Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

A Fisherman’s ‘Lucky stone’ from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland.

Eric Edwards


At the front of the Sympathetic Magic display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, case 61a, is a perforated black limestone beach pebble with a string attached through the hole. [1908.11.1] The museum’s accession book states that this is a “Beach pebble of black limestone bored by pholas, hung behind a door in the cottage of William Twizel, fisherman, as a “lucky stone”.’ (Humble, 1908). Apparently several of these stones hung by various doors of the cottage. The stone comes from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, and was donated in 1908 by a Miss Humble, Alexander James Montgomerie Bell, and William Twizel (actually Twizzell) in 1908.

There is no mention of a William Twizel in the 1901 census. However, there several William Twizzells (various spellings) in Newbiggin, one being born in 1822 and who died a retired fisherman in 1913. The most likely donor is a William Twizzell who was born circa 1829/1830 and who died a retired fisherman in 1909.

The Donors

Miss Humble is described as a field collector but little else is known about her. Accession records in the PRM say she was a resident of Newbiggin. However, the name is fairly common in the north-east and it was not possible to identify her in either the 1891 or 1901 censuses (england.prm.ox.ac.uk/collector).

Much more is known about Alexander James Montgomerie Bell. Born in Edinburgh in 1846 he was an undergraduate at Balliol and matriculated as an Exhibitioner in 1864, gained his BA in 1869 and took his MA in 1871 (Oxford University Alumni 1500-1886). The obituary of Bell describes him as a career academic, teacher, antiquarian, and amateur archaeologist. He worked sometimes as a tutor and had more formal roles as a schoolmaster (Marlborough, Fettes) and college lecturer and examiner (St Johns, Worcester). Alexander Bell was also known for his work and research on the Wolvercote gravels and deposits near Oxford (Nature, 1920). He died in 1920 aged 74 and his artefact collection was sold to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Alexander Bell lived in 1891 with his wife Anna and children Archibald, Evelyn, Mary, and William at Rawlinson Road in Oxford. At this period he was engaged in private tutoring in classics, geography and geology (RG12a. 1166. 87.). The family was still there in 1901 when Alexander held a position of private tutor at a public school (RG13. 1381. 35.). Indeed, Alexander’s son Archibald Colquhoun Bell (born 1886), and who had a long naval career, also became a donor to the PRM around 1920 (england.prm.ox.ac.uk/collector).

The folklore of holed stones

The Newbiggin stone “…a pebble of black limestone, bored by a pholas, was hung behind the door of William Twizel’s cottage…” (Ettlinger, 1943). Such holed stones were “…evidently regarded as magical as early as the second millennium B.C., as shown by the excavations at Tell el Ajjul (ancient Gaza)…” (Murray, 1943). As such these stones were deliberately placed with three in a room and one in a grave.

The hole in the Newbiggin stone was made by a burrowing bivalve mollusc called Pholas dactylus. Also known as the ‘Common Piddock’ or ‘angelwing’ it is similar to a clam and bores into a range of soft rock sub-strata including chalk, peat, clay, and sandstone. (www.marlin.ac.uk/species). This elliptical shaped boring bivalve, which can reach 12cm in length, is found at several sites along the east coasts of Northumbria and Yorkshire. It stays in its burrow for its entire eight-year life-span, it is recognised by its typical whitish colouration and is also known for its bio-luminescence. (http://www.wikipedia.org/wki/Pholadidae; http://www.marlin.ac.uk/species).

A naturally holed flint, also in the Pitt Rivers Museum, was “…found attached to a hammered peg, buried inside a brick wall of a workhouse at Thame (Oxon), built in 1836". (Ettlinger, 1943). Holed stones were therefore built into walls as amulets. A carter called Kimber, and employed by General Pitt Rivers at Rushmore, had one nailed to his door. Another example in the museum is from northern Ireland where a holed stone was used as a charm to keep pixies from stealing the milk. Holed stones are known variously as hagstones, witch stones, holey stones, snake stones, thunderstones, dobbie stones, and in the north-east of England sometimes as adderstones, with geodes referred to as eaglestones. (Simpson & Roud, 2000. http://www.northernearth.co.uk. 2008).

