Did the Hobbit come from Teesdale?
IN the 19th century it was a matter of course that an educated person would take up a hobby or an interest. In the case of Michael Denham of Teesdale, the hobby that fascinated him was collecting sayings, proverbs and folklore of the North of England. It was this interest that brought him into contact with hobbits, a century before J.R.R.Tolkien made them famous.
Michael Aislabie Denham was born into a family that originally came from Bowes. Ambrose Denham, his father, married a Bowes girl named Martha Aislabie.
Michael was baptised at Gainford in 1801, taking his middle name from his mother’s family.
In later life he was often known as Aislabie Denham. His life story can be found in an excellent article by Jean Hemingway that was published in the Teesdale Record Society Journal, volume 8, in the year 2000.
Young Denham was sent to Kirkby Stephen Grammar School where he was taught by a Mr Heslop. He must have received a pretty thorough education, for in adult life he was the author of many books and tracts and was friendly with several eminent scholars.
These included William Hylton Dyer Longstaffe who was the historian of Darlington, and James Orchard Halliwell – a nationally known antiquary who was treasurer of the Percy Society. An article in the Percy Society Journal in 1847 was the first important landmark in Aislabie Denham’s career as an author.
But a distinguished literary career must have seemed rather unlikely for the young Mr Denham for as a young adult, he went into business in Hull.
It might have been while he was in the East Riding that he started collecting folk sayings – he said that his first collection took 18 years to gather, starting in 1825 when he was still in his early twenties. At some time before 1841 he was back in Teesdale working with his father in a grocery business in Piercebridge.
His interest in collecting folk tales and sayings was unabated. It might well have seemed a curious hobby to his neighbours – such things were unheard of in those days. In 1892 the President of the Folklore Society remembered Denham as a pioneer in this field.
“He collected before Folklore as a subject of study and inquiry was thought of”, he wrote.
Being a great one for making lists, Denham assembled an impressively large collection of words for “spirits” in folklore. Some of these are familiar – boggle, boggart, kelpie and silkie. Some are more obscure – spoorn, nixie, thurse. Among his list was the word “hobbit” meaning a kind of spirit.
The word hobbit became well known almost a century later through J.R.R.Tolkien’s much-loved book “The Hobbit”, but did Tolkien come across hobbits in Denham’s tracts?
The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have devoted a lot of effort in trying to answer this question.
Tolkien himself at first said that the word just entered his head one day.
But later he began to wonder if he had come across the word “hobbit” many years earlier, and it had lodged in the darkest corners of his memory, suddenly to surface in 1937, as if it had just been created from his own imagination.
Some people have speculated that Tolkien must have read Mr Denham’s tracts and subconsciously extracted the word from them. Of course, Denham’s hobbits were spirits, while Tolkien’s were flesh and blood.
The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary concluded that it’s impossible to say whether Denham influenced Tolkien and then pointed out a greater enigma – where did Aislabie Denham come across the word?
Frustratingly, he didn’t say where he’d found it, and no one else has ever come across the word anywhere else in written English before 1937. The mystery deepens.
How does a place – or a person for that matter – become enshrined in a popular saying or ancient folklore?
It usually starts with one of two extremes, with either an insult or a compliment. I sometimes think that the insults outnumber the compliments. Once it has stuck, the epithet lasts for centuries.
Can we imagine Brignall Banks being anything but “wild and fair”, or the Lass of Richmond Hill being anything but “sweet”?
Apparently Aislabie Denham was not too impressed by Barnard Castle. He included the phrase “Bonny Barney” in one of his tracts, then added his own comment – “Barnard Castle is popularly so-called, but the alliterative propriety would not only be greater, but also truer, if it were termed Black or Blackguard Barney”.
Mr Denham also collected nicknames for some of the landed families of the North East. These included “The beggarly Balliols” of Barney, “the bloody Brackenburies” of Selaby, “the brave Bowes” of Streatlam, “the crafty Craddocks” of Gainford, the “handsome Hansards” of Evenwood, the “noble Nevilles” of Raby, “the salvable Salvins” of Croxdale and “the sure Surteeses” of Mainsforth.
Here are some of the sayings that Denham collected:
“Lartington for frogs and Barney Castle for butchers’ dogs”.
“Marwood was a town when Barney Castle was nane, and Barney Castle was built wi’ Marwood stane.”
“Headlam hens lay twice a day.”
“Gainford, where the parson married a Pigg, Christened a Lamb, and buried a Hogg.”
“A Briggate bred-un” (Someone who grew up in Bridge Street, Barney.
“Carries his coals round by Richmond to sell at Barnard Castle.”