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New Book Takes A Fascinating Look At ‘Old Surrey’s’ Folklore

Published on: 2 Nov, 2021
Updated on: 2 Nov, 2021

By David Rose

Historians are usually collectors in one way or another, and Guildford’s extremely well known Matthew Alexander is no exception.

Formerly the curator of Guildford Museum and now the borough’s honorary remembrancer, one of the topics he has been collecting for many years are stories and facts relating to Surrey’s folklore.

Matthew Alexander with his new book Folklore of Surrey, pictured at the book’s launch at the Guildhall in Guildford High Street on Monday evening, November 1.

Now, he has written a thoroughly fascinating book giving hundreds of examples of the culture of traditions, superstitions, legends and customs of which the people of ‘Old Surrey’ had.

He says, George Sturt the Farnham wheelwright, who wrote about rural affairs, described folklore as “the home-made civilisation of the rural English”.

Interestingly, Matthew writes that academic folklorists have mostly ignored Surrey as an irredeemably middle-class county without a folklore of its own.

His book certainly dispels that belief, while the fact is that in years gone by Surrey was a poor, largely illiterate farming society. Outside the towns, there were hardly any of the middle class at all.

Folklore is a wide subject and the examples in Matthew’s book are grouped in sections that include: churches, tunnels and treasure, ghosts, monsters, the Paraisees and the Devil, witches, folk medicine, matters of life and death, sayings and calendar customs.

Guildford gets many mentions of course, with the infamous ‘secret tunnels’ properly explained.

An example of the detail in the book is the celebrations for May Day. Matthew writes: “By the early 1800s, adults had largely given up celebrating May Day,” while noting: “John Mason of Guildford recalls that in the 1830s and 40s, ‘May Day was the chimney sweepers’ holiday. Then they dressed in suits after the manner of a harlequin, tinselled and spangled, in all the colours of the rainbow, and in groups of five or six performed their peculiar dance, beating out the tune to the music on the shovel and brush and triangle.'”

Matthew lists a number of superstitions in relation to luck and good and bad fortune. He notes that in Normandy some held that it was unlucky to enter a house by one door and leave by another.

The custom of hiding an old shoe in a house during building or alteration for good luck seems to have been widespread in Surrey. Many shoes have been found in recent times when further renovations have taken place and Matthew writes they are almost always worn out and odd ones. He gives examples of shoes dating to Tudor times being found at the White Horse pub in Shere and the Royal Grammar School in Guildford.

The text on the back of the book explains much as to the demise of local folklore. “Put firmly into the context of social history, the home-made civilisation of Surrey can be seen fading away during Victoria’s reign. Compulsory education gave children a wider view of life. The agricultural depression from the 1860s saw many labourers leave the land, their cottages being taken over by wealthier incomers. Gradually, inevitably, the folklore of Old Surrey was to disappear along with the society that had produced it.”

The book is a fantastic read, for both the fascinating stories that are told, while being an important addition to our knowledge of Surrey’s history. It is the first book of its kind for the county.

Matthew says he was very fortunate several years ago to have been able to interview a number of local people, born before the First World War, who spoke first hand of the folklore they knew.

Many other examples in the book he has gleaned from written sources.

Each listing and example given is referenced, very useful for anyone who may like to explore the topic further.

Folklore of Surrey by Matthew Alexander costs £12.99. Copies can be bought from Guildford Museum and the Surrey History Centre in Woking.

The book has been published by Surrey Archaeological Society and all proceeds from sales will go to the society.

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