Hertfordshire Folklore: Jack O’ Legs

Jack1956, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jack O’ Legs

In the folklore of Hertfordshire, England, Jack O’ Legs was a giant and legendary outlaw who helped the poor people of his locality.  He was a good archer and used a huge bow to match his size. He was said to live in a cave in the Weston Hills or Weston Wood near the village of Weston which is about four miles from Stevenage and two and a half miles from Baldock.  The site of Jack’s cave is a field called “The Cave” and the adjacent field is called “Weston Wood.”   (1)

Jack Strikes

Although the area has been continuously settled by humans through the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age times to the modern town of Baldock was established by the Knights Templars sometime in or after 1140 (2). According to tradition after a poor harvest had caused the bakers of Baldock to increase the price of flour and consequently bread beyond the price of the poor. Jack, feeling sorry for the poor people of Weston, decided to act.  On the Great North Road near Gravelly there is a steep incline known as “Jack’s Hill.” which is where he would ambush the bakers and steal their flour to distribute it to the poor people of Weston.

The Bakers Strike Back

The bakers in revenge managed to arrest Jack and he was put on trial under the practice of infangthief (3).  This was originally an Anglo-Saxon practice that allowed a lord of the manor to put to death a thief caught on his land.   He was found guilty, blinded and told he would face the gallows and given a final wish.  Jack was said to have asked to be allowed to shoot a final arrow and the spot that it landed was where he wanted to be buried.  This was allowed and his bow and an arrow was given to him and he was orientated as to his directions.  He shot the arrow which flew three miles to land in the churchyard of the Holy Trinity Church in Weston.  After his execution that is where he was said to have been buried.   According to legend his grave lies between two stones in the churchyard about fourteen feet apart allegedly marking where his head and feet lay and giving  an idea of how tall he was said to be.   

Oral Tradition

Whatever we know about Jack and it is not really very much has been passed on orally from generation to generation since early medieval times.   In 1521 John Skelton wrote a poem called “Speak Parrot” criticizing Cardinal Wolsey which contained a line ‘The gibbett of Baldock was made for Jack Leg’.  From this  it is believed the legend must be known at  that time as he appeared to expect his audience to understand the line.  

 Certain parts of the story may be true such as there being a shortage of flour and its increase in price.  This would possibly have led to difficulty in being able to buy it for poor people causing resentment.  It may  even have made someone angry or desperate enough to do something about it.  Step forward Jack, but while it is possible it cannot be proved. It may be that the legend is a folk memory of an exceptionally tall robber who once existed and was generous with his ill gotten gains to the people of Weston and the  locality who would  probably have been thankful for his largess. The story of him being buried where his arrow landed may have been added later as an embellishment and he may have been buried in Weston churchyard because he was born in its parish.  It may be that each generation added a little to the story taking  it to its present stage.  

Nevertheless, it is a good story and gives the area a popular and colorful folk hero and center of interest as his depiction in the above mural in the Grange Junior School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire shows.   

        © 03/12/2020 zteve t evans                   

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright zteve t evans December 3rd, 2020

Folklore, Superstitions and Customs around Hertfordshire Puddingstone

Image by Chris Reynolds – CC BY-SA 2.0

Puddingstone Folklore

Hertfordfordshire puddingstone is mostly found in areas of England in the county of Hertfordshire and  Plumstead Common in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in south-east London. It is a conglomerate silicrete composed of pebbles embedded in a mass of silica making it very hard and enduring.   There are different types made of different materials from different regions. Here we look at the folklore, traditions and superstitions that have become associated with Hertfordshire Puddingstone.  

Supernatural Qualities

In folklore and tradition Hertfordshire puddingstone was believed to possess certain supernatural qualities and local people long believed it protected against witchcraft.  According to the parish records of the village of Aldenham in 1662 a local witch had a piece of puddingstone placed upon her coffin lid before it was covered over to prevent her from returning from the dead (1). Because of the supernatural connotations it was also given various names reflecting this. For example it was also known as Witch stone, Hag stone, or Woe stone.

However, there was a less sinister side to puddingstone, though arguably more bizarre.  Although geologists are not in exact agreement how puddingstone was formed local people believed it grew from the ground and gave birth to new stones which also grew and gave birth. Proof of this was seen when it was split open revealing many smaller pebbles and stones stuck together inside and was called the Breeding stone.  Because it appears out of the ground and said to grow it was called the Growing stone. A piece of puddingstone was given to the happy couple at weddings possibly to promote their fertility and bring luck.

This tendency for it to appear from the ground made it troublesome for arable farmers who can damage their ploughs upon it but its association with breeding makes it a good luck charm for dairy farmers  and it was believed to increase milk production. Pieces of it were kept in the milking shed for this purpose.

Uses for Puddingstone

Puddingstone was used in construction of the Church of St John the Baptist. (2), During Roman times it was used as a millstone for grinding corn.  It was later built into the walls of a number of Hertfordshire churches such as the tower of the church of St. Nicholas in Harpenden.  Nevertheless, it was not widely used for building because although it was a good material it was scarce. 

Puddingstone was used for grave markers and coffin stones and it was placed on top of the coffin to protect the deceased from evil spirits.  It was also used in this way to ensure witches could not come back from the dead. In the churchyard of Great Gaddesden there are still large pieces of puddingstone marking the graves.

 Despite having an unattractive  surface similar to concrete when it was sliced and polished it became something very attractive and desirable.  After it had been sliced and highly polished the sliced surface displayed a variety of multicolored pebbles turning it into a very attractive and beautiful material.  In Victorian times it was made into ornaments, jewellery and small table tops (3).

Lucky Charms

There are many superstitions centered on puddingstone and local people often used pieces of it for a good luck charm.  Because of its associations with good fortune it was also placed in doorways and gate posts. People also carried a small piece in their pockets for luck.

Names of Puddingstone

As well as those already mentioned, Puddingstone has many alternative names that reflect the use it was put to.  For example, to ward against witches it was called Witchstone or Hagstone. For good luck and positive purposes it was called Angel stone. It was also known as Plum puddingstone because it looks like a plum or Christmas pudding when sliced.

© 08/4/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 8th, 2020 zteve t evans