As we can see the use of naturally holed stones was widespread in farmyards where “…holed stones were fastened to the house or byre door…to keep away witches or pixies, or just for good luck.” (Ettlinger, 1943.). Naturally holed stones were used as protection against “…unworldly misfortunes from the evil eye (which they might be thought to resemble)…” (www.northernearth.co.uk 2008). Belief in the protective powers of holed stones was widespread and they were regarded as magical devices to protect both man and beast (http://www.answers.com. 2008). Holed stones were attached to cattle stalls, horse stables (where they are often referred to as witch-riding stones), and in Whitby (1894) for example, such stones were tied to front-door keys “…to ensure prosperity to the house and its inmates.” (www.answers.com). A similar post-medieval use was found for prehistoric stone axes. These were used to protect the inhabitants of households and buildings, either animal or human, from spells and were called ‘witch hammers’. Known to have been used for barns in Durham.

A very early allusion to holed stones was during the 15th century when they were used as charms against nightmares (Opie & Tatem, 1989), with stones of this type “…sometimes regarded as preventives of bad dreams.” (Murray, 1943). Holed stones were often hung on bed-posts to deter demons, including the night-hag, the nightmare, or a succubus (www.weymouth. 2008). It was believed earlier that a “…stone with a hole in it hung at the bed’s head will prevent the nightmare. It is therefore called a Hag Stone from that disorder which is occasioned by a Hag or Witch sitting on the stomach of the party afflicted. It also prevents witches riding horses, for which purpose it is often tied to a stable key.” (Hazlitt, 1905).

Hagstones, also called witch stones, fairy stones, eye stones, wish stones, nightmare stones, or occasionally Ephialtes Stones, were perforated flints, stones or polished pebbles. In bygone days they were commonly seen hanging above household doors. In a similar vein hagstones were either carried on one’s person or worn around the neck on a string (Rankine, 2008)

As with Newbiggin-by-the-Sea fishermen, boatmen in Weymouth in 1894, fastened holed stones to the bows of their boats as charms to keep their craft safe (http://www.answers.com. 2008). It was “…not uncommon for row boats at Weymouth to have ‘holy stones’ tied to nails or staples in the bows…” (Colley-March, 1906). Again, the intention was to keep witches and evil spirits away from the boat, with boat ropes often threaded through beach-holed-stones for the same purpose (http://www.weymouth, 2008). As well as holed stones found on a beach others, such as hagstones, were also fastened to the bows of boats to protect them at sea (Rankine, 2008). As one local Weymouth fisherman once ventured, these Holy stones were “…beach pebbles with a natural hole through them…holy from having a hole through them, or for being sacred, or both, I know not.” (Colley-March, 1906).


Newbiggin-by-the-Sea has been for centuries a maritime locality of some importance, as a large fishing village, a grain import port, lifeboat station, and eventually seaside resort. Situated on a fine and broad bay it was, in the 18th and 19th centuries, a large fishing village on the Northumberland coast. (Tomlinson, 1888).

The village was originally called, in 875, South Wallerick, but after the Danish invasion of that year it was renamed Neubegang or Newbegining (eventually Newbiggin). The port has a long and varied history. An early reference is from 1199 when it is recorded as a toft or homestead. However, by 1240 it is recognised as a fishing port equal in importance to Newcastle and, as early as 1352, large amounts of corn were being shipped at Newbiggin, (Tomlinson, 1888; www.black 2008). Its importance as a port for shipping grain at one time made it only third in importance to London and Hull (http://www.newbigginbythesea. 2008). Evidence of shipping activities obviously date back to the early 14th century, with the port given its toll authority in 1316. It was during the 19th century that the Newbiggin fishing industry went from strength to strength (www.black 2008), the expansion being due to the mid-19th century to first world war herring boom when “…travelling the herring…” became a way of life (Robinson, 1991). In 1855 the population was 717, by 1891 it had risen to 1,388, and by 1911 there were 3,466 inhabitants. However, the modern size of Newbiggin is the result of the onetime coal-mining industry. For what was previously a hive of maritime activity in Newbiggin has become a thriving holiday destination (www.newbigginbythesea, 2008).

The Newbiggin fishing industry

In 1626 there were only 16 fishermen working 4 cobles out of Newbiggin. Yet, in 1831, there were 27 boats which rose to over 140 in 1869 (www.black. 2008).

A coble is a distinctive type of open fishing boat, with a flat bottom and high bow that was developed on the coast of north-east England (Robinson, 1991: wikipedia.org/wiki/Coble. 2008). This type of boat responded well to both sail and oars, and its high bow was required for north sea sailing. The shape of a coble boat was favourable also for launching from a beach into surf. In addition it was ideal for being hauled onto shallow sandy beaches from that self-same surf. Cobles were usually launched from the beach using an axled wheel support (Robinson, 1991; wikipedia.org/wiki/Coble. 2008). Most cobles were crewed by three men and a boy and each boat belonged to a family.

The design of a coble, which used a lug sail at sea, contains relics of Norse influence but also evidence of Dutch origin. Herring was fished for by larger cobles but from 1871 onwards was replaced by open keeled boats called ‘mules’ which operated from 1875 onwards (Robinson, 1991), a known coble was the ‘Sweet Home’, owned by Thomas, William, and John Taylor. A modern coble has a diesel engine, no lug sail, and is launched by tractor. By 1991 only 9 boats were operating out of Newbiggin and they fished mainly for salmon, white fish, shellfish, but line fishing had been abandoned.

Northumbrian fishing folk

North-east of England fishing families are very close-knit and often intermarried and as a result shared a handful of surnames, with families even living in certain areas of Newbiggin (Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 22.1.2005). Indeed, fishing folk in Newbiggin and elsewhere (e.g., Cullercoats) were members of a “…distinctive clan and rarely married outside it.” (Peacock, 1991). In 1861 there were 21 families called Armstrong within Newbiggin, and everyone of them were fishing folk (communities.northumberland.gov.uk, 2008). In Newbiggin common fishing family names included, as well as Armstrong, Robinson, Dawson, Storey, Dent, Renner, Brown, Taylor, Lisle, and Twizzell (Newcastle Evening Chronicle. 22.1.2005).

The cottages of fishermen, as with those of coal miners, were usually built round squares or in uniform rows. This arrangement of dwellings allowed for the publicly carried out domestic routines, including line-baiting by fisherwomen (http://www.communities.northumberland.go.uk, 2008). A fisherman’s cottage, typically, comprised one large room with an open range, a loft storing fishing nets and ropes where the children slept in summer. Prior to freshwater plumbed through in 1911, families obtained their supplies from public wells. Water for domestic chores was from a rain barrel.

The role of fisherwomen or “fishwives” was a very important and arduous one. They were indeed the working partners of their menfolk. Within the village fisherwomen collected limpets and baited the lines with them, worked in the local smoke-house, and knitted the woollen ‘gansey’s’ and thick seaboot stockings for their men. In other words fisherwomen played an essential role in the industry, as well as in the sale of the fish.

Prior to the coble putting out to sea the fish wives carried the boxes and baskets to the boat, carried between 22 and 26 ballast sand-bags to the boat, and then helped launch the family craft into the sea. When the coble returned from its fishing expedition these fisherwomen – mothers, wives, daughters – assembled on the beach and hauled up the boat onto the sand. They then unloaded the boat, and proceeded to assist in the beach auction of the catch (Robinson, 1991). However, these fisher women had another role and that was the sale of fish within the surrounding district.

The term ‘fishwife’ has, unfortunately, a derogatory meaning attached to it. The archaic meaning is “a woman who sells fish” but another definition (Oxford, 1999) states that a fishwife is “a coarse-mannered woman who is prone to shouting.” Admittedly some north-east fishwives were “…buxom, ruddy-cheeked ladies who could take their liquor and swear as any first mate in a sailing ship…” (Peacock, 1986), and thus became renowned as “…mistresses of invective…”.

These hard-working fisher lasses were garbed in traditional pleated skirts and apron, as well as an over-cloak and knitted shawl. Their costume that resembled a kind of seafaring appearance “…consisted of a heavy blue serge skirt, blouse and cowl of the same material, and the suggestion of a sailors collar at the back , terminating with thick woollen stockings and ‘stout boots’. “ (Peacock, 1986). They carried their fish in creels – woven wicker baskets carried on their backs – throughout the neighbouring district. On occasion they visited all the ale-houses found on their way back and often had to be assisted home to Newbiggin.

Over time the role of these fisherwomen changed. The last Newbiggin woman to carry the creel was Mrs Mary Hunter (nee Twizzell) who died in 1979. The last actual fisher lass who hawked fish using a mobile van was Mrs Mary Robinson (nee Armstrong) who died in 1987 (Robinson, 1991). One fishwife of note was Annie Twizzell, who may have been related to our William Twizzell, and who married into the Newbiggin Dent family.

Much of the life of this fishing community was bounded by tragedy. Newbiggin fishing families regularly lost husbands, fathers and sons to the vagaries and dangers of Rudyrad Kipling’s the old grey widow maker - the north-east coast and the North Sea. Many ship and boat losses were due to the carnage caused by the local north shore Black Middens and the Tyne estuary Herd Sands (communities.northumberland.gov.uk, 2008). For example in 1915 several men from the Brown and Taylor families were lost at sea – one of the coble’s in which they sailed and did not return was called the Mary Twizzell. Previously, in 1904, six husbands and a son were lost – a John Dent and six of the Armstrong family.

William Twizzell

A number of William Twizzells (spelt variously Twizel, Twisel, Twissell, or Twizzell) were living contemporaneously in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea between 1822 and 1913. One William was born in 1822 and died a retired fisherman in 1913 (Death Index, 1913). This individual is probably not the William Twizzell whose ‘holed stone’ is in the Pitt Rivers Museum, however a brief survey of census sheds light on the fishing community of Newbiggin.

This William Twizzell was born in Newbiggin in 1822 and is first recorded, as a fisherman aged 19, in the census of 1841 (HO107a, 1841). In 1851 (HO107, 1851) he is still a fisherman living in the ‘village’ of Newbiggin with his mother and brother. By 1861 (RG9 1861) they are resident in Main Street, sharing a cottage with his sister and the member of the Brown family she had married. Their neighbours at this time were other Twizzells, Browns, Dents, and Olivers (a Mary Oliver later married the William Twizzell whose artefact is in the PRM). In 1871 William was living at Vernon Place with his brother, sister Isabella Brown, and two nephews (RG10a. 1871). Their neighbours were still other Twizzells and Browns plus Dents and Olivers. By 1891 William was still at Vernon Place and still working as a fisherman aged 69 with the Browns (RG12b, 1891). By now the neighbours, apart from the Dents, were other traditional fishing families such as the Armstrongs, Mortons, and Storeys. This brief outline shows the nature of the local fishing community and the closeness of the families associated with it, including a William Twizzell whose wife was originally Ann Taylor.

The most likely owner of the donated ‘lucky stone’ is another William Twizzell whose life fits in with the donation history of the stone. Born in Newbiggin around 1829/1830 this William was recorded in 1841 (HO107b, 1841) as a Twizell (note one z) aged 10 and working as a fisherman (or fisherman’s boy). Still a fisherman in 1861 (RG9b. 1861), aged 30 and living with his mother and two daughters, in Main Street with the Storeys, Armstrongs and Renners for neighbours. All were fishing families. In 1881 (RG10b, 1871) William Twissell (now with 2 s’s) was living in Prospect Place with his wife Mary, two sons, 2 daughters (one called Hannah Brown), and a granddaughter also called Hannah Brown aged 9 days. Neighbours included the Storeys. William Twizzell had married Mary Oliver (born 1834) in 1861 (PRO, 1861) and she died in 1907 aged about 72. In 1901 William and Mary were living by themselves in their Prospect Place cottage where he was described as a retired fisherman. Times had changed by then. William still had some Armstrongs as neighbours but his other neighbours, without traditional fishing community names, were now coal miners rather than fishermen. William died some two years after Mary aged 79, and his death was registered in Morpeth in 1909 (Death Index, 1909).


It can now be seen that William Twizzell (born in 1830) had his name spelt differently in different censuses, and this explains the disparity of the name Twizel in the accession notes of the PRM. It seems that his death, and that of his wife Mary, suggests how the ‘holed stone’ in the museum came to be donated in 1908. The sequence of events may explain the journey that William Twizzell’s ‘lucky stone’ took from the door of his cottage in Prospect Place, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, to case 61a in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

The people of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea were a god-fearing people and regularly attended services. Many of the fishermen and their families were of a deeply religious persuasion and ardent supporters of either chapel or church and often “…the men were lay preachers…” (Peacock, 1986). It may seem odd that such a devout people would readily keep charms against witchcraft and as a protection against misfortune. It is no wonder that these hardy, short and study people kept lucky charms, such as holed stones, as an additional recourse to a safer life. Newbiggin fishing families with their “…slatey blue eyes, the colour of the sea in front of their cottages…” (Peacock, 1986) from whence their livelihood as well as their sorrow came, also preserved their ancient Northumbrian dialect which owes its origins to a language spoken by Angle mercenaries from southern Denmark in the 5th century A.D, and which was the forebear of much of modern English (Arnold, 2008). The dialects of north-eastern England (including Geordie and Northumbrian) still retain features no longer to be found in modern English, and possessing a vocabulary not found elsewhere (http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geordie, 2008). The Venerable Bede of Jarrow, circa 672-735 A.D., would have understood the meaning of many words still current in Northumbria (including Newbiggin) and Newcastle and Tyneside, because today (see: http://www.northeastengland.talktalk.net/GeordieOrigins). “…the only part of England where the original Anglo-Saxon has survived is in the north-east.” Bearing this in mind it is not surprising that ancient superstitions should also linger in communities that preserve so much of the past. In many respects it is the whole of the background to William Twizzell’s ‘lucky stone’ that needs to be considered. True, it does not look much but, for a long time, such stones meant lot to a lot of people for a lot of time..

Further Reading and Sources Consulted










Arnold, P. J. 'Northumbria was here first'. Newcastle Journal. 4.11.2008.
Colley-March, Dr H. ‘Witched Fishing Boats in Dorset’. In: Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries. X, 49-50, 1906.
communities.northumberland.gov.uk, 2008.
Death Index, 1909 Public Records Office, PRO vol 10b, page 286.
Death Index, 1913. Public Records Office. PRO. vol 106, page 479.
Ettlinger, H. 'Documents of British Superstition in Oxford'. Folklore, March 1943.
Hazlitt, W. C. Brand’s Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Faiths and Folklore. London. 1905.
HO107a. Public Record Office, Piece 836, Book 18, 1841.
HO107b. Public Records Office, Piece 836. Folio 18. 1841.
HO107. Public Records Office, Piece 2418, Folio 485. 1851
Murray, M. A. Folklore, May, 1943.
Nature, 105. August 1920.
Newcastle Evening Chronicle. 22nd of January, 2005.
Opie, I. & Tatem, M. A Dictionary of Superstitions. OUP. 1989.
Peacock, B. A Newcastle Boyhood 1898-1914. Newcastle upon Tyne City Libraries. 1986.
Oxford Concise Dictionary, 10th edition, 1999.
Oxford University Alumni 1500-1886, biblio.tu-bs.de/cgibin
PRO, 1861. Public Records Office, Jan-Mar qtr, vol10b, p.142, 1861.
Rankine, D. Crystals: Healing and Folklore. Capall Bann. Cited in http://www.ladyofthehearth.com.
RG9a. 3875. 68. Public Records Office. England Census, 1861.
RG9b. 3875. 32. Public Records office. England Census, 1861.
RG10a. 5168. 68. Public Records Office. England Census, 1871.
RG10b. 5168. 88. Public Records Office. England Census, 1871.
RG12a. 1166. 87. Public Records Office. England Census 1891.
RG12b. 4260. 100. Public Records Office. England Census, 1891.
RG13. 1381. 35. Public Records Office. England Census 1901.
Robinson, J. Newbiggin by the Sea: a fishing community. Northumberland County Library. 1991.
Simpson, J. & Roud, S. A Dictionary of English Folklore. OUP. 2000.
Tomlinson, W.W. Guide to Northumberland. 1888.

Eric W Edwards
Library Assistant
Balfour Library, Pitt Rivers Museum

Oxford, 9.12.2008

Find out about another holed stone in the Pitt Rivers Museum here