The Darker Side of Christmas

by Ben Johnson

What do fairies, cordial water and sitting in church have in common? Apparently all three can be lethal.

Highlighted for the Archive Awareness Campaign, a document listing a series of unusual causes of death has been uncovered by staff at the Cumbria Record Office and Local Studies Library in Whitehaven, Cumbria.

The strange deaths have been taken from the burial register of the parish of Lamplugh between 1656 and 1663 in a list compiled by an anonymous local resident.

The list reveals the superstitious nature of the parish. An astonishing four Lamplugh residents were apparently ‘frightened to death by fairies’; seven were ‘bewitched’ while three women were drowned for witchcraft. One unlucky man was led into a horse pond by a ‘will of the whisp’.

Even the festive season proved dangerous for Lamplugh – one victim ‘overate himself at a housewarming’ while two guests died from drinking the squire’s wife’s cordial water.

Other peculiar deaths include:

  • Crossed in love
  • Took cold sleeping at Church
  • Attacked by the Parson’s bull
  • Choked from eating barley
  • A frying pan and pitchforks duel

But not all residents suffered such surprising ends – 57 residents died of traditional old age.

Anne Rowe, County Archivist of Cumbria Archive Service, said, “It’s great to unearth a document like this in our collection and gives people a chance to discover a more quirky side to history. I’m not sure whether to attribute this list to our ancestors’ superstitions or just their sense of humour!

These were insecure social times and many folk in the 17th century would have been scared of fairies and ‘will o’the wisps’ with many a natural death being put down to the ‘evil witchcraft’ of a harmless old widow. The document is also revealing in its historical details, such as drunken brawls being fought with humble frying pans and pitchforks!”

burial register of the parish of Lamplugh between 1656 and 1663

Burial register of the parish of Lamplugh between 1656 and 1663

The list shows archives can be both entertaining and revealing about our history.

Deaths taken out of the Register of Lamplugh

from January 1st 1656 to January 1st 1663

On a five bar gate, stag hunters ­ – 4

Two Duels, first fot [fought] with frying pan and pitchforks – 1

Second between a 3 footed stool and a brown jug – 1

Kild [killed] at Kelton fell raices [races] – 3

Knocked on the head at Cockfight – 2

Crost [crossed] in love – 1

Broke his neck robbing a hen roost – 1

took cold sleeping at Church – 11

hanged for clipping and coyning – 7

of a sprain in his shouldr by saving his dog at bul bate [bull bait] – 1

Mrs Lamplugh’s cordial water – 2

Knocked on ye head with a quart bottle – 1

Frighted to Death by faries – 4

Of strong October at the hall – 14

Bewitched – 7

Broke a vein in bawling for a knight of ye shire – 1

Old women drowned upon trial for witchcraft – 3

Climbing a crows nest – 1

Led into a horse pond by a will of the whisp – 1

Over eat himself at a house warming – 1

Died of a fright in an Excersise of ye traind bands – 1

By the Parsons bull – 2

Vagrant beggars worried by Esqr Lamplughs housedog – 2

Choked with eating barley – 4

Old age – 57

© Cumbria Archive Service

Next article