Thursday, 14 September 2017


Last week I was writing about a little piece of childhood lore concerning puddles - namely that where I was growing up in the North East of England, puddles rippling with rainbow hues from spilt oil or petrol were referred to as "witches' washing" (see here for the full tale). Now it appear that this little piece of puddle lore appears to have been somewhat confined to the North East, however while digging around assorted old tomes on local legends and the like, I discover a possible origin. 

Now I grew up in the Darlington area, a former mill town built on the River Skerne, a tributary of the mighty River Tees. And as you might expect, these waterways have a rich folklore of their own -  for example, previously in these columns I have written of the Headless Hob that haunted the Tees near Hurworth, and of the Sockburn Worm whose slaying is commemorated with a ritual on Croft Bridge. However on the subject of hags and witches, the stretch of the Tees around Darlington is also home to another horror - Peg Powler. According to legend she lived in the valley that is now the Cow Green reservoir, and haunted the Tees around Mickleton and Middleton-in-Teesdale as the High Green Ghost. However further down the river's run around Darlington , she is better known as Peg Powler. Boasting trailing green hair, long arms, and sharp claws, Peg was very similar to another folkloric hag Jenny Greenteeth. Indeed in their celebrated tome Faeries (1978), Alan Lee and Brian Froud portrayed these two aquatic monsters together on the same double page spread.

Peg Powler as depicted in Froud and Lee's Faeries

She is mentioned in several early texts on folklore and legends. And hence in 1886 we have Mr William Brockie in his tome Legends & Superstitions of the County of Durham describing her thus - 
The river Tees has its sprite, called Peg Powler, whose delight it is to lure too venturesome bathers into her subaqueous haunts, and then drag them to the bottom and drown them. Children are still warned from playing on the banks of the river, especially on Sundays, by threats that Peg Powler will catch hold of them and carry them off. Peg has long green tresses, hanging down over her shoulders, but what her costume is we are not told.
And aside from preying upon children and others unfortunate enough to stray too near the water's edge, Peg Powler had another distinct feature associated with her, as Mr Brockie continues to relate - 
The foam or froth, which is often seen floating in huge masses, on the surface of deep eddying pools in the higher portion of the river, is called "Peg Powler's suds"; the finer less sponge-like froth is called "Peg Powler's cream."
Now this association with foam or froth upon the waters with the water hag Peg, immediately made me think of the witches' washing puddles. And I wondered if there might be a connection between my childhood lore and this older legend. As it happens, Mr Brockie mentions a possible link - 
"A goblin or sprite of the same evil character is said to haunt the river Skerne."  
So who was this other watery monster? Some further digging unearthed a footnote the Denham Tracts (1892), a compendium of legends and lore gathered  by  Michael Aislabie Denham, in the mid 1800s. Early on in this tome, there is a list of folkloric beings, and this includes "Peg Powlers". And what is more, there is a most illuminating footnote 
This oulde ladye is the evil goddess of the Tees. I also meet with a Nanny Powler, at Darlington, who from the identity of their sirnames, is, I judge, a sister, or it may be a daughter of Peg’s. Nanny Powler, aforesaid, haunts the Skerne, a tributary of the Tees.
Given the close connection of the two rivers in the town, it is perhaps not surprising that another hag called Powler had colonised the waterway that ran through Darlington itself.

Now up until the 1980s, the River Skerne was sadly very polluted, a legacy of the days when Darlington was an industrial mill town. Indeed when I was growing up, locals used to joke that the Skerne was now so polluted that even traditional waterway wildlife such as abandoned shopping trolleys could no longer live in it. Thankfully now the river has recovered, but back in the 1970s foam, scum, and bright rainbows of chemical hues were not an uncommon sight on the Skerne.

.Peg Powler by Russell Dickerson

And I can't help wondering if this pollution was also identified as Peg Powler's suds and cream. Given that folklorists see the likes of Peg and Nanny as warning tales to caution children to keep away from hazardous rivers and ponds, the talk of her cream and suds may well have an origin in a story to stop kids from playing in waters that were dirty or poisonous as well as dangerous. Therefore in the local area, it is not a huge leap to suppose that this lore may have led to the oily spectrums in puddles being dubbed witches' washing too. 

Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. And on balance, we should note that the strange rainbows of oil on water quite naturally suggest a magical or eldritch origin in the minds of imaginative children. Indeed when asking if anyone else had heard of witches' washing, several folks responded that they had been told it was created by fairies, while many more were delighted to learn of this bit of North-eastern lore as it chimed with their own childhood feelings that these weird rainbows in puddles were somehow magical and strange.

However on the other hand, while a great many places in the United Kingdom have some sort of monster, ghost or witch to ward off the unwary from dangerous waters, it is unusual that stories of Peg Powler incorporate floating foam and froth as part of the legend. Other well known aquatic predators such as Jenny Greenteeth, grindylows or kelpies don't share this feature. And given that foam and suds in the tales told of Powler and her brood centre around the old mill town of Darlington, possibly there is a connection to the idea of witches doing their washing in puddles. Certainly it would explain why this piece of rainy day folklore seems so confined to a small area of the North East.

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