for controlling the population of larvae. With the Carrs drained, natural predators diminished and duckweed perished. Larvae grew unchecked in puddles and the population boomed, spreading disease among both humans and animals.

Specifically to malaria, the species of mosquito that thrives in brackish water (Aedes) is not a carrier, but as the salt receded behind the gates of Ferriby Sluice, mosquitos more conducive to malaria began to thrive.

All of this would have been a short, sharp shock. Livestock would have soon acclimatised to their new diet, and modern farming methods would have given mosquitoes fewer opportunities to thrive as fields were ploughed of their puddles. The soil settled and walls were rebuilt, and more crucially the change in lifestyle from fishing and fowling to large scale agriculture brought jobs, food and prosperity.

All that remains of the Carrs are its geography and its names. I grew up in the heart of the old marsh, near to Carr Farm, Carr Lane and Cada’s Island, the village of Cadney. I played in drainage ditches, felt the wind scouring endless fields where fen once stood and walked to town along the banks of the Ancholme, but the stories I grew up with – ghostly monks and phantom bells, secret passages and lost treasures – were inspired by the deeds of men and not the awesome power of nature.

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