Tue, 02 Feb 2021
Hidden beneath the floorboards in Wickham Heath farmhouse 1997_7_1
January 30 to February 6 is National Storytelling Week
Everyone has a story to tell and museums and libraries are bursting with them
Highlights of West Berkshire Museum Collection
The Stories We Tell
WEST Berkshire Museum remains closed to the public for now. However, a new exhibition called The Stories We Tell will be launched when the museum reopens.
It will display folklore stories relating to places and people of West Berkshire and will also include objects that have a connection to local folklore events or with a legendary or mythological narrative. The exhibition will explore the relationship between fact and fiction and truths and untruths within stories. A few of the objects on display will include a modern Hand of Glory, a Festival of Flowers programme and some shoes found beneath floorboards.
The modern Hand of Glory in the museum collection (NEBYM:2019.20) was made from beeswax by the 3rd Newbury Scout Group, who were completing the Heritage Badge. The Scouts were taught the story of the ‘Boxford Wizard’, a man called John Palmer who lived in Boxford in the early 19th century.
It is recorded that he used his powers to banish ghosts and evil spirits, to detect crime and recover lost or stolen
property. His best-known case involved a supposedly magical item known as a Hand of Glory. This was the severed hand of a recently executed criminal, marinated in spices and dried. It was used as a candle holder. It was believed that this, along with a recited spell, would cause the occupants of a house to remain asleep while a burglar carrying the Hand could loot their house at leisure.
After a series of burglaries in the area, ‘Wizard’ John Palmer came to the rescue by practising various magical remedies and eavesdropping on local gossip. He learned that a robbery was planned at a farm near Winterbourne. Accompanied by a boy who he believed to be immune to the spell, Wizard Palmer hid in the kitchen of the house and when the thieves entered, extinguished the Hand with a bucket of skimmed milk, which was believed to remove its powers. The robbers fled and Palmer took the Hand of Glory.
There are a number a stories told and enduring myths relating to the Battles of Newbury too. One included in the exhibition is about the Wash Common Barrow Cemetery. Two of the four surviving Bronze Age barrows in Wash Common have memorial plaques dedicated to those who died during the Civil War. The barrows are Scheduled Monuments and within the battlefield of the First Battle of Newbury, which took place on September 20, 1643. Every year, on the nearest Friday to the date of the Battle, pupils from the nearby Falkland Primary School lay flowers on one of the barrows. This local tradition was first reported in the 1920s, but may have started when the common was enclosed in 1855 and human bones, buckles, buttons, bullets and cannon balls were reported to have been found during work to level the mounds; when local historian Walter Money wrote about the connection in 1881; or when the common became a recreation ground in 1897. The school’s pupils also use the barrows as source of information when they learn about the Bronze Age. On display is a programme for the ‘Festival of Flowers’ commemorating the First Battle of Newbury (NEBYM:2015.6.2).
On display as well will be some old shoes, which were found beneath floor boards on the ground floor of Sole Farmhouse, Wickham Heath (NEBYM:1997.7.1 & 4). Old shoes are often found hidden in old buildings, under floors, above windows or in roof spaces, as protection against evil spirits. Animal remains were also used in the same way; horse skulls have been discovered buried in the foundations of houses or under the floor and cats were entombed in walls.
West Berkshire Museum remains closed to the public and will reopen subject to Government guidelines when it is safe to do so.
In the meantime, please do join the museum in an online talk on Wednesday, February 24, where more Folklore, Myths and Legends of West Berkshire will be explored.
You can book onto all the museum’s online events and keep up to date with its reopening through the website: www.westberkshireheritage.org/west-berkshire-museum or social media: @WBerksMuseum on Twitter or
@WestBerkshireMuseum on Facebook.
West Berkshire Libraries also have plenty of great books on folk tales, myths and legends available for all ages to borrow for free.
If you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for, use the Order & Collect service to tell library staff the sort of thing you want and they will choose up to five books for you on that subject. You may then collect them from any West Berkshire library, including the Mobile Library.
To find more details about the Order & Collect service, visit the online catalogue https://westberks.spydus.co.uk
Additionally, every Friday, West Berkshire Libraries run a digital Storytime for children, so follow @WBerksLibraries on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram for the links each week.
Janine Fox, Curator
West Berkshire Museum
Hand of Glory 2019_20_